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Talking about war…

It was a Friday on July 1st when I recognised that it was exactly half time of my journey. Nine of eighteen weeks of traveling through Europe were over and I have spent most of the time on the Balkans so far – of course in many different countries though. When I began to write this post the train from Zagreb to Budapest started to move forward, Romi already has landed in Germany and I was about to leave this region for now permanently – since more than one week I have been staying in Poland now. Due to many reasons this was the right time for me to write something about a topic I honestly would have liked not to write about: This topic is war.

I know that talking about war is not on the agenda of the day-to-day conversation in most European living rooms. And if we address this issue it normally is about the war in Syria or in other regions elsewhere in the world. That there is a war – or at least an armed conflict – in Europe right now is easily forgotten. Eastern Ukraine is just too far away in the mental map of most Europeans.

Something quite similar can often be observed for the region of former Yugoslavia – not in space for sure, but in time. No matter from what perspective it is looked at: This region definitely is located in the centre of Europe. Many Europeans spend their holidays in Slovenia, Croatia or Montenegro as many people of my generation have done before in Yugoslavia. At least for these tourists the coast and many cities and sights have been well known for years now. Alone the last decade of the 20th century has been largely eclipsed more or less…

Between 1991 and 1999 several armed conflicts – commonly known as the Yugoslav wars – accompanied the breakup of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. What has happened in that time is both a sad tragedy for the people being victims of these wars and a stern warning for all Europeans at the same time. However, while traveling by train or bus through this region and visiting the ‘usual’ cities and places normally you will not be confronted with this very dark part of history. Bosnia-Herzegowina and especially Sarajevo – as well as probably the Kosovo – may be exceptions here (I don’t know though), but unfortunately we did not have the time to visit those parts. Otherwise, travelers and tourists rarely will come across the signs of that times.

However, if you want to find something, you probably will succeed. There is e.g. a war museum and an exhibition on the Belgrade Fort (at least the exhibition of heavy weapons outside is fairly unnecessary though), or you can be one of the comparatively very few visitors of the War Photo Limited exhibition in Dubrovnik Old Town – which is very good by the way and definitely worth a visit! If you have the chance to travel the route from let’s say Split at the coast to Croatia’s capital Zagreb by car it might be a totally different story. At least it was for us …

The last hundred and something kilometres from Plitvice National Park to Zagreb started to be a lovely tour. A beautiful landscape, covered by gentle hills and traversed by some rivers and streams, embedded into a lot of green… it looks like the German Eifel a little bit – but favoured by the climate. Driving slowly and carefully I really was able to relax and to daydream a little bit. After one hour or so and behind one of the countless curves I suddenly ‘woke up’. Two obviously destroyed and decayed houses somehow did not fit to the overall picture. From one moment to the other I suddenly realised that this must be a region where fights had been taken place. A few minutes later – when we reached with Turanj one of the suburbs of Karlovac – the presumption became certainty in form of a widely visible war memorial and exhibition. Karlovac was a very strategic point in the Croatian independence war and also place of some of the hardest fights within this war. What we did not expect though is the fact that even today – more than 20 years later – you still can clearly see the signs of that war.

You only need to open your eyes and you will recognize many things that simply do not match: too many new houses were built in a rural region like this which normally is affected by population drain and you can see in particular too many houses with a rebuilt top floor and roof – a typical sign for past fighting. Totally destroyed houses for sure are mostly limited to some special places like the one in the exhibition area in Turanj – at least as far as we could see during the transit.

When getting closer to the houses you very often can see something we really did not expect as well, at least not in this occurrence: hundreds (at least) of the houses around and in Karlovac still are riddled with sometimes countless bullet holes – being something like the still visible scars of this terrible period. I hardly can describe the oppressing feelings that have crept us while standing in front of this all.

