The Saddest Eyes I’ve Seen: Visegrad, Ivo Andric, and Christoslavism

by Michael Sells, 7/3/96


1. The Woman from Visegrad

A young woman from Visegrad was speaking. She was a quiet woman with a steady, clear voice, and the saddest eyes I have ever seen. We had come to the square in Philadelphia to participate in a demonstration against the Clinton administration’s acquiescence in the genocide then occuring in Bosnia, and the woman from Visegrad had been invited to tell her story at the event.

In calm, measured language she spoke about the extermination of the Bosnian Muslims in the Southeast Bosnian town of Visegrad during the spring of 1992. Her story was a first person testimony that brought to life what I had been reading in the human rights reports and war-crimes testimonies about the assault on Visegrad in 1992.

The famous bridge on the Drina river at Visegrad was used as a killing ground by Serb religious nationalist militias, and was the scene of sports killings. Muslims captives would be taken to the bridge for prolonged torture, then thrown of the bridge. The sport was to see how well one could shoot them as the fell down into the Drina river far below. As is the case in the entire Republika Srpska and most of the territory occupied by the Croatian HVO, all the mosques in town were dynamited.

The woman from Visegrad explained how her family was slaughtered on the bridge. Her brother was thrown off and killed. Her husband was blown to pieces in her arms.

She spoke directly to the U.S. government of President Bill Clinton. She said: we don’t ask you to fight for us, we didn’t ask you to send soldiers, we only asked you to allow us to try to defend ourselves. She spoke calmly, without hate, but with a kind of infinite disappointment, both at what had been done to her family, but more centrally, at the way the Western powers had acquiesced in it through their arms embargo and justified it through their rhetoric.

After she spoke, people in the audience came up to her. Even though she had explained that her arm had been right torn off during the atrocities on the Drina bridge, people instinctively reached to shake her hand. In her loose-fitting, long sleeved garment, one had to look closely to notice she did not have a right arm.

How could her former neighbors, schoolmates, and friends–as well as the people she had never met who came in from Serbia proper to join in the killings–justify such deliberate cruelties against the civilian Muslim population of Visegrad? The religious mythology of Ivo Andric can help provide a clue.

2. Ivo Andric’s Bridge on the Drina

As the Muslim people and culture of Bosnia-Herzegovina were destroyed armies and militias fighting on behalf of religious nationalism, most of the Christian world remained indifferent. Those who cared, tended to comprise two groups. One group was made up of former tourists to Yugoslavia, particularly those who visited Sarajevo for the 1984 Olympics, who had seen and met these people there and knew they were not the fundamentalist fanatics, Nazis, or “age old Balkan haters” presented in the propaganda justifying the genocide.

A second group consisted of those who have read the works of Ivo Andric, Yugoslavia’s Nobel prize winning novelist, particularly his most famous novel, The Bridge on the Drina. The second group comprises a number of influential reporters, and the categories supplied by Andric have become embedded within the typical account of the genocide in Bosnia. Yet even though many people came to appreciate Bosnian through Andric, his ideology of race and conversion leads them–as will be shown below–without realizing it, into categories of thought that have been used to justify the genocide.

Andric1s historical novel takes place at Visegrad. The story begins with the efforts to build the famous Ottoman Drina river bridge at Visegrad, a bridge commissioned by Mehmed Pasha Sokolovic, the Bosnian native son who went on to become a minister to the Ottoman sultan and marry Princess Ismahan, grandaughter of Suleiman the Magnificent. Three vignettes from the beginning of the book have haunted us during the recent tragedy.

In the first vignette, the builders are unsuccesful in many attempts to construct the bridge; after much tragedy, they are told that they need to wall up two Christian babies in masonry of the bridge in order to appease the fairies (vila). The story is later said by the narrator to be merely a legend, yet as a symbol it contains the quintessence of Andric’s views of race and religion: the essence of the Slavic race is walled up within the encrustations of an alien civilization.

This theme of the Christian essence of the Slavic race being imprisoned within Islam is further dramatized by the main character in the historical novel, Mehmed Pasha Sokolovic himself, who was brought to Istanbul as part of the Devsirme system, whereby Ottomans would select young boys from around the empire, take them to Istanbul, train them, and put them in key political, military, and administrative positions.

Though rising to the heights of power and influence, to the point that he could even establish a relative of his as Patriarch of the Serb Church, Sokolovic is viewed by Andric’s narrator as hopeless and doomed within the alien racio-religious world he must inhabit.

In the second incident, a Serb worker who tries to sabotage the bridge is punished with impalement. The description of the impaling is a graphic, passion story, modeled after depictions of the crucificixion of Jesus. Readers of Andric continual cite this scene as one indelibly impressed on their memories.

For religious nationalists, this crucifixion is not the impalement of a single Serb revolutionary at the orders of a single, particular, cruel Ottoman administrator. It is the eternal, always occuring impalement of the Serb nation by the Turks and by those Slavs who, by converting to Islam, become “Turk.” It is that “Serb Golgotha” that Serb clergy began speaking about again in the late 1980’s as an unchangeable fact within Balkan history.

Andric1s dissertation of 1924, recently published in English, provides a clear outline of the religious mythology at the based of The Bridge on the Drina. In The Development of Spiritual Life in Bosnia under the Influence of Turkish Rule, Andric marks out a remarkably stylized version of history, founded on the notion of the essence of races and the religious tendencies of those racial essences. The Slavic race’s essence is Christian.

Any any conversion from Christianity to another religion, is not only a betrayal of the race, but an actually transformation into the alien race of the new religion. In the follow-up posting I will trace the development of this idea in Andric’s dissertation.

Michael Sells

http://www.haverford.edu/relg/sells/postings/saddest_eyes.html

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