In Višegrad

Max Strasser

In The Bridge on the Drina (1945), which tells Bosnia’s history through 500 years of anecdotes centered on an Ottoman bridge in the town of Višegrad (Basil Davidson called the novel ‘Bosnia’s Waverley’), Ivo Andrić wrote of the persecution of ethnic Serbs by Austrio-Hungarian authorities and their Muslim backers after Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914:

As has so often happened in the history of man, permission was tacitly granted for acts of violence and plunder, even for murder, if they were carried out in the name of higher interests, according to established rules, and against a limited number of men of a particular type and belief.

Saturday, 11 July was the 20th anniversary of the start of the slaughter of 8000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica, ninety kilometres north of Višegrad. Dignitaries including Queen Noor Hussein of Jordan, Bill Clinton and Princess Anne gathered in eastern Bosnia for a commemoration. The Serbian prime minister, Aleksandar Vučić, was there too. In July 1995, Vučić was an ultra-nationalist who said: ‘For each Serb killed, we will kill 100 Muslims.’ Now he’s a centre-right pragmatist with an eye on Brussels. He describes Srebrenica as ‘a grave crime’. His attendance at the commemoration was seen by some people as a first step toward reconciliation and, perhaps, an admission of Serbian guilt. A crowd of Muslim commemorators was less generous: They pelted the prime minister with stones and sent him running back to Belgrade.

Many Serbs refuse to acknowledge the crimes committed against Muslims in the 1990s. The president of Republika Srpska, the autonomous Serbian entity created in Bosnia after the end of the war, called Srebrenica ‘the greatest deception of the 20th century’. Bosnian Serbs have been unco-operative in identifying mass graves and the bodies of nearly a thousand Muslim men killed in July 1995 have yet to be identified. Bosnian Serb schools refuse to teach the history of the massacre. ‘They say that history is written by the winners,’ a Bosnian Muslim told me. ‘But we don’t have any winners. We just have a peace agreement.’

In Višegrad, the filmmaker Emir Kusturica has built a theme park called Andrićgard, dedicated to revisionist Serb historiography. Kusturica, who was born a Muslim but converted to Serbian Orthodoxy, sits on the Academy of Arts and Sciences of Republika Srpska. I went on a hot morning a few days before the anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. There weren’t many other people there. Andrićgard has a cinema, a cake shop, a mobile phone shop and an art gallery featuring the work of ethnic Serb artists from around the Balkans. But the heart of Andrićgrad is the version of history told by the architecture of the pseudo-town’s main street (named Mlada Bosna, ‘Young Bosnia’, after Princip’s militant group). The first buildings are boxy and plain in the style of the Byzantine Empire that converted the southern Slavic tribes to Orthodox Christianity. Further along, they are made of the rough-hewn stone with the wooden-latticed windows of the Ottoman era. A few metres later, the architecture changes again to resemble the style of Hapsburg Vienna.

Kustarica’s ‘time machine’ follows the chronology of Andrić’s novel, which ends in 1914. Višegrad’s history after the First World War – the short-lived Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the Nazi occupation, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the wars of the 1990s – is missing. Instead, you arrive at Nikola Tesla Plaza. The square has a neat pavement of white tiles, with the Ivo Andrić Institute on one side and an unoccupied office building on the other. It is an exercise in counter-factual historical re-enactment, meant to show what a ‘Serb renaissance’ would have looked like.

I asked my tour guide why there was no representation of Višegrad’s more recent history. ‘Nothing nice really happened,’ she said. Outside the theme park, a one-storey stone house next to the car park still shows the distinct marks of shelling.

A few kilometres away, up a one-lane road through a lush forest, is the Banja Vilina Vlas, a hotel and spa built in the early 1980s. In 1992, when Višegrad’s Muslim population – 60 per cent of the town – was murdered or forced out by Serb militias, the Vilina Vlas Hotel was used as a ‘brothel’ for Serb militiamen. According to a 1994 United Nations report, a militia known as the White Eagles held two hundred Bosnian Muslim women and girls there. ‘Of them, five committed suicide by jumping from a balcony at the hotel, six others escaped and the rest were killed after multiple rapes,’ the report says. In 2009, Milan Lukić, the leader of the White Eagles, was sentenced to life in prison for war crimes. Survivors complained that he was not charged with rape.

The building is now a hotel again. At the front desk, a man in his fifties told me that a room for one cost 40 Bosnian marks (or about £14) a night, including the baths. Inside, the walls are panelled in dark, lacquered wood. Golden Cyrillic letters point the way toward the dining room and the hammam. The hotel is decrepit, with cabinets held together by packing tape and a few faint bullet holes still visible near some of the windows.


  • 29 July 2015 at 3:01pm
    colm ryder says:
    So sad yet again to read this piece on a torn country....but particularly sad to hear of the role of Emir Kusturica in it! Isn't it a shame that the wonderful work that he produced in a variety of films now feels it needs to be re-appraised! Yet again the divisive role of religion comes to the fore!

