Saturday, 27 October 2012

Balkania Pt. 13: A City Under Siege

world-map bosnia

Greetings!

Happy Birthday to Us!

Happy Birthday to Us!

Happy Birthday dear… Uncle Travelling Matt!

Happy Birthday to Us!

Yes indeed, this week Uncle Travelling Matt is officially 1 year old! Last October I started posting my travelogue of Latvia, Georgia and Turkey and by the end of the month there had been 71 hits to the site. A year on and we’ve travelled through Vietnam, the UK, Romania, the Philippines, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slovakia, Morocco, Germany, Bulgaria, Hungary, Ukraine, Serbia, Spain, Hong Kong, Kosova, Cambodia, Latvia, Moldova, Turkey, Albania, Georgia, Poland and even Transdniestra together, with this month our viewing figures surpassing 2,000 hits for the very first time. So, thank you all for the support and please continue to keep visiting Uncle Travelling Matt and exploring the world with me!

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Index and links to all the parts of Balkania:

Balkania Pt. 1: Sofia to Varna

Balkania Pt. 2: A Drink in Varna

Balkania Pt. 3: Wedding Bells in Varna (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 4: A Trip to Tutrakan: Tales of Devotion and Despair

Balkania Pt. 5: Of Love, Lust and the Nation (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 6: Back to School

Balkania Pt. 7: On a Mission

Balkania Pt. 8: The City of Wisdom?

Balkania Pt. 9: And the Tsar, he chose a heavenly kingdom…

Balkania Pt. 10: The Bridge over the Drina

Balkania Pt. 11: The Death-Drenched Drina

Balkania Pt. 12: Jerusalem of the Balkans

Balkania Pt. 13: A City Under Siege

Balkania Pt. 14: Austrian Influences

Balkania Pt. 15: Along the Bosna Valley

Balkania Pt. 16: Under the Airport and over the Mountains

Balkania Pt. 17: A Day Trip with Miran

Balkania Pt. 18: The City of the Broken Bridge

Balkania Pt. 19: Up the Black Mountain

Balkania Pt. 20: Worth the Bones of a Pomeranian Grenadier…?

Central-Balkans-Map

Sarajevo (3)

I walked into the European section of the city and breakfasted on burek near to the Catholic cathedral. Burek – flaky pastries filled with wither white cheese, spinach or, in Bosnia, meat – are another Balkan staple and, like the čevapi, they differ slightly across the peninsular. In Bulgaria they are large, flat pastries and I have never seen a meat option, but in Bosnia they come in tubes and are sold according the weight, the vendor cutting off the amount that you desire from a large tray.[1]

If Ferhadija is Sarajevo’s eye to the East, then the part of the Stari Grad immediately to the west of it is the city’s nod to the heart of Europe. Gone are the twisting narrow souqs and aged stone mosques and in their place wide straight streets lined with buildings that could be anywhere from Lisbon to Lublin. I’d gone to that area though, for a very specific purpose: it was Sunday and all the museums were shut but the cathedral was very much open for Mass. That however, did not start for a couple of hours and so I decided to do a bit of exploring first.

Since all the museums were closed, I decided to head towards some of the city’s other attractions. Despite all the hype about Sarajevo being such a diverse and historical city, in actual fact, it is not all that old, or at least, not all that old by Balkan standards. It was only founded in 1461 by the Ottomans[2] and that in many ways accounts for the very strong Turkish flavour to the place for it was always their city, the Serbs and Croats traditionally living elsewhere. After all, the very name itself – Sarajevo (Saray-ovasi) is Turkish for ‘the field around the governor’s palace’. Furthermore, in 1697 during the Great Turkish War, Prince Eugene of Savoy led an Austrian raid on the city during which he burnt it to the ground. Only a handful of buildings survived this, churches and mosques mainly and so, ancient as it may seem, the Sarajevo of today is actually virtually all less than three hundred years old.

That Sunday morning I wanted to explore a little of the earliest remains of Sarajevo and so I decided to head up to the Jaice Citadel where the original Mediæval city was situated and thus the very heart of ancient Sarajevo. However, on the way I stopped in at the Old Orthodox Church which was built between 1539-40, dates that are significant since they predate Prince Eugene’s terrible raid and thus is virtually the only surviving link with Sarajevo’s distant past.

And not only is the church a direct link with that past, but it actually feels like it too. It is a humble, earthy place, caked with a deep spiritual air that speaks of a timeless Balkans, ancient yet still occasionally viewable today. Of all the churches that I visited on the trip, this was my favourite and I stayed there for some time soaking in the atmosphere.

Not only is the Old Orthodox Church beautiful, but it is also important for it holds a sad distinction: the place where the Bosnian War began:

‘One hot Sunday afternoon that spring a wedding took place at this very church. At its doors someone opened fire and someone returned fire. The Serb father of the groom was killed and an Orthodox priest wounded. The Serbs said the incident was ‘a great injustice aimed at the Serb people’. The Muslims said the Serbs were asking for trouble, brandishing their national banners in the old Muslim part of town. A provocation or a nervy bungling trigger-happiness, there it was – the spark that ignited the following three years’ of carnage. The incident had al the queasy inevitability of the assassination of the Austrian Grand Duke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, in June 1914.’[3]

However, the church, or at least, one of its priests, also offers us hope. In her book Why Angels Fall, Victoria Clark goes on a search for ‘Sweet Orthodoxy’, the beautiful true faith of Christ Himself, but so often finds rabid nationalism or religious intolerance instead. In the figure of Fr. Krstan however, she stumbles upon that sweet Orthodoxy that she so longs for. During the siege Fr. Krstan, instead of fleeing as so many Serbs including the clergy did, stayed behind and braved snipers daily to conduct services in the church. When asked why he didn’t leave to where it was safe, he merely replies, “I’m just a priest, here to serve God and the Serbs who remained here.”[4] That same attitude he maintained after the war when so many Serbs took to blaming the West – and particularly Germany who have traditionally been allied with the Croats – for their plight. He however, told the following to Clark when she asked him if he was surprised that the Germans and not brother Orthodox had paid to restore his church:

“No, not really. You see, I don’t confuse the politics of Nazi Germany with now. In this war Germany took in three hundred thousand refugees and has been feeding them for five years. All our traditional allies did not do as much. As far as America and Nato go, we may grouse and try and find scapegoats, but at some point we have to say thank you because they have stopped the war here. They may not have stopped the economic or political or verbal war but at least they’ve stopped the killing.”[5]

Such sense and absence of bigotry are a blessing to hear in a region so often awash with the opposite.

After the church I walked up the steep streets leading out of the Miljacka Valley. Past the houses of the Stari Grad I found myself in a huge cemetery of white tombs and, like in Višegrad, all of them dated from the early nineties. There were thousands buried there and this was but one of the many vast war cemeteries dotted around the peripheries of the Bosnian capital. But it should come as no surprise for during the war Sarajevo was under siege, by both the JNA and the Bosnian Serbs, from 1992 to 1995, or to put it another way, for around one thousand four hundred days. It was the longest siege in modern European history.

I climbed up through the graves and then under the very Central European gateway into Eugene of Savoy’s fortress. It was strange through that gateway, for even though the bustling heart of one of the largest and most important cities in the Balkans was less than a kilometre away, I had just walked into a sleepy village with twisting narrow streets and aged houses. I thought again of Svetlo Stanev and his house in Druzhba: in the Balkans, even in the most urbane and sophisticated of places, the village is never very far away.

I made my way to the location of the heart of the old citadel, the ruins of which now serve as a viewing platform for the whole of the city. Spread out before me: the Bazaar District, the European Districts, then beyond the communist suburbs and beyond them the airport, and it was stunning, a view that I could have drunk in for hours.

sarajevo panorama

Sarajevo from the Jaice Citadel

Looking at it like that, it was also much easier to understand the geography of the siege. The evening before in the Sahinpasic Bookshop, I had seen an incredible pictorial representation of the siege. It showed the city almost totally surrounded by Serb forces, a thousand guns locked and loaded, pumping shells and bullets into the beleaguered districts of the city. The only break in the ring was the airport which was under control of the UN who used it to ferry humanitarian aid in, but under it a secret tunnel had been built which the Bosnian government used to bring in arms. Sat on that fortress with a bird’s eye view of the whole city, it was easy to visualise the guns on every side, snipers on the hillsides with a direct line of sight into the very heart of the city. It was terrifying and yet at the same time, it confused me. My basic knowledge of military strategy told me that when one has the high ground, one has the advantage and at Sarajevo, the Serbs definitely had all the high ground. Furthermore, since they were supported by the JNA, the Serbs also had a massive advantage with regards to trained troops, artillery equipment and other military hardware. The question begs therefore, why did the Sebs not simply invade, thrust an armoured dagger into the heart of the city that – after all – they wanted so much? Looking at the picture map it seems inconceivable that the Serbs, with their vast military superiority, squeezing in the Bosniaks[6] on all sides, should ever have failed to take a city defended by irregulars armed only with rifles and the occasional homemade mortar, supplied only by a tunnel just about wide enough to take a shopping trolley and little else besides. And it looks even more incredible when one looks a little more closely at the map and sees that the furthest Serb advance was to the Čobanija Bridge over the Milijacka, right in the very heart of the city itself. How on earth could they have failed? How on earth is Sarajevo not in Republika Srpska now?

The answer I discovered, after a little research, is that whilst a picture may tell a thousand words, it does not tell the whole story particularly when it is drawn by one of the sides involved in the siege. Yes, the Serbs surrounded the city with big guns and tanks and yes, they had far superior weaponry which, in an open battle, they could have wiped the Bosniaks out with within hours, but a siege is not an open battle and whatever the Bosniaks lacked in weaponry, they made up for in men. There were just under half a million people inside Sarajevo during the siege; the Serbs on the other hand had but eighteen thousand troops. In street to street fighting, where tanks and artillery become obsolete, it would have become a battle of attrition and that would have been a battle that the Serbs could never have won. Consequently, there was a stalemate: the Bosniaks couldn’t break out and the Serbs couldn’t break in. A bloody stalemate that claimed around ten thousand lives.[7]

survivalmap1

Pictorial representation of the Siege of Sarajevo

I walked back to the cathedral taking in the Gazi Husrev Begova Mosque, Sarajevo’s most significant Islamic building and classically Ottoman, and also its madrassah en route. The madrassah has been fully restored since the war and was holding a photo exhibition on Sarajevo and Jerusalem entitled ‘In-between Cities’ which compared these two infamously ethnically-explosive cities. Knowing Jerusalem well, I found the exhibition fascinating although in my opinion it served more to demonstrate how inaccurate Sarajevo’s label as the ‘Jerusalem of the Balkans’ is for the two cities are only superficially similar. Both seem ancient but as I have already explained, Sarajevo isn’t really, there being very little to view over three hundred years old whilst Jerusalem truly is ancient in every respect, every layer of its five thousand-year history available on display if you know where to look for it. What’s more, both are ethnically and religiously mixed, but whilst Jerusalem truly is an ethnic hotpot, Sarajevo again is only superficially so; in fact it is remarkably homogenously, there is but one ethnic group their, it is just that members of that group happen to follow three different faiths although only two of them have ever had a significant presence in the city, the Croats always being around five per cent of the population.[8] And finally, with regards to religion, Jerusalem has always been most famous as a spiritual centre, a place of pilgrimage for three faiths, whereas Sarajevo has never had any great spiritual significance, no religious sites; it is and always has been a largely secular city.