One does not have to be an expert on this region’s history and for sure I know about the overall complexity that had led to those wars in former Yugoslavia. Notwithstanding this, it becomes pretty clear that there is at least one real ‘enemy’ for Europe: stupid nationalism. If Europe again starts to build walls and fences, starts to distinguish between us und them, between our history and religion and theirs and thereby forgets the deeper meaning of the word union, it definitely will lose externally its importance in the world and internally peace and wealth. As I said before: You don’t have to be an expert by any means… just open your eyes, lock at this dense flick carpet of 47 countries on a very small continent and listen to what is said (in some parts of Europe and by some people). That ought to do.

Post scriptum:

Much as I understand and respect the will and the motivation of the Croatian people (in that special case of Turanj/Karlovac) to set up a memorial there for their independence war: I will never understand and accept why this must be done by the military and with the exhibition of weapons. This unbelievable stupidity deprives this place of its dignity and unfortunately proofs to a certain extent that people still have learnt nothing from history. An independent civil – and best even a supranational – committee or foundation would be a far better way for implementing this – as well as the overall attention to reconciliation and peace would be a better approach than nationalist rhetoric and technical details about the weapons that were used in that war. Just Romi’s and my two cents to this…


  1. Romi says

    Just an extra comment – the War Photo Limited exhibition in Dubrovnik is not only worth a visit. The photographs are both overwhelming and heartbreaking – I strongly recommend to anyone visiting Dubrovnik to stop by. Plus, in comparison to the memorial in Turanj, the exhibition addresses the complexity of the conflict and goes beyond the “good-and-bad” way of thinking.

  2. Stephan says

    Talking about Teaching War … it is impossible to ignore:

    War has existed since the beginning of recorded history. Countless histories, novels, blogs, plays, and movies have dealt with war. Young people cannot avoid finding out about war, either through these and other sources or, in some cases, from direct experience.

    • Peter says

      Hi Stephan,

      I don’t know if I initially understood your comment right and I am still not sure now. If the sense of your statement was to express that our society is co-responsible for the picture young people have of war, then I completely agree with that.

      For sure it is not innate to be fascinated by war (violence might be innate to a certain extent, but that’s another story), and I think most young people are not. But our often irresponsible handling with that issue leads to what you have said. As a child – like many others of my friends – I also had war toys and I also used to reenact the Second World War. Nobody stopped me doing this and noboby told me the truth about war. War never is about glorious battles, it is about frazzled bodies, severed limbs, unbelievable suffering and ruined cities and landscapes. Not to speak about violent excesses we cannot even imagine…

      All this is hidden while people talk about war or while documentaries in the TV explain the newest weapons systems. For sure it is – at least somehow – understandable that children and young people are fascinated by the technical perfection of combat aircrafts, tanks or aircraft carriers. But the reality is not the technology, the reality is what Giles Duley – himself being victim of a so-called improvised explosive device – and others show us in their work like the following:

      Picture by Giles Duley

      That’s what children and young people should know about war, not the maximum speed or range of a Tomahawk cruise missile. But we want to ‘protect’ our children against too much violence instead of explaining them why this child at the same age on this picture has to walk on a prothesis.

      That’s also one of the the reasons why I am so angry about that exhibition in Turanj. Instead of showing human suffering and the aftermath of (every) war, we are shown the weapons and additionally we are confronted with nationalist rhetorics on the display boards… What can we say about this ignorance and stupidity? Welcome to the next generation addicted to war?

  3. Stephan says

    Hi Peter!

    I agree! That´s absolutely my opinion.

    The challenge is to introduce the topic of war in a way that is responsible, honest, and appropriate to age and level of understanding. Many young people absorb only a few dates and facts with little understanding of the causes of war, the realities of the battlefield, or the consequences for the lives of civilians. They may need help understanding or dealing with the impact of war on family members whose loved ones leave for long periods of deployment and sometimes never return.

    Your posted picture makes me sad!

  4. Pingback: Talking about dignity… – The Europeans

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