One of our greatest weaknesses when reading and studying history about Ireland is often our failure to contextualise Irish history in comparison to what was happening elsewhere in the world. I have written a lot about the revolutionary period in Ireland, which covers our War of Independence and Civil War conflicts, and want to contextualise it in this article. That part of Irish history has been well documented, especially in recent years, and historians have uncovered great triumphs, unforgivable atrocities and hidden histories. There has been much scholarly work done on how many people in Cork died in conflict between 1916-23 and the figure comes in at around 740. This includes IRA, British forces, policemen, Free State troops, anti-treaty, suspected spies and civilians. Of these, civilian deaths make up the largest number of war dead – a staggering 236 people, or a third of the total. To break that figure down further from my scrutiny of these numbers, 76 could be directly attributed to the fault of British Crown Forces, 47 civilians were shot as spies by the IRA, a further 56 other civilian deaths can be attributed to the IRA and another 57 were killed by either Anti-treaty forces or Free-State soldiers. One can analyse these figures for themselves by referring to Barry Keane’s ‘Cork Revolutionary Dead’ or Andy Bielenberg’s ‘Cork Fatality register’ and also his compilation ‘Spy Files’. It’s an illustration of war as a blunt instrument of change and its effect on populations. And while there is no premium on one person’s loss over another, it would not be unfair to suggest that Cork and indeed Ireland’s war dead in the revolutionary period, pales into significance when contextualised against other theatres in Europe when the embers of nationalism were stoked and enflamed against centuries of oppression by the greater imperial powers of the day. The seeds of one of the deadliest conflicts in Europe grew further and later germinated after the fall of communism. It will be in many of the reader’s living memory. It was of course, the Balkan Wars of 1992-95.
The break-up of General Marshal Tito’s Yugoslavia after the end of the Cold War led to a wave of nationalism from within this loose federation of peoples and ethnicities that had lived peacefully together since the disintegration of the Austria-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War Two. First Slovenia and then Croatia wanted to assert their nationhood, until Serbia, the dominant power in the federal region, soon took affairs into its own hands, which saw the outbreak of a war with Slovenia and Kosovo, followed by a vicious conflict with Croatia. But the real horror of the war was yet to emerge. In between these fighting foes were the lands belonging to the Bosnians and Herzegovinians, a mixture of ethnicities and religions but predominantly Muslim. Croatia and Serbia decided to carve up this area for themselves and determined to rid the land of its people – and so began an ethnic cleansing against civilians in the tens of thousands.
Croatia has become a go-to destination for Irish people, particularly in the last number of years. Its pristine waters, miles of coast and stunning coastal towns backed by rugged mountains, is a natural draw for tourists. But behind those mountains is a land that holidaymakers can easily ignore while they sip cocktails and soak up the sun. Behind those mountains, less than fifty kilometres away from Split, is the border of Bosnia Herzegovinian. Not only does a spine of mountainous rock separate the two countries, but a cultural, monitory and economic mountain too. Once crossing the border, the roads worsen, the towns lack the lustre of its neighbour, the shops are more meagre. In the centre of Mostar, the fifth biggest city in Bosnia Herzegovinian, there is a modest stone memorial adjacent to one of their ancient streets. It simple says – ‘DON’T FORGET’. It might be easy to do so if you are bused in from Split, for a day trip to see the world famous Ottoman bridge that was built in the 16th century, over a river that divides the picturesque, hobbit-like centre, in two. It has a fairy-tale quality that can lull you into a safe world, into an amnesia. That is why the, ‘Don’t Forget’ stone, is essential. That is why one needs to spend some time here to get the full picture away from the packaged production line of shopping trips from Croatia.
Outside the tiny and mesmerising centre is the real tale; and it’s not a bedtime story. It’s a story of buildings that are still pockmarked with bullets and bombs or abandoned houses that circle the centre. This is where you’ll find the real history. Even more so when you learn that the centre of Mostar and the iconic Ottoman bridge have all been rebuilt in the last decade after the Serbs razed it to the ground for no other reason than cultural vandalism. Isis is not alone in that crime. The graveyards in the town are harrowing. Rows and rows of civilians murdered. So many with the year of their death, 1992/93/94/95, engraved on the headstone. History needs contextualisation. They were not simply unfortunate innocent victims of a war. It was a pogrom. It was ethnic cleansing.
The ‘Black Museum’ in the town centre is a must-see place. Run by survivors of the war, one could spend hours in there, learning of the killings, concentration camps (Yes, they had concentration camps in Europe – in the 1990s!) the torturing and the beatings. They have pictures, video footage, objects, including some of the bats and iron rods that were used on prisoners indiscriminately, and wall-to-wall witness statements from survivors who still walk amongst us. And this is the harrowing thing – some of the perpetrators walk amongst the tourists back in Croatia and Serbia, as if their previous life is a dream to them now. What really brings it home is not museums, buildings, or even graves but speaking to our Airbnb host. She recalled hiding in the mountains as a child with her family afraid of being caught. Living like animals. Fearing for the lives of their brothers and fathers who were summarily being rounded up and taken to the concentration camps. She thanked us warmly for coming and spending time here. But most of all she thanked us for asking questions about what happened. ‘Don’t forget’. We must never forget.