  • 29 July 2015 at 4:55pm
    History doesn't go away in the Balkans in the way that nice people in London would like. Of course many people remember that Clinton launched an air war against Serbia... the first war in Europe since WW2... and while it might have ended something it has just postponed, postponed...look at: 1941 The Year That Keeps Returning by Slavko Goldstein (NYREVIEW BOOKS) or some of the recent books about the Bosnian Muslim SS units in WW2...

  • 30 July 2015 at 12:52am
    Aleksandar says:
    I find it amusing whenever the term "revisionist history" is invoked. Its use implies that there must be a true and objective version that is being distorted by "revisionism". Of course, most practicing historian know that almost all history is revisionist and there is no truth, but only someone's version of the truth.

    In the case of the war in Bosnia Mr Strasser wants us to accept the Bosniaks version of the war as one of Serbian aggression and Bosnian victimhood. Both versions are debatable. But what is not are some basic facts. In 1992 the Bosniak leadership declared independence from Yugoslavia with the full knowledge that it would provoke a massive response from Serbs, as it did in Croatia the previous year, and result in civil war. When civil war became a reality for which the Bosniaks were not well prepared and took a beating the international community intervened and brokered an agreement that would have portioned Bosnia-Hercegovina, giving the Bosniaks more land that the 1995 Dayton accords did. They rejected it and chose war.
    The culminating point was Srebrenica a UN save haven, that became anything but under Naser Oric. It was used to stockpile weapons for the purpose of launching attacks against surrounding Serbian villages. When the Bosnian Serb army under Mladic had enough of this fools game and attacked Srebrenica Naser Oric was nowhere to be seen. If indeed, the Bosniaks were vitims of Serbian aggression then equally they were the victims of their own imbecilic leadership.

    No doubt that the Bosnian Serb forces committed unnecessary and excessive war crimes, but genocide it was not. The last fact that Mr. Strasser omits is that all sides in this dirty war raped and killed, there were no angels.

    • 30 July 2015 at 9:05am
      mdzemic says: @ Aleksandar
      Aleksandar, and other possible readers, let's talk using facts and we shall probably avoid to be titled revisionist, or something else..
      It was EU's recommendation to BiH authorities in 1992 to organise referendum (to stay in Yugolavia without Coatia and Slovenia or to become independent state) at the begining of 1992. The EU established also the rules under which the results of the referendum would be accepted. The referendum was organised, resulrs accepted widely, and the EU MSs, US and other countries recognised independent BIH. Besides other numerous consequences, this meant also that the weapons of former Yugoslav army would not be left to one side in BiH or that the army of neighbouring country would not participate in war in BiH. Hope you agree?
      The Serbian side in BiH insisted to have ethnically cleared teritories, cleared of Bosniaks and Croats, not other sides.
      Hope you will understand that somebody attacked has the right to defend him/herself if international community did not do it. Believe you know that former Yugoslav army was among the four-five best equiped ones.
      One another fact that you missed is that the international courts used the term genocide in their rullings, not only Bosniaks. The rullings of the corts are to be respected /accepted, that's why we have them, among other things...This is the starting point if we want to avoid new problems.

    • 30 July 2015 at 6:53pm
      Aleksandar says: @ mdzemic
      I disagree with your interpretation of events. It simplifies a rather complex problem which was the breakup of a multiethnic state, a messy problem on its own, but also a nightmare when it came to establishing borders that would satisfy the three major groups, Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks. All had their own territorial claims that could not be resolved by any sort of referendum. I always wonder and ask those who put your argument forth why a Yugoslav wide referendum was not held on the status of Yugoslavia in1990? Bosnia, of course, was the most ethnically mixed of the former Yugoslav republics and posed the most difficult problems. I remind you that Croats preferred solution for Bosnia was partition. If the Bosniaks had a right to secede from Yugoslavia then surely the Serbs of BiH also had the same right regardless of any referendums. You cannot deal with minority rights through this method.

      As harsh as it may sound, ethnic cleansing, was perhaps the only solution for an area where the animosity was too great amongst the population to live together. As you might know it was the method used post 1945 in eastern Europe to create more homogeneous states in border areas. Ironically, the group that became the largest victim of ethnic cleansing were the Serbs of Croatia and Kosovo. A total of about 300,000 people. As of yet the international courts have done little to punish those responsible for this, which to me reflects on their credibility. They are simply tools used by great powers to achieve their goals. You must ask yourself why the US and Israel refuse to become members of the ICJ???

      The international community and the EU must bare much of the responsibility for the war in Yugoslavia. Rather than force the ethnic communities to negotiate a peaceful partition they encouraged secession and then took sides. Which I hope you know is what the great powers have always done in the Balkans and still practice.

