Authors: Simon Winchester
A Return to the Balkans
In memory of my friend,
The Sarajevo Sigmoid, designated on the map as the Kuci Over-thrust, is a conspicuous belt of Mesozoic flysch. It consists of thin Permian and Triassic clastics and neritic carbonates; next, of an uncomformable sequence of limestones that range from the Upper Jurassic to the Turonian, and of transgressive Durmitor flysch of the Senonian, whose fold fabric is characteristically intricate. Going northwest, the composition of this belt becomes increasingly complex…. The Vardar Zone is the most complicated belt of the Balkan Peninsula. It is composed of several blocks of diverse composition, geological history, and provenance, and includes characteristic oceanic elements.
M. D. Dimitrijevic,
The Geology of Serbia and Adjoining Territories,
Republic Institute for Geological Investigations,
But the really reckless were fetched
By an older colder voice, the oceanic whisper:
“I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing;
That is how I shall set you free. There is no love;
There are only the various envies, all of them sad.”
W. H. Auden,
In Praise of Limestone,
Encounters at a Water Meadow
A Meeting with a Turkish Gentleman
To the “Land of the Osmanlees”
Looking for a Sarajevo Rose
The Fortress by the Sea
The Lifting of the Gate
The Sound and the Fury
A City So Sublime
HE BEWILDERING VARIETY
of unfamiliar names that appear in any writing relating to the Balkans seems dramatically to inhibit any average reader’s sympathetic understanding of the story. I have tried to help overcome this in three ways—by including as few personal names as possible; by omitting the confusing diacritical marks in the spelling of most of such names as I felt bound to include; and by appending a fairly full glossary of many of the terms—of people, places, concepts, and things—that have helped make the Balkans such a complicated and often confusing place. I must apply the conventional offer to admit responsibility for any errors or misjudgments to this glossary, just as I do to the main body of the story. It is difficult to keep strictly objective any Balkan word list—since it includes, as do most Balkan stories, many monstrous people and their deeds—and I hope I will be forgiven for not having tried to do so.
has for centuries been a place of mystery, paradox, and wild confusion, it may not be too out of place to recall that this narrative properly opens—in the late summer of 1977—at a place that did not then exist, next door to a country that had at the time not been created, and among a people who, though sentient human beings in every accepted sense, had in another then not even been born.
In particular it started beside a water meadow of singular loveliness—all cypresses and lime trees, small olive groves, and cool and lush green grasses—that lies on the left bank of a prettily rushing little stream known as the Lepenec River. The river, which ultimately flows into the Aegean Sea by way of a gulf between the sacred mountains Olympus and Athos, rises in the snows of a small north-south line of hills known as the Sar Range, which themselves are a mosaic part of that formidable swath of geological wreckage—that has helped foster all the long confusion of the Balkans—the high Dinaric Alps.
This one cool alpine meadow, which first caught my eye on a sweltering afternoon in mid-August, lies at the southern end of a deeply incised and, in theory, highly strategic mountain pass, a gateway through the karst massifs of the Sar Range that is referred to by soldiers to this day (in memory of some long-forgotten hero) as the Kacanik Defile. Military maps published until very recently show that the defile and the water meadow at its lower end lie well inside the sprawling southern European entity that was known after 1929 as Yugoslavia. Since when I first went there it lay
the country’s frontiers, it enjoyed no practical strategic role at all: it was merely a dramatic canyon, a place known only for occa
sional banditry and for the sighting of bears, wild birds, and at least six varieties of venomous snake.
This is no longer the case. The Lepenec water meadow and the Kacanik Defile into and from which it leads, have lately come to play a crucial and terribly symbolic part in the awful human drama that has once again engulfed the wild and refractory peoples of the Balkans. What makes it especially remarkable, in a strictly personal sense, is what I discovered when I found myself at the meadow during the first of two crucial moments during 1999: that I had been there once before, and when it was in a very different state, in more ways than one.
Twenty-two years earlier I had been en route from Oxford, in my somewhat battered old Volvo, to take up a new job in India. It had seemed to me at the time that, rather than fly to Delhi, it might be more agreeable to drive there. A look at a good map swiftly shows that the Kacanik Defile is far from being on any obvious direct route between Oxford and New Delhi: The fact that on the journey to India I eventually arrived at this particular Balkan meadow was entirely due to the liverish mood of an American friend of mine, an archivist from Washington, D.C., who had telephoned on the eve of my departure to ask if I could possibly give him a ride to Tehran.
