Dark Swirling Waters
Outside, through the tiny porthole adjacent to his seat, an endless sea of fluffy white clouds carpeted the sky beneath him. Takahashi sighed. He hated flying. He hated any disruption to his normal routine. A good mycologist’s existence is built on routine; it’s what gives him the ability to study such an intricate and exact discipline. ‘Still,’ he thought, ‘at least I’m moving now, it feels better to be moving.’ Those six hours spent waiting in the soulless terminal of Vienna’s international airport had been the worst. He’d longed to sleep after the tortuous twelve-hour flight from Narita but the harsh glare of the neon had prevented. He didn’t want to be there. He didn’t even want to be where he was headed all that much.
“Višegrad,” Prof. Kawamura had said to him.
“What?” he’d asked.
“Not what, where. Višegrad is where I am sending you.”
“Why is that?”
“Soil evaluations indicate ideal growth conditions and a recent article in a European wildlife magazine contains this.”
He flung across a cutting from some glossy periodical. Takahashi gazed at it, agape. “It can’t be!”
“Hygrophorus purpurascens. Unfortunately for us, the photographer was some amateur hiker. They didn’t realise what they’d found, they just thought it looked pretty. However, there’s the evidence, it seems it isn’t extinct after all!”
Yes indeed, the prospect of retrieving samples of a mushroom long thought to be extinct was mouth-watering, to be able to take them back to the lab, study them, cultivate them, unlock the secrets of a species. But to travel halfway across the world to do it! Couldn’t someone else have been given that job? Someone who enjoyed such activities!
“Where is this Višegrad?”
“Bosnia! Isn’t there a war on there?!”
“Takahashi-san, it is obvious that you study current affairs far less than you study mushrooms! That war finished thirteen years ago; don’t worry, you’ll be quite safe there.”
It was dark when Takahashi finally arrived in Višegrad. It had been a journey from hell. From his house to Narita an hour, then three hours waiting there, twelve hours to Vienna, six hours in that airport, an hour and a half’s flight to Sarajevo, then a long taxi drive to a small bus station on the edge of town, two hours waiting around there and then finally a two and a half hour drive to the town itself. Luckily, his bus stopped right outside the hotel that he’d booked into and so he’d just grabbed the key, gone straight upstairs and collapsed on the bed where he’d slept for fourteen hours straight. Now though, he was up, showered, refreshed and enjoying breakfast on the hotel’s terrace which overlooked a wide river with a beautiful old stone bridge traversing it. Takahashi counted the arches on the bridge as he ate his food; nine, ten, eleven! That sure was some bridge! Beyond the bridge were lush green mountains that reminded him of the Japan Alps of his boyhood home in Toyama-ken. They gave him a twinge of homesickness so to dispel it he beckoned the owner over and asked in careful English if he knew of anyone with a car who could…
“No English, no speak English!”
“Taxi, da, taxi.”
The man produced his mobile and made a call. Two minutes later there was a beep outside and the owner shouted to him, “Taxi, here!”
“Hello Mister Japan! Where you go?”
The driver of the taxi, a rather beaten up Peugeot estate, was a rotund man with a stained T-shirt, stubble and a broad smile. Looking like that, thought Takahashi, he would never have been able to get a taxi driving job in Japan. He was the archetypical village idiot but Takahashi was glad that this guy at least understood a modicum of English which would make things easier.
“I’d like to go here, to this place, Bikavac,” he explained. “I believe it is near to Višegrad.”
“You go Bikavac?!” The man looked surprised, but then again, if it was some really out of the way place then it would be surprising that a foreigner shouldwish to go there.
“Yes, I go to Bikavac.”
The village idiot shrugged his shoulders. “Ok man, we go.”
Getting in the car, Takahashi smelt a whiff of alcohol and when started, the village idiot’s driving certainly suggested a midday beer or two. ‘I just hope we get there in one piece,’ thought Takahashi.
“What’s your name Mister Japan?”
“My name is Takahashi Sumito, please, call me Sumito.”
“Ok man, my name is Dragan. But why you want go Bikavac man?”
“I am from a university and I need to study something in Bikavac.”
