On the way to Dubrovnik we passed through Mostar, one of the cities involved in the war, where we saw some modern glass and steel buildings shattered and still uninhabited. Really creepy! Later we spoke with a woman who was 7 years old there during the war, watching her mother leave to work at the hospital every day, not knowing if she would come home. She, like everybody, doesn't like to think about it. She saw horrible things- like men throwing people in dumpsters and lighting them on fire. I felt bad asking her questions, which she answered quietly. Really humbling. One thing that shocked and frightened me was hearing from some of the children who were in the bomb shelters, who don't remember so much of the horror as they were always playing when they could, and not really thinking or talking about the situation. Still some of the children's hair turned gray from the stress, (though it of course didn't stay that way.) I didn't know it was possible!
There is a simple church in the middle of the town, built in the 30's way too big for the community of 5 poor farming villages, but now far too small for the pilgrims. It is now surrounded by a huge amphitheater with thousands of seats. When we arrived at dawn it was empty and seemed like overkill on a grand scale. But that night we came to the amphitheater and there were the thousands attending an elaborate mass, as happens several times per day. It is truly astounding. The village has been overrun by hotels, many dozens of souvenir shops and all the urbanization that millions of tourists attract.
Dubrovnik is at the tail end of Croatia. It was the closest big town where I thought the bus might come when planning our trip. Little was I prepared for what a treasure we were to discover there! It is a medieval stone town with one of the largest city walls in the world. The town is a World Heritage Site. During the Balkan war in 1991 it was ruthlessly bombed by the Serbians. Much of it was shattered and burned. But now, remarkably, all is restored. Astonishing. Just 18 years later you would never know. In fact it looks like a brand new medieval relic! We just happened to be there on the anniversary of the beginning of the bombing so there was a huge outdoor display of the war damage. We were able to talk to several people who had been through that period and hear their experiences.
I had never been so close to a war zone before. I have seen war photos all my life and felt the fear and strange gruesome attraction they exude. But it really is something else to see war photos of places you KNOW. (Like one photo I recognized as being at the end of the street we stayed on). When Croatia was attacked it had no military force to defend it. On display in the town is the “first Croatian battleship”- a speedboat quickly covered in steel and painted blue- a pathetic thing. Again, there is a way that no matter how much you learn about this kind of thing there is another knowledge that you experience with your body that cannot come through your head. I am both grateful and crushed by the experience. War is so terrible!
Unfortunately the consensus seems to be that nothing was resolved in the war. The Serbian aggressors were stopped but much of the tension still fumes under the surface. Astonishingly, I learned that the leadership from the soviet era is still in power in Croatia! There is a new system, but the same guys still run the country. One fellow said that it was actually better in the late 80's because then at least the factory owners had to take some responsibility. If their industry failed they went to jail. Now they face no consequences. The rich bastards can screw the people by running a company into the ground and get rich doing it- just like Wall Street! It feels to me as though much of the ethnic hatred is perpetuated by the older generation and the young people are more tolerant, but this might just be a reflection of the people I happened to meet.
But I left Croatia with an amazing proof that violence really is impotent! Not only Dubrovnik, but almost the whole country has been repaired and seems to be doing better than ever. Violence is powerful and fast- very impressive in the short run. But it fades quickly. It can make no permanent change. Only love and cooperation really changes a society deeply. Those are the changes that are permanent and remake a people anew. This is the forward direction of history!