There's a reason international relations of all kinds are tricky and delicate. A mix of cultures, histories and goals make global peace and cooperation... well...complicated.
We've spent the last two days cruising to ports along the Danube in Croatia and Serbia. These used to be part of one country, Yugoslavia, as recently as 25 years ago under the rule of Josip Tito, a Communist Partisan. When he died in 1981, things began to fall apart, with different ethnic groups in different regions deciding to "make their own way" after the fall of Communism, and other groups feeling like the only way to survive and protect their ethnic minority in those areas was to stay united. Needless to say, when disagreements between people happens, sometimes it is settled by war, sometimes very brutally.
That's been our experience for the last couple of days; witnessing the recent (and ancient) history of mans brutality to man during war. It's been a sobering and thought provoking couple of days, sprinkled in with the warmth and humor of the people who live in a region struggling to make it back to their days of glory.
Our first stop was to Vukovar Croatia. This small port town in the Danube was the place where Serbians and the Yugoslav Army (which was largely led by Serbian command) tired to take control of Croatia to prevent it from splitting away. The town of Vukovar sustained heavy bombing and was defended by only citizen "defenders", most with only their wits and Molotov cocktails. The siege lasted 3 months in the fall of 1991. Homes and businesses and municipal buildings in the area are slowly renovating their facades, but the wounds underneath still persist; there are few residents in the area and fewer businesses.
This war was called the Croatian War for Independence by the Croats and the quashing of a rebellion by the Serbs.
Eventually, the Serbs and Yugoslav Army did control the city, and under Slobodan Milosovich, terrible war crimes were committed. Many civilian Croats were murdered in ethnic cleansing. We visited War Victims Memorial Cemetary, in Vukovar
There is a large statue of a cross with an eternal flame bringing within to never forget the victims. There are many plain white crosses set out to symbolize the many citizens murdered and dumped in mass graves. Not all of the mass graves have been identified and many people are still missing, assumed to be victims of the war, whose bodies were never found.
At the memorial, the Defenders are buried with identical dark marble headstones and carefully decorated tombs kept by loving family members who live on after their loses.
So that makes the Serbians and what was left of Yugoslavia the bad guys, right?
Well, after traveling next to the town of Novi Sad, Serbia and Belgrade, Serbia, we learned it isn't that simple. The people there we talked to (our local tour guides and university professor who lectured us) admit that there were atrocities and Slobodan Milosovich did things in the wrong way, but they maintain that the Croats (and later Bosnians) were engaging in civil war, not a war for independence. They still believe they would be better off as Yugoslavia, united and stronger. The question I asked was...Why?
Well, the US and NATO perspective was that Serbians had to stop preventing Balkan nations they recognized from seeking independence. International pressure grew and eventually NATO prepared to bomb key targets in Serbia.
During our ride around Belgrade, Serbia we saw bombed out building here and there- each building was identified by our Serbian guide, as either a ministry of defense, or another key government target. Most have not been repaired as the government cannot find any one willing to buy and renovate the property. We saw no non governmental buildings bombed out, except for one hotel where some strategic information was being hidden, and NATO learned of it and targeted it.
How that happen might be explained by one of our guides making an off hand comment that "Serbs would sell out their mothers to get ahead". Whether that's true or hyperbole by one guide, it's hard to say, but I found it interesting. However, it still didn't answer the "why" that these people would cling so desperately to territories filled with peoples who no longer wanted to be part of the union.
A little later on in our tour of Belgrade, it occurred to me "Why"- we saw this coat of arms above a door at the Kalemegdan Fortress. This fortress at the meeting of the Danube and Sava Rivers served as the demarcation line between the Christian Europe and the Muslim Turks for many centuries. Of course, no one stayed on their own side, various leaders over various centuries of time made incursions in one direction or the other. This fort "changed hands" so to speak, dozens of times. The city was occupied and re captured many times over. As often happened in these areas, churches were converted the poms quest then converted back to churches, or leveled entirely. Not much is truly "old" in this region because someone has razed it some time along its history. During our tour our guide rattled off the dozens of regimes that exsisted over Belgrades history, in a "Two Minute History" of Belgrade.
So the "Why" for me can be seen in this crest. The sheild in the middle contains 4 Cyrillac alphabet "c"s, which are the Latin letter "s". The 4 S letters stand for the motto :
ONLY UNITY SAVES SERBS
When I heard my guide say that, it occurred to me that if you had a history of people kicking your butt, and conquering your city for centuries, you might begin to get the idea that the best protection is to be as big and as powerful as you can be, and the motto sums that mentality up. With each loss of territory, it gets harder to defend what's left.
So after 2 days and very cursory first hand look at the history of the region, I can only conclude, like most wars..."it's complicated"