BELGRADE, Serbia – Yugoslavia’s successor states are pushing hard to encourage tourism, but visitors to some pockets of the region have to steel themselves for some surprises.
In recent weeks, for instance, bathers at picturesque Perucac Lake on the Serbian-Bosnian border have been joined by divers looking for bodies from a massacre of Muslims perpetrated across the Drina River in the Bosnian town of Visegrad in 1992. And that’s not the only gruesome reminder tourists might encounter of the wars that raged in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s.
Perucac Lake was formed when a hydroelectric dam was built in the 1960s on the Drina, a river long steeped in the region’s violent history, from the centuries of Ottoman rule to the wars of the 20th century. It abuts Serbia’s Tara National Park, which tourists can see when they sit in wooden floating sheds to drink cold beer and eat the famous local cevapcici, spicy little rolls of diced meat.
With waters at a 20-year low this summer due to ongoing repairs at the power plant, 50 bodies thought to be those of Bosnian Muslims slain by Serb militiamen have been found in the lake since a search began on July 19, according to the International Commission for Missing Persons. The commission is conducting DNA tests to see if the bodies match their database of missing persons. They have also found three bodies of German Wehrmacht soldiers from World War II, when a fierce guerrilla war against the German occupation raged in the area.
Researchers were also searching for bodies from the 1999 Kosovo war that are believed to be inside a refrigerated truck that was driven into the lake in 1999. Some bodies from that atrocity surfaced in 2001, but others thought to still be in the lake have not been found.
The former Yugoslavia provides some of the greatest natural beauty in Europe, combined with a deep and diverse culture and famous hospitality. But war memories are hard to avoid. The Bosnian town of Srebrenica, across the Drina from Perucac, tries to lure adventure tourists with a huge billboard advertising its outdoor activities, but the first stop after the sign is the graveyard for thousands of victims of the genocide committed here in 1995.
Hikers looking for a picnic spot in the mountains around Bosnia’s capital Sarajevo should beware of land mines. And in Croatia, the Plitvice Lakes are also thought to harbor many missing bodies, not just from the latest wars but as far back as World War II.
Not all obstacles to the perfect holiday are of domestic origin. Serbia estimates it still has 183 million square feet of terrain to clear of NATO cluster bombs dropped during aerial attacks on the country in 1999. Some of the at-risk areas are near ski slopes in the country’s mountainous south.
Macabre as they may be, these reminders of war do not generally mar the holidays of millions of tourists; the region bears far more charm than it does danger. Croatia, with its beautiful coastline, saw some 10 million visitors from abroad last year. Even landlocked Serbia received 645.000 foreign tourists, according to its government bureau for statistics, and Bosnia and Herzegovina is promoted as “the heart-shaped land” replete with natural and cultural attractions.
Ljubica Neskovic, director of the Serbian tour agency Vekol, says she has no trouble pitching Serbia as a “normal” holiday destination. She says she sees less and less war anxieties among her clients, who are mainly from other European countries. “The war past would be of concern to us if we got some feedback about it from our partners,” she says. “But it’s all about infrastructure and budget.”
Of course, the gritty past can also be an attraction in itself. Many more people have heard of the centuries-old bridge in the Bosnian town of Mostar because it was destroyed by Croats in the war; it has been painstakingly rebuilt to receive visitors once again. Some alternative-tour guides explicitly cater to visitors trailing the wars. Belgrade has the free downloadable “NATO trail,” an overview of sites bombed during the 1999 attacks, complete with a map to plan your itinerary.
Many bookshops in Sarajevo carry the English-language “Sarajevo survival guide,” a piece of black humor written during the siege of the city in the early 1990s. Under “children’s games” it lists “trimming fallen trees, collecting bullets, shells.”
Those days are long gone, and traveling the Western Balkans is generally an enriching and pleasant experience for children and adults. But a touch of dark humor remains, and some tourists consider it a bonus.