Dragan’s face lost its smile. “Studying what? There is nothing in Bikavac, only trees and flowers, man.”
“And mushrooms. I’m a mycologist, I study mushrooms.”
Takahashi drew a quick sketch of a mushroom on his notepad and showed it to Dragan. He was used to explaining his unusual specialism to bemused strangers. The driver’s face returned to it’s smile. “Ahh! Mushrooms! Gljive! Yes, many mushrooms in Bikavac! Good eating!”
Bikavac turned out to be a small village several kilometres from Višegrad. Or at least, it had been a small village once. There were still houses there but they were all either deserted, boarded up, charred remains or piles of rubble. Still, he was here for the hygrophorus purpurascens not to talk to the locals and mushrooms need no house to live in. “Can you pick me up at five please?” he asked Dragan.
“Five, no problem Sumi?o man.”
Takahashi began by making a rough sketch of the area using soil maps from the 1960s faxed over from the University of Sarajevo so that he knew exactly what he had to contend with and where best to search. Nowhere looked much like the photograph in the magazine but then there was no guarantee that the hygrophorus purpurascens would still be growing in that exact spot anyway. He would have to go through the whole area methodically. He had just finished mapping out the vicinity when a can pulled up on the road above him. From the light on the top and the word POLICIJA on the side, he knew exactly who it was.
The policemen got out and Takahashi walked up to them. They were both burly thickset men, somewhat akin to Dragan in their features but smarter, firmer in gait and with menacing eyes opposed to a smile. “Hello!” said Takahashi proffering a hand.
Both men took it in turn and then the first asked, “What you doing in Bikavac, mister?”
“I am a mycologist, I study mushrooms. I was sent by Teikyo University in Tokyo, Japan. We informed the University of Sarajevo that I was coming. This assisted actually by sending these soil maps here. Did they not tell you that I would be here?”
The policeman took the maps, studied them and then handed them to his colleague who also scrutinised them closely before, apparently satisfied, handing them back to Takahashi. “Sarajevo say nothing, but is ok. You study mushrooms only, yes? Nothing else?”
“No, no, only mushrooms. Don’t worry, I won’t be fishing without a permit or hiking across private property. Just looking for mushrooms.”
“Ok, no problem, don’t worry. We come only because we have to be careful… because of the war. Enjoy your time in Višegrad!”
They drove off and Takahashi watched the car disappear round the bend. “What friendly people they are here in Bosnia, I honestly thought they might start causing trouble, asking for bribes, but no, just curious,” he said to himself before returning to his search for the elusive hygrophorus purpurascens.
That evening Takahashi had dinner on the hotel terrace. He’d not found the hygrophorus purpurascens but that did not worry him – these searches could take weeks and even then prove unsuccessful. Such are the risks of mycology.
As he ate his steak he gazed across at that eleven-arched bridge. It was evidently famous locally for there were several pictures of it up in the hotel. Feeling bloated, Takahashi decided to walk off his meal with a stroll to it.
The walk was not far, not even a kilometre, and it took him through the heart of Višegrad. Not that that meant a great deal; a few shops, a bar, a bookmakers and a mosque. This was the kind of quiet mountain town where nothing ever happened. Just like the town he had grown up in.
The bridge itself though was something else. Wide and graceful, finely engineered and proportioned. A plaque at one end informed him in both Bosnian and English that it had been completed in 1577 on the orders of a Turkish Vizier who came from the area. It was now a UNESCO-protected monument and an author had once written a novel about it that had won the Nobel Prize. ‘I shall have to try and get hold of that when I get back to Tokyo,’ thought Takahashi as he stepped onto the cobbles.
He strolled across and found that in the middle the engineer had thoughtfully built an abutment with a stone seat for travellers and townspeople to rest on. Takahashi sat down and gazed at the dark swirling waters below. They reminded him of the waters of the Jinzu River that flowed past his boyhood home. As he sat on that seat he began recalling his childhood, long days paddling in the waters, homemade nab? and ramen, chasing dragonflies through the trees…
A voice broke him out of his reveries. “Hello! Do you speak English?”
He looked up. It was a man. A local man of about fifty, smartly-dressed with a friendly face. “Yes, I do,” Takahashi replied.
