by Alex Sainsbury IN THE face of strict Foreign Office cautions and braving gunfire and mortar attacks, pilgrims continue to pack aeroplanes bound for Medjugorje.
Despite the near ceaseless fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina. English and Irish Catholics are leaving Heathrow twice a week to join pilgrims from as far away as Guam on their way to the unofficial Marian Shrine.
Medjugorje lies 60 miles west of Sarajevo, in a region that is among the most ethnicallydivided in the former Yugoslavia.
In the town of Mostar, 15 miles to the east, where the population is split evenly between Catholic Croats, Communist or Orthodox Serbs and Bosnian Muslims, there is constant street-fighting and heavy bombardment.
Despite the nearby devastation, the manager of Unitours, which organises the pilgrims' passage to the war-torn region, said that "we are having to turn people away".
Unitours' John Dillon reckoned at least 300 foreign pilgrims celebrated the Feast of the Assumption at Medjugorje this year.
One pilgrim, Desmond Miller, who returned this week from travelling with a group from the London-based Centre for Peace described how he heard distant explosions and gunfire echoing around the valley. Trenches have been dug around the sacred Podbrdo hill where the visionaries claim to have first seen Our Lady, and a posse of villagers are kept constantly on guard.
In two week rotation, a group of ten villagers is sent out to support the Croatian effort on the front line. Villagers elected a militia leader last year to organise their protection. As well as fortifying the village, "Dragan" sold three cars and bought with the
proceeds a small number of Kalashnikov rifles from Germany.
Though neither villagers or pilgrims have been killed to date, the Foreign Office issued a caution last June advising people not to go to the former Yugoslavia because the area was on "a war footing". The warning did not affect the number of would-be pilgrims, according to the Medjugorje Centre's Fr Richard Foley.
During the Feast of the Assumption, pilgrims reported that the ritual procession up Podbrdo hill was drowned out by a two-hour-long barrage of heavy artillery from the Mostar area.
Thousands of refugees escaping the bloody internecine
fighting in the northern regions have fled to Medjugorje where they are assisted by Fr Slavko Barbaric, who runs the pilgrimage centre in the village.
Though some have moved on further south for fear that the violence could engulf the village, the majority of them are trying to resettle in Medjugorje.
"The central message communicated by the visionaries has always been one of peace," says Tanya Loncar, who continues to take pilgrims' tours into the village.
"Most of us went to pray for peace" said a pilgrim arriving off his Croatian Air flight from Split this week: "In the midst of the war zone, Medjugorje is an oasis of peace."