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Cuddling up to Croatia


It was leaving that showed us the other country. People will remember it while the hurrying by, glancing over a shoulder perhaps, with beach towels and hard currency at the ready. We were no different. We didn’t intend, as we hurried by, to find that country glancing back as it descends further into the past. We never intended to be caught gawping as the train carried us away from the country we had really come to see.

After a week spent island hopping and basking by the pristine and majestically blue Adriatic, the train rolled out of Split and began a thirteen-hour journey that would terminate on the banks of the Danube, in Bratislava. Leaving the coast we remembered the outward journey, cramped six to a six-berth sleeping compartment through a muggy July night. Now we were three and selfishly hoping to remain that way as Central Dalmatia’s hinterland began to show itself. We could see what had been mostly shut away in the black beyond our window while we had slept and stirred restlessly on that trip, dreaming of the coming days with their promise of abundant sea and sunshine.

That’s exactly what we got, of course. But the clammy residue of our week’s indulgences and the exertion of our blurry-eyed early morning departure from the island across the water, the waiting next to the dusty railway tracks, all this clung to our skins in the stuffy compartment until the train started out and air circulated through the open window. We spread ourselves in the luxury of this air-conditioned space and the coast began to disappear into the background. There were glimpses of it, the deep blue calmly residing there on the other side while another country emerged gradually, a stony plateaux competing with the flitting of the sea views splashing brightly in and out of the window frame. The blue skies that had conspired to merge so seamlessly with the Adriatic from our carefully chosen vantage points on various rocky coves by the water were now being bullied and threatened away by forbidding looking mountains. They were rising up to usher us elsewhere over an unseen border. And it was suddenly an ominous sky filling with cloud and blotting out the sunshine that had so convincingly made puppets of us over the previous days. Its generous and unfaltering rays had brought us again and again into postures of worship. Now a curtain was coming down on that show, the scenery now changing from island idyll to something else, something less indulging. It was a much harder country emerging.                      

A road soon appeared, running parallel to the tracks as our train moved on and deeper into this new terrain. It was soon washed with a thin rain as we watched the cars and the occasional tourist bus swoosh by, overtaking us. Beyond the road, in the distance across a flat scrubland, there were darkening mounds. The hills showed barren outcrops of rock resisting, it seemed, the vegetation that strived to grow on their slopes. There were wooded places in these hills, but the olive groves and lavender strewn hillsides of the islands had gone and their gentler incline replaced by wilder, untamed country.

We watched from the train. Close to the track, as the road dropped away from our compartment window, the first glimpses of habitation appeared in the landscape. These were mostly buildings of rough stone, houses scattering into the foreground that wouldn’t otherwise have appeared so striking except that many were roofless and missing windows. The three of us now were pressed together and peering out as more of these skeletons showed themselves through clumps of trees, empty and gutted, the odd chimneystack remaining defiantly erect. Other things began to show themselves in the landscape. The sun pushed through again, trying to make an impression, trying to remind us that life goes on in spite of the abandoned vehicles left to rust in fields and at the side of lonely dirt roads. It was old cars mostly, a tractor here and there; a hulking transport wagon, derailed and decaying at the foot of the sloping embankment just below us. Just below the rails carrying the train to a halt at a station marked ‘Knin’.

This backwater town, so apparently unremarkable, just happens to be the main transit point for any journey by rail to other provinces of Croatia. There would be no other reason to stop here unless you happen to be on a train going somewhere else, which we were. Just passing through, no one could be blamed for not giving Knin a second thought.

Who would think then, that a nondescript provincial town such as this could have made its mark on history as it did in the long and painful process of disintegration we know as the Balkan War. Looking out of the compartment window at the dreary collection of railway buildings and the uninviting shop fronts in the street behind the deserted station, the town’s colourless features seemed all the more oppressive under the smudgy rain clouds overhead. Even what appeared to be Knin’s only physical point of interest, the dominant profile of the hilltop fortress overlooking the station, seems indifferent, strangely detached from the town below it.

Should we have rolled through Knin once upon a time not so long ago, we would have seen many of the shop fronts decked out in the red, white and blue colours of the old country and side by side with those of the Serbian flag. There would have been other premises – the local watchmakers perhaps, or a café in a side street in the centre of town – with the windows boarded and inside emptied of its contents, broken glass littering the floor. Someone here, or someone somewhere else, decided that the local Serbs and Croats, couldn’t live together anymore as they had done for decades. First the Croats went, driven out of their homes and livelihoods as Knin was declared centre of the Republic of the Serbian ‘Krajina’ (or ‘frontier’), a breakaway republic within a country itself declaring its independence. A country within a country within a country…

For four years as what was once Yugoslavia became embroiled in civil war, the town of Knin stubbornly remained a seat of power within this micro ‘republic’. When, in the summer of 1995, the tables turned and the Croatian army arrived to reclaim areas around the town that had resisted government control, a Serb population established over centuries was gone in a matter of days. All manner of vehicles, cars, trucks and tractors, horses and carts, poured onto the roads. Almost 200 000 people packing up and leaving ahead of the destruction that would take place behind them, the burning and looting of homes done, largely, in reprisal.

If there is any notable sight upon arriving at the station then it is the fortress on the hilltop above the town. There is an excellent view of it for passengers of the trains regularly passing through on their way somewhere else, to resorts on the coast and the islands that are bringing millions again in another kind of exodus. Croatia may well thrive on its increasingly healthy tourist industry as it heads toward a place in the new Europe just forming. While our train paused in the station, the Croatian flag with its chequered shield flying from the ramparts up on the hilltop bustled proudly in the wind. And there directly below it, slightly to one side at the foot of the hillside and visible over a garden wall surrounded by leafy trees, was a white walled house with its glassless windows and smashed red tiled roof. 

There is more than one country here, another Croatia barely visible from the coastal resorts and pretty island retreats. It stands back, trying not to intrude and cast its shadows across the blue skies and clear, sparkling waters. Head inland and it just might loom into view and show itself in the starkly beautiful landscape and in the black holes where curtained windows ought to be. In the homes still standing empty, whoever they belonged to. 

The sky rumbled over the train pulling out of the station and we closed the window of the compartment. As I lay back on the bunk I watched my two companions at the window push out their bare arms, palms held up to catch the spray of the rain, to let that rain keep washing their sun browned and saltwater stained skin.

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