VGM Editor: Ed Vulliamy was the first foreign correspondent to put the puzzles together and tell the world what happened in Visegrad. We thank him for writing the truth. We will never forget!
Image: Ed Vulliamy speaking to genocide survivors in Omarska, Prijedor.
Excerpt from Ed Vulliamy’s “Neutrality” and the Absence of Reckoning: A Journalist’s Account
Jasmin was 13 when the war began and his town Zepa was sealed off from the outside world by a noose of Serbian artillery. He was deemed too young to fight, assigned instead to spend the war by a crook in the Drina River, “to get the bodies out, and to give them a decent burial.” For three years, Jasmin rowed a little boat into midstream to haul the bloated corpses — sometimes headless, sometimes child-sized — out of the river to bury them, often under fire, in a makeshift cemetery. Jasmin said he found the bodies beneath the great Ottoman Bridge, the same bridge that spans the Drina at Visegrad, serves as Bosnia’s emblem and is the title of a great work of literature by Ivo Andric, the country’s most celebrated writer. I followed this trail, only to discover that the Serbs had turned Andric’s bridge into a human abattoir. I last saw Jasmin when he was among the lucky refugees to flee Zepa in July 1995. He was evacuated to a mental hospital in Dublin in 1996, at the age of seventeen.
“That bridge will drive me mad,” said a shuddering Hasena Muharenovic, for whom the reckoning can never come. Living in Sarajevo, she recalled how a Serbian squad came for her mother and sister, took them to the bridge, cut them up and threw them off it, along with a carload of others. She bade goodbye to her crippled father, whom she left in an armchair to await his turn and she fled. She was captured and spent the war in a camp with her two young daughters, enduring forced labor and “making coffee” — a euphemism for forced sex with officers. Now, in peacetime, she does not know whether to wait and hope that her husband will return, or give up and leave Sarajevo, killing him in her own mind.
* Read Ed Vulliamy’s article published in The Draw Bridge :
Still they applaud as the river turns red
Twelve years ago, I talked to a girl called Zehra whose face, ears and hands had melted like wax. She was the sole survivor from a house into which some seventy people – Bosnian Muslims aged from two days to 78 years old – had been packed and incinerated alive. It had happened in the town of Visegrad, nestled in the Drina valley at a particularly beautiful moment in its flow, where precipitous rocks give way to a verdant valley.
“The Serbs took a garage door from another house and put it up against the balcony, so we couldn’t get out,” recalled Zehra. “We weren’t screaming or banging on the doors, just crying because we knew what was going to happen. Then they set the house on fire and everyone inside was screaming, but nobody could get out. I saw the window in the garage door and I pulled myself through it. I was the only one who got out. I pulled off my burning clothes. Outside the Serbs were standing around watching the house go up in flames. They were drunk and playing music very, very loud.”
Spanning the river at Visegrad is a glorious bridge, iconic of Bosnia: an Ottoman structure of pumice stone, hewn in 1571 and inspiration for a Nobel prize-winning novel by Ivo Andric, Bridge Over the Drina. In the book, the bridge bears silent witness to Bosnia’s history. But Andric died in 1975, seventeen years before the bridge was turned into a slaughterhouse. Night after night, truckloads of Bosnian Muslim civilians were taken down to the bridge by Bosnian Serb paramilitaries, unloaded, sometimes slashed with knives, sometimes shot, and thrown into the river, dead or in various states of half-death, turning the Drina’s turquoise current red with blood. Witnesses to this carnage also remember the booze and song, the air of festivity in the proceedings.
We are used to thinking of rage as a last resort, unleashed when humanity is at its wits’ end. Some is blind rage, like ghetto riots after Martin Luther King was assassinated. Some is just human, like the estimable reaction of Bobby Gillespie, singer with Primal Scream, who attacked a tannoy at Chalk Farm station, unable to bear any more announcements about planned engineering works (why doesn’t everyone do that?). Then there is genuine outrage, such as one feels upon learning that Tony Blair’s conversion to Catholicism fuelled his determination to go to war in Iraq, just as he secures a post teaching divinity at Yale and accepts yet another greedily lucrative investment banking consultancy, like a camel breezing through the eye of a needle into the Kingdom of Heaven. Such rage is righteous and rational but has no impact beyond oneself and one’s sleep.
But what is this other rage which seems to have little motive and no anger behind it? The rage of the boozers and singers who lock families and babies into houses and set them alight? Rage against a group or individual which one knows to be spurious (the Serbs knew perfectly well their Muslim neighbours were not “Jihadis”), yet generates some of the most horrific violence. Rage that is tribal, but ultimately recreational.
Continues in the print edition. Order now.