But whilst Sarajevo might be secular, I was feeling religious at that moment and after visiting the church and the mosque, and it not yet being time for Mass, I headed into the European District to buy a DVD that a friend of mine had recommended several months before. It was a Bosnian film entitled On the Path[9] and it was about a secular Bosniak air stewardess named Luna and her partner Amar who is also secular. He works as an air traffic controller but has a drink problem and one day is caught drinking on the job, sacked and then meets an old army mate who has become a strict Wahhabi Muslim with a fully-veiled wife. Invited to go to a Wahhabi camp near to Jablanica, he finds in this strict form of Islam what he was looking for and he stops drinking and starts to turn his life around. She however, cannot cope with the changes in him, for with the positive aspects also come a withdrawal from his – and her – former life and friends and an intolerance of all that he once loved and was. In the end they are forced apart but what I wanted to see was how this film dealt with a subject that is big in Bosnia at the moment, that being, how Muslim do you go?

After Turkey, Albania and Kosova, Bosnia-Herzegovina has the highest percentage of Muslims in Europe, around 45%. However, if the Federation were to split away from Republika Srpska and become an independent country, then that new country would be overwhelmingly Muslim, around 80%. And that makes a lot of people, both in the Balkans and beyond, rather jittery. It was one of the main factors behind the Dayton peacemakers insisting that the Croat cantons stay within the Federation and that the Federation stays lumped together with their not-so-friendly neighbours in Republika Srpska. It is therefore obvious why the subject of Islam is so important in this country.

However, there is a big difference between a Muslim country and a Muslim country. As I have already related, from what I’d seen so far, Bosnia – like Albania, Kosova and the other Muslim regions in the Balkans – seemed overwhelmingly secular. But just as the Bosnian Serbs had fanatical Orthodox Russians volunteering to fight for them during the war, there were also a large number of self-proclaimed mujahedeen flocking to Bosnia to take up arms against the infidels in the name of Islam. These fighters did not always make themselves popular amongst the locals for, fresh from Afghanistan, Chechnya and parts of the world where a strict Wahhabist interpretation of Islam is the norm, they were horrified by the widespread drinking amongst the Bosniaks and forever pestering the women to cover up a little more. But their bravery and commitment impressed others and they preached as well as shot and some Bosniaks, often those who had lost a lot because of the war, listened. These Wahhabis organised camps – such as the one depicted in the film – and a nucleus of followers was established and they have pushed for the Federation to become more Islamic in character. This causes a great dilemma for the majority of Bosniaks though, people like Luna in the film who are Muslim, who have suffered greatly for their faith and yet at the same time are both secular and European and who struggle to relate to the rest of the Islamic World. They feel that they should perhaps, as Muslims, want more Islam, but at the same time, as secular Europeans, they also want all that secular liberal culture offers and the two are not always compatible. It is a drama that is still being played out in the homes, streets and town halls of the Federation and I hoped that Na Putu would help me to understand it a little.

On_the_Path

On the Path (Na Putu)

The Mass in Sarajevo Cathedral was disappointingly, not particularly moving. It didn’t help that there were repairs going on and half the pews were taken up by scaffolding, but nonetheless, it felt somewhat empty. Why was that? Who knows? Perhaps after all those Orthodox churches and monasteries my brain was struggling to readjust back to Western Christianity?

After Mass I took a tram down to Ilidža, a suburb of the capital at the opposite end of the tram line. Sarajevo was the first city in Europe to construct a full-time (dawn till dusk) tram system, it opening on New Year’s Day 1885, (it was actually a test track for the system in Vienna). I enjoyed the ride on the creaking old vehicles, and furthermore it gave me a chance to see something of the Sarajevo that lies beyond the Stari Grad, the modern city that the communists built and that suffered so much during the war.

And there was much to see although little of it was pretty. Outside of its historical heart, Sarajevo is like most communist cities – grey and dreary, qualities that are only intensified by a three-year siege. There were countless shell-scarred apartment blocks as well as many of the country’s institutions such as the parliament and national museum (closed on Sundays) that looked equally damaged. One splash of colour though was the gaudy and tasteless Holiday Inn where all the journalists stayed during the war and wrote disturbing dispatches like this one from Peter Maass of the Washington Post:

‘In Sarajevo, you could experience every human emotion except one, boredom. If I was at a loss for something to do, or too tired to go outside, I could draw back the curtains in my room and look down at a small park in which men, women and children dodged sniper bullets, occasionally without success. Before Bosnia went mad, the park was a pleasant place with wood benches and trees and neighborhood [sic] children playing tag on the grass. The war changed all that. The benches and trees vanished, scavenged for firewood. The stumps and roots were torn out, too – that’s how cold and desperate people were in winter. What remained was a denuded bit of earth that became an apocalyptic shooting gallery in which the ammunition was live, and so were the targets, until they got hit. Serb soldiers were just a few hundred yards away, on the other side of Sniper Alley, a distance that counts as short-range in the sniping trade. The park, like Bosnia, fascinated and repulsed me.

It was a pleasant winter day, and the gods were providing perfect shooting weather, no rain or fog to obscure a sniper’s view, just a fat sun conspiring with mild temperatures to entice people outdoors. On days like that, it was best to resist the temptation to go outside, better to stay indoors behind the grimy walls that kept out sunshine and bullets. Clear days were the deadliest of all. A sniper, hiding behind one of the tombstones in the Jewish cemetery on the other side of the front line, was having a great time with his high-powered rifle. Usually he squeezed off single shots, sometimes several at a time, and occasionally he harmonized his shooting finger with the cadence of a familiar song. Name That Tune, Bosnia-style. After a while, things like that didn’t seem strange.’[10]

Trans Balkan Trip 2011 375

War wounded apartment block, Sarajevo

Next part: Balkania Pt. 14: Austrian Influences

 


[1] Actually, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the term ‘burek’ is used only for the meat variety, the cheese is ‘sirnica’ and the spinach ‘zeljanica’. Elsewhere in the peninsular, burek is the generic term for all.

[2] Although there were earlier settlements in the area and at least a large village on the site of modern-day Sarajevo. Notwithstanding, the city that we know today is very much an Ottoman one.

[3] Why Angels Fall, p.66-7

[4] Why Angels Fall, p.67

[5] Why Angels Fall, p.69

[6] I use the term ‘Bosniaks’ here but it is misleading. Those defending Sarajevo prefer ‘Bosnians’ or ‘Bosnian Government Forces’. However, those besieging argue that there was no such thing as a Bosnian Government, since Bosnia was not an independent country, it was part of Yugoslavia, and furthermore, those attacking were also Bosnians, just Bosnian Serbs rather than Bosnian Muslims (or Croats). However, it must be stressed here that the ‘Bosniak’ forces within the city always stressed that they included Serbs and Croats within their ranks as well as Muslims, although to be fair, these numbers were so small as to be insignificant.

[7] Plus there was also the small issue of the city being under UN protection, but then again so was Srebrenica and the massacred bodies of the entire male population of that town are testament to the fact that such ‘protection’ did not always mean a lot.

[8] There did, of course, used to be a significant Sephardic Jewish population which West discusses at length as her friend and guide in Yugoslavia, the poet ‘Constantine’, was actually Jewish and he introduced her to several members of the city’s Hebrew community. Virtually all the Jews however, were tragically wiped out as part of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ during the Second World War.

[9] Na Putu

[10] Peter Maass in ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ (1996). Quoted in ‘Through Another Europe’, p.235-6

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Balkania Pt. 12: Jerusalem of the Balkans

world-map bosnia

Greetings!

A slightly (but only just…) cheerier post this week, as I head into Sarajevo, enthusiastically referred to by one traveller that I met as ‘THE Balkan city’. Whether that is true or not is open for debate; Prizren and Skopje amongst others are close contenders for the title in my mind, but it is a vibrant place, a clash of culture and faith and the home of the best kebapche I have ever tasted….

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Index and links to all the parts of Balkania:

Balkania Pt. 1: Sofia to Varna

Balkania Pt. 2: A Drink in Varna

Balkania Pt. 3: Wedding Bells in Varna (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 4: A Trip to Tutrakan: Tales of Devotion and Despair

Balkania Pt. 5: Of Love, Lust and the Nation (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 6: Back to School

Balkania Pt. 7: On a Mission

Balkania Pt. 8: The City of Wisdom?

Balkania Pt. 9: And the Tsar, he chose a heavenly kingdom…

Balkania Pt. 10: The Bridge over the Drina

Balkania Pt. 11: The Death-Drenched Drina

Balkania Pt. 12: Jerusalem of the Balkans

Balkania Pt. 13: A City Under Siege

Balkania Pt. 14: Austrian Influences

Balkania Pt. 15: Along the Bosna Valley

Balkania Pt. 16: Under the Airport and over the Mountains

Balkania Pt. 17: A Day Trip with Miran

Balkania Pt. 18: The City of the Broken Bridge

Balkania Pt. 19: Up the Black Mountain

Balkania Pt. 20: Worth the Bones of a Pomeranian Grenadier…?

Central-Balkans-Map

Sarajevo (2)

Several years ago I was sat on the balcony of a hotel overlooking the picture postcard town of Gjirokastra in Southern Albania talking to two young Englishmen whose names I, sadly, never wrote down. We were talking about our shared love of the Balkans and our different travels around the region, and after I had extolled the virtues of Bulgaria, they were waxing lyrical on their favourite country, Bosnia-Herzegovina. “Bosnia is great, but the place to go, the place with everything is Sarajevo! It’s fascinating; there’re reminders of the war, of the Ottomans, and loads more. If you like the Balkans then you have to go there; Sarajevo is the Balkan city!”

To be fair, they weren’t the only ones. Everyone I spoke to that had ever been to Sarajevo raved about the place, whilst everything that I’d ever read about it made much of its status as ‘The Jerusalem of the Balkans’ before morbidly discoursing the evils that befell it during the war and its sad, ethnically-segregated status today. And if Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is the litmus test of Balkan travel writing, then the Bosnian capital passes this one with flying colours too for West devotes no less than seven chapters – eighty-five pages – to the city without even having the horrors of the 1990s war to discuss. Belgrade is the only place that she dedicates more space to but then that was twice the size and the national capital, and on top of both of those, West was an ardent Serbophile. Yes indeed, Sarajevo was a place worth investigating.

As the crow flies, Višegrad and Sarajevo are not far – fifty miles or so – but in post-Dayton Bosnia, travel is often far more complicated for humans than it is for crows and that journey took several hours. We started off fine mind, thundering down an excellent road named the ‘Partizanski Put’ (Partisan’s Way), which ran along the side of the Drina Valley and had been built, I suspect, to replace the original road which would have been flooded when the dam was constructed. However, just shy of the town of Gorazde – which is located in a finger of Federation territory poking into Republika Srpska – we turned right and continued on a tour of Serbian –held backwater towns and villages, wrapping around Sarajevo but never actually entering. One of these was Pale, unofficial capital of Republika Srpska during the war and the place where Radovan Karadžić had his famous pink house but there was little to see there, just an overgrown village that wasn’t quite yet a proper town and after halting in the smart bus station we continued on our way until we eventually came to a stop and our driver announced “Sarajevo!” to one and all.

But alighting with my bags, I could see very clearly that this was not Sarajevo. The atmosphere was more small town than big city and whilst the sign on the newly-built bus station read ‘САРАЈЕВО’ (Sarajevo), it also had the word ‘ИЗТОЧНА’ (Iztochna – East) in front.

East Sarajevo used to be called Srpsko (Serbian) Sarajevo. It consists of some of the southern suburbs of the pre-war city along with a collection of scattered villages that have grown plump with Serbian immigrants from Federation lands. Republika Srpska regards it as its capital even though its parliament and other institutions are in Banja Luka. It is home to around a hundred thousand, many of whom fled from Sarajevo proper during the war. All that is very interesting, but alas, it didn’t help me, for I wanted to be in ‘real’ Sarajevo and that was still several miles away and I had a very big bag to lug about. “How do I get to Sarajevo?” I asked the driver. He pointed down the road, a long straight road lined with shell-scarred apartment blocks for as far as the eye could see. “Taxi?” I asked, not fancying the walk. “No need, just walk,” he replied.

And so I walked, along that long straight road, for the distance of an entire block until then, to my surprise, I arrived at a trolleybus terminal where a trolley to the city centre stood waiting. ‘Stupid!’ I thought to myself, as I lugged both my baggage and I on board. ‘Why not build the bus station next to the trolley terminal?’ Then I realised.

Ever since leaving Višegrad, I’d been wondering what the boundary between the two entities would be like. Would it have a border post like a national boundary or just a sign or maybe nothing at all? How would I know when I’d crossed it? Annoyingly, the bus to Sarajevo had always stayed within the Republika Srpska borders and so I’d not been able to find out. Now however, I knew. It was not marked and I could understand why, for the Dayton peacemakers were not particularly proud of the two entities; as discussed earlier, Republika Srpska smacked of rewarding the oppressor and both cemented the national divisions rather than healed them, but they were necessary and two populations that both mistrusted and disliked each other would only cross to the other side if they had to. And so instead there is a very real yet unmarked no-man’s land, a block in length, through which no, or very little, public transport runs. Getting on that trolleybus, I realised that I was now in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The journey to the city centre was both rather lengthy and rather interesting. Our trolleybus made its way through the residential districts of Novo (New) Sarajevo, a communist-built suburb where the scars of war were all too evident. Every building was pockmarked with bullet and shrapnel holes and there were still windows missing in some or breeze block walls where a window should have been. Equally fascinating for me though were the locals. Even though we were now firmly in Bosniak territory, the population was virtually entirely secular, the only visible difference to the Serbs being two older women wearing headscarves. A charge often levied by both the Serbs and the Croats as well as some Western conservatives during the war was that an independent Muslim Bosnia would get hijacked by Fundamentalist Islam and become a thorn in the side of all Europe. From this cursory glance though, it looked bloody unlikely.

I alighted at Austrijski Trg and crossed over the Miljacka River on the famous Latin bridge before delving into the Ferhadija District of the Stari Grad (Old Town) in an attempt to find a cheap bed for the night. After a little searching, I was successful and I booked in and dumped bags at the Pension Sebilj (€15 p/n – my cheapest sleep in Bosnia), before heading out again to fill my stomach.

Trans Balkan Trip 2011 352

Ferhadija District, Sarajevo

Sarajevo’s Ferhadija is its most ancient and Oriental part and I could see straightaway why so many people rave about the place, for it is unlike any other city in Europe, being more suited to Western Anatolia than the Western Balkans.[1] The alleyways were narrow and twisting whilst the shops laden with the delights of the East, (and a shit-load of touristy crap). At its heart is a small square – Sebilj – with a mosque and a fine Ottoman fountain, (although disappointingly, this is actually a nineteenth century copy). Oriental too were the people who thronged the streets for an Islamic element was more evident here than anywhere else that I’ve been in the Balkans. Lots of ladies were in headscarves with long dresses whilst there were even some bearded men donning skullcaps. But were these locals or foreign tourists? It was hard to tell and one would imagine a mixture of both, but most were speaking Serb-Croat.[2] However, if they were mainly local, then that presents another problem: Why in the suburbs – and indeed, after a week’s travel in the Federation – were there so few visibly Muslim Bosniaks whilst in Ferhadija there are so many? Where on earth do they all live?

I dined at Željo’s, a Sarajevan institution. Both my Lonely Planet and my Bradt guidebooks recommended it and, unusually for me, I agreed with them wholeheartedly, for the place sold the best ever čevapi that I have ever tasted and trust me, I have tasted a lot.

Čevapi (‘kebapche’ in Bulgarian) is a spicy lamb and beef mix sausage that one finds across the Balkans. In Bulgaria it is usually sold from street side stalls in a ‘dzhob’ (toasted bread bun, the word literally means ‘pocket’) with salad, ketchup and mayonnaise but in Bosnia the standard seems to be with a pitta and onions and either mustard or a delicious spreadable white cheese called ‘kajmak’. It is, as the Americans say, to die for! To wash it down I ordered an ayran, watered down salty yoghurt, a staple across the Balkans and Turkey, but in Bosnia it is served much thicker than elsewhere, almost the consistency of yoghurt and I must admit to preferring it the Bulgarian way.

Having dined, it was time to unwind so I went to the Morica Han for a shisha and a coffee. A ‘han’ is the Ottoman equivalent of a motel and they were to be found across the empire, accommodation for the night above and stables and warehousing below. Most were free to travellers and financed by taxes levied off land owned by their founders.[3] The Morica Han, Sarajevo’s most important, was built in the sixteenth century and restored in the 1970s so that today it provides a lovely setting for a drink or two – although alas, no shisha. I ordered a Turkish coffee – called a ‘Bosnanka’ here – which came with a rather delectable lump of rahatlokum (Turkish delight), a practice that I later learnt was the norm in Bosnia and Herzegovina and one that I very much approve of. So I sat and sipped and thought of the other pleasant hans that I’ve had the good fortunate to visit over the years, from Morocco to Uzbekistan, but most notable the spectacular one in Diyarbakır that I had drank coffee in but a year previously.[4]

Suitably relaxed I strolled through Ferhadija to the European District of the Stari Grad where I popped into a bookshop named Sahinpasic. My time in Višegrad had got me in an Ivo Andrić and my selection of reading material was running low so I purchased a copy of The Days of the Consuls,[5] Bosnia’s most famous writer’s other celebrated work. And thus literarily-inclined, I decided to round off the day by retiring to an internet café to do some research for a Višegrad-based story that had been slowly forming in my mind ever since I’d left that town.

My light mood however, did not last for long after entering that internet café. But I have already told you about the horrors that I discovered there.

Next part: Balkania Pt. 13: A City Under Siege


 


[1] Although it differs from most Turkish cities too in that the buildings are largely wooden, not stone. In many ways, the place that it reminded me most of was Takayama, an old Japanese city, built out of wooden and on a similar scale.

[2] Serb-Croat was the official language of Yugoslavia and today is the official language of Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro, although you may heard it referred to as Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian, etc whilst in the region. Spoken, there are a few dialectical differences but written it is largely standard except that often the Serbs use the Cyrillic script rather than the Latin. In Serbia both scripts are equally recognised although, to my surprise, Latin seemed to predominate. In Republika Srpska, Cyrillic was dominant, due no doubt to its Serbian nationalist credentials. In the Federation one rarely sees Cyrillic.

[3] According to Andrić, the han built by the bridge in Višegrad was financed by the revenues of some lands in Hungary. However, when the Christians recoquered Hungary, the funds dried up and so the han fell into ruin and was eventually destroyed.

[4] See ‘Latvia, Georgia and Turkey’.

[5] Alternative title: ‘The Travnik Chronicles’.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Balkania Pt. 11: The Death-Drenched Drina

world-map bosnia
Greetings!
 
Today’s offering is one of the more melancholy I have ever had to write. What I learnt about in Sarajevo after my visit to Visegrad affected me, because it was all so recent in history and because the Serbs in Visegrad were all so nice. But it is a reminder to us all, inside each of us we have a devil as well as an angel. The only question is, which one will you listen to tomorrow?
 
Keep travelling!
 
Uncle Travelling Matt

Index and links to all the parts of Balkania:

Balkania Pt. 1: Sofia to Varna

Balkania Pt. 2: A Drink in Varna

Balkania Pt. 3: Wedding Bells in Varna (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 4: A Trip to Tutrakan: Tales of Devotion and Despair

Balkania Pt. 5: Of Love, Lust and the Nation (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 6: Back to School

Balkania Pt. 7: On a Mission

Balkania Pt. 8: The City of Wisdom?

Balkania Pt. 9: And the Tsar, he chose a heavenly kingdom…

Balkania Pt. 10: The Bridge over the Drina

Balkania Pt. 11: The Death-Drenched Drina

Balkania Pt. 12: Jerusalem of the Balkans

Balkania Pt. 13: A City Under Siege

Balkania Pt. 14: Austrian Influences

Balkania Pt. 15: Along the Bosna Valley

Balkania Pt. 16: Under the Airport and over the Mountains

Balkania Pt. 17: A Day Trip with Miran

Balkania Pt. 18: The City of the Broken Bridge

Balkania Pt. 19: Up the Black Mountain

Balkania Pt. 20: Worth the Bones of a Pomeranian Grenadier…?

