The Tourism of War

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In the course of recent trips, I’ve been to Berlin and Sarajevo and it’s struck me that war can become a tourist attraction.

Bosnia & Herzegovina is outside the EU.  It has a stubbornly high unemployment rate and the country’s infrastructure still hasn’t been fully rebuilt since the war of the 1990s.  It might not seem an obvious victim of the financial crash, but I spoke to a man who’d lost his job at the Stock Exchange in 2010; his wife lost her job two days later.  Tourism is one of the few growth industries, with people working in hotels, as guides, drivers and so forth.

Mention Bosnia and people think ‘war’.  Tours in Sarajevo are to the Tunnel Museum – the remains of the tunnel that ran under the airport, providing a vital communication and supply link to the besieged city.  There are trips to the burnt remains of the 1984 Winter Olympic bobsleigh track and to see the bullet holes in the gravestones at the Jewish cemetery.  A little further afield, there’s the Winter Olympic ski jump site, the 70m and 90m hills clear on the hillside, with the letters ‘UN’ marked in white on the roof of the former judges’ hut; this was a demilitarised zone during the war.

And Sarajevo isn’t the only example.  Few people go to Berlin just to see the Wall and Checkpoint Charlie, but most people would expect to see the Wall at some point and have a sense of which side of it they are on.  It’s a key part of a trip to Berlin.  There’s an interest in what survived World War II and the styles of buildings from the Cold War period.  It didn’t appeal to me, but there’s a spy museum about the Stasi.

Similarly, a visit to Auschwitz might not be the main reason to go to Krakow, but many return moved, saddened and appalled – and glad they made the visit.  First World War battlefields, trenches and cemeteries; Ground Zero in New York; Robben Island; any number of places in the Middle East … the list goes on.

People want to see where epic events occurred and translate the news-story to something more immediate and more personal.  We want to hear stories of hardship, but also of heroism.  Bravery is acknowledged and respects are paid.  And we want to see this as history.  Almost by definition, tourists won’t be where a war’s raging, but we want to see that the bad times are over, that there’s a happy ending.

War shouldn’t define a country and what it has to offer.  By the time I left Sarajevo, I wanted to see the rest of the country – one of the last remaining primeval forests in Europe; the fascinating collisions of cultures; fortresses; monasteries; music; art.  Things that have nothing to do with the War.

It Couldn’t Happen Here

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I’ve just finished reading All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – see the post, Serious Reading:  An Update from a couple of weeks ago.  It’s about the separate – but ultimately intertwined – stories of a blind French girl and a German boy with a skill for physics and engineering and it’s set in World War II.

The appalling conditions described at the end of the book – little food available; cities devastated; invading soldiers; infrastructure obliterated; no rule of law; an end to order – made me think of reading from last year about the siege of Sarajevo.

One of the comments that stuck with me from the accounts I read of events there and in other parts of the former Yugoslavia is that people didn’t think it could happen to them.  They had comfortable middle-class lives.  They went on holiday in other European countries and in the US.  They ate out in restaurants, entertained at home.  They bought fashionable clothes and whatever books they wanted to read, magazines too.  Teenagers went on dates, progressed to university, planned their lives.

And then the unthinkable – the unimaginable – happened and it happened to them.  Conflict and siege, snipers and soldiers.  People weren’t excused because they were educated or because they had a certain level of income.  Clothes, books, paintings on the walls, electrical devices are all irrelevant when you need safety and food.

War doesn’t distinguish – at least, not fairly – and it lays waste to homes, lives, families, friendships and futures.  It creates destitution and anyone looks poor when they’re destitute.

We see refugees leaving war zones and it’s hard to discern the lives people used to lead.  They might have been lives like ours.  Until the unthinkable – the unimaginable – happened.

There, but for the grace of God, goes each one of us and where would we turn if the unthinkable – the unimaginable – happened to us?

And we’d do well to be watchful, no matter how safe and comfortable we feel.  Because there are a lot of people who could tell us that there’s no such thing as it couldn’t happen here.