Visegrad’s Serbs fight their ghosts

Residents of “ethnically cleansed” town fear the return of thousands of Muslims

26.8.1996

JEAN HATZFELD

VISEGRAD.-  Today the only load travelling over Visegrad’s ancient bridge, the inspiration of an Ottoman sultan keen to encourage the growth trade between Istanbul and Sarajevo, is one of Serb bitterness.  Along and across the bridge, from dawn to dusk flows the resentment of the inhabitants of Visegrad, a town with a long history as a trading centre but whose one-time prosperity is just a distant memory.

That resentment is accompanied by the bitter hatred felt by immigrants from the early days of the war who have spent four years waiting in the hope of being able to return to the homes they abandoned in Gorazde or Sarajevo.  And the disillusion of those who came here from the Sarajevo suburbs of Ilidza and Vogosca after the reunification of Bosnia’s capital city.  “Between you and me, nobody hates anybody any more and nobody loves anybody either”, Ana, a beautiful Sarajevan, observed.

On the far side of the bridge election posters decorate the walls and shop windows.  There are posters for the Serbian Radical Party of Vojislav Seselj, representing the nationalist extreme right in Serbia. There are posters, too, for the Party of Serbian Unity, the party of the warlord Arkan, leader of the murderous paramilitaries responsible for most of the terror campaigns conducted in Croatia and Bosnia. And finally the posters of the Serb Democratic Party of Radovan Karadzic.

Ethnic Cleansing

The posters show these three apostles of the doctrine of ethnic cleansing trying to outdo one another in a show of respectability.  The first is sitting behind a desk in a plush ministerial office.  The second has exchanged his combat fatigues for a sky-blue suit.  And the third, despite his banishment from political life, is everywhere you go, that permanent ironic smile beaming beneath a mane of silver-streaked hair.

There is no sign of the moderate Banja Luka parties put together by Radic and Jovanovic who urge a realistic approach to implementing the Dayton accords. “There’s no room for traitors here”, explains Lilan, in the Café Atina.  And nor is there any sign of Milosevic’s supporters.

Café Atina, next door to the Town Hall, is the place where former paramilitaries, warlords and traffickers of every kind get together. Milan, a former bar-owner, savours his coffee with a dash of milk, along with Joco, a former policeman, and Ninoslav, an ex-football player. Who will they be casting their vote for in three days time?  Do they support Arkan or Seselj?  They smile and reply. “All there is to say about those two is that they’re from Serbia. We are going to be voting for a Bosnian. For the Bosnian who has always defended us”, Joco replies.  Milan confirms what his friend has said: “Here everyone will be voting for Karadzic’s SDS”.

On the terrace of a nameless café overlooking the Drina Ana observes, “I hate Visegrad. I don’t have any particular affection whatsoever for Karadzic but I’ll be voting for his party, to keep my parents happy”.  Ana celebrated her fifteenth birthday in Sarajevo on the day war broke out.  She moved to Grbavica and spent four years in a flat owned by the family and shared with other refugees.

Bombardment

Four years of boredom and cold.  Four years of artillery bombardments that destroyed an adolescence that vanished between the death of her brother and the disappearance of her boyfriend.  Last February the family decided to move to Visegrad.

Ana, 19, is fed up with the Serbs’ lack of sophistication and narrow-mindedness. She is scathing about Belgrade, a city “where people treat Bosnians as people from an under-developed country”.  And she dreams of going to America. “There’s no future for young people here. I would never have children here, in a primitive country that goes on the warpath every fifty years.  But if the Muslims come back, that means the end for my parents.  And on election day the Muslims are going to be coming here with IFOR”.

The walls of Visegrad, clambering up the gorge of the Drina 120 kilometres from Sarajevo, show few signs of the war-time conflict.  From time to time you see the occasional house where a mortar has exploded and a few burned-out warehouses, the sole witnesses – here or in the towns round about – of the savage ethnic cleansing that was carried out in early April 1992.

Then there were 14,000 Muslims living in this border town, out of a total of 25,000 inhabitants.  Not a single one of them remains.  “The fighting was fierce.  After a few days they were all gone.  We’ve not seen them since”, reports Joco, with a triumphant smile on his lips.

Did they leave or were they buried?  Joco shrugs his shoulders.  There are still no statistics to confirm how many managed to reach Gorazde, how many were killed in the town or disappeared into the turbid waters of the Drina.  No census to tell us how many people will be able to cast their vote in Visegrad.

The road to Gorazde

The SDS’s local parliamentary candidate, Branimir Savovic, is the town council’s former president, appointed by Pale at the start of the war, and he refuses to speak to foreigners.

The party’s candidate in the regional elections, Aleksandar Savic, also prefers to remain silent, as does Milanka Tomaskovic, president of the regional electoral  commission. “No-one is interested in politics in Visegrad.  All that people are concerned about is the arrival of the Muslims”, insists Dragana, a secretary in Visegrad Town Hall.

Up until the cut-off date of 15 July every Bosnian had the right to choose whether they wanted to be on the electoral roll at their current place of residence or where they lived in 1991, when the last elections took place.  In Visegrad 16,000 Serbs of voting age have registered to vote, both locals and refugees.  But what about the Muslim survivors?

In this mountainous area, eight months since the ceasefire, not a single Serb or Muslim has dared travel the fifty kilometres separating Visegrad and Gorazde.  No-one boards the bus from Visegrad to Foca at Visegrad (“they used to slit our throats on the road to Gorazde, next to the IFOR tanks”, says Milan).

In this valley with a host of unseen demons brooding over its future, few Muslims are expected to overcome their traumas and make the decision to return.

Meanwhile those not occupied doing a bit of buying and selling or away visiting family in Serbia are hoping that the coming winter will bring snow to the valley’s slopes and next spring will see more water flowing down the Drina.

Beside the river the only business still working is the Varda furniture factory.  Ivo, whose job is to cut up planks of wood, asserts that “Before, it was the businessmen who made the place rich who ran the town, the Muslims. Now the people in charge are the people who defend it, the Serbs”.  Who defend it against whom, against what ghosts?  Ivo declines to answer.

Source: El Mundo

Translation rights reserved

One Response to “Visegrad’s Serbs fight their ghosts”

  1. Abdul Majid Says:

    Let all those who committed atrocities against the Bosniaks and all who support them directly or indirectly, wherever they are in the world, never find peace of mind, not in their sleep, not in this world, not in the next. Let their lives be as bitter, cold and dark as those which they shattered. Only those who would ask the Bosniaks’ forgiveness could maybe be forgiven, but who does not shall never find peace, not in this life, and not in the next. They have already signed their eternal damnation.

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