Category Archives: contradictions

The road of many tunnels; Foča to Višegrad, heart of darkness.

The next day its a cycle along the Drina River, heading north-east. At first, its pretty easy going, along a very tranquil old road on the east bank of the river. The river is wide, slow moving and green, and it cuts through the landscape, forming a gorge, the steep sides forested right down to the water’s edge. Trees are just beginning to turn the light brown colour of autumn; they are oaks, pines, birches.

On the opposite side of the river I can see a lot of traffic, busy darting into and out of tunnels, and I’m glad I’m not having to risk my life in them. My pet hate on a bike is going through tunnels. On busy and fast-moving roads, where there is only one lane in each direction, I am aware of vehicles not seeing me from behind until they’re quite close to me, however bright and wildly flashing my rear light is. My Edelux, front-hub driven front light is very intense, but that doesn’t really protect me from the drivers behind me. It does possibly prevent those occasionally mad drivers coming towards me,  from overtaking as they enter the tunnels.

My strategy is to cycle towards the next tunnel, and then look behind me.  I check the sign that names the tunnel, and also that usually indicates how long it is. I stop on the side of the road if there are any vehicles approaching from behind. As soon as there’s a lull, I get going, and ride like hell, as quickly as I can go; and hopefully reach daylight at the other end, before I have to contend with vehicles moving either in my direction, or heading towards me. 

Drina River 

The worst vehicles are articulated lorries, and I recognise that my presence as a cyclist is a real nuisance to their drivers. They are like super-tankers at sea; they do not operate on the same set of parameters as cyclists do, and when I think about, I conclude that the two vehicle types really shouldn’t be mixing on the same roads.

And its pretty rare in my experience, for the needs of cyclists ( or pedestrians for that matter ) to be considered in the design of tunnels in pretty well any part of the world. I have travelled with a friend in a tunnel in Montenegro. It was fairly newly built, and it did very helpfully have narrow pavements on either side of the two-lane carriageway. But that’s about as far as it went, because in the unlit tunnel, it was impossible to see the inspection covers at 25 metre spacings, along the pavement,  which were cast blocks of concrete, raised some 100 milimetres above the level of the pavement. In addition there were lifting handles, consisting of bent reinforcing bar pieces cast into the concrete and projecting a further 100 milimetres above these covers.  As if that wasn’t enough, the designers had placed the advisory speed-limit signs at regular intervals, at just the right height for an unaware cyclist to bash the forehead into them. And indeed that is what happened, breaking my friend’s cycle helmet.  I always offer up a little vote of thanks to all the drivers who did not hit me, and who were patient, when I come to the end of a rash of tunnels. 

Mosque

Višegrad lies in eastern Republika Srpska, close to the border with Serbia. It was a much contested area during the Bosnian War in 1992. As I got closer to the town, I was forced to cross the river from my quiet old road, and travel on the busy road, with all its tunnels. I hadn’t realised that I was travelling towards the scene of such past horrors.

As I approached the town, and negotiated the tunnels, I became aware of  floating objects in the quiet, and slow-moving waters. Rounding the next bend, I realised what it was. 


Plastic waste in the River Drina

There is a hydro-electric plant just upstream from the town, and its clearly important to prevent the discarded plastic waste from entering the turbines. In 1992, there was an altogether much more hideous ‘ waste ‘ that had to be prevented from entering the turbines.

Some 3,000 Bosnian Muslims were murdered in and around the town I was about to enter. Their bodies were thrown into the river, by the hundred, in “one of the most comprehensive and ruthless campaigns of ethnic cleansing in the Bosnian conflict”[5] , by local Serbs, the police and paramilitary forces.  I enter the town by crossing the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge

Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge

Its a warm, late summer, Sunday afternoon, and I join the tourists, by the coach load, who have come to enjoy the quiet town, its numerous cafes, and to saunter across this bridge, built in 1577, and named after the Ottoman Grand Vizier. 

I wonder how many of the visitors know that only twenty six years previously,  Bosniak men, women and children, were dragged to this ancient bridge, summarily shot, and their bodies  thrown into the river. As I cycle through the town, on the way to my place for the next two nights, I am cycling from the scene of one massacre to another; where scores of women and children were locked into a room and burnt alive or past a house where young girls were systematically brutalised and raped, and in writing this, and discovering this after I’ve visited, I’m left feeling guilty of ignorance, and even a sense of complicity. Muslims and their places of worship were systematically eliminated from this town by the most barbaric methods. And Serbians have made it theirs. 

Just one victim
Andrićgrad
Andrićgrad
Andrićgrad

In 2011, the building of the new  town of Andrićgrad was commenced. Built to memorialise the Yugoslav novelist and Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andrić, the creation of the complex including a cinema, theatre, marina, gymnasium, craft workshops, hotels, sports facilities, a new building for the Visegrad municipality, galleries, and a new church, seems to me to be a final insult designed to stamp the authority of the Serbs, on a town that had previously contained a diverse ethnic and religious diversity. The Serbs were successful in driving out the Bosniaks, and now all that remains is to drive out their religion and culture and drown it out with their one-sided version. 

Its new, ridiculously pastiche, stone buildings and streets, obliterate physically at least, the site of the slaughter that took place here, and replace it with a gaudy sham. Where Bosniaks were murdered, and their ghosts lie beneath the tourists feet, will soon walk and play visitors. Where coffee and ice-cream is consumed, and where pleasure cruise boats ply their trade, will be concealed the bodies of hundreds of innocents.

