To Bosnia's holy ghost town: They came from Coventry in search of a miracle. Andrew Brown joins a British pilgrimage to the shrine of Medjugorje - where the Virgin, they say, spoke of peace but warned of apocalypse

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The Independent Online
WHEN Jacky Parkes from Coventry made her fifth pilgrimage to Bosnia last week she took the family: not only her husband, Andrew, and their four daughters, all under six, but her mother, her Uncle John and his wife, her cousin Martin, her Aunt Lorna, and her brother and sister Stuart and Janette. They all came to the village of Medjugorje to be blessed.

It is so close to the southern Bosnian city of Mostar that at night you can hear the shellfire over the mountains. But this does not worry the pilgrims, because they believe that the Virgin Mary has appeared to six of the villagers at around 5.40 every evening for the past 12 years with an apocalyptic message of prayer, fasting, conversion and peace.

The cult at Medjugorje was enormously popular before the civil war. Although it has not been officially recognised by the Catholic Church, the larger ceremonies would draw crowds of 30,000 to 50,000 to this remote Bosnian town. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims came every year, but now it is a holy ghost town.

The 35-strong Parkes party is the largest single group of pilgrims here. As well as the extended family, they have brought along two priests - the clan straddles several parishes and 12 members of their various prayer groups in the Midlands.

At first it seemed like a normal package holiday. At the airport, in the Croatian port of Split, the group was met by a coach and a tour guide, Slavica, who explained the practical arrangements: 'In most regions of western Herzegovina, or Herzeg-Bosnia, or Croatian Bosnia, there is a curfew now, but it is flexible. The cafes and bars have been closed because the young men should all be taking shifts at the front.'

The electricity supply comes on at 7pm until sometime in the early morning. The water supply is intermittent. The pilgrims were warned against walking on the hills at night where the Virgin first appeared, because patrolling soldiers might misunderstand such devotions.

'Some of you may have been to Mostar, 13 miles away,' Slavica said. 'That is now a city that practically doesn't exist. 'The shelling and the bombing may disturb us at night, but Medjugorje is an island of peace,' she added, reassuringly.

In fact, you could travel here without ever noticing that you had left Croatia. The flags are Croatian, the money is Croatian, the army is Croatian. The only sign of a border was a white UN armoured car parked next to a partial road-block and a small grocery store called International Duty Free Shopping.

There are a lot of burnt-out, smashed-up cars by the roadside and the occasional flattened house, but no other signs of fighting. To judge by the way people overtook our coach, the odd demolished house as well as the car wrecks could be casualties of Croatian driving habits.

In the town itself, about a quarter of the buildings visible from the church are unfinished and abandoned. Everything else seems to have been built in the past 10 years.

After supper on the night of our arrival, a group of pilgrims walked down towards the church past a quarter of a mile of tightly-packed shops that had once sold religious tat. There are general purpose stores such as the 'Paddy Shop', which sells 'liquers' and 'swets' as well as rosaries. There are jewellers selling rosaries, and there are souvenir shops selling rosaries. If rosaries could be measured by the decade, there are whole geological eras of the things hanging unsold down the deserted street.

Bernard, a widower from Birmingham, had come here with his wife in the Eighties. 'When I was here with Janine none of this had been built. This was just fields and a few houses.

'Still, I reckon this thing will last for hundreds of years now.'

'I don't think the world will last that long,' interrupted his companion, Jacky Parkes's Uncle John. 'No, I don't suppose so. I think the end is starting now. Our Lady has warned them that she could only make the punishment less terrible,' said Bernard.

Cheered by this reflection, the group continued to the church. Father David Kiniry, their parish priest, gestured at the huge empty space around. 'There were 30,000 people here for mass once,' he said. 'I've seen them turning people away from the church.' The loudest noise was that of the cicadas. No one else was in sight.

The pilgrims gathered round a white statue of the Virgin. 'I thought, when people talked about rosaries turning gold here, that it simply meant they looked gold,' said one. 'But there's a girl from Dublin with the party and she was here two years ago when her rosary turned gold. It really is gold. She was showing it to people on the plane.'

