Friday, 21 April 2017

VI  Bosnia and Hercegovina: It’s a Long Way to Medjugorje

   On the morning of Friday 12th March, dedicated to Bl. Joseph Tshang-ta-Pong[1], the official on the Croatian side of the Bosnia-Hercegovina border took an evident dislike to the Russian visas in my passport, but let me through. It was the 10th anniversary of St John Paul the Great’s ‘Day of Pardon’, when on behalf of the whole Church throughout history he asked forgiveness for sins committed by his co-religionists against Jews, other non-Christians, indigenous peoples, other Christians, women and children, heretics and migrants. It happened also however that I was stepping outside the confines of Nato territory, exactly ten years after the publication of a Sunday Times article by Tom Walker and Aidan Laverty, ‘CIA aided Kosovo guerrilla army’, whose impact was deliberately and professionally blunted by a BBC documentary broadcast at 9pm on the same day, ‘Moral [sic] Combat: Nato at War’. From the latter:
Dugi Gorani, Kosovo Albanian Negotiator: “The more civilians were killed, the chances of international intervention became bigger, and the KLA[2] of course realised that. There was this foreign diplomat who once told me ‘Look unless you pass the quota of five thousand deaths you’ll never have anybody permanently present in Kosovo from the foreign diplomacy.’”
And the former:
   “Central Intelligence Agency officers were ceasefire monitors in Kosovo in 1998 and 1999, developing ties with the KLA and giving American military training manuals and field advice on fighting the Yugoslav army and Serbian police.
   “When the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which co-ordinated the monitoring, left Kosovo a week before airstrikes began, many of its satellite telephones and global positioning systems were secretly handed to the KLA, ensuring that guerrilla commanders could stay in touch with Nato and Washington. Several KLA leaders had the mobile phone number of General Wesley Clark, the Nato commander.”
   I was amused by Bosnian border guards who, after I told them I was walking to Jerusalem via Medjugorje, seemed to be asking “Where's your horse?” Later I learned that a Frenchwoman was riding her “magaretz” (donkey) along a similar route to mine, a few days ahead of me. People in that part of Bosnia, accustomed perhaps to Medjugorje pilgrims, were very friendly; one chap summoned me into his home for a tasty lunch, others offered food or insisted I needn’t pay for teas and coffees. I was also struck by the apparent prosperity of villages I passed through. That night I was to be found sleeping soundly among piles of sticks at the back of a shed that looked suitably unfrequented, then on the next afternoon, Saturday 13 March, I arrived in Medjugorje.
   The parish church in Medjugorje is dedicated to the Apostle St James the Great[3]. After paying a visit to Our Lord there I found the Mary's Meals café, where I was hoping to intercept a new pair of boots and my kilt among other things, but found it closed for the weekend. The prospect of a couple of days rest in Medjugorje became all the sweeter however, when I phoned a friend who knew the owners of a really lovely place to stay called “Pansion Kata”; I wasn't allowed to pay because my hosts were too kind. I unburdened my conscience in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, attended Mass in English and the ‘international’ Mass on Sunday evening, and it was not least wonderful simply to be able to ‘unwind’.
   After Mass on the Monday morning I came back to the Mary's Meals café, where a delightful Belgian lady handed me packages sent from home. These contained among other things the kilt, which I had in mind particularly to wear in the company of Serbs, and my folks had also put another pair of charity shop boots in.
   This contrasted with BBC reporter Allan Little however, who conspicuously failed to “put the boot in” when making and editing his craftily sterilised documentary, ‘Moral [sic] Combat: Nato at War’. Two replies he gave to correspondents in an online Question and Answer session three days after its transmission help to explain why this was the case.
Doug, USA: “I am struck by the refusal of the US-led international community to accept the Albanians as the aggressor in this war. Why have we (the US-led international community) sponsored the Albanian movement?”
Allan Little: “This is very complicated. I have argued for the last decade that the principal aggressor and root of instability in the Balkans has been Milosevic and the nature of the Milosevic regime. It would be hard for me to turn round now and say that's no longer the case. I don't think the Albanians are the aggressor, I don't think there's any real doubt about that.” (my emphasis)
   This may usefully be seen in conjunction with the reply he makes to Michael Ranson, UK:
“Is there ever a time when a BBC reporter should use his position to actively speak out against the British government?”
Allan Little: “No, I don't think that actively speaking out against the British government is necessary or appropriate. That said, it is equally unnecessary and inappropriate to speak out in favour of the British government. I don't think that either of those things is needed.”
The first point Little makes here lays bare his double standards. It is not “necessary or appropriate” to speak out against the British government – but apparently it’s OK to “argue for the last decade that the principal aggressor and root of instability in the Balkans has been Milosevic and the nature of the Milosevic regime”. Further clear evidence that he is in fact a reliable Downing Street (and therefore White House) stooge is provided by his allowing the programme to be called ‘Moral Combat: Nato at War’; echoing precisely the sort of sanctimonious drivel spouted by Tony Blair (a man now widely regarded as a war criminal) near the beginning of the programme:
“The moral purpose was very simple. A gross injustice had been done to people, right on the doorstep of the European Union, which we were in a position to prevent and reverse, and we had to do that…”
   A tiny bit sorry to have to leave Medjugorje, nonetheless I was resolved to put more “heart” into my onward Christian soldiering. After dark I reached the crest of a hill and saw numerous lights in a valley which I supposed must be Mostar; but the road continued to wind its way round the slopes until I was suddenly confronted with a dramatic view of the real Mostar – much bigger than I remembered it, as a day-tripper twelve years before. Finding a discreet place tucked against the wall of the cathedral to sleep, I was then glad to be up in time for 7am Mass.
   ‘Most’ is the word for ‘bridge’ in Slavic languages, but I passed up an opportunity to see Mostar’s eponymous crossing point, forgetting that when I visited in 1998 it was only a bomb-damaged ruin (courtesy incidentally of Croat ordnance). So without having seen perhaps the most famous landmark in the Balkans, I set straight off along the Neretva “kanjon”, reaching in the evening a place to sleep on a train station platform at Dreznica.
   On the feast of St. Patrick the weather was fine, the scenery beautiful and I enjoyed the best-tasting coffee of my life, because I’d had to walk for several hours before it was available. Reaching the outskirts of Konjic I slept well in a rather scruffy neglected chamber under a car park. There were more great vistas next day as I ascended into mountains again, and memorably lizards could be seen scampering about amid shrinking patches of snow. At the other end of a longish tunnel however I found myself back in the depths of winter; everything covered in thick white stuff and the sun no longer with its hat on. As darkness fell I reached a village largely if not entirely populated by Muslims, hearing their call to prayer for the first time on my walk. On the far edge, a local pillar of the community bustled me into his nice warm café and produced complimentary coffee, a big sandwich and a bar of chocolate before I was allowed to leave. It was around this time that I started making use of the indispensable phrase “In-sha-Allah” or “God willing” in Arabic; “Ierusalim, In-sha-Allah”. Sleep that night was a bit of a shambles because neighbourhood dogs were disturbed by my presence in the doorway of an empty-looking building; after an hour or two of their barking I conceded defeat and moved to a nearby station platform.
   On 19th March, St. Joseph’s Day, I made a bid for Sarajevo, but having got thoroughly lost in trying to avoid a dual carriageway I reached only the western fringe of this huge and elongated city. Early next morning the Sarajevo PD[4] found me sleeping in a narrow space between two high-rise buildings; moving on I attended Mass, before following the letter of their instructions by sitting down for a coffee in the beguiling old town. Sarajevo is a place where, over the centuries, different cultures and religions have been able to meet, mingle, engage, even serenade, but also, sadly, fight.[5]

