Dienstag, 13. Mai 2008

Croatia.Serbia.The river between.

Dear friends,

I am back from a very special journey.

Biking along the Danube is well known among eco-tourists and nature lovers. You can do it all the way from Southern Germany down to the Black Sea. But there is one little part out of this gently widening mainstream that will attract all your senses in a different, unforgettable way.

It's been named the Pannonian Peace Trail. Pannonia is the ancient roman name for this border area at the east of the empire that has become the battleground for so many wars throughout the centuries until our time, when militant nationalism divided Croatia and Serbia.

The Panonski put mira has been marked out after the latest war with the intention to weave a new social fabric between the two sides and to contribute to their mutual development. The distance between the towns of Osijek in Croatia and Sombor in Serbia is just about 75 km. You could do it in a single day, but that's not the idea. There are so many beautiful things to be discovered along the way, such good people to meet, so many stories to be told, so much hospitality to be enjoyed. Make it a full week, chose your own rhythm, rolling softly through the endless plains.

Starting from Osijek the trail will first take you to the wetlands of the Kopacki Nature Reserve where the Drava river joins the Danube. You can enter the waters on official tourist boats but you are reminded by big signs not to go off track as the area has not yet been cleared from mines. It's a reminder that the beauty is endangered, that we need to be alert and caring. This theme of a fragile, precarious beauty has accompanied us all the way. It was present in our meetings with local partners. We listened to their stories of loss and pain, we felt their desire for new bonds of friendship and cooperation.

We were a group of 17 bikers from Switzerland, all members of Gemeinden Gemeinsam (Municipalities Together), engaged in building partnerships across borders. Our journey was a social discovery both among ourselves and through the encounters with our local hosts.

Let me mention just two examples of partnerships that we have enjoyed during this week. The weblinks will offer further reading and contact details if you are interested

On the Croatian side, our journey was organized by Bilje Plus, a very dynamic young cooperative for the development of eco-tourism and organic agriculture: http://www.biljeplus.hr/ They offered the full package including the bike rental, the logistic support along the route, the bed and breakfast, project visits and cultural events, and first of all a fantastic tour guidance by Ankica and Mary. You did an excellent job. Thank you so much!

On the Serbian side we were hosted by a group of friends in Backi Monostor. They cared for the Bed and Breakfast in family houses, they presented their projects and took us out on excursions. A big thank you to Mario and his team for your warm hospitality. One evening we were the guests of the Sombor branch of the Serbian Red Cross in their Youth Camp at the Danube. It was a very cordial and moving event, celebrating the partnership of many years, including the presentation of Sombor Alternative Map, a youth project that involves students in mapping the treasures of their municipalities with electronic means. The project also provides international links, it encourages to see both the local neighbourhood and the wider picture with new eyes. A truly empowering experience.(http://www.soaltermap.com)

A special encounter with the kids of Backi Monostor...

At the end of our journey we were received by the Mayor of Sombor in the historic setting of the City Hall. The Mayor, a key partner of Gemeinden Gemeinsam during the last 15 years, told us about the history of the town and its aspirations for a democratic future in the context of european integration.

The Mayor of Sombor addressing the bikers, Ankica serving as our translator.

Out in the park surrounding the City Hall we took a last picture in front of the friendship tree that was planted in 2003 to comemorate the partnership with Gemeinden Gemeinsam.

There would be many more pictures and stories to share, but space is limited and time moves on. What I take with me from this special journey is a renewed conviction that we find the same human desires and longings on both sides of the river. The desire to be reckognized and acknowledged, the desire to belong. If this desire is taken care of through responsive relationships people will not take refuge in militant nationalism.

Back home, I hear the news that the parties that stand for a democratic opening have been strengthened in Serbias parliamentary elections. My joy is more intense now that I have become acquainted with friends on both sides.

Best greetings

geri baobab