"Look, look, ..." the pub owner said, Pakrac, 2003.
We were sitting in the autumn sun in the terrace of one of the only pubs in Pakrac which have been open during the war. The Pub was during the war the home base of the defenders of the town, about 25 persons more or less representing all the possible nationalities of Yugoslavia: Serbs, Bosnian, Albanian, Macedonian, Slovenian and a lot of sons of families with multiple nationalities. The only real Croat, his own words, was the commander and since the ceasefire in Croatia (1992), the proud pub owner.
In his hands he had an older polaroid picture, which was almost completely yellow, since it was hanging in pub for some years. The picture Now it can be the time to establish ideas how to establish an area for ecological holidays involving as many regional resources as possibleshows his brigade standing around the name sign, full bullet holes, of Hrvatska Kostajnica, photo was made on 6. august 1995. In the other hand he holds a Serbian Krajina number plate from Glina. As always when he tells a joke he chuckles very loudly. He looks proudly, it was his brigade who liberated one of the villages which I have visited the day before.
We look in each other’s eyes, he knows very well that I wasn’t a big fan of those actions in 1995, not of Bljesak and not of Oluja. Until the May 1st we, as peace activist working in Western Slavonia, really had the hope the whole transition from Srpska Krajina into part of Croatia could go step by step and without violence. After Bljesak and the first refugee waves from Croatia into Bosnian next action was just a matter of time. The killings in Srebrenica and new heavy attacks on Bihac rapidly changed the international political situation.
Nevertheless, we were unpleasantly surprised when in the early morning of August 4th Tudjman announced the start. My dream was to convince other environmental and peace activist in Europe that Croatia, more precise West Slavonia, as the place to organise Ecotopia ’96. I This can be the new "wilderness" were sportive and ecological minded people from Europe can spend their adventure holidays, interesting stories of what happened here inclusive, this area has been frontline for agesknow a very selfish reaction, less than 40 km away the war is going on again and I am afraid that I can´t have my nice international peaceful ecological youth camp in the middle of it. It was a nice idea to stimulate the rebuilding of the cities and villages along the former frontline in Pakrac and Lipik in an ecological touristic way. Starting with a few thousand people from all over Europe who create their ideas of a sustainable future on a former minefield, somehow the idea wasn’t even that crazy than as it sounds now.
"Yes" I say, "you are a real proud Croatian Warrior". I look at him, since his last fighting days were almost 8 years ago . On the other side of the street is now the club for the veterans, the meeting place of the former town heroes. It is hard to see that some of them are really not able to cope with the reality, the war destroyed them mentally, physically, or both. And the distance from the holiday beaches of Dalmatia is a lot bigger than from her, Pakrac, to there. Ok some rebuilding has been done, but you cannot say the Papuk region is a blossoming economical area in those days.
"How about going on a Peace path this time?" And I explain, via his son, who translate my carefully chosen English, that I was the day before in the village near Hrvatska Kostajnica. On the slope of hill, near huge chestnut forests, a few handful mostly little old farms, with plumb trees in the front and a pig in the back. Only a handful old people remained or returned. But most of the houses are empty, the resident fled and never came back. Most of their houses are now slowly been overgrown by wine, rasp and blackberries. The doors and windows are open, sometimes slowly moving in the wind and everything which could be valuable has been disappeared over the years. Some Croat families, who fled from Derventa, but they only survive here. With the older village people, they have hardly any contact, but at least their children add some living noise to the silence of the empty village.
"Everywhere along the frontline there will be dozens of those small empty not totally destroyed villages, the idea is there were the warriors in the beginning of the 90s went on warpath, now ecological action tourist go an a walk over the peace path". The village people can offer Bed and Breakfast and special regional food, most of them anyway grow their own vegetables the same way as their grandparents, so most of it will be very bio.
He smiles, nice idea, he reacted, he can also have some extra guest. But he warns me, not everywhere things went like in Pakrac region in the last years. They more or less live together again with those families which were on the other side and did not flee. Even their kids are going to the same schools again. And he is right, driving up and down the proposed Peace path in the years let the idea slowly fade away. Not only the minefields, which are laying everywhere in this region and which that’s many more years to clean, but the main obstacle are still the open emotional wounds, not in the least the thoughts on all the people which flee and haven’t returned.
Many years later I am again sitting in familiar pub in Pakrac, 25 years after the Pakrac volunteer project has started. Some of the dreams came through, the town is full people, a foreign supermarket has built their giant shop on the former frontline. Mountain bikes are racing down the hill through a forest which use to be mined. On the new marketplace are still old ladies offering their self-grown vegetables. The place on the mountain where during the war heavy artillery stood, which was shelling on the town is now a very well visit tourist spot in the region. And even some foreigners have both empty houses in a similar small village to start with perma culture. And you notice that the word "eco-tourism" is not anymore, such crazy term of a few peace hippies after all.
Unfortunately, my friend the pub owner was right, somehow Pakrac was special. When I visit Hrvatska Kostajnica a few days later, the picture was almost the other way round. The town is almost empty, most of the restaurants and bars I knew are closed. Almost the only shop still open is the Lonia supermarket and the store of an Albanian Bakery on the Bosnian side of the Una. The only place where there is real life going on is on the bridge over the river. On the other side of the river lays Bosanska Kostajnica, the shopping paradise for people from this side. Logical that the shops and bars here are closed. A friend in the town tells me that the young people all go to Germany nowadays to find work, since Croatia is member of the EU that is easy.
We climb up one of the mountains from where you have a beautiful view over the Una valley and in the other direction miles and miles of rough forest with many little villages, some of them even emptier than for some years. Maybe that whole hippie idea of a peace path is not so silly after all. When in these days people in Croatia will celebrate, hopefully corona safe, the success of their armies for 25 years, it is not bad to remember that at the former warpath there are many areas with beautiful almost wild nature (for us from the West of Europe) which are sort of kept in a time capsule, since most former residents did not return and the elderly do there best to keep those villages a bit alive.
Maybe now, slowly, not the goal matters, but the way, some highly intelligent person said. Now it can be the time to establish ideas how to establish an area for ecological holidays involving as many regional resources as possible. Since, hopefully also in the future, holidays by plane is not "political and ecological correct" anymore, this can be the new "wilderness" were sportive and ecological minded people from Europe can spend their adventure holidays, interesting stories of what happened here inclusive, this area has been frontline for ages. But hopefully also with the stories about how people can live and work in peace together although they stood on different sides. May such initiatives go as a storm over the country.
Ljubav i mir,