In Order to Change the Past, Remember the Future Now

Photograph Source: Bracodbk – CC BY-SA 3.0

With all this talk of Ukraine as the first major European war since the Second World War, I can’t stop thinking about the shelling of Dubrovnik on December 6th 1991. Not Sarajevo, admittedly, but raining down nonetheless were what became a total of 727 shells on the Dalmatian city. These were each fired by the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), by this stage composed mainly of Serbs, whose president at the weekend of course has just announced that he has secured an “extremely favorable” natural gas deal with Russia. Fires in Dubrovnik burned out of control. Young blood splattered the coveted marble streets. This was followed by 122 days without water.

One local 21 year-old woman I met lost fourteen close friends all in their 20s. For a while, the sea was the only toilet, bread the only food. Talk about trouble in paradise. People scanned the horizon for the United States Sixth Fleet and no one came. This was a conflict which — in the face of Ukraine today — is not only forgotten now but was already forgotten back then when it was still taking place.

I was one of only five guests in Hotel Excelsior. Out of 214 rooms, 209 were still unoccupied. The Excelsior had seen much better days. It was where the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh, Margaret Thatcher, Willy Brandt, Sophia Loren, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor had all stayed. The hotel alone received twenty-one direct hits. When news teams of the world pack up their metal cases and leave, all that is left is personal scrutiny. Who cares now about continued shelling in Syria? The recent Islamic State explosions in Afghanistan? In honour of those we will soon forget again, I want here to remember those who were already forgotten in the past. Or, as one Ghanaian said to me on another trip close to the Ivorian border: ‘In order to change the past, remember the future now.’

In this particular remembrance, barman Tihomir Topic was freshly back from the front line. He said that mine was the first gin and tonic he’d mixed in months. Outside, the Adriatic Sea smashed against the rocks. Sunlight picked at the spume. I’d been travelling the coastline with German photographer Florian Denk who would go on to make a photographic record of the mortuaries in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I had a contact at ABC News given to me by writer Adrian Dannatt and had just picked up a Hi8 camera from them in Split, the man teaching me how to use it saying, ‘Fuck the war.’ Tihomir at the bar then told me that all the hotel staff ran relays of buckets of water when the place was hit. ‘We nearly lost the Excelsior,’ he said, a quick glance at the mirror. The fact Dubrovnik was no longer considered newsworthy was like a double-blow for everyone still living there.

I remember hating myself for willing nothing but ill upon those wishing only to destroy. Though it is easy to feel the same about Ukraine, I am more circumspect now. The Dubrovnik sun was setting almost wearily above the Adriatic Sea. On the hotel verandah, a small private party was being prepared. This was to celebrate the hotel’s premature re-opening and it would prove an evening of pure nostalgia, as late-night bathers plunged into the sea and memories returned thick and fast. I was alerted to the presence of a pony-tailed Serb enjoying Croat protection and watched as he sat down and picked up an acoustic guitar. As he played, the lights of a small fishing boat dipped behind the island of Lokrum. ‘I pay for the musician myself,’ said the manageress, a tall woman who told me she had taken her shoes off during one attack and ran back to the hotel with bread in her hands: ‘I feel this place protected me,’ she said, smoothing the pleats of her jet-black skirt. Later, she serenaded a friend with a kind of under-used flourish.‘We mustn’t forget each other in this dirty war,’ she sighed. ‘We have become strange and far off but that doesn’t mean we have forgotten friendship.’ How such impressions chime with what can be imagined in Ukraine. A conflict where women as much as men show steel and non-Ukrainians bay for blood, too. As the song goes, when will we ever learn? The manageress at the Excelsior described herself as a Croat and Bosnian with a hint of Franco-Russian. I imagine Ukraine a bit like that too. Division is illusory or the construct of a madman. ‘Please keep me nameless,’ said the manageress. ‘Even I don’t know to whom I am talking.’

With his thick-lensed glasses and Abraham Lincoln beard, local poet Luko Paljetak told me he didn’t care who he was talking to. In the fading light, he was kissing everybody. So upset was he during the attacks on his city, he dispatched a letter to Buckingham Palace: ‘And I can only hope Her Majesty did not reply because Her Majesty did not receive it,’ he said. ‘I thought she might understand, especially after the fire at her beautiful Windsor Castle.’ Luko Paljetak had translated Chaucer, Shakespeare, Joyce, as well as a former favourite of mine, Malcolm Lowry. What he couldn’t translate was his withering love for western culture with what he was describing to me as its shameful lack of a response. ‘The world doesn’t want to show its red colours,’ he said, knocking over some red wine. ‘Look!’ he squealed at the tablecloth: ‘I’ve made a map of America! The land of the Coca-holics! No,’ he said, re-composing himself, ‘just because the people of Dubrovnik do not beg, it does not mean there is nothing that they need. All it means is that they’re proud.’