 
Central-Balkans-Map

Sarajevo

(and yet still Višegrad)

 

Višegrad had left a big effect on me and all that I had seen there was still running around my head and causing the germs of a story to form in my mind. Some sort of continuation of ‘The Bridge over the Drina’ dealing with the conflict of the 1990s and after. But I was conscious that I couldn’t write it without doing some research as I still had plenty of unanswered questions. Whose were those freshly-dug unnamed graves in the Muslims cemetery? Why were their two newly-built, (or at least, freshly-renovated), mosques in the town yet seemingly no one to pray in them? Exactly how many people lived in the town these days with all those empty or burnt-out houses? And who had those houses belonged to? Thus it was that I made my way to an internet café in the city’s Bazaar District. Around two hours later I emerged a shaken man.
 
In the 1991 Census, the last taken in Yugoslavia, the Višegrad Municipality (i.e. region) had 13,471 (63.54%) Bosniaks, 6,743 (31.8%) Serbs and 1,285 (5.02%) Others including Croats and those who identified themselves as ‘Yugoslavs’.[1] At present we have no exact figures to work with, but the region is almost exclusively Serb. Put simply, around two thirds of the 1991 population have disappeared.
 
That shook me. At the Serbian cemetery I’d thought that I was beginning to understand the Serb mindset, but those figures told me that I wasn’t even close. So complete is the Serbianisation of the town and surrounding region today that I’d unconsciously assumed that it had always been majority Serb, probably around seventy percent or so and that what had happened in 1992 was the chasing away of a few unwanted neighbours whose high birth rates and independence ambitions worried the Serbs who still thought of a Yugoslavian future. Such an act would have been wrong, but it would also have been understandable. The ethnic cleansing of two-thirds of the population however, is something different entirely. No wonder there were so many burnt out and abandoned houses around, for even with Serbian refugees like Nežena from other parts of Bosnia or Croatia, filling two-thirds of the properties in the area would not be easy.
 
But if all those thousands ‘disappeared’, then where exactly did they go? Again I found myself regretting ever asking myself this question and searching on the web for answers, for what happened in Višegrad, that beautiful, friendly town, immortalised by Andrić and known across the Balkans for its graceful bridge, is no relaxing evening read.
 
On the 29th February, 1992 a referendum for the independence of Bosnia-Herzegovina was passed and independence from Yugoslavia declared. This was rejected by the Bosnian Serbs and the Yugoslavian government and the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) rolled in. On the 6th April 1992, JNA units began an artillery bombardment of the town, in particular Bosniak neighbourhoods and nearby Bosniak villages. A group of Bosniak men took several local Serbs hostage and seized control of the hydroelectric dam, threatening to blow it up. One of the men released water from the dam causing flooding to some houses and streets.
 
Eventually on 12th April 1992, JNA commandos seized the dam. The next day the JNA's Užice Corps took control of Višegrad, positioning tanks and heavy artillery around the town. The population that had fled the town during the crisis returned and the climate in the town remained relatively calm and stable. Then however, on the 19th April, the JNA withdrew and handed control over to the local Serb forces, foremost amongst who were the White Eagles, an extreme nationalist Četnik group.[2]
 
What happened then is not always clear but whatever the details, it was not good. The big picture is that around three thousand Bosniaks vanished, but when we look as to how and where, then it all gets a little more chilling. For example, on the 14th June, seventy of those Bosniaks were locked in a house on Pionirska Street which was then set alight. Fifty-nine were burnt alive. Around sixty were murdered in a similar incident in Bikavac near to Višegrad although a handful survived including one Zehra Turjačanin who testified the following at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY):
 
‘There were many children in that house, it’s so sad’, the witness said adding that the youngest child there was less than one year old. Most of the people were younger women with children, and there were some elderly men and women too. The Serb soldiers first threw stones at windows to break them, and then lobbed hand grenades. For a while, they fired shots at the crowd inside the house and they set the house on fire. ‘People were burned alive, everybody was crying out; I simply can’t describe what I heard then’, the witness said. When the fire caught her clothes the witness and one of her sisters managed to get to the door, but it was blocked: a heavy iron garage door had been placed against it from the outside. However, she was able to somehow pull herself out through a small opening in the door; her sister remained inside. As she ran towards the houses in the Mejdan neighbourhood [sic], the witness saw Serb soldiers lying in the grass and drinking.’[3]
 
Certainly her testimony, along with those of others and evidence retrieved from the sites convinced the ICTY in the Hague for they handed out some hefty sentences to some of the perpetrators of the 1992 atrocities with the head of the White Eagles, Milan Lukić receiving Life, his brother Sredoje getting thirty years and six more sentences of ten years or more also being handed out. Summing up, Judge Patrick Robinson had this to say:
 
"In the all too long, sad and wretched history of man’s inhumanity to man, the Pionirska street and Bikavac fires must rank high. At the close of the twentieth century, a century marked by war and bloodshed on a colossal scale, these horrific events stand out for the viciousness of the incendiary attack, for the obvious premeditation and calculation that defined it, for the sheer callousness and brutality of herding, trapping and locking the victims in the two houses, thereby rendering them helpless in the ensuing inferno, and for the degree of pain and suffering inflicted on the victims as they were burnt alive."[4]
 
But the two fires were only the tip of the iceberg. In the summer of 2010, when the waters of Lake Perućac and the Drina upstream of the lake were lowered as a result of maintenance work on the Bajina Basta Dam, remains of over three hundred more Bosniaks were retrieved for identification, only some of the thousands of men, women and children who were murdered and then thrown off the riverbank or bridge itself. It was an episode that, if included in Andrić’s novel, would leave you questioning as to whether he had used his artistic licence too much and exaggerated it all:
 
‘According to the survivors and the report submitted to UNHCR by the Bosnian government, the Drina river was used to dump many of the bodies of the Bosniak men, women and children who were killed around the town and on the famous Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, as well as the new one. Day after day, truckloads of Bosniak civilians were taken down to the bridge and riverbank by Serb paramilitaries, unloaded, slashed or shot, and thrown into the river.
 
On June 10, 1992, Milan Lukić entered the Varda factory and collected seven Bosniak men from their workstations. He thereafter took them down to the bank of the Drina river in front of the factory, where he lined them up. Milan Lukić then shot the men in full view of a number of people watching, including the wife and daughter of one of the victims, Ibrišim Memišević. All seven men were killed.
 
On another occasion, during the murder of a group of 22 people on June 18, 1992, the Lukić's group tore out the kidneys of several individuals, while the others were tied to cars and dragged through the streets; their children were thrown from the bridge and shot at before they hit the water.’[5]
 
And in addition to this, there were dozens more atrocities, less spectacular yet equally horrific for those involved such as the mass rape of Bosniak women at the Vilnia Vlas health spa which served as a detention facility, the Paklenik Massacre in which fifty Bosniaks were shot and their bodies dumped in a ravine, the Barimo Massacre in which an entire village was burnt down and twenty-six Bosniaks killed and countless random shootings such as this one described by Danir, its only survivor, who worked in a petrol station in Višegrad at the start of the war:
 
‘“We hid in the woods and watched as our village was burned to the ground by Serb paramilitaries. We could hear the gunfire as people were shot.” Along with dozens of others who had fled their homes, he was eventually persuaded to leave the forest and promised transport out of Bosnia.
 
“There were fifty of us on a bus. We had originally been told we would be going to Macedonia but then the plan was changed and we were told we were to be exchanged for Serb prisoners. But then the beatings started and I gradually began to fear that we were not going to be exchanged at all. After hours on the bus we were driven up a small hill and then let off the bus. We were marched off in a column, two by two. I was at the back. Our hands were tied behind our backs with wire. There was still a glimmer of hope that we were being exchanged – we were not far from the front line.
 
But then the first two were called forward. They were standing close to a bush, about twenty metres away from me. They were shot at point-blank range. Their bodies tumbled forwards into what I later discovered was a cave, hidden by the bush. The rest of us froze. There was no shouting, no panic, no crying, just total paralysis. They had executed ten of us, most of them friends and relatives of mine. The Serb commander ordered the two guards at the back of the line to go forward and take part in the killings. I said to myself, ‘This is it, this is it.’ I made six or seven metres before I felt the warmth of the bullets passing me. After some thirty metres, I fell into some leaves and glanced back. I couldn’t see anyone following. I got up and kept running.”
 
It was another four hours before Danir found sanctuary in a Muslim village.’[6]
 
All in all, Višegrad 1992 is a tale of horror and inhumanity almost unmatched in Europe since 1945. It is disturbing to anyone who reads it, but to someone who had just spent two very pleasant days in the town, who had been welcomed warmly by the Serbs and who had thought that he understood where they were coming from, it was gut-wrenching. Doing my job I should, I suppose, be used to hearing of nasty things done by people that I know and like rather well but this was beyond any of that; this was no armed robbery gone wrong, drug deal or incident of domestic violence and it was not done in the heat of the moment either. It was carefully calculated again and again and again. This was cold-blooded murder. This was man returning to his state as an animal. And what of the good folk that I had drunk with the night before? Had Ivan the self-confessed Četnik been involved in any of the atrocities? Or Dragan even? Involved or not, they’d certainly have known about them and known those who perpetrated them. I grew up near and went to school in a large village similar in size to Višegrad and when I was there I’d have known if someone’s cat had been thrown of a bridge, let alone hundreds of neighbours. My new-found friends knew all about it and yet they stayed silent, and in that silence was acquiescence. My mind went back to a conversation I’d been having with Sally in Sam in Mezdreya when they were expressing their exasperation with otherwise nice Bulgarians being racist towards the Roma. “Never forget,” I’d told them, “there’s no such thing as a good man or an evil man; just good men who often do evil things.” The veracity of those words rang in my ears.
 
But how could they acquiesce? What would such episodes do to a place? Again I thought of my own village, virtually entirely White British with only a handful of ethnic minorities. What would it be like if they were all murdered? Yet that was no worthwhile comparison; instead I realised, I should be thinking what would it be like if all the Catholics – traditionally around fifty per cent of the population, families who have lived there for centuries and ethnically and linguistically identical to the rest of us – were slaughtered? The lady who ran the post office, half the kids I played with as a boy, the woman up the road, the farmer across the way. To kill them all, burn down their pretty white church, to have their homes either gutted for left empty for over a decade. In short, it was unthinkable. It would rip the very soul out of the community. It would take centuries to recuperate.
 
