At dawn, the long night

At dawn, the long night

Bosnia, spring 1992.

The thunder of cannon and mortar shots could not be heard yet. Voices, that’s what you could hear. The voices of Serbs getting ready to flee, building trenches. And then the roaring laughter of Muslim Bosnians. At the dawn of conflict, it seemed like there could be nothing more ridiculous. And yet, on the eastern border, delineated by the green waters of the Drina, darkness had already engulfed humanity.

It was not by chance.

Borders are like bridges; they mark a territory and connect it to another. For centuries, the Drina valley had cradled that fascinating mix of people narrated by the Nobel laureate Ivo Andric:

It was on these paths, which the wind sweeps and the rain washes, which the sun infects and disinfects, where you meet only exhausted livestock and silent people with hard faces, it was on these paths that I founded my dream about the riches and beauty of the world (Ivo Andric, Paths)

In order to destroy the Other, the connection needed to be blown up. And so it was that the Drina was tainted red. Around it, Bosnia continued to dance to the flagrant rhythm of the fanfares, unknowing that it was about to be shrouded in a long night.

Twenty-six years later, that frontier no longer exists. There is a threshold; a line of attack which transforms the Other into the enemy, whom one needs to defend oneself from. And along the threshold lie the shreds of a past that everyone ignores. Out of convenience and of fear, out of resentment and of shame. A ghostly land, cleansed by fire and sword, under the Serbian fist, through rape and massacres. A land, black as death, and white as a stele. Nothing smells of life any longer.

A white inscription stands out over a field in Mravinjac. Tito. Four letters which hide ten more behind them: Yugoslavia. The hybrid monster created by the unaligned Marshal reduced to ashes upon his death.

Ivo Saglietti, Bosnia, Border with Croatia, 2018

Foča, Zelengora Hotel. “You will give birth only to Serbian children, There will no longer be any trace of Muslims.” Dragoljub Kunarac, Serbian general, to witness number 48 after having raped her in a hotel room together with a comrade. Houses, gyms, hotels were set up as camps for sexual violence against women and girls. Some were killed, others committed suicide. For the first time in history, the International Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia recognized systematic rape as a crime against humanity. When the sentence was read, the accused shook their heads, incredulous.

Visegrad. Mehmed Paša Solokovic bridge looms majestically over the Drina as it has done for almost 500 years. It used to be the most powerful image of Bosnia, the point of conjunction between East and West. From the bridge which Andric wrote about, thousands of men were thrown, guilty of being Muslims. So many were thrown all together, that the director of the Bajna Bašta dam begged those responsible to “slow down the flow of bodies floating along the river as they jam the dam turbines.”

Stretches of white steles are reflected in that water cemetery by the name of Drina. Men, women, children. All belonging to the same religion: Muslims. The same year of death: 1992.

Along the road leading to Zvornik. Orthodox churches and the carcasses of hanging pigs. The war was won by them, those who marked the Serbian territory with the blood of the Others.

Bijeljina, a city in north-eastern Bosnia, on the border with Serbia. At the outbreak of the conflict, it fell into the hands of the Tigers of Arkan. They put up no resistance. Nearby, in Batkovic, the first concentration camp of that long war was built. Now, the Serbian flag is hoisted triumphantly over Bijeljina.

Last stop Velika Kladusa

Twenty-seven years later, another border becomes a threshold. It is the one between north-western Bosnia and Croatia, between migrants and Europe. In this shred of earth, migrants swarm like bees to every corner of the city. Syrians, Kurds, Afghans. Pakistanis. It is impossible to enter Croatia from Serbia, even more so from Hungary. So, in just a few months, thousands of migrants trapped in the Balkans have poured in here. Flight is an unwitting dance across a carpet of land mines, a challenge to wolves, the cold, and police violence.

At Dom Borici in Bihac, the tragedies of the past are entwined with those of the present. The former student residence, damaged during the war in the nineties, shelters hundreds of refugees. Inside, amassed tents, clothes hanging, no electricity, no running water. Outside, volunteers and Red Cross workers distribute food, clothes, sleeping bags. The days go by slowly, between one escape attempt and another. They call it the game. Go, try, return to the starting point. Keep trying until you reach the other side.

In their shoes. Rain and sun, snow and wind. Trails, roads, woods, plains. And hope and despair. Suffering and illusions. The journey of migrants towards the promised land, a Europe that sees nothing and does not listen.

Ivo Saglietti, Drina River, Bosnia, Border with Serbia, 2018

The story of the wolf-rat comes to mind. Marina Abramovic recounted it in Balkan Baroque. Rats protect each other, a Belgrade rat-catcher told her, so in order to get rid of them you have to create a wolf-rat. Take some rats and put them in a cage, without food. Out of hunger they will start tearing each other apart until there is only one left. Let him go hungry for a while and before he dies, gouge out his eyes and release him. Only then will the wolf-rat tear apart all the other rats it encounters on its path.

Velika Kladusa, the new jungle of Europe. The smell of mud, dust and latrines. On rainy days, the tent city looks like an immense, inhuman puddle. Just a couple of kilometres from the border. It is the last, violent mile. The Croatian police are before their eyes: abuse, theft, broken cell phones, indiscriminate rejections.

Ivo Saglietti, 2018

Yet sometimes, the human lives on amid the inhuman. The human has the face of Ona, a young woman from Luxembourg who, armed with a broom, tries to restore dignity to the refugee camp. Or the faces of Hasan, a Bosnian, and Petra, an Austrian, who heal small wounds in a makeshift emergency room. And again the face of Vlatan, the owner of a restaurant at Velika Kladusa who provides hot meals – three hundred, four hundred a day – to the refugees. Blankets and clothing, hot tea and canned food to survive the long march to Europe.

When there is suffering and war in a country, the refugees flock to its borders, sleep in wagons and live by their wits, temporary beings who can be sent back or who dream of going elsewhere, though their destiny is to remain border refugees for the rest of their lives (Franco Cassano – Il pensiero meridiano)