We swerved around the next bend, where we could finally see the road meandering down the mountain. Towering rocky crags gave way to sweeping views of forested hills, dotted with red-roofed houses and patches of lush greenery. I leaned closer to the window, fixing my gaze on the mesmerising emerald waters hugging the base of the mountain.
“That’s Bosnia on the other side of the river,” Vlad pointed out, while slowing down ahead of another sharp curve, “I hope you remembered to pack your passport.”
We came to a halt behind a long line of cars queuing for the border checkpoint. I took out my passport, eager to get another stamp on its many blank pages. My friends’ decision to take a trip to Visegrad, a Bosnian town on the eastern border with Serbia, had been a rather spontaneous one, made over breakfast. I knew almost nothing about the place, and I wasn’t expecting to learn so much about it, either.
Pregnant clouds cast dark shadows over the hills. We weaved our way through narrow bumpy streets lined with houses that had seen better days. I picked up details about the houses – cracked windows, peeling paint, broken roof tiles – that could have easily gone unnoticed had I not been engulfed by a sense of uneasiness the moment we got there. There was something not right about the place, and I started looking for clues as to what it could be. I studied the faces of people who were out on the streets. It could have just been my imagination, or the gloomy weather, but I thought I detected a glint of anger and pain in their eyes.
“Welcome to Visegrad,” Vlad said, pulling into a parking space.
As I got out of the car, a chill skittered up my spine. I wrapped my cardigan tighter around myself, then turned to my Serbian friends.
“What happened here?”
Half an hour later, we were leaning against the walls of the town’s historic bridge, gazing at the serene Drina River in complete quietude. For a few minutes, we were the only people standing on the bridge. A pack of stray dogs hovered around us, looking for attention – and possibly food. The silence was finally broken by a small group of tourists heading towards the bridge. I wondered how many of them were aware of the fact that they were about to walk over a mass grave.
Bosnia & Herzegovina is one of the least visited countries in Europe, and also one of the least developed. Memories of the Bosnian war remain fresh in the minds of many, and the country has not yet fully recovered from the tragic events of the nineties. Political and ethnic tensions remain present across Bosnia, especially in Visegrad, the site of one of the worst genocides in Europe since the Second World War.
Built in the late 16th century, the Mehmed Paša Sokolovic Bridge in the Bosnian town of Višegrad is an excellent example of classical Ottoman architecture and civil engineering. The bridge was commissioned by Grand Vizier Mehmed Paša Sokolovic as a tribute to his hometown. Like many other Orthodox Serbs born in the region, Sokolovic was whisked off to Turkey at a young age, where he was forced to convert to Islam and join the Janissaries; the elite army of the Ottoman Empire.
In 1992, the bridge bore witness to one of the bloodiest episodes of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, when an estimated 3,000 Bosniaks from Višegrad were executed by Serb paramilitaries during the Bosnian conflict. Hundreds of Muslim civilians, including many women and children, were murdered on the bridge and their bodies dumped in the Drina.
After having the traditional kebab and shopska salad for lunch, we took a walk along the banks of the river. The Drina is one of the most beautiful rivers in the Balkan peninsula, formed by the confluence of two other rivers. A large stretch of the Drina forms a natural border between Serbia and Bosnia & Herzegovina. Its upper course runs through narrow canyons and gorges, making the river partly unnavigable.
In the 1960s, a large artificial lake was created around three municipalities on the Serbian-Bosnian border, which included Visegrad. Perućac Lake was built to supply power for hydroelectric stations. In 2010, when the waters of the reservoir were lowered for maintenance work, forensics exhumed the remains of over 350 bodies from the lake.
Before the war broke out, Visegrad had a population of around 13,000 Bosniak Muslims. At the start of the conflict, Serb police and military forces set out to annihilate the town’s Muslim population. While some civilians managed to flee to a safe place, many others were rounded up and shot dead. Entire families were burnt alive in their houses. Bosniak women and girls were abducted and taken to a detention camp, where they were repeatedly raped by Serb paramilitaries.
Nowadays, there are just 1,500 Bosniaks living in Visegrad, where they remain a marginalised community. Many of them are post-war returnees who have moved back into their houses – or the ones that used to belong to their loved ones. In 2014, Bosnian Serb authorities removed the word ‘genocide’ from a memorial plaque that was erected by survivors. The same authorities have tried to demolish the remains of a house where Muslim women, children and pensioners were locked up and incinerated. Recently restored by Bosniak survivors, the house serves as a memorial for the victims.
I looked at the bridge one last time, overwhelmed by its story of human tragedy. Immortalised by the Yugoslav Nobel laureate Ivo Andric in his novel The Bridge on the Drina, this historic structure is nowadays one of the most significant monuments in Bosnia & Herzegovina and a UNESCO World Heritage site. There may be continuous attempts to downplay claims of genocide and erase Visegrad’s grim past, but the bridge will never forget.
Have you visited Visegrad, or any similar town in Bosnia & Herzegovina?
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