A burst of rounds pummels the thick tree trunk inches above my helmet. Heart pounding, I dive for thorny cover in the tangled underbrush, hugging my rifle like a lover.
Sweating in my heavy combat fatigues, I scan the forest through dust-caked goggles for any hint of movement. Surrounded by hostile forces, dehydrated, exhausted, nearly out of ammo and seconds from being overrun, I know that in this battle surrender is not an option. There will be blood or, more likely, a lot of red dye.
During the Balkan wars of the 1990s that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia many people died violently in the very woods where I crouch. This is a mountainous region in central Croatia bordering on Bosnia called Lika. Croats, Bosnians and Serbs, fought here for liberation or domination, depending on which direction their weapons and ideologies pointed.
Twenty years later, this battlefield hosts make-believe war and has been renamed Panic Farm. It's macabre to be blasting away at the "enemy" with automatic air rifles amid shell-pocked buildings, stark reminders of a merciless conflict that introduced the term ethnic cleansing to the world's lexicon of atrocities.
Trails, Lakes and Autodidacts
Still largely associated in the West with the series of wars that engulfed the Balkan region between 1991 and 1995, Croatia's mountainous south eastern interior has only recently begun to attract many travellers. They venture beyond the string of sun-drenched islands along Croatia's Adriatic coastline for active adventure holidays and a taste of traditional Croatian rural life in remote areas like Lika. Its name is derived from the Croatian word 'lik', which means cure or medicine.
Some visitors opt for adrenalin-packed afternoons at quasi-military 'vacation centers' like Panic Farm, where a dirt quad bike circuit surrounds a boot camp style obstacle course and shooting ranges. Some choose more tranquil activities like rafting and canoeing along this picturesque region's winding rivers, horseback riding and hiking in its heavily wooded hills, or cycling on country paths and roads past villages that have witnessed centuries of ethnic upheaval. Others descend into the the Caves of Barać, a spooky subterranean realm of stalagmites, stalactites, columns and water carved sculptures.
History buffs among visitors to Lika can even pay homage at the birthplace of physicist, Nikola Tesla, one of the world's greatest scientists, inventors and eccentrics, who pioneered the harnessing of electricity along with his great rival, Thomas Edison. The Nikola Tesla Memorial Center, located in his birthplace of Smiljan near the town of Gospić, includes a fascinating museum inside Tesla's restored childhood home.
Regardless of their interests, nearly all who visit Lika make a pilgrimage to Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia's first national park, the oldest in Southeast Europe, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This astoundingly beautiful necklace of sixteen turquoise lakes is connected by numerous cascades and waterfalls, while an incredible eleven miles of wooden footbridges meander along the edge of the water. The lakes are renowned for their spectrum of distinctive colors, ranging from grey and blue to azure and green, which continually change hue with the sun's angle.
During the four-year conflict, many of the park's buildings were destroyed due to its proximity to Bosnia. It took several years after the war for the landmines within the park to be cleared and torched buildings to be rebuilt. By 2000, Plitvice Lakes National Park once again became one of Croatia's most popular tourist attractions. Today it receives over a million visitors annually.
For one particular group of visitors to Lika, dressing in military uniforms and heading into mock battle is more than a chance to play weekend warrior - it's also highly therapeutic. They are Croatian war veterans, according to Panic Farm's proprietor, Ivan Panic.
"Many Balkan war vets with post traumatic stress disorder come to play paintball here," he explains. "It's very therapeutic and an effective form of rehabilitation."
Ivan knows of what he speaks. He was the district chief of police in this part of Lika when hostilities broke out against Serb forces in 1991. Soon, he found himself commanding over two thousand Croatian militia troops. Among them was his eventual wife, Ivanka. Together, their Croatian Defense forces fought against the Serbs in these forests and fields, eventually driving them out of Croatia.
After the war, the Croatian government gave Ivan and Ivanka - along with thousands of others who fought in Croatia's "war of liberation" -- funds to start businesses and begin to rebuild their lives. The Panics bought a piece of land here and for the past six years have been hosting paintball tournaments for their fellow war vets - all in the name of national catharsis.
"A woman called the other day and asked me what I had done to her husband," says Ivan as he casually fires off staccato rounds into the marine boot camp style obstacle course, narrowly missing a horse grazing nearby.
"She told me he is so relaxed now that paintball had relieved his postwar stress," he adds, laughing.
My own stress that hot afternoon on Panic Farm's field of PTSD battle abruptly ends with a 'kill shot' between my eyes, gobs of red dye splattering down my goggles.
As I stand up, a dead man walking with arms high overhead, and exit the woods to join my defeated teammates gathering by the quad bike trail, I can't help thinking how surreal this experience has been.
Despite the bucolic woodland setting, recent history still casts a long shadow over beautiful yet haunted Croatian regions like Lika, where not long ago the guns were real in deadly war games without frontiers.
For more info visit the Lika-Karlovac section of the Croatian Tourism Board's website.
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