I had not visited Dubrovnik before. I know many have and may have had a similar experience, but it provided me with a rather sharp ‘in’ to the reality of recent Balkan conflicts.

I hadn’t been that bothered about going to be honest, thinking that it would be rather tourist orientated (which it is) and having read that there were equally good examples of walled mediaeval towns close by (which there are).  However, the vagaries of a very inclement European spring meant that a visit in between travelling the islands of Hvar and Korcula was the sensible option.

It began well enough – a gentle stroll along the marbled paved Placa Stradun between the amazing facades of monasteries and palaces towards Luza Square with its bell tower and then out through a gate in the walls to the small harbour. Here was the centre of the medieval town’s power and purpose – a rival to the maritime republics of Venice and Genoa.

A great way to see the city is to stroll around the tops of its walls, looking down on the higgledy piggledy buildings, narrow streets, passage ways and of course roofs. This is where it starts to get serious. The guide book suggests that you contemplate the percentage of roofs that have been rebuilt in the last 20 years or so as this will give an indication of the destruction inflicted by Yugoslav shelling of the city during the siege of 1991/92. This is easy as the new roofs are bright and clean terracotta, they stand out from the older, more weathered ones. We are somewhat taken back when we estimate that 2/3 of the roofs are new (this is later confirmed as accurate) and the enormity of the impact of the attack becomes apparent. Now the 412m high hill beneath which the city sits takes on a rather oppressive presence and one that it seems impossible to get away from. It was from just over the other side of that hill, high in the mountains that 26 years ago Yugoslav artillery fired their destruction down on the city, with only the fort at Syrd, silhouetted against the skyline, ensuring that the barrage wasn’t from directly above.

After a picnic lunch sitting on the quay of the old harbour and a restorative coffee in a nearby konoba, we climb the streets at the back of the city to the cable car station and join the short queue for the ride up the hill. The unfolding view of the city, the modern port, the islands and the mountains leaping up from the coast is simply stunning. At the top is a large viewing area and a restaurant with outdoor seating – what a place to have a drink and enjoy the magnificence of it all!

We walk in the opposite direction, across a rough track to the ugly decaying monstrosity that is the Napoleonic fortress of Imperia. Inside are all the trappings of an abandoned military strong point, dark, ill lit, empty dank chambers with dampness seeping through the thick stone walls and puddling on the slippery floors. Here is where a tiny garrison of volunteers and a few regular soldiers held out against bombardment and direct attack from well-equipped regular Yugoslav forces for the duration of the siege, frustrating attempts to force the city into submission and trying to disrupt the barrage from the artillery placements in the surrounding hills.

It seems entirely appropriate that this appalling, depressing building houses the city’s museum of the siege and the resistance to it.

The exhibits largely comprise wall mounted panels with text, helpfully in a number of languages, and pictures. Most of the pictures show groups of young men and a few young women in a mishmash of military clothing with an assortment of armaments, the majority of which were hand held, although there were a few groups around mortars and the odd heavy machine gun on a tripod. The first thing that strikes us is how very young they all look, the second, that these are not regular soldiers. This impression of local young people acting to defend their city is confirmed by a clear narrative – that Dubrovnik, with little strategic importance, was not expected to be a target for the (Serb dominated) Yugoslav army and had in fact been largely abandoned to its own devices by the Croat military command. The display panels are numerous, the pictures of young people everywhere, and with them their names and those of their commanders (only some of whom were regular military). There is a bit too much of this detail for your average tourist, even those keen to understand more about such a recent European conflict, but that is clearly not the point – this information bears witness to those individuals who were prepared to risk their lives to defend their homes and their families.

Other displays show maps of the area and the Yugoslav artillery emplacements in the surrounding hills. The fort’s centrality to the outcome of the siege is clear – had it fallen the Yugoslavian army would have been able to pummel the city from directly above it – surrender would have been inevitable. A number of attempts were made to storm the fort, but the defenders held firm, receiving supplies under the cover of darkness up a narrow winding path from the city below – a path which can be clearly seen from the cable car, now a route for those tourists who choose to make the ascent by foot.  

In the middle of one dark chamber is a screen showing ITN news reports from the time, cleverly spliced together to give a sense of how the siege was initiated and unfolded over a period of months. There is footage of the fort, Yugoslav artillery placements and exchanges of fire – most of which is directed at the city. There are reports from within the besieged city showing elderly people trying to comfort clearly petrified young children in shelters constructed in cellars and of the frantic collection of rainfall to augment dwindling water supplies. As the weeks roll on the ITN reporter becomes increasingly concerned for the inhabitants of the city – and dismissive of the failure of the UN to intervene effectively to stop the fighting. 

As the siege becomes a stalemate (and Croat regulars become increasingly involved) more shells seem to inadvertently fall onto the old town – an official UNESCO protected site and Serb cultural hooliganism is added to the denouncements of the ITN reporter. The final twenty minutes of the tape shows real time bombardment of the old town with shells arriving every minute or so and even a Serbian gun boat joining in from the sea. Holes appear in walls, clouds of dust swirl between the buildings and black smoke indicates fires. I remark that such shelling of a protected site suggested frustration on behalf of the Serbs and a spitefulness that can accompany a realisation that you are not going to win. Sue thought that it was more a deliberate attempt to destroy and weaken the Croats historically and culturally.

I subsequently find out that 2,000 shells were fired at the city, resulting in 314 direct hits on buildings and 111 on the walls of the old town. Fatalities incurred during the siege numbered: 88 Croatian civilians, 194 Croatian defenders and 165 Yugoslav army soldiers. These are relatively small numbers compared with subsequent horrors in Bosnia and Kosovo but represent 447 individual tragedies, not to mention the impact on their families and friends. This information is not available in the guidebooks, which move with somewhat indecent haste to the post war reconstruction of the old town – financed no doubt by large grants from UNESCO and the International Community. My cynicism is tempered by an acknowledgement of the centrality of foreign tourism to the Croatian economy – and anyway where would all those cruise ships go?

We leave the dank grimy fort in sombre mood and really none the wiser as to the cause of this particular conflict – so recent in European history. The guide book states that the museum provides a rather one-sided account of the siege and we reflect that this is almost inevitable – there are two and a half baddies foregrounded here: the Serbs for attacking the city, the international community for being so slow to intervene and the Croat military command for failing to adequately protect the city in the first place.

The sunshine lifts our spirits and we repair to the cliff top bar for a rather wind-swept beer – surrounded by a large number of people who came up on the cable car and chose not to go to the museum in the fort. I indicate my surprise at how few people visit the museum given how everyone who walks the walls is invited to play the ‘spot the new roofs game’ and how graphically vulnerable the city and its inhabitants were only 26 years ago. There were only 4 other people in the museum whilst we were there and hundreds must have ascended to the top of the hill by cable car during that time. Sue commented that those on a cruise ship may not have had time to visit the museum and many others would be more interested in ‘The Game of Thrones experience tour.’

Our discussion turns back to the siege and the underlying causes of the conflict. Sue asks me what I have learnt from the enormous tome I have been reading since we left England and I have to admit that whilst I find this particular conflict between Serbs and Croats hardly surprising, I do not know much about the 1991 war. I have only reached page 478 – the beginning of World War 2! 

We leave the subject, settling back under our lap blankets to drink our beer and enjoy the truly stupendous view.

I resolve to keep reading!