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Tuesday, 11 September 2012 05:43

Bosnian summer – A European travel journal Pt. 4

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Having visited Srebrenica, I really want to see another side of the Republika Srpska (RS). The next day I rent a car and drive to Višegrad.

Part 4: The Bridge on the Drina – Visegrad, Republika Srpska

The town in the south of the RS is only a few kilometres off the Serbian border. Like Srebrenica, it had a Muslim/Bosniak majority before the war and is nowadays mainly inhabited by Orthodox/Bosnian Serbs. There are stories about expulsion and rape camps in the town and mass killings of Muslims on the Drina Bridge. But despite this Višegrad is still a kind of a magical place for me because Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andrić’s novel on the town's history, The Bridge on the Drina, was what made me fall in love with Bosnia and Herzegovina before even travelling here.

The actual bridge on the Drina was, like her little sister in Mostar, built by the Ottoman occupants and has always been a symbol for the connection between East and West, Orient and Occident. I reach my destination right after a thunderstorm. When the sun breaks out of the clouds the bridge over the green water is strikingly beautiful.

However, the town offers the same deserted pictures as Srebrenica: due to the heat the streets are empty. The tourist office closed

No_1_P_III_-_Visegrad_Orthodox
Photo: Julia Schulte
Orthodox Chruch in Višegrad.

at 4 pm. Only up the hill, some people are standing around in front of the Orthodox church. The priest, a friendly man who came here from Serbia after the war, asks his teenage son, who speaks a little English, to show me around. Before we go, I am allowed to visit the church - and the cemetery. Again, most graves date from the early nineties, but this time the black, rectangular tombstones also show photos of the deceased. It is hard to look at the young men, portrayed posing in uniform and sunglasses on an army tank, or with weapons in their hands.

Downtown I am shown a seemingly more promising project: hidden behind a hoarding, a couple of medieval looking houses are under construction. On a land tongue between the Drina and the Rzav river a new town centre is being built - and it is called Andrićgrad (Andrićtown) in honour of the great writer.

A PERFECT TOWN?

"Andrićgrad" is also what Nevena's tight white T-shirt reads, though in Cyrillic letters. The 24-year-old is part of the architects' team and has an infectious enthusiasm for her work. "I still can't believe we built all this in just one year!" she raves about the project. "Every day is still amazing!" The energetic woman with the reddish hair and black nails has been here for a whole year now, having come from her homeland Serbia where she studied architecture. People from different countries help with the planning, local people find work here - the project sounds too good to be true.

No._2_P_III_-_Visegrad_Andrictown
Photo: Julia Schulte

A golden Andrić statue in front of the townhall.

Nevena is eager to show me the building plans and explains: "We have the main street here with a caravanserai (a Turkish/Muslim inn) on the left and a Serbian building on the right side. The different religions have never been so close to each other here." She calls it a project for reconciliation. "It is a spot for people to connect." Cultural centres, hostels and cafés are planned. The main square will be named after the famous engineer Nikola Tesla who is of Serbian descent. There is a golden statue of Andrić in front of the new town hall. "Behind it, we will build an Orthodox church," says Nevena. When I ask her whether there will be a Mosque as well she gets a bit quiet for the first time. There won't. She is also not sure about the financing of the project, so I google it when I get home.

The project leader and main financier is Emir Kusturica, a movie director from Sarajevo who is famous all over Europe. He has worked with artists like Johnny Depp, made several award-winning socio-critical movies in Yugoslavia and received a César in 2005 for his love story between a Serbian engineer and Bosnian Muslim hostage during the war. However, he also wrote songs glorifying Radovan Karadžić and one named "Ne damo Kosovo" (We won't give away Kosovo). Andrićgrad is a public-private partnership with the RS, whose current president, Milorad Dorik, denies that genocide took place in Srebrenica. Kusturica himself was born to a Bosniak father, married a Bosnian Croat and converted to the Orthodox faith in 2005. He did this as a reaction to finding out that his family had only become Muslims during the Ottoman Empire and now calls himself Serbian. It is once again the story of someone who felt the necessity of choosing sides in the conflict after losing faith in the idea of a multi-ethnical society. Nowadays, he promotes the concept of Great-Serbia for all Serbs and is often criticised in Western media for his nationalist views.

Back in Sarajevo people tell me: "Kusturica is just building Andrićgrad to annoy Bosniaks." Many fear that Andrić’s heritage is being monopolised by the Serbian side. Kusturica also plans to use his town as a filming location for his movie version of Andrić’s great novel. What could have been a wonderful project to bring together Bosnians regardless of their ethnicity is regarded sceptically from the Bosniak Muslim side and boosted with nationalist ideas from the Serbian side. The bridge on the Drina, once part of the direct route from Istanbul to Sarajevo, seems to be only connecting Serbia and the RS, nowadays.

NO BLACK, NO WHITE

But leaving the picture of the RS like this would only be half of the truth. I regret not having time to go up north to Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina's unofficial second capital, where, as in other bigger cities, you can find several youth organisations and people interested in reconciliation and progress. Nothing is black and white in this country. The terms 'good' and 'evil' have no significance when describing the three parties. Everybody has their share in discrimination as well as in reconciliation. It is back and forth all the time. And I have to think of Nedim's rather pessimistic statement: "A European identity won't help here. We had a Yugoslavian identity that didn't hold us together either. But joining the EU will certainly prevent further conflicts because this will be more profitable economically."

The author will discuss questions of European identity with other young Europeans and with Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulić at Europe@Debate on September 13. You will be able to follow the debate via live stream. The event is organised in cooperation with Körber FoundationEurozine - Europe's leading cultural magazine and Europa neuer Ideen e.V.

Last modified on Tuesday, 11 September 2012 06:49

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