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The Day They Stopped Killing Each Other

T. SHER SINGH

 

 

 

Two decades ago, a friend and I found ourselves in Venice, Italy, enjoying an extended, much-deserved break from the vagaries of work back home. One fine morning, the newspapers announced a sudden and surprising end to the Bosnian conflict that had been raging in the neighbouring region formerly known as Josef Tito's Yugoslavia.

The newly carved -- some of them hastily created -- Balkan countries appeared to be but a hop, skip and jump away. So, my friend and I got on a bus in nearby Trieste, Italy, crossed the border within minutes, and headed out to the far end of the war zone. Specifically, the port city of Dubrovnik.





The bus meanders down the jagged teeth of the Adriatic coast of the former Yugoslavia. During the 18-hour ride, we flit from country to country in this land of ever-changing political geography.

We hop over from Italy to Slovenia.

Fifteen minutes later, it becomes Croatia. At one point, we are suddenly in Bosnia. Half an hour later, it’s Croatia again.

There are times when the passengers around us -- all Croatians heading home for the first peaceful Christmas (they hope) in recent memory -- cannot agree whether we are in Bosnian-held territory or Croatian. It’s changed hands so often and so quickly, sometimes back and forth within hours -- somebody explains -- no one knows for sure.

We slow down as we pass through Maslanica, now a village of blown-up, burnt-out and abandoned houses, each with windows that stare out wistfully with blackened eyes, reminiscent of recent poundings from Serb hilltop posts on the horizon.

The pontoon bridge, we are told as we rattle over it at five miles an hour, has had to be rebuilt after each pounding to keep the Croatian supply line intact between the north and the south.

The bridge is still smouldering on its edges from the final battle only a few days earlier. All of us on the bus go dead quiet as we inch our way across.

As we proceed down the coast, grave faces turn back to the two TV screens that have been spitting at us non-stop for several hours. Eerily enough, the world depicted on the 16-inch screens is not much different from the ravaged land we are going through.

It’s unmistakably a Hollywood product designed for export, with sub-titles and all. It doesn’t seem to have a name -- it doesn’t seem necessary. It doesn’t have a plot -- it doesn’t seem necessary.

One episode flows into another, without a break or storyline. Hour after hour. Of scenes set on the highways of America. People mauling people. They kill, maim, torture, terrorize, in novel ways. The events unfold back-to-back, with brutality and abuse never absent from the screen for more than 30 seconds. The kind that never reaches our screens back home, thank God; at least not this intensely. The blood and gore, the callous and mindless violence simply goes on and on and on, but with no emotion whatsoever to punctuate the action.

This is what Hollywood exports to countries that cannot afford their blockbusters.

The captive audience in our bus watches all of it relentlessly, with no expression, no response, no reaction. The young and the old. Men and women.

We stop briefly in Split. Part of the town is still on fire, with pillars of smoke littering the horizon.

Soldiers on furlough are everywhere, waiting for buses to a variety of locations, strutting around smartly like peacocks. Designer, state-of-the-art blouse, pants, belts, medallions. Shining new combat boots. Perfectly askewed berets.

I stare at one sitting quietly on a bench a few feet away from me, during a brief stop, gently stroking a stray cat. He knows I’m admiring his fatigues, bursts into a smile, fixes a crease, and blurts a boast: “Made in America!” he says hoarsely.

We arrive in Dubrovnik at mid-day.

We have a wide choice of hotels -- all are unoccupied. Most of them abandoned.

We look for one which is still functioning to some degree. And finally find one. The grand old Imperial outside the gates of the walled Old City. It’s still open. Sort of. The main building has been shelled by mortars aimed at the Old City, and now houses only refugees and orphans.

An annex now constitutes the hotel.

The bartender is lonely, talkative and fluent in English. He’s surprised to see us … strange though it appears, we are tourists.

“Only the arms dealers come around nowadays,” he complains. “The world ignored us while we were being massacred. But now that we have pushed the Serbs back with almost bare hands, everybody wants to come to Croatia and sell us guns. And, you know, they test their new weapons on us. Of course, we have to pay for everything. Oh-h-h, these Americans!” He rolls his eyes.

He invites us to a wedding party at the hotel that night. “It’ll be a lot of fun!”

Well, you ain’t seen nothing if you ain’t seen Bosnians dancing to Chubby Checker’s ’Let’s Twist Again!’

The waiters -- all Croatians -- stand around, clapping and swaying with the whirlwind. There’s nuclear energy in the air as the crowd gyrates and leaps and swivels as if there is no tomorrow.

We take a breather and stroll down the Stradun in the Old City, to catch the Christmas festivities. It’s the Night of the Teenagers, it appears.

The bartender explains: “The fathers are all in the hills, manning the guns. Who’ll tell the children what to do and not to do?”     
 
Hundreds of James Deans and Fonzies, hand-in-hand with Madonna-clones, swagger back and forth on the medieval thoroughfare to the tune of an unstruck melody. Unseen hands throw lighted firecrackers into the crowds. The air bursts with rockets; the atmosphere erupts as gangs taunt each other.

The explosions proclaim the dual message of Hope and Violence that pervades the air. The combination is palpable and menacing. Soldiers and police stand by, unable to lift a finger. Nobody knows how to deal with youth left behind, the flotsam and jetsam of a long and vicious war.

We flee to the hotel for the night.


January 31, 2015




  
 

Conversation about this article

1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lunpur, Malaysia), January 31, 2015, 5:17 PM.

Sher ji, if you were so desperate to find out where the heck Dubrovnik was, apart from Timbuktu, you could have asked the little girl of about four, who could rattle off the names of the world capitals without a blink. Please go to the following site and be amazed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2KpbGCzG4c

2: Dr Birinder Singh Ahluwalia (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), February 02, 2015, 5:58 AM.

Rattling of names of places does not automatically translate into knowing directions of the places whose names were rattled or how to get to those places, or does it? ... maybe there is something about rattling I need to learn.

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