In 1961, Yugoslav writer Ivo Andric received the Nobel Prize for his most famous novel, “The bridge on the Drina”, which tells the story of the Visegrad Bridge spanning the Drina River through the centuries. The work, which leaves off at the beginning of the First World War has transcended war and division these latest tumultuous decades. The book was the first piece of literature I consumed before visiting the fractured nation beginning in 1993. This postscript continues the saga, with ultimate homage going to the author and with love and respect for all those I have come to know, love and cherish across the Balkans. This was been a piece in the making for sometime, the recent tragedy across the Balkans has only made this moment all the more fitting.
Original image courtesy of Luigi Torreggianni
Adnan Spahic stood on the spot where Hodja had died. Yes, he was certain this was the place. His father had told him it had happened here. The story was legend and kept him awake considering, even as a boy, the finite nature of his own existence. That lesson had carried him through those dark days when the Vezir’s bridge had become a parable for the cruelty rendered in war by men. The story of old Hodja, his final days counted in dramatic description time and again in his father’s words, had blossomed in proportion to Adnan’s young imagination. It remained there now as a cherished treasure for Adnan the man. It concealed the scars still and perhaps forever too painful to confront without dissolving to bitterness and tears, where he might then run away among the ancient stones of the bridge.
Alas, the bridge had suffered the ravages of history since the passing of Alihodja. Nothing in the world is without end. General Putnik’s Serbian mud had seen to The Austrian hordes, and Adnan’s own grandfather had watched as a boy as Nazi divisions descended towards the bridge on their way to Sarajevo; waving as they neared and pissing in their wake. Those terrible years of World War had seen three spans destroyed of the bridge, only to be restored at last to the original builder’s exacting standards.
It was raining. It had rained forever it seemed. The clouds were fat and full, sweeping low over the valley, tearing themselves from the blue-green mountains and hills westward towards Sarajevo. The whisper of the cold rain was lost to the roar of the river rushing through the great masonry arches, thundering such that he could feel the bridge tremble beneath his feet. The umber waters boiled and drove unstoppable among the arches. Not since the great flood of 1896 had the waters of the Drina ever come this high where they threatened to spill over the high banks and into the town or even accomplish what two world wars and the last could not and sweep away the bridge.
It was a scene repeated across all of Bosnia, the product of a fevered world. In Sarajevo the Miljacka ran unstoppable through the town, inundating Illidza and threatening Bascarsija for the first time in nearly two centuries. Maglaj, on the river Bosna had to be evacuated by the Army. Zenica was in peril and Mostar strained at a burgeoning Neretva. But fevers, Adnan knew served a purpose, purging the body of toxins and invaders. He turned slowly, comprehending the magnificence of the world and his own miniscule nature.
Adnan was a doctor by profession and a pediatrician by practice. Something in that vocation reaffirmed a belief in the hope and possibility of humanity. Each new wail, as the child emerged fresh and innocent from its mother’s womb, felt to Adnan a new beginning to the world and his own tattered heart.
A lone figure approached from the Serbia side of the river. The man was tall and thin, his dark figure narrowed in the funnel of a long black raincoat. His hands were tucked deep in the pockets of the coat. A thin white lease strained from the right pocket with a golden terrier at the end; sniffing along the low bridge wall in a gadabout sort of fashion.
There was something about the man that Adnan recognized, and which rendered him cold for a moment. Not in a fearful fashion, necessarily, but that which threatened to release a flood of long buried memories with all the tumult and catastrophe of the river. Perhaps it was the character of a slight limp, softened by the years and deepened by age.
Not that the years had been a great deal kinder to Adnan. In moments he might recall the face of the boy before the war and all that was to follow. That boy could afford to squander the eternal energy necessary to the vigorous obstinance of arrogant youth. In the mirror that chiseled and glowing pale face was replaced with taunt cheekbones and darkened eyes. The boy’s lips had thinned, the flesh lined and weathered. The image, and all that befell the boy in the ensuing years, evolved an awakening realization of mortality more as spouse than adversary. The hair that fell reddish brown across youthful shoulders was now thinning. It was trimmed and the hue of unpolished pewter. His feet and hands now ached constantly, and Adnan wondered just when his thumb lost the ability to turn a page without first being wetted!
