Day one in the Balkans

May 12th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

I am a man who loves his sleep, so it was a tough gig for me to rise at 3.30 am on the departure day of my holiday. This was necessary because of the need to check in by 4.25 am for my flight from Luton Airport. I spent the night at the nearby Ibis Hotel and then walked to the airport in the dark.  We flew with the wonderfully-named, Hungarian-owned budget airline Wizz Air – which sounds like something from “Harry Potter” – and the flight in an Airbus A320 took 2 hours 50 minutes. Albanian time is one hour ahead of British time. 

We landed in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, in beautiful sunshine (19C) and I quickly linked up with the other members of the group (there are 10 of us, three from Liverpool, two from Scotland) and the tour leader Muamer Sivrikoz known as Miku. Our tour bus is not the greatest, especially if – like me – you are tall, but it is adequate. 

Miku soon told us his story. He is the youngest of eight children and, like most Kosovans, he is ethnically Albanian. He was 17 when Serbian armed forces sought to occupy Kosovo and he became a refugee in Macedonia for three months until NATO bombing forced the Serbian military to withdraw.  Some 10,0000 were killed in the conflict and he told us “When you see a war, it changes you”. He explained that there are still small-scale NATO forces in the country in a peacekeeping role.  

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, making it Europe’s newest country, but – as Miku set out – the situation is still complicated.  Dozens of countries – including China, Russia and of course Serbia and Bosnia  – do not recognise Kosovo. Four languages are formally recognised: Albanian, Serbian, English and Turkish. To avoid causing offence to any ethnic group, the national flag is not like that of Albania and the national anthem has no words. Although Kosovo is not a member of the European Union, it uses the Euro (as does non-EU Montenegro).

Although most of the group had had little or no sleep, the tour started straightaway as we headed south-west for visits to two sites of special importance to the Orthodox Church of the Serbian minority. The first was the 13th century Patriarchate of Peja with stunning wall paintings and iconic images. The second, after a break for some brunch, was the Visoki Decani Monastery which is the largest medieval church in the Balkans. 

We then headed south-east to our first hotel of the tour: Hotel Kacinari in Prizren which is the second city of Kosovo and the former capital. After literally 15 minutes to take our cases to our rooms, we were off on a short walking tour of the city. We visited the Sinai Pasha Mosque. Unlike the churches of earlier in the day, we had to remove our shoes but we were allowed to take photographs. Next we took in the iconic view of Prizren: the 16th century Ottoman stone pedestrian bridge as foreground to the coloured roofs and towering minaret of the mosque. 

After a little free time, the group reconvened at the shadervan (fountain) in the main square and walked to our evening meal at a traditional food restaurant called “Tiffany”. We were ready for it: soup, dips, ajvar, salads (mixed, shope, Greek), casseroles (elbasan, sarma, mantia, xhyveq), shish (calf, chicken), and baklava. 

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May 10th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

What was originally called on its formation in 1918 the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, then in 1929 was renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and in 1946 became the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia broke up in the course of three wars in the early 1990s into no less than seven small states.  

On four previous visits to the Balkans, I have been to five of these new states – Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro – plus a short period in Albania. On my latest holiday, I will visit the remaining two new states – Kosovo and North Macedonia – plus a longer spell in Albania.  

This will bring the total number of countries that I have visited to 80. 

In preparation for this trip, I read the book “The Yugoslav Wars Of The 1990s” by Catherine Baker [my review here]. 

In the order in which we will visit the three diminutive nations with the travel company Voyages Jules Verne:

Kosovo has a population of just under 2 million in an area half the size of Wales. It gained its independence in 2008 although not all countries recognise this independence (five EU countries have not done so).  

Albania has a population of just under 3 million in an area about the size of Wales. It abandoned communism in 1991.  It is already a member of NATO.

North Macedonia has a population of just under 2 million in an area of about the size of Wales. It gained its independence in 1991 but only adopted its current name in 2019.  It too is a member of NATO.

Watch this space …

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A review of the new movie “Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness”

May 8th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

Any film that has one of the words ‘strange’, ‘multiverse’ or ‘madness’ in the title is going to attract my interest and one that features all three in the title is cat-nip to me. Anyway it’s a Marvel movie and I never miss one of these. So expectations were high when I booked an early showing in IMAX and it does not disappoint, although to derive the most satisfaction from the work it helps to be an aficionado of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on both the large and small screens (which I’m not but my companion was). 

From the opening seconds, the movie has plenty of spectacular action, lots of effective special effects, and some mind-bending narrative that can be quite confusing. There is some humour and a fair bit of horror in this inventive addition to the MCU canon directed by Sam Raimi who helmed three Spider-Man movies. It may have a 12A certificate but I don’t think I could take my 11 year old granddaughter to something at times quite gruesome.