'Have you ever seen so many stars anywhere?' asked John, as if he too had seen some kind of miracle.

'Isn't it peaceful?' asked Bernard. Dead on cue the sky behind the mountains towards Mostar pulsed with white light.

'I'd find it more peaceful without the shellfire,' I said, rather unfairly. 'Ah, but the Christian message must get through,' said Bernard, oblivious to the irony of his comment. 'And then they will have to make peace.'

The next morning, John was a little subdued. The Parkes children had been playing on their balcony with stones and one had dropped a couple into an open car parked outside their rooming house. He had gone to retrieve the stones and found a gun on the back seat.

'Is Medjugorje in Bosnia then?' asked Jan, a middle-aged woman with a son serving in the UN forces here. 'I always thought it was in Croatia.'

For the pilgrims, Medjugorje seems separate from the surrounding war and its politics. They find a profound inner peace here, as well as miracles. They cannot imagine that others could find in religion the energies for war. I asked Jacky what she thought about Croat troops with pictures of the Virgin stuck on their gun butts. 'Those guys have real faith]' she replied. Later, she said: 'If you do believe that Our Lady is appearing here, and if you believe in Satan, then he's going to be very annoyed, and that is the explanation for the war.'

In fact, the message of Medjugorje strikes an outsider as at least as apocalyptic as it is peaceful. The Virgin is said to have warned of dreadful tribulations if people do not say the rosary. Many believers blame the outbreak of war here on the lack of prayer. She is also supposed to have promised that there will appear a visible sign on the mountains around the village that will be a call to repentance and that will be announced the week before it happens.

The pilgrims believe all this and much else. But, above all, they believe with an intensity it is difficult to convey, that the Virgin Mary is actually present in this valley and talks to her six favoured visionaries every day. On the second day of their pilgrimage the Midlands group was taken to see Vicka, one of the six, in the shaded courtyard of her house.

There were only about 30 or 40 people there, and the visionary squeezed past me and through the rest of the crowd with her friend Slavica before anybody realised who she was.

Vicka was a blowsy young woman with curly dark hair and a ready smile. She wore a long yellow and blue printed jacket; she looked like any mildly prosperous peasant girl round here, though she was plumper than most.

The Virgin's message is simple: she wants prayer, fasting, conversions and peace in that order. There is no point in praying for peace in the world until you have attained peace in yourself, explained Vicka. She gave detailed instructions about prayer and about praying from the heart. She said the Virgin had given her a story about prayer:

'All of you will have a flower at home. Well, if you give it a few drops of water every day then it will burst into bloom. And so it is with prayer: if you water your soul every day with prayer, then it will bloom too.'

She had a tremendous, maternal bloom as she spoke and looked as if she were about to burst into giggles much of the time. She waved vigorously at passers-by and smiled at them without interrupting her homily. This went on for about 15 minutes. Vicka did not appear either impassioned or enraptured. Rather, it was her ordinariness that impressed. Her trick of waving to the villagers without interrupting her discourse, as if she were shelling peas at the kitchen window, rather than announcing the words of the Mother of God, seemed something that no one would fake. At the end of her homily she announced that the Virgin had told her she would intercede in anything brought up at prayer during the vision that evening: at 5.40 prompt we were to present our problems and pains to the Virgin Mary.

The crowd pressed forward with holy items to be blessed, and with themselves. Vicka blessed all the Parkes children as well as their parents. My neighbour, seeing me reluctant, pressed on me a miraculous medal so that I, too, could be saved.

In the evening, the English pilgrims sat through a three-hour mass in Croat. Jacky Parkes's cousin, Martin, explained that war was something all got up by the media and politicians and that ordinary people everywhere wanted peace. A wedding procession drove noisily down the street and then into the darkened fields beyond, where they started blazing away with automatic weapons at the night. There was a lot of gunfire and the pilgrims were frightened. 'Is not dangerous] Holiday]' the owner of the rooming- house shouted up from below.

'They do these things at continental fiestas,' said Father David reassuringly. And the pilgrims returned to talking about miracles.

Bryan Appleyard is away.

(Photograph omitted)