“Do you mind if I sit with you?”
“Not at all, please sit.”
“My name is Milan.”
“My name is Sumito, nice to meet you.”
“Sumito? So you are Japanese then?”
“Yes, I live in Tokyo.”
“And I live here, in Višegrad. I have done all my life. Are you visiting because of the bridge?”
“No, I’m here on business actually. Well, business of a sort. I’m a mycologist, I study mushrooms. I am hoping to find a particularly rare type in a village near here.”
“Oh well, I wish you luck. But please tell me, how do you find Višegrad?”
“It is a beautiful place, Milan, and friendly too.”
“Yes, it is a special place, very clean and quiet. Have you read the book about this bridge?”
“No, but I’d like to. I shall look for a copy when I get back to Japan.”
“There is no need, I can lend you one here.”
“I’m sorry, I meant a Japanese copy. I can read in English but translating all the time takes the pleasure out of it.”
“No, don’t worry, I meant a Japanese copy. We have a museum in the town dedicated to the writer and his book and they have copies in lots of different languages. I know the curator. He won’t mind if you borrow the Japanese copy for a while. Where are you staying?”
“The Motel Okuna, but really, you don’t have to…”
“I shall drop it off there tomorrow.”
“Thank you, thank you very much.
“No problem. I’m just happy to help a visitor to my town.”
The next day Takahashi again headed off for Bikavac. Having worked out the area on a grid section, he continued exploring likely locations for the hygrophorus purpurascens from north to south, starting on the western side. He searched all day and although he discovered some promising habitats, that holy grail of fungi remained elusive. As he worked he continued to come across deserted or ruined houses and he made a note to ask Dragan about them on the way back that evening. At one point he thought that the entire village must have been abandoned but then he saw an elderly woman wearing a headscarf working in a field in the distance. He stopped for a minute and watched her. She reminded him of his grandmother who had worn a similar kerchief and had worked bent double in the family rice paddies up until only a couple of years before her death aged eighty-seven. Takahashi looked around at the green mountains and realised that he was beginning to really like this place and its people, both so reminiscent of his own roots.
“Why are all the houses around here empty, Dragan?”
The taxi driver’s smile waned and a look of pain and sadness cross over his face. “Because of the war,” he said.
Takahashi asked no more.
When he got back to the Motel Okuka, the owner gave him a book. It was old and slightly tatty and on the front was printed The Bridge on the Drina in Japanese. Takahashi took it to his room, opened it carefully, inhaling the magical scent of its aged pages. He looked for the date of publication. ‘Kobun-sha Publishing House, Tokyo, 1972.’ He decided to read a couple of chapters a night.
After reading and dining Takahashi went for another stroll to the bridge which he was now better acquainted with, having read of its construction in the book. He walked to it and sat on the stone seat in the middle but this time there was no Milan to come and greet him so he watched the waters instead. In the evening sun they turned golden and it seemed to him as if the whole river were on fire. Although not a religious man, seeing such sights he could understand what had inspired men to build the mosque in the town centre and the white church that was perched on the hill above the houses. He muttered a prayer of his own as the sun sank beneath the mountains and then turned back.
“Sumi?! Sumi?!” Takahashi knew at once who it was. After all, he only knew three people in Višegrad and only Dragan had managed to turn his Japanese name into a Bosnian one.
The grinning taxi driver was sat in the bar, a glass of beer in his hand. “Come here man, we drink!” he shouted. Not wishing to offend, (and fancying a drink anyhow), he crossed the road, shook the beaming Bosnian by the hand and before he knew it a half litre of beer had appeared in front of him.
Dragan was obviously desperate for a conversation but his English failed him, it not being helped by his inebriation. Over a glass Takahashi told him that he was divorced, that he was forty-two, that he liked football and that he liked Višegrad. All of this pleased the taxi driver immensely who proceeded to inform Takahashi that he was thirty-three, unmarried and also liked football and Višegrad. And at that they parted, Takahashi turning down his friend’s offer of a second glass with the excuse that he had to work in the morning.
