Croatia And Former Yugoslavia – Lessons In War


Heather Markel, Best Selling Author, Professional Speaker, Traveler, Full Time Travel and Business Coach

Refreshed by lunch after my free walking tour my first morning in Zagreb, I’m ready to meet up with Luka again for his war tour. Luka is relatively young, perhaps 30s or 40s. As he tells us about being a boy, walking along a street with his father and witnessing bombs dropped that killed people on the street in front of him, I note that I’m not accustomed to such young people having lived through a war. Up to now, I’ve only spoken to older people about their experiences in World War 2, so his stories really strike a chord.

Luka takes us through some of the Balkans history. Slavic people were in Eastern and Southeastern Europe. Croatia was under Austro-Hungarian rule until the 20th century. When the first world war broke out, Croatia fought on the Austria-Hungary side and lost. With the Austrians not ruling anymore, people see an opportunity to make separate countries. 

As Luka tells us more, I note how little I learned, or remember, from high school and college about Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was formed in 1918. It’s the Kingdom of the Serbs Croates and Slovenes. Serbia was the biggest. Croatia was second largest. They didn’t like each other. The government fell 5 times in the 1920s.

To say that the history of Croatia and Yugoslavia is complicated doesn’t even begin to explain it. I learn about how Fascism and the nazis played a role in the direction of this country, which constantly changed leaders during this time. Racial law was declared. Jews and Serbians were hunted down. They created concentration camps. A lot of people were killed. Most were Serbian. Jewish people had to wear a yellow star. There was a synagogue in the center of Zagreb which was destroyed. (As I travel through the Balkans, I learn more about the travesties committed during this war.)

There are too many details to share in one blog post, so I’ll skip to Josip Broz Tito coming to power in 1945. He played a huge role in the cohesiveness of Yugoslavia. He was elected the Yugoslav president in 1953, and in 1963 his term was made unlimited. Some would call him a dictator, but he was the only Yugoslav leader to create harmony by suggesting everyone consider each other brothers. As I traveled through former Yugoslavia, I heard Tito praised as a hero, and criticized for being a dictator. In the end, everyone does seem to agree he was the only leader who was able to keep Yugoslavia together. 

Tito died in 1980. 128 countries sent a delegate to his funeral, making it one of the highest attended state funerals in history. Unfortunately, his death was the end of the harmony Yugoslavia had experienced until then. His death led to the unraveling of Yugoslavia.

After Tito dies, the economy declines and nationalistic ideas come to the surface. Yugoslavia has huge debts. Money becomes worthless, and there are shortages of….everything. As the value of money declines, larger bills are printed, such as the one in the photo for 100,000. Ration coupons are then the only way to get what you need. Luka tells us the government introduced an odd and even license plate system for driving. (3 was the most popular last number for the plates because you could turn it into an 8, making it possible to drive every day.) 


Luka walks us through the underground bunker that was created as a bomb shelter built by the fascists. I learned that these were later used by people taking shelter during the Yugoslavian war. Luka talks about being a young boy, living with others in a shelter underneath his apartment.

What really catches my emotion is when Luka shows us examples of the toys and comics he and his friends would play with, noting that playing in a bomb shelter became somewhat normalized.

The other tear jerker is the film Luka shows us. At the end, a soldier is interviewed. He can’t be more than 19 years old. He explains he doesn’t know why he’s fighting. He thinks it’s because someone wants their independence, and his government doesn’t want to let them have it. He points out that he lost 3 friends that day while his superiors seem to lose no one. 

There’s also a photo of a man on the street during the war and the words behind him reference the atrocities of war as Croatia: where guns and roses don’t mix. The Guns ‘n Roses band apparently requested permission to use the photo as an album cover, but were denied. 

We’re in the basement of a building which was used as a shelter. Luka notes that Croatia, as of yet, has not made a museum about the war. So, in a way, he has created an interim museum while trying to get an actual one created.

Luka ends the tour by encouraging us to learn about the war in the other Yugoslav countries because, though he knows what he told us is documented, he is Croatian, and can only tell us his stories, from his point of view. 

I’m embarrassed that I lived through this period, and know very little about this war. It took place between 1990 and 2001, and though I was in college and in France for part of that time, I recall the Gulf War, but not this one. So, as Luka teaches us about the past, I decide to spend part of my future travels making my way through the former Yugoslavian countries to get a better understanding of this important part of the history of this region. Part of my love of traveling full time is the freedom to learn about something that makes me passionate to learn more, and use that passion to help me choose my next destination. Until this tour, I had been debating whether to head towards Budapest and up to Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. But my desire to learn more about Yugoslavia has helped me choose my direction.

If you get to Zagreb, I consider this tour essential as part of your time there.

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