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

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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.


Further information

Croatian National Tourist Board (020-8563 7979;;

Tourism Association of Bosnia and Herzegovina (00 387 33 252 928;;

Visit Montenegro (00 382 86 40 20 30;


Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'


Britain First criticised for using actress's memory to draw attention to their 'hate-filled home page'

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
booksChristmas comes early for wizard fans
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites those Star Wars rumours
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis

Thought you'd seen it all after the Jeremy Paxman interview?

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

Greatest mystery about the hit BBC1 show is how it continues to be made at all, writes Grace Dent

Arts and Entertainment
filmsOculus Rift offers breathtakingly realistic simulation of zero gravity
peopleCampaign 'to help protect young people across the world'
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style

people'When I see people who look totally different, it brings me back to that time in my life'
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

"History is violent," says the US Army tank commander Don "Wardaddy" Collier

Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Junior Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker