This piece is not about wind, nor is it really about my own experiences. I mean, there is a substantial section about wind in the beginning, and yes, what I am sharing is compiled from my own experiences — but I am just the messenger — the wind is something more. This piece is about the spirit of a people and how their experiences, combined with current events, have created a palpable atmosphere. One that I can only describe with wind. A very special wind…
It’s a fierce monster, blowing from the mountains of Dalmatia down across the rocky fields, villages, and few cities that decorate the landscape before crashing into the Adriatic Sea. The dry wind can reach hurricane forces, and coming generally in the colder months, it can be quite dangerous to unsuspecting mountain goers or the generally unprepared. This wind is so strong, some Croatian islands have reported live fish blown onto shore.
My first experience with this wind came while traveling up to reach the peak of the Velebit Mountains. As I loaded my mountain bike, a neighbor gave me a warning on my way out that I should take great care and caution as the Bura is coming today. Looking at the snow capped mountains, and coming from a Minnesota winter just the year prior, I knew not to play around with cold winter winds and geared up for the occasion. The Bura was indeed strong, but I fortunately missed its true fury while on the mountain. It was kind enough to wait until I returned to my home in a little Croatian village at the mountain’s base. That evening though, it flexed its atmospheric muscles. The house shook, I could hear hail peppering my car, and at one point, I was sent sprinting outside as I heard my patio table and chairs tumbling down the driveway.
I’ve sheltered through a straight line windstorm and seen the aftermath of a Category 5 hurricane. Though this was not to these extremes, I assumed this powerful wind was a constant foe of the Croatian people. Their homes are built of brick and concrete. Even before the mastery of heavy-tile roofing, large slabs of stone still remain as roofs for some older buildings. Every window is equipped with storm shutters, and every person uses them when the Bura comes barreling through. Despite all this fortification, they are not trying to battle the Bura. They are living with it. Coexisting as you would a friendly neighbor.
One afternoon, after a fairly hefty night of the Bura shaking the village, my neighbor invited me to share his recent batch of home-distilled Orahovica liqueur. He commented how the winds kept him up at night and he asked about the wind in the United States. I mentioned the warm fire-fueling winds on the west coast, the hurricane season in the southeast, and in tornado alley down the middle, golf ball-sized hail can leave a car looking like — well — a golf ball. He agreed these are all unfortunate acts of nature, but the Bura, it is not unfortunate. The Bura is a good thing. It clears the air of smoke and pollution (in a country that still practices slash and burn, that’s crucial), it brings good days for working outside, it signals the changing of seasons for fishermen, and in the case of some very lucky Croatian islanders, it has even delivered fresh fish to their oceanfront doorsteps. To outsiders, it may seem unfortunate, but not to the Croatian people. They’ve built their homes not to defend themselves, but to compliment the Bura. The stone used to build is one of the region’s most abundant resources; trees are not. The earth and the wind are in bed together, and they cradle the Croatian people as their children. But even though the Bura is a welcomed wind, not all winds are welcomed.
Jugo blows in the opposite direction of Bura, and the people of my village have made it very clear, it’s despised. It brings rain, dreariness, and misery. Along with poor weather, it’s believed to bring bad thoughts, emotions, and spark depression. In fact, Jugo is so unfavored, it is used as a synonym for bad things. For example: my crop did not yield, it’s Jugo; fishing today came up short, Jugo again; or in an irony I can only describe as Croatian, the Bura blew over a tree and knocked over my fresh cask of wine, that’s so Jugo.
Now, how is this piece not about wind?
Well, almost thirty years ago, something far worse than Jugo came through and crossed the mountains to the sea. This was when Yugoslavia was trying to stay alive after the end of the Soviet Union. Countries all over were declaring independence, and groups large enough to find themselves desiring self-representation as a nation, saw an opportunity. Croatia declared itself independent and there was a swift response from over the mountains. From the east armed forces with tanks and artillery began rolling through and pushed until they reached the sea.
In my time here, I have heard several perspectives of this event, and though these accounts vary, they all agree this was a tragedy delivered by human hands. My village was one of so many on the direct path and was completely decimated. I can drive an hour in any direction and will consistently see destroyed homes, still abandoned, many still with bullet and artillery holes. This is thirty years later. Shocked by the sight, I asked why they hadn’t been torn down. Naturally poor socioeconomics are a major prohibiting factor, but there are government programs to assist anyone willing to rebuild one of these homes for their family. In fact, my home was built for the elderly parents of a neighbor. My attached neighbor to the right rebuilt his home for his family, but the house to my left, the house across from our shared courtyard, and every other house within a stone’s throw remain in complete ruins. In one of them, a woman up the street currently uses it as a free chicken coop while it remains vacant.
I am shown a camcorder video of the devastation only days after the war came to an end. It’s amateur footage taken by a soldier in the back of a truck. The shakiness and sound of wind only enhanced the grievous images. At first, it just looks like endless and homogenous devastation. Every mile looks like the last. Caved in and charred homes, with no life in sight. Eventually, I began to recognize our street, and then, our own houses. Despite the footage being overall shocking, what also caught my attention was how similar some of these ruins look today as they did in the video. Some of the same roofs and debris that collapsed into the house visible through the blown out doors and windows still remain to this day.
