The terrace of the house looked down across the bay towards the narrow streets of the old town. Orange, lemon and kiwi fruit trees provided shade, as did the line of laundry flapping in the breeze blowing in from the sea. Standing at the fence, I was ware of a presence at my shoulder. My host nodded at the fence.
“The hole. This was made by a shell,” he said softly. “You can still see shrapnel holes in the drainpipes over there. I had to completely re-do the terrace.”
“Were you here at the time?” I said, and he nodded.
“Upstairs, in the house. I was deaf for a week afterwards. The house next door…” he paused for a second. “There were five of them eating their dinner when the bombardment started. All of them died.”
I didn’t know what to say. It seemed impossible that this beautiful place had housed such horrors in the not-too-distant past. But the signs were there; in the traces of damage to houses; in the brighter roof tiles where there had once been smoking holes; in the city map that guides you from one direct hit to the next; in the memories of my host, of his neighbours, and my own of the nightly news.
Dubrovnik is possibly Europe’s most picture-perfect city, and there are likely to be many visitors today who don’t think of those days of war in the final years of the 20th century. But knowledge of events, never mind direct experience, cannot but shape our interpretation of the place. From the moment the first shells were fired the city was changed, regardless of how successful the rebuilding and many traces have since been removed. So long as we remember, the ghosts will remain.