Albert Meisel, who has since died, was to become an unwitting agent in this story because of a remark he made as we drove down a motorway in southern England. Up to that point all had been going flawlessly: As soon as I agreed to take him along he had flown across the Atlantic, made a perfectly scheduled rendezvous with us—I was traveling with my then wife and twelve-year-old son—outside the
office in London at noon on the appointed day, and we had taken off promptly to catch the three o’clock Calais packet-boat. However, about an hour out of London, as we were speeding southeastward along the M2 in Kent, Albert suddenly glimpsed the towers of Canterbury Cathedral
going past in a blur on the left, and asked, in what I thought an unnecessarily querulous tone, why we weren’t stopping to have a look?
I replied, with what was probably some asperity, to the effect that I was in no mood for tourism, that I was in a hurry, and that I wanted to catch the ferry and make Mons that night—for the simple reason that I planned to make India well before the middle of September. I knew that the roads in the Punjab would be tricky with postmonsoon mud; I planned to be at the Khyber Pass in three weeks’ time. Albert grunted. This was not, he muttered, going to be the pleasure trip he had imagined.
It was much the same the next day in Germany, as we sped past the twin spires of Cologne Cathedral, and then again as a succession of ever prettier Bavarian villages vanished in the rearview mirror. Albert was sulking in the backseat, his mood becoming ever blacker. But I didn’t care: I now had the bit between my teeth, and though the car was going well, the roads were said to be treacherous all through Afghanistan and there might well be delays. In my view there was simply no time for standing and staring, not in this early part of the trip.
But the next day, under the emollient persuasions of my wife, I backed down. I apologized for behaving like a tyrant and, once I had looked at the maps, offered a compromise: Instead of barreling down the main trunk highway from Vienna to Belgrade and then on to Sofia—along a series of roads of insufferable tedium, jammed with long-distance trucks and littered with speed traps—I would go to Istanbul along the scenic route.
We would, if all agreed, drive through the Tauern Mountains of western Austria, go through Kitzbühel and Spittal to Villach, and thence to the Carinthian capital of Klagenfurt, reputed home to more ex-Nazis than anywhere else in the Teutonic world.
Here, I would gather later—but not back then—a careful and observant visitor could discern some vague and shrouded outlines of the coming Balkan miseries: The Austrians of Klagenfurt are
said to display on occasion a deep distaste for their neighbor Slavs—for the Slovenes to their south are ethnically so—and demanded only a few years ago (in vain, as it happens) that their school system be segregated, since not a few Slav children had been osmotically seeded among them.
But in those days the subtleties of the Balkans were quite beyond me, and all I planned was that we press on and cross the Iron Curtain—for it still existed in 1977, complete with watchtowers and barbed wire, armed guards, and attack dogs, deep in the dark forests of the eastern Tyrol—and spend our first night in the northern Yugoslavian town that was the spiritual capital of the Slovenes, Ljubljana.
After that we would follow the line of the Dinaric Alps, join the Adriatic Highway at Rijeka
and then travel at a leisurely pace down to Diocletian’s old retirement city of Split; on to the great fortress of Dubrovnik; turn inland around the spectacularly enchanting Gulf of Kotor up to Montenegro’s old hill capital, Cetinje, and its present one, Titograd; before arriving in Skopje and eventually journeying, by way of the Vardar River valley, to a small Slavic border town called Gevgelija; after which, emerging from under the sentries’ baleful stares, we would pass into the sun-baked playground (and popularly elected democracy) of Greece. We would thus make the entire one thousand miles from the Austrian frontier to the northern border of Greece within the once great country of Yugoslavia, with neither a frontier to cross nor a dinar to exchange: And what’s more, I told Albert, the Dalmatian Coast Highway, as the Yugoslavs then called it and as I preferred to
think of it, was one of the most remarkably engineered and spectacular roads in the world.
That was the clincher: He agreed in a snap. So I promptly turned the car southeast for Kitzbühel, and after a fortifying break at a café in which mountains of
(whipped cream) seemed to have been piled onto almost everything in sight, I set off with as contented a group of passengers as I can ever remember ferrying anywhere.
It took two pleasing Dalmatian days for us to reach Montenegro, after which we passed down from the wild and barren hillsides—the locals like to say that God had shaken out his last bag of rocks at the conclusion of his seven days of world-creating genesis, and where they fell, lo! there stood Montenegro—and onto a low and level plain. It was then that matters suddenly became, as I can still vividly remember from those decades past, rather more sinister, rather more strange.
It was only an aside, really. We had crossed out of Montenegro on a side road, a winding mountain switchback on which there were few other vehicles, and dozens of unanticipated donkey carts loaded with piles of late-summer hay, the early harvests from the higher fields, which swayed precariously down into the villages. Their drivers were invariably men with rather narrow, dark, pinched faces: A few of them, usually the older ones, wore white and smoothly thimble-shaped hats.
