Sunday, 14 October 2012

Balkania Pt. 11: The Death-Drenched Drina

world-map bosnia
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

My Flickr album of this trip

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Balkania Pt. 3: Wedding Bells in Varna (unpublished)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Balkania Pt. 5: Of Love, Lust and the Nation (unpublished)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…?



(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.

[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.

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