Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
When Australian actress and playwright Kym Vercoe traveled to Visegrad in 2008, she spent time admiring the green cliffs that cradle the eastern Bosnian town, and walked across the 500-year old stone bridge that stretches gracefully across the Drina river – the same one she read about in the famous Ivo Andric novel The Bridge on the Drina.
On returning to her home in Australia, she did some research on the picturesque little town she had visited during her trip. One article that came up in her internet search was called Visegrad in Denial Over Grisly Past, written by IWPR journalists Rachel Irwin and Edina Becirevic in December 2008.
The article examined how more than a decade after the Bosnian war, few Serb residents are ready to confront the horrors that were perpetrated there.
The story described the crimes committed by Bosnian Serbs in the town during the 1992-95 conflict - including the mass murder and rape of Bosniak civilians - and the wall of silence that surrounds the subject.
The piece said numerous witnesses testified in trials at the Hague tribunal about the way Bosnian Serb paramilitary forces would take Bosniak men to the middle of the old stone bridge, shoot them, and then throw their bodies into the Drina.
At the time the story was written, Bosnian Serb paramilitary leader Milan Lukic was standing trial at the tribunal for burning alive over 100 Bosniak residents of Visegrad, among other crimes. He was later found guilty on all counts against him and sentenced to life in prison.
Vercoe described the IWPR article as a “punch in the gut” and a “reality check” for her.
As a way to process what she experienced in Visegrad – and what she learned afterwards - Vercoe is creating a performance piece due to premiere in Sydney this October.
While the show is not yet finished, she says it will be a “story-telling piece”, and will include a variety of media, including video, and hopefully also a live music component, for which she is working with a singer from Sarajevo.
“The work I make is about accountability, acknowledgment and also giving voice to people who become hidden in our society,” Vercoe explained. “So I guess these sentiments are driving me again now.”
She explained that a key theme of the performance will be the “revision of history and the denial of history”. This issue is especially pertinent in Australia, she said, because of the country’s continued struggle to acknowledge the widespread mistreatment of indigenous peoples.
“There are people [in Australia] who literally re-write history, desperately believing that past atrocities are lies and an attempt to get money from the state,” Vercoe said.
“So on one level, I hope that by exploring my questions around Visegrad, I make people question how history is used to distort fact, to benefit some people over others and to perpetuate prejudices.”
Vercoe returned to Visegrad in May for further research and to pay tribute to those killed during the war. Her feelings, however, continued to be complicated.
“I noticed I was feeling very judgemental towards the [Bosnian Serb] men in the town,” she said. “I was looking at every man thinking…what’s your story?”
However, she remembered one Bosnian Serb man featured in the IWPR piece who did not deny what happened in the summer of 1992, even calling the old stone bridge the “biggest graveyard”.
He told Irwin and Becirevic that he hid Bosniak children in his house until they could be transferred to Bosnian government-held territory.
“Each one of those Serbs I met could have been a murderer but, then again, he could have been the one from [the IWPR] story, or someone like him,” Vercoe said.
Vercoe went back to the old stone bridge, where a Bosnian Serb man offered to take picture of her with her camera, apparently believing she was a tourist admiring the view. They were standing in the same spot where so many people are said to have been shot and pushed to their deaths.
She said this experience had her on the verge of tears, and compelled her to think about why – unlike in Sarajevo or Srebrenica - there were no memorials around town for the 3,000 Bosniak victims.
“In Visegrad, the past has been whitewashed,” Vercoe said. “This helps to explain why as a tourist in 2008, I assumed that Visegrad was always a predominately Serbian town and there was no major campaign [of ethnic cleansing] there. Can you believe how wrong I was?”
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