Benedict Cumberbatch is back in the titular role and has a lot of fun playing different versions of Dr Strange from different universes. His prime opponent is ex-Avenger Wanda Maximoff aka The Scarlet Witch with Elizabeth Olsen reprising the character. In between them is a young woman whose fictional name (America) and real name (Xochiti Gomez) are unusual. So is her special power: the ability to “dreamwalk” – to enter into other parallel universes.

A scene is which Strange and America crash from one universe to another is a sheer delight. However, to say much more about the characters in the story would be to spoil some enjoyable surprises. It is enough to know – as the Doctor’s friend Wong tells him – that “The Scarlett Witch is a being of unfathomable magic. She can re-write Reality as she chooses, and is prophesied to either rule or annihilate the cosmos”.

As is now usual with Marvel movies, be sure to stay for not one but two inter-credit sequences.

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A review of ”The Yugoslav Wars Of The 1990s” by Catherine Baker before I return to the Balkans

May 4th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

Baker is Lecturer in 20th Century History at the University of Hull and her book is one of a series called Studies In European History published by Macmillan Education. It is, therefore, aimed at history students and consequently it is brief (164 pages) and balanced and it is written in an academic style with a considerable number of references (some 424 works). Helpfully it has an eight-page timeline (1980-2000) and a list of abbreviations (53 of them), but it would have been very helpful if there was a map.

Between 1991 and 1999, the violent destruction of a nation of 23 million people resulted in three wars – in order: first, the secession of Slovenia, with just minor border conflicts, and of Croatia, with full-scale war; second, the assault on Bosnia-Herzegovina with a three-year siege of Sarajevo and a massacre of 8,000 at Srebrenica; and third, Kosovo’s break-away from Serbia in which, after Serbian forces had killed up to 12,000 Albanian civilians, NATO involvement compelled the withdrawal of the Serb military. These wars caused the death of approximately 140,000 people, 100,000 (mainly Bosniaks) in Bosnia-Herzegovina. 

In fact, Baker only devotes half of her book (four out of eight chapters) to a narrative of the break-up of former Yugoslavia and the resultant wars.

Before this material, she sets out a very brief history of the seven large-scale wars between the Habsburg and Ottoman empires in 1526-1791 and the experience of the royalist Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes from 1918 and the socialist Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia from 1946. Once Tito died, was the break-up of Yugoslavia inevitable`? Then, following examination of the conflicts, she devotes three final chapters to peacebuilding, reconciliation and reconstruction, the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and the role of language and culture during and after the wars. 

So who was to blame? The Tribunal existed to try individuals not organisations or states and its role was to collect evidence to sustain indictments not to produce a definitive account of the wars.

Baker herself is cautious about declaring opinions, but she points out that “The SANU [Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts] Memorandum is a key item of evidence in arguments that Yugoslavia was deliberately destroyed according to a Serb nationalist programme” and that “Slightly more than two-thirds of inductees [at the ICTY] were Serbs”. She opines that “While the post-Yugoslav conflicts were wars about ethno-political separation, they were also wars of opportunism and control” and argues that “In these conflicts, nationalism was more an instrument than a cause”.

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Have you missed me?

May 4th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

I’ve been blogging almost every day now for 19 years, but I’ve been silent on NightHawk for three weeks – not through choice but because of technical problems. These are now sorted, thanks to my friend Gary.

I’m especially pleased because shortly I’ll be going on a holiday to the Balkans and I’d like to blog on the that trip each day that I’m away.

Meanwhile thanks for your patience during my absence. As my thanks, I share a current favourite song by the Swedish singer Agnes:

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A review of a war film with a difference: “The Forgotten Battle”

April 12th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

There have, of course, been numerous films about the Second World War, but this 2020 offering is a bit different: the conflict in question was in The Netherlands, it is a Dutch production, and it is the first Dutch film from Netflix. 

Inspired by true events, this is a portrayal of the Battle of Scheldt in Autumn 1944 told mainly through the perspective of three fictional characters: Marinus van Staveren who is a Dutch volunteer in the Waffen-SS Division Das Reich (Gijs Blom), Teuntje Visser who is a Dutch clerk in the office of the collaborationist mayor (Susan Radder), and the British Sergeant Will Sinclair who is a glider pilot shot down over German-occupied Zeeland (Jamie Flatters).

It is an even-handed presentation that shows both the collaboration and the resistance of the Dutch, the bravery as well as the brutality of the Germans, and some deserters from the otherwise heroic Allies. 