    • 31 July 2015 at 8:12am
      mdzemic says: @ Aleksandar
      I do not argue for any solution, I do not want to comment any conspiracy theory, I just wanted to remind you on existence of some historical facts, aksioms, that must be respected when you try to interpretate the history. Btw, my personal understanding is that the best solution for Bosniaks, Serbs, Croats, even Albanians, was to stay in same country, but in situation when Serbs decided to use Yugoslav army in attempts of establishing of its dominance, then disolution became only possible solution. Isit necessary to remind you that Mr Bogicevic, Bosnian Serb, representative of BiH in the Presidency of former Yugoslavia, voted agaist the establishment of state of emergency that would give Yugoslav army official and legal power to intervene in Slovenia and Croatia. The republics of former Yugoslavia were the entities that had the right to organise referendum, not separate ethnicities. It is not true that Bosniaks wanted to leave Yugoslavia, it is BiH, based on the rules established by the Eu, that decided to leave Yugoslavia. The Serbs, lead by Mr Milosevic, started to play with fire and the results are evident now...
      Neither Bosniaks nor Croats had its territoriar claims. Almost all Croats in BiH supported independent BiH. Vatikan and Croatia recognised independent BiH among first countries that did it, just after Bulgaria.. there are some other points from your posts that deserve to be commented, but I will stop here. The point is that we should work with facts, whether we like it or no, when intepretate history. This is basic line, scientifically justified, if we do not want to go in some other politically suspicious areas, or if we want to work for better future in the region.

    • 31 July 2015 at 1:25pm
      Aleksandar says: @ mdzemic
      I like facts and the most important one is that the majority of Serbs in BiH did not want to live in an independent BiH dominated by Bosniaks, as Bosniaks did not want to remain in a Serb dominated Yugoslavia. After 500 years of exploitation,domination and suffering under Ottoman Muslim rule only a delusional fool could believe that the Serbs of BiH would accept living in a Bosniak controlled state. Declaring independence, regardless of who or what body sanctioned it meant war and everyone knew that fact and I suspect that even the Bosniak leadership under Izetbegovic was well aware of it.

      Perhaps they should have read Andic's novel more carefully before repeating the mistakes of the past.

    • 31 July 2015 at 5:53pm
      mdzemic says: @ Aleksandar
      Mr Cosic, the first president of Serbian version of Yugoslavia, member of Serbian Academy of Science and Arts, political father of Mr Milosevic and Mr Kusturica, said:" We Serbs We lie to deceive ourselves, to console others; lie out of compassion, let us not fear, to encourage, to hide our and others' misery, lie about honesty. We lie about freedom. The lie is the vision of our patriotism and the proof of our inate intelligence. We lie creatively, imaginatively, inventively."

      Unfortunately, significant part of "official" Serbian history is based on some conspiracy theories, myths, like on Sebian "heroism", Serbs as "heavenly people" etc, even there is no any serious research related to the mentioned Ottoman period. Being whitness of process of building of history in Serbian way, I would not be surprised if possible researches show that the Ottoman period was actually in general prosperous one. Also, I would avoid using the work of Mr Andric in argumentation, because it is always easy to cite some other parts from his works in support for other points of view. That's why is important to put on desk evidents, not prose, epics, myths, and what motivated me to reply to your first comment.
      Finally, I highly recommend you recent interview of Ms Biserko, head of Serbian Helsinki Commmitte ( ) in which you can find additional comments on some issues disussed above.

  • 1 August 2015 at 9:26pm
    Aleksandar says:
    You must admire Cosic's honesty or is he lying? h
    How about Biserko is she also lying or are you just filled with animosity towards the Serbs which does not allow you think reasonably and without bias? In a way you have proven my points about selective use of facts. Thank You.

    • 2 August 2015 at 1:40pm
      mdzemic says: @ Aleksandar
      it is not an issue of selective usage of facts, it is an issue of using facts at all in your case, Aleksandar. If you decides to go on personal level, yes I am so filled with animosity that I have married Serb girl, that my best man at wedding was Serb and that my friend Serb cut first hair of my child. Thanks God, there a lot Srbs, besides Ms Biserko, that do not ask for themselves more than that are ready to allow others. Best

    • 2 August 2015 at 3:30pm
      Aleksandar says: @ mdzemic
      I am not sure what you have read or understood from my posts. Please address the issues that I raised about the origins of the war and the sequence of events and indicate where I have distorted, mythologized or avoided the use of facts instead of introducing irrelevant information and avoiding the central issue which is the responsibility of Bosniak leadership in causing the war in BiH and its consequences.

      Do you really believe that Bosniaks were innocent victims of Serbian aggression or would you at least grudgingly admit that Izetbegovic's goal of establishing Muslim control in BiH for the purposes he outlined in his Green Book, did lead to conflict with 40% of the population who were Serbs?

      In excusing Bosniak war crimes committed against Serbs in BiH you invoke self defence which I accept, however do you agree that the Serbs of BiH had a right for self determination once BiH declared independence?

      The fact that seems to elude you is that civil wars are a nasty business and that in 1992 the entire world warned BiH of the consequences of declaring independence. The fact is that they ignored these warnings and caused enormous destruction to themselves and to BiH.

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