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Escaping Visegrad

By Allan Little
BBC World Affairs Correspondent

In the spring of 1992, Bosnia tumbled into war. It descended almost without warning on the town of Visegrad, on the River Drina, which separates Bosnia from Serbia.

Sasa Stanisic was a 14-year-old school boy whose life was about to be changed forever in the course of a single day.

Bosnian woman in Memici, east of Tuzla
A Bosnian woman walks through a war grave site

"I was packing for school and my father told me you are not going to school today and four hours later the first shooting began," he said.

"Some people knew what was going on…there were signs, private little signs…but you would never expect them to become an actual war.

"He [Sasa's father] came from work and he came back, found out something, came back to get us...we went to my grandmother's and in the next 10 days we were hiding from the grenades.

"Sarajevo was three years, we only had to suffer 10 days… they would start around 9am, and finish around 5pm, as though they were going to work.

"You get used to it."

Collective guilt

After 10 days of bombardment, Visegrad's non-Serbs, about half the population, were expelled from their homes at gun point in the course of a single weekend.

Some were murdered and their bodies thrown into the river from the town's famous bridge.

Sasa Stanisic
I ask myself how I would have acted in their place
Sasa Stanisic

Three weeks later, I went to Visegrad myself, across mountain passes, down side roads and dirt tracks to avoid the shifting front lines.

The Muslim houses had been ransacked - stripped of everything of value. The town's two mosques had been razed.

The Serbs who remained would not talk about what had happened to their former neighbours.

"The war came," one man told me, "and they left."

You felt the sadness of the place, the despair of those who were left; their silent, unacknowledged sense of collective guilt.

When the war was over

In his novel - How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone - Sasa Stanisic, who is now 30, places himself in the mind of a Serbian schoolboy, whose best friend has disappeared, with the rest of the ethnically cleansed.

"I hate the shots in the night and the bodies in the river and I hate the way you don't hear the water when a body hits it, and I hate my eyes as they can't see exactly who's being pushed into the deep water and shot there," Sasa writes.

When the war was over, and before he wrote the book, Sasa went back to Visegrad to look his former neighbours in the eye.

"These interviews I had with these people were the hardest thing. Nobody tells you with an easy heart - you are admitting that you lived a lie… I can understand that you close your eyes… I ask myself how I would have acted in their place but I am not sure if I would have had the courage," he said.

Risking the truth

I and countless other western reporters ran around the battlefields of Bosnia for years.

We took absurd risks. Some of our friends didn't survive.

We did it because we thought that being there enabled us to tell a vital truth.

Sasa Stanisic's book is art not journalism, fiction not reportage. But the truth it tells is sharp and vivid and painful.

He said: "I wanted to get it out of my system. It was circling in me. It is something special for you but it's something else.

"I think that literature still has the power to say something, together with the journalism.

"I am very secure that the book has the power to tell truth… about all the things that I didn't see as well as the things that I did see."

Return to Sarajevo
Wednesday, 19 October 2005, 09:25 GMT |  Documentary Archive
Country profile: Bosnia-Hercegovina
Tuesday, 1 January 2008, 19:15 GMT |  Country profiles

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