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Croatian Time Bomb

By Caroline Park

            I spent a day in Dubrovnik with one of our interport students, Masja.  “What do you want to do?” she asked me.  I told her I wanted to do whatever she would normally do with her university friends on any given day.  So she took me to Old Town.  As we leisurely strolled along the shiny marble surface within the City walls, we fell into conversation about her family’s experience in the war.  I only had a minimal background on the war so first she proceeded to explain to me in the simplest terms what the whole thing had been about.  She told me about Tito, his government and his refusal to submit to the Soviet Union as a satellite state.  She told me how things began to unravel as soon as Tito died.  Then her stories started becoming personal.

            Masja had been young during the war.  She admitted that she never experienced direct attacks as she had been in Zagreb at the time and Zagreb wasn’t bombed as much as other Croatian cities.  Although she had memories of playing cards in the bomb shelter with her friends, the physical danger had not been imminent to her.  But the war struck her in a different way.  Indirect but nevertheless forceful… 

            Masja’s mother is of a Serbian background.  Although Masja’s mother had been born in Croatia and lived in Croatia all her life, her identity was marked by her Serbian heritage.  Masja’s father on the other hand was Croatian.  When the war began, family and neighbors confronted Masja’s parents about Masja’s mother’s Serbianness.  Masja’s mother was told to go back to Serbia where she belonged and Masja’s father was told to divorce the Serbian woman.  But why would her mother “go back” to Serbia, Masja wanted to know.  She had never been there.  Even though her family tree and her papers might reveal her as Serbian, Masja’s mother had lived in Croatia all her life, in harmony and in peace with her Croatian neighbors until then.  Masja knew of other families who had experienced a similar dilemma and told me that many of them had cracked under the pressure and had split up.  Many husbands and wives divorced due to differing “bloodlines”—something that had not mattered before—and many families became casualties of a war that promoted ethnic intolerance.

      In her essay “All that we had, all that we were, reduced to memories,” where she writes about the atrocities of the war in former Yugoslavia, Irena Plejic speaks of the family unit as a power that preserves humanity in the face of the atrocities of war.  “Order and stability in the family and its completeness, are considered to be the essence of human happiness.  Anything can be endured if the family is preserved.  No other loss is so unbearable” (Plejic 234).  Masja spoke of many families who experienced this unbearable loss during the war.  Her own parents’ marriage fortunately survived and her family is still intact.

            “So how is it now?” I wanted to know.  Have things changed much after the war?  Are people finally learning to live together in peace?  I wanted to hear her say yes, that the war had shown people how fruitless and pointless the ethnic classifications were, that people are people no matter where bloodline traces to.  But perhaps the human race has a long way to go.  Masja told me even today at her university some students do not associate with other students from differing ethnic heritages.  Perhaps war scars more than it heals and teaches, the poison penetrating deeper into gapping scars of centuries of hate and prejudice. 

            The Croatia I saw during my five days there seemed peaceful and beautiful.  The physical wreckages of the war had mostly been restored and by and large people seemed to be living together in peace.  But how much of the peace is truly deeper than beyond the surface?  I remember somebody saying that the region was still a time bomb waiting to go off at any moment again.  Will it go off again one day or will we finally understand that war is not the answer?

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