Don't mention the war. It's time to build on the peace

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Starting a monthly series of reports from around the globe, the writer and broadcaster Sankha Guha visits the Balkans to assess whether a new UN plan to promote Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro is likely to succeed

The resident representative of the United Nations Development Programme, Montenegro, is examining a section of the massive 15th-century walls of Dubrovnik. "That's a good sign," he says, somewhat mysteriously. We are at the Pile gate of the medieval citadel and, in truth, Garret Tankosic-Kelly is commenting not so much on a sign, but the absence of one. Here, the municipality of Dubrovnik had pinned a map showing the extent and location of the damage suffered by the Unesco world heritage site during the bombardment by Serbian and Montenegrin forces in 1991. The frame is empty; the map is missing.

In the tragic mess of Balkan politics untangling such minutiae – the lack of writing on the wall – is a complex task even for insiders. Tankosic-Kelly explains why he is encouraged by what we are not seeing. "Maybe it means they [the Dubrovnik authorities] are beginning to put the war behind them. I think it is a small step towards reconciliation," he says. It is sadly no such thing. When I enquire later, it turns out the municipality has only removed the map temporarily – to clean and buff it up.

This is my first visit to Dubrovnik and I won't be the first to say that it reminds me of Venice, on a small scale. The narrow alleys, the loggias, the basilicas, the piazze and, above all, the sense of entering a three-dimensional dream space all invite comparison with the doge's republic on the other side of the Adriatic. The city was first listed on the Unesco register in 1979.

The terracotta tiled roofs of Dubrovnik tell their own story. From the Vrata od Ploca overlooking the harbour, I survey what appears to be a miraculously preserved skyline. On closer examination, a startling number of the old stone buildings have vividly bright un-patinated roofs. These are new roofs on the buildings that were reduced to varying degrees of rubble during the war – nearly 70 per cent of the old town was damaged. Dubrovnik was a soft target. Its location on the most isolated southern tip of Croatia made it vulnerable. Being a protected world monument proved to be no defence against three months of indiscriminate shelling.

The UNDP is launching an initiative bringing together three Unesco world heritage sites in Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro. Their aim is to "enhance trans-boundary co-operation and partnership, reconciliation and regional stability". They are calling the initiative the Golden Triangle. It is a tall order given the three countries' recent savage history but for me it is an irresistible proposition – finally a story that does not posit tourism as the despoiler of the planet but places it on the side of the gods.

Along the Stradun, the graceful main drag, the succession of busy cafés, bars and boutiques suggests a well-developed tourism industry. If anything, Dubrovnik is overcrowded in the peak summer months and the UNDP plan is to try to draw some of the traffic inland to Mostar and Durmitor National Park. According to project manager Millie Begovic, this should have the twin benefits of reducing pressure on the coast while increasing the spread of revenue to more needy areas. It is a theory.

We enter the arcaded Sponza Palace at the eastern end of the Stradun. An indifferent art exhibition is on display in the courtyard of the former mint and customs house. In a room next to the entrance I stumble on a memorial to the defenders of Dubrovnik. It is a very simple exhibit, featuring the shredded remains of a Croatian flag on one wall; the other walls feature row after row of numbing photos of the young men who were killed defending Dubrovnik in 1991-92. Some photos also show the immediate aftermath of the bombardment. When I emerge back on the street it seems scarcely credible that this is the same town.

From Dubrovnik it's a two-hour drive up the Dalmatian coast and then inland to Mostar. Minarets and mosques mark the transition into Bosnia. The other marker is the burned-out homes that dot the countryside. Ominously, they increase in frequency as we approach the town. Nothing, however, prepares me for the scale of the devastation that is still evident in Mostar 13 years after the shooting stopped. Entire streets are wasted. Alongside the wreckage there are pristine new-builds and immaculately restored homes. In one surreal building on the west side of the river next to the Tito bridge, the ground floor houses a perfectly functioning modern electrical goods store, while above it the first floor is a shrapnel scarred battlefield.

Here, in contrast to Dubrovnik, the Croats were not the victims but aggressors who subjected the Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) population to a vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing. As we make our way to the now rebuilt Stari Most – the famous 16th-century Ottoman bridge – it seems naive to be talking about reconciliation and tourism. But that is what a couple of young Bosniaks from Narenta (an association set up two years ago by young citizens to promote tourism) want to talk about. They prefer to be named in this piece only by their initials AD and AS, which hints at a live undercurrent of tension.