The stranger drew nearer. It was not a deliberate intention, though something about it felt to Adnan as fateful. Adnan’s sense was that they had somehow met before. He couldn’t be sure, and for now it remained hidden behind the steel wall around a place in his mind that he had attempted to seal off forever.
The stranger stopped beside the wall a few yards from Adnan. Now and again the man snuck furtive lingering looks in Adnan’s direction. He too had a strong sense of recognition, and like Adnan it appeared to cause him some distress. Still, the man nodded politely enough, then turned his attention to the dog scratching at something near his feet. The tension built, however, until it was too much for Adnan to bear any longer.
He drew a pack of Drina cigarettes from his coat pocket. They weren’t Adnan’s favorite, but were affordable enough. The thin cellophane covering the white, red and blue packaging crinkled it as he opened the top further with his fingers before, with a snap of the wrist, pushing a cigarette to the top. Adnan plucked it from the pack with his lips, while his left hand fished for a small silver lighter in his trouser pocket. He lit the cigarette and dutifully held the pack towards the stranger in offering.
“Cigarette, mate?” said Adnan, drawing the man’s attention.
Tugging gently on the leash, the man bridged the gap between them in a few shuffling steps.
Just up the river a moment of blue sky and sunlight surprised the valley, sweeping silent down sodden slopes and across the churning rain-fattened waters. The moment was serenely poetic. Its occurrence remained to both men in stark contrast to villages swept away by crumbling mountain slides, or those fleeing to tents in the hells above Zenica.
The stranger stretched and pulled a cigarette from the pack, holding it up in his fingers with an appreciative nod. Adnan moved closer, lighting the man’s cigarette. The stranger gently cupped his hands around Adnan’s, puffing out a cloud of white tobacco smoke that was quickly swept away by the wind.
“Thank you,” said the stranger, straightening.
There was something in the stranger’s voice that unleashed a torrent of emotions, as tumultuous and chaotic as the river thundering against the bridge. They came through him with a cascade of emotions so powerful they almost robbed the breath from his lungs. Both men now stood nearly shoulder to shoulder looking out across the river.
“I think that Visegrad has seen the worst already,” said the stranger.
“I don’t know,” said Adnan, taking a darker view.
“They say ten thousand are fleeing Bijeljina. Serbia is sending help. And Croatia as well,” he added almost out of some forced obligation.
“And who helps Bosnia?” Adnan posed, with a mix of fatalism and accusation that the stranger wisely ignored. Adnan conceded the moment. “The newspaper said a special fund for flood protection is missing.”
The stranger nodded knowingly. “When will we learn, eh? Maybe all those rabble-rousers in Tuzla were right all along.”
“I’m not so certain burning down government buildings ever accomplishes anything.”
“Ah, but you must admit when mothers blockaded parliament in Sarajevo with baby carriages, that was really something.”
“Yes, something,” said Adnan.
“We could learn a thing or two from you Bosnians in Belgrade.”
Adnan smiled to himself. He studied the cigarette burning away in his fingers. Images and memories came stronger now. In flashed Adnan relived the terror and panic of a warm June morning slightly more than two decades earlier. Adnan felt that oppressive weight of an unfolding crime once more, heard the gunfire and screams. There was a face in a doorway, crutches and a saving nod.
On the Bosnian side of the river, as if to punctuate the bitter resignation of Adnan’s words, the clouds burst suddenly. Sheets of blue-gray rain briefly erased the nearby hills and distant mountains. The stranger looked at Adnan for a long uncomfortable moment.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” the man asked.
Adnan studied the man’s eyes a moment, looking for a way to escape the issue. Instead he looked back over the river and gave a deep breath.
“You still have a problem with you leg.”
