In this brilliant, densely written and highly detailed book, Dervla Murphy tells the story of two journeys in the former Yugoslavia after the country fell apart at the seams. It is a story about how the Balkan conflict began and traversed towards tremendous ecological damage (pollution, landmines, birth defects, etc.) and the deaths of thousands. It is the story of how the conflict escalated until there were Milosevic's special police, incipient war-lords, neo-Chetniks in Montenegro, KLA gangsters in Kosovo, warmed-up Nazi's in Croatia, Muslim mercenaries fighting on the Serb's side in Bosnia - not to be confused with other forces which came to operate in the region: the armija (Bosnian Muslim army), the Bosnian Serb army, the HV (Croatian army) the HVO (Bosnian Croat army), and the SARSK (Serbian Army of the Republic of Srpska Krajina) all fighting at various times of the four years of the conflict. And let's not forget NATO, the bombing, the raping and the concentration camps. All of this in a region where the different ethnic communities had lived in peace for hundreds of years.
Dervla Murphy's journeys by bike were undertaken 1999 and 2000, after the peace had been declared (in 1994), but her book describes how old wounds were still raw, people's lives had been wrecked, their new lives were still provisional. The cities were often still bomb-damaged, the countryside was largely dirt poor. Yet Dervla Murphy, this immensely brave older lady (she is a grandmother), rode her bike from one village to another, one city to the next, because she wanted to know what had happened and what the people felt about what had happened and how they were living now.
In this fascinating books she meets with people she knew before the conflict, and is fed on to friends of friends but often travels into unknown territory. Everywhere she goes she asks people about the war and what happened to them - Croats, Bosnians, Serbs, Muslims. This is not a story that forms itself into conclusions - how could it possibly do that? War is too terrible for there to be one truth about it, and Hannah Arendt was right - you can manufacture *fact* through lies accompanied by violence. This book is testament to how wrong an outsider can be about the truth as it is experienced subjectively.
The Balkan Wars ended with much of the former Yugoslavia reduced to poverty, massive economic disruption and persistent instability across the territories where the worst fighting occurred. The wars were the bloodiest conflicts on European soil since the end of World War II.
Dervla Murphy includes three appendices: (1) The EU in Mostar; (2) Kosovar, Serbia and Nato's Airwar, and (3) The Use of Depleted Uranium in the Balkans. These give invaluable background without which the true devastation of the former Yugoslavian territories cannot be understood. Essentially, however, Murphy's book tells the human story of the Balkan conflict, largely in the words of its people - and *all* of its people deserve to be heard.