Can we all get along?

Warning:  Graphic depictions of violence and history are contained in this post!

Although I’ve blogged about the beauty of the Adriatic coast, there is much more worth saying about our experiences in Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia, and Slovenia.   Our travels through these countries that once comprised the nation of Yugoslavia would have been impossible ten years ago.  The break-up of Yugoslavia from 1991 through much of the first decade of the 21st century had been bloody and, at times, genocidal.  There is a certain strangeness to the enjoyment of tourist activities in a region of the world that had, until very recently, been experiencing so much suffering.

Our home for the first few weeks of July was only a few miles from Dubrovnik, a beautiful old city of red-roofed buildings surrounded by a high, continuous wall, which in turn is almost completely surrounded by the blue Adriatic.

The city wall, (and its attached forts) were built in the 15th Century to repel attackers.  It wasn’t used for this purpose until late in the 20th Century.

I still recall the news reports of the tragic bombardment of Dubrovnik in 1991.  This city is a historic treasure on the southern tip of Croatia.  When Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, the war centered in northern Croatia.  It was a tremendous surprise when the Serb-led forces of Yugoslavia then attacked Dubrovnik, especially because this threatened a world-heritage site that seemed to have no strategic value.   The siege of Dubrovnik is one of several horrific events that turned world opinion against the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav government.  Although the Croatian army was occupied with battles to the north, a few dozen soldiers were able to dig in on Mt. Srd (prounounced Surge), which rises immediately above the walled city, to prevent the Yugoslav army from using it to lob artillery shells straight down on the city.

Still the Yugoslavs attacked the historic section of the city from other points, shelling the ancient buildings and walls.  Rather than leaving the city, many residents took cover inside their homes and in the forts at the corners of the city walls.  Some defended the city with whatever weaponry they could muster (in some cases hunting rifles) and held out for eight months until the Croatian army was able to make its way down from the north and drive off the Yugoslav attackers.   There were over a thousand Croat casualties in Dubrovnik, and two-thirds of the buildings in the historic old-town were damaged.  Dubrovnik, for reasons of national pride as well as economic recovery from war, has worked incredibly hard over just two decades to make the damage invisible, but in the walk that we took atop the walls of the old city with our friends Shaun and John,

repaired damage was not hard to spot …in the lighter colored, newly mortared patterns of stone and in the brighter patches of red tile in the roofs of buildings throughout the city.

Note the repaired, bright red roofs next to the older, darker roofs.

The four of us also attended the opening of a yearly summer arts festival, which featured fireworks over the city.  The fireworks were preceded by three or four loud blasts of what sounded like cannon fire – which rattled our insides.  Then fireworks filled the air over Dubrovnik, and it was impossible for me to imagine how anyone who had survived the siege of Dubrovnik would be able to endure the evening.

On the city walls of old-town Dubrovnik

A week later the four of us travelled to northern Croatia… to one of the world’s most beautiful national parks – Plitvice Jazera.  I described the beauty of this place in my last post, but here are a few more photos to serve as a reminder:

Plitvice Jezera is where the war between Croatia and Serb-led Yugoslavia had begun.  When Croatia declared its independence, there were over a half million people of Serbian ancestry in Croatia, many of them living in the area around Pitvice.  The new, extreme right-wing Croatian leader, Franjo Tudman (pronounced Tujman), began reintroducing some of the politics and symbols of the Croatian Ustase (a WW II-era puppet Nazi government of Croatian nationalists that had conducted a campaign of genocide against Serbs, resulting in hundreds of thousands of executions in concentration camps).  People of Serbian ancestry in Croatia were terrified and declared their own independence from the rest of Croatia, and aided by the Serbian-led Yugoslav army, established their own independent nation of Serbian Krajina in the northeastern region surrounding Plitvice.   This was one of the places made infamous by Serbian forces who conducted their own genocidal campaign of “ethnic cleansing ” against the Croats,  another event that turned world opinion against the Yugoslav army, and eventually resulted in the trial of (Serbian) Yugoslav leader Slobadan Milosevic for war crimes.  Many thousands simply disappeared; mass graves are still being found.   The Croatian army retaliated three years later after acquiring more sophisticated weaponry, and brought an end to Serbian Krajina, killing thousands of Serbian Croats and demolishing the homes of many others in the process.   So many were killed or driven out of Croatia that very few of the half-million Croats of Serbian ancestry remain in Croatia presently.  U.S. media vilified the Serbs, and not without reason, but there seems to have been plenty of villainy to go around.  This seems to be one of the consequences of war.  Neither the Serbs nor the Croats can claim to have clean hands or hearts.  The thought that this much ugliness and bloodshed had its origins in Plitvice National Park, which has such an abundance of life and beauty, is impossible for me to fathom.

