Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Bosnia’s Dark Icons: The Bridge on the Drina, Višegrad

Text by Albena Shkodrova   
Višegrad is Bosnia’s Oświęcim, where people are trying to live among the ruins of others’ tragedies and collective crimes. The Nobel prize-winning writer Ivo Andrić, who described 400 years of the town’s dramatic Balkan history, did not live to witness the tragic continuation of his chronicle. Though it would have hardly surprised him that the bridge on the Drina is the scene on which it took place. Seemingly, at this turn of the river nothing has changed in the last 400 years. The scenery looks just as Ivo Andrić described it in The Bridge on the Drina:

Here, where the Drina flows with the whole force of its green and foaming waters from the apparently closed mass of the dark steep mountains, stands a great clean-cut stone bridge with eleven wide sweeping arches. From this bridge, like from a spring, spreads the whole rolling valley of Višegrad and its surroundings, with hamlets nestling in the folds of the hills, covered with meadows, pastures and plum-orchards, and criss-crossed with walls and fences and dotted with shaws and occasional clumps of evergreens. Looked at from a distance, through the broad arches of the white bridge are apparently flowing not only the green Drina, but all that fertile and cultivated countryside and the southern sky above.

It is exactly like that today. Looked at from a distance.

Upon a closer look, however, the similarity turns out to be an optical illusion. In Višegrad, nothing is the same anymore.

Unlike before, the bridge no longer connects two ethnic groups, two religions, two civilizations and two worlds. The four centuries of history that took place on its pontoons took a turn in a direction that nobody knows how to reverse anymore.

Even its creator, Mehmed Paša Sokolović, is an unthinkable character today. Mehmed Paša was the most important Bosnian in the Ottoman Empire. Born in a Christian family in a small town on the Drina’s banks in 1506, he converted to Islam and rose through the ranks to become the Grand Vizier. As such, story has it, he built a church in memory of his mother and a mosque in memory of his father. In world history, he is remembered for his idea to dig the Suez Canal.

A product of two cultures that had a difficult relationship, he turned connecting them into his life’s project: he built the stone bridge in Višegrad. Up until modern times, this remarkable example of Ottoman architecture from the mid-sixteenth century was the only secure link between Bosnia and Serbia, and through it – with Istanbul and the entire middle and lower course of the Drina. Apart from this obvious role, the bridge connected the Muslim and Christian communities that inhabited the two opposite banks and later – with Austro-Hungary’s conquest, the two worlds that were at odds with one another – the eastern and western worlds.

Today, Višegrad, which used to be inhabited by two thirds Muslims and one third Christians for centuries, is located in the ethnically and religiously cleansed Republika Srpska in eastern Bosnia. In 1992, a local paramilitary group, inspired by Radovan Karadžić, killed and chased away around 14,000 Bosnians. Many of them were brought by the truckload to the bridge at night – after being shot, beat up or cut up with knives, they were thrown into the Drina’s green waters, over the railing of Mehmed Paša’s bridge.

The traces of the “cleansing” are apparent at every turn.

Up the stream, the road winds around the remains of bullet-holed, burnt and demolished houses that, until 1992, belonged to non-Serbs. Further down, a few kilometres towards Sarajevo, there is another abandoned village. High up on a hill with a view of the Drina, it was built by the former Yugoslav authorities in the late 1980s in order to compensate people who lost their homes to a dam-construction project. Their previous houses are now at the river’s bottom. As are the people themselves – just a few years after Milošević’s Yugoslavia moved them to their new homes, paramilitary Serbian formations killed them to the last man – according to witnesses, they were among the truckloads of people thrown over the bridge.

Further in on the left bank, beyond the town’s erstwhile Christian quarter is Vilna Vlas – the sinister holiday complex, in which, during the war, Serbian paramilitary men locked and systematically raped Muslim women, causing some of them to go insane or commit suicide.

Today, the resort complex functions as if nothing ever happened. The light refurbishment did not even get rid of the bullet holes in the restaurant’s windows.

On the right bank, which used to be Muslim, there is a Serbian quarter growing now – built upon victims’ and non-returnees’ abandoned or sold houses.

What the bridge on the Drina connects today are the dark locations of the violence committed in 1992. Led by politically-fuelled fears during the war, the Serbs that inherited Višegrad now act not as victors but as people in need of a psychoanalyst.

After getting their ethnic and religious homogeneity, they are not sure what to do with it.

Višegrad’s old houses on the triangular piece of land formed by the Drina and its tributary Rzav are an unshapely heap of crumbling architecture – in front of it, towards the river, a grove of weeping willows has grown.

The centre of communal life – the bridge’s kapia is empty. The eternal “coffee-maker,” described by Ivo Andrić, who “with his copper vessels and Turkish cups and ever-lighted charcoal brazier” served the town’s community, invariably seated for long conversations on the bridge’s benches, is no longer there.

Now, a similar role is played by the unsightly square on the right bank, with its semi-clean cafés, the currency exchange bureau, the unfinished hotel and the parking lot that dominates the town’s landscape.

In the early afternoon, a few small groups of people, dressed in tracksuits, are hanging around the tables with plastic cups of sparkling water or coffee, talking about money.

Suddenly, a noise comes from the river. Two boats come near the bridge and music erupts from one of them: a Gypsy band. A Serbian wedding, similar to a scene from the movie Guca!. The people from the cafés move towards the river as to be able to see better. With half-smiles, they watch the boats loaded with guests and musicians – they go under the bridge, make a reverse turn and come back again. Repeated a few times.

The attempt to have fun lasts about ten minutes and then everyone returns to their spot, the square receding in its gloomy, grey silence.

The locals avoid talking both about the events from the 1990s and about their life following those events. Either from pangs of guilt or as an expression of some kind of delayed regret, they rebuilt the mosque and even though there is nobody to go to it, five times a day the voice of an imam, brought from another country, summons to prayer.

It is possible that during these moments, in their ears, echo the words of the Andric’s town chronicler, Alihodža: “But it is alright – if there is demolishing here, there is building elsewhere. If god gave up on this sad town on the Drina, he couldn’t give up on the whole world under the sky. And it could not continue like this forever. Although, who knows?”

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Readers' Comments:

"I am writing to you concerning your article on Visegrad published on Balkan Travellers entitled: Bosnia's Dark Icons: The Bridge on the Drina, Višegrad. I would first of all like to congratulate on a excellent article and also like to thank you for writing on Visegrad and the ethnic cleansing which took part there. However, there is one sentence which I noticed and which I would like to bring to your attention:

"The locals avoid talking both about the events from the 1990s and about their life following those events. Either from pangs of guilt or as an expression of some kind of delayed regret, they rebuilt the mosque and even though there is nobody to go to it, five times a day the voice of an imam, brought from another country, summons to prayer."

The truth is that ethnically cleansed Bosniaks living in Bosnia and in the diaspora financed the Reconstruction of this destroyed mosque. The Visegrad Municipality, which de facto over-saw and most probably ordered the destruction of Islamic objects in Visegrad, did not take part in the reconstruction.

The imam in the mosque is Bosniak,just like in the rest of the country. Currently there are 3 imams in the whole Visegrad Municipality and a total of about 1500 returnees.

I hope you continue writing on Visegrad and on Bosnia."





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