Friday, 15 June 2012

The Road to Hell

Ghosts do not exist, of course, but if they did the road from Obrovac to Sveti Rok in Croatia would pullulate with the outraged spirits of dead young men. These days the A1 motorway plunges underneath the Velebit Mountains through a five kilometre tunnel above which Serbian separatists fighting for an independent Krajina, 'ethnically cleansed' tens of thousands of Croats during the war of Croatian Independence. I have driven through this tunnel many times and often wanted to leave the motorway and explore the surrounding hills but have never previously found the time to do so.

I finally had the opportunity last week to drive the brilliantly engineered but now redundant road over the pass by Mount Alan. The landscape is ravishingly lovely. The brilliant white limestone has been sculpted by aeons of rainfall into spectacular, rounded forms that seem almost organic. On the seaward side of the Velebit range Juniper and Hornbeam have been topiarised by the incessant wind into rock-hugging blankets that obscure all sharp edges and accentuate the spine-tingling sense that the entire mountain is alive.

I drove the road from south to north and immediately encountered signs indicating that the land is still littered with landmines, fifteen years after the end of the fighting in this part of Croatia.

Further along the road frequent memorials appeared, dedicated to the men who died here trying to kill similar young men on the other side. It is really impossible for an outsider like me to understand what drove the politicians who sent so many ignorant, innocent soldiers and civilians to their deaths, in the name of an independent Croatia or Krajina. Nationalism is surely a deadlier virus than any of the other plagues to which our biology make us vulnerable. It has proven over the centuries unbelievably easy for charismatic leaders to unite a people against a manufactured foe of 'others', in pursuit of the leader's ambitions. Here is one poignant shrine, nearly at the highest point on the road.

I saw only one other vehicle on the road, parked, with two men standing beside it gazing out at the view. They smiled at me as I passed. All the dwellings, bar one, had been destroyed.

Driving the few miles of this road took me a couple of hours. The juxtaposition of astonishing natural beauty and the sense that evil had been done here was mind-bending (for the avoidance of doubt, I don't intend the word 'sense' to be understood in a supernatural sense, but I've never been anywhere else where the intuition that truly awful acts had been committed was so tangible).

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