A large part of the movie was shot in Lithuania with the rest in The Netherlands and Belgium and, in spite of a small budget by Hollywood standards, it looks terrific with the watery world of the Zeeland and the Battle of Walcheren Causeway represented in gritty, realistic terms.

It is only the third work directed by Dutch filmmaker Matthijs van Heijningen Jr; unusually for a war film, the writer is a woman Paula van der Oest; and you will not recognise any of the actors. So this is a film that makes excellent use of limited resources to tell a story that most certainly should not be forgotten.

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Ever heard of the Suwalki Gap?

April 11th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

I doubt that you have – but many people in the Baltic States and in the Russian military are well aware that this is a short stretch of land, a mere 50 miles (100 kms), which is the only connection between the Baltic States and the rest of the European Union. On one side is Lithuania and on the other side is Poland, but to the west is the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and to the east is Russia’s close ally, Belarus.

Such is the sensitivity about this corner of Europe that, when Russian military personnel take the military train from Kaliningrad to Moscow, a Lithuanian air force helicopter hovers overhead to ensure that no one illegally hops off en route.

The three Baltic states and Poland are all members of NATO and the Suwalki Gap is a recognised NATO vulnerability. Concern has been heightened since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

As today’s article in the “Guardian” newspaper explains:

“The war in Ukraine has led the alliance to further bolster its presence in the region, with multinational battalions to be dispatched to Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia. The military presence in Lithuania has been increased from approximately 1,200 to roughly 1,600 soldiers and equipped with new hardware, such as the German army’s light and mobile Ozelot anti-aircraft system, which can be used to protect airports from aerial assaults.

But the function of these military units remains that of a “tripwire”: a reminder to hardliners in the Kremlin that invading what they may see as renegade breakaway nations of a former Russian empire would automatically trigger a military conflict with other western European states. But in their current state, there is little doubt the enhanced forward presence units would sooner or later be overrun.”

Want to know more about how the Russians could storm the Suwalki Gap and how NATO might defend it? See here.

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The latest suffering by the people of Sri Lanka

April 7th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

“Over the past few months, Sri Lanka has been facing a dire financial crisis on multiple fronts, triggered partially by the impact of Covid-19, which battered the economy, as well as mounting foreign debts, rising inflation and economic mismanagement by the government, led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The country barely has any foreign currency reserves left, leading to dangerous shortages of food, gas and medicines as it is unable to import foreign goods, while people are enduring power blackouts of up to eight hours a day. The situation has pushed thousands out onto the streets in protest in recent days, calling for the resignation of the president.”

This is an extract from a news item in today’s “Guardian” newspaper about the appalling situation in Sri Lanka. This is a beautiful country which I visited in 2017 and you can read an account of my trip here.

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A review of “Operation Finale”, a film on the abduction of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann

April 6th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

I was 13 when, in 1961, the Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann – a major architect of the Holocaust – was tried in Israel and I remember reading about the proceedings in the newspaper. This 2018 film is largely about the operation, conducted by agents of Mossad and Shin Bet, to abduct Eichmann from his home in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, where he had been hiding for a decade.

Most of the film centres on the period of nine days when Eichmann was held in a local safe house and urged to sign a document – demanded by the El Al airline – that he was voluntarily ready to fly to Israel. The special angle of the movie is the developing relationship between Eichmann and the agent Peter Malkin who finally pursuaded the Nazi to sign the document. 

Directed by Chris Weitz who is better known for lighter movies, the film was shot on locations in Buenos Aires and is distinguished by the portrayals of the two principals: Ben Kingsley, who played a Jew in “Schindler’s List”, as Adolf Eichmann and Oscar Isaac, best known for his role in the “Star Wars” franchise, as Peter Malkin.

In this narrative, Eichmann is not presented as the embodiment of evil but more as a deeply flawed human being which perhaps accords with the account of Eichmann’s trial by the Jewish political thinker Hannah Arendt who coined the phrase “the banality of evil”.

Link: Wikipedia page on Adolf Eichmann click here

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New Zealand is losing its glaciers

April 5th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

A recent article in the “Guardian” news paper noted:

“New Zealand’s glaciers are becoming “smaller and more skeletal” due to the effects of climate change and scientists predict many could disappear within a decade. An annual end-of-summer survey that records the snowline of more than 50 South Island glaciers has revealed continued loss of snow and ice.”

This is sad news. On a brilliant trip to New Zealand in 2013, I took a helicopter trip to the Franz Josef Glacier which is 10 km long and then over to the Fox Glacier which 13 km long. I’ve described the experience here.

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