That morning Dragan was waiting at nine outside the hotel grinning from ear to ear as ever with no signs of his nocturnal inebriation save for the omnipresent whiff of alcohol on his person which Takahashi was beginning to suspect was merely a leftover from the night before and that his trusted taxi man was perhaps soberer than he had first thought.
Takahashi worked thoroughly all day and covered much ground but he did not find any trace of the secretive hygrophorus purpurascens although he did come across an extremely interesting cluster of gomphus clavatus which is almost as rare a fungus as that which he sought and encouraging since the two fungi tend to grow in the same areas. Again he had the fields to himself all day long save for about an hour before Dragan was due to pick him up when the same old woman crossed the land, this time carrying a basket. This time Takahashi was nearer to her so he waved and she stopped. He walked across and shouted “Zdravo!” (a greeting he’d learnt from Dragan the night before). She greeted him with a croaky “Zdravo!” and then took something from her basket and gave it to him. It was a large strawberry. Takahashi took it and ate it, the sweet juices filling his mouth. “Hvala!” he declared, (another word learnt off Dragan in the bar), and she smiled, gave him a handful of them and then, with a flurry of incomprehensible Bosnian, left. Once again Takahashi was touched by the warmth of the people. ‘But it is only natural,’ he thought to himself, looking around at the green mountains and clear blue sky, ‘that a people raised in such a beautiful place should turn out to be kind and good.’
That evening after dinner he read some more of the book and then went again on his now-customary stroll to the bridge. This time however, he never even got that far, for as he passed the bar he again heard “Sumi?! Sumi?!” called out by the grinning Dragan who was again nursing a large glass of beer. This evening though, he was not alone, for at the same table sat Milan and the two policemen that had visited Takahashi out in the fields. “Sumito, come and join us!” shouted Milan, and whilst he rather wanted to go on to the bridge, Takahashi knew that this was an offer he could not refuse, particularly since Milan had been so kind in lending him the book.
After greeting his two friends, Takahashi was formally introduced to the policemen, Igor and Radovan. Their English was, like Dragan’s, limited, but they used Milan as an interpreter and asked how Takahashi’s mushroom studying was going. He explained that he had not found what he was after yet, but that he had found another rare species so he was most encouraged. This interested Milan who enquired as to why Takahashi was searching for that particular fungi which made Takahashi explain all about his profession and how the hygrophorus purpurascens might contain properties useful for scientific research and in particular medicine, causing him to go onto a lengthy monologue detailing many of the cures that have been found by studying mushrooms. “To preserve life, that is truly a task ordained by God!” declared Milan, at which a toast was raised by all to a successful outcome to Takahashi’s endeavours.
Following that the conversation shifted to Bikavac itself which Takahashi described as a wonderful place in which to work because it was so beautiful and peaceful, which all agreed with, but then Takahashi added that it was a shame that so many houses had been abandoned because of the war and he asked how many people were now left in the village.
“Left? No one is left there now!” replied Milan.
“Really? Only I saw a woman in the fields the other day and today I came across her again.”
“Well, I don’t know who she was but she can’t have been from Bikavac,” said Milan. This prompted a discussion amongst the Bosnians as to where the nearest inhabited house was to which it was eventually concluded that it was well over a kilometre away.
The next day Takahashi continued his work with gusto. The finding of the gomphus clavatus had spurred him on and his growing friendship with the locals was strengthening him. Several beers after the discussion on mushrooms and Bikavac, Milan had invited Takahashi over to his house for dinner on Saturday and he was looking forward to the prospect of a home-cooked meal. So engrossed was he in his activities that he only noticed the boy when he was stood right in front of him.
“Zdravo!” said Takahashi.
“Zdravo!” the boy replied.
“Kako se zovete?”
“Sumito. I am Sumito.”
The boy looked at him quizzically, then turned and ran. “Chao!” he shouted as he disappeared into the trees.
“Are you sure there is no one left in Bikavac?”
“Nobody, man… because of the war,” replied Dragan whilst overtaking on a blind corner.
“I met a boy today, in the fields. He said his name was Edin.”
Dragan swerved then regained control. “Too many fucking holes!” he said, gesturing at the road. “This boy, maybe is gypsy boy. Bad people Sumi?, man, bad fucking people. Better you no talking with gypsies. Too many fucking problems these people.”
