By Alexa Fults
Traveling abroad exposes one to a multitude of beautiful new sights, sounds, and tastes: touching that famous landmark you’ve only seen in pictures, feeling confident enough to say “thank you” in a language other than your own, enjoying a dish you know belongs on an episode of Bizarre Foods.
Being abroad can also be stressful and a bit scary. Maybe you became ill from the excessive jet lag, or felt alone when you were lost in a crowd of strangers speaking a foreign language. For me, the most heartbreaking part of my time abroad came not from the culture shock and homesickness, but from the severely emotional content of my studies.
Along with nine other Sewanee students and Dr. Jessica Mecellem, I traveled to Croatia over the summer to study International Law, Transitional Justice, and the Politics of Memory on a small island in the Adriatic Sea called Cres (pronounced “Tres”).
Croatia was once part of the former Yugoslavia, along with Serbia [includes Kosovo], Bosnia [now Bosnia and Herzegovina], Slovenia, Macedonia, and Montenegro. The states diverged and formed their own independent nations after the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, often referred to as the Homeland Wars by native Croats.
The former Yugoslavia included people of many different ethnicities and religions: Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, Bosnians, Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Albanians, Slovenes, etc., along with a diverse mix of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam throughout the region.
Yugoslavia also had a complicated political past that caused strained relations amongst its inhabitants. A history of both fascism and communism controlled by Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union drove the country’s different ethnic groups apart into their own fierce nationalism.
This strong sense of nationalistic pride amongst the territories reached a breaking point after the death of dictator Josip Tito, who dominated Yugoslavia as the president for life along with communist party leaders and others of the Serbian ruling class. Slobodan Milosevic rose to power in succession and began a campaign of violence against the Croats and Slovenes, as they did not recognize him as the rightful ruler.
Several genocides were committed against the different ethnicities on part of others as the different nations declared their independence during the 1990s, which eventually lead to the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.
While in Croatia, we studied the history and the lasting effects of this political, ethnic, and religious conflict. Experiencing a place with such a unique past, where any person you pass on the street could be, or once was, a lover of communism, socialism, or fascism—people who might have supported a movement that involved the hatred and killing of others, as they all did—seems such a foreign concept to many Americans, myself included.
One thing we learned while abroad was that every country, regardless of their embrace of democracy, has experienced periods of violence and hatred towards those who are deemed to be outsiders. This is where the methodology of transitional justice is so crucial. Through this process, governments and effectively their people are transitioned from the old system of justice, one filled with violence or extreme bias, to a new system of justice, one formed through fairness and equal opportunity.
In Croatia, the transition process was carried out in part through the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which prosecuted those guilty of committing crimes against humanity during the ethnic wars of the 1990s. While studying in Cres, we had the privileged opportunity to meet and live with a few diplomats and lawyers who participated in the ICTY.
Travel is not always beautiful, and it may even break your heart, as it did mine, but there is beauty in the journey—beauty in the journey of the place and in your journey as you explore that place. Croatia is home to the most stunning waters and mountains I have ever laid my eyes upon in either picture or reality. This beautiful place is also home to a history of terror and troubled times, but it is beautiful nonetheless.