Worldwide with Wee-Cheng #41: Croatia: Tales of Tragedies, A Grand Old Republic and 21st Century Mass Tourism – Croatia

#40: Croatia: Tales of Tragedies, A Grand Old Republic and 21st Century Mass Tourism

13 July 2002

“I am 56 and my two sons were killed in the war, aged 20 and 26.”

That’s how Mdm. C introduced herself when I was brought to her house by her sister, Mdm. D. Both were among the elderly ladies who wait for arriving travelers at the bus station of Dubrovnik, Croatia. Once you get off the bus, they mob you, offering you rooms in their apartments. Since Croatia’s independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, (and even after the end of the war in 1995), life has been difficult for many people. Factories have closed down and inflation has reduced the pension of many to meaningless numbers.

I did not know why Mdm. C chose to introduce herself that way. Was it to generate some sympathy so as to mute my protests of the high room rates ? I don’t know, but at least I was given the spacious living-room-turned-bedroom-for-rental, while Mdm. C sleeps in her cramped kitchen, where I spied some pictures of her dead sons – lively, good-looking young men, cannon fodder of the terrible war of 1992-1995. Over the next few days, I was to realize that Mdm. C’s parents, too, died during the war, not the direct result of gunfire, but largely due to poor sanitary conditions and lack of medicine for their illness already existing at the start of the war. She also told me about the days spent in the bomb shelter, and the fact that her house was somewhat lower than the surrounding ones was that the top floor was destroyed by shelling from the “Orthodox people”. That’s how she referred to the Serbs. “Why should they kill us ?”

But she reserved her bitterest complaints towards the political elite of Zagreb. Pointing to the newly resigned Croatian premier on TV news, she said, “They are all thieves. I lost my sons to the nation, but I have nothing today. They have stolen everything. All their Swiss accounts, Mercedes, and holiday houses.”

Dubrovnik of Dalmatia, southern Croatia, crown jewel of the Adriatic, is one of the most beautiful cities of the world. Perhaps the most beautiful one on the Mediterranean Sea. Straddled against the barren high cliffs on one side and the crystal azure waters of the Mediterranean on the other, the high walls and bastions of this gets praises from travelers, poets and writers.

Also known as Ragusa, Dubrovnik was once an ancient city-state whose merchant ships sailed throughout the Adriatic. It was a real rival of Venice for many years, and its wealth had allowed it to build great churches and palaces within its walls and on the many islands it controlled off the coast. Its fortunes declined with the discovery of the Americas, and this glorious republic was finally abolished by Napoleon in 1806. The 20th C. brought new riches – when the age of tourism brought tourists in huge numbers to this architectural gem and its many beaches and islands.

The good times, however, were interrupted when war broke out in 1991 as Croatia declared independence. Milosevic, President of Serbia, decided that the Dalmatian coast was too good to be given up to the Croats. Immediately the city was blockaded by the Yugoslav Federal Army and Montenegrin militia. Milosevic and company then cooked up this grand dream of reviving the old Republic of Dubrovnik – and in what was one of the most comical episodes of modern history, set up a puppet provisional government of the Republic of Dubrovnik in the city’s suburb of Cavtat. Serbian academics produced tons to scholarly work trying to prove that the people of Dubrovnik and Dalmatia were not actually Croats, but Catholic Serbs, that the Dalmatian dialect was closer to Serbian dialects than Croatian ones, etc. The problem with all these theories, was that they forgot that the locals disagreed with them.

When the city refused to surrender, the Serbs laid destruction to the city’s suburbs and then surrounded the city with heavy guns and artillery. From October 1991 to May 1992, they laid siege to this ancient city, pounding it with heavy artillery and gun fire – all these in the face of world media. The world watched in horror as the old city burned, and smoke rose from the ancient ramparts and cathedrals. Nine grand palaces were burnt to ashes; the rooftops of 70% of the buildings fell to pieces. “Stop the barbaric assault on world heritage,” the world shouted. The officers of the Yugoslav Army could hardly have understood that the world has changed in some ways since WWII. In the last decade of the 20th C., we have truly entered the Age of Mass Media, and public opinion does not permit the sort of warfare practiced for centuries to be played out on open TV. If anything, the siege had achieved nothing but a complete public relations disaster for the Serbs.

I met Mario, a hotel manager who was a Croatian fighter then. He drove me around the mountains overlooking the city, pointing out the Serbian positions – they occupied all high points overlooking the city except for the fortress built by Napoleon. The fortress (and of course the city) was pounded heavily, and today the first two levels are nothing but ruins. The nearby TV transmitter was completely destroyed, together with the tourist cable car station. Croat forces in the fortress were able to communicate with the forces in the city through the 10 underground levels beneath the fortress all the way down to the Old City level. At nightfall, Croatian commandos came in on speedboats, delivering ammunition and food to the besieged citizens of Dubrovnik. A terrible 8-month siege, and finally the siege was pushed back in stages. Enormous sacrifices were made (Mario hated the snakes most), but the ancient city was saved.

Since then, international efforts have been made to restore the city. Today as one strolled through its ancient streets, the untrained eye could hardly have noted any war damage, apart from difference in colour and shades of the roof tiles. Tourism is booming in Croatia. Dubrovnik’s hotels are full of tourists again and its streets crowded with souvenir shops, boutiques and restaurants. Unlike most of the rest of the former Yugoslav states, Croatia (and Slovenia) is recovering quickly. Tourism is making an impact on local employment and economics. There is tremendous potential. Croatia now attracts 2.5m tourists, though still a far cry from the almost 10m before the war. Well, if you haven’t been to these beautiful shores – in my opinion many times more beautiful than the French Riviera – come now before the really massive crowds come.

Apart from Dubrovnik, I also visited Split, Croatia’s second-largest city with the famous Palace of Diocletian (UNESCO site) as well as the beautiful island of Hvar with its Venetian fortress and fishing villages. Nearby is the island of Korcula, where Marco Polo was born – the Venetians claim that he was born in Venice, but the Croatians said he was born in Korcula which was then under Venetian control. Off the coast of Dubrovnik is the isle of Lukum, where Franciscan monks coexist with nudist sun-tanners and day-trippers looking for exotic flora and fauna. Welcome to the mass tourism 21st Century!

With that, I decided to proceed on to Montenegro, the junior partner in what remains of the Yugoslav Federation. The journey itself was a most unexpected adventure of a lifetime.