Perhaps more than any other of the former Yugoslavian countries, Bosnia is remembered as a battle ground. As the Croatians and the Serbians wrestled for control in the early 1990s, over 100,000 people were killed, thousands of women were raped and nearly 2 million people were “displaced”. And there was the so-called “ethnic cleansing” of the Bosnian Muslims, which was officially classed as a “crime against humanity” but most knew as “genocide”. The ravages of the war also destroyed property and flattened whole towns.
Ivanica is one such town. In the days when the former Yugoslavia was just Yugoslavia, it was a small hill retreat for the people from Dubrovnik who wanted to escape the summer crowds and the heat. They would travel the few miles up into the mountains, enjoy the stunning panoramic views of the Dubrovnik Riviera and breathe in the fresh ionised therapeutic sea air.
Just a small inconspicuous village, minding its own business, making a living out of hospitality and a bit of limestone quarrying. Ivanica is tucked away in the southern most corner of the country, several hours away from its controlling city of Sarajevo. Our of sight, so it thought, out of mind.
Then came the war. In 1992 the village was practically destroyed.
Today, twenty years later we visited Ivanica for lunch. Travelling down the arterial route through Croatia, we stopped briefly to take photographs of the beautiful walled city of Dubrovnik, nestled below us in the improbably blue sea. It was the type of road featured on Top Gear, or (as I saw it) Ice-truckers, with a sheer drop down to my right, the side, unfortunately, I had to drive on. My throat was dry, but fortunately for my passengers, my hands were steady.
So I was glad to turn left away from the cliffs and up into the mountains. We drove past the quarry towards our destination. Within five minutes we were at the exit border control out of Croatia. We drew up alongside the booth and I wound down my window. A man in uniform took our seven passports and neatly leaved them together before letting us go.
Round the corner was the less impressive border control into Bosnia. No booths, just one man with a gun dealing with traffic entering and leaving, and by the looks of it, about 10 times as many vehicles wanting to leave. Bosnians, we surmised, enjoy their Sunday afternoon on the Croatian beaches. Their queue went up the hill and round the corner, and many had their car doors open. Clearly air conditioning is not fitted as standard. We waited. A dog lay on the side of the road. We joked that this could be the sniffer dog. Suddenly it twitched. Maybe it could smell the coke.
A cursory count of passengers and we were waived in Bosnia. The landscape was dusty and deserted with little or no vegetation and a few empty buildings. There is still evidence of war damage in the village, including large dilapidated building containing bullet holes and shrapnel.
Some houses had no roofs. Were they under construction, or were they post-destruction? We parked up at a cafe, which looked like something out of a wild-west movie. A girl in a tracksuit came out. I asked her whether this was a cafe and would they take Croatian currency? Yes was the answer to both.
So we sat on the verandah outside and asked for a local beer. She served us Jelen. I found out later it is brewed in Serbia. I’m not sure whether that is irony or progress.
We interpreted the menu with the aid of google and a currency convertor. As it happened there was no hot food today, so she brought us some bread and delicious plates of salad and cheese. We talked to the her. She owned the cafe. It was clean and neat. She was polite and efficient. I noticed one of her teeth was black. Several local customers drove up in their battered cars, including the man from border control. They all seemed lively and animated. A man tried to start his car. It would turn over but then die. Eventually he coaxed it into life and drove away victoriously.
This was Ivanica August 2012. A village in recovery. “The post-war revival of Ivanica has had a slow start”, its website modestly declares, “but is quickly picking up”. Rather like that guy’s car, coaxing itself back to live. It describes itself now as “a restful place where one should enjoy the peace and quiet”. Just as it was before the war.
We certainly enjoyed the peace and quiet. The hospitality and food was lovely.
Even after the most horrendous extremes of man’s inhuman crimes against his fellow humans, there is a calm, determined spirit which can start again and rebuild. The resilient spirit of a girl in a tracksuit running a modest cafe and serving Serbian beer and Bosnian food to English tourists.
The dusty ground of Bosnia is seeped in blood and planted with mines. It is still early days, and there is much to repair. But if the little town of Ivanica is anything to go by, the flowers of recovery are blossoming out of that desolate, unquiet earth.