Reflections on the Balkans

It was a wonderful summer’s day with clear blue skies. In the background the Adriatic shimmered soothingly. Everything seemed peaceful. A taxi appeared to take me into the Old Town in Dubrovnik. The driver was a congenial fellow who struck up a conversation, as I was enjoying the magnificent views all around.

“Who is the second richest actor in the world,” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied

“Shahrukh Khan,” he said.

Shahrukh Khan is a Bollywood phenomenon. My driver thought it befitting to tell me seeing me of Indian appearance.

“You know I was his personal chauffeur when he was here shooting for a film.”

What a perfect location I thought for a shoot.

“Where do you live?” he asked.

“I am from London.”

“I was in the special forces,” he said perhaps prompted by the thought of the British SAS.

He then showed me a photo of him cocking a gun in uniform. I became curious. How could a man who appeared so calm and serene have had a past in the army? That thought — has he killed people — occurred. The whole semblance of serenity had shattered. With the backdrop of the magnificent views, I realised, things were not as normal as they looked.

He was very proud of the photo. Without knowing much about the conflict, other than something happened in the Balkans, I enquired.

“Those guys…what they did,” he began.

“Could you forgive them,” I cut in. I wanted to gain comfort that things would be ok. Those bad things of the past did not haunt them anymore.

“We can never forgive them,” he replied quite in contrast to his disposition. As if to redeem that statement, he added, “Perhaps my grandchildren will.”

A disused mosque

His words got me curious. I wanted to understand more of the social tension that lay buried within the magnificent façade of beautiful landscapes.

The very next day, I took a trip to Bosnia-Herzegovina. On the way, at our first stop at a town in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I asked a waitress, “Were you born in Bosnia?” I shortened the two names into one but it perturbed the waitress. “Herzegovina,” she replied with a look that she didn’t want to linger the conversation. I’d obviously hurt her feelings. What was actually a name to me, Bosnia, was actually charged with raw feelings. Trying my best to control the damage, I hurriedly apologised and left.

Next stop was the town of Mostar in this country. A bridge divides it into East and West. The Croats live on the East and the Bosnians live on the West.

Our guide who met us in Mostar, was a beautiful blonde girl, who was a Croat. She kept us enthralled as she narrated the town’s history. She said that the region’s war had nothing to do with the people but a ‘political one.” Everyone seemed to know her. The shopkeepers, the waiters, the craftsmen, the Croats and the Bosnians alike.

So she ended her tour saying that the war is behind them and people are finally starting to come together.

But are they?

Our guide, as she had told us, grew up on an island in Croatia, during the war. Perhaps she knew someone who was killed by a Bosnian, or the Bosnians she was greeting knew someone who was killed by a Croat. Would wounds heal so fast?

Souvenirs on sale

When buying a rug from a shop, I asked the owner what she was ethnically. She replied, “our country is stupid. We are all Bosnians.”

The seeds still remain.

Humans identify themselves with distinct identities. This aspect forever resides with us, written in the fabric of our existence and trigger conflicts by giving rise to dynamics. Power struggles arise when power imbalances are created, sometimes gaining strength turning into full blown wars, and other times, withering away.

The bridge connecting the East to the West

Although conflicts are inevitable, we need to work harder to prevent them. Wars may only last a generation but the scars can remain for a longer time.

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