I’m left asking the perennial question about the meaning of religion;  if it allows itself to be employed as a device to exonerate the perpetrators of vile acts, and not to protest loudly when it is coopted into the project to reinforce division; what is its place?

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Dubrovnik, Gruz, and a view of Montenegro

The wonderful thing about travelling by bike is the pace; I notice so much more than if I am in a car….I’m barely off the little ferry from Zaton, arriving in Gruz port, where so much destruction took place in the early 1990’s, and I get my first puncture. Oh well, easily sorted. It gives me the opportunity to visit the market to buy a bit of fresh fruit. And then I bump into Dom!  

DOM - DUBROVNIK

He is standing near these interestingly shabby doors near the market, and I quiz him about the building I can just see through the door if I push it a little bit! ” Come in, and I’ll show you around “, Dom says as he pushes the door wide open, with authority.

ITALIANATE GARDEN 1 - DUBROVNIK

A big, delightfully overgrown garden, with semi-neglected vines, fig-trees, a vegetable patch, and shade from the midday sun lies behind the doors. And surrounded by the garden…a big house, a private chapel and beautifully mysterious, dark and half-revealed interiors, wooden panelled and furnished, of staircases, high ceilings, becomes the absorbing physical setting, for the next two hours, as Dom shows me round, making as he does so,  a valiant attempt to relate the history of the Balkans to me…..dating back to the 8th century…..

ITALIANATE GARDEN - DUBROVNIK

ITALIANATE GARDEN 1 - WATER

Italianate….is probably not the correct adjective, given the date of all this…and the fact that Italy didn’t exist as we know it until the nineteenth century, but that regional architectural influence is clear all down and up the Dalmatian coast.

Two hours later, I’m a little the wiser, and Dom certainly holds strong and informed views about the course of events over the previous centuries in the Balkans! Just then, as we begin to explore the possibility of letting ourselves into the building itself to explore it a little further, a man lets himself in through the garden gate. Its immediately very evident from the tiny amount of language exchanged between the two men, that I can comprehend, and the body language, that we are not welcome…and Dom’s evident authority as a tour guide suddenly evaporates, as we are summarily ushered out into the busy road. Its been a verdant haven, and an elementary lesson in Balkan politics.

Territories in former Yugoslavia as at 1995

1995 - former Yugoslavia territories

The situation is so dynamic in this part of the world; this is then….how is it now? What’s changed since this map….well, Kosovo and Makedonia are two examples…as I’ll discover as I head over into Republika Srpska, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Greece over the next month.

Looking south-east to Montenegro 

MONTENEGRO KEEP OUT.jpg

Look south to Montenegro

Standing high up and inland from the Old City of Dubrovnik, I can see for miles, into Montenegro, into the magical and mysterious Durmitor mountains, where I’ll be heading. This vantage point was the focus of a vicious armed conflict, and its obvious why.

View of Dubrovnik from The Homeland War Museum

DUB

And all the while, there is a constant reminder of the loss of life…

War Photo Ltd; exhibition. 600 coffins of victims of Srebenica massacre await burial; original photo by Tarik Samarah.

COFFINS

Well, I’m heading off now, and up and over the mountains to Republika Srpska.

CYCLIST

 

 

Wrap with aluminium foil

I was reminded of my visit to Kader Attia’s installation in Malaga last year, entitled ‘Ghost’, when I recently saw a photograph of migrants wrapped in emergency foil  ‘blankets ‘. Attia’s work was created to depict Muslim women at prayer.

However, I found the similarity of his work and this photograph striking; and this similarity was more about the overall scene as opposed to the precise message; gallery visitors walk past the installation, casually observing it,  rather like allowing the  ‘migrant crisis’ to be passed-by and not addressed in any significant way. 

Kader Attia's - ' Ghost '.

Kader Attia’s – ‘ Ghost ‘.

CnGNfDtWcAAqV3E.jpg-large

Final Reductions

Cemetry in San Andres, Tenerife

Cemetery in San Andres, Tenerife

I really enjoy visiting cemeteries in dry regions; this one reminds me of cemeteries I’ve visited in the Atacama desert in northern Chile, near San Pedro. I think I would feel happier being laid in dry ground than lying in a hole in Wales in the cold, wet peat. This cemetery is within a few metres of a beach which is a quite odd colour; given the fact that Tenerife is a volcanic eruption in the Atlantic Ocean. Black sand for a beach doesn’t quite do it for tourists apparently; maybe too hot in strong sun? So, a number of years ago, 4 million sacks of sand from Saharan Africa where imported and made into a fine, yellow, sandy beach, overlaying the black one. It looks a little incongruous. Fortunately, the sand in the cemetery remains the native black colour. Talking about incongruity, the advertising hoarding facing the lovely white-washed walls, the simple mausoleum, and the black or white simple crosses, is great. I wonder what other messages appear here throughout the year.

guardian angel

The close proximity of the graveyard to the power-station got me thinking!  The guardian angel looks over the landscape – keeps an eye on all our loved ones in the ground. And the inscrutable power-station looks back at the angel. There is at once a safe and secure feeling engendered here; and yet there’s possibly danger too. 

Port Talbot - January 2011