Croatian Viewpoint
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Now that Zadar is being considered for UNESCO heritage listing, it’s important to remember that this UNESCO protection did not save Dubrovnik from massive destruction during the 1990s. I reflected on the bombing of Zadar and Dubrovnik and in my mind I have a question about the full meaning of UNESCO’s plan for “preventive archeology”. Up to now history shows us that it has always been left up to the local Croatian people to take on this protective role.
I had just finished reading the book ‘Dubrovnik in War’ (1st ed. 59th PEN World Congress 1993). Complete with photographs, testimony, maps, and emotional philosophy, this book is essential reading for those who wish to understand the siege of Dubrovnik, and of all Croatia in the 1990s, and the role of UNESCO. For me, reading the book added a further dimension to the surreal architecture of Dubrovnik.
I was in the old walled town of Dubrovnik expecting a display of national pride on Croatian Independence Day. Inside the walls of the ancient Croatian city the scars of modern weaponry are still visible. In contrast, the emotional scars are hidden in the psyche of the Croatian survivors. I overheard one tourist comment on the bullet holes which still scar the old city buildings, but not about the haphazard merging of old and new terracotta on the top of most of those buildings.
Sometimes we reflect about unforgettable events in our life which we perceive have led us to where we are today. We ask ourselves why we do what we do? Why do I find myself in the old harbour in Dubrovnik. Why do I write about Croatia?
The answer to this question begins during the Cold War in Zadar. Zadar’s ancient Roman ruins had been exposed by the massive WWII bombing and the destruction invoked a childhood memory. My mother told me that my father had signed all the cheques for bombs for WWII Europe. Such information meant little to a small child growing up in post-war Canada, but three decades later in Zadar, it was the first time that I really began to think seriously about it. I then embarked on a journey of discovery about Croatia which brought me to where I am today.
Back there amongst the Zadar ruins in 1976 I saw history from a new perspective. The ‘permanent war’ economic theory I learned at university took on a new dimension for me, because for the first time I was conscious of the destruction at the incoming end.
And, when Zadar was being bombed yet again, in the 1990s, along with the rest of Croatia and Bosnia & Hercegovina Croatian civilians were dying and UNESCO cultural heritage was being destroyed.
Where were the protectors of UNESCO heritage in 1991? Dubrovnik for example, was a UNESCO-protected zone, but local Croats had to lay down their lives to protect it. The so-called ‘European 12’ and the UN reacted so slowly to the bombing of Dubrovnik that most of the famous landmarks and homes were being destroyed.
If we look again at the case of Zadar, its history is one of being under siege, and of being bartered in international treaties. Given Croatia’s political division between empires of the past, and its weak nationalism today, will Croatian human rights and culture be safe under these vaguely defined agendas?
Did I say weak Croatian nationalism, in Croatia? Yes, in comparison to others. In Croatia, Croatian ‘nationalism’ is not institutionalized, it has no infrastructure other than a public holiday. Croatian culture is usually presented within a multicultural framework, and even the defense of Croatian property has been called a ‘criminal enterprise’. The agenda of any nationalism in Croatia appears to serve cultural diversity and never the Croatian people themselves, who are stigmatized by the international community for any outward display.
Even the Croatian President Stipe Mesic defends former Yugoslav communist terrorism, instead of Croatian national expression. One can easily imagine how these ex-communist leaders are nostalgic for the manufactured fanfare of the former Yugoslav communist party. Needless to say, Croatian protests in Zagreb to re-name the city square still bearing the name of Tito have been met with presidential opposition. Will UNESCO-funded museums and EU-funded reconciliation workbooks take their instructions from nostalgic leaders in Croatia, or from the Croatian people?
In 2007 I was sitting in a cafe at the water’s edge in the Old Dubrovnik, exactly where it had been bombed by the Serbian-led former Yugoslav naval gun boats on 6th December 1991. While I was making a mental comparison with the bombing of Zadar during WWII my thoughts were interrupted.
Suddenly, a live fish appeared on the ancient stone dock. The live fish attracted the attention of tourists, who were visiting Dubrovnik in busload after busload, in spite of it being October. Concerned for the struggling fish, a tourist picked it up and threw it into the sea to save it. It was what happened next that was interesting.
After the tourist walked away an old fisherman ascended from a boat cabin below deck and lamented aloud in his Croatian language that “the cat had been hungry, so why had the woman thrown the fish he caught back into the sea”. It was then that my attention was drawn to the skinny stray cat next to the ancient Croatian wall, waiting no doubt where it always waits, and already licking its lips in anticipation of the fish it was about to eat. Even if the tourist had heard the fisherman it would have been too late, and she would not have understood him.
The local fisherman, the fish he caught and threw onto the dock, and the stray cat symbolize for me everything that is under-stated in Croatia.
The tourist who had felt sorry for the fish, gasping and wriggling, who threw it back into the Adriatic was oblivious to the presence of the hungry cat or the frustrated fisherman. Her action symbolizes for me the misunderstanding about Croatia, of tourists, of the agenda of the international community, or of those who either do not look, or do not want to look, behind the scenes. The tourist did not stay to find out how the fish, alive, came to be flipping around by itself alone, on the dock where deep sea boats were anchored.
It all happened in an instant and the tourist shrugged her shoulders and left. The tourist was oblivious to the resident fisherman’s intervention in nature, to feed a stray cat. The tourist never noticed the cat. The stray cat patiently waited in frustration, like the fisherman, like the Croatian people. The fisherman carries on his daily struggle, as do all the local residents, not in ‘harmony’ with the history which dominates their lives, but in spite of it.
In his comment on the bombing of Dubrovnik in the new book, ‘Dubrovnik in War’, Bozidar Violic writes about the harmony or ‘skladnost’ of the Dubrovnik residents with nature, architecture, and history. I did not notice any harmony that day, but humbleness.
For heaven’s sake, it was October 8, Independence Day in Dubrovnik, and the only interesting event I witnessed was a misunderstanding between a tourist and a fisherman! Here, in the bastion of Croatian culture and science, where was the national fanfare? Where were the street stalls, where were the people dressed up in historical costumes mingling with tourists in the streets, handing out free brochures, where were the miniature flags supplied to shop-fronts?
A small exhibition within the old city walls of the local Croatian defense of Dubrovnik could be found, not well advertised except for a small sign outside the exhibit itself. Nearby a sign about a concert is covered over by the label “cancelled”. Only a few flags were visible from private shops and balconies. We heard one impromptu chorus of locals singing to a Thompson recording in the background, when we walked past a barber shop. It was early evening on Independence Day, 2007, a public holiday in Dubrovnik. It was on this day, 8 October in 1991 that Croatia had officially severed relations with the former Yugoslavia. It was Independence Day in Croatia, but in Dubrovnik I don’t think that the tourists were aware of it.
Croatian cities such as Dubrovnik or Zadar have always been under attack, and that’s why they are ‘walled cities’. This fact should be broadcast, not hidden. Since the cause for these attacks has been the expansion of other states, can these same neighbours now ensure peace and stability in Croatia? Can the ‘multi-perspective EU’s “reconciliation through education” workbook project’ prevent destruction in Croatia in the future? And is UNESCO’s “preventive archeology” role for museums up to the job? Will displays of cultural diversity leave any room for displays of Croatian culture?
Jean Lunt Marinovic
February 2008
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