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Modern Day Croatia

If you stand atop Mount Zarkovica in Croatia and peer downward you will see Dubrovnik, a city of golden stone jutting into the shocking blue of the Adriatic. From the sea, Dubrovnik reigns above you, invulnerable, a kingly place. But when you look down on it from Mount Zarkovica it seems open, like the palm of a hand. There are few trees on the steep slopes above Dubrovnik, so nothing blocks your view of the graceful Venetian bell tower that dominates the city's main square, or of the wide street, now lined with café tables, that forms the town's spine.

It is an easy target. This was the view that Serb and Montenegrin gunners had in late 1991, and into 1992, as they shelled Dubrovnik. The city's enemies took Mount Zarkovica early on and settled into what had been a popular barbecue restaurant on the hilltop. Month after month heavy guns fired away. The citizens of Dubrovnik scattered behind their city walls.

My wife and I scrambled about the rubble on Zarkovica's summit, calling out whenever we came across something: ammo boxes, a car battery, an electronics manual. Becky found a metal pot used for making coffee, ventilated by bullet holes; she kept it as a reminder. I saw an overturned and stripped vehicle, a cactus, a green-and-black butterfly, an old pine tree gesturing out to sea. It isn't exactly a tourist spot, but any taxi driver knows how to get there, because each citizen of Dubrovnik has a place for Mount Zarkovica in his or her mind.

The attack on Dubrovnik focused international attention on what would become Croatia's successful fight for independence from Serbia and its allies. Croatia's own culpability in the war was never small, but the cosmopolitan beauty and military uselessness of Dubrovnik made it an especially pure symbol. For Croats the embattled city indicated their sense of violated innocence. For Serbs, the assault on Dubrovnik showed that their cause would not be deflected by the outrage of foreigners. It was a rejection of global norms of warfare, such as they are. Some 200 people were killed and many more wounded in Dubrovnik during the war, most of them by shells launched from the restaurant on Zarkovica.

Early last fall, in precious peacetime, we sat in the rear of a Mercedes, holding the bullet-riddled coffeepot, and sped back down the hillside toward the city. This had been the front line, and we sailed across it. The aggressors never did; they never took the city of Dubrovnik.

Crossing a footbridge, we entered the city through the Ploce Gate, above which stands a statue of Saint Blaise, Dubrovnik's patron. He lost a finger in the war, but is otherwise sound. Behind the first wall lies a second-- between them, residents hid from incoming shells. Framed by the walls, a cobbled street drifts downward, steadily narrowing. We cut right, entering a tight passageway, then emerged into the main square, beneath the bell tower at the head of the central street, the Stradun. The cafés were filled with locals and visitors trying to decide whether to have another coffee or switch to wine or beer. We heard the bells, then heard them again. They ring twice an hour-- on the hour, and three minutes later, in case you lost count the first time.

The cathedral across the square was a puzzling place. Baroque columns support the high ceiling; above the altar hangs Titian's subtle Assumption of Our Lady. But the altar itself is slabby, made of severe gray marble rectangles that would radiate cold, if that were possible. Our guide, Marija, explained that a church grandee had decided some years earlier to redo the altar in modern style. The result only proves the power of Titian to prevail over his surroundings.

Marija took us outside to amble on the Stradun, past cheery cafés and shopwindows, peering down side streets no more than eight feet wide. It was a hot day, just after the annual Dubrovnik arts festival, and so relatively quiet. We stopped at the Old City's open-air market, which overflowed with figs and grapes, melons, cabbages, and lettuces.

On several tables were glass bottles of brandy made with a distinct mix of local herbs; liter mineral-water bottles held homemade wine. After some polite prattle about the brandy's medicinal properties, we bought a bottle and returned to the main street. Marija showed us the Church of the Savior; though pockmarked by shrapnel, it will probably be left unrepaired as a memorial. On the Stradun, dozens of shell craters have been filled in. It is largely the Rebuild Dubrovnik Fund that has restored the street-- and, indeed, many sites in Dubrovnik. Much of the money has come from American donors, which made me feel pleasantly proud. When we reached the end of the Stradun, near an ancient fountain, we looked back along the street to the bell tower and, high above, to the blasted summit of Mount Zarkovica.

I went to meet Berta Dragicevic, a vice-mayor of Dubrovnik. Her accent turned a hard th into a z; her cadences were a mix of Latin and Slavic, as is common among coastal Croatians. "The last bombs fell around 'ninety-five, in summer," she told me, "and there were several victims at that time. Ever since, it has been very quiet and very safe."

Dragicevic was hopeful that people will visit Croatia again. "Apart from all the tragedies and difficulties that war brings, the feeling of isolation was very, very hard." The openness of Dubrovnik-- a city-state spirit that persisted even under socialism-- was based for centuries on its extensive trading, and more recently on tourism. The Dubrovnik Summer Festival, now approaching its 50th year, brings the Old City alive with music and theater in July and August. The Stradun becomes an open-air concert hall for the Dubrovnik Symphony and visiting orchestras; smaller concerts take place at the Franciscan monastery or in the charming interior courtyard of the Rector's Palace, which also houses one of Dubrovnik's museums. In the summer of 1992, during heavy shelling, no festival was held, but residents still marked opening day by setting candles on the steps along the Stradun. One bombed, roofless building served as an art gallery, and several tales recount how Dubrovnik musicians played through the bombardment.

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