PILGRIMAGE, in its most ancient and spiritual form — as a journey through danger to a place of peace — is being experienced today by those who still travel to Medjugorje.
The new Croatian Airlines packs its twice-weekly flights to Split, the airport on the Dalmatian coast, with pilgrims eager to join in the ceaseless peace-willing vigil that is now being conducted there.
Since 1981 this BosniaHerzegovinan village has been the site of alleged visitations by Our Lady to six (now only four) village children. Up until this year an estimated 12 million have made a pilgrimage there, and even between this April and June, when bombardment all around was constant, and fighting raged in the hills above the village. several hundred pilgrims still made it through.
At that time, Serbian forces were launching an offensive to push across the river Nvertva, six miles east of the village. Their bombs left the village with all communications destroyed, electricity cut, and food supplies scarce. Last April mothers and children were evacuated. Mass was held in the relative safety of a church cellar.
Mostar, the biggest local town, was burnt to the ground, while the devastation in Citluk, three miles north, reminded an Irish pilgrim "of Derry in the 1970s": but incredibly Medjugorje remained intact.
By mid-June, when the Serbs were finally repulsed by a combined force of Croatian
Alex Sainsbury reports on Medjugorje, where pilgrims find a sanctuary in war-torn former Yugoslavia Catholics and Bosnian Muslims, only a single shell had landed on the village, causing little damage. Not one villager had been killed.
Finally in a state of relative calm, Medjugorje could mobilize itself as a focus for a vital Christian peke initiative. June 25 saw a crowd 5,000 strong pack the village on a peace march to mark the Ilth anniversary of Our Lady's first claimed appearance.
Ever since, not even strong Foreign Office warnings have deterred those who believe that only in the place where "The Queen of Peace" appears will their prayers be speedily answered.
might just not suffice? pilgrims are begged, through sermon and fax, to pressure their government into action to curb the Serbian onslaught. Fr Slavko Barbaric, Medjugorje's spiritual leader and spokesman, has recently been in England to affirm this call for prayerful and political action. In Aylesford last week, where he joined in a Day of Prayer for Medjugorje, Fr Slavko talked to me as he watched his charge, the 27 year old visionary Ivan Dragisevic show off his skilful control of a football. He was accompanied by the graceful
Archduchess Milona von Hapsburg, whose seven-year devotion to Medjugorje has attracted some of Europe's grandest families to the shrine.
"Our Lady came crying to the visionaries on June 26 1981," explained Fr Slavko. "She called for prayer and fasting to stop the war. We asked 'what war?' but exactly ten years later, on June 26 1991, this war began".
Fr Slavko is unequivocal in his condemnation of Serbian aggression: "They [the Serbs] understand only the language of weapons. Only if you answer on the same level are they quiet". Certainly, there is no quiet yet in Medjugorje, where sounds of explosions and gunfire still interrupt the calm of prayer.
"You know that war is close," explained Edward Murphy, returning this month: in fact it's as close as Mostar, Stolac and Capljina, no more than 15 miles away, where street-fighting carries on into the night.
On the radio, Serbian announcers threaten Medjugorje with imminent attack, which may just be psychological warfare, but Dragan Kozina, commander of the village militia, is taking no chances. Pilgrims report seeing the village surrounded by trenches, observation posts and checkpoints. Guards patrol around the clock and communal prayer must end by the 10.30 curfew. The weekly procession up to the cross on Krizevac Hill is accompanied by two anti-aircraft guns mounted on old farm-trucks. Fr Slavko considers international intervention vital.
Trade sanctions haven't worked ("they have left an open corridor through Romania", he complains). So, according to the priest, there remains just one option: "Europe must act to punish the aggressor". He defends his advocation of force: "It is the only way this destroying and killing can be stopped."
He is frustrated and angry at the world's dithering, and despite a letter sent by Lord Carrington to Veljko Kadijevic, the Serbian defence minister, which stressed the paramount importance of preserving Medjugorje, he remains philosophical about its fate: "Maybe it would be good if our church was destroyed: then the world might take action."
Pilgrims feel differently, viewing Medjugorje as a last oasis of peace amidst the carnage. Humanitarian aid is flown to the village, brought in by individuals such as Carmen Blackett, who transports relays of medicine, and by organisations such as the Medjugorje Network which brings in everything from food supplies to ambulances.
They aim to help some 100,000 refugees. mostly Muslim, who have found sanctuary in the area. Others, such as Margaret Thornton, wish only to go pray for peace: "The danger is all part of our calling," she explained as she left Heathrow.
"They haven't done much good so far," remarked a cynic from London's Vatican team.
But then, as Our Lady is supposed to have told the visionaries: "The struggle against Satan is long and hard. Don't worry, peace will prevail."