Up bright and early from the trip from Belgrade to Sarajevo – the theory being that the sooner we get to the borders (to be processed out of Serbia and then processed into Bosnia) the better. Simon is watching live webcams of the state of the borders on his phone, and he tells us it’s not busy yet.

But all good plans of mice and men are gang aft aglae! We don’t get far out of Belgrade and we run into a wee SNAFU… I say ‘wee’ but it’s gonna fuck up our entire schedule. The cops are pulling over tour buses and going over the driver’s logs to see if they’ve been working more than their regulated hours. Trucks and other commercial vehicles are going past us, but they’ve pulled up three tour buses. At this stage, it’s feeling like the 90s again and we’re going to be pumped for a bribe. But we wait and see… and we wait and see. Poor Chris, our driver, has had to print out a month of driving logs for scrutiny. Next thing we know, Chris is being taken over to the cop cars, we are all asking Simon, how much of a bribe are we going to have to come up with. I’m writing this while looking at the cops outside the bus all standing around looking for problems. And unfortunately they find one!

Chris has recently been on two weeks leave (part of the months worth of records the copy’s wanted) which clearly show the vehicle wasn’t being driven during that time, but it does however show he is logged into he bush – his ID card was in the bus while he is on vacation and that is a no-no. He’s supposed to remove his card when he’s not driving so that no one else can use his log in. No amount of Chris telling them he owns the bus and no one but him drives it is helping and the next thing we know he’s being driven off in the back of the cop car to go to an ATM to pay a fine for leaving his card logged into the bus!

FFS guys, can’t we just pay a bribe and be on our way like the other two buses. Simon literally just said to us all, ‘The other two buses, they were lucky, they just pay a bribe and keep going.’ But no, they had to find something. Eventually he comes back and we are back on our way to the Serbian/Bosnian border.Holy shit! The hilarity doesn’t end there! We are barely 15 minutes down the road in another small town and a cop comes out to the bus while we are stopped at a light and tried to pull the bus over again – Chris argues with him, shows him his fine and the receipt – the cop looks pissed off and dismissively waves us on our way! I’m chatting with BigSal while this is unfolding and she hits me right in the flashbacks to ’95 with this one: “All you need is a Susan the Fruit to talk about how interactions with local law enforcement are good because it’s immersive and you can learn so much about the culture you wouldn’t have seen otherwise!” Laughed out loud at that one.

‘Serbia’s finest.’ Simon says dryly as we once more get back on the road. They must have been in the middle of some sort of ‘harass the tourist bus drivers’ week – and now we are well over an hour delayed for heading to Bosnia.

Passing through Sedmica – a town known for it’s gorgeous blue river with water that is a constant 6-7°C no matter what time of year it is. The country side is pretty enough though. Lots of old buildings, some not so old, all equally full of bullet holes and damage though. Eventually we get to the centre of Sarajevo and this bullet riddled, damaged building is where we pull up the bus for a meeting point. :/ Like many other cities, Sarajevo is a divided town, the Old Town which is full of ancient and medieval buildings, churches, cathedrals, synagogues etc and the other side of the river is the New Town, full of corrupt building projects that locals can’t afford to live in – this seems to be a theme – Belgrade has plenty of these project areas too. This beautiful building is a reconstruction of the original library that was on this site in the Old Town – it was badly damaged during the war and while they have been able to rebuild the library as it once was, many of the ancient and medieval texts it housed were lost forever. The Old Town is full of little winding alleyways on cobblestone streets, it’s like a mixture of Turkish bazaar, and Moroccan kasbah having neither flavour of it’s own nor enough characteristics of either??? (That made sense in my head even if it doesn’t to any other reader!). Bosnian’s are mad for their coffee apparently and white they are adamant they make it a special way that is nothing like the Turkish way of making coffee …. to the untrained eye (ie: mine), it looks exactly like the Turkish way of making coffee! This is the Sebilj Fountain – it was built in the Ottoman style in 1753. It’s one of those legendary fountains that people believe if you drink from this fountain you will return to Sarajevo someday – I guess we are all going to be one time visitors because none of us are drinking anything that isn’t coming out of sealed plastic bottles atm!This was the oldest inn in Sarajevo, it used to be a stop for visitors travelling with their horses, and now the courtyard where visitors would be received is now a thriving restaurant and the stables which lined the courtyard are now shops.You can see the huge wooden beams that made up the stable roofs.I’m also in an intense love/hate relationship with cobblestones this trip thanks to the fibromyalgia I was diagnosed with in 2019… my feet are fucking killing me ALL THE TIME