Misha Glenny’s Hubert Butler Lecture Tonight
To read through a history of the Yugoslav Wars with its long and complicated cultural, ethnic and political background stories for each of the countries involved seemed a daunting task. I visited Croatia, Bosnia and Slovenia seven years ago but did little research beforehand. To be honest, much of what I read for this trip (and many others) was done en-route or on arrival, and with the Lonely Planet and Let’s Go books to start with. In 2005 I had guides on Croatia and Slovenia but there were none on Bosnia to be found in Ireland then.
Misha Glenny’s The Fall of Yugoslavia is packed with history, politics, religion and culture, not to mention the extensive geography. But it also flows with personal commentary and side-stories so that the reader constantly receives generous doses of varied and fascinating styles throughout the dense book.
I was only a few pages in when I found myself scanning maps of Central Europe and feeling a need to return to the Balkan region for more exploring. A little further in and I was reading about Ivan Andrić, the Yugoslav Nobel prize author. Suddenly I was ordering his book, The Bridge on the Drina, as well as a collection of Andrić’s short stories and another of Glenny’s works, The Balkans. The further I got through The Fall of Yugoslavia, the longer I wanted to spend learning and travelling. Glenny brings the reader with him on his journey through countries and stages of war, while explaining the background history, and what the locals are doing and saying (he speaks Serbo-Croat, Czech, German and Greek).
I wished I had had even one percent of Glenny’s knowledge and contacts when I was travelling through Croatia, and even more so, in Bosnia. Instead, I had little more than flights to and from Italy, a map of The Balkan Region, and a vague plan to make my way around as much of the ex-Yugoslavian countries that I felt were safe for a lone female to do in a month. I did have a friend in Kilkenny who was from Croatia but she was about nine years old when the wars ended. And what knowledge she did have, she was not interested in divulging.
I also had the address of a family in rural Croatia, near both the Bosnian and Serbian borders. My sister’s work-friend, Aleksandar (known in Ireland as Alex), had a sister and grandfather in the village of Srijemske Laze, near Vokovar, and Alex was eager for me to visit them. I didn’t realise then that this region had been one of the worst conflict areas in the war. Alex hadn’t been back to Croatia in several years – he told my sister, Dymphna, that his passport ‘wasn’t very welcome’ in Croatia because he had been in the army that was on the losing side of the war.
I was upfront about my relative ignorance of who had done what during the Yugoslav Wars and Alex was all too eager to educate. Meanwhile I was reading and listening as I travelled.
I sent Alex extracts from my daily travel diary. Here’s one from Split, Croatia written on June 17th, 2005:
‘It seems that every place I read about and visit is jam-packed with thousands of years of history. After it was under the Romans (and briefly the Huns), it was ruled by dukes and kings during the Medieval Period. Then by the Ottomans, who lost it to the Habsburgs. And all of this was before the Communist, Tito, took over from the Axis powers after WWII. Consequently there are Roman and Greek ruins, synagogues Catholic Cathedrals, Orthodox churches, etc. everywhere you turn... And, despite all the wars, a lot remains intact. This morning I was in Zadar on the coast and I visited a little old church. The local Padre and I chatted in a mix of European languages and sign-language. It was a Croat Orthodox church and the priest was very friendly (touchy, in fact...). He gave me a tour of the statues and paintings of the locally worshiped saints (there were many of St Donat who is very popular along Dalmatia). Speaking of, I've not seen ONE Dalmatian dog – a few spotty mongrels, alright.’
Aleksandar ‘s reply, Ireland, 18 June 2005:
‘Croatian "Orthodox" Church DOES NOT EXIST!!!!!
I am Serb and my religion is Serbian Orthodox or Greek Orthodox. Don’t worry, but when you said Croatian Orthodox Church I could instantly imagine some Croatian asshole that tried to "feed" you with the story that all Serbs in Croatia are actually Croats, but we are of the Orthodox religion and not Catholics, like all Croatians.
That is one of many reasons I am in Ireland and not in Croatia. Just forget it... I am just a little fed up with their pretending that they are some victims and Serbs are "wild Byzantines". Unfortunately my family left Sarajevo in 1995 and except one aunty and uncle in Zvornik nobody stayed in Bosnia because their homes after the Dayton Agreement fell to the Muslim share... Don’t mind me if I correct your politics knowledge, that is shit anyway but it gets me always on my nerves... Enjoy Cathy and don’t listen to anybody there... They are all mad!!!’
Misha Glenny is this year’s speaker at the annual Hubert Butler lecture marking the 20th anniversary of the start of the siege. Butler, too, had a great interest in and much personal knowledge of the Balkan countries so he would have been particularly proud of this event at the stunning St Canice’s Cathedral this evening.
I’ll finish with an extract from Misha Glenny’s, The Fall of Yugoslavia, where he is describing an evening in Skopje, Macedonia during the summer of 1991:
‘We talk in the darkness, listen to the crickets who click their legs in time with a festival in the distance, the full-blooded celebration of a Romani marriage in Europe’s gypsy capital. If the fire of prejudice could be doused with a potion of tolerance, the Balkans would be the most wonderful region in the world.’