Can Europe Make It?

Andricgrad: The 'town within a town' on the Drina

The 'townlet' of Andricgrad may help to move Visegrad and Republika Srpska closer towards a wartime goal of union with Serbia. However, the city also reveals dormant tensions within the community, sending a reminder that the past is still not forgotten.

Hikmet Karcic
13 May 2014

Old bridge on the Drina. a9photo/Shutterstock All Rights Reserved.

Ivo Andric, the only Yugoslav ever honoured with the Nobel Prize for Literature, unlikely ever imagined that one day his name would be appropriated for a theme park in the Eastern Bosnian town in which he grew up around the turn of the 20th century.

It's hard to imagine what the epic chronicler of the history of the Western Balkans would have thought of Emir Kusturica borrowing his name to brand the pastiche “Andric Town” that is currently being constructed alongside the monumental protagonist of Andric's most famous work, the 16th century Mehmed Pasha Sokolovic Bridge across the River Drina in Visegrad.

And yet Andric might nevertheless have appreciated the way in which Kusturica's “town within a town” carries forward the central theme of his most important work - the remorseless way in which permanent change has been imposed on the people of Visegrad by the outside world. Like the construction of its neighbour, Sokolovic's historic bridge, Andricgrad is a project that aims to shape the future of Visegrad, in this case by subverting and obliterating an inconvenient truth about the town's past.

Andric's great novel “The Bridge over the Drina“ describes in episodic detail how, over the centuries, historic forces changed the lives of individuals living in a town where the Muslim Ottoman Empire and Christian Europe met, coexisted and came into conflict. The Andricgrad development attempts to rewrite history as part of a process that moves Visegrad along a path of change that began in the horrific circumstances of intracommunal conflict twenty years ago.

The basic concept of Andricgrad is a physical recreation of the Visegrad of Andric's novel that will serve as an imaginative backdrop to help visitors understand and appreciate the history and culture of the town and surrounding area. The moving force behind this bold enterprise that purports to celebrate the history of Visegrad, honour the memory of the town's most famous son and at the same time offer hope of economic revival is Emir Kusturica, the internationally acclaimed Serbian film director, twice winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes. But the version of history that Kusturica's Andricgrad celebrates is less than straightforward. It is a story told by the classic “unreliable narrator” that behind a stage set of heritage fiction conceals a reality of war and genocide. Kusturica even plans to use Andricgrad as the set for his own film version of “The Bridge over the Drina”. But his plans have another, more far-reaching purpose.

The theme park is a joint venture between Emir Kusturica and the government of Republika Srpska, one of the two entities into which Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) was broken up at the end of the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. Additional financial support for the project is being provided by the Serbian government. This creative partnership is perhaps the key to understanding what Andricgrad is really about. Andricgrad is an ideological construct. It proposes an alternative version of Visegrad's past that provides historical and cultural legitimacy for its present and underpins the aspirations for its future.

Above all Andricgrad turns its back on the bloody reality of a conflict whose wounds are still raw. On 6 April 1992, when Visegrad was attacked from across the nearby border with Serbia by the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA), 65% of the town's residents were ethnic Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks. A few months later only Serbs remained. The demographic transformation had been brought about by a campaign of terror aimed at eliminating the social, political, economic and cultural presence in Visegrad of its Bosniak population.

The JNA had turned the strategically located town over to a notionally autonomous but financially and logistically dependent Bosnian Serb Army, paving the way for ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes of genocide that were aimed at permanently destroying the town's Bosniak majority. Some of the worst wartime atrocities were committed by the Avengers, a special military unit of the Bosnian Serb Army with close links to the Yugoslav State Security Service.

Bosniak civilians were assembled and confined in detention camps. On two distinct occasions in June 1992, groups of approximately 60 women, children and elderly men were herded into houses to be burned alive. Women and girls were subjected to systematic rape in the infamous Vilina Vlas spa hotel and other rape camps, as part of the terrorisation of the Bosniak community. Many did not survive.

