I’m not sure how to describe Kamengrad. It is innovative yet old-fashioned, offbeat yet traditional. It is a place built to stimulate storytelling and creativity, but located in a town whose stories have almost been forgotten. Kamengrad brings local history to life, but at the same time it undermines it.
It is easy to fall in love with this new town in Bosnia and Herzegovina if you are unaware of the horrifying events that took place in the same place during the Bosnian conflict. But for those who are familiar with the Visegrad massacres, Kamengrad might seem a bit artificial – as if it was created with the intention of burying the town’s tragic past.
Kamengrad, also known as Andrićgrad, is a town within a town. Dedicated to Yugoslav novelist Ivo Andrić (hence the name Andrićgrad), the construction project is the brainchild of the Serbian film director Emir Kusturica. The town is located near the historic Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge; the main inspiration for Andric’s famous novel The Bridge on the Drina. The concept behind Kamengrad is to recreate the Višegrad in Andric’s novel while celebrating the town’s history and culture.
Kamengrad was officially opened in June 2014 and the town houses an institute for film studies, a Renaissance theatre, a multiplex cinema, an academy of fine arts and an art gallery featuring works by ethnic Serb artists.
As I walk through this new town on a quiet afternoon, I wonder whether I am actually the first Maltese national to visit Kamengrad. Bosnia & Herzegovina is one of the least-visited countries in Europe, and Višegrad is not exactly a tourist attraction. In 1992, the town bore witness to one of the bloodiest episodes of ethnic cleansing since the Second World War.
During the Bosnian conflict, an estimated 3,000 Bosniaks were executed by Serb paramilitaries in an attempt to annihilate the town’s Muslim population. Their bodies were dumped in the river, and most of the victim’s remains have never been found. Kamengrad was constructed on the same river bank where many Bosniak Muslims were killed. In the same year that it was built, Bosnian Serb authorities removed the word ‘genocide’ from a memorial plaque that had been erected in Visegrad’s Muslim cemetery by survivors of the massacres.
Kamengrad is characterised by a mix of architectural styles, each representing a different era in Visegrad’s history, mainly the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman period and the Renaissance. While I do like the idea of uniting three different cultures, I cannot ignore the inappropriate choice of location for Kusturica’s construction project.
Visegrad’s Bosnian Muslims and post-war returnees remain an ostracised minority, while many Bosnian Serbs refuse to acknowledge the atrocious crimes committed against Bosniaks. There’s no peaceful co-existence of cultures in Visegrad; the region is still rife with cultural tensions between ethnic Serbs and Bosniaks.
I watch a wave of dark clouds drifting over the calm waters of the Drina. The air is heavy. My gaze lands on a cluster of white houses on a hill overlooking the river. Houses that were once the home of Bosniaks who were killed mercilessly by Serb paramilitaries. Some of them were set on fire, with people, including children, locked inside. Women and girls were raped and beaten in those buildings. Men were tortured. These are the stories that you won’t hear about in Kusturica’s Kamengrad. This is the real Visegrad.
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