I'd arrived in the amiable seaside town of Split on Croatia's picturesque Dalmatian coast earlier in the day and had been basking in a sunset from the comfort of a beach front bar with a couple of Americans and a friendly local girl named Natasha when Crazed Croat made his appearance. He staggered in already quite drunk, ordered a drink and then made his way to our table, yelling at me and letting out the occasional groan.
I smile humbly, guessing from his camouflage pants and crew cut that he's a veteran of the recent war, and try my best not to anger him further. “I'm sorry,” I shrug with my palms open, recalling from an action film that this is supposed to inspire trust and confidence in crazed gunmen, "but I don't speak Croatian."
Palm trees and rich yachts on the shores of Croatia's gorgeous coast. Enlarge »
The man's eyes bulge, he lets out a manic, guttural moan and he raises his fist indicating the only thing I've managed to inspire is the desire to see my face split open.
“Don't worry dude, I can take him,” slurs Brendan, one of the Americans who seems to be ignoring the fact that after eight beers he would be lucky to stand upright, and even if he could, he would only be eye level with Crazed Croat's rock-hard abdomen. I don’t need to rely on exaggeration here, this man looked like he was raised on a diet of protein shakes, steroids and angry pills.
Both Natasha and the barman attempt to figure out what I’ve done to rile up the vet so much, but he’s too angry to listen to them and they can’t understand a word he’s saying. The barman doesn’t seem keen on a confrontation, so he shrugs his shoulders and retreats back behind the safety of a dozen vodka bottles, leaving me with a twitching human pile driver shouting “Engleski!” in my face and shoving my chest.
After a few minutes of this, and with my body threatening to simultaneously expel the contents of my bowel and bladder, the other American, Dave, musters the scraps of his rudimentary Russian to tell the guy we’re all his friends. Something clicks in Crazed Croats eyes when he hears this; he grabs Dave’s shoulders and does something none of us expect: he starts to cry. As tears stream down his face he mumbles to himself, gives Dave a bear hug and kisses him on both cheeks before turning and doing the same to Natasha and Brendan, before finally stumbling towards the door.
I’m about to be beaten to death by an enraged Croatian man I’ve never seen before, and I have absolutely no idea why
A small voice in my head thinks it would be touching if I walk up and give Crazed Croat a hug, to prove there are no hard feelings. I tell the voice to shut up.
Thinking about Crazed Croat the next morning I’m not disturbed, but just curious to learn more about this country and what makes its people tick. Croatia may officially be considered part of Eastern Europe, but years of Venetian rule and a sunny Mediterranean-like coastline have given the country a Western flavour and a desperation to shake off its Communist, war-torn image; Croatians think of themselves as Western Europeans, even if the rest of the world doesn’t agree. Well-preened women strut about in (almost) fashionable clothes, betrayed by some small detail like a pair of cheap runners worn with the latest Parisian fashions, while locals bypass cafes serving up mouth-watering cuttlefish risottos and chargrilled seafood for kiosks selling a greasy, Soviet-inspired pastries known as burek.
I wander aimlessly around Split, checking out the remains of the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s retirement villa, before jumping on a ferry with the two Americans headed to the dazzling islands littering the Dalmation coast. On these small islands lush, grassy hills encircle interior plains of olive groves and vineyards while small coves along the coast conceal enticing beaches where mountains plunge into crystal clear water. Hoteliers on some of the islands have so much faith in Dalmatia’s eternal sunshine that they reportedly offer discounts on cloudy days, and will tear up your bill if you ever see snow.
We step off the ferry on Hvar Island and end up sharing an apartment with a stunning view with Ruth and India, a couple of Australian girls I first met in Venice and then again in Rome. The five of us spend the next few days basking in sunshine on Hvar’s many beaches—desperately trying to avoid the sight of nudist German retirees who invade the islands in Spring and seem perfectly content when allowing wrinkled folds of their flesh to sway gently in the breeze—while bar hopping through the Starigrad at night.
That's me on the left, drooling over the kinds of sunset that this lush little island is treated to every single night. Enlarge »
The Starigrad (‘Old Town’) fortresses are the historical heart of many of Croatia’s cities and hide countless surprises in their winding, labyrinthine alleys. Atop an ancient tower on the stone walls of Korcula Island, for instance, we discover a trendy bar serving sophisticated cocktails using ropes and pulleys to haul the drinks up. When I reach Dubrovnik with India, an hour of hunting through the tangle of streets leads us to a hole in the city wall labelled ‘Cold Drinks’ that is rumoured to lead to the best swimming spot in Croatia (I have to agree) and gives me the opportunity to engage in some pants-wetting cliff-diving.
