A Little Bit of Belgrade, A Lot of Our Cabin

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Tenth in a series

We’d skipped the morning guided walk through Vukovar and the opportunity to visit with individual Croatians in their homes. We couldn’t face another bus, but I’m sorry in retrospect that we missed it.

According to information shared by Tauck, the town of Vukovar, where we docked, was devastated by the Croatian War of Independence in the early 1990s. The town was defended by a self-organized militia of 2,000 men for 87 days. When it was finally overrun, 800 were missing. Thousands of townspeople were sent into exile.

After the boat resumed cruising in the afternoon, Todd got a massage. I’d felt dizzy right after lunch and thought I might be seasick, although that seemed impossible on the calm waters.

Something blew through me between about 2 p.m. and 3:30. I mean BLEW. So the day was memorable. Searingly memorable. I had Todd fetch Mark, who led hotel services for the cruise, to tell him I was ill. I couldn’t get off the floor of the bathroom. I was terrified (but not as terrified as Mark) that it might be norovirus, the scourge of cruise ships. Todd and I were quarantined for the next 24 hours until we were sure all was well. (I did learn that the ship is not only well prepared to confront norovirus but takes nightly precautions by wiping the ship down with a Clorox solution — the only thing that kills the highly resilient bug, which can survive for days on surfaces.)

By the next evening, in Belgrade, Serbia, I was vertical. Our group of ten decided to skip dinner in the White Palace (which we heard turned out to be a good idea) and headed to 3 Hats, a historic restaurant in town. We ate meat, meat and more meat. First platters of prosciutto and air-cured beef served with kaymak (a cross between butter and soft cheese), a sweetish bean salad, cabbage salad (similar to coleslaw), and a bowl of flavorful tomatoes and sweet peppers. Then came platters of ground meat patties, as big as salad plates, served bun-less, and another plate of small sausages.

On the outdoor patio we were serenaded by a Gypsy band. And I mean sung to, enthusiastically, right in Todd’s and our friend Frank’s ears. When tipped with a $20 bill, the musicians got even louder and closer.

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Later, as we walked back to the ship with our tour director Jenner setting a brisk pace through the light rain, we were treated to a music sampler — folk and rock, much of it live — pouring out of almost every restaurant and cafe. The Olympic team had arrived in Belgrade that night to a boisterous reception, and maybe that was why. For a Monday night, hell, for a weekend night, things were hopping.

Todd had taken the morning tour of Belgrade and was struck by two things. The Kalamegdan Fortress had been attacked 110 times, which to him symbolized just how frequently conflicts have torn the country apart, and he was surprised by the extent to which Tito is revered.

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Although Tito was a Communist leader, he successfully challenged Stalin, and in 1948 led Serbia to become the only socialist country to loosen the stranglehold of Moscow. Did he control Yugoslavia? Yes. So he was a dictator. But he also unified it. He believed that the way forward was to preserve ethnic minorities, which worked, for a time. He created Bosnia as a republic for the Muslim Bosnians. The Serbs, who feared Yugoslavia would be overrun by Islam, were temporarily mollified when Belgrade was made the national capital. Peace held until the 70s, when Serbians began to feel that they weren’t receiving their share of foreign aid. Nationalism emerged, and with it a demand that non-ethnic Serbs be removed from Serbian lands.

After Tito died in 1980, things fell apart. Croatia and Serbia went to war in the early 90s. Peace was being brokered by their leaders when the accord collapsed and Bosnia declared independence under the leadership of its Muslim party. Within Bosnia, Bosnian Serbs were outraged that they were to be led by Muslims. Serbian snipers opened fire on unarmed civilian peace protesters in Sarajevo, and ethnic cleansing began. Led by Slobodan Milosovic, Bosnian Serbs continued their aggression until NATO intervened to establish a safe zone for Bosnian Muslims. Srebrenica, one of the safe zones, was then attacked by the Bosnian Serb Army; in the ensuing carnage, Muslims were killed and buried in mass graves. A cease fire wasn’t reached until 1995; Milosovic and others were later tried at The Hague for war crimes.

I’ll admit to still being confused. There’s an excellent online news source — Balkan Insight — that tracks developments in the Balkans, which they define as including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, and Serbia. No more Yugoslavia. According to the news site:

Coming to terms with the past is an unavoidable prerequisite if former Yugoslav republics are to build a stable and secure democratic future. The future of the post-Yugoslav region, and diplomatic relations between these nations, depends on how successfully local judicial institutions effectively and transparently tackle war crimes committed in the region; punishing the perpetrators and ensuring justice for victims.

Motivated by prospective membership of the European Union, a carrot accompanied by the stick of reform, and an expanding civil society sector, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo have begun dealing with the legacy of human rights abuses committed during the 1990s Yugoslav wars of succession.

Though none of us needed it, we ended our evening with shots of “rakia” (Serbian plum brandy, though it tastes like white lightning), thanks to Bojan in the bar, who tried to teach us to say, “Živeli!” (pronounced zhee-ve-lee), Serbian for cheers.

 

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