A Visit to the Presently Relevant Past
Having just come back from an eight-day trip through the former Yugoslavia, which involved three countries, two buses, two flights, and over 12-hours as a passenger in various cars, I’m fucking knackered.
These trips are a huge part of why I love my job so much, but they are not without their challenges. Both physically and emotionally demanding, today my arms ache from dragging my impractical and cumbersome suitcase behind me for over a week, like a drunk and reluctant friend you’re trying to get home to bed. Bouncing over cobblestones and tripping out of potholes. There is an uncomfortable weightiness in my chest too. A rucksack too full of books strapped to my front that I want to put down.
These physical gripes are petty when compared to the devastating, but somehow simultaneously hopeful, stories of those I was privileged enough to spend time with recently. Stories that spilled out of mouths like rivers, the dam of their lips so eager to burst.
A little girl, smiling and waving out of her window to the army down below as they seized her city, thinking they were there to save her from the destruction, unable to comprehend that they were not there to help her, but that they were the destroyers.
Fathers and mothers of children who were both Serbian and Croatian being told to pick a side. An impossible choice many would rather die than make. So many did. The war may be over, but some cities remain segregated. People still have to choose. To which school will they send their children? In which cafe are they permitted to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee? How can you integrate when every day you are forced to remain divided?
The burnt-out, decrepit skeletons of what used to be houses still pepper neighbourhoods. Ugly and rotting, like corpses, they stoop sandwiched between newly built, brightly coloured homes with flowering gardens, fragrant with honeysuckle and lavender. The local hospital where, during the conflict many took refuge, but were later evacuated, and exterminated, plays a video on a loop in its basement. There, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with giggling, disassociated local high school students, you can gaze, slack-jawed, upon the anguished faces and mangled bodies of those who were forced to exit through the very doors from which you just entered, but who never returned.
And above it all, omnipresent and looming like a spectre, is the town water tower. History estimates this structure was pummelled with grenades and shells at least 600 times during the siege of the city, but still it stands. The residents crowdfunded the money required to repair it from all around the world and soon, after its renovation, it will boast a fancy restaurant at the top. However, the superficial damage will linger as a testament to the defiance and strength of not just the tower, but the people of Vukovar as well.
In Sarajevo the signs of war were less obvious. Much of the city has been reconstructed and foreign investment has funded the erection of sleek malls and gourmet restaurants. However, when walking down the street, if you looked down, you would occasionally come across a hole in the pavement, filled in with red resin. This is known as a Sarajevo Rose and marks where one of the huge number of bombs or grenades landed during the conflict. These crimson craters remain as reminders and, although they are beautiful and potent visual representations of war, sadly they are easily missed.
To get a better sense of what the war was like in Bosnia Herzegovina we drove to the outskirts of the city, to the airport, where just outside there is a museum dedicated to the Tunnel of Hope. This passage, built by a man named Bajro Kolar, his family and approximately 200 soldiers from the Bosnian Army, is credited with saving thousands of lives. Though only 2 metres high and 800 meters long, the majority of food, ammunition and weapons were transported from the airport to those most in need in the city through this incredible underground structure.
As a Jew, I get it. Never forget. I understand the motive behind showcasing, and memorialising, such violence and destruction in the hope that we will learn from it. But we never do. If we had, this recent conflict wouldn’t have happened and the people I met wouldn’t be experiencing life through the prism of trauma, both collective and individual.
It’s easy to feel hopeless when faced with such recent tragedy. It’s impossible not to reflect on Syria or the atrocities perpetrated against the Rohingya community as you make yourself small in the darkness to tread in the footsteps of men, who just twenty-some years prior, fought for their lives and may or may not have been lucky enough to survive.
However, despite the absolute horror so many in the region lived through, everyone we met was unbelievably kind, warm and open. Instead of running from their suffering, many remain rooted to it, defiant and determined to thrive. Despite an acute lack of employment opportunities, and tethered to a brutal past, still people returned to their homes after escaping the violence and still people work around the clock to provide support for the most vulnerable in their community, often sacrificing their own health in the process. I was humbled and galvanised by these individuals’ capacity for forgiveness and compassion.
It is with these wonderful humans that I learned about the ancient civilisation of the Vučedol and with whom I visited Iločki podrumi, where, after hours, we broke into the spooky, spectacular wine cellar, which, as they delighted to tell me, housed the wine from 1945 that Wills and Kate had at their wedding. It is with these generous, caring individuals that I sat by the Danube River and ate the most delectable fish soup, chased down with an exquisite local red, which did a sexy tango on my tongue, as we talked late into the night about everything but the war.
I flew out of Croatia hopeful. There are people everywhere working incredibly hard to make their corners of the world beautiful. I am fortunate enough to know so many of them. But they can’t do it alone. If we all concentrate on our corner I truly believe that together we can make this world a wonderful place, but we need to focus on what matters. On unity, love, acceptance and tolerance not violence and not war.
Having just spoken to so many about how the rise of nationalism and extremism were at the forefront of the Yugoslavian conflict it’s hard to not see parallels in so many countries currently. We should know better by now. Know better than to continue making the same fucking mistake over and over again and expecting things to turn out differently. What the fuck are we fighting for anyway?