Guilty Landscape

It started with the following tweet.

I immediately knew I had to read this novel and a few weeks later I had it in my hands. To my surprise I found it wasn’t just about the Balkan war, it was about a part of the war that was hardly spoken about. A part of the war of which I’d seen the aftermath with my own eyes.

The Balkans had played a large role in my life in my early twenties. I’d helped refugees for a while and lived for 5 months in Croatia in 1995 doing voluntary aid in an old people’s home.

Intrigued, I contacted the author on Twitter and I had an odd sense of deja-vu upon seeing her header picture, a stone wall next to a dirt track. I told myself I was imagining things, that I ought to go to bed earlier. It was just a stone wall, like so many stone walls.

We chatted about the difficulties of writing about war, about the war itself. Observations. I shared a piece I wrote about the Balkan war a couple of years before.

And while chatting to her I found myself on that road once again.

The road to Zagreb, Croatia, 20 years ago.

“You shouldn’t be taking pictures.” Mr Nato glances around. We’ve just stopped in a ghostlike village to stretch our legs. I see no reason why I shouldn’t be taking pictures, there’s no one around.

War has pretty much left its mark everywhere, lacerating everything in sight. My camera frames a bullet-riddled building. And another.
I’m amazed at nature’s determination to cover up what has taken place only three months earlier. It seems the noise is still here though. The bullet holes have carved careful reminders of ricocheting sound waves. Shadows of sounds.

When I’m getting closer to the half-ruins a car turns up and Mr Nato loses his nerve.

“We’re leaving. Put your camera away.”

We’re on the road again.

Sunlight sweeps over the mountains in the distance, as if searching for something. I try to capture it with my camera, knowing I will fail.

We only pass a few kilometres of neutral landscape before the signs of devastation appear again. Burnt out villages, signs of shelling.

My father told me years ago about a Dutch author who had coined the term ‘ guilty landscape’. I consider this now in earnest. Landscape which has witnessed terrible crimes and continued to grow regardless, in some cases taking advantage. I’d heard of mass graves that had been discovered purely because of the extent of vegetation, which seemed to feast on the macabre secret beneath its roots.

I told the author about the road to Zagreb and what I’d seen. That I’d always had a dilemma in my head; the feeling that by questioning the justifications of the locals for this particular part of the war, I would be choosing sides.

But this was always someone else’s conflict.

When I finished reading the novel, I contacted the author again, congratulating her on having done such an excellent job with such a difficult subject. We became friends on Facebook and we talked about where she’d been in Croatia while researching her novel.

She told me the name of the place she stayed, and a shiver went down my spine. I immediately recognised it. It was the exact same place where I had stayed for 5 months, 20 years ago.

“Didn’t you recognise my header picture?” she said, “It’s the dirt track above that village.”

(this article appeared on first)

One thought on “Guilty Landscape

  1. War leaves its mark, echoes for the sensitive, even hundreds of years later. Where I live, there are places I cannot go, places that have turned out to be where Aborigines were slaughtered like vermin, although I didn’t know it when I first turned away in inexplicable fear and horror. There are indeed “guilty landscapes”. One day there will be nowhere “innocent” left to go.

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