Posted on October 10, 2017
Past Voices humanitarian projects: Croatia 2007:
Four buses carrying 130 Voices from the Heart members crawled along narrow lanes through lush green countryside that appeared peaceful and eternal. But the peace was deceptive in Perusic, a village of 846 inhabitants in central Croatia that has known warfare rather than peace all too often since its founding more than 500 years ago on the border between the Ottoman Empire and Europe. More recently, Perusic found itself at war again in the 1990s, when Croatia and Serbia fought over this territory after the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Signs bearing an internationally-understandable skull and crossbones lined the road, warning all of us to stay in strictly limited areas – guidance that local residents must follow day in and day out, to avoid losing a limb or indeed their lives. This was why Voices from the Heart had come to Croatia, and specifically to Perusic. For months, we’d been raising money to help this community clear the mines from their fields, so they could return to their livelihood of farming.
Though it costs only $3 to build a mine, it costs a staggering $1,000 to clear each mine, according to Adopt-a-Minefield, the organization we were working with. That’s why, more than a decade after the end of hostilities, many areas are still littered with mines. We had hoped to raise $25,000 to clear one minefield, but thanks to the generosity of friends, family, and the Seacoast community, we were able to raise approximately $38,000 in the U.S. We raised another $35,000 in Croatia and Slovenia – and then our total of $73,000 was matched by the International Trust Fund (ITF) of Slovenia, allowing approximately 150 mines to be deactivated and removed through our efforts.
As TV cameras rolled from Dobro Jutro Hrvatska (Good Morning Croatia) we filled one family’s farmyard and sang three songs, including the Croatian National Anthem. The middle-aged woman who owned the farm explained, through a translator, that she had lost her husband and three sons in the war; she now lived here with an old one-armed man and an aged wheelchair-bound woman. While clearing the mines couldn’t bring back the rest of her family, it would ensure that her household and the village could finally put the war behind them and get on with life. She brought out every glass and jar in her house to share her homemade grappa with us, in thanks for our help. The TV cameras now gone, we broke into song again, communicating in the best way we knew how.
Walking the ramparts of the fairy-tale fortress city of Dubrovnik. Floating in the salty, buoyant Adriatic sea. Eating buffets of fresh fish and herbed vegetables lightly sautéed in olive oil. Wandering through Roman ruins in Split and in Pula. Riding a donkey and dancing to a hokey accordion player in Pazin. Cruising by boat to the resort town of Cavtat. Raiding our suitcases and layering on anything warm – sweaters and even bathrobes –in the parking lot of Plitvice National Park, when the scorching weather suddenly turned cold, then hiking past amazing waterfalls and clear turquoise pools. Visiting art galleries and shops in Ljubljana. Discovering that the German tourists eating lunch at the same restaurant as us also belonged to a chorus, and singing the Zulu song Siya Humba with them.
But reminders cropped up regularly. A bombed-out roof on a roadside house. Bullet holes in a wall. Our guide, Zlatko (“Z”), telling us that the breathtakingly beautiful Plitvice Park is near a Serbian area of Bosnia, and that “if international troops leave, in seven seconds it will start again.” One day, we drove from Dubrovnik to the nearby Bosnian border, to sing in support of peace. We parked our busses and walked into the No Man’s Land between the Croatian and Bosnian border posts, and began to sing. After just one number, Z – the one Croatian guide old enough to have fought in the war – herded us back to the busses. “The guards were getting very nervous,” Z declared, clearly anxious himself. Perhaps the guards were simply befuddled as to why all these women were standing in a parking lot singing; we left rather than cause a problem.
War seems so “other” when you read about it in books. Contemplating Croatia’s recent war as we traveled through a lovely, sunny “normal” country made many of us reflect soberly on how precious and fleeting peace can be and how strife can potentially arise anywhere, unless we all work to reach out to others and understand them.
In addition to our farmyard concert in Perusic and our stop at the Bosnian border, we gave concerts in Dubrovnik (at midnight, while we were still recovering from jetlag!), in Split, at Trsat Monastery near Rijeka, in Pula, and in Piran. Except for the last one in Piran, all our concerts were outside. Singing in an ancient Roman forum, or on the steps of a Baroque church, connected us to people and places in a way that just doesn’t happen inside most buildings.
Enriching the musical experience even more, director Joanne Connelly and our tour organizer Christine Pelham had arranged “afterglow” parties with local singing groups that shared the stage with us. Gone was the formality of an actual concert; over good food and drinks we traded songs, offering a tune from our own repertoire and being richly rewarded by a sweet serenade from our new friends. Back and forth we passed the musical ball, until we ran out of remembered lyrics – or until the last bus left for our hotel.
And yet, looking back, the very best part, the one that sticks with us most, was the simple experience of being together as a group. We cheered when Ginny stood up to her fear of flying; we helped Bonnie survive her encounters with sea urchins and pickpockets; we figured out how to reunite two women headed in different directions whose passports had been accidentally switched. We talked late into the night with roommates we’d barely known back in Portsmouth. We bonded with our “pod-sisters” – the small group of 8 or 10 women we’d potlucked with ahead of the trip to ensure that everyone started out with a core group of friends. We mixed with the others on our bus, and at meals, and learned about the surprising skills and talents hidden in everyone. “You lived in Alaska?” “You know the names of all those flowers by the trail?” “You can speak German?” We came home with memories of our trip, to be sure – but also with a newfound appreciation for each other, and with a keen resolve to also get to know our other Voices sisters who had not been able to go to Croatia. At the end of the day, one of the best parts of travel is an appreciation of home!