Visegrad: On the Trail of Vasiljevic
When I was a child, every time I heard someone mention Visegrad – a small town in eastern Bosnia famous for its beautiful 16th century Ottoman bridge – I would think of Ivo Andric’s novel The Bridge Over the Drina.
This was the book all citizens of the former Yugoslavia were proud of because Andric won a Nobel prize for it. Although this was before the 1992-95 war and I had never been to Visegrad, I felt as if I already knew the place as it was so well described in Andric’s novel.
However, the image of Visegrad I pictured in my head as a child had nothing to do with the Visegrad I saw after the war. On each visit, I felt great discomfort because I couldn’t shake off the thoughts of terrible crimes that occurred in this town during the conflict.
I went three times on various assignments as a reporter after 2003, most recently in May to do a story on the return of convicted war criminal Mitar Vasiljevic to Visegrad and how it affected local Serbs and Bosniak returnees.
Vasiljevic, sentenced by the Hague tribunal to 15 years in prison for the crimes he committed against Bosniak population in Visegrad in 1992, returned to the town on March 12 this year after serving two-thirds of his sentence. His supporters in Visegrad welcomed him as a hero with music and processions of cars, the onlookers all cheering his name.
According to the Hague tribunal, around 3,000 Bosniak civilians were killed in Visegrad during the war, including 600 women and 119 children. Some of the most horrific crimes of the Bosnian war took place in this town in June 1992, when 140 Bosniaks were burnt alive in houses in Pionirska Street and Bikavac.
The reports I wrote on Visegrad before my most recent visit were mainly positive stories about Bosniak returnees who had decided to come back to this town despite all the hardship they suffered here during the war.
But the story I set out to do in May of this year was different. I knew I would have a hard time persuading people to talk about how Vasiljevic’s return and the hero’s welcome he received affected them. However, the wall of silence I encountered when Vasiljevic’s name was mentioned surpassed even my expectations.
When I tried to do a vox-pop on the streets of Visegrad – a journalistic form I am particularly fond of because it allows me to get ordinary people’s opinions – I nearly ended up empty-handed. I stopped around 30 passers-by, asking them questions about Vasiljevic, but as soon as I mentioned his name, most of them would wave a hand and walk away. Those who did stop to talk to me said they knew nothing about this hero’s welcome that was organised for him.
I knew from my own and my colleagues’ experience that people in Visegrad didn’t want to talk about war crimes. This was once a predominantly Bosniak town, but most Bosniaks fled it at the beginning of the war, after terrible crimes were committed against them. Today, Visegrad is inhabited mostly by Serbs, and very few Bosniaks have gone back to the town itself – most of them now live in the villages around Visegrad.
The silence surrounding those crimes still seems impenetrable; no-one wants to talk about what happened here in 1992 – neither local Serbs, nor Bosniak returnees. My impression was that Serbs found it easier to live in denial than to face the difficult truth, while Bosniaks were probably afraid to speak openly about the crimes committed there.
It is because of these crimes and the widespread denial that Visegrad today is a grim place, nothing like the Visegrad from my childhood’s imagination. People I met on the street did not smile. It was as if they were all carrying a heavy burden on their shoulders, one they were not even aware of.
I have heard many times that denying a crime is a defence mechanism which helps individuals or a whole society escape from unpleasant reality. But it is hard for me to accept that 15 years after the Bosnian war, people in Visegrad still haven’t summoned the courage to finally come to terms with their past. This process cannot be postponed forever, and sooner or later Bosnian Serbs in this town will have to accept the truth. But judging from the wall of silence I witnessed in Visegrad this May that will not happen any time soon.
Whenever I visit Visegrad, I lean over the beautiful Ottoman bridge and look into the Drina river, trying to remember the scenes from Andric’s novel which captured my imagination so much when I was a child. While I was standing on the bridge this May, a photographer offered to take a photo of me. I smiled at him and kindly declined the offer. I couldn’t bring myself to have a photo of me taken on a bridge which, not so long ago, was a scene of terrible crimes, crimes no-one in Visegrad wants to talk about.
Marija Arnautovic is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo.