Worldwide with Wee-Cheng #42: Montenegro or Bust: A 1,500 km Rush Around the Balkans in 48 Hours

#41: Montenegro or Bust: A 1,500 km Rush Around the Balkans in 48 Hours

13 July 2002

After sunny Croatia, I decided to proceed to Montenegro, the junior partner in what remains of the Yugoslav Federation. I took a bus to the tiny strip of common border between Croatia and Montenegro and expected to cross the border without problems. After all, Montenegro has claimed that it is the more liberal of the two republics and wants international support for its desire for complete independence. I had previously crossed Yugoslav borders before (from Macedonia to Serbia) and could obtain a tourist pass on the border, as per Yugoslav Federal regulations. I had also contacted the Montenegro Ministry of Tourism and the Representative (i.e., unofficial ambassador) of the Montenegrin Government in the UK, and confirmed that I could enter without a visa. However, at this godforsaken border amidst great natural beauty – lush green mountains and quaint winding roads – I was refused entry. “This is the Republic of Montenegro, not Yugoslavia,” the guards said. They claimed that I needed a visa.

There I was, stuck in the middle of nowhere. It’s Saturday morning and I would have to go to Zagreb and wait till Monday to try to get a visa from the Montenegrin Mission there. They might need HQ consultation and more time before the visa was to be granted. More time might be wasted, and they might even refuse me visa on the pretext that I was a non-resident in Croatia. So I chose Alternative Two – go to Belgrade and try entering Montenegro from there. Serbia and Montenegro are still officially one country, and there’s less likelihood of a check on their internal border. Even if there is a check, I would be able to show my Yugoslav federal tourist pass to show that I have at least entered the Federation legally. And best of all, I wouldn’t waste any time waiting till Monday to try get a visa in Zagreb.

And so I began my 1500km journey in order to get to the other border of a small country only 100 odd km long. I was lucky to be given a 250-km lift to Split by a friendly Russian couple I met on the border – a well-traveled Arctic scientist with whom I had a wonderful conversation about travel and all sorts of topics. From Split I hopped onto an overnight bus for Zagreb.

Sometime around midnight, the bus passed through Knin. Knin, a city that immediately aroused my attention when I saw it on the bus itinerary. Between 1991 and 1995, this was the capital of the rebel Serbian state, the Serbian Krajina Republic. Krajina is the region of central Croatia-bordering Bosnia, where Serbians have lived for 1000 years. For many years they served as frontier guards for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, defending Western Europe from the Ottoman Turkish Empire. On the Bosnian side of the border, also known as Krajina, lived another group of Serbs – those of Republika Srpska today – who were frontiersmen for the Turks. The great powers of the past have used the Serbs to fight Serbs, but the real Serbs knows that their true loyalty was to themselves, hence the slogan “Only Unity Will Save the Serbs”.

Knin entered world headlines in 1991, when local Serbs declared independence from Croatia following Croatia’s own declaration from Yugoslavia. Determined to remain within Yugoslavia, they acquired the massive arms store of the Yugoslav Federal Army. Within a short time, they controlled a quarter of Croatia, and effectively cut Croatia into two halves by virtue of their control of central Croatia. At their height of power, they laid siege to the eastern city of Vukovar and reduced the beautiful Austro-Hungarian city into ashes; they also surrounded Dubrovnik and horrified the world with the bombing of this World Heritage city. They rained artillery on Zagreb, the Croatian capital, as and when they wished.

Good times did not last. The Croatians recovered from their initial weakness and began rearming. The Krajina Serbs quarreled with Milosevic and supplies began to trickle down. The corruption of their own leaders began to affect morale and unity. In August 1995, the Croats launched a sudden attack on Knin. Within 24 hours, Knin fell, and the Krajina Serbian Army fled, together with 150,000 Serbs whose ancestors have lived there for a millennium. In merely a few days, 1000 years of Serbian settlement had come to an end. So was the Serb Krajina Republic. The UN has since then encouraged the Serbs to return, but few did so. In a census published a few weeks ago, it has been revealed that the percentage of Serbs in Croatia has dropped from 15% before the war to only 4% today. A sad day for global diversity.

I arrived in Zagreb in the early morning. I was last here in late May 1995. Seven years have passed. At that time, I took a train from Ljubljana, Slovenia, into Zagreb, just two weeks after Zagreb was bombed by the Krajina Serbs when Croatian forces took over the small Serb region of Western Slavonia in a sudden offensive which was their first major capture of land for a long time. It was a different country then. Soldiers everywhere, guarding bastions and street corners. Sandbags and barbwire were commonplace. The chessboard flag of Croatia was flown everywhere, perhaps the symbol of nationalism and a rally-point for the nation at crisis time. Even those not on active duty were wearing uniforms, strolling in the park with their families. A band was playing in the central park. A surreal atmosphere prevailed. There weren’t many tourists – I only saw one, an African-American who jokingly wondered when the next bomb would fall. The cheapest hotel in town with rooms wanted US$100 for the privilege – the rest were occupied by refugees and only diplomats and peacekeepers on expense accounts were in town. I contemplated going south to Dubrovnik, but it was too dangerous then. If the ceasefire had broken down, I would be trapped in a region surrounded by enemy artillery.

Times have since changed. Now Zagreb is no longer that drab wartime capital. Every Croat walks around with a cell phone. Hardly any soldiers in sight. Bright new adverts selling cell phones and holidays in the USA. Backpackers get off the train every hour. ATMs everywhere. President Tudjman, father of modern Croatia, was dead, together with some of his ultra-nationalist theories and authoritarian ideas, some of which have sparked off terrible warfare in Bosnia; others deny the existence of a genocide of Serbians in the WWII camp Jasenovac – a sore point for the Krajina Serbs and rallying call for their rebellion against the Croatian state.

I have changed too, then a first-time solo backpacker; now about to enter Albania, my 95th country or political entity, as these words are being written.

I hopped onto a train for Belgrade, a line parallel to that famous Highway of Brotherhood and Unity, built in the old Tito days between the capitals of the Federation’s two largest republics. The line passed through several landmarks of the past decade of chaos. Novo Gradiska, the small district town which used to be the center of Western Slavonia; and Vinkovci, where passengers get off to go to Vukovar, the city under a three-month siege in 1991 and undergone utter destruction as a result. Vukovar used to be a beautiful city with graceful Austrian buildings and tree-lined boulevards. The battle for it shocked the world for its ferocity and the atrocities committed. On the train, I met a pretty Croatian girl going home for a visit from Zagreb. She and her family spent three months in the cellars during the siege, and were lucky to survive when the city fell. They went into exile and only returned in 1998, when the region was returned to Croatian control as part of the UN postwar settlement plan. The Vukovar of today is a sad shell of its past glories. Not only were the past architectural gems gone, but Serbs and Croats can no longer sit in the same caf� and restaurants. Everything is racially segregated. A tragedy for a city that once used to be the city in Yugoslavia with the highest percentage of mixed marriages.

Crossing the border was easy enough. “Moshe Moshe,” the beautiful passport officer with her flashy blonde hair said, “No problem, go ahead.” Wow! Serbia has the most beautiful and friendly people on its borders! Even the male officers were not the fat grouchy type on most Balkan frontiers, but some with good-looking pseudo-model qualities.

I reached Belgrade at mid-afternoon. Good old Belgrade. I love this city! Here I bought a ticket for Bar, a city on the Montenegrin coast. The train was full of young Belgraders going to the coast for summer holidays. As a Singaporean, I was easily the most exotic creature on Earth (or rather on the train), and the center of attention in my cabin. It was impossible to sleep, as wine and snacks being passed around, plus a thousand questions asked about my life, personal or not.

And with that, I finally reached Montenegro from the backdoor, after 1,500km around the former Yugoslavia.

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