When I was a boy the school atlas had a very different map of Europe to how it looks today. This was because there weren’t nearly so many countries to show. Everything east of Poland was included in the USSR so there was no Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, The Czech Republic and Slovakia was one country and on the Adriatic there was a single country called Yugoslavia.
Yugoslavia had been created in 1918 after the First World War by the victorious western allies in the hope of bring some stability to the Balkans but this had been a hopelessly optimistic attempt to impose a solution on a disparate region of Europe who were never going to coexist easily as one single nation.
The Balkans is where east meets west in Europe and Yugoslavia was a mix of Russian Orthodox looking to the east (Serbia), Christian Orthodox looking to the west (Slovenia and Croatia) and Muslims who could not be reconciled to either (Bosnia). Here was a recipe for disaster!
Slovenia is clearly more Central European in character than any of its Balkan partners and being more prosperous and increasingly resentful of providing support to its national partners it is not surprisingly that when the grip of President Tito was removed in 1980 it was the first to break loose from the Yugoslav Federation in 1991. Luckily for them it was a bloodless separation following a vote for independence in 1990 but the Slovenian secession did however lead to a violent break-up of the country with civil war and ethnic cleansing in neighbouring Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia Herzegovina that persisted throughout the 1990’s.
As a consequence of the wars Yugoslavia was inevitably dismantled into its constituent parts and on 22nd May 1992 Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia joined the United Nations. I have nothing personal against Yugoslavia but I am glad the country split up in this way because this has provided more travel opportunities to different countries and since 2007 I have visited all three and Montenegro as well.
In 2008 we visited Bosnia and although we were in Europe this felt like a different place altogether and being predominantly Muslim it felt as though we had crossed into Asia. It was about sixty kilometres to Mostar and when we arrived there it was a total shock. We drove past bombed out and abandoned buildings and parked the car in what looked a precarious spot next to magnificent old buildings that had been completely destroyed during the war of 1992 to 1993. Walking around I was struck that this is what most of Europe must have looked like after the Second-World-War and it was sad and a very sobering experience.
Between 1992 and 1993, after Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia, the city was subject to an eighteen month siege during which the objectives of nationalists from Croatia were shared by Croat nationalists in Bosnia and Herzegovina. What I didn’t know was that after the expulsion of the Serbs the Croats turned on the Bosnians and they proclaimed the existence of the Croatian Community of Herzeg-Bosnia, as a separate ‘political, cultural, economic and territorial whole’ on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Mostar was divided into a Western part, which was dominated by the Croat forces and an Eastern part under the control of the Army of Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Croatians controlled all roads leading into Mostar and international organisations were denied access as they took over the west side of the city and expelled thousands of Bosniaks into the eastern side. Heavy shelling reduced much of Mostar to rubble as a consequence and finally they did something that even the Serbs hadn’t done and destroyed the famous Stari Most Bridge. I had simply not understood these ethnic tensions existed between Croatians and Bosnians.
In 2009 and again in 2010 we visited Dubrovnik in Croatia and on the second occasion travelled to the city by boat. The water taxi left from the little harbour in the village on Mlini as it followed the coast towards the city we saw something unexpected and nothing like we had seen before on previous visits to Croatia, a string of war damaged shelled out hotels at regular intervals all the way to Dubrovnik. This we learned later was the legacy of an invasion by Montenegro during the secessionist wars of the 1990s.
Montenegro played a disastrous part in the break-up of the former Yugoslavia because in 1991 its army advanced across the border into Croatia, destroying villages, looting and stealing on the way and then shelling the ancient city of Dubrovnik. The city was attacked by the Serbian-Montenegrin army and besieged for six months during which time about two thousand shells rained down on the walled city, damaging seventy percent of its buildings and two-thirds of its famous red roofs. Dubrovnik’s ancient heritage was threatened with destruction and a plaque within the city now shows all of the major strikes on public buildings and churches, cobbled streets made of Dalmatian stone and irreplaceable statues and monuments.
Europe and the World watched most of the dreadful events of the Yugoslavian wars on television screens but took no action but for the west at least, the destruction of Dubrovnik overstepped the mark and brought pressure on the warring factions to stop. It was almost as though the World was prepared to watch ethnic cleansing, death and destruction in cities with unfamiliar names that meant little to them but when a UNESCO World Heritage Site was attacked and a city that was seen to belong to the World and not a single place, collectively they said ‘enough is enough’ and belatedly intervened to stop the hostilities.