Originally posted to Truth With a Camera on June 11, 2011
What set Bosnia apart from the other Truth With a Camera workshops previously held in Ecuador and Mexico was how much of the country I was able to see and experience. As a faculty member, I’m usually stuck in a hotel or classroom while the students do all of the exploring. My broader view of the previous workshops has come from the window seat of a passenger jet upon landing and take off.
As we planned out the schedule for Bosnia, my attention was focused on the final Saturday. In addition to our usual gallery exhibition, we had plans to go to Visegrád to witness a ceremony in which 3,000 roses are thrown into the Drina River from the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge.
The bridge was the site of much brutality during the Bosnian War. Many Muslim civilians were executed there and their bodies thrown unceremoniously into the river below. The roses represent the 3,000 genocide victims who were from the Visegrád region.
Halfway along the three-hour journey from Zenica to Visegrád we stopped to meet up with members of the Missing Persons Institute. Our workshop coordinator, Dijana Muminovic, had been documenting the group’s efforts in finding and investigating more than 100 individual and mass grave sites across Bosnia.
Among the group we met Hikmet Karcic, who gave us a thorough briefing of all that happened in and around Visegrád during the war.
We also met investigators Samir Sabanija and Suvad Halilovic. Dressed in combat boots and black utility pants, these men looked as serious as their mission.
Samir was a man with his own gravitational pull. He looked a little like a Bosnian Matt Dillon. I think I speak for my entire group when I say that everyone liked him instantly.
While I served in the U.S. Army, I would have never considered myself a professional soldier. However, there were guys in my unit who I knew were the real deal. They were the guys you could depend upon when the proverbial shit hit the fan. To me, Samir fit that mold perfectly.
Fast forwarding a bit to give an example, after the bridge ceremony in Visegrád, we followed the large group of Muslims across the river where there would be a funeral for the recently identified remains of 17 genocide victims. The town’s residents were primarily Serbs. While there were no outward signs of animosity that I witnessed, there was a certain amount of tension in the air. The recent arrest of alleged war criminal Ratko Mladic, considered a mass murderer by Bosnian Muslims and hero to many Serbs, gave reason to believe that this year’s rose ceremony might not end peacefully.
As we were walking, Serbs from all directions watched the procession. Samir quietly and calmly informed me in his heavily accented English, “Dave, tell your friends to be careful. These (meaning the Serbs) are the people with the guns.” And with that he walked off to join the crowd.
Two other men we met from MPI were Azmir Sabonovic and photographer Velija Hasanbegovic. Azmir’s father’s remains were recently found in one of the mass graves being investigated by the Institute.
As a teen living in Visegrád during the war, Velija, along with his father and older brother were brought down to the banks of the Drina to be executed by Serb militiamen. Among his would-be executioners was one of Velija’s friends from high school. The trio managed to escape when Bosnian snipers from the other side of the river opened fire on the Serb execution squad.
Upon hearing Velija’s story, I wondered about the former high school friend and what kind of life he’d be living now. Hikmet assured me that the man is living a normal life within the comfortable borders of Serbia. I asked about the possibility of the man ever being brought to justice and Hikmet responded, “In a country where so many are wanted for crimes of genocide, little attention will be paid to someone wanted for attempted murder.”
After we resumed our trek to Visegrád, our guides made a brief stop in the small village of Rogatica. We were brought to the Kruscica neighborhood. Among the populated homes stood the skeletal structure of a house burned to the ground. Buried in the rubble were the suspected remains of at least eight Muslims. Exhumation and DNA testing of the evidence found at the site continues.
During my time in Bosnia, I constantly wondered about how the war and its genocide affected the people I saw all around me. On the road to Visegrád, I heard it directly from the victims themselves. I was standing on the historical sites of horrific events. My inability to grasp the reasons for the inhumanity grew deeper, while my respect for my new friends grew stronger.
We made one last stop just before reaching Visegrád — this time in the town of Medjedja. Signs of the war both old and new stood in stark contrast to each other. Up high sat the new white mosque that had replaced the old one which had been destroyed when the Serbs took the town many years before. Down low stood the bullet-riddled road sign that directed travelers towards Sarajevo and Dubrovnik.
It was here where we met the dozen or so buses that carried hundreds of Bosnian Muslims to the bridge. The team from MPI would lead the convoy under police escort the rest of the way to the bridge ceremony.
At the bridge, I failed as a photojournalist. I misjudged the crowd and the logistics of the event. I missed my chance to stake out a good spot for making pictures. Instantly, I was swallowed by the sea of faces with little room to move or to photograph a clean composition.
My disappointment faded quickly, because as a human being this was one of the most momentous events of my life. As I moved along with the tide of people, I felt connected.
Old women in their traditional clothing, their head’s covered in the Muslim hijab, reached out and gently touch my hands and arms while offering a smile. One woman asked me in English if I was an American. She then told me that she had flown all the way from Chicago back in the U.S. to return to her homeland for this event.
For the first time in Bosnia, I did not feel judged by the men. On the bridge, they looked me in the eyes and offered greetings. Some even tried to make room for me when they noticed that I was a photographer.
Singled out as a foreigner everywhere else that I traveled in the country, on these once blood-stained bridge stones I was one of them. I would not trade that feeling for any of the pictures that I failed to make.
For as many people who were on the bridge, the ceremony felt very brief. A few speeches were made and then individually people quietly offered a prayer while throwing a rose to the brown waters below. Here and there, outward signs of long-held grief appeared, but overall the remembrance was hushed and efficient.
The bridge emptied quickly as the Muslim crowd moved on to attend the funeral for the 17 genocide victims. Many stopped along the way at a small mosque to offer more prayers.
Because of the need to get back to Zenica in time for the gallery exhibit, we could not stay to witness the funeral.
I walked back across the now mostly empty bridge as an American in a foreign land still unable to understand all that has happened to Bosnia.
Around the bridge, life went back to normal. As I arrived at our van, I stopped to give a few coins to a begging Roma woman. Then I was asked by a couple to take their picture with the bridge in the background. They were tourists out cruising the countryside on a motorcycle.
As I took the picture, I wondered what they were smiling about in a landscape full of such sadness.