Many of the people of Dubrovnik seemed to harbour a kind of philosophical arrangement with themselves made during the worst of the attacks. This was to believe in hope or else go mad themselves. I have seen this in the strongest Afghan woman I know and in a former soldier now a man of peace. Hope does exist. Some in Dubrovnik did go mad, though. Suicide among the young was still on the rise when I was there, even if others took the less violent option of simply fleeing. Indeed, before Brexit, I knew of some of these people in London.

The military situation remained bleak but few people were conceding this. Had the TV cameras still been around, would they have conceded more? Were they saved, perversely, by the lack of a limelight? Croat forces still held the former Serb positions in the surrounding mountains. It was the kind of menacing stalemate that people see returning to Ukraine. All the Serbs had done was to withdraw into a large triangular formation in Trebinje, twenty or so miles away. They could pound the city whenever they wished. It was mercy not victory calling the shots, in other words, though mercy perhaps too strong a word. From the hotel verandah, I could certainly hear distant shelling. Indeed, I lay awake that night with my hands behind my head, listening to what I was unconvinced was thunder.

Next morning, the sun rose from the aforementioned Serb positions in the east. My German photographer friend and I caught a bus along a coastal highway still marked with shell holes. A yellow-painted bridge marked the spot of a recent assault. Nor was it such a leap to think back to thirteen centuries ago when this same coastal route would have been filled with refugees fleeing the barbarians. As it happened, we were not so far away from tourist-dependent places today like Budva over the border in Montenegro, where an expatriate community of several thousand Russians have been living. It is a mistake to believe the Russians are friendless.

After a bend in the road above some Croat army barracks in the outlying town of Cavtat, we came across Hotel Croatia. The driveway was worse than a building site. The pool was bone-dry. This image made quite an impression on me. What really set it apart was the torturing of staff. At least six members had their legs broken. The Serb commander at the time was unwilling to restrain his men from what was described as a two-week binge, not so unlike the Bucha massacre in Ukraine where civilians were killed by Russians called drunk. The Serb commander when he was at Hotel Croatia went so far as to tell everyone to prepare for tourists. ‘We believed him,’ said the only person there when we entered. Surveying the rubble, this woman, who was part of the remaining management team, looked at such a loss that everything she said was a victory in itself. ‘Prince Charles stayed here,’ she told me, trying to sound upbeat. She also said they probably needed seventeen million pounds to refurbish the place. Row upon row of empty rooms stared out at an empty sea. Unrolled carpets lined the corridors like giant cigars. ‘English Club,’ yawned a sign. It was so quiet you could have heard a grenade-pin drop. ‘Two hotel workers were targeted ten days ago,’ she said, 60mm Serb shells having hit the building: ‘There is no justice in the world. Believe me.’ On the verge of tears, she pulled back. Watching the news today from Ukraine, I think of so many people pulling back.

In the opposite direction, on the other side of the Excelsior, was Hotel Dubrovnik President, a huge industrial-type fortress on the estranged Babin Kuk peninsula. Wherever we looked, there was no end to unhappiness. Driving towards it was like approaching a large beached whale. Walking through it, I felt like Jonah. At reception, a figure stirred. ‘Oh,’ is all this person said. The charade of business as usual in what were basically bomb sites was for staff morale. Out of 70,000 beds in the area, only 500 were filled, and these mostly by Croats visiting ailing or displaced relatives. The only thing keeping people busy was repairing the place. Once done, no one dared predict the outcome, suffice to say everyone was broke and hundreds of lives depended on the hotels recovering. Only now do we know a full recovery was made, despite Covid. The figure at reception introduced himself as Mario Brnad before offering me a game of tennis. ‘Welcome,’ he added, endearingly. It was as though he’d been practicing this for years. Stepping out from his polished cocoon, he sidestepped a trail of fresh bricks while absentmindedly counting them. War does strange things to people.

