Anyone who watched TV news during the 1990s knows the names Sarajevo... Mostar... Belgrade... Dubrovnik. I remember the pictures of the vicious fighting that came out of Bosnia and neighbouring countries, but at the time of course I didn't fully understand the complex reasons behind it all. The recent film 'Land of Blood and Honey' came as a powerful reminder of the horrendous atrocities that were committed on Europe's doorstep while I was enjoying my teenage years at school. The film ended with a somber message that the peace which now exists in the region is very much a fragile one, and deep divisions & tensions still remain. That's what drove me to pack my backpack and head off to the Balkans to find out exactly what went on during the conflict, how it affected people, and what life there is like 15 years on.
My early morning low cost Jet2 flight from Leeds arrived and a shuttle bus collected the plane-load of English do-it-yourself holidaymakers from the airport bound for the picture-perfect old town of Dubrovnik a short distance away. Gasps of wonder from everyone on the bus as we curved around the mountainside and suddenly the instantly recognisable red roofs of the town came into view. Dubrovnik is a very pretty place. Everyone else was preparing to settle in for a relaxing holiday in this sunny, hot and very touristy destination. I on the other hand had just 24 hours here before moving on. I'd picked it mainly because of its cheap flights & proximity to Bosnia (it's not possible to fly there directly from the UK), but also because there was significant fighting here early in the Balkan conflict and I wanted to find out about that, and see if there was still any evidence of it.
As it happened you didn't have to go very far for that. Just inside the main gate of the old walls is a large city map, pointing out to sunseekers in their shades & shorts the "damage caused by the aggression on Dubrovnik by the Yugoslav army, Serbs and Montenegrians, 1991-1992". It's a very busy map, showing direct shell hits, shrapnel damage, buildings wrecked by fire, etc. Clearly the war is not something they want to sweep under the rug here in Dubrovnik.
You can see a video of some of the attacks on YouTube at youtu.be/fqso_4OCcMk. Without the video it's difficult to imagine how such a picturesque location, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, could have been under seige - ravaged by bombs, shelling, and cut off from the world with no power, food or running water - for 6 months. Substantial international aid has helped to rebuild all the damage - noticeable by the stark colour contrast between the mossy old roof tiles and shiny new orange ones.
I took a walk around the top of the city walls in the evening. The ramparts are open to visitors and you can hire an audio guide which points out the various landmarks and tells you a bit about the history of the city. I'd have liked it to focus more on the particular part of recent history I was there to find out about, but it went back a lot longer than that, which makes sense seeing as it's an ancient fort that has been there protecting Dubrovnik for many centuries (and for most of that time has managed to retain the city's status as an independent/autonymous area because of its strong defences).
The tape helpfully pointed out two hills looking down on the city, one of which was where the Serbs were based and attacked from during the war, and the other was the base of the Croatian army, who were woefully under-equipped and outnumbered. When Croatia declared independence from Yugolsavia in 1991, troops were sent by the not-very-pleased Yugoslav leaders including Serb president Slobodan Milošević, based in Belgrade, to try and re-capture it. Dubrovnik was of particular interest because of it's isolated location - they thought it could be detached from Croatia and kept as part of Yugoslavia. Despite overwhelming fire-power, the Serbs never managed to conquer the city - the grit & determination of the local people and the thick medieval walls kept them at bay long enough that they eventually retreated and went off in search of easier pickings up in Bosnia - but not before they'd killed and wounded hundreds of civillians and caused untold damage to such an ancient & historic city.
I finished my wall tour as the sun was setting and managed to snap a few decent rooftop photos - it's hard to take a bad picture in this place, every direction you look is another stunning image. Grabbing a huge plate of fresh delicious seafood risotto (£7.50) and a Karlovačka beer (£1) in the old marina at the place recommended most highly in my trusty Lonely Planet, I noticed all the tourists enjoying their holidays - exploring the tiny cobbled alleyways and checking out the souvenir shops - this place is perfect for a city break... it has it all: great weather, culture & history, warm clean water to swim in, beaches (sort of - a bit pebbly), great value food, and a vibrant nightlife scene. Everyone should come. But many will probably leave blissfully ignorant of the nightmare that was played out here just a few years earlier and the massive reconstruction effort that has gone into making it look, and feel, so perfect again.