Here we were on the Dalmatian coast in Croatia, one of the most war torn countries in modern history, and it honestly never occurred to me that they would still be clearing land mines from a war that happened almost 20 years ago.

Remnants of Yugoslavia

Written By Louisa Mow in Zadar, Croatia
Looking out the window, I watched the plane turn and begin its decent into Zadar. Whilst the plane was angled, my window overlooked Croatia’s forests, mountains and towns and if I looked a little more closely, here and there I could see tiny little cars driving along the winding roads. The plane tipped again and my mountain view disappeared to reveal a bright sky and when I turned to look out at the window across the row, I could see a deep clear run of sapphire blue water which slowly washed into aqua as it crept toward the shallow coast.

My perspective of Croatia was a lot like this moment above the clouds. What I understood of the country was little more than the aesthetics. I thought I was visiting a place with calm tranquil waters and sleepy fishing villages, like the ones I had seen in photographs from travel magazines. I was happy viewing this place through those rose tinted glasses.

As it would turn out, there is so much more to Croatia than a coastline of pretty scenery. It turns out while visitors come to party in the sunshine during summer, and dance and drink beer and swim through crystal clear waters, the citizens are in fact hard at work cleansing the land and their memories of what used to be Yugoslavia.

Our host Marko came and picked us up from the airport. We would be staying the night in Zadar before we would head off to Split and then Hvar the next day. Marko was tall and wore dark sunglasses and he waited for us at a distance outside. After the heat and discomfort of the plane, the clear cool spring air was very welcoming and the smell of pine needles and limestone permeated the air. When we finally reached the car, Marko did his best to welcome us; he was a little bit gruff, spoke broken English, but was very eager to share as much as he could about the city of Zadar.
We didn’t make it far out of the airport, though, as we were driving along the broken road, dotted with potholes and bordered by dense forest, we saw a road block come into view about half a mile up ahead.

Red and white barriers ominously barred the road, and rows upon rows of red tape either side of us blocked roads heading into the forest. There were 2 or 3 army vehicles and sitting inside were bags of military gear and soldiers in uniform. Cars started to arrive behind us and it didn’t look like we were going anywhere, anytime soon.

As topics of conversation were running low between us, it wasn’t long before Marko decided to check up on what was happening.

He lifted his head up slightly to look at us through the rear view mirror and said in broken English-

ees fine, was een army, ee’ll talk to them, they’ll let me through and we go. Ok?”

Caleb and I nodded; we weren’t in any particular rush, but we were definitely curious as to what would cause an army to block off one of the main roads in Zadar.

Marko got out of the car and walked casually up to the nearest soldier. We could hear them talking and some of the other soldiers looked out from the van to listen in and contribute to Marko’s chat as well. We tried to gauge from inside the car what the outcome of the conversation would be. But with all the contradictory and random pointing, nodding, shaking of heads, smiles and frowns, there was just no way of knowing. The soldier Marko was talking to was in his 40s, had a thick black beard, heavy-lidded eyes, a sallow face and thin frame and was wearing very baggy military gear. He looked as though he lived through some hard years, but his features were softened by a kind smile. There was such a stark contrast between him and Marko, who was much younger, clean shaven and well dressed. They looked like representations of men of then and now, and it was interesting to watch them converse with ease.

Finally, Marko came back to the car and as he got in he sighed heavily and told us we would not be able to go through and that we would have to wait for about half an hour. We asked what they were doing and he paused for a moment. He then raised his eyebrows and said,

“Clearing land mines…from the war, some have detonated.”

Then he took a sip of water from a bottle and continued to say-

“The man I talk, say not go as he…” He paused to try think of the translation

“He does not want have life in his hands.”

That was quite a strange moment for me, as it sort of brought me back to reality. Here we were on the Dalmatian coast in Croatia, one of the most war-torn countries in modern history, and it honestly never occurred to me that they would still be clearing land mines from a war that happened almost 20 years ago. It made me realize that this beautiful country; of calm crystal clear waters, pure white pebbled shores and stunning scenery, that seemed to be the epitome of peace and tranquility, wasn't all I anticipated it to be. 

So I thought about the situation a little more.

I imagined for a moment, what it would have been like to live in Yugoslavia during the war and to have your citizenship, your identity, and your nation all be taken away from you. Imagine if that happened in America, and that you were from Texas and one day someone told you that the United States didn’t exist anymore, that you weren’t allowed to say that you were American and that if you did, you could very likely be killed. It would be an absolutely devastating and an unthinkable thing to happen, and the thing is, it did happen, right here in Croatia. Slightly ashamed I realized that there is so much more to this place than I was anticipating.

When we finally got to town in Zadar, Caleb and I went to sit on the steps of the sea organ, a beautiful marble construction which plays music when the sea ebbs and flows from the tubes underneath the steps. We looked out on the islands and as the Adriatic wind silently swept through we were able to collect our thoughts and start to really appreciate where we were and why we had come here. The experience at the road block gave us a fresh understanding of the country and its history. We realized that 20 years was not that long ago and that we were incredibly lucky to be here in this stunning place called Croatia.