Of the countries most affected by the Balkan conflict of 1991-95, Kat and I entered Croatia first. We began with a visit to the Istria Peninsula for some garment-free camping before catching a not-so-direct bus to Plitvic Lakes National Park, a staggeringly beautiful but overcrowded waterfall gallery in the centre of the country (see below). We then hitched a ride with a friendly truck driver to the capital, Zagreb. Somewhere on that last leg I lost my only cigarette lighter (tragic, I know) and, as I’m sure any smoker can appreciate, made replacing it a top priority once we had arrived. From a slightly austere Tobacconist,I chose the most colourful and touristic lighter of the lot, covered in the blue and white and checkered-red of the Croatian flag.
I knew before we arrived in the country that Croatians had not escaped the former Yugoslavia as easily as their Slovenian neighbours (see Slovenia: The Luckiest Bastard). I was therefore unsurprised when our Zagrebian CouchSurfer described the Croatian attitude toward Serbs as “not wanting to hang out with the kid who used to bully you.” It is true that most of the alleged war criminals from the Balkan conflict have been Serbs. But it is also true that Croatian generals ordered atrocities of their own and inflicted quite a lot of suffering on their Serbian brothers (just so I am not accused of any undue bias, I am aware that Bosnian Muslim forces were also guilty of brutalities, though I don’t think one can reasonably say to the same extent).
After a few days in Zagreb we boarded a bus heading east for Republika Srpska – the Serb autonomous region within Bosnia and Herzegovina. The small regional capital of Banja Luka attracts far less visitors than other Balkan cities, in part because there is little to see and in part because it was Bosnian Serb nationals (backed by Belgrade) who were the primary perpetrators of the wartime ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims (even Serbians will raise a brow at the mention of Republika Srpska).
We met our host in the central square and, after a quick tour of the nearby attractions, headed for a small riverside bar. We introduced ourselves to two gentlemen who had been waiting for us and ordered a round of drinks. I pulled an unopened pack of cigarettes from my pocket and set my new lighter on the table while I fumbled with the packaging. “What is that?” asked the largest of our new acquaintances. Looking down at my Croatian souvenir, I replied shakily: “Is it a problem?” “Well” he said, glancing at his fellow Serbs, “not for us, but be careful who sees you with that.” I needed no more convincing and quickly pocketed the lighter. With the elephant out of the room the men relaxed, but I couldn’t help but remain a little on edge.
At the time of the bar “incident” I didn’t think I needed them to explain why a symbol of Croatia might be inflammatory in Serb territory: some of the Bosnian war’s worst fighting took place in and around Banja Luka and a lot of people suffered at the hands of Croat forces. In one particularly tragic instance, Croat (and Bosniak) forces sought to weaken Serb resolve by blocking supply lines into the city, resulting in the death of a dozen newborn babies due to a lack of oxygen required for treatment.
As with all things Balkan, however, there is more toSerb-Croat animosity than meets the eye. It is particularly important to recognize that tensions go a long way back, and that some historical wounds are still suppurating. To get a sense of the kind of thing I’m talking about, one need only recall that an age-old religious division left the South Slavs with three distinct opinions – Orthodox Christian, Catholic, and Muslim – about the path to ultimate salvation, a disagreement eventually settled (actually, not settled) with blood. Consider too that before Tito’s Belgrade-based partisans took power of the region at the end of Second World War, Croatia’s Ustasha regime had been an ally of the Nazis, setting up the notorious Jasenovac Concentration camp in which thousands of Serbs (though not just Serbs) were said to have perished. Needless to say, such is not the stuff that amicable relationships are made of.
(In Banja Luka I visited the Museum of Republika Srpska, which houses an impressive collection of artifacts from the time of the Roman Empire all the way up to the end of the Second World War. The basic takeaway is that the region has been a battlefront since the beginning of time, with the recent conflict simply the latest act in a tragic saga. To claim, therefore, that the war resulted from thirty years of high Muslim breeding rates, as reactionary writers like Mark Steyn do, seems to miss the point entirely)
Earlier in Zagreb, I visited another museum with a different flavour. The Museum of Broken Relationships – started in Croatia but now with international exhibits – is a tribute to the end of things that once were.The curse of the former Yugoslav republics is that no matter how “broken” things have become, they are, like a family, forever connected by history and by blood (and by geography). At present, it is difficult to say whether or not these “forever” bonds will be enough to fuel reconciliation. While Croatians and Serbs do mix – particularly in Belgrade, where young Croatians flock to the famous nightlife – I was advised to keep my lighter out of sight on more than one other occasion. Ultimately, a friend from Belgrade ended the drama by giving me a replacement, but this only served to alleviate the symptom. The root of the issue lies much deeper and is, I fear, more enduring.