By Wendy Elliott
In Croatia, they tend their graves. There are brooms in every corner of the cemetery I visited in Dubrovnik. It was just around the corner from our rented villa and boasted a flower shop at the entrance.
One day, I noticed a line of identical red and white flower arrangements atop the wall by the gate. It mystified me, so I asked our friendly driver about the significance of the flowers.
He said that Police Day was earlier that week and the arrangements marked the graves of policemen who died defending the city during the ethnic warfare that took place between 1991 and1995.
I wandered the cemetery, past Victorian stone angels and plastic bouquets, to find the section holding the war dead. The grave markings were all the same. The photos and dates were different and about half remembered police officers as denoted by the flowers. A sobering spot.
The Balkan region is a terrific destination for tourists, but it is filled with ghosts. Memories are long. The Serbs have not forgotten the 1941 Nazi-style concentration camps in Croatia where Serbs, Roma and Jews were exterminated.
Much has been rebuilt in the old city of Dubrovnik, but the street map on the ancient walls is accompanied by another showing shell strikes from the hills above. It was estimated 55.9 per cent of buildings were damaged - 11.1 per cent were heavily damaged and one per cent burned down.
Ivo Grbić, an established Dubrovnik artist, spends his days now as a living testament to the shelling. His home and art studio, a Baroque building built after 1667, were hit by three missiles in December 1991. It was gutted. Forced to live elsewhere for 11 years, Grbić kept returning and making art. In English outside his door is his story with the words “lest we forget.” With the help of UNESCO, his home and Dubrovnik have risen from the ashes and once again can be termed the “Pearl of the Adriatic,” - but no one forgets.
Much has been rebuilt in the old city of Dubrovnik, but the street map on the ancient walls is accompanied by another showing shell strikes from the hills above.
In the Bosnian city of Mostar, you can see shell holes left in walls. Our young guide, an under-employed teacher, described her city as multi-ethnic. What she meant is, before 1991, there was no ethnic residential divide. However, now there is a marked one.
With some prompting, she and our driver spoke about being children during wartime: the displacement, hiding from bombs, the fear and the shortages. All sides suffered.
Croatia’s economy is obviously doing well with the help of a booming tourism industry. We saw huge cruise boats coming and going daily. Nearby in Bosnia, the unemployment rate is a whopping 46 per cent. We stopped in one nearly vacant village, where the old women selling fruit told us only 15 residents remained. The rest of the population had left to seek work.
I came back to Nova Scotia filled with gratitude for our peace and comparative prosperity. It was a super vacation, but I cannot imagine living with hatred bubbling below the surface. On my return, the underlying tenor of the provincial election, indeed the increasingly nasty tone of politics today, struck me with some vigour. I wish our politicians would stop sniping at each other and work together for the betterment of us all.
That was what I learned from ghosts in the Balkans.