That night Takahashi strolled out to the bridge again. No one accosted him from the bar this time so he sat on the seat at the centre of the bridge for a while instead. Whilst doing so his eyes drifted over the town to the pretty white church perched on the hillside above it. ‘Why not take a closer look? He thought to himself.
The climb was stiff but invigorating. The church was locked but the views over the town and the valley beyond were spectacular. Below the church was a cemetery full of new graves. Takahashi wandered into it. Unlike in Japan, here each grave had a picture of the deceased chiselled on it. There were young men and old men, smiling and happy. They looked like the men that Takahashi had shared a drink with the night before. Then he noticed the dates. All had died in 1992. All were soldiers that had died in the war.
Takahashi walked through the silent rows of the dead and at the bottom of the cemetery noticed a figure knelt in front of one of the tombs. Takahashi tried to decipher the words on the stone:
1972 – 1992
The man knelt in front of the grave looked up and Takahashi gave a start. It was Milan. “My brother,” he said. There were tears in his eyes. “Because of the war…”
It was Saturday and Takahashi’s search for the hygrophorus purpurascens had entered its fifth day. He’d covered most of the ground outlined on his sketch map and the possibility of defeat was now beginning to creep into his mind. He resolved to complete the area that he’d initially sketched out before the evening and, if unsuccessful, return the next day to see how best to expand his search.
Again he worked hard under the Balkan sun and again he became so engrossed in his endeavours that he failed to notice the approach of strangers.
He looked up. It was Edin. This time the boy was accompanied by someone else, a pretty dark-haired girl of around eighteen.
“Zdravo! What is your name?” She held out her hand and he shook it. She had lovely dark eyes, full of the vitality of youth.
“My name is Sumito, Takahashi Sumito.”
“My name is Zehra. I’m Edin’s sister.”
“Nice to meet you, Zehra. Do you live near here?”
“Yes of course, in that house over there.”
Takahashi looked but he could only see one of the ruins that he’d searched around three days before.
“What are you doing here, Sumito?”
“I am looking for mushrooms – gljive. I am a doctor in a university in Japan, a doctor of mushrooms. I study them you see.”
“We have lots of mushrooms here, my mother cooks with them.”
“Yes, but I am looking for a very special, a very rare type of mushroom.”
“What is it called?”
“It is called the hygrophorus purpurascens. Look, here’s a picture of one.” He pulled out the magazine article and gave it to Zehra. She studied it intently and then smiled.
“I’ve seen these mushrooms before, I know where they grow. Come!”
She turned and ran, her youthful legs skimming over the grass, her brother trailing in her wake. Takahashi, so methodical and careful resented leaving his work half done, but this was a unique chance, a stab in the dark but maybe…
Besides, he wanted to look into her eyes again. They made him feel alive.
He bounded over the grass after them, field after field, through some trees, weaving left and right, jumping over boulders, branches, a brook, then out into the open again and before them another house, this one a charred shell.
“Here you are, Sumito,” said Zehra, pointing at a tree near to the house. “Those mushrooms have always grown here.”
Takahashi looked. There were fungi there, definitely there were but what kinds… surely… no, it can’t be… yes, it is… there they are… hygrophorus purpurascens!
“Thank… you… thank you….so much!” he exclaimed, falling to his knees to examine the fungi, still breathless from the chase.
“Don’t forget us!” said Zehra.
“I won’t, you’ll get a mention in my research,” said Takahashi looking up at those dark eyes.
But Zehra and Edin had gone.
Milan’s house was a medium-sized dwelling on one of the side-streets near to the church. Takahashi was greeted at the door by his host whom he handed the now-read book to. He was then introduced to Milan’s wife, Nevena, a charming lady, who served up a tasty home cooked meal whilst their two lovely children, Ivan and Anastasia smiled as they practised their English and asked questions about Takahashi’s homeland which he described – honestly – as being much like Višegrad: warm in summer, cold in winter, surrounded by green mountains and gushing rivers and peopled by the friendliest, most welcoming people that you could imagine.
