7.4.09

(zdravo) hello


With my Western mindset, grown in an age of multiculturalism and professed tolerance of all religions and ethnicities, it was a new experience to be in a European community of only one ethnicity and religion.

Gorazde, a small city in eastern Bosnia, is almost completely Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim). A five minute drive up the highway, you pass a Serbian Orthodox graveyard, and you are in "new Gorazde", a Serbian Orthodox community. Sometimes (but not always) you could determine what kind of community you were in by the graveyards -- elaborate, flower-and-candle festooned black marble Orthodox graveyards, and simple, white pointed spires in a Muslim graveyard. It is a tragedy that in some way graveyards are a visible definition of Bosnian cultural boundaries.

There was little I could find to read about Gorazde before visiting the area, but once there I learned that the region and community has a past written in war and hatred, and that it's past irreparably shapes what Gorazde is to this moment. The following explanations are over simple, and probably stupid to someone who really knows Bosnian history, but as it's impossible to explain Bosnia today without explaining Bosnia of 15 years ago, I will do my best.

Before the war of the 1990s, eastern Bosnia was religious and ethnically mixed. Farmers and city dwellers, Serb and Bosniak, lived beside each other in the religious no-man's-land of Communist Yugoslavia. Upon the collapse of that system, and the beginnings of war (I won't even try to explain all the evil politics behind it) Serbian forces began a systematic "cleansing" of eastern Bosnia, forcing Bosniaks out of their homes and either killing them or pushing them towards central Bosnia, where they attempted to reach UN-designated "safe" zones. Gorazde was one of these "safe zones", the only zone that did not fall to Serbian forces during the war.

The result is that Gorazde literally became an island of refuge, filled with Bosniak refugees. Today, in a sense, those lines are still drawn -- Gorazde is almost purely Bosniak and the surrounding area almost purely Serbian. (A strange paradox is that foreign Islamic nations like Saudi Arabia and Iran are putting money into Bosnia and building large new mosques, the spires of which can been seeing shining even in Serbian towns.)

Passing from one town to the other, you don't have to imagine the drawn lines of war. On one side of the line men who were part of the Serbian army are called death-deserving murderers, on the other honoured war heroes. In between is a space of a few kilometres.

Better than my editorializing on this difference is a chilling illustration of two infamous bridges. One bridge is an ancient UNESCO world heritage bridge in the town of Visegrad, about 35 kilometres down river from Gorazde. The other is the concrete and steel walking bridge joining the two sides of Gorazde, which sits in a mountain valley.

One, beautiful and ancient, with a chilling, bloody history. The other, chipped and graffiti-covered, a tragic necessity and refuge.

Gorazde Bridge

The bridge spans the heart of Gorazde, linking two sides of the community over the broad Drina river. On one side many essential services; the only public hospital, schools, grocery stores. On the other, stores and many homes. During the war Serbian forces beseized Gorazde on the surrounding mountain tops. They laid landmines in the hills, set up outposts and gun turrets, made forays into the city, they cut off food supplies and roads in or out, but never fully occupied the city. They did, however, control the city in a way that made the UN safe zone far from safe. From the surrounding hills and outposts, soldiers and snipers would shoot at homes and people, at random and seemingly for sport. You could be shot and killed walking to the grocery store or school, and no age or sex exempted you. People were shot and killed collecting water or trying to eke food from their gardens, walking to school or scurrying from house to house. The results was people who lived buried in their houses, gardening at night, venturing out only as neccessary.

A favoured target area was the bridge over the Drina, where people were completely exposed. So constructed under the steel belly of the bridge was a small cable and wood suspension bridge, tucked up underneath so far that an adult must duck his or her head at each steel girder. On this bridge our host family mother, Amila, and her husband, Fikret, made their way to school and work, huddled over, racing across, fearing the crack of a sniper shot at any moment.

The walking bridge still hangs there today, limp and unused, the wooden slats unsafe to cross. Amila and Fikret tell their 10-year-old son Almin about the war, the bridge, and it's terrors. But I can see that the bridge holds some kind of mystery for Almin, a young boy raised on Grand Theft Auto and military computer games. Thankfully he never experienced the horror of the war just a few short years before he was born.

Visegrad Bridge














About thirty-five kilometres upriver stands another bridge, spanning another valley in the town of Visegrad. This one is stone construction, built long ago by the occupying Ottoman Empire. It is a thing of ancient man-made beauty; it's stone arches spanning the emerald green Drina. It is also the site of the murder of thousands of Bosniaks. Ethnic cleansing took place here on a scale unbelievable. Serbian soldiers and local militia men would come to a Bosniak home and tell them they had 10 minutes to leave or they would be killed. The stories are unimaginable, as one dear elderly grandmother shared with me and our leader Michal over sweet coffee and cake.

Many women and children were sent fleeing through the formidable mountains back towards Gorazde. Hundreds of people were locked up in homes and the houses set on fire. Others shot point-blank on their doorsteps. Thousands of men and boys were separated from their families and murdered. This grandmother told us how men were taken to the centre of the bridge, forced to stand or kneel on the parapet, while the murderer crossed himself in the name of the *father, son, and holy spirit* and slit the persons throat, then throwing them from the bridge.
Above the Visegrad bridge, set back little way up on a hill, sits an Orthodox church, it's black cross on the steeple clearly visible from the bridge, it's windows providing a clear view of the horror and tragedy done here by people in the name of religion and/or ethnicity.

These are the lines drawn. The bridges that represent not union but suffering. Evil, clothed in religion, ruining lives and dividing communities. The war remains fresh, the wounds seeping. The next generation (younger than myself, even) are more objective, searching for better answers, less fundamental in their faith, but still the lines remain.

3 comments:

  1. Leave a comment! I don't bite...

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ok sometimes I do, but only when necessary.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Martin says I bite.

    ReplyDelete