He began telling me about the time locals were tearing down bushes for firewood while Serb fighters backed up by Montenegrin reservists attacked from land and sea. Straightening his short-sleeved shirt, he said he wanted to commemorate the Bokuns, a family whose father and son were killed by a single grenade. This was while playing with their radio on their balcony. Mario Brnad bowed his head. ‘And just so you know what kind of war this has been,’ he said, ‘the survivors of the family have the name, address and telephone number of the man from Titograd [Podgorica, its old name, had since been restored] who did this.’ He inhaled the fresh sea air with a kind of loathing. A lone speedboat spluttered across the blue water. ‘Many of those attacked knew their attackers by name,’ he said. According to him, often resentful Serbs and Montenegrins who once lived and worked among them. This doesn’t sound dissimilar to Russians believing Ukraine an intrinsic part of Russia. Two days before the first attack in Dubrovnik, many Serbs and Montenegrins left for what was euphemistically called ‘a holiday.’ Those who came back, came back as soldiers. ‘Are you sure you don’t want a game of tennis?’ I was asked again.

Back at the bar of Hotel Excelsior, I was told by his replacement that Tihomir had returned to the front line. The hotel was close to empty. A man who introduced himself as Captain Bozo Buric standing next to me was playing with the ice in his glass. At least it wasn’t his pistol, I was thinking. Buric was a Dubrovnik man. Within its tight community, he commanded considerable respect. ‘I had to learn to be a soldier fast,’ he told me, scratching the badge of his maroon beret. Buric was one of the so-called Famous Thirty. In December 1991, these were the people who defended the 1812 Napoleonic Fort representing Dubrovnik’s last line of defence. Ironically, it was a Dubrovnik Serb who fired the last mortar. Proof, if you like, of the area’s previously harmonious integration. ‘You see, we can all live together,’ he said. ‘We are different to the other side. For example, a Dubrovnik soldier would never shoot a civilian target.’ As the tiny crucifix dangling from his ear caught the last of the sunlight, there was no mention of Bosnian Croats backed by the Croatian army attacking civilians in Mostar. ‘I feel sad,’ he said, referring to family members killed in the conflict. He had lost four relatives, including a 40 year-old uncle and 30 year-old cousin, one of whom was butchered with a knife. ‘But I don’t have any hate,’ he said, ‘I just want this story to end.’ The barman squeezed lemon on my ice and Captain Buric said he longed for the day when he could return to the beach, his former playground: ‘Or start working again in a hotel, my former job.’ When this would be, he said he didn’t know. ‘But it has to be soon,’ he concluded, slapping the bar.

As I left the bar for an evening stroll, the only sound was the sea. By reception, a local Muslim man in a freshly laundered shirt looked up and nodded. By the exit, a woman was doing crochet, the small hooked needle working its way through a painstaking criss-cross of thread. ‘I hope you are going to say something positive about Dubrovnik,’ she said, not looking up: ‘Because if you don’t, we will kill you,’ she add with a mischievous chuckle.

Around the corner from Sponza Palace, up a half-deserted side street close to Dubrovnik’s one and only synagogue, I watched a group of troops weave past. They told me they were from Split. They stood briefly by some children on scaffolding pretending to be monkeys. One girl with neat blonde hair was playing with a doll. The doll was one of many given recently by the people of Italy. The soldiers moved on to a nearby bar and the manageress cleared two tables. They had a few hours to spare, they said, before returning to the front line. They were mentioning the word ‘snipers’ in English a lot. I wondered if this was for my benefit. They had just returned from visiting one of their men in a local hospital. Another of them was a former black belt champion now gently waving away a fly with his hand. The oldest pulled out a wicker chair for me and scratched his scalp and spat. A sergeant called Ivan meanwhile bullied his way into the conversation: ‘We heard Russian on the walkie-talkie today,’ he said. ‘There is Russia out there. They are working for Serb.’ He mentioned shouting to one Serb and asking what he was fighting for. ‘“Twenty beers,” he shouted back,’ he said, restlessly shaking his leg. ‘I don’t feel welcome in Dubrovnik. Every day I want go home,’ he added, harshly. They only felt welcome in this bar, they told me. ‘Maybe the people of Dubrovnik don’t like soldiers,’ he said. ‘Or they worry we will get drunk and wreck their beautiful city.’

One night, the Zagreb Philharmonic came to Dubrovnik and we were handed free tickets. Such attempts at cultural morale-boosting is no doubt not unknown today in western Ukraine. As the sun sank once more into the sea, crowds with glowing faces gathered by a flaming torch opposite a boarded-up fountain. This was in front of the famous 15th century Franciscan Church. The orchestra was attending the 44th Dubrovnik Festival. Officers, still in uniform, their boots still dirty from the front line, squeezed into dark-hued pews. My German friend was taking photographs, the red laser light of his camera settling on the skull of one senior member of the Croatian military, sending ripples of fear through the audience. This kind of technology was relatively new, and perhaps ambiguous.