It was in Bosnia-Herzegovena that we saw the most striking effects of the war in our travels.  The Dubrovnik area is within a half-hour’s drive of Bosnia-Herzogovena.  In her recent blog, Lois discussed a trip we took to the Bosnian town of Mostar.   We could see bombed-out buildings in small villages on the road leading to Mostar.  Bosnia-Herzogovena combines two regions, most of which is the largely Muslim Bosnia in the northern and central parts, but a smaller part of which is the largely Serbian (and thus Orthodox Christian) Herzegovena in the most southerly regions.  Croats (who are Roman Catholics) are sprinkled throughout the country.  Overall, the whole of Bosnia-Herzegovena is more Muslim than anything else, although its Serbs and Croats form a substantial minority.  Boznia-Herzegovena is one of the most diverse Balkan nations.  When Bosnia-Herzegovena declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, the Bosnian Serb minority wanted to remain part of a Serb-controlled Yugoslavia.  They responded by….of course….creating their own Serbian state within Bosnia-Herzegovena, led by Radovan Karadzic and supported by the Serb-led Yugoslav forces.  Aided by those forces, they began a campaign of “ethnic cleansing,” this time against the largely Muslim Bosnians, and they conducted it with a viciousness born of generations of hatred and ethnic and religious prejudice – employing concentration camps and indiscriminate killings of families (including women and children), as well as mass rapes, which were the subject of many news reports during the 1990’s.  Croats in Bosnia also demanded their own state, creating a large-scale “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” scenario with the Bosniaks in the middle.  The Bosnian town of Mostar was actually bombarded by Croats, not Serbs.  This is an exquisite town on the banks of the beautiful Neretva  River.

The town is filled with elegant Muslim minarets as well as Catholic bell towers;

and a lovely walkway flanked by stands offering artisan products for sale,

including beautiful jewelry, clothing, rugs, ceramics, and, more disturbingly, a conglomeration of items that had been fashioned from the bits of battle paraphernalia that have been so easy to find in Mostar since the time of the war.  The array of ballpoint pens made from bullet-shell casings was especially chilling and left me wondering how people who have experienced such indescribable suffering at the hands of war can use the trappings of that same war to support themselves afterwards.

In the middle of this walkway was a historic bridge – called “Stari Most” (Old Bridge).  It was built in the 16th Century on the orders of Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, a name that our friend John announced, to our surprise, that he intended to adopt for himself.  We now address him as “Your Magnificence” for short.  This led to a naming frenzy in which Shaun took on the name Dushan the Mighty, after a 14th Century Serbian emperor who kept the peace in the towns of the Montenegrin Bay of Kotor by hacking off the limbs of criminals.  I know this curtailed any shoplifting impulses I might have otherwise had on our trips together (well, that and the fact that they named me St. George – probably due to my irritating tendency to wander into old churches).  Lois was dubbed Queen Teuta, after 3rd Century BC Illyrian queen who controlled the narrow Verige Strait of the Bay of Kotor by ordering the placement of a shipwrecking device in the strait that would serve as incentive for ships to pay taxes to her – a strategy that, as a professional finance manager, Lois expressed admiration for.  Still something about the name didn’t sound quite right for Lois; so we appended it, and she became Queen Teuta Matata.

My apologies for the frivolous interlude above.  It is inexcusable, and it won’t happen again.  I now return to the topic of the original Suleyman the Magnificent’s Old Bridge in Mostar.

The bridge was the longest single-arch stone bridge in the world in the 16th Century.  Mostar residents were so fond of the bridge that they often referred to it as “Old Friend.”

This photo is not of the original bridge; it is a reconstruction using rock from the same quarry as the original and rebuilt according to the original design.  Despite their campaigns of brutality against each other, Croatian and Serbian leaders had agreed to carve up Bosnia-Herzegovena between them, and Mostar was to be part of the new Croatia, to the great surprise of the Bosniaks.  As they had in Dubrovnik, Croat forces had secured the high ground of a mountain overlooking the bridge,

however, in this case they were not the victims but rather the perpetrators of the destruction of a cherished historic monument, raining down artillery fire on the bridge until the Old Friend collapsed into the Neretva, the disintegrating pink mortar in the bridge turning the Neretva’s blue-green waters red as it fell.  What happened to the bridge is representative of what happened to the entire city of Mostar.  It was essentially destroyed, and the rebuilding of Mostar, although well underway, lags well behind the rebuilding of Dubrovnik, as can be seen in this photo.

Note the hole in the white building on the right caused by artillery.