These revelations changed my original idea and now a new and better story flooded into my head. The main character would be an outside, a total alien. He would go to Višegrad unaware of everything, perhaps for some professional purpose. He would spend time there and be welcomed there. He would fall in love with the place. Then afterwards, he would learn. And when he learnt he would feel as sick as a man can feel. The beautiful waters of the Drina would become dark and swirling and the bridge that he found so wonderful before, would now only remind him of the horror that it witnessed.[7]
 
Read the story here!
 
These thoughts however, also raised new questions in my mind, deeper, more complex questions. Such atrocities in a small community are almost unthinkable, inhuman and yet the fact is that they did happen and there is no going back. Rightly or wrongly, Višegrad is almost exclusively Serb these days, the war recedes into the past and a new generation is being born that never lived through it. The present now is peace but it is a peace where Višegrad is part of Republika Srpska within a multi-ethnic yet racially-segregated Bosnia-Herzegovina. How therefore, does one move forwards? Can one more forward? What does the future hold?
 
I saw several things that constituted a real moral and practical dilemma in my mind. Foremost amongst them were the two mosques. A little research on the net informed me that both were brand-new but built on the sites of existing mosques levelled by the Serbs during the war. These new mosques were financed by Bosniak organisations and served by a Bosniak imam who drives in everyday from the Federation and yet there is no one around to pray in them. The question begs therefore, why bother rebuilding them?
There are two sides to this argument and both have credence. On one, one could argue that the rebuilding is a good move, necessary almost. The Serbs had no right to chase or murder the Bosniaks out of town, or to flatten their houses of worship. Therefore, the Bosniaks, who still own the land, have every right to rebuild their mosques and ship in an imam. Furthermore, under the Dayton deal displaced Bosniaks have a right to return to their former homes, even if they do lie within the boundaries of Republika Srpska and a functioning mosque that could act as a centre for the Bosniak community might help encourage many to do so. But the fact remains that few have returned and when one reads the accounts of the horrors of 1992 and listens to people such as Ivan, then it is not hard to see why.
 
And so here we have the other side of the argument. Yes, it was wrong what happened in 1992, totally wrong, but happen it did and beyond bringing individual perpetrators to justice and providing some sort of financial compensation to those who lost property or relatives, it is all pretty much done and dusted. Višegrad is totally Serb now and unlikely to ever be any different. Why not then just admit that this is the situation and move on? The displaced Bosniaks can build a new life in the Federation or overseas and the displaced Serbs – like Nežena – in Republika Srpska, Serbia or Montenegro. That may seem like awarding the spoils to the criminals and in many ways it is, but at the same time it is also a recognition of reality and a practical roadmap for moving forwards.
 
I remember sat on the kapia that balmy evening watching the locals taking their evening strolls and thinking what a happy, contented little place it was. Albena Shkodrova[8] saw the opposite but I wonder if that is what she really saw or instead, was it what she wanted to see, what she felt she should have seen? For the thing is we believe that aggressors should be punished, criminals should be brought to justice and that those who have wrought suffering on others must in turn suffer themselves. Justice must be restored. But justice never can be restored for those burnt alive in Bihavac or Pionirska Street, nor too for those thrown into the cruel waters of the Drina. They are dead and the living remain and although it seems so unfair, those living are not unhappy.
 
But is that really so bad? Did not Christ Himself teach us to love – and forgive – our enemies? The human memory is weak and within a few decades the horrors of 1992 will be as distant and divorced from the reality of our grandchildren as the impaling of that nameless peasant centuries before is to us. And that, if we actually think about it for a moment, is as it should be, for if we spent our lives constantly going over past wrongs then we would never move on and misery would be our lot for all eternity.
And nobody wants that.
 
 

[1] http://www.fzs.ba/Podaci/nacion%20po%20mjesnim.pdf
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vi%C5%A1egrad
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vi%C5%A1egrad_massacres
[4] http://www.icty.org/sid/10188
[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vi%C5%A1egrad_massacres
[6] The Quest for Radovan Karadžić, p.167-8
[7] I wrote the story and called it ‘Dark, Swirling Waters’. The main character is a Japanese professor of mushrooms called Sumito, (I borrowed Sam’s name). Really however, he is me, for I too honestly didn’t know, didn’t see the signs. Lots of bits of my visit appear in it including the motel, the monastery, the burnt-out houses, the cemeteries and even Dragan. All that is missing is an annoying Austrian.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Balkania Pt. 10: The Bridge over the Drina

 

world-map bosnia

Greetings!

Another week, another land, and this time it’s Bosnia-Herzegovina, one of the most troubled – and beautiful – spots in Europe. It’s a long update today because I had a lot to say about that little town on the Drina which left almost as much of an impression on me as it did on the Nobel Prize winner himself…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Index and links to all the parts of Balkania:

Balkania Pt. 1: Sofia to Varna

Balkania Pt. 2: A Drink in Varna

Balkania Pt. 3: Wedding Bells in Varna (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 4: A Trip to Tutrakan: Tales of Devotion and Despair

Balkania Pt. 5: Of Love, Lust and the Nation (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 6: Back to School

Balkania Pt. 7: On a Mission

Balkania Pt. 8: The City of Wisdom?

Balkania Pt. 9: And the Tsar, he chose a heavenly kingdom…

Balkania Pt. 10: The Bridge over the Drina

Balkania Pt. 11: The Death-Drenched Drina

Balkania Pt. 12: Jerusalem of the Balkans

Balkania Pt. 13: A City Under Siege

Balkania Pt. 14: Austrian Influences

Balkania Pt. 15: Along the Bosna Valley

Balkania Pt. 16: Under the Airport and over the Mountains

Balkania Pt. 17: A Day Trip with Miran

Balkania Pt. 18: The City of the Broken Bridge

Balkania Pt. 19: Up the Black Mountain

Balkania Pt. 20: Worth the Bones of a Pomeranian Grenadier…?

 

Central-Balkans-Map

 

PART THREE: BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA


Višegrad

Once again I crossed a Balkan border that confused. The map said that I was entering Bosnia and Herzegovina and the still-inky stamp in my passport confirmed this, but the large sign by the border post welcomed us into the ‘Republika Srpska’ (lit. ‘Serbian Republic’). But I thought that I’d just left there? No, no, that was the Republic of Serbia, now you’re in the Serbian Republic. Not Bosnia and Herzegovina? Well… yes, you are in Bosnia as well… but we prefer not to mention that.

The Dayton Peace Accords that brought an end to the war in 1995 were complicated. They left us with a single state – Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosna i Hercegovina) – with its capital in Sarajevo, that is home to three constituent peoples – the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), the Serbs and the Croats – each of whom has their own president – and in addition to this, two ‘entities’ – the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Federacija Bosne i Hercegovina) which is predominatly Bosniak and Croat and which has its capital in Sarajevo and Republika Srpska which is virtually entirely Serb and has its capital in Banja Luka[1] – each with its own president. So, in short, one country, two entities, three peoples and five presidents.

And that’s before we get stuck into the finer details…

clip_image002

Map showing the two entities of Bosnia-Herzegovina

Republika Srpska – the entity that I had just entered – is, roughly speaking, the area that the Yugoslav National Army – and later the Bosnian Serb Army – controlled at the end of the war. It consists of two parts, the north of the country and the eastern districts that line the border with Serbia proper. In the middle, sandwiched between the two chunks of Republika Srpska, Serbia itself, the main chunk of the Federation and a tiny slither of the Federation cut off from the rest, is the Brčko District, one of the greatest headaches that confronted the Dayton peacemakers, whose status is now both shared between and independent from the two entities. Whenever one heard tales of ‘ethnic cleansing’ during the conflict, they were usually in the area that now comprises Republika Srpska and particularly in the eastern chunk – the bit I’d just entered – where the population was in many places very mixed. For it was here that the Serbs sought to create an ‘ethnically-pure’ land which could then be moulded into a Serbian state – either a separate, independent country for the Bosnian Serbs or, ideally, attached to Serbia proper.

Bosnia has always been ethnically mixed, more mixed than virtually anywhere else in the Balkans. That mixture comes from is a result of its history, a potent legacy of religious histories, schisms and Ottoman occupation. Such factors of course, affected the entire peninsular but in Bosnia one might say that the volatile elements were to be found in a more concentrated form.

About a millennium or so ago though, things were not like this. Then the population was largely homogenous, Slavic tribes who had emigrated from the east and formed themselves into small kingdoms. They were Slavic and they were Christian – neither Catholic nor Orthodox for no distinction between the two existed then – and all was relatively stable. Then came the first potentially explosive element in our volatile Bosnian cocktail: the Great Schism.

For centuries the united Christian Church had been under strain as cultural as well as theological differences grew between its two main centres, the two former capitals of the Roman Empire, Rome and Constantinople. Then, after years of wrangling and almost-splits, those differences became official and the Church split in two, the West becoming the Roman Catholic Church and the East, the Orthodox. Bosnia lay on the fault-line between the two and so, almost imperceptibly, its people found themselves becoming members of one or other camp; the Orthodox becoming known as Serbs and the Catholics as Croats.

But the process was gradual, slow and the population poorly-educated in theological matters and often isolated in its mountain valleys. Although Bosnia had always been Christian, it was more than often quite a nominal faith intermingled with local superstitions and folk practices. That is why, when the split first came, it meant little to most Bosnians and although in the end the vast majority of the area that now comprises the country became Roman Catholic, (only Herzegovina had a significant Orthodox presence prior to the Ottoman conquest[2]), that Catholicism was both poorly served and understood and it is due to these factors that the Bosnian Church came into being.

The Bosnian Church, what was the Bosnian Church? Few Balkan questions have proved so difficult to answer and have fuelled so much debate. Traditionally, they were labelled as being the same as the Bogomils, a strange heresy that flourished in the Balkans during the Middle Ages of which little is known save that it appears to have taken much from the Manichean religion of Persia and was related in somewhat to the Cathars of South-Western France. The identification of the Bosnian Church with the Bogomils is because when he wanted to stamp the former out, the Pope labelled them as being one and the same and this explanation by an enemy has been accepted by academics until very recently.[3] However, recent scholarship has cast much doubt upon this school of thought and it is now believed that the Bogomils only existed in Bulgaria, Macedonia and Southern Serbia and never got up to Bosnia whilst the Bosnian Church was a different animal entirely, not heretical in the sense that the Bogomils had been, (for they had beliefs quite divergent from mainstream Christianity), but more a monastic form of Christianity that was originally Catholic but followed the rule of St. Basil and many other Eastern Orthodox practices, (e.g. having mixed monasteries), which it probably adopted before the Schism. It was a loosely-defined church, with the brothers going out to preach to the lay folk but having few churches or regular worship services. Both the Orthodox and the Catholics detested it and persecuted it which caused many historians to suggest that the reason why so many Bosnians converted to Islam later on is that they were members of the Bosnian Church that had converted en masse. However, again, this assumption, taught as gospel by many (nationalist) historians, is judged to be false by most modern academics, for the Bosnian Church was well on the decline the to point that it had almost become re-absorbed into the Catholic Church well before the Turks ever turned up.[4] Nonetheless, the general superficial level of Christian involvement by the laity in the area prepared the way excellently for the introduction of our third and most crucial of all the elements in the combustible cocktail of Bosnia-Herzegovina: Islam and the Ottoman Invasion.

