Hope for Bosnia town whose bridge will shine again

VISEGRAD, Bosnia Sat May 26, 2007 3:29pm BST

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VISEGRAD, Bosnia (Reuters) - The decaying Ottoman bridge on Bosnia's River Drina at Visegrad is soon to be restored, but the community whose life around it was chronicled in an epic novel is unlikely to be the same again.

Hundreds of Bosnian Muslims made an emotional visit to the historic town on Saturday to remember the killing here of 3,000 relatives and friends by Bosnian Serb and Serbian paramilitaries at the outbreak of Bosnia's 1992-95 war.

They threw a rose for each of them from the terrace on the bridge's central part, a favourite peacetime point of meeting, chatting and flirting that was turned into the site of mass executions in the spring of 1992.

"I would rather throw myself from this bridge," said Nizija Hecimovic, 77 as she wept for son who was taken from their home by paramilitaries, and her brother was thrown from the bridge and shot at in the water.

"I will never find peace until their bodies are found."

This modern-day conflict broke the 500-year thread of Muslim-Christian co-existence in Bosnia as immortalised by writer Ivo Andric in "The Bridge on the Drina".

His epic of their sometimes strained yet centuries long and unbroken life together centred on the elegant structure of 11 curved arches in pale stone, and earned him a Nobel prize.

Co-existence endured Turkish and Austro-Hungarian rule, followed by the Yugoslav kingdom and World War Two only to be shattered in the 1990s breakup of socialist Yugoslavia when deep hatreds exploded to destroy 150,000 lives and uproot millions.

Bad times have taken their toll too on the bridge that was built on the orders of Grand Vizier Mehmed pasha Sokolovic. He was born nearby as a Serb but taken away to be raised as a Muslim and went on to serve three sultans.

FIFTY YEARS

Neglect, high levels of water for two hydro-electric dams on the Drina and car and truck traffic on a bridge made for pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages have eroded pillars and undermined the stability of the structure.

It was more fortunate than Bosnia's other famous bridge, the Old Bridge in the southern town of Mostar which was destroyed by Bosnian Croat artillery in 1993. It was rebuilt three years ago.

Visegrad's bridge is on the list of the world's threatened monuments but better days now lie ahead for it after Bosnia, Turkey and the local council on Thursday agreed to repair it, including giving now-greyish stone its original whiteness.

Next month it could also be included on the U.N. educational, cultural and scientific organisation's (UNESCO) list of world heritage sites with "universal value", the chairman of Bosnia's commission for national monuments said.

"The situation is difficult but I want to believe that UNESCO's arrival could contribute to the town's opening and the return of the people," said historian Dubravko Lovrenovic.

Muslims used to make up two thirds of Visegrad's 21,000 people before the war but only several hundred have returned to their homes in the drab and poor town, some 100 km (60 miles) northeast of Sarajevo and close to the border with Serbia.

It was long regarded as a hardline "black spot" and a safe haven for war criminals. The security situation has improved after several of them were arrested.

Still, it would take another 50 years for Visegrad to become again what it was because lack of reconstruction assistance and employment possibilities are keeping refugees from returning to the town, deputy mayor Nedzad Muhic, an ethnic Muslim, said.

"As it is now, it is no good to anyone," Muhic said.

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