Building A Bridge On The Drina
By Stephen CrittendenApril 12, 2012
Australian actor Kym Vercoe is haunted by atrocities that happened in a hotel where she unwittingly slept as a tourist. Now she and Bosnian filmmakers are putting the past on the big screen.
Australian actor Kym Vercoe keeps returning to the scene of a horrible crime.
In 2008 she was a tourist in the town of Višegrad on the River Drina in Bosnia-Herzegovina about 20 kilometres from the Serbian border, home to a picturesque bridge built by the Ottomans in the 16th century that is celebrated by Nobel laureate Ivo Andrić in his novel The Bridge on the Drina. A strategic crossing on the road from Sarajevo to Belgrade, the bridge had been a site of conflict for centuries.
Vercoe had read the novel before her trip and wanted to see the famous bridge and the town where Andrić grew up. Arriving during an arts festival weekend, she was forced to stay a few kilometres out of town at the Vilina Vlas health spa.
Only later, when she returned to Australia, did she discover the grisly truth that the town of Višegrad had been site of a vicious genocide in the early weeks and months of the Yugoslavian War, which began 20 years ago. In the spring and summer of 1992, Bosnian-Serb militia had slaughtered 1,750 Bosnian Muslims, many of them on the famous old bridge, their bodies dumped in the river.
Even more shocking to her, the Vilina Vlas Hotel where she slept had been used as a rape camp by the Bosnian-Serb militia who had set up headquarters there. They had systematically imprisoned, raped, tortured and murdered 200 young Bosnian women and girls there, according to a war crimes investigator with the International Human Rights Law Institute. Some were kept imprisoned in the hotel for months, while others were abused for a single night. Some were so desperate they threw themselves to their deaths from the upper floor windows of rooms now used by paying guests. Six escaped. The bodies of the others have never been located.
"During the war, Amnesty International got word of what was happening at Vilina Vlas and came to do an inspection, so the rape camp was closed down," Vercoe says. "Apparently that often happened, and usually the rape camps would be moved to another location, but it appears that wasn't possible at that point in the war and the women were killed."
Vercoe says when she found out the truth of what had happened in Višegrad she felt she had been duped. "It was in my skin I think. I had taken tourist photos of the bridge and slept in a bed in the hotel. And I felt naïve to have imagined that this part of Bosnia had survived the war more or less intact when, as I later found out, the Muslim population had been very thoroughly eradicated."
Prior to the war, the population of Višegrad was about 60 per cent Muslim. Now, although there isn't much visible damage from the war, there are just a handful of Muslims left in the surrounding villages.
Vercoe was especially traumatised by the fact that there was and is no memorial of any kind to the women who suffered so dreadfully at Hotel Vilina Vlas. After the war, the hotel went back into business as if nothing untoward had happened. "They changed the sheets, washed the blood off the walls, vacuumed the carpets and reopened it as a hotel. In a just world you simply don't do that."
Now 36, Vercoe is a member of one of Australia's most interesting and original small theatre companies, the Sydney-based Version 1.0, which creates heavily research-based projects about political and social issues and specialises in a form of documentary or "verbatim" theatre using documents and the actual words of people involved in particular incidents.
Recent projects have included Deeply Offensive and Utterly Untrue, based on the 2006 Cole Royal Commission into the Australian Wheat Board's rorting of the United Nations Oil-For-Food program, and Table of Knowledge, based on an inquiry by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption into corruption on Wollongong City Council.
What followed Vercoe's shocking discovery of the awful crimes perpetrated at the Hotel Vilina Vlas was a deeply personal journey of discovery as she read everything she could get her hands on about the Bosnian genocide and the subsequent trials in the International Criminal Court based in The Hague. That journey, which has seen her return several times to Bosnia-Herzegovina, in turn became the subject of a one-woman theatre piece, Seven Kilometres North-East, Vercoe's own attempt to create a memorial in honour of the women who died at Hotel Vilina Vlas.
Version 1.0 first produced Seven Kilometres North-East in Sydney in October 2010, following a return visit to Višegrad by Vercoe to film a video diary for use in the show. In April 2011 it toured to Sarajevo, where Bosnian film director Jasmila Žbanic approached Vercoe to ask whether she would be interested in adapting the piece as a documentary film.
Žbanic's film Grbavica, the name of a town near Sarajevo, won a Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival in 2006. A more recent film, Na Putu (On the Path), looks at the radicalisation of Islam and the rise of Wahabbism in Bosnia since the war. The film she and her producer husband, Damir Ibrahimovic, are making with Kym Vercoe still doesn't have a name, but after several arduous bouts of filming on location in Višegrad the crew arrives in Sydney to complete shooting later in April.
Look at that bridge. Built in 1571. There were as many people killed there during the war as there are bricks in the bridge. That bridge is the biggest graveyard.
— Seven Kilometres North-East
Vercoe says the story she tells begins as a travelogue about her love affair with the region: "I have always found them to be fantastic people, so energetic and hospitable." She says that although she was "aware of some absolutely astounding stories of people being burned, crowded into houses and burned alive and babies being tortured", she made a conscious decision with the theatre piece she created not to be too graphic in her descriptions. The film adaptation will be more explicit.
