Sitting in the train that takes me to Croatia, I was thinking about the reactions of my friends and relatives. One might think I go to a war, not a country. Why Bosnia? [when I write „Bosnia“, I also mean „Herzegovina“]? What drove me there is the interest in world politics, some journalistic work, and – most importantly – my interest in human nature.
I am now waiting for the bus that takes me from the wonderful Croatian town of Dubrovnik up to Medjugorje, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, thinking that I have probably left the last tourists behind. I am wrong.
Driving up to Bosnia, it’s difficult even to tell where Croatia ends and Bosnia and Herzegovina begins. On the other side of the little-controlled border, there is still a Croatian flag. The currency is the Croatian „Kuna“. Don’t throw away your Croatian phone card. The mobile phone shows „HR“ on its display. And, very important to the local Croats, the language is „Croatian“. (Outsiders, like linguists, consider Serbo-Croatian one language, with the dialects „Croatian“ and „Serbian“. But outsiders don’t know that war can destroy languages as well.)
The first indications that we have entered a new sovereign state are four wheel driven „OSCE“, „UN“ and „SFOR“ vehicles. And then, after about 10 minutes in the country, a shocking sight I will never forget in my life. Our bus drives past completely destroyed villages where not one roof is left on any house. I am looking out of the window, and I see nothing but ruins. And after the ruins: a cemetery. Villages replaced by cemeteries. Welcome to Bosnia and Herzegovina!
In these cemeteries, there is no peace.
But I do find peace – in Medjugorje, in the mountains of the Herzegovina. An oasis of peace so close to where the heaviest fighting on European soil since World War II took place. It’s difficult to find a bed (Medjugorje has 17’000 of them) because of a youth festival. All of the sudden, I find myself in the middle of probably the biggest spiritual center in the world. I have become a pilgrim.
Six teenagers claim they had apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1981. They can see her three-dimensionally, talk to her, and she talks to them, they say. “I have no idea why the Gospa [as the Croats call her] has chosen me”, Ivan – one of the visionaries – tells me in a rare interview. Up until today, the Virgin is supposed to appear to three out of the six visionaries every day at 18.40 h.
The message of “Our Lady” was and is a very Catholic one: pray, fast, confess, celebrate the Holy Mass, read the bible.
But there is one resounding message that comes again like a guiding thread: peace. On the 25th of June, 1981, Mary said to the six young Bosnian Croats that they should pray for peace. “Peace is all we have”, the poor villagers said at the time. On the 26th of June, 1991, almost exactly ten years later, the forceful disintegration of Yugoslavia began. Then, peace was all they longed for. But this supposed coincidence of dates doesn’t state who drove the Muslims out of West Mostar.
Since 1981, probably close to 20 million pilgrims from France, Spain, Ireland, Poland, Romania, the United States, Germany, Lebanon, South Korea, and many other countries, have come by the bus loads and by the charter planes to the once unknown village that developed into a center for religious tourism. They can be found up a hill now known as “Apparition Hill”. A simple wooden cross reminds people of where the first supposed apparitions took place. They also walk up the nearby stations of the cross. Some do the latter barefoot, some do it on their knees. At any time of the day and the night, pilgrims can be found at both places. Everyone is praying. There is no superficiality here. Medjugorje is the best tranquilizer you can get.
In Medjugorje, every house is a pension, and also in all other respects, religious tourists are catered for. Souvenir shops along the main road compete with each other for the most holy name: “Glory Souvenirs”, “Hallelujah”, … And if you don’t have your Visa card ready to pay for your rosary, don’t worry, you can also pay in Australian dollars.
The pope has not officially recognized the apparitions of Medjugorje as supra-natural, but has also not done the contrary. What should I believe?
“In the name of God”, I ask professional visionary (and family father) Ivan and look into his eyes, “are you lying?”. At first, he doesn’t understand the English question, even when re-formulated. Then he answers: “The apostles didn’t believe Jesus. I am ready to die for the apparitions”.
And the spiritual adviser of the visionaries, Franciscan Fr. Slavko, tells me he is ready to pay transport and accommodation for everyone who wants to prove that the visionaries don’t say the truth. That’s as difficult as to prove that they are right. Either it is a show completely orchestrated right from the beginning, or it is true.
Ivan allows me to be present at one of the “extraordinary” (meaning not at 18.40 h) apparitions, today at 22 o’clock. A crowd of maybe 200 people is waiting at the place, where Mary announced to Ivan that she would appear. They sing and pray. Sometimes they compete as to which pilgrim group has the right to sing: “Pssst!”. Peace.
Ivan arrives. He is standing, looking up into the sky, and then, all of the sudden, he falls on his knees and starts praying. “This is the moment of the apparition”, says a French pilgrim behind me. Everyone prays, except for the children, the mentally handicapped, and the few who came to take photos. After five minutes, everything is over. “Our Lady had no special message today”, Ivan announces, “she appeared happily and said that she would pray especially for the sick today”. The message is immediately translated into six languages and told to the pilgrims present.
Personally, I didn’t feel anything special, but maybe that’s because I am a protestant. Protestants are very welcome in Medjugorje, especially when they become Catholics. I spoke with maybe 100 people in my two weeks as a pilgrim. Around 30 of them asked me if I’m Catholic. My standard answer: “I am the son of my parents”.
Ivan says it’s difficult to return to the real world after having spent 10 minutes with the Virgin Mary every day. As for me, I will return to the real world of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is not (yet) one of peace.
I certainly found a lot of inner peace in Medjugorje, in that oasis of peace in the middle of a former war zone. But I am not enough naïve not to see the other reality: the next ethnically cleansed (by Catholics…) Muslim village is only a few kilometers away, and the worst place in Bosnia, Mostar, is 30 km down the hill. That’s where I’m heading now.