“Hardly noticeable anymore,” the stranger paused. “I always wondered if you made it.” His voice lowered and softened. “Dark days.”
“I don’t prefer to revisit them,” Adnan replied, without taking his gaze from the river, “But I remember what you did.”
There were volumes that passed between the men, and volumes they might have said to one another. But there was nothing that needed to be said. They had, like the land and the nation shared a history, but history is a perspective and not entirely compatible between hearts. For now what resolutions, what questions lingered from those dark days found sufficient satisfaction and perspective in this happenstance. The stranger found more discomfort in the resulting silence than Adnan, who defended it as a bulwark.
“I am in the same place,” said the stranger, nodding to the Serbian side, and the town blanketing the hillside there. “You will come sometime for coffee. Perhaps we can put the past behind us, eh? Talk of better days?”
“History is indeed a perspective,” thought Adnan.
It was not so simple for him to sweep aside the past. He had lost too much. Some scars cut too deep.
From the hills on that June morn he’d watched friends and his family murdered and thrown from the bridge over differences in how one comes to god.
“I think maybe, yes,” replied Adnan without any real conviction.
With that the two men shook hands. It was a firm and satisfying shake that the stranger took heart in. With a respectful nod the stranger turned and started for home.
It’s a nice dog,” Adnan called out.
“I’ll see you,” the stranger replied and continued on his way.
Adnan watched until the man was nearly to the far side of the bridge when he at last turned for the Bosnian side. It had begun to drizzle once more. The air was colder now against his cheeks and ears. On a rise above the bridge he paused to look back. The stranger was just climbing into the town, favoring his limp a bit more than before. In a moment he was gone, disappeared among the shops and houses.
The gulf between the two sides of the bridge seemed immense. Once it had seemed a greater and even impossible void. After pondering that a moment Adnan turned and continued up the hill to where he’d parked his automobile. The river was louder here, drawing in a crescendo of sounds from all along the valley.
Adnan’s step felt lighter now. Those seemingly meaningless hospitalities with the stranger had unchained the iron gate around his heart. Opening it, after all that had occurred, solidified by the cement of grief and distance, would be the harder task. Time was the only possible elixir for rapprochement, and Adnan was not certain there had been or ever could be sufficient time. Still, he could not deny the saving power of the thought.
“Maybe,” he said aloud, without realizing.
Adnan paused once more, this time pondering the trip across the river with intention. The bone-white arch and spans stretched like a beacon, beckoning him. Through those arched expanses the churning brown waters of the Drina continued unabated, rampaging south through the valley. For the first time Adnan Spahic saw the bridge for its true self. It was indeed a relic, a cosmetic span between the assumptions of east and west, of the Muslim and Christian world. And all at once, against the majesty and power of the land, all of those pretences fell away as mere costumes of history. Even the bridge took its true place as something so infinitesimally small and fleeting. It was an accoutrement to the one true religion of a fractured people.
That religion was the land. That religion was always the land. It was always the land, the only true enemy, and the ultimate salvation.
The revelation almost made Adnan cry out. There was a moment now he considered turning back and crossing that bridge. Adnan would find his way to the stranger’s door and have that coffee and begin the work that must be done between hearts and souls. He might have but a sudden swell in the river washed heavily across the road at the far side of the river. The rain came harder now, driven by a stiffening wind forcing a retreat to the automobile. In an hour Adnan would be back in Sarajevo. Soon, he told himself, soon he would return and have that coffee.
WC Turck is the author of 4 books, including the critically acclaimed Bosnian War Memoir “Everything for Love,” and Broken: One soldier’s unexpected journey home, at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.com. Turck wrote and produced two critically acclaimed plays, “Occupy my Heart: A Revolutionary Christmas Carol” and “The People’s Republic of Edward Snowden.” The most dangerous voice on the Left, he can be heard Mon, Tues, Thurs and Fridays from 9-11am in Chicago, and 1-3pm on the Revolution and Beer show with partner and cohost BL Murray.
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