[1] Chinese catechist, martyred in 1815.
[2] Kosovo Liberation Army
[3] Patron saint of pilgrims, whose symbol is a scallop shell as worn by pilgrims to Santiago (St James) de Compostella in Spain.
[4] Police Department
[5] The scant biographical details of St Vitus include information that he was born in Sicily and suffered martyrdom in the persecution of Diocletian, around 303AD. For Serb Orthodox Christians his feast, known as ‘Vidovdan’ and celebrated on 28th June (15th June Old Style), is associated with a number of key historical events, most important of which is the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo. On Vidovdan in 1389, both the Ottoman Turkish and Serb armies are understood to have been all but annihilated on the Kosovo Polje (Field); though the Turks emerged strong enough to overrun the remaining Serb principalities in succeeding years.
   On Vidovdan, 28 June 1914, a Bosnian Serb student, Gavrilo Princip, was part of a five-man team of assassins sent by Serbian secret society the Black Hand to kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary. Having pledged their readiness to die for what became the Yugoslav cause, all were issued with cyanide pills to swallow in case of arrest. The pills had expired however, being potent enough only to sicken both Princip and another of the conspirators who was captured. So Princip survived, and being a few weeks short of his 20th birthday, he couldn’t be executed under Austro-Hungarian law. What is perhaps interesting however is that before dying from malnutrition and skeletal tuberculosis at the prison camp of Theresienstadt in modern-day Czech Republic, his right arm had wasted away and had to be amputated (indeed the operation is understood to have aggravated his condition and hastened his death). Assuming he was right-handed, few limbs in history can have committed a blacker crime, unleashing as it did horror on a never-before-seen scale. Therefore, although one can imagine that his death in captivity may well have been awful, perhaps Princip nonetheless had reason to be eternally grateful both that the cyanide pill had expired and that he had been too young to hang. In his 1999 book, East European Nationalism, Politics and Religion, Peter Sugar reports that before his death in 1990 (aged 93) the youngest and last surviving conspirator Vaso Čubrilović had disavowed the extreme nationalism of his youth and expressed regret over the assassination:

“We destroyed a beautiful world that was lost forever due to the war that followed.”

“If your right hand should be your downfall, cut it off and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of yourself than to have your whole body go to hell.” Mt5.30

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