The Ottoman Turks started making incursions into the region towards the end of the 14th century and by 1528 they had conquered the entire country. Their role is another that is much misrepresented by nationalist historians and this needs to be looked at briefly. The common story is that when the Turks came, they came under the banner of Islam and immediately began pressurising the locals to join their new faith. Members of the Bosnian Church flocked into the warm embrace of Allah and, under terrible pressure and persecution, so too did both Catholic and Orthodox. The truth however, is quite different. As we have already seen, the Bosnian Church had already all but died out and when the Turks came, although they were Muslims, they came as a military and trading power, not as conquerors aiming to convert. It is true that much hardship and pressure was put on the Slavs because of their different faiths, but that only really kicked in during the dying days of the empire. For the first couple of centuries they were more or less left alone. That is not to say however, that there weren’t incentives to change. Tax breaks and a rise in status tempted some and as such there was a steady trickle of converts to the new religion. However, it was a trickle and not a torrent. For example, Ottoman records for east and central Bosnia tell us that in 168/9 37,125 households (approximately 185,625 people) were Christian and only 332 (1,660 people) were Muslim. By 1485 the figures were 30,552 (155,251 people) Christian and 2,491 (21,734 people) Muslim whilst in the 1520s there were 98,095 Christians and 84,675 Muslims.[5] Thus, it is clear that there were no mass conversions at all and instead the process was slow and generally without coercion. Nonetheless, after about a hundred and fifty years of Ottoman rule, Bosnia-Herzegovina was majority Muslim and that was to have profound consequences later on, not just in the 1990s but far earlier too, particularly in the 19th century when thousands of Muslim Bosnians fled the country following the Ottoman defeat to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Hence we have a country in which one people had become three, all linguistically and ethnically identical, differing in faith alone, and all three with grievances of their own. But as these three peoples were one but a millennium before, then we find that, unlike truly separate peoples such as the Slavs and Albanians in modern-day Macedonia or the Roma in Bulgaria, they tended to live side-by-side, in the same street, one neighbour a Serb, another a Bosniak, the third a Croat.

Which, of course, spelt trouble. When the Serbs (and Croats) realised that the Federal Yugoslavia was dead and beyond all hope of redemption and that nation-states were the future, then both rushed to carve up mixed Bosnia into their own neat little homogenous chunks. There had always been concentrations of Serbs in the north and east but they were not necessarily in the majority and in all the area the populations were mixed. So for an ethnically-pure Serbian state to be set up as Karadzic, Mladić and Milošević dreamed, then all those who weren’t Serbs had to go. By whatever means. And the area now called Republika Srpska is the area which was cleared of all its unwanted Bosniaks and Croats.

A kilometre or so after the border, at a hamlet named Strpći, we stopped at a café for toilets and a drink. The setting was heavenly; forested slopes on all sides, fresh mountain air in my nostrils and signs pointing to two ancient Orthodox monasteries. Sat on the veranda, out of reach of a recent alpine shower were three local alcoholics – it was still mid-morning and they’d obviously been at it for a while – who, with wild hair, missing teeth and manic eyes looked like true mountain men who probably wrestled bears for a hobby, (when the beer ran out). They gestured me over and one asked in broken English if I wanted a drink whilst welcoming me to Serbia. I chatted for a while in Engarian, a little intimidated by this troika of inebriated man mountains who were guaranteed to be on Ratko Mladić’s Christmas card list but thankfully, when conversation began to get really stilted I was saved by the bus driver who revved his engine and tooted the horn.

The scenery on the short drive onwards to Višegrad was just as stunning as it had been on the other side of the border, but it was clear that here something was different, for here the signs of war were evident. Every so often, by the side of the road or in the valley bottom, burnt out and abandoned houses could be seen. Who had they belonged to – Serbs, Bosniaks or Croats? And where were the people who’d lived in them now?

The town of Višegrad is a small place; the census of 1991 registered just under seven thousand souls and with a brutal civil war since then, the present-day population is doubtless far less. Nonetheless, after the two traditional big Bosnian draw cards of Sarajevo and Mostar, this was the one place that I was desperate to visit in the country. And the reason for that was a book.

I first came across the work of Ivo Andrić ten years before when I was living in Japan. On a trip home to the UK I came across a book in a second-hand bookshop entitled ‘The Pasha’s Concubine’,[6] a collection of short stories dealing with small-town life in Bosnia during the Ottoman Era. Enjoying both the Balkan subject matter and the style, I sought out more of his work and in time came across ‘The Bridge on the Drina’ for which Andrić was awarded literature’s highest accolade, the Nobel Prize, in 1961. A Bosnian Croat born in the central town of Travnik, he grew up in Višegrad and that is where he set his prize-winning masterpiece, a novel that is epic and yet also unique and hard to categorise as William H. McNeill states in his introduction to the 1995 English edition of the book:

‘The committee that awarded the Nobel prize for literature to Ivo Andrić in 1961 cited the epic force of The Bridge over the Drina, first published in Serbo-Croat in 1945, as justification for its award. The award was indeed justified if, as I believe, The Bridge over the Drina is one of the most perceptive, resonant, and well-wrought works of fiction written in the twentieth century. But the epic comparison seems strained. At any rate, if the work is epic, it remains an epic without a hero. The bridge, both in its inception and at its destruction, is central to the book, but can scarcely be called a hero. It is, rather, a symbol of the establishment and the overthrow of a civilization that came forcibly to the Balkans in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries and was no less forcibly overthrown in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. That civilization was Ottoman –radically alien to, and a conscious rival of, both Orthodox Russia and the civilization of western Europe. It was predominantly Turkish and Moslem, but also embraced Christian and Jewish communities, along with such outlaw elements as Gypsies. All find a place in Andrić’s book; and with an economy of means that is all but magical, he presents the reader with a thoroughly credible portrait of the birth and death of Ottoman civilization as experienced in his native land of Bosnia.’[7]

That bridge is an eleven-arched stone bridge over the Drina River ordered by the Ottoman Grand Vizier Mehmed Paša Sokolović and built by one Mimar Koca Sinan between 1571-7. It still stands today and is one of the finest reminders of Ottoman brilliance left in the world. Without Andrić it would be brilliant; with his novel, it is immortal. The book charts the entire history of the bridge of the town of Višegrad, their joys and their sorrows, over four centuries and, as McNeill states, ‘No better introduction to the study of Balkan and Ottoman history exists.’[8] I cannot help but concur. I read it rapt, from start to finish, my only Balkan experiences only enriching the experience, and by the end I felt that I knew Višegrad inside out and that the bridge was an old friend. Naturally therefore, when visiting Bosnia for the first time, I felt that I should start with somewhere I knew.

I booked into the Motel Okuna – one of only two accommodation options in town – which had pictures of a teenage Red Star Belgrade forward framed and hung up behind the bar. It transpired that he was the proprietor’s son who is a regular feature in that famous old club’s youth team. That demonstrated a tangible link with Serbia proper, as too did the fact that both the motel owner and the driver of the taxi that had brought me there had been happy to accept Serbian dinars in lieu of Bosnian marks. But there was another indication that I was in a very different country to the one that I’d woken up in: across the road from the motel was a house full of EU peacekeepers with the Slovakian flag flying proudly from the window.

These things however, were not what interested me, instead what I wanted was to see the bridge. Well, that and something to eat, so I decided to kill the proverbial two birds with the proverbial one stone and I ordered lunch out in the motel’s garden which sits on the banks of the Drina itself and commands fine views over the town and its most famous structure. Framed by verdant slopes above and placid waters below, its arches graceful and elegant, it truly was sight to behold and I knew there and then that I had not done wrong in choosing Višegrad as my introduction to Bosnia-Herzegovina.

I was eager to see more and my host for the night eager to receive the rest of the money that I owed him, so after lunch I walked into town. As I said before, Višegrad is a small place and it is also rather tatty around the edges but from the start I loved its vibe. It was full of character and that friendly languidity that epitomises provincial life. Its shops were a tad shabby but they were locally-owned and the streets thronged with locals, greeting each other, buying provisions or just drinking coffee and watching the world go by.

However, beyond this laid-back provincialism, Višegrad also possessed something else. A dilapidated sports field and park on the slither of land between the Drina and Rzav rivers just before they flow into one another has a large billboard next to it detailing exciting plans to transform this slice of urban decay into Andrićgrad,[9] a tourist-orientated chunk of Balkania with narrow cobbled streets, Ottoman-style buildings and a pretty Orthodox church. Only a mosque was missing from the picture, but this being Serb nationalist territory, the omission did not need to be explained. Quiet and provincial Višegrad may be, but it also has aspirations of future grandeur inspired by its Nobel Prize winning novel.

kamengrad

Andrićgrad: a brighter future for Višegrad?

That was evident across the Rzav too where, next to a fine old steam locomotive mounted on a plinth, I found the Ivo Andrić Cultural Centre. It was open and there was an event on, an exposition on Andrić’s life in Višegrad. There was a display of copies of ‘The Bridge over the Drina’ in a multitude of languages from Japanese to Georgian but beyond that it was all in Serb-Croat so I left.

I was about to explore further and go to the bridge itself when a car pulled up beside me. It was the owner of the motel and he wanted to know if my room was ok and if I’d managed to pop to the bank to get the rest of the money that I owed him. I confessed that I hadn’t so he kindly yet pointedly showed me where the bank was and then gave me a lift back to the motel so that my bill could be paid. Thus back, I decided against returning to the town straightaway and instead asked if he could ring for a taxi to take me to the Višegrad Region’s other attraction, Dobrun Monastery.