We also manage to catch a few films on the closing day of the Dubrovnik International Film Festival, and pose as Australian journalists (from the widely-read, high circulation arts magazine Farrago) in order to crash the after party, held on top of an old castle overlooking the city. Mixing with the glitterati of Croatia’s film industry, I attempt to sound knowledgeable, but only manage to ask questions like, “So how long will it take Croatian film to stop looking to the past and embrace the future?”
Thankfully, everyone at the bash is either very gullible or very forgiving.
It took me a few minutes to work up the courage to go cliff diving beneath the medieval walls of Dubrovnik's old town, but at least I'm alive to tell the tale. Enlarge »
But all night my mind is elsewhere. Crazed Croat and the obvious battle scars dotted around the countryside have sparked an interest in what happened here in the former Yugoslav states during the war. So I reluctantly shelve my plans to head to Turkey, pack my bags and jump on a bus headed to Bosnia-Herzegovina.
To be totally honest, my knowledge of the war in Yugoslavia is verging on shameful before I arrive in the Balkans. All I know is that since I started reading newspapers the words had words Bosnia, Sarajevo, Srebrenica and Milosevic have appeared next to horrific photos of corpses and mass graves. The Balkan conflict was like a horror film I’d started watching halfway through; I had no idea who these people were, where their country was, and why they were so intent on bombing the hell out of each other.
So for the rest of you, here’s the short version: Yugoslavia was a federation of half a dozen ethnic republics welded together under the iron-fisted rule of the Communist dictator General Tito, and later by the poster child for evil war criminals everywhere, Slobodan Milosevic. When Communism collapsed there in the early 1990s, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina tried to breakaway from the country and Milosevic tried to gently dissuade them by invading, and when that failed he tried to grab as much land as possible for his own vision of a Serbian super-state. The following years of fighting between Croats, Serbs and Bosniak Muslims saw tens of thousands slaughtered as neighbours turned against neighbours, millions displaced through ethnic cleansing and a region engulfed in turmoil.
My first stop in Bosnia is Mostar, a once beautiful medieval town that was decimated by intense Croat-Muslim fighting during the war. As my bus trundles past battle-scarred apartments buildings on approach to the town, I’m surprised by the dozens of florists I see. Why on Earth are the impoverished people of a town suffering under forty percent unemployment spending their precious money on roses and gerberas? That’s when we pass a row of houses, and from my perch I see that all of their gardens are spiked with half a dozen headstones, each garnished with flowers. In fact it seems that any spare patch of green in Mostar—parks, gardens and even a playground—has been converted into a cemetery crammed with headstones bearing the year 1993 and draped in flowers of all colours.
The Balkan conflict was like a horror film I’d started watching halfway through; I had no idea who these people were, where their country was, and why they were so intent on bombing the hell out of each other.
I step off the bus in Mostar with Muzza, a young Japanese guy with a strange obsession for overnight buses, and am greeted by a brawl between a burly looking man and two women, all fighting for the right to offer us accommodation. The scuffle ends when one of the women, having been thrown against the bus, pulls out a can from her purse and pepper sprays the guy in the eyes. He screams, claws at his face and stumbles away, leaving the woman to wrap a cloth around her bleeding hand, smooth her dress and calmly ask, ‘Would you like room? Only twenty convertible marks (AUS $18).’
As she’s still holding the can of Mace, I think it best not to refuse.
Muzza and I spend the next two rainy days strolling through the remains of Mostar, sampling the local, greasy cuisine, drinking remarkably good espresso and walking down the frontline that now separates the Muslim and Croat populations. But before long we jump on a bus speeding beneath dramatic mountains landscapes on our way to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. I ask a local with smart clothes and bad breath sitting next to me whether there are many hiking trails in the mountains.
The battle-scarred remains of a public monument at the front line between Muslim and Croat forces during the 1993 fighting. Enlarge »
He looks at me, laughs and says, “Yes, but I would not go unless I want to walk, walk, boom.” Oh yes, the one million land mines still littering the Bosnian countryside. I’d forgotten about them.
When Bosnia tried to separate from Yugoslavia in 1992, the Serbian military laid the city to siege. For four and half years Sarajevo was isolated from the world: nobody was allowed in or out, food shipments were almost nonexistent and its citizens were mercilessly attacked by relentless sniper attacks and the indiscriminate shelling of schools, apartments and marketplaces. The people of Sarajevo, an ethnic cocktail of all Yugoslavia’s major groups, showed amazing resilience through it all, facing death every time they stepped outside to scavenge for food or water and even publishing a siege-time survival guide that included recipes for pies made from nettles.