And down by the river, the historic Mehmed Pasa Sokolovic Bridge and the bank next to it became a scene of mayhem and carnage, as hundreds of victims of the campaign of intimidation - men and women of all ages, children and even babies - were executed and their bodies thrown into the Drina in anticipation of their remains being carried away for ever. (In fact the remains of more than 400 individuals have been recovered and identified by the Missing Persons Institute; approximately 600 are still missing).

There are no plans to commemorate this episode in the town's history, even though Andricgrad is being constructed next to Andric's Bridge, on a river bank site where many of the victims were killed. Part of the site was previously occupied by a sports centre that in 1992 was used to hold Bosniak civilian detainees. Land belonging to a Bosniak landowner Pasaga Hadzic was illegally used for the venture by the Visegrad municipal authorities and Hadzic's descendants, forced to leave their homes during the war, are now having to sue the authorities for unlawful expropriation. The memory of the dead and the rights of the living have been cleared away in order to build a memorial to a Visegrad that might have been had the past not existed. 

Because Andricgrad is not just a work of forgetfulness, it is a work of fiction. Architecturally its fifty stone buildings, some built of stones foraged from monumental sites elsewhere, are the embodiment of a cultural phenomenon that never was, a Bosnian version of the European Renaissance. The “townlet” exploits, disrespects and subverts Andric's chronicle because the object of Kusturica's postmodernist “playfulness” is to reinvent Visegrad's history for his own purposes.

Understandably the Renaissance - the movement of Leonardo, Shakespeare, Durer and Brunelleschi - never established a significant foothold in the region. It emerged as a synthesis of the influence on western European culture of the humanist scholars who fled Byzantium ahead of the advance of Ottoman rule and culture through the Balkans. Kusturica's fantasy Renaissance Visegrad never existed. Occupying a location where it mocks the genuine article, the bridge built by  Suleiman the Magnificent and Selim II's great architect Mimar Sinan (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), Andricgrad seeks to refute Visegrad's Ottoman identity.

This lack of concern for authenticity represents something more significant and more ominous than mere commercial opportunism or even the expression of Kusturica's characteristic disregard for convention.  Andricgrad represents a deliberate attempt to  consolidate Visegrad's transformation into a Serb town. It repudiates Visegrad's historic reality as a town with an Ottoman past and a predominantly Bosniak population.

Approximately 10%  of the municipality's current population consists of Bosniaks guaranteed their right of return by the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the war but gave Visegrad to the Serb entity of Republika Srpska. The town has a high unemployment rate and Serbs who were encouraged by the promise of jobs and homes to move to Republika Srpska at the end of the war feel angry and betrayed. Milorad Dodik, Republika Srpska's the President, is relentless in his efforts to disrupt the functioning of the central Bosnian State and align his entity more and more closely with Serbia in order to achieve the strategic wartime goal of the unification of all Serb occupied territories.

Kusturica, an enthusiastic supporter of Serb nationalist politicians, has persuaded the Visegrad authorities to support and fund his proposal to erect a memorial to a fictitious Serb culture that will provide employment for Serbs, promote tourist links with Serbia and increase Serbia's economic and political influence in Republika Srpska (as well as  perhaps also offering the prospect of personal gain). In other words Andricgrad will help to move Visegrad and Republika Srpska towards that wartime goal of union with Serbia.

The details of the ownership and funding of Visegrad are less than transparent. While the venture is supposedly an equal partnership, Serb political opponents and investigative journalists have suggested that Kusturica’s share of the prospective earnings is substantially higher than his level of personal financial investment in the project would warrant. But Kusturica's name and his ability to attract international support are crucial to the venture. He has already brought visitors including the Serbian tennis champion Novak Djokovic and former Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman who have attracted wider publicity.

But that publicity and the project's success could be jeopardised if reality were to reassert itself. The recent confrontation between the municipal authorities and campaigners for justice for war crimes over the wording of a memorial to victims of the genocide perpetrated in 1992 may have been aimed at ensuring an absence of reminders of an undesirable version of history that might affect the prospects of tourism. The families of the victims have not abandoned their efforts to ensure that the crimes which the Andricgrad project seeks to ignore and obscure are investigated, impunity is ended and justice is finally served. 

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