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Reflexions on The Former Yugoslavia


By Robert Ross


In 1965, with a rucksack on my back, I walked across the border from Trieste, Italy, into the former country of Yugoslavia, a decision I later regretted. The plan was to hitchhike down through Yugoslavia to Greece. It was a journey that I still think back on … standing for hours on end, trying to hitch a ride, to no avail, sleeping on the metal floors between train cars (because there was no room, not even on the floors of the pass-enger cars), walking into the village of Skopje, famished, only to find the shelves bare, save for a few small bread rolls in the “market.” This was President Tito’s Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.  It was considered part of the eastern European block, aligned with Russia, but it wasn’t as hardcore as the other Iron Curtain countries, it was . . . communist-lite.

Fast forward to my return in October 2012; Yugoslavia had broken up into six nations during the 1990’s . . .  and things were different now, dramatically different. Those distant memories of an impoverished undeveloped region would soon be dispelled.

Our tour group — Grand Circle Travel — met in Dubrovnik, Croatia.  We had 34 participants. The majority were retired, from all over the U.S. For two weeks we would be experiencing the sights, sounds, and taste the ethnic cuisines of Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia/Herzegovenia and Slovenia. This area, along with Serbia, Bulgaria, Albania and Greece is often referred to as the Balkans or the Balkan peninsula.

The hotels were 4-Star, and we had the same tour guide and driver throughout the trip.

Beauty & the Beast

The United Nations awarded the title of UNESCO World Heritage Sites to four locations on our itinerary: Dubrovnik’s Old City (Croatia), Mostar (Bosnia/Herzegovina), Kotor Bay (Montenegro) and the Diocletian Palace in Split (Croatia). Charming, beautiful, historic, pick your adjective, they all fall short of the actual experience of these sites.

Our tour would also take us along the Dalmatian coastline, where the deep blue Adriatic sea hugged its rugged shoreline. In Slovenia, we would visit a pristine lake setting with the Julian Alps as a backdrop. We would learn a bit of history and walk through palaces built by the ancient Romans. Along our journey, we saw that many villages and towns had been restored to their former splendor. Everywhere we went, it could only be described as an oil painter’s dream, all quite beautiful. This is the “Beauty” of the Beauty & the Beast analogy.  

But . . . there is a Beast, too. To discuss Croatia, Bosnia or Serbia, for example, is to examine war. The first Balkan war in 1912 was an attempt (successful) to wrestle control from the Ottomans. Then, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 in Sarajevo, Bosnia, was the flash point for World War I. WWII saw vast areas of the region occupied by Germany and Italy. More recently, in 1991, the conflict between ethnic groups was so brutal, it eventually involved NATO. Trials are currently being held in the Hague to determine the guilt or innocence of the warring parties.

On our excursion, we drove past a still uncleared mine field (with warning signs posted) and viewed more than a few bullet-riddled buildings. Do a little probing of those who lived through that period and it becomes clear that emotions are still raw for many. War, mine fields, potential flash points, ethnic conflicts — some dating back hundreds of years . . . this is the Beast.

A (not so) Short History

One of the recommended readings from Grand Circle Travel was The Balkans: A Short History by Mark Mazower. Short History? Ah . . . there is no short history, no brief history,

no Cliff Notes history, no thumbnail sketch history to the Balkans. The history of the area can only be described as lengthy, incredibly complex and confusing. And just when you think you have an understanding, someone will mention the Russian connection with the Serbs, or the Bosnia Croats versus the Croats from Croatia, or the Orthodox Christians versus the Roman Catholic Christians, or the Islamic Serbs versus . . . or the Ottoman influence, or the Austro-Hungarian empire, and . . . it’s head-scratching time again.

The Balkans have been a gateway to and from the middle east for thousands of years. But it wasn’t until the 14th century that an invading army from the middle east officially moved into the area. It was the Turkish Ottomans, bringing with them a religion (Islam), language and culture. They were well entrenched until . . . to the north, the Austro-Hungarian empire was formed in the 1860s. By the 1870s the Austro-Hungarian empire had occupied Bosnia/Herzegovenia. As a result, turf wars ensued (and still do). This was one of many ethnic divides that confront the Balkans.

Today, the most noticeable tensions are in Bosnia/Herzegovenia. For example, within Bosnia is the independent Republic of Srpska. An area carved out of Bosnia in the 1990s, made up predominantly of Serbs.  But ask anyone in Bosnia (including our tour guide) about this independent republic called Srpska and they’ll say flat out “it ain’t gonna work!” Is this the next flash point?

And so goes the Balkans.

Our trip to the Balkans will linger with me for many years.  This is an area that I once visited as a young adventurer. So it was eye opening to see how things had changed, developed and modernized, and yet with all of its beauty and charm, there are issues still unresolved. Issues that may never be resolved. Winston Churchill captured the enormity of it all when he said: “The Balkans produce more history than they can consume.”

Robert Ross can be reached by e-mail at:   

Copyright 2013 by Robert Ross, all rights reserved,