Economic, International, Life as it is, Political, Religious

Life beyond Balkanisation

When someone mentions the word ‘Balkanisation’, it immediately brings back the dreadful memory of Srebrenica massacre – ethnic cleansing, vicious racial killing, mass murders etc. In short, Balkanisation conjures up a situation when an ordered, organised state disintegrates into lawless chaotic mafia states – as had happened to the former state of Yugoslavia – on racial, religious, ethnic divides.

Having toured the heartland of Balkanised lands very recently – Croatia and Montenegro – I came back with the impression that Balkanisation may be brutal, but there is life after that. It does not turn previously antagonistic states into eternal enemies. Balkanised states may very quickly forget and forgive past atrocities and live together amicably and decently.

The word ‘Balkan’ is presumed to have come from the Turkish language meaning ‘a ridge of wooded mountains’. This is the region where, along with Greece, Turkey and Persia, various amusing fairy tales, myths, mysteries etc were generated at the early stages of human civilisation. Those tales were gradually subsumed and assimilated into various religious narratives. For example, the sky and thunder god, called Zeus (who ruled as the king of gods in Mount Olympus) in ancient Greek religion, became angry with god Haemus and sent thunder which injured Haemus and caused him to bleed (thereby the word ‘haemus’ or ‘bloody’ came into the English language) and the blood drops became a ridge of mountains. In ancient Greek and even in modern Greek, the Balkan Peninsula is known as the ‘Peninsula of Haemus’. The Ottoman Turks called the region Balkans.

However, there is no blood of gods in the mountains now. But, if one has to look for blood, one can find blood of innocent civilians all over the place in the former Federal State of Yugoslavia. After the death of Marshal Tito, the then president of Yugoslavia, in 1980 the multiracial, multi-ethnic federated state started to agitate on nationalistic grounds. After the fall of Berlin Wall, the whole of Yugoslavia broke out in open warfare. The six republics – Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia – broke away and eventually became independent states. Although Slabs, taking the mantle of the former state, viciously fought against Christian Croats and Bosnian Muslims under the murderous Serb leaders like Radovan Karadzic and Slobodan Milosevic, the tide of history could not be reversed.

20180522_101013The whole of Balkans, particularly the coastal belts of the Adriatic Sea and the Aegean Sea are absolutely breath taking. Our journey started with our arrival in Dubrovnik, a beautiful Croatian sea resort. After having some light lunch, we set off for Montenegro by bus. Just about 20 minutes’ drive from Dubrovnik, we came to the border crossing. These two countries may be in good terms at the moment, but immigration officials showed no mercy towards the tourists. The first leg of our journey was to get out of Croatia. It took more than 20 minutes even with our well-known local tour guide to get exit visa in Croatia. Then there was the no-man’s land of about 1 km before we came to Montenegro border. We had to wait for more than 40 minutes to get the entry visa. The tour guide told us that we were lucky, it could have taken much longer!

We then drove for about an hour including a ferry crossing to come to our hotel in Budva in Montenegro. The hotel is located in a nice locality within ten minutes’ walk to the beach. There is some anomaly between Croatia and Montenegro in matters of currency. Although Croatia is in the EU but it has not yet adopted Euro. Their currency is Kuna; although Euro is perfectly legitimate and freely available. When economic convergence will be achieved, Kuna will be disbanded and Euro will be the only currency. On the other hand, Montenegro is not in the EU, but they use Euro as their currency!

Montenegro is a small country with a population of only 640,000 and has an area of 13,800 square km. Mountains, lakes and forests abound everywhere. When the Venetian invading army in the middle ages came to the country’s Adriatic coast, they only saw black mountains and hence called it Monte (mountain) Negro (black). They only managed to conquer the coastal belts of the mountains, when ferociously nationalistic Montenegrins fought off well-armed Venetians.

The following day, we headed for Cetinje (pronounced as Chetnia), the former capital of Montenegro and the royal seat of the ruling Petrović family. Then we had a tour of King Nikola’s Museum. King Nikola ruled this tiny kingdom for 58 years until 1918, when his kingdom was subsumed into the state of Yugoslavia after WWI. It was interesting to note that despite the size of the kingdom, Nikola had grand presence in the world scene of kings and queens including those of Britain, Germany, Russia and others. Possibly those were the times when royal families all over the world had global fraternity.

The highlight of the tour was the visit to the town of Kotor, a world heritage site. At the foothills of the mountain, the setting of the medieval buildings was breath taking. As we were going through the main square, all of a sudden we heard a march-band from one of the side roads feeding into the main square. They were celebrating Montenegro’s 10th anniversary of independence day.

We then visited the nearby town called Perast. In the adjoining lake there are two man-made church islands. One of the islands, called Our Lady of the Rocks, has a very interesting legend. A wounded soldier on the rock discovered Virgin Mary’s image on the rock and he was miraculously healed. He then dedicated his life to making a church on the rock in her honour. We took a boat trip to ‘Our Lady of the Rocks’ and the legend has it that if someone makes a wish and throws a stone from the church to the waters, that wish would come true. I threw a stone after making a wish that I get a cool one billion pounds. I am still waiting to see my wish come true!

20180520_105047Next day we visited Podgorica, capital of Montenegro. It used to be known as Titograd, after the name of President Tito. It is a quaint old city where people go around with their businesses leisurely. We then visited the massive Sipcanik wine cellar. The cellar was an underground hanger for military aircrafts that was dug inside the mountains and nearly 400 metres long, where about 30 fighter planes used to be kept securely from American attacks. It now houses around two million litres of wines. Wine is Montenegro’s major export item. We had a lovely wine tasting session accompanied with cheese and biscuits.

The following day we went back to Dubrovnik through a new route. We went through the longest tunnel in Southern Europe – 4190 metre long – in the Balkan mountains. Dubrovnik had been dubbed by Byron as the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’ and is the home for the rich and famous local people. The Old Town contains an array of monasteries, beautifully decorated churches and civic building from 14th centuries. There are quite a number of palaces (more like large terrace houses) belonging to aristocrat families and the aristocracies are displayed by the ‘Coats of Arms’ firmly embedded at the main entrances of the palaces.

The next couple of days were spent in cruises in lakes. Lake Skadar is the largest lake in Southern Europe, straddling Montenegro (containing two thirds of the lake) and Albania (containing one third of the lake). It is home to nearly half of Europe’s population of endangered Dalmatian pelicans. Probably these pelicans are more than just endangered – almost extinct – as we could not see more than three or four birds in more than four hours of cruising.

Altogether the tour was very enjoyable. It was even more enjoyable and remarkable when one considers that only about 23 years ago, the area was in flames (metaphorically speaking), threatening to engulf the whole region into utter super-power conflagration. But that danger was contained by NATO action and taming the aggressive streak of the Serbs. Now things have quietened down. Balkanisation had taken place, but it did not cause permanent damage to peace in the region. A land of beauty is blooming again.

 

– A. Rahman is an author and a columnist 

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