“But enough of that,” said Milan when they had finished eating. “Please tell me Sumito, how long shall you be staying with us here in Višegrad?”
“How long? No time at all actually. Today I managed to locate and take samples of the fungus that I was looking for and so I have no reason to stay further. I was planning on leaving tomorrow.”
“Really?! Well, congratulations on your success, but please, I ask you, tomorrow is Sunday, a day off. Delay your departure for a day and let me take you somewhere, show you a little of the area.”
“Well, I don’t know…”
“Alright then and thank you, thank you again for your kindness.”
Milan came alone. He smiled as he shook Takahashi’s hand and showed him to the car. As they drove along Takahashi commented that it was a shame that so many houses were empty now because of the war.
“War is terrible, but sometimes necessary. You have read our history in the book that I lent you. There has been fighting here for centuries, but do not fear because with time young ones shall be born who will move into those houses and make them new again.”
“Tell me about the war Milan, I know nothing about it.”
“We had to fight for our country, for our way of life. I lost friends, my brother. It is not easy to talk about.”
“In Japan when I was a child no one talked about the war. My own father, he was in China for five years, Manchuria, Shanghai, Nanking. He never spoke about it, what he did and saw there.”
“I understand why he was like that,” said Milan staring straight ahead.
They pulled up by the river. There was a bridge across and on the other side a church surrounded by buildings. “This is the monastery of Dobrun,” said Milan, “one of the oldest in Serbia. For seven hundred years people have prayed here.”
Inside the church was still and empty. Milan handed Takahashi a candle. “Light this and say a prayer,” he instructed. Takahashi lit it and bowed before the pictures of the ancient gods of that place. He thanked them for enabling him to find the hygrophorus purpurascens and for the welcome that he’d received in Višegrad before finally asking for a safe journey back. It reminded him of praying in the shrine near to his childhood home.
When he had finished they stepped outside. “This church was blown up in 1945 by the Germans,” said Milan. “Only that wall there was left standing, we had to rebuild everything. That has always been the way with us. We just want to live in our own way but all throughout our history foreigners have come and attacked my people and faith. The Turks, the Austrians, the Croats and the Germans. We have always had to fight just to live.”
Takahashi now realised that there were differences between his home and Milan’s. “I read of much suffering in the novel about the bridge,” he said quietly.
“That only tells a part of it,” replied Milan.
They went back to the town and into the bar. “This is your last night in Višegrad,” said Milan, “you must enjoy it!”
And enjoy it they did; beer after beer, then rakiya. Takahashi was so glad he had found a brother in this far-off place. His homesickness was gone, he didn’t want to leave.
The church bell tolled midnight and Milan got up. “Sumito my friend, let us sit on the bridge one last time!” he announced.
Away from the bar all was silent. Beneath the stone arches the dark waters swirled noiselessly, their power immense yet hidden. Supporting each other the two brothers made their way to the centre of the bridge where they sat on the stone seat and drank in the silence.
Then, after a long pause, Milan spoke. “Even this bridge is a symbol of our misery.”
“When it was built a man, a Christian Serb man, was impaled alive by the Turks right where we are sitting. They say it took a whole day for him to die. Whenever I sit here I try to imagine the pain that he was in and the humiliation of being skewered there like a dog by the apostate Turks. When I think of him, I long to avenge his death.”
Takahashi said nothing but looked at his friend. Milan’s face was transformed; his eyes were wild, his expression crazed.
“For centuries those Mohammedean dogs humiliated us, killed our men, raped our women, kidnapped our sons, enslaved us here in our own homeland!”
Takahashi felt uncomfortable. This was a different Milan, a distant man. He wanted to bring his old friend back, to become brothers once more. He thought of the book.
“In the book I read of a young girl, a bride, who threw herself off this bridge to escape her marriage.”
“Young girls, women, boys, falling into the waters, down, down, down…” The Bosnian was as if in a trance, his gaze far away, in a different time or place.
“Milan my friend, I have to go now…”
The Bosnian turned around, saw Takahashi and snapped out of his trance. A smile crossed his face and he clasped his friend on the shoulder. “Yes, we must go now! We have drank too much and our beds call us!”