When it arrived, I was surprised to discover that it was the same taxi that had ferried me to the motel earlier, (I suspect now, that there may only have been one in town). Its driver, Dragan, smelt of alcohol and spoke minimal English which, combined with my Engarian, meant that we didn’t really have that many problems in understanding one another. He drove me to the monastery cheerfully, (if not always safely), chatting about that old male staple, football. He loved the game and knew of Stoke City but when I asked him where exactly in Bosnia our keeper Asmir Begović came from he couldn’t say, but not wishing to be beaten, Dragan phoned up a friend on his mobile and came back with the answer, “Maybe Tuzla.” I started to realise then just how separated Bosnia’s two main peoples are these days for here was a football lover and Begović is the Bosnian national keeper and arguably the country’s second-most famous player after Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko, yet because Dragan is a Serb, he only elicits passing interest.[10]

Dobrun Monastery occupies a spectacular location in an isolated wooded valley not far from the border, separated from the road by the burbling Rzav. Its colourfully-painted outbuildings and tiny white church are picture postcard material from a distance but up close I found them a trifle disappointing, for everything was obviously new save for the rear section of the church on which were painted some damaged yet still stunning mediæval murals. Inside the church, I was reminded of the Orthodox cathedral in Prizren, Kosova, that I had visited two years previously[11] for both were light and airy with freshly whitewashed walls. Prizren’s cathedral had been so because during the ethnic violence of 2004 Albanians had burnt it down and so what I was viewing was largely new. I wondered if this church too had suffered a similar fate during the recent ethnic conflicts but I later learnt that such was not the case; Dobrun’s 13th century church had been dynamited by the Germans as they retreated in 1945.

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A humble pilgrim visits Dobrun Monastery

Dragan, who had been impressed by my devotions in the church – and even more by the fact that I’d asked to take his photo by a holy well in the monastery grounds – talked freely on the way back. He told me that the narrow gauge railway that had followed me all the way from Serbia and ran in front of the monastery too, had only been recently rebuilt and would commence running all the way to Višegrad in August, before then moving on to extolling the virtues of a rather tasteful-looking tourist complex in the area that had been built to look like a mountain village. He explained that it had been financed by a particular businessman – whose picture he then showed me in a local magazine – who was apparently rather famous locally and was also the man behind the Andrićgrad project, something else that my driver was most enthusiastic about.[12] Certainly, with its stunning scenery, ancient monuments and literary connections, the Višegrad Region has great tourist potential and it is good to see people trying to realise that, although there remains a serious problem and that is who would want to holiday in a place with burnt-out houses every few hundred metres? I pointed to one of these and asked Dragan about it. “The war,” he replied with a shrug before telling me all about the local Orthodox bishop.

Upon my return to Višegrad I walked into the town. I passed a smart new mosque which I was a little surprised to find there since I had seen no signs of any Muslim presence since entering Republika Srpska, (or Serbia too for that matter)). The door however, was open and the lights on and a pair of slippers were laid on the step in front, and I was tempted to go in but thoughts of the bridge compelled me to move on. Further on though, in the town’s tiny central square, I came across another mosque, this time under construction. So, there were Muslims left in this bastion of Serbdom! Not many though, I reasoned, for on all the windows and walls there were posters from a recent election and all showed support for the SDS – Srpska Demokratska Stranka (lit. Serbian Democratic Party), once led by Radovan Karadžić and infamous for its hardline nationalist views.

Then however, came the bridge itself, stretching out from the little town acorss the mighty, surging green waters of the Drina, perhaps the most famous of all Balkan rivers, connecting Višegrad with half the world and for centuries the only link between Sarajevo and its imperial capital, Constantinople. I was impressed; over the years I have seen a great many Ottoman buildings, monuments and other structures, not a few of them bridge, but this surpassed the lot. Although built in a pre-modern age, it is wholly modern in scale and proportion, wide enough for two carts to pass, gently inclined towards the centre and at that centre, as immortalised by Andrić, a kapia, (small platform with stone seats), where one may sit above the swirling waters, chat and socialise whilst opposite stands a grand inscription in Arabic script immortalising the man who ordered the bridge’s construction: Mehmed Sokolović.

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The Bridge over the Drina, Višegrad. The kapia is the platform that juts out in the centre whilst the inscription is on the tall block opposite.

Sokolović is an interesting character and, in my opinion, a true Balkan great. Born of Christian parents in a small village near to Višegrad in 1506, he was taken as a small boy to Constaninople as part of the hated Blood Tax.[13] In the imperial capital he first became a janissary and then rose through the ranks to become Grand Vizier itself, the most important man in the empire after the Sultan. As Grand Vizier Sokolović ordered the building of a grand bridge across his hometown river along with an accompanying han (hostel for travellers) – now long gone – as well as a church in memory of his mother and a mosque in remembrance of his father.

Sokullupasa

Mehmed Sokolović

Whilst stood on the bridge I noticed a pretty white Orthodox church high up on the hill behind the town. I decided to climb up and take a closer look. Ascending the steep back streets I came across more ruined or burnt-out houses on which graffiti had been sprayed – КОСОВО ЈЕ СРБИЈА (‘Kosovo is Serbia’) and a cross with four Cyrillic ‘S’. This is known as the ‘Serbian Cross’ and the four ‘S’ stand for ‘Only Unity Saves the Serbs’ (Само слога Србина спасава/Samo sloga Srbina spasava) and is popular amongst Serbs as a rallying cry against foreign oppression. It also has religious connotations, the saying being attributed to St. Sava in the 12th century and the cross appearing on the flag of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

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Nationalist graffiti

The church itself – 19th century by the looks of it – was locked, but next to it was a smart cemetery for Serbian soldiers killed during the war. I entered and wandered up and down the rows of new black headstones. It was a moving place for each grave had a picture of the deceased engraved onto the stone and seeing all those everyday young men staring back at you made it all the more personal and real. Some also had poems which, alas, I couldn’t comprehend, but all bar a couple had the same epitaph beneath the name: СРПСКИ ВОЈНИК (Serbian Soldier). The couple that did not had another, more intriguing inscription: РУСКИЙ ДОБРОВОЛЕЦ (Russian volunteer). Russians volunteering for the Bosnian Serbs? Why? What motivated those young men to risk their lives in a far-off land, some paying the ultimate sacrifice?[14]

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Serbian Military Cemetery, Višegrad. The grave in the foreground is that of a Russian volunteer, that to its left a Serbian soldier

I sat on a bench and surveyed the scene before me; the well-tended graves of the fallen, the ancient town below, the green waters of the Drina traversed by Sokolović’s incredible bridge and then the mountains beyond. It was beautiful yes, but it was also starting to become comprehensible. The Serbs interred there, a hundred and ten of them, some 2-3% of the population, had died for their way of life, their right to live in the land of their ancestors, as they wanted to after century upon century of being trampled on, persecuted, oppressed, pushed to the back of the queue, tossed to the bottom of the pile. Most people take up the Bosnian story in 1991 when the conflict erupted but the Serbs here do not. They take it up instead in 1389 when the Turks killed their beloved Prince Lazar and routed his army on the battlefield. Taking the short-term perspective, the forcing out of Bosniaks and Croats from their homes is incomprehensible, evil, but take the long-term view and whilst still morally repugnant, it becomes more understandable.

No one conveys this better than Andrić which is one of the many reasons why ‘The Bridge over the Drina’ thoroughly deserved its Nobel Prize. At the very start of the novel, whilst the bridge is still being constructed, some of the local Serbs try to sabotage it, wary of the Ottomanisation that it will bring in its wake. On several occasions they are successful but finally the Turks catch the culprit, an illiterate and powerless peasant, and they then decide to make an example of him as Andrić gruesomely describes:

‘The gipsies approached and the first bound his hands behind his back; then they attached a cord to each of his legs, around the ankles. Then they pulled outwards and to the side, stretching his legs wide apart. Meanwhile Merdjan placed the stake on two small wooden chocks so that it pointed between the peasant’s legs. Then he took from his belt a short broad knife, knelt beside the stretched-out man and leant over him to cut away the cloth of his trousers and to widen the opening through which the stake would enter his body. This most terrible part of the bloody task was, luckily, invisible to the onlookers. They could only see the bound body shudder under the unexpected prick of the knife, then half rise as if it were going to stand up, only to fall back at once, striking dully against the planks. As soon as he had finished, the gipsy leapt up, took the wooden mallet and with slow measured blows began to strike the lower blunt end of the stake… For a moment the hammering ceased. Merdjan now saw that close to the right shoulder muscles the skin was stretched and swollen. He went forward quickly and cut the swollen place with two crossed cuts. Pale blood flowed out, at first slowly then faster and faster. Two or three more blows, light and careful and the iron-shod point of the stake began to break through the place where he had cut. He struck a few more times until the point of the stake reached level with the right ear. The man was impaled on the stake as a lamb on the spit, only that the tip did not come through the mouth but in the back and had not seriously damaged the intestines, the heart or the lungs. Then Merdjan threw down the mallet and came nearer. He looked at the unmoving body, avoiding the blood which poured out of the places where the stake had entered and come out again and was gathering in little pools on the planks. The two gipsies turned the stiffened body on its back and began to bind the legs to the foot of the stake. Meanwhile Merdjan looked to see if the man were still alive and carefully examined the face which had suddenly become swollen, wider and larger. The eyes were wide open and restless, but the eyelids were unmoving, the mouth was wide open but the two lips stiff and contracted and between them the clenched teeth shone white. Since the man could no longer control some of his facial muscles the face looked like a mask. But the heart beat heavily and the lungs worked with short, quickened breath. The two gipsies began to lift him up like a sheep on a spit. Merdjan shouted to them to take care and not shake the body; he himself went to help. Then they embedded the lower, thicker end of the stake between two beams and fixed it there with huge nails and then behind, at the same height, buttressed the whole thing with a short strut which was nailed both to the stake and to a beam on the staging…Then the man from Plevlje, Merdjan and a pair of guards went up to the impaled man and began to examine him more closely. Only a thin trickle of blood flowed down the stake. He was alive and conscious. His ribs rose and fell, the veins in his neck pulsed and his eyes kept turning slowly but unceasingly. Through the clenched teeth came a long drawn-out groaning in which a few words could with difficulty be distinguished.

“Turks, Turks,…” moaned the man on the stake, “Turks on the bridge… may you die like dogs… like dogs.”[15]

That nameless peasant’s agony and that nameless peasant’s misery is Serbia’s agony and misery. The book starts with Serb suffering and it continues in the same vein for century after century. The overlords change – Turk, Austrian, Yugoslavian Federalist, Nazi, Communist – always(in their eyes) the Serb is the one who suffers, impaled agonisingly on a stake for five centuries, always groaning, always in excruciating pain, yet never dying. But then, in 1991, after all those years of hell, the chance comes to turn the tables once and for all, to rid their land of all its ‘foreign’ oppressors. What happened was not right, but it did now make a little sense.

