Belmont Club

Human Geography

Michael Totten describes what it’s like to drive from Bosnia’s Serb-controlled Republica Srpska to the Croatian coast on the Adriatic. Not only does the landscape change, but so does the atmosphere. And they don’t sync.

The destruction wrought from ethnic-cleansing, including mass graveyards as well as blown-up houses and villages scourged by artillery fire, stretched from one end of Bosnia to the other. It was horrible. …

Bosnia is a troubled country with a dark recent past, but it’s also extraordinarily beautiful. For some reason that I can’t quite explain, it’s hard to imagine such a terrible war erupting amid such breathtaking scenery. Sean nearly ran the car off the road when we drove through a canyon between Sarajevo and Mostar. “Oh my God,” he said, “look at this place!”

The Balkans are, without being it physically apparent, an ancient battleground. Occasionally, some incongrous artifact gives the game away. At the beautiful town of Kotor in Montenegro, for example, Michael Totten came across what appeared to be “a well-lit Great Wall of China [that] shot straight up the side of a mountain”. It was an ancient defensive wall constructed to defend the town from the hills, which overlook it almost everywhere. Kotor had been fortified and fought over since Greek times. Yet beauty and life had always coexisted cheek by jowl with war. A Washington Post article from 2006 captured the dissonant juxtaposition between the human and the natural landscape. “It seems hard to believe now, but until Yugoslavia started to crumble in the early 1990s, Montenegro was a holiday hot spot for models, monarchs and movie stars. Claudia Schiffer, Queen Elizabeth II, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor all partied (or at least vacationed) here.”

Susan Woodward of the Brookings Institution argued that the failure to impose order upon a collapsing Communist order provided the opportunity for ancient hatreds, never far under the beautiful landscape, to break out again. Perhaps just as some persons in those old French novels are perpetually between lovers, some communities are always between empires: highlighted by them, but never quite defined; remaining themselves in all their light and darkness.