The Remains of War in the Midst of Beauty: an Afternoon in Croatia

February 25, 2017
croatian war of independence

I got to take my parents to Plitvice Lakes National Park a few years ago, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.  We marveled at the color of the water, at the overabundance of waterfalls rushing all around us, and the serene beauty.

But as we walked along the pathways and snapped pictures of the falls, a very different view sat in our minds as a contrast to the landscape.

croatian war of independence

About halfway between Zagreb and Plitvice, we drove through towns such as Karlovac and Turanj and saw a stark reminder of a conflict that’s all too fresh in Croatia’s memory.  It really stuck with us, and on our drive back up to Istria we made time to stop and explore Turanj a bit.

Houses in Turanj still show holes from the shelling during the Croatian War for Independence in the 1990s

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The Croatian War for Independence

I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t really know anything about this when I visited Croatia (either the first or second times).  My strong history knowledge tends to end around just after World War II, since that’s typically as far as we ever got in each school year before summer break.  So while I’d heard of Yugoslavia and vaguely remember seeing stuff on the news about Sarajevo when I was a little kid, that’s about all the background I had.

The Croatian War for Independence (which also goes by many other names depending on where you are) happened from 1991-1995, between Croat and ethnic Serb forces.  I won’t pretend to be an expert on all the different factions and motives (feel free to leave me comments with more details!), but the summary is that the ethnic Croats—who wanted to establish a nation independent from communist Yugoslavia—were fighting the ethnic Serbs, some of whom were fighting for Yugoslavia but after 1992 declared an ethnic independent Serbian state within Croatia.

I hope I got that right (in broad strokes at least).  The seeds of this conflict go way, way back, to World War II and beyond.  I’ve linked to the Wikipedia page above, which is a good starting point, and I recommend seeking out documentaries and books to learn more.

croatian war of independence

croatian war of independence

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The city of Turanj, pictured here, was particularly hard-hit.  Positioned halfway between the city of Karlovac and the occupied regions, it took heavy shelling and almost-daily attacks.

One of the things that I personally have trouble reckoning with is the recency of this.  Here in the U.S., the actual experience of war for the civilian population is a really hard thing to wrap our heads around.  The general population hasn’t directly experienced war since…the Civil War?  And even in the majority of Western Europe it’s been since World War II.  So to think about this happening in the ’90s, when I was a real, functioning (albeit young) human being watching Bill Nye the Science Guy and reading The Chronicles of Narnia, short-circuits my brain.

Listening to Croatians talk about their experience is mind-blowing.  Of having neighbor turn on neighbor, tanks rolling up the street and shooting at houses, of atrocities committed daily—not by an outside invading force, but by the people they had shared the grocery store aisle with.  By the end of the war, over 140,000 people were dead and over 4 million displaced.  It’s not a war we really talk about much in the U.S. for some reason (the conflicts in Bosnia and Sarajevo around the same time get more press), but for the people here their entire lives were torn apart.

Turanj, Croatia's Museum of the Croatian War for Independence is a must-stop if you're traveling from Zagreb to Plitvice

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Karlovac (the name of both a municipality and a city) has taken the old Austrian military barracks of Turanj and turned it into an open-air museum showing the weapons used in the war and giving details on the Croatian War of Independence.  We happened upon it as we drove through the town on the way to Plitvice, and made sure to stop in on our way back.

croatian war of independence

croatian war of independence

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As you walk through the open-air museum there are signs posted frequently that give a lot of background on the timing and events throughout the war.  One of the first that you’ll hear and is often mentioned as the true starting point of the war happened in late March 1991 at Plitvice Lakes National Park, where a police officer was killed by Serb forces.  The juxtaposition of that act with the insanely peaceful beauty of Plitvice is hard to process, and was part of what weighed on our minds while we visited the lakes.

A Croatian fighter jet shot down by Serbian forces in the Croatian War for Independence

They’ve placed all sorts of the weapons used in the war on display.  The Croatian fighter plane pictured here was shot down by Serbian forces in 1995, and the way they’ve displayed it is particularly cool.  My understanding is that they’re also building an inside portion of the museum, but all the recent reviews I’ve seen don’t indicate that it’s open (if it exists).

croatian war of independence

croatian war of independence

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If you’re going to be in the area of Plitvice Lakes, I highly recommend taking 20-30 minutes in Turanj to stop, stretch your legs, and see the another side of this area’s history.  To me in addition to just learning about what happened, it struck me as an all-to-recent cautionary tale of ethnic hatred fueled by propaganda, of economic and political tensions.

The Museum of Army Collections from the Croatian Homeland War

  • Turanj, 47000, Karlovac, Hrvatska – it’s right there as you’re driving through town

Other serious historical explorations:

If you have recommendations on books or movies about this war, please respond in the comments!  Also, if there are details here I didn’t quite get right, I’d love to hear from you!

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If you're visiting Plitvice, make sure you stop at the Museum of the Croatian War of Independence and learn about this recent conflict

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