These west Balkan rivers have dark histories, not least because they so often serve as borders…
Višegrad bridge. Photograph by Goxxy.
Just south of where we’re sitting this morning in Banja Luka’s restored Ottoman fortress, the River Vrbas enters a stunning, winding gorge on its way to join the Sava. In turn, the Sava joins the Danube at Belgrade, and finds the Black Sea some 900 kilometres further south and east, in the Romanian Delta. Despite their beauty, these west Balkan rivers have dark human histories, not least because they so often serve as borders. Croatian Jasenovac, one of the worst death camps in Europe in the Second World War, stood on the banks of the Sava. Banja Luka’s museum, to which I’ve just made my annual visit, devotes its black-draped mezzanine to the camp, yet fails to cite the full, shocking figures. Up to 99,000 non-Catholics (Serbs, Jews, Roma, Muslims) are thought to have died at Jasenovac, according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. But here in Banja Luka, from whose own hinterland people were force-marched to their deaths there, it’s as if the enormity of what happened, and with what particular cruelty, is literally unspeakable.
Further north still, in the top corner of the Adriatic curve, another river, the Isonzo/Soča, became a notorious front in the First World War. It still marks the Italian/Slovenian border. To our south, the Drina runs like a fault-line through little Srebrenica, notorious for the 1995 massacre by Serbs of its Muslim Bosniak men and boys, and the larger country town of Višegrad, where in 1992 massacres helped obliterate the majority Muslim population. Such bloody workings-out of this region’s struggle between its rival Central European and post-Ottoman destinies is nothing new. To the north of former Yugoslavia sit Vienna and Budapest. To the south is Istanbul.
Ivo Andrić made these empires’ territorial legacy world famous in his deeply insightful lament for the people of Bosnia, The Bridge on the Drina (1945), written about Višegrad from wartime exile in Belgrade, for which he received the Nobel Prize. In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), the other major exploration of the pre-WW2 Balkans and written astonishingly by a Brit, Rebecca West subverts the travel writing genre by stuffing her story with the region’s people, all of whom have things to say about its ethnic and cultural mix. The cityscapes, even the coast and countryside she visits and acutely notes, contract and slide into the background as these characters − every bit as vocal and assertive as their real-life successors − take over the 1,200-page narrative.
Characterising places by their inhabitants, as West does, is an approach that remains radical today. We tend to divide writing about place into political history on the one hand and nature writing on the other: not to mention the often more commercial genre of travel writing. This separation of interacting elements is counterintuitive, askew from our actual experience of place: whether that’s somewhere we know well or little. It encourages us to look at places with narrowed eyes, ignoring the connections between people and location, geography and history.
Yet the temptation to do so does exist for British writers and readers. Partly this has to do with our particular cultural inheritance.