Last week, in Dubrovnik, I met a woman called Maya, who had lived in the city her whole life - including the eight months that the city was under siege during the Croatian War of Independence in the early nineties. "When my son was in his twenties, if he was going out with his friends, or to play football, he would say 'Mum, I'm going out to play'", she told me. "Not 'I'm going for some drinks with my mates.' And why? Because for five years as a child he couldn't go out to play. There was no freedom, during the war years. That stays with you."
It's stories like this that made me write The People We Were Before; a novel set in Croatia, before, during and after the War of Independence. The country has always had a hold over me; the first foreign place I really remember visiting as an impressionable ten-year-old, mindblown by the sparkling sea and the terracotta roofs of Dubrovnik, surrounded by thick, thousand-year-old walls. We visited most years in the 1980's; my final visit was with my then boyfriend, in 1989, when you could practically hear the distant rumble of conflict, far away in the mountains. It came to the coast, of course; the hotel I had stayed in became a refugee centre, the streets of Dubrovnik where I had eaten gelati and bought souvenirs became crumbling, rubble-strewn sites of destruction.
And yet when I started writing my novel, many years ago, I didn't plan to write about the war. It was too vicious, too awful. I worried that to fictionalise it would be to trivialise it. And then I began to read. And watch. And realise that ethnic cleansing on a massive scale took place in my lifetime, on my continent and mostly, as a nation we did nothing. "It's just the Balkans," people said. "There's always trouble there."
As a conflict it was little-understood, almost ignored. One of the deepest scars, for many Croatians, is that Western European powers - just two hours away by plane - did so little to help. "My father kept saying - the Americans will help us, the Americans will help us," another Croatian woman, Inelka, said to me once. "But they never came." In fact most of the world stood by while the war raged in the Balkans; dismissed as just another conflict in a region renowned as problematic. Sound familiar? Fast forward 25 years, and they're attitudes that are horribly reminiscent of how many people feel about Syria.
How is that we stand by and let this sort of destruction happen? When I talk to people in Croatia, I realise that the damage caused by war doesn't end when the conflict is over. The ramifications go on for years; even now there is a 'lost generation' of Croatians, who missed their schooling for years, and another who went to fight when they were little more than boys, and came back as men who struggled to understand how to fit into a post-conflict world.
These stories are what makes the Balkan War matter; why, twenty-five years on, Europe should be ashamed of how it stood by and let the carnage happen. Wars damage every person who is involved, whether directly or indirectly, and the effects are felt not for months, or years, but for decades. Twenty-five years later, Croatia is a prosperous country, welcoming millions of tourists a year to its glittering coastline. But the scars are still there.
Joseph Stalin once said 'the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.' War, even in the days of 24-hour news coverage, is hard to emotionally engage with, it's simply on too great a scale. This is one of the reasons for writing The People We Were Before; to bring the story down to a person level, to tell the story of just one man, Miro Denkovic, and how the war affects him and all those he loves.
Wars, however many people they involve, are made of individuals; all with loves and lives and brothers and wives and Mums and grandparents. Maya and her son. Inelka and her Dad. This is why the Croatian war matters; because it happened on our doorstep, and it is a lesson in the chaos and carnage that a conflict like this can wreak. It's a lesson in the horrors Syria will have to face even after their war ends. And it's a reminder that war doesn't happen to a country. It happens to people. And they're no different from us.
The People We Were Before published by Quercus (£14.99)Suggest a correction