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Serbian military cemetery

I went back down the hill and onto the bridge. It was evening now and the whole town was out on that most Balkan of activities, the evening stroll. Mothers and father with pushchairs, lovers hand in hand, pensioners contemplating the world and a whole host of humanity in-between were out on the streets. Like countless before me, I made my way out to the middle of the bridge, sat on one of the stone couches of the kapia and drank it all in. The evening sun had turned the water a glorious shade of copper whilst the strolling locals gave the place a jolly, relaxed and happy air. ‘The Bridge over the Drina’ details scores of terrible episodes in Višegrad’s history and the burnt-out houses on the hills all around testify of another far more recent trauma and yet sat there, the golden waters flowing beneath me, it was impossible to believe that this place had ever been anything but a sleepy provincial piece of paradise. I was glad indeed to have come.[16]

Across the river was a floating bar called Ars. Having always been an ‘arse man’ myself (Boom! Boom!)[17] and fancying a drink and a chance to take in some more of this magnificent Višegrad evening, I popped in and ordered a bottle of the house red intending to wile away the evening with that, the view of the bridge and a book on Old Testament theology. However, whilst the setting, wine and reading material were all to my taste, the company, alas, was not, for sat on the next table were probably the only other Western Europeans in town and they were very annoying. She was an Austrian and unhappy; she moaned incessantly for over an hour about office politics and how no one understood her to a colleague, (who did understand her, or at least, pretended to), of uncertain nationality, (although I guessed some kind of Scandinavian), who ummed and arred in all the right places but never really got a word in edgeways. This wouldn’t have been a problem except that she spoke in loud, awfully-accented English and as we were the only three on the terrace, there was no other noise to dissipate it and thus I was forced to listen to the trials and travails of a no-longer-young woman working in some nameless NGO who didn’t really want to be in Bosnia at all, but indeed, didn’t really seem to know what she wanted save that it wasn’t what she was getting (or not as the case may be…). Or maybe I was just another one of those insensitive people who just didn’t understand her? Maybe so, for after about an hour of this, I did glance across at the kapia of the bridge and fleetingly wonder if the impalement of those who pissed you off was really such a bad idea after all, and that, I wonder imagine, rates as kind of insensitive.

Unable to take anymore, I went to the bar to order an extra glass of red to dull my senses and whilst there I spent an inordinately long time examining the old photos up on the walls of the bridge being repaired during communist times, military trucks crossing it, (presumably during World War II), and Tito visiting Višegrad and being handed flowers by smiling children, in the hope that those representatives of Save the Sarajevans, (or whatever organisation it was that they worked for), would disappear, but alas, the hope was in vain, they stuck around and after that glass was drained it was I who admitted defeat to the Austrian, (Churchill would have been so unproud!), and made my way back towards the motel.

I didn’t however, get very far. Crossing the main square I was stopped in my tracks by a shout from one of the bars. “Matt! Come! Have a drink!” It was Dragan the taxi driver and he was sat in a bar with another guy and a young lady. I made my way across and was welcomed at their table. “This is my friend Ivan and this is my friend Nežena,” he said introducing his companions. Nežena spoke good English, (although with a really weird accent), and so, after accepting a drink and offering some cigarettes, I settled down like a character from Ivo Andrić’s imagination, some traveller from afar sojourning for the night at the town by the bridge, ready to spend the night getting absolutely hammered with the locals.

And their stories were worthy of inclusion in such a chronicle. Ivan was a native of Višegrad and the son of a family of Četniks.[18] He was fiercely nationalistic and hated the Muslims, referring to Sarajevo as ‘Little Tehran’. He had been a soldier during the war and had killed “many Muslims” although he insisted it had always been in battle and never a massacre. “We did not do what they did in Srebrenica here,” he told me. “A soldier fights, not murders.”

Unlike Ivan, Nežena had been and brought up in Sarajevo but had been forced out of the city when the war started and came to live in Višegrad. She now lived in Montenegro which she much preferred to Bosnia as there were greater opportunities there and was only back in Višegrad to visit family and friends. Speaking to her was a reminder that it wasn’t just Bosniaks who had been displaced by the war. Nonetheless, despite her having undergone such trauma as a child, she was far more tolerant of her Muslim neighbours than either Ivan or Dragan. She didn’t want to talk politics instead insisting that “Past is past” although she did not fail to point out that she was very proud to be a Serb and on one point she was in complete agreement with her two friends. “We Serbs,” she said gravely, “no one understands us! No one understands us at all!”

And so it was that we drank and smoked the night away, and I staggered to bed very late having failed (yet again) in avoiding alcohol whilst in the Balkans, but at the same time not regretting it for a second for by falling prey to drink, I have accidentally opened the door of understanding into the Bosnian Serb mindset.

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Drinking with the locals, Višegrad. Left to right: Nežena, Dragan, me and Ivan

I awoke around nine feeling (unsurprisingly) terrible which a greasy breakfast in the garden of the motel helped to alleviate somewhat. The bus onwards to Sarajevo did not arrive until past one so I decided to explore some more of this likable little town and having visited the Serbian graveyard the evening before, I thought it only fair that I see a little of the other side of the coin. The previous day, whilst driving out to the monastery, I’d spied a Muslim cemetery out of the car window with some freshly-dug graves and so I decided to head there first.

Višegrad’s Muslim cemetery is a very different place from its Serbian counterpart beneath the white church. On the edge of town, occupying a large field shaded by trees, it is a beautiful spot that strangely reminded me of an English country churchyard. I opened the gate and entered and found rows of humble, Turkish style headstones with inscription in both Latin and Arabic script. Unlike the other cemetery, there were no pictures on these which, whilst in line with Islamic Law, alas, made it all a bit less personalised and more distant to the casual visitor.

I said a rosary for those who had died on both sides of the conflict and then counted the graves. There were over two hundred of them but more disturbing than that all dated from 1992. When driving past I’d wondered if the two rows of freshly-dug graves were not proof that a Bosniak community still exists in Republika Srpska Višegrad. Alas, however, all these too dated from 1992 and several were unnamed. I did not wish to dwell on the implications of that.

Trans Balkan Trip 2011 342

Muslim cemetery, Višegrad

After the cemetery I decided to investigate something else that I’d been wondering about. In ‘The Bridge over the Drina’ one of the most memorable chapters deals with the coming of the railway to the town in the early 20th century and I realised on the visit to Dobrun Monastery the day before that that railway was one and the same as the Sargan Eight, the narrow gauge line that had followed me all the way from Serbia. I strolled through the residential districts of the town to the old railway station – and bizarrely saw a helicopter take off from a sports field nearby –which still stands and now has freshly-laid rails going into its platforms. These now stop at the station limits but once upon a time they continued all the way to Sarajevo and I followed their trackbed for a short while, through a tunnel which now carries and road, below the Serbian cemetery and then along the side of the Drina valley with fine views of the bridge. I wondered if one day the line would perhaps be reopened all the way to the Bosnian capital again, but I later learnt that this was probably an impossibility for in the 1980s, after the railway had been closed, the Drina was dammed upstream from Višegrad which raised the water levels and flooded part of the trackbed.

I walked back through the town, buying some Andrić-orientated and Republika Srpska souvenirs before then making my way back to the motel. All in all, I was glad to have visited Višegrad, the little town immortalised forever in print by Bosnia’s only Nobel laureate, but which had also opened its doors and heart to me and waiting for my bus I thought to myself, if this is Bosnia-Herzegovina, then I want to see more.

Next part: Balkania Pt. 11: The Death-Drenched Drina

 


[1] Although officially it also claims Sarajevo as its capital.

[2] Most Orthodox moved into Bosnia from other parts of the Ottoman Empire, often to help settle areas where the local population was small.

[3] Including West who regurgitates it most colourfully in ‘Black Lamb and Grey Falcon’.

[4] Bosnia: A Short History, p.27-42

[5] Bosnia: A Short History, p.52-3

[6] No prizes for guessing why I thought that might be a good read…

[7] The Bridge over the Drina, p.1

[8] The Bridge over the Drina, p.1

[9] Or ‘Kamengrad’. It seemed to have two names and no one was sure which to use. The former is for the author, the latter literally means ‘Stone town’.

[10] And what is more, Dragan’s mate was wrong; Begović is not from Tuzla, (which is in the Federation), at all, but was born in Trebinje, a town in Republika Srpska not that far from Višegrad. As a child, due to the war, his family were forced out of their home and they emigrated to Canada.

[11] See ‘Albanian Excursions’.

[12] The man in question, whom I’d assumed to be some sort of local mafia don, was in fact Emir Kusturica, Serbia’s most famous filmmaker. The touristic village is Drvengrad (lit. ‘wooden town’) which is situated in Mokra Gora, just over the border in Serbia, and Kusturica actually lives there and used it as the set for one of his films.

[13] The Blood Tax (in Turkish ‘Devşirme’, lit. ‘taking of children’) was the practice by which the Ottoman Empire recruited boys, forcibly, from Christian families, who were selected by skilled scouts to be trained and enrolled in one of the four imperial institutions: the Palace, the Scribes, the Religious and the Military. Understandably it was greatly resented across the Christian provinces since all the children taken had to become Muslims. However, as in the case of Sokolović, it did, at times, result in the Christians receiving better treatment and a greater voice than they would have done otherwise.

[14] There were around five hundred Russian volunteers fighting in Bosnia, most of them Radical Orthodox who saw it as their duty to help their fellow Orthodox Slavs. They consisted of two organised units known as "РДО-1" and "РДО-2" (РДО stands for "Русский Добровольческий Отряд", which means "Russian Volunteer Unit"), commanded by Yuriy Belyayev and Alexander Zagrebov, respectively. РДО-2 was also known as "Tsarist Wolves", because of the monarchic views of its fighters. There also was unit of Russian cossacks, known as "Первая Казачья Сотня" (First Cossack Sotnia). All these units were operating mainly in Eastern Bosnia along with Rebuplika Srpska forces from 1992 up to 1995.

[15] The Bridge over the Drina, p.48-51

[16] This contrasts markedly with the description of the evening stroll in the town penned by one Albena Shkodrova who posted an (otherwise excellent) article about Višegrad on the Balkan Travellers website (http://www.balkantravellers.com/en/read/article/292):

‘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.’

I’m sorry Albena, but I can’t agree; the Višegrad that I visited was cheerful, not gloomy, and the Serbs seem to know full well what to do with the town that is now theirs: enjoy it. And as for the coffee-maker on the kapia, one suspects that he was but a mere memory even when Andrić wrote his masterpiece back in the thirties.

[17] Or should that be “Bum! Bum!”?

[18] The Četniks were nationalist and royalist guerrillas during World War II who fought both the Germans and the Croatian Ustase. However, when it became clear that the Allies were winning the war and that their support was going to Tito’s partisans, they then switched their attentions to fighting the communists and even collaborated with the Germans. During the Bosnian War many Bosnian Serbs identified themselves with the Četniks and formed militia units named after famous Četnik bands.