"In the theatre people feel the gravity of what you are describing very easily and they don't need to be confronted with too much terrible detail or made to feel you're being voyeuristic."
Denial is arguably an intrinsic element of genocide, and it is also Vercoe's main theme. Jasmila Žbanic and Damir Ibrahimovic have pointedly named their production company Deblokada, meaning "unblock". The name came out of the siege of Sarajevo, but they continue using it because they believe Bosnia still has a mental and spiritual block about what happened during the war.
Before the war in the Balkans the population of Višegrad was about 21,000. Many people were killed and others moved away and Vercoe says the population in town is now closer to 15,000. "Most people you talk to say they only came to live in Višegrad after the war, and it's true there was a massive population shift within Bosnia during and after the war. But that's also a common method of denial of any involvement in the massacres," she says.
"I hate the fact that they pretend these women in the Vilina Vlas rape camp didn't exist. Mostly the local people say what happened is just a rumour. It doesn't help that we still don't know their names. They have never been released — not the survivors, or those who were killed — presumably because these were sexual crimes."
But denial of what happened is becoming harder all the time. In 2010, Lake Perucac, downstream from the Višegrad bridge, was drained to allow repairs on a dam wall. At the bottom were found the remains of hundreds of bodies. Some Bosnians believe that as many as 2,000 bodies may be hidden in the mud on the lake floor, making it the largest mass grave in Europe.
In July 2009, three former Bosnian Serb paramilitaries, Milan Lukič, his cousin Sredoje Lukić and a family friend, Mitar Vasiljević, were convicted over their role in the Višegrad massacres by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. Milan Lukić was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of 132 men, women and children. Sredoje Lukić received 30 years and Vasiljević 15 years. Charges that Milan Lukić was responsible for the Vilina Vlas rape camp were dropped from the final indictment. The prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, says she ran out of time and was unable to find direct witnesses, but Kym Vercoe says this is very disappointing because the women who survived the ordeal had said they were willing to testify.
However in November last year a fourth man, Oliver Krsmanović, was indicted over his involvement in the rapes. Vercoe says all the men are regarded as heroes in Višegrad. "The failure or inability of people to make the step of separating themselves ethically from these people is extremely interesting and also incredibly problematic for the future, I think."
Another subject in the film is the intimidating behaviour of the local police. Vercoe says it leaves visitors to the town feeling paranoid, and that is the intention. "They tail foreign visitors who hang around in the town or stop for longer than it takes to get a few photos on the bridge. Visegrad is a very small place and there's not really any reason why you would stay for any length of time, but I had a video recorder with me and I stopped to film wherever I went. Apparently when people come from The Hague with video cameras they usually come back later and arrest someone."
In Bosnia this year before I go back to Višegrad, I keep being asked the same questions. Do you have a family history here? The answer is "No, not that I know of." The second question: "How could you not know what happened in Višegrad?" I feel so stupid. "I don't know," I say, "I'm from the other side of the world."
— Seven Kilometres North-East
Vercoe says filming in Višegrad was "incredibly stressful" and often verged on the surreal: "It is not a place where you can just disappear, and certainly not a film crew. People want to know what you are doing there, why you are shooting in the street. We were continually worried that we would be shut down."
They filmed the outside of hotel at Vilina Vlas but were refused permission to film inside because the owner of the hotel recognised director Jasmila Žbanić and suspected what they were up to. "For me as an actor it was a relief that we didn't get inside because even during the filming of the exterior scenes I felt like I could hardly breathe," Vercoe says. "Instead we ended up using another hotel to reconstruct the interior scenes."
Then there was their encounter with the local boss of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Democratic Party, the party founded by Radovan Karadžić. "Jasmila Žbanić tries to use local people wherever she can in her films, so we used local extras who we paid," says Vercoe. "And you have to understand that Višegrad is a very impoverished town. Even the local SDS boss was lining up wanting to be in the film. We didn't take him up on that."
Vercoe says that interacting with the audience after the show is an intrinsic part of the kind of theatre she makes, and she and her colleagues on the film feel they need to go back to Višegrad after the film is released.
"The idea is to create work that stimulates public debate and discussion," Vercoe says. "After a show we will always come out to the foyer to talk with the audience. After I perform Seven Kilometres North-East, people often ask me why I made a show about a massacre in Bosnia rather than a massacre of the Aborigines here in Australia. The answer is that I don't know. It may just be that I had this visceral experience in Bosnia that I haven't had in Australia. But it's interesting and also wonderful that Australian audiences should make that connection."
But she has been paying keen attention to the fallout from the recent film about the war in Bosnia directed by Angelina Jolie, In the Land of Blood and Honey, which the President of the Republika Srpska Association of Detainees says should be banned in Serbia. "Realistically, that is also a possibility with our film, which won't be popular. It will certainly be perceived as anti-Serb and we are aware that it might turn out to be a mistake to go back. But the whole point of the film is that some kind of dialogue needs to start."
So why has she been so haunted by this story? And why does she feel unable to let it go?
"Why couldn't I just read that information about a hotel where I had unknowingly stayed, found it upsetting and let it go? I can't answer that, although it's a question I keep asking myself. The bottom line is that I am still haunted by it. And what horrifies me most is the lack of acknowledgement of what happened."