Category Archives: Srpska

From Tjentište and the Valley of Heroes to Foča…..the valley of horrors

IMG_3212The road from Tjentište to Foča

From the battlefield of the Second World War and scene of the bravery of the Yugoslav army as they resisted the onslaught of the Axis powers; I rode up and out of the valley, and followed the course of the Drina River; and onwards towards the town of Foča. 

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Along the Drina river

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BRIDGE

 

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Foča, on the Drina River

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Photograph provided courtesy of the ICTY

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A modern-day spomenik? Memorial to the Foča massacres; victims of utter barbarism

As I rode, on my bike, through this tranquil valley, crossed and re-crossed the river on semi-derelict or new footbridges, and meandered along the quiet bucolic narrow riverside dirt tracks, I was travelling from the Sutjeska battlefield of 1943 through the scene of the horrors of a more recent past.

During the period from April 1992 till January 1994, the madness and true barbarity of the Serbian military and paramilitary forces was unleashed upon the Bosniak population of this valley; especially the women and girls, and to a lesser extent, boys, in a frenzy of ethnic cleansing, by the systematic use of rape.

Bosniak women and girls were held captive, in houses and detention centres, where they were repeatedly visited by Serbian military and police forces, and raped repeatedly. Some of the girls were as young as 14. That the Serbian forces of law and order were actively involved in these atrocities is beyond my comprehension. This was the most shocking example of the use of rape as a weapon of war; as an instrument of ethnic cleansing.

During this period, 13 mosques were destroyed, and virtually every Muslim was forced to flee. Since the war, a few have returned. The latest figures I can find are for 2013, and show that there were approximately 1300 Bosniaks and nearly 17,000 Serbs at that time.

The Dayton Accords, imperfect as they are, at least drew a tortuous line between the warring factions, and allowed a simmering peace to survive, and endure. My anxiety is that the peace is  fragile, and that undercurrents still flow.

It takes the vile and devious motives of the likes of Slobodan Milosevic, to rattle the cages of rabid nationalists, to fabricate divisions and to foment hatred, and to further partisan political ambitions. I truly hope that the healing and reconciliation which so many ordinary people hope and pray for, will be allowed to endure.

It would be naive and ignorant of me to suggest that the former Republic Of Yugoslavia was a harmonious and unified state. It was far from it, and the sense of perceived inequities within Tito’s communist paradise, were amplified upon his demise, by those who harboured grievances.

However, the former unity that fought against the old tyranny of the Axis powers must be found again to fight the new tyranny of discrimination and internecine hatred. I hope it can be found.

 

 

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Trebinje, Republika Srpska, Eastern Hercegovina

A small town of around 30,000, Trebinje has a lot to commend it.

 

Trebinje 1

It was a very hot day, and I walked up to the top of the prominent hill overlooking the town. At the summit, is the Gracanica Monanstery, completed in 2000. Its a Serbian Orthodox monastery, essentially a fairly faithful modern copy of a monastery of the same name in Kosovo.

As I’m a bit of an atheist, I always take a bit of an atheist’s view of religious buildings, but nevertheless admit to often being in awe of the beauty and splendour of the architecture, or the sheer weight of the presence of the ghosts of all the thousands or even millions of souls that have passed with reverence and religious devotion through the doors of these buildings. I have visited many, often seeking them out as places of quiet, for contemplation, or for refuge from a storm, or from the crowds. And I observe with interest, the trappings of the various theologies; the products of thousands of years in development. The site comprises a ‘ gift ‘ shop, and a restaurant and cafe, with a wonderful city wide vista across the river.

In Britain, the pace of building of new Christian churches is slow; it seems we have  already got enough of them, and congregation numbers are falling. In fact, where I live in Wales, I know that a lot of churches and chapels are being sold, for conversion to dwellings, as the institutions are unable to afford the funds to maintain them, and there’s only so much public money to go round to maintain the architectural essence of the few more interesting examples.  Mosques, in certain part of Britain, on the other hand, are being built, as the congregations seem be growing, albeit slowly.

In the countries of the Balkans, its a more complicated picture. 

Romania has until recently had the fastest rate of construction of new churches in Europe; ten per week. ( https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23420668 ) and this for a country of not much more than 25 million, with under-resourced public services. Only very recently has the Romanian Government made the decision to withdraw from its major commitment to assisting in the church building programme. ( http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/romania-reduces-funding-for-churches-12-12-2015-1 ) 

The countries of the former Yugoslavia are also booming; if you are a builder who knows how to knock up a place of worship. 

monasteryGracanica Monastery, Trebinje

monastery interiormonastery gift shopGift shop, Gracanica Monastery, Trebinje

I suppose, that after nearly 50 years, from 1945 onwards, when virtually NO churches were built, it’s only natural that the faithful would want to assert their right to worship the religion of their choice, once the prohibition had ended, and I would be among the strongest supporters of that right.  So, now its a busy time for church-builders.

I don’t know what the up to date situation is, but in 2014, researchers Milan Spasojević and Milica Milojević, wrote that in just the previous 15 years, over 200 Orthodox churches had been built, with another 100 in the final phase of construction, in Serbia alone. (http://www.ejournals.eu/pliki/art/3179/ ). 

What is also an interesting observation,  is that during the Bosnian War from 1991-5, ten of Trebinje’s mosques were completely destroyed, and that  from a situation where 5,500 out of a population of 30,000 were self-declared Muslims in 1991, by 2013, only 1000 out of a similar total population, declared themselves to be Muslim. I am not sure how many new mosques, if any are being built, although I did see a beautifully restored little stone and timber one in the centre of the old town.

What this change implies, for the longer term, is beyond the scope of my understanding after a mere two days here. But it does seem that Christian Orthodoxy is in the ascendant at the moment, in this place at least. 

Mosque

Mosque 1Mosque in the Old Town, Trebinje

At the end of this very hot day, I went looking for a place to swim. I had seen on the town’s Tourist Information board, a map, with a municipal swimming pool clearly shown. A wide slow moving river – the Trebisnjica – must surely offer a wonderful swimming opportunity. And indeed it did!

This wasn’t to be the last such municipal swimming pool which I would encounter on my bike. Around a bend of the river, and upstream of the centre of the town, is a pool of several acres! A weir and sluice gates controls the inflow and outflow from and to the river, and a grating prevents anything other than water or small objects entering the pool. The water was deliciously warm, a little muddy, and the warning from a fellow-swimmer about the slimy concrete bottom to the pool, accurate.

Surrounded by a concrete apron, extensive shady lawns, changing booths, showers and enhanced by a diving platform, this place must surely be crowded with families during the school holidays and evenings. As it was, only a handful of swimmers and sun-bathers were here, and I enjoyed a solitary swim, with my eyes on the distant, sun parched karst horizon.

poolTrebinje lido.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dubrovnik & Trebinje, and points between

Properly speaking, its only a sunny and comfortable little uphill cycle ride from the park next to the market in Gruz;  which is just along the coast to the north from Dubrovnik, and up into the interior of this incredibly narrow strip of Croatia, and then to Bosnia & Hercegovina.   I’ve been looking forward to getting away from the coast, with the cruise ships, ice-cream sellers, sun-worshippers, and planeloads of inebriated British wedding party arrivals. I’ve been looking forward to getting the pedals turning on the hills, with the heat bouncing off the tarmac. But its a longer and more complicated journey.

Within less than 15km, I’ve climbed from sea level to just about 400 metres above it,  and to the border crossing at Ivanica. At this point, to my surprise, is an apparently very sound track bed for a railway. This is the surviving evidence of the railway network that was built by the Austro-Hungarian empire towards the end of the nineteenth century; and which fell into disuse in the 1970’s. Now, parts of the network have been developed as part of the Ciro bicycle network. 

 

RAILWAY - nr IVANICA

Overlooking the rail-bed from Republika Srspka, to Dubrovnik and beyond

Mine warning

Mine presence warnings just off the roadway between Ivanica and Trebinje

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Other roadside warnings; the current gastronomic fashion for ‘ pulled-pork ‘ comes to mind; and not in a good way.

Contrary to the signage, physical hazards along the way are few, but I’m trying to understand the complexities of the territories that I slowly move between and across.

I want to get this right; for one thing, for fear of offending someone for getting it wrong, but fundamentally, because I want to try and understand what has been happening and to be able to follow the course of events that will surely unfold here in time to come.

In the period since Yugoslavia came crashing apart after Tito’s death, one of the countries that came into being was Bosnia-Hercegovina . Its also sometimes known as Bosnia and Hercegovina, and in Bosnian or Serbian, Bosnia i Hercegovina. Its sometimes just called Bosnia, but people from the region known as Hercegovina quite rightly wouldn’t be entirely happy about that.