When we finally pull into an outer bus station, we’re quickly accosted by Jasne, a strange middle-aged woman who gives us unusually cheap accommodation which, as we later discover, is because she’s a raving nymphomaniac intent on bonking us … but more on that another time.
If you’re all anything like me, the only lasting image you have of Sarajevo is that of burning apartment buildings and screaming mothers. But here’s the amazing thing: it’s actually a beautiful city. Sure, most of the buildings have been riddled with bullet holes and shell scars, but the city is slowly rebuilding itself. The mystery of a Middle Eastern bazaar fills its Muslim heart, with small shops selling coffee pots, rugs and kebabs, while a synagogue and Orthodox church lead the way to the stylish shopping districts, where hip young women strut about to the delight of the men who eye them off from funky cafes.
At night we discover a bar scene that lives up to its much-hyped international reputation. During the siege, bands and nightlife exploded as Sarajevo’s young residents braved sniper fire and mortar shells to run to basement clubs where they danced away their pent up fear and rage under generator powered lights. I ask a local girl about this as we get down to some inspired house music at a Sarajevo rave that night; in particular I want to know how they could have fun when they were so hungry and scared.
Remains of a residential apartment building shelled during the Seige of Sarajevo. Enlarge »
“That’s the point,” she shouts over the thumping bass, “we were shit scared. We partied because we wanted to show the Serbs that they hadn’t killed our spirits; we partied hard because we didn’t know if we’d still be alive in the morning.”
Three days later I somewhat unexpectedly find myself crashing in an illegal hostel in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia and Montenegro, cooking pasta for my landlady (actually a 21 year old drama student) in exchange for half-price rent. I hadn’t planned on visiting the city, but having witnessed the destruction caused by the Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia I’d been curious to hear the other side of the story, if there was one.
At first glance, Belgrade is an unimpressive industrial town smothered in smog and noise, but the city centre bustles with hip fashions, packed coffee shops and ice cream parlours satisfying what can only be described as a national obsession. The Serbs are friendly and hospitable (just don’t mention ‘the War’) and are eager to show visitors a good time. I find this to be especially true on my second day in the city, when I stumble across what I assume is a political rally in Republika Square. Thousands of people are waving Serbian flags and political placards, cheering on a man as he gives a speech on a nearby stage. I approach a stallholder selling political paraphernalia and ask him who the guy on stage is.
“Very good man,” he replies with a smile and a heavy accent. “Do good things for Serbia.”
The stallholder, who has a rather smart looking hat on, hands me a free badge and offers some plum brandy from a flask by his side. I take a swig, and then ask to buy a just hat like his, with the addition of a nice looking crest from the table. He looks surprised for a moment, then smiles again and puts the hat on my head, asking for half the normal price. I share in a little more of the man’s brandy before deciding to show my gratitude by helping his fundraising efforts by walking around and making an idiot of myself in my new headwear in the hope that passers-by will take notice and buy one for themselves. After half an hour, another flask of brandy and quite a few laughs I’ve helped the grateful stallholder bring in 40 euros and with a warm handshake he sees me off to my hostel.
But when I collapse into the sofa back in the hostel, the owner Dora takes one look at me, storms over and throws my hat to the ground. “Do you realise what you’re wearing? It’s the hat worn by the extreme right wing ultra-nationalist party. They want a Serbian master race!”
...I’ve betrayed every political fibre in my body and probably given some militant crackpot with a strange penchant for mass graves the last 40 Euros he needs to buy his way into the presidency...
And I’d helped them? I’d raised money for them?
I feel so guilty for what I’ve done—I’ve betrayed every political fibre in my body and probably given some militant crackpot with a strange penchant for mass graves the last 40 Euros he needs to buy his way into the presidency—that when I pass a political rally put on by the opposition party the next day, I feel compelled to help out. I spend over four hours cheering on some guy giving a speech I don’t understand and helping a stallholder fill red, white and blue helium balloons for sale to politically astute parents with easily pleased children. I come home exhausted but content, and proudly recount my day’s efforts to Dora.
“You realise,” she explains with a laugh, “that today’s rally was for the Communist Party. The party that used to be led by Milosevic.”
The same Milosevic that waged war on Bosnia, Slovenia and Kosovo? The same party that perpetrated the ethnic cleansing of 10,000 men in Srebrencia?
With a vow to never again try my hand at local politics, I pack my bags and flee north to a country where I won’t be able to single-handedly bring evil war criminals to power.
Next stop, Hungary.