It’s been over 23 years now since the horrible headlines of genocide and neighbour killing neighbour emanated from the Balkans. I remember riding through Bosnia 13 years ago and it was still all pretty raw, certainly still too early to discuss any of it with the locals, and not too long after to witness the most horrible consequences of the collapse of the Yugoslav Republic.
But now we’re back and riding along a different part of the front, down the Danube that separates Croatia from Serbia and where the infamous Battle of Vukovar that had 1880 locals pitched against an organised force of 35,000 Serbs with the predictable outcome, but the most terrible consequences once the town had fallen.
This is a long way from the pristine, tourist-contaminated coastline of Croatia that the cruise ships ply, but the raw reality of modern day Croatia is that its independence has been won from bloodshed that saw neighbourhoods destroyed and ethnic conflict explode. Since that decision and fight to become independent of the Yugoslav Republic and distance itself from Russia, Croatia is nowadays both a member of the EU and of NATO.
But its income remains about half that of Austria that we rode out of only a few days ago, so there is a strong attraction for folks here to go west to seek work. Of course that economic force drove the big migration flows of the last few years from the East and into Europe.
Croatia has had its share of defending the EU from the swamping from migrant flows. Today we visited the village of Tovarnik (no bigger than Tirau) on the border with Serbia, the site a major tension in 2015 as Croat police tried to hold up the tsunami from Syria. Tovarnik though is another of the battle scarred villages of Eastern Croatia and was a site of torture and massacre by Serbian forces. And the village has its own Chapel of Reconciliation as a tribute to its expulsion of its German residents during the First World War. To think this same village, is then called upon to offer refuge for others fleeing their war in Syria in 2015, really resounds as we spend some time chatting to the locals over coffee.