Bosnia i Hercegovina consists of the two autonomous entities – Republika Srpska and The Federation of Bosnia & Hercegovina. And if that’s complicated to comprehend, then Wikipedia notes the detail about the ethnic groups. There are three constituent nations…and they’re all given equal recognition by the country’s constitution; are Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats, not necessarily in any particular order. This is just the little thread of this earth that I am spinning along, and there is this complexity, and these differences. As anywhere else in the world, but perhaps more exaggerated here than in most places, people and societies feel the need to differentiate themselves, to gather around totems, and to note and assert their viscerally felt differences.

The more recent that wars are, it seems the more keenly the need to do that is felt. From my peaceful and safe and unthreatened little corner of the world in Wales, I do not feel this need, but I can understand its origins. What worries me is the ability and ease with which those that want to keep sorting through the entrails to find some difference to highlight,  and to rattle the nationalists’ cages about , and can raise the spectre of internecine warring again. I was struck by a footnote in the Wikipedia excerpt  which I’ve referred to here.

It refers to the study  which concludes ” A Y chromosome haplogroups study published in 2005 found that “three main groups of Bosnia-Herzegovina, in spite of some quantitative differences, share a large fraction of the same ancient gene pool distinctive for the Balkan area” . ( (1) ) Differences are human-constructs; overlaid and highlighted for all manner of reasons.

By the time I arrive in the lovely town of Trebinje, still in Republika Srpska, I’m ready for a drink. The centre of Trebinje is a very genteel looking place. Tall, poplars and pines shade shiny limestone-paved squares and avenues  and what seem to me to be an inordinate number of places to drink coffee and beer with friends. I join them, and then later walk along the river in the late evening sun. I visit the bridge which this town is renowned for, and draws both tourists and religious pilgrims to.

EVENING PRAYERS

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Dubrovnik, Gruz, and a view of Montenegro

The wonderful thing about travelling by bike is the pace; I notice so much more than if I am in a car….I’m barely off the little ferry from Zaton, arriving in Gruz port, where so much destruction took place in the early 1990’s, and I get my first puncture. Oh well, easily sorted. It gives me the opportunity to visit the market to buy a bit of fresh fruit. And then I bump into Dom!  

DOM - DUBROVNIK

He is standing near these interestingly shabby doors near the market, and I quiz him about the building I can just see through the door if I push it a little bit! ” Come in, and I’ll show you around “, Dom says as he pushes the door wide open, with authority.

ITALIANATE GARDEN 1 - DUBROVNIK

A big, delightfully overgrown garden, with semi-neglected vines, fig-trees, a vegetable patch, and shade from the midday sun lies behind the doors. And surrounded by the garden…a big house, a private chapel and beautifully mysterious, dark and half-revealed interiors, wooden panelled and furnished, of staircases, high ceilings, becomes the absorbing physical setting, for the next two hours, as Dom shows me round, making as he does so,  a valiant attempt to relate the history of the Balkans to me…..dating back to the 8th century…..

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ITALIANATE GARDEN 1 - WATER

Italianate….is probably not the correct adjective, given the date of all this…and the fact that Italy didn’t exist as we know it until the nineteenth century, but that regional architectural influence is clear all down and up the Dalmatian coast.

Two hours later, I’m a little the wiser, and Dom certainly holds strong and informed views about the course of events over the previous centuries in the Balkans! Just then, as we begin to explore the possibility of letting ourselves into the building itself to explore it a little further, a man lets himself in through the garden gate. Its immediately very evident from the tiny amount of language exchanged between the two men, that I can comprehend, and the body language, that we are not welcome…and Dom’s evident authority as a tour guide suddenly evaporates, as we are summarily ushered out into the busy road. Its been a verdant haven, and an elementary lesson in Balkan politics.

Territories in former Yugoslavia as at 1995

1995 - former Yugoslavia territories

The situation is so dynamic in this part of the world; this is then….how is it now? What’s changed since this map….well, Kosovo and Makedonia are two examples…as I’ll discover as I head over into Republika Srpska, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Greece over the next month.

Looking south-east to Montenegro 

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Look south to Montenegro

Standing high up and inland from the Old City of Dubrovnik, I can see for miles, into Montenegro, into the magical and mysterious Durmitor mountains, where I’ll be heading. This vantage point was the focus of a vicious armed conflict, and its obvious why.

View of Dubrovnik from The Homeland War Museum

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And all the while, there is a constant reminder of the loss of life…

War Photo Ltd; exhibition. 600 coffins of victims of Srebenica massacre await burial; original photo by Tarik Samarah.

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Well, I’m heading off now, and up and over the mountains to Republika Srpska.

CYCLIST