Earlier this week I was reading through the briefs in The New York Times and the news hit me like a punch in the gut. Two Bosnian Serbs were sentenced by a United Nations war crimes tribunal for the deaths of 119 Muslims in 1992 as part of the ugly ethnic cleansing campaigns that tore apart the breakaway republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina amid the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia.
In two separate incidents, the men locked their victims, ranging from two days old to age 75, in a house and burned them alive.
The crimes took place in the town of Visegrad — which happens to be the setting of one of my favorite books, which, coincidentally, I finished reading for the second time (and first in 16 years since I read it in college) just a few days ago.
The name of the book is “The Bridge on the Drina,” a work of historical fiction by a writer who received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1961. It’s the story of an idyllic but at times troubled town from the era when the bridge was built by the Ottoman Empire in the 1570s to 1914 when a portion of it was blown up during World War I.
The author, Ivo Andric, was a Serb who was raised in Visegrad by his widowed mother and her parents around the time when Serb nationalism began to simmer, helping to draw 20th-century Europe into so much conflagration. (World War I began as a result of the assassination of the heir to the throne of the Habsburg monarchy, archduke Franz Ferdinand, by Serbian nationalists in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo.)
As the foreward to my edition of the book mentions, Andric shows a tremendous sensitivity to the Muslims in the book, despite his ethnicity. For much of the book, he writes about the simple co-existence of the town’s inhabitants.
He writes of a great flood and how “The force of the elements and the weight of common misfortune brought all these men together and bridged, at least for this one evening, the gulf that divided one faith from the other… .”
Throughout the book Andric sprinkles in references to divisions in the town, but for the most part, those divisions remain buried. (Until the Turks conquered Bosnia, the religion of the local populace was Eastern Orthodox Christian (Serbian) or Roman Catholic (Croatian) but under Turkish rule most of the nobility and land-owning classes converted to Islam; in all, about 30 to 40 percent. Nonetheless, all continued to speak the same language, Serbo-Croatian. Andric refers to the Muslims in the book as “Turks.”
Here’s one of Andric’s examples of how those tensions were buried. In chapter VI, he writes about how people in the town, located just over the border from Serbia proper, reacted to the rebellion of Karageorge (or Black George) in Serbia against the Turks:
There were in the town both Turks and Serbs who swore that they had heard with their own ears the rumbling of “Karageorge’s gun” (naturally with completely opposite feelings). But even if it were a matter for doubt whether the echo of the Serb insurrectionists’ gun could be heard as far as the town, for a man often thinks that he can hear what he is afraid of or what he hopes for, there could be no doubt about the fires which the insurgents lit by night on the bare and rocky crest of Panos between Veletovo and Gostilje, on which the huge isolated pines could be counted from the town with the naked eye. Both Turks and Serbs saw the fires clearly and looked at them attentively, although both pretended not to have noticed them. From darkened windows and from the shadows of dense gardens, both took careful note of when and where they were lighted and extinguished. The Serbian women crossed themselves in the darkness and wept from inexplicable emotion, but in their tears they saw reflected from those fires of insurrection even as those ghostly flames which had once fallen upon Radisav’s grave and which their ancestors almost three centuries before had also seen through their tears from that same Mejdan… .
In those summer nights the wishes and the prayers of both cirlced around those flames, but in different directions. The Serbs prayed to God that these saving flames, like those which they had always carried in their hearts and carefully concealed, should spread to these mountains, while the Turks prayed to Allah to halt their progress and extinguish them, to frustrate the seditious designs of the infidel and restore the old order and the peace of the true faith.
Andric writes that any time such a rebellion occurred, inevitably some Serbs were scape-goated and paid with their lives, their heads displayed on spikes along the bridge.
In 1878, the fears of the town’s “Turks” came true, as the Ottoman Empire — the “sick man of Europe” — withdrew and Austria-Hungary, a Christian power, was given the right to occupy Bosnia militarily and to run it administratively. Thus, the long-feared erosion of the Muslims’ power and rights began. The same year, Serbia was granted independence and expelled its Muslims.
In 1909, Austria-Hungary formally annexed Bosnia. By 1914, timed with the onset of World War I, Andric writes about how tensions in the town are coming to a boil with the rise of nationalism. Born in 1892, Andric would have been one of the university students that he portrays at the time debating the merits of nationalism against socialism.
And he explains how foreign powers exacerbated the differences in the town. The Austrians asked the local Muslims to participate in a schutzkorps, a local militia designed to patrol the town for Serb insurrectionists. One of the wise old Muslims named Alihodja, who ranks among the book’s major characters and who seems to embody Andric’s sympathies, often counsels against any political violence — mostly because he himself always seems simply to want to be left alone by any authority, be it Turkish or Austrian. He successfully convinces most of the town’s prominent Muslim leaders not to participate.
In the final, turbulent times in which the book comes to a close, Andric reveals the bloodlust and opportunism that he ascribes to the lowest of motives associated with war time. Gustav, a long-time Austrian beer server and cafe owner, shows up drunken in the quasi-military uniform of the schutzkorps shouting at an Austro-Hungarian military officer that he was “promised that I could hang two Serbs with my own hands when the time came.” The lieutenant, in his Hungarian-accented German, “exasperatedly” denies Gustav his request.
Nonetheless, the execution of three Serbs — guilty of the crime of giving light signals at night towards the Serbian frontier — goes on. Andric appears to indicate that one of them, Vajo, is innocent and that “in a weak and tearful voice asserted his innocence, that his competitor was responsible for the charge, that he had never done any military service and never in his life known that one could make signals with lights.”
It’s all to no avail, as the man is executed on the bridge.
The book ends with the death of Alihodja, who suffers a heart attack after the bridge, which had been mined, has a hole blown between two of its grand piers. In his final breaths, he cannot comprehend that anyone would consciously destroy something so gorgeous, vital and enduring as a bridge that was the bequest of an Ottoman Vezir.
Which brings us back to the present. As I was reading the book, I would periodically go online to look up photos of the bridge or research the history of the area, which has interested me ever since I took an Eastern European history class in the fall of 1993.
Someday, I had thought, if I could ever persuade my wife to do it, I would like to visit the town and see the bridge’s amazing architecture. But amid my research I learned that Visegrad is part of the Republika Srpska, the Serbian enclave of partitioned Bosnia, and that almost all of the town’s 14,000 Muslims are gone, the victims of ethnic cleansing.
This post mentions how the bridge was used to dispose of Muslims who were shot, beaten and otherwise tortured and that a resort hotel overlooking the bridge, used as a center for mass rapes, continues to operate as if nothing had happened.
And then I came across the news item about the crimes of Milan and Sredoje Lukic.
Andric died in 1975. It makes me wonder what he would have thought of this sordid history and the sad legacy of the town that is home to “The Bridge on the Drina.”
The war crimes of Milan and Sredoje Lukic: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/07/20/milan-and-sredoje-lukic-b_n_241310.html
Editor’s note: John Manasso originally wrote this story for his blog, A Yankee Whistles in Dixie. His Web site carries this subtitle: “A former newspaper reporter’s attempt to catch the digital wave. This blog will include posts about the subjects upon which I consider myself an expert: pro sports, especially the NHL, my children and my adopted hometown of Decatur, Ga.”: http://yankeewhistles.blogspot.com/