TWO YEARS LATER
Takahashi is in Europe again. He is attending an International Mycological Congress in Edinburgh as the representative of the Japanese Mycological Society. After the congress has finished he decides to make a holiday of it and visit his old friends in Bosnia. He again flies into Sarajevo and again takes the bus to Višegrad. He again books into the Motel Okuna and when he calls for a taxi he is again met by Dragan who again takes him to Bikavac so that he may revisit the scene of his great mycological triumph. In the car coming back, he asks after Milan.
“Milan is no here in Višegrad now, Sumi? man.” Dragan’s smile has faded.
“Where is he?” Takahashi is surprised.
“He is in Holland.”
“Yes, Holland, city Hague. In the prison.”
“Milan in prison?! Why?!”
“Because of the war.”
Back at the hotel Takahashi takes out his laptop and connects to the internet. He types in Milan, Višegrad, war, Hague. Page upon page comes up. Takahashi reads, shaking his head, not wanting to believe, having to accept.
He walks out in the moonlight, out to the bridge. The words roll through his brain mercilessly. Bikavac fire… atrocity… sixty Bosniaks… mostly women and children… herded into the house of Meho Alji?… locked in… burnt alive. The house where the hygrophorus purpurascens was found. The house that Zehra and Edin showed him. No! It can’t be! He was so nice, so friendly, so welcoming, a friend, a brother.
Višegrad. Thousands killed. Bosniaks tied to cars and dragged through the streets… children thrown from the bridge and shot at before they hit the water. Takahashi remembers those wild eyes, that crazed expression, those words. “Young girls, women, boys, falling into the water, down, down…” He knows it is all the truth.
Sumito Takahashi starts to walk across the bridge, the bridge where a man was impaled alive; the bridge from which a young bride flung herself to her death; the bridge over which countless invaders crossed; the bridge off which his friend…
There are some people sat on the stone seat in its centre. Takahashi recognises them. It’s the old woman in the headscarf, it’s Edin and it’s Zehra. They have not aged. They never will. Takahashi looks into her dark eyes full of youth, hope, future. “Do not forget us,” she says softly. “I shall not,” he replies, longing to touch them, hold them, save them.
But they are gone and Takahashi is alone. He gazes down into the dark, swirling waters below and cries silent tears for the dead and the living.
The Bikavac Fire was a real event although the real Bikavac is not as described in the story and still has some residents. Meho Alji?’s house does not remain as a charred shell; it was demolished by the Serbian authorities in an attempt to destroy the evidence of the massacre. At the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at the Hague, the fire was described by the prosecuting judge, Patrick Robinson in the following words:
‘In the all too long, sad and wretched history of man’s inhumanity to man, the Pionirska street and Bikavac fires must rank high. At the close of the twentieth century, a century marked by war and bloodshed on a colossal scale, these horrific events stand out for the viciousness of the incendiary attack, for the obvious premeditation and calculation that defined it, for the sheer callousness and brutality of herding, trapping and locking the victims in the two houses, thereby rendering them helpless in the ensuing inferno, and for the degree of pain and suffering inflicted on the victims as they were burnt alive.’
There was a war criminal called Milan Luki? who was sentenced to Life at the Hague. He is not necessarily the man depicted in this story. Similarly, he has a brother named Sredoje but in real-life the brother was not killed in the fighting and instead was sentenced along with Milan, his term thirty years. Six more men received sentences of ten years plus for the Višegrad Massacres of 1992. Hundreds of Bosniaks were killed by being thrown off the bridge. In the summer of 2010, when the waters of Lake Peru?ac and the Drina upstream of the lake were lowered as a result of maintenance work on the Bajina Basta dam, remains of over three hundred victims were retrieved for identification. Everything else; the Motel Okuna, Dragan the taxi driver, the bar and the cemetery by the white church are all real. The impaling of a man on the bridge and the bride who threw herself to her death off it are both to be found in Ivo Andri?’s novel Bridge on the Drina. In 2011 I visited Višegrad and, like Sumito Takahashi, I was made very welcome.
Written Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, June 2011
Copyright © 2011, Matthew E. Pointon
© Copyright 2016 Matthew E Pointon. All rights reserved.
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