The eventual political compromise for Bosnia-Herzegovena resulted in a nation divided into three virtually autonomous entities, one of which is the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska.  On our return from Mostar, we drove through Srpska.  Although there is no border crossing, it is clear when you are there: the churches are Orthodox; the highway signs are written only in Cyrillic; and a Serbian-style flag replaces the Boznia-Herzegovenan flag.

Lois’ blog mentions the difficulties we had with currency in Trebinje, a beautiful city in the Sprska region.  Rather than conduct a $2.50 transaction using kuna (a currency used 20 minutes across the border in Croatia) the coffee shop proprietor spent 25 minutes tracking down a less offensive currency (the euro) in which to conduct business.

The question that hangs in the Balkan air is whether the current peace will last.   Although I’m quite sure that most residents of what was once Yugoslavia dearly wish the answer to that question were “yes,” it is not an answer that they are prone to give.  We spoke to a woman who said that she remained in her home country of Montenegro only because she loved the land.

Montenegro’s Bay of Kotor

The people of the Balkans (and, to some extent, Europeans in general) she seemed to regard with disgust, saying that they are incapable of shedding their narrow and hateful attitudes toward their neighbors.  She had spent 20 years living in America, and admired Americans for what she considered their more open attitudes.  I was surprised to hear a Montenegrin woman say this…for several reasons.  Montenegro, having had close ties with Serbia, was not subject to hostilities with the Serb-led Yugoslavian government; so it escaped damage during the wars surrounding the dissolution of Yugoslavia.  But it had sustained tremendous suffering at the hands of the Americans during World War II.  The taxi driver who took us to the airport in Montenegro’s capital of Podgerice for our flight to Slovenia mentioned to us that more bombs were dropped on the city of Podgerice than on any other city in World War II with the exception of Dresden, Germany.  The Nazis had occupied much of Montenegro after Italy had essentially surrendered to the Allies in 1943, and toward the end of the war as the Nazis were retreating from Greece and Albania, the Americans conducted at least three major bombing attacks on Podgerice in order to root out the Germans.  Of course, the casualties from the bombing were largely Montenegrins, and Montenegrins to this day question both the legitimacy and the need for the bombings.  It is something that Americans are largely unaware of, but most Montenegrins have not forgotten.

We were surprised to hear a rather pessimistic message a few weeks later from a Slovenian museum historian.  We had arrived less than a half-hour before closing, but she very generously kept the museum open for us long afterward.  She lingered with us for the better part of an hour, eager to share with two Americans her insights about the history of Yugoslavia, Italy, Germany and Austria from World War I to the present.  I mentioned my own reaction to news reports about Yugoslavia in the late 1980’s in which the Yugoslavs being interviewed by reporters discussed the upcoming war as though it were inevitable.  My reaction at the time had been that they clearly do not know whereof they speak.  If they only realized that they were accepting the inevitability of their friends having their throats slit, their daughters being raped, their sons being blown to bits and their homes being destroyed, surely they would not accept war as inevitable.  When I said this to the museum historian, she replied that it was these very sorts of things that had caused hatred to fester within people through the generations, making them even more inclined to resort to war in the future.  It is a cycle she found reprehensible but could see no escape from.  Even though Slovenia was able to secede from Yugoslavia with relative ease in 1991 (their independence was gained after only ten days of fighting with Yugoslavia), she regarded the current period of peace in the Balkans as a mere pause in a war that was not over.

The conflict that had torn Slovenia apart occurred over a century ago — World War I, a war that many historians to this day consider avoidable.  The event that is generally regarded as having started the “War to End All Wars” was the assassination of the heir to the Hapsburg throne by a Serbian nationalist.  As Italy entered the war, it quickly attacked Austrian-controlled towns in the mountains of Slovenia, just across the border in the valley of the Soce River, the beautiful turquoise river that cuts through the Slovenian Alps, which I described in my last post.

Soce River


There followed a brutal alpine war of attrition that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths by everything from artillery, to gunfire, to poison gas, to hypothermia.  Conditions in the trenches were horrific.  The Soce River Valley is now called the valley of the cemeteries as a result.  On the hiking trail that led to this waterfall

we dipped down into foxholes that were used by WWI  soldiers.  Bunkers and forts are dotted throughout the Slovenian Alps.  When traveling through the Soce River Valley, it is hard to imagine that it could ever be anything less than lovely,

but the photos of the valley during the First World War show how warfare can make even the most stunning environments look hideous.

