Goražde: The Bridge under the Bridge

I have always had a fondness for the small town, greatly preferring it to the large city. I grew up in provincial England and have, perhaps, taken this bias towards towns with me to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

As a foreigner in Bosnia, I live in Sarajevo and am, of course, extremely fond of that wonderful city, but it is a historical settlement nestled in the provinces, not the metropolis at the heart of the country, that I am most taken by.

While the city of Sarajevo has much to offer, I am concerned that there is a worthy town going overlooked by foreign travellers. It is a pleasant and resilient place, but its name is little known beyond the bounds of the former Yugoslavia.

It sits 100 kilometres to Sarajevo’s east. Goražde[i] is a town worthy of its nickname, ‘City of Heroes.’

Goražde is small, with a population of no more than 20,000, many of whom live in a string of villages that might be called the suburbs of the town. From the hills above the town proper is a small collection of streets crossing back and forth, with the largest buildings being clustered apartment blocks in the centre. Goražde is, nevertheless, a place of status. It is the seat of the cantonal government of Bosnian-Podrinje Canton Goražde, one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s ten such cantons in the Federation entity.[ii]

Goražde sits on the banks of the Drina, which to the north forms the border between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, and to the south runs through Bosnia towards Montenegro. It is a great river, certainly to someone from the insignificant south west of England, where rivers tend to be shallow and tepid.

The tree-covered mountains rise up either side of the city and the river runs wide and deep through it, creating a distinct sense of grandeur that is both arresting and charming and, from a distance, makes small Goražde look as if it dominates the valley it sits in. The scenic, mountainous nature that much of the former Yugoslavia has been noted for is certainly in abundance in the areas surrounding Goražde.

The Drina’s blue waters are the pride of Goražde. When it was recently announced that construction was to disrupt the banks of the river, Goraždans launched a campaign against it. They have been protesting the building of the proposed wall, demonstrating a united will to protect their Drina and their town’s connection with it. Official websites, too, boast of the town’s connection with the river, proclaiming, for example, ‘nowhere else is the Drina River as beautiful, strong and defiant as in Goražde.’[iii]

In the centre of the town, linking the Drina’s two banks, is the Alija Izetbegović Bridge, named for Bosnia’s first President and post-war Presidency member. As far as bridges go, Alija Izetbegović bridge is rather smart, with all the trimmings – railings and lampposts and the like – of a town bridge. That is to say, it is pleasant, but unremarkable. Beneath the smart blue railings and lampposts, beneath the very bridge itself, is something else altogether.

Most ispod mosta – the bridge under the bridge – was constructed during the Bosnian War as a means to keep safe those needing to cross from one side of the town to the other safe. It hangs, mere wooden boards kept aloft by cable and railing, looking haphazard but very much capable of serving the very necessary purpose it had to serve. 

The Bosnian War in the 1990s saw Eastern Bosnia devastated. While the region was subjected to a wave of ethnic cleansing by the Bosnian Serb Army and paramilitaries, Goražde was the only designated UN Safe Area in Eastern Bosnia that did not fall.

Goražde spent most of the war under siege. The mountains surrounding the city left its citizens vulnerable to snipers and subjected to shelling from the hills. A memorial in the town centre, near the bridge, remembers the, at a minimum, 120 children who were victims of the war in Goražde.

With this backdrop, the ‘bridge under the bridge’ was conceived. The existing bridge offered no protection to people crossing the Drina and, as such,  then-Head of Traffic Services, Selver Sijerčić, conceived of the idea and was assisted in its creation by the Head of the Construction Service, Rifet Džambegović.[iv] With colleagues they discussed how to connect the two sides of the town, to maintain communication and access to the hospital.

Materials were moved through the night, in the fog of the early morning, and those building it most certainly risked their lives under the bridge in the heart of a town under siege, working above the fast-flowing Drina. What they did was to create a lifeline that saved hundreds throughout the rest of the war.

The first time I saw Goražde was in 2017. I was travelling through with my father, who in 2001 had lived and worked in the small town of Višegrad close to the Serbian border and who had travelled to Goražde regularly in that time with the International Police Training Force, which was present in Bosnia. Goražde, he had assured me, was pleasant but uninteresting. We passed through the town, rather than actually visiting it. I am sure many people would do the same, especially foreigners like us who are most certainly none the wiser. We are ignorant until we find something surprising.

I want to note here I am not driven by some ‘look what I discovered’ sentiment in my writing about my fondness for this remarkable town, though I know my very position as ‘the Westerner’ doing so frames this as a colonial task. I write in the hope that outsiders do notice and appreciate this town and its bridge, as it serves not only as a symbol of the war for Goraždans, but for us, and for our abandonment as an international community of Bosnia and Herzegovina and its people. More than that, for our denying the resources needed to defend themselves.

Two years later, when studying in Sarajevo, I ended up in Goražde again. With two friends from the UK, we had taken a wrong turn (we were bound for Višegrad, further north) and ended up travelling through the mountains on a winding road that emerged well above Goražde before plotting a path down to the town. When I messaged my very dear Goraždan friend where we were, he roundly told me off for having been so foolish as to take the wrong turn and not ask him for directions beforehand. He did, however, offer some advice for Goražde, where we had stopped for coffee: go and see the bridge under the bridge.

I am very glad he did.

We saw the bridge, and a very friendly man led us onto the bridge to see the photographs of wartime Goražde displayed there. I think it is safe to say my friends and I were all a little taken aback. The bridge under the bridge is not grand, nor big. It is hidden (which is rather the point) and is easy to miss hanging beneath the unassuming Alija Izetbegović Bridge in the town centre.

I have thought about it a great deal since and have found myself visiting it since too.

This bridge saved lives. It still stands as a monument to that, to the losses of the war and to the town’s ultimate survival. It is a source of local pride, certainly. It is, I am pleased to say, illuminated these days after renovations made in the last few years. Though of course, even this monument to heroism is not necessarily protected from the ill-advised whims of local authority planning, as demonstrated when in 2019 controversy arose over a Turkish-funded plan to replace Alija Izetbegović Bridge, and the bridge hanging beneath it, with a new stone crossing. This plan, mercifully, was opposed and ultimately abandoned.[v] Hopefully it shall be defended as successfully in coming years.

Unfortunately, despite the bridge’s storied past, it is almost unknown outside of the town. Mentioned in passing occasionally, but broadly overlooked. There are certainly some news articles that talk enthusiastically of this symbol of bravery, but they tend to be in Bosnian and thus, sadly, inaccessible to the outsider. Wikipedia gives it a passing mention, but in the guidebooks where you would hope to find something more substantial than a Wikipedia article there is nothing. One guidebook on Bosnia and Herzegovina notes bluntly of Goražde that ‘there aren’t any don’t miss attractions for visitors.’

I do regret having missed it during my first visit and I hope others will not make that mistake. My father – who on a weekly basis passed through Goražde for several months – was himself a little surprised when I mentioned the bridge under the bridge to him. He will surely seek it out should he pass Goražde again. And there is certainly hope that the city’s pride in its story and its bridge as evidence of that story will be told more widely in future. I take heart from the fact that while news articles from a few years ago note that Goražde did not then even have a city museum,[vi] today the town boasts a small one in its Cultural Centre. The Cantonal Tourist Authority has also made space for the bridge’s story, proudly asserting that the sight of it leaves no-one indifferent, tourist or local, and forms a key part of Goražde’s attractions.[vii]

And yet, here I am, sharing this story. I hope others do. I hope Goražde is better known and its bridge regarded as a fine example of the ingenuity of a people whose town faced desperate circumstances.

I know, of course, there are other towns throughout Bosnia with stories that deserve to be told. But there is something emotive, indeed, something stirring, at the sight of a tangible demonstration of resilience such as this bridge. This is important not only for Goražde but for wider Bosnia and Herzegovina, as for outsiders this bridge is a lasting demonstration of the town’s struggle.  A struggle which the outside world, and us in the West, left Bosnia and Herzegovina to fight alone. It is thus important that we should confront the consequences of our abandonment.

So it is that we return to the tension between the city and the town I mentioned at the start of this article. Sarajevo was also under siege, and its story is – rightly – well-known. Visitors to Sarajevo can and should see the ‘Tunnel of Hope’, which acted as a lifeline between the isolated city and the outside world during those difficult years. And visitors do see the Tunnel. It is relatively widely described, discussed and promoted. It is a ‘don’t-miss attraction’. People visit the city, but people miss this town. This is, of course true of many towns in the country, which lie away from the paths taken by many visitors. But these places are certainly worthy of appreciation and recognition. Visitors would, undoubtedly, be as taken by these smaller towns as I was by Goražde.

Goražde deserves a mention, and so I have tried to do that. This ‘City of Heroes’, Goražde, is a town that should not be missed. It has a story that should be told, and a bridge which acts as a monument so very poignant as to surely bring home to anyone the lengths that Goraždans went to during those dark years of siege.

[i] While technically and administratively a city, I refer to Goražde as a town not in an attempt to diminish it, but to differentiate it from larger cities like Sarajevo. Indeed, in Bosnia and Herzegovina the only official designation other than ‘city’ is ‘municipality,’ which also leaves much to be desired. As such, I use ‘town’ in the sense of a settlement significantly smaller than the other cities the country boasts, but not so small to be relegated to merely a ‘municipality’

[ii] One of two such ‘entities’ within Bosnia and Herzegovina, the other being Republika Srpska. A sub-state level of government with a high level of autonomy.

[iii] Turistička zajednica BPK Goražde, ‘Cultural and Historical Monuments’, [website], <http://www.turizam-bpk.ba/v1/index.php/en/bpk-gorazde/archaeological-sites/cultural-and-historical-monuments>, accessed 24 June 2020.

[iv] E. Geca, ‘Goražde: Propada ratni most pod mostom’, Al Jazeera Balkans (in Bosnian), [website], 11 April 2015, <http://balkans.aljazeera.net/vijesti/gorazde-propada-ratni-most-pod-mostom>, accessed 24 June 2020.

[v] E. A., 2019, ‘Načelnik Goražda Muhamed Ramović: Neću dopustiti rušenje mosta Alije Izetbegovića’, Klix.ba (in Bosnian), [website], 26 July 2020,<https://www.klix.ba/vijesti/bih/nacelnik-gorazda-muhamed-ramovic-necu-dopustiti-rusenje-mosta-alije-izetbegovica/190726113>, accessed 24 June 2020.

[vi] E. Geca, ‘Goražde: Propada ratni most pod mostom’, Al Jazeera Balkans (in Bosnian), [website], 11 April 2015, <http://balkans.aljazeera.net/vijesti/gorazde-propada-ratni-most-pod-mostom>, accessed 24 June 2020.

[vii] Turistička zajednica BPK Goražde, ‘Cultural and Historical Monuments’, [website], <http://www.turizam-bpk.ba/v1/index.php/en/bpk-gorazde/archaeological-sites/cultural-and-historical-monuments>, accessed 24 June 2020.

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Published by Asfar in London, UK - ISSN 2055-7957 (Online)