Check out my article for Mic, Travel in the Age of Fear.

War tourism

I recently returned from a five-day trip to Slavonia, a region in eastern Croatia that was one of the epicenters of the Yugoslavian civil war in the early 1990s. The marks from the war are still clearly visible – bullet and grenade holes on the facades, skeleton head signs marking mined areas, war references in nearly every conversation with local people.

A short stay in the city of Vukovar was the most disturbing. For those who didn’t know… During the siege of Vukovar by the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) between August and November 1991, the Croatian army was defeated, the city was practically flattened to the ground and most of the Croatian population killed or exiled. Walking among the blackened burnt-out buildings, even with the sun out giving the streets a cheery edge, I couldn’t help but feel the heavy energy of the city’s dark past.

Now, 17 years later, one can pay homage to the war victims by visiting several memorial sights in and around Vukovar. Ten kilometres southeast of the center is the Ovčara Memorial inside a hangar where 263 patients and medical staff of Vukovar hospital spent their final hours before being brutally killed in a nearby field in November 1991. Inside a dark room, photographs of the victims are being projected on the walls, with a candle burning in the middle. At the War Victims Memorial Cemetery, 938 white crosses symbolize the victims exhumed here.

The most disquieting experience was a visit to Vukovar Hospital, a section of which has recently been turned into a multimedia museum. During the siege, the Vukovar Hospital was a favorite target of the Yugoslav National Army – it was hit by thousand projectiles of various kinds on a daily basis. The museum’s vivid recreations of this difficult time portray the struggle of the hospital workers and the suffering of the patients who were crammed into the basement corridors and nuclear shelters fighting wounds, infections, and the shortage of running water, medicine, and food.

As I was leaving Vukovar, my head was a chaos of a million thoughts. I started thinking about war, about wars around the world, and the fact most of the time they seem far removed from our reality. And yet there is a part of us drawn to tragedy – we want to know what war feels like, we want to stand in the spots of suffering…

When in Cambodia a few years back, I felt compelled to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, and the Killing Fields outside the city. I wanted to know, I needed to see, I felt obliged to be alert, awake, aware… Or was I just being a voyeur, buying into the sensationalism of war tourism, back in Cambodia, and more recently in Vukovar?

Blog Comments

More vivid than the words, only the actual presence. I’ve been there, in Vukovar. And I’m partially a product of war (over thirty years of civil war in Angola). And I never see it as tourism, but as humanitarian education, in order not to repeat the experience of war, and in order to fully understand its effects on people.
It’s a well done piece of writing, by the way. Although I’m not an expert.

Now, in better English:
I’ve been to Croatia and I’ve seen the amazing beauty of its landscapes and people and witnessed the effort these people are doing to overcome the war effects. They’re doing a tremendously amazing work in attracting people to testify their traditional modus vivendi, the traditional houses, the ethnical tourism, etc. Loved the food!
But one thing I didn’t like is the way some people are building houses with absolutely no respect for the surrounding enviroment (especially at the sea coasts). These people, in their ambition for captivating foreign tourists are, in fact conditioning it in a negative way, in a long term perspective. I think the Croatian government should do something about it. But I also think this must start with citizens such as yourself, who actually have the means to reach all the universe of the www.
So, I’m hoping to read a blog about the topic, one of these days, before they entirely destroy the Croatian coast and its traditional or ethnic building types.

I’ve wondered the same thing when in Cambodia visiting those same places and visiting Auschwitz. I ask myself if the dead could speak what would they think of people visiting the place of their demise. Would they see it as honoring them and people never forgetting or not?

That’s a very good question, Wendy. Maybe it’s about the perspective that visitor takes. Personally, I think it’s about how you approach those places and what you walk away with. Just like with any experience in life!

Add a comment

*Please complete all fields correctly

Related posts

Happy 2014
Posted by anja | January 2, 2014
Looking back at 2013… and then forward
It was a pivotal year, yet it felt somehow quiet. Perhaps because I write this from a quiet place. But it wasn’t so most of the year. My husband &...
Posted by anja | May 31, 2013
Global Glimpses: Lamu, Kenya
  In May 2011, I visited Kenya. On the 10-day sojourn, I went to three national reserves, got charged by a bull elephant, witnessed a fresh cow blood drinking ceremony...
Posted by anja | May 27, 2013
Global Glimpses: Havana, Cuba
  In winter 2006, I fulfilled a long-awaited dream – I traveled to Cuba. Among the highlights was the afternoon I spent marching with the Cuban people through the streets...