Author: Tan Wee Cheng

Worldwide with Wee-Cheng #30: Amongst the Ghosts of History: A Walk in the Balkans – Macedonia and Croatia

#29: Amongst the Ghosts of History: A Walk in the Balkans

19 June 2002

Tonight, I am flying to Athens, Greece, from where I would begin my one-month journey through one of the past decade’s hot spots, the Balkans of southeastern Europe.

The Balkans – this huge region in the southeast of Europe stretching from the eastern end of the Alps and the Hungarian plains southwards to the warm Mediterranean – has in the past 200 invoked images of war, conflict, ethnic cleansing and radicalism. Yet this is also a colourful part of Europe – in my opinion the most colourful one. One that is full of history, cultural diversity and vibrancy.

In 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of totalitarian regimes across Eastern Europe sparked off the desire for ethnic self determination across the region. Rival nationalist passions and ancient conflicts were ignited by politicians with private agendas. These sparked off the bitter military conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. Slovenia and Croatia broke away, followed by Bosnia.

The massive movement of ethnic populations uprooted ancient settlements and communities. The Dayton Peace Agreement of 1995 enforced the peace in Bosnia, but by 1999 war broke out again, this time in Kosovo, when Milosevic’s Yugoslavia attempted to suppress the Albanian rebellion. NATO forces came into the picture and forced the Yugoslav Army out of the province. Milosevic was forced from power after he lost the elections in 2001 and has since then been sent to The Hague’s International War Crimes Tribunal.

In March 2001, Macedonia’s Albanian minority went to the barricades and once again, Western forces enforced peace. Since then, peace of some sort has resumed. Just a few months ago, an agreement has been signed between Serbia and Montenegro, Yugoslavia’s last remaining republics on a loose form of confederation, a strange creature that many doubt would last long. The region as a whole is tired after a decade of conflict. Apart from the corrupt elite that has profited (and perhaps Slovenia, which got out of the conflict early and lightly), almost the entire population lost massively. Peace is reigning now, but it is at best an uneasy one.

This is not my first trip to the Balkans. I was first in the region in 1995, when I travelled overland from Vienna to Istanbul, passing through Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. Full-scale war was on that time in Bosnia, and I remembered learning proper Serbo-Croat (this language has now been renamed Serbian, Croatian or Bosnian in respective countries) pronunciation from a Bosnian refugee on a train from Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia, to Zagreb, capital of Croatia. I was in Zagreb for one day, merely three weeks after Serbian artillery bombing during the Western Slovenian offensive, the first Croatian victory in this war. National flags flew everywhere while a band played in the central park. Soldiers patrolled the streets and massively fortified garrisons at every corner.

Yet this beautiful Parisian-feel city had a surreal atmosphere, as teenagers roller-bladed in the park and pensioners and lovers strolled on its wide boulevards sparkled with cafes, like people do everywhere else in the world. Little did I knew in less than 5 months later, Croatian-Bosnian forces would rout the Serbian army, and the war would be over in Croatia and Bosnia.

From Athens, I will be flying to Thessaloniki, capital of Greek Macedonia and Greece’s second largest city. Then I will take a train to Skopje, capital of the Republic of Macedonia (or if you are trying to appear neutral, the FYROM – Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), followed by Nis and Belgrade in Serbia. I will then enter the Serbian part of Bosnia-Herzegovina, known as Republika Srpska, and then on to Sarajevo, capital of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as the Muslim-Croat part of the country known as the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (“the Federation”). Mostar, the bitterly divided city will be next. This historic city has been destroyed by the conflict between the Muslims of Bosnia and the Croats, backed by their so-called statelet of Croatian Community of Herceg-Bosna, which has been denounced by the UN, as it is supposed to be part of the Federation.

I will move on to the beautiful Croatian cities of Split and Dubrovnik, and perhaps the island of Korcula, where Marco Polo was born. From there, I will re-enter the soon-to-be-renamed Yugoslav Federation, into the republic of Montenegro. A short visit to this legendary mountainous land and then on to Kosovo, now a NATO controlled protectorate. From Kosovo, I will move on to Albania for a few days before returning to Greece for the flight back to London.

What a rushy trip for the next one month. There aren’t many updated guidebooks around, but I have gotten a few interesting ones, including the Blue Guide to Albania and Kosovo, which advises, among other things, to familiarise oneself with types of NATO and Yugoslav mines and ammunition, dealing with honey traps, as well as how to be friends with NATO, Chinese, Russian, Yugoslav and what-have-you spies and getting all your telecommunication messages and links properly encrypted and secured.

OK, that’s all for the time being. I will be heading for Heathrow soon. Wish me good luck and you will hear from you soon.

PS: Yes, I know I still owe you my Miami and Liechtenstein/Switzerland travel reports. Inshallah, I will get them out some time. Well, who cares… the Balkans are more exciting.