About fifteen minutes from my village, the remains of the old barracks stand as if both long forgotten and left to serve as a daily reminder. The face of the main building seems like any other abandoned structure with faded paint and broken windows. Walking around to the back reveals the scars of war. The back and sides are riddled with holes of all sizes; the enormous ones I can only assume created by heavier tanks. Inside is quiet and eerie. Graffiti, trash, and debris decorates throughout, along with more holes on the interior walls that stood vulnerably opposite of windows and doors. Looking out from the windows, a collection of identical two-story buildings surrounded by old barbed wire fencing clearly outlines where soldiers lived and trained, but no more. There has been talk of repurposing this historical building as a hospice care facility, but today, there is no sign of any plans moving forward.
These barracks are not the only clear monuments to the recent war. Underground tunnels, bunkers, minefields, and anti-tank walls were just some of the features seen throughout the country. I personally even stumbled on an entire tank. No sign nor any indication as to why, but it was there, in the middle of nowhere, accompanied only by the sound of wind. Some suggested this was simply where it broke down during the war, while others say it was placed there to serve as a reminder.
My neighbor volunteered to dismantle land mines in order to teach dogs how to sniff out their distinct smell. He chuckled over the grim topic. He commented that removing opposing minefields was easy. They were a highly-trained and well-funded military with consistent systems for laying their mines. The Croatian army was made up of mostly amateurs who left their jobs and farms to fight for independence. Every person had their own idea of where to place mines and that idea could change at any time. It was only the month prior to my arrival that our county finally declared itself mine-free. They were not the first to do so, and they certainly will not be the last. Maps online, and even an interactive mobile app, are available for people to identify known minefields or submit an alert to the authorities if an unreported landmine or unexploded ordnance is found.
One evening, while having dinner with my neighbors, Marko and Mirta, they decided to share their experience of the war. Their story is like so many I’ve heard in my time here, but given our close relationship, I had never felt so much emotion. Neither of us meant for the conversation to wind up here. It began with one of the most common topics of our time: Ukraine. We have seen Ukrainians driving through, sometimes in long lines of cars with the now famous UA license plates. In fact, the prior tenant in my apartment was a Russian couple from Ukraine fleeing just before Russian troops marched into the country.
Marko and Mirta cannot help but compare the current situation to their own war. When this entire region was Yugoslavia, different people moved and settled throughout. The area we call Croatia today was no different. When Croats wished for a sovereign Croatia, there was push-back from many Serbians within and abroad. When independence was officially declared, civil unrest and clashes between Serbians and Croats escalated. Eventually, it was full-scale war, with the Serbian-led Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) marching over the mountains towards their village.
Mirta is obviously distressed. She explains when word came of the incoming army, she thought they would be ok. Her village was mixed, Serb and Croat; they lived together, they shopped together, their children played together. They were their neighbors and friends and they could hopefully help talk down the incoming Serbian forces. Unfortunately, when the forces arrived at the town’s edge, it was their own neighbors who knocked on their doors and told them to leave, and this was no longer their country. Marko and Mirta were only young teenagers at the time. They both fled the country and found themselves as refugees, but not everyone accepted the terms. Her grandfather was stubborn and refused to abandon his home. At this point Mirta takes a minute to look away with tears in her eyes. Marko quietly sips his beer, and I follow his lead, giving Mirta a second to collect herself before continuing. Her grandfather, like many others of the village who refused to leave, were either killed or taken away. Their family lost many to the war.
Marko adds that they do not feel hatred towards Serbians or any other group. The Serbians of the war and those neighbors who betrayed their village were select individuals who sought to take advantage of power and position. They were not good people and this was independent of nationality or ethnicity. Croats and Serbs both fled the war, and though nowhere near the numbers of before, their village has seen many Serbs return to rebuild their shared community. Many of the mentioned abandoned homes, including those sharing my courtyard, belonged to Serbians. In fact, they technically still do. After the war, many Serbians did not return. Some because they were charged by the Croatian government for war crimes, and others, who had no part in the war nor committed any crime, feared returning to an anti-Serbian Croatia. Their properties have fallen into limbo and have simply been added to the collection of unofficial war monuments.
Mirta shifts us back to Ukraine. Mirta’s voice goes from shaky and sad to passionate and angry. She looks at the situation in Ukraine and sees her own story. Russians and Ukrainians living together, but Russia has invaded with the support of internal Russians fueling the fire from within. And just like with Croatian Independence, amateurs fill the ranks leaving their jobs and farms to defend Ukraine while women and children flee the bombardment. Mirta is very mad. An anger I had seen in Germany, Czechia, and other countries who recognize this clear pattern from their own history.
War in Ukraine is reopening deep wounds in this region. In Croatia, I can see a clear shift in their spirit. A shift best described with the winds. Like Jugo has blown over the people and pierced their hearts and essence. Just as when Jugo looms, a darkness has come over the village and its presence felt everywhere. As refugees continue to arrive and the news remains oversaturated with images of war, the wind in their hearts is stirring. The war may feel far away but Ukraine is very much their neighbor in the European community. Croatia eventually won its war for independence. The Croatian people have proven to be determined and strong in spirit. They know how to live and enjoy life. They also are willing to defend it with great ferocity. Volunteers from Croatia have even found their way to Ukraine to join defense forces.
They see themselves in this war. They see their pain, their loss, their story. They are reliving it in every image and every refugee. Just as I saw Mirta go from tears to a fierce fiery passion, I have seen the same energy from Ukrainians during this war both inside and outside Ukraine. My friends in Croatia have made it very clear, they are a welcomed neighbor. They are strong. They are steadfast. They are the Bura.
Written March 2022