Mountain camp above the Soce River – WWI 

The two-and-a-half-year stalemate between the Italians and Austrians in WWI was finally broken in 1917 when Germany sent its forces to help the Austrians, and, using a tactic that would come to be called “Blitzkrieg” in the next world war, drove the Italians out of Slovenia and back to the western side of the Adriatic.  Out of all of this violence the nation of Yugoslavia was born, a very tenuous marriage of convenience between Slovenes, Croats and Serbs (Bosnians were essentially left out of the deal) that was marred by assassinations of political leaders by Serbian and Croat nationalists.  The country was on the brink of collapse when the Nazis took control in 1941, leaving in their wake a legacy of genocide and a quagmire of mutual hatred and resentment between Serbs and Croats, Slovenians, Yugoslav partisans (ultimately led by Tito), Bosnians, Albanians, Italians, Germans and Austrians.  Lois and I took a rafting trip on the Soce River

A young Austrian man was one of the paddlers in our raft.  When I mentioned to him how much Slovenia reminded me of Austria, he responded that, by all rights, Slovenia should still be a part of Austria as it had been before WWI.

Earlier in the spring Lois and I had visited Brijuni, a beautiful island off the Istrian coast of Croatia that has been made into a national park.

Brijune Island

It also serves as a monument to Marshal Tito, the person who, against all odds, was able to unify the factionalized Yugoslavia in the post World War II era through the Cold War period.  Tito had a large vacation home on Brijune where he often hosted international leaders.

Belonging to a family of Croatians, Slovenians and Serbs, Tito was an extraordinarily charismatic person who was in a unique position to lead a unified Yugoslavia.   Although communist, he was no Soviet puppet and in fact became a leader of the non-aligned nations during the Cold War.   The exhibits on the island virtually deified Tito, and to this day many from ex-Yugoslav nations, especially Slovenia and Croatia, consider him a hero.  Yet nothing is simple in the Balkans.  Others, even some Slovenians, consider him a monster who had conducted a campaign of torture and execution to silence his opponents and solidify his power.

Of all of the former Yugoslavian peoples the Slovenians seemed to me to be the most open and outgoing.  Residents of most other ex-Yugoslavian nations seemed, to varying degrees, more wary….of foreigners….of people they didn’t know.  Still, even among these friendly Slovenians in this most economically successful of all the ex-Yugoslavian nations, even in this region that had avoided most of the bloodshed surrounding the disintegration of Yugoslavia, there is pessimism…rooted in wounds that are over a century old.

But the pessimism is not universal.  Over glasses of wine on our terrace overlooking Lake Como, Lois and I discussed these issues with our neighbors, a young couple named Benjamin and Lucy.  Benjamin believed that the animosities and prejudices that had plagued Europe were largely afflictions of the older generations that the new generations simply did not share.  Although I know that many others, particularly in the ex-Yugoslavian nations, would be skeptical of the ability of youth to shed their parents’ prejudices, there are also expressions of hope to be found in other quarters, specifically in the words of Slovenia’s national poet, France Preseren in his poem, Zdravljica (“A Toast”). Here is a verse from that poem:

God’s blessing on all nations

Who long and work for that bright day,

When o’er earth’s habitation

No war, no strife shall hold its sway;

Who long to see

That all men free

No more shall foes, but neighbors be.


These have become the words of Slovenia’s national anthem.  May it be so.

The Sky Over the Soce River


4 thoughts on “Can we all get along?

  1. Hi George,

    Thanks for such a thoughtful account. My scant knowledge of Balkan history suggests that for many centuries the area has been a victim of its fractured crossroads geography, with alternations between unified strongman rule (such as Tito) and small warring tribes and states.

    You might enjoy the accounts of the author Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose 2nd book in his trilogy recounting his walk in the 1930s from Holland to Constantinople, “Between the Woods and the Water,” recounts much of the obscure history of the greater Danube Valley. While its focus is more on Romania and Hungary it illuminates the history of the larger area. He’s a fantastic writer, enjoyed more if you have a dictionary by your side.


  2. George, what a beautiful and moving testament you have written. I have read it now twice, and am happy to finally understand what was going on in the 90’s there. At the time, it was obvious that no one was the “good guy” and that all sides were committing crimes against each other, but your description pinpointed the groups so that I could understand at least, how Yugoslavia actually disintegrated. I had friends there who became victims apparently, and have been lost.

    To me, the most moving part of your blog was the constant juxtaposition of your beautiful, well-constructed photos with the terrifying text. That is the question, isn’t it? How can the gorgeous, earth produce such consistently violent and destructive people? Are we really, as some say, the intelligent consciousness of earth? Will our species really evolve into one that is worthy of and able to live in harmony with Gaia?

    I do look forward to every chapter you and Lois write. I love the way the pieces fit together. That currency explanation was a good illustration of how conflict produces incredible silliness on so many levels. Thanks to you both for sharing your travels. Love, B

    • Hi Bev, Yes, the juxtaposition of the natural beauty and the human defilement of the landscape (and of each other) is one of the things that is really striking to me, too. I appreciate your comments, as always, Love, George

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