AS tells me the association has organised tourism workshops for mixed groups of Croatian and Muslim students at their segregated universities. We walk down Brace Fejica where every third or fourth building is still in ruins. The city park, 100 yards past the Karadjoz-Beg mosque, has been a graveyard since the war. All the headstones date from 1992 to 1995. Twelve new graves spill on to the footpath – Muslim soldiers who were executed by the Croat HVO and then dumped at a secret location. Their bodies were recovered only this year. A flyer nailed to a tree carries their photos – one, Dzevad Husic, was just 18. I ask AS if he remembers the war. He says he was only 13 at the time, but yes, he says quietly, he remembers enough. His lack of overt rancour is both moving and impressive.

Finally, we are there. I blink into the evening sun from a terrace on the east side of the Neretva at the bleached white arc of the rebuilt bridge. It looks like a hallucination. Photos taken in 1993 show the levelling of not just the bridge but the entire surrounding area. The restorers did not have much to build on. Under Unesco auspices the project took three years and cost more than $13m. Tankosic-Kelly tells me they used sophisticated computer imaging to replace original stone blocks which were dredged from the bed of the river into the current structure. It is a magnificent achievement but it still looks brand new. As I cross the hump of the bridge past tourists and locals promenading, I notice a stone slab placed against a wall on which someone has scrawled the words "Don't Forget '93".

As we drive due east from Mostar the landscape changes both physically and politically. We pass through the ethnically homogenous Serbian areas of Bosnia designated as the Republika Srpska – the ultimate example of Balkanisation, a virtual nation within a nation. There is no visible evidence of the strife. By the time we enter Montenegro (which was closely allied to the Serbs), the war and its echoes are only a distant rumble.

The Tara River Gorge, the second deepest canyon in the world, is spectacular by any reckoning. We spend an afternoon white-water rafting down a relatively benign stretch of the river. Even so, the first few rapids deliver a sharp shock of adrenalin – which I begin to enjoy only after the third helter-skelter tumble through the rocks and foam, when it seems I may not die. I am sure I have attained a Zen-like mastery of my situation, but a day later I realise I have been clutching my paddle with such desperation that I have developed tendonitis in my right forearm.

As we drive on to Zabljak I have some nagging questions about the Golden Triangle plan. Do former enemies really want to co-operate? Will punters want to mix Dubrovnik's historical splendour and Mostar's Muslim heritage with the outdoor adventure of Montenegro? What about the transport infrastructure and accommodation? Tankosic-Kelly deflects the queries. "That will come. What we have to do is communicate the Big Picture," he says.

In Zabljak, chickens scatter across the road; dogs and ducks provide the soundtrack; peeling farmhouses and tin-roofed shacks dot the countryside. Hotel Planinka interrupts the rural charm with all the sensitivity of a nuclear bunker. Outside and in, it is masterpiece of Tito-era kitsch. In the lobby the wall-mounted carpet installation occupies an aesthetic space beyond good and evil and guests brave enough to venture further are greeted by a stuffed wolf baying at the ceiling. We seem to be in the Balkan equivalent of the Slaughtered Lamb (the fictitious Yorkshire pub in the movie An American Werewolf in London). The balcony is crumbling; the phones don't work; the tap in the bathroom comes off in my hand – but it will be a sorry day when this hotel falls into the clutches of developers.

The following day my UN hosts take me for a circuit around the serene Black Lake at the centre of the national park. Conservation International places Montenegro among its top four European and Central Asian biodiversity hot spots, which seems self evident as we walk. Suddenly, the silence of the woods is broken by an insistent rat-a-tat noise.

We follow the sound to its source. It is a woodpecker. With the help of a bird guide I identify it as a three toed woodpecker. "Usually shy," says the book. But this creature is dancing on the trunk, digging out insect larvae from under the spruce bark, an extrovert of the species, a strutting Russell Brand of a pecker. "Biodiversity!" says Tankosic-Kelly triumphantly. Reflections of the snow-capped Durmitor range ripple on the dark surface of the lake. My mind drifts; my scepticism goes fuzzy and for a moment I catch a glimpse of the Big Picture.

COMPACT FACTS

Further information

Croatian National Tourist Board (020-8563 7979; gb.croatia.hr);

Tourism Association of Bosnia and Herzegovina (00 387 33 252 928; bhtourism.ba/eng);

Visit Montenegro (00 382 86 40 20 30; visit-montenegro.com).

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