Conductor Pavle Despalj appeared. He was so moved by the time he returned for a second encore dripping with sweat. In addition, no one dared stop clapping. It was as if to do so might risk losing contact with the outside world. ‘We love our music and we love our city,’ said one local afterwards. ‘That is all.’ It was the same with the Medelin Fortress. During the worst attacks, thousands huddled inside its thick walls. One morning, I met an old woman who had been living there. She was wearing black and grey and was too scared to leave. She was sitting on freshly repaired steps. ‘Hello,’ she said. ‘I love you. Help me.’

Through the Medelin Fortress, past the shielded 15th century Orlando’s Pillar, across the scarred white marble of the main street, sat Oxford don Kathy Wilkes in her cramped office at the top of several flights of stairs. Wilkes was famous for delivering philosophy lectures that veered in and out of politics like some Bodicean Sartre. These days, she was most famous for refusing to leave Dubrovnik when the city was under its greatest attack. Nor had the locals forgotten this, bestowing upon her honorary citizenship as well as making her an official member of the army. When we met, she had just arranged delivery of twenty-five mine detectors. Too modest to go into any kind of detail, I never got to hear about the time she drove an old British ambulance packed with medical supplies all the way from England.

What Wilkes did say was that she planned to stay in Dubrovnik until at least December when she would return to St Hilda’s College in Oxford. She recalled one incident in Oxford that came after a guest lecture. She was approached by a young man, a well-dressed Serb, who asked if she was Kathy Wilkes. ‘Yes,’ she said. She was then immediately called ‘a fucking Ustasha fascist bitch’. According to Wilkes, this person pushed her to the ground and kicked her in the face. ‘The Serbs in Oxford and London are very well organised,’ she said, dusting some cigarette ash from her sleeve. ‘We’ll look after her,’ reassured Ivan Burdulez, one of her colleagues. ‘No one will hurt her here.’ The nearby Inter University Centre had been heavily bombed and was now just a tall imposing shell with a large yellow crane above it. Nearly thirty-thousand books had been destroyed by the subsequent fire that raged for two days. The only section not consumed was the inner courtyard. There, six out of seven caged songbirds survived. ‘They were still singing but their feathers were matted with soot,’ said Kathy. Kathy Wilkes died in August 2003. I wonder if she would have gone to Ukraine.

I visited St Blasius Hospital one day, an overstretched bastion of goodwill. Each surviving ward was overcrowded. (The rest were destroyed.) They reckoned fifty-million dollars was needed to repair the deliberately targeted building. The most immediate concern was one hundred and fifty cubic feet of hazardous waste material from the incinerated bandages and outdated drugs. ‘We have a major problem,’ said a white-jacketed Dr Anton Car. Dr Car was renowned for crossing into Montenegrin- and Serb-held positions under fire to retrieve the wounded. With a marked absence of hatred, it was easy to forget villages had over half their populations tortured or killed. In fact, he wanted to talk about the shells which didn’t hit the city. Evidence, in other words, he claimed, of Serbs and Montenegrins not wishing to hurt Dubrovnik. ‘Best to think this way,’ he added. ‘To concentrate on the good.’

‘Humanitarian aid gets less and less by the day,’ warned Dr Liljana Betica-Radic. As she spoke, a middle-aged man suffering extreme psychosis lay strapped to a bed. Next door in a ward full of groaning women overcome with panic attacks was one woman with a sheet over her head. This was because she was dead. ‘As you can see, it is not only the soldiers who suffer in war,’ said Dr Betica-Radic. When I asked for a list of what was immediately needed, five pages of text were produced: anaesthetics, analgetics, anti-paretics, anti-epileptics, anti-bacterials, diuretics, gastro-intestinal drugs, infusion pumps. I took this list back to England and gave it to a well known charity.

Sick to the stomach, I returned to Hotel Excelsior. All I could do was swim. It was like a punishment of luxury. I was a wreck and yet was just an observer. For a while, I floated there, dumbstruck from a soul-sapping day. There was no let-up for the locals. In the boulderised village of Cilipi, only the church had been left unbombed. The effigy of Mary had an eye gouged out, her fingers were cut off, and Jesus and Joseph had been ‘beheaded’. In Slano, to the north, the only money passing hands was in the main square, where four children pretended to run a small bar, using torn up newspapers as cash and cups of sand as tea. In a farmhouse in Konavle, a family still kept all their lights out at night because they were frightened of being attacked. In the destroyed towns of Zupa Dubrovska, Srebreno and Blini, only the dogs seemed to know their way around. In the town of Zvecokica, one hundred and fifty-three houses had been burned and over one thousand people evacuated. You could smell this place before you even saw it. I wonder if we’ll ever have the luxury of forgetting Ukraine.

Peter Bach lives in London.