We were making first for the old town of Pec, where I had read there was a collection of stupendous Orthodox churches and monasteries, some of them six hundred years old and more, and with frescoes on their walls that dated from the fifteenth century and presented the wild pantheon of saints
and kings and godly
scenes that make the canons of Orthodoxy seem to the western mind so very strange.
The long and chessboard-flat plain that stretched shimmering for mile after scorching mile ahead, and that looked so very much like the holy flatlands of northern France near Chartres, was, by coincidence, a religious heartland as well. This was what once was called Old Serbia, and crosses were everywhere, and beards were as long and metropolitans as grand and ponderously venerable as in any sacred place. But they were not so numerous as I felt they should have been, and that was the first puzzle.
For it just seemed odd, to a stranger who had read that this plain was the holy heartland of old Orthodox Serbia, that rising from the Pec old town like a forest of needles, there were just so many minarets as well, and that there were these men, scores of them like the peasants hauling the harvests home, who were wearing the white caps of Islam, and whose women scurried beneath the modest concealments of veils and thick scarves. If this was Old Serbia, and if these surrounding wheatfields were as precious to Serbian Orthodoxy as the fields around Canterbury were precious to Anglicanism and those around Chartres to the idea of Catholicism—then why, I wondered, was this particular and holy town so self-evidently Muslim?
It was a question born out of ignorance, and one that would not be asked today—for this part of Old Serbia is Kosovo now, and the fact that so sacred an Orthodox heartland supports a vast majority of men and women for whom Mecca and the
are the religious lodestone is one source of all the terrible mayhem to which, in twenty-odd years’ time, I would return. I had more than a hint of it that summer’s day, however. It came when
I was filling the Volvo with gas: The attendant who was topping off the tank was a slow, genial sort of man who spoke a little English and who had asked me a few questions—where I was from, where bound? He spoke Serbian—after a number of days on the road I could recognize some of the basics—and so I remember assuming that he was indeed a Serb.
It was as he was closing the gas cap that we both noticed a group of the same darkish, thin-faced men passing along the road, two or three of the older ones in white skullcaps, the rest with long, light-brown hair. These were the people by whom this part of the world seemed to be largely populated: Though this was Serbia, according to the maps and the history books, the Serbs were clearly outnumbered by these others, these darker Muslims. The gas station owner gestured toward them, then looked at me—and suddenly spat with a twisted smirk of contempt and disdain, which he was not at all shy of demonstrating to me.
he said, and then, to underline the point for me,
He spat again, and without the group being able to see him, shook his fist from behind the car with what to me was astonishingly unrestrained passion. “Absolute bastards! I hate them. Crooks, all of them. Bloody bastard
His venom was extraordinary, I thought—too impassioned for a languorous summer day of hay wains and the creak of wooden cartwheels and sunflowers nodding in the heat. I paid and hurried away. I never asked him to explain, and for many years, whenever I looked back at this incident that lingered powerfully in my mind, I imagined merely that the hatred was reflective of some private problem suffered by this man alone. Perhaps the men had stolen money from him or seduced his daughter. That’s what it must have been: a private feud.
It was many years before I came to understand that this view—“
—all bastards! I hate them”—was in fact the collective view of many tens of thousands of the Serbs who lived on these wide plains. I worked for the
in those days, and I recall
reading, sometime in the late eighties, reports of impassioned speeches being made in towns in this region called Kosovo, to which I reacted with interest, because I had once been there. The speeches seemed to be inflaming local tensions between such men as this, and such as those others who walked beside my car that afternoon, and whose mutual loathings had evidently been festering and fermenting for many years.
Later than evening we passed, almost unknowingly, through a town called Kosovo Polje, and drove by a bare expanse called Gazimestan. This was a place that became recognizable in the newspaper reports of a decade or so later—the infamous place where on June 28, 1989, in commemoration of a battle that had been fought (and lost) there against the Turks six hundred years before, a little-known Serbian leader named Slobodan Milosevic flew down from Belgrade to address a rally of more than a million of his Serbian brothers and sisters in which he warned of—indeed, say many historians, instigated—the violence that was then simmering and that would very soon erupt across the Balkans. His most inflammatory comment was this: “Six centuries later again we are in battles and quarrels. They are not armed battles,
though such things should not be excluded yet
[emphasis added].” I have always thought for so historically significant a piece of rhetoric, this was rather poor, banal in the extreme. Milosevic, a puffy-faced man who had hitherto been head of the national gas company, was clearly no Lincoln, no Churchill. Perhaps, to be charitable, it was simply the translation. And anyway, it clearly got results.