The group assembled in the hotel lobby in for a 9 o’clock departure this morning to the town of Knin which is a 4 hour drive from Dubrovnik. For the first part of the journey, the participants caught up on sleep, admired the panoramic views or listened, transfixed to Mary’s stories and fascinating facts from her time spent in the region e.g. The traditions of the Herzegovinan mountain men, her experience in finding and diffusing landmines or the fact that fig rolls and Jaffa cakes both originated here!!
While on the journey, we passed through Bosnia (its only sea port) the way you pass through Leitrim on your way to Sligo only here you had to pass through border security checkpoints at both ends!! A brief coffee stop in Bosnia and we were on the road again.
As we were heading away from the sea and into the mountains, the roads suddenly seemed to get worse, made even more noticeable by the fabulous motorways and bridges being built parallel to us. A lack of livestock was remarked upon although after quite a while we began to see signs of fruit farming taking place with lots of orange groves and fruit stalls appearing amongst the greenery.
After another convenience break, it was time to let the group bonding begin in earnest with lots of moving seats, questions and experience sharing culminating in a limerick writing competition… Six teams resulted in fierce competition and hilarious verses with the winners being voted (by secret ballot!) as Owen Donnelly, Stephanie Hunter, Maria Coleman and Catherine Mc Colgan with “The Hills of Herzegovina”
This brought us as far as the outskirts of Knin where the scars of battle began to appear on buildings and deserted properties that line the roadsides. Buildings without roofs, chunks of plaster and bullet holes riddling the walls (or rather those that remained) and evidence of the burning that took place during the ethnic cleansing. It was a sobering thought that left the bus quiet as it moved through the streets of Knin on our way to the hotel.
A delicious lunch was served to us before a group discussion was held where we were introduced to our 3 translators who will accompany us on our visits to groups tomorrow. This gave participants a chance to introduce themselves to the group as a whole and also for them to begin questioning the interpreters about their thoughts and feelings on the conflict and we began to see a lot of similarities between here and the North of Ireland. Following this, participants had the fantastic opportunity to visit Knin Fort, which is the largest fort in Croatia and has an amazing vantage point looking out over the countryside. While here, Marco, one of our interpreters shared his personal story about waking up at 5am on the morning of 4th August 1995 to shells falling on the town. This bombing continued for over 5 hours during which time approximately 9,000 bombs were dropped killing over 200 people. He explained how many left Knin at this stage but many, especially older people such as his grandmother refused to leave showing great resilience in the face of adversity. The group descended many many steps from the fort and continued downhill until they reached the town and onwards to the bus to take us back to our hotel.
A small contingent of 4 got separated from the group on leaving the fort (I won’t name and shame!!) and as luck would have it, a member of the International Policing Agency who had arrived to meet with Jim, Joe and Michael Forde kindly offered to drive to the entrance of the fort to pick them up – although they didn’t believe us when told the police were coming for them!!
With the group reunited once more, it was back to the hotel where the bus had an incident with a balcony which gave the ex-health and safety advisor a surprise (after an afternoon of uneven and slippy steps with no handrail!!) but he was comforted after dinner by a sip of plum brandy, a national drink. When a child is born, the plum brandy made in the autumn closest to its birth is saved and drank on three special occasions of their lives – at their christening, their wedding and their funeral – a lovely tradition although only small servings are required as it is QUITE strong!!
Mary explained tomorrow’s itinerary which involves a choice of 3 visits in the morning to either (or all of!) the Mayors office, the police station and the local secondary school with the choice in the afternoon of visiting one of two NGO’s which are a youth group or a group that deals with civil rights especially for older people. After choosing where they would like to visit, participants began to retire to their rooms for quiet reflection and to prepare for the early start.
I will leave you tonight with “The Hills of Herzegovina”
On the road from Clanree,
I strayed by the sea,
And met a Croat by the name of Magee.
I asked in surprise how he came by his moniker,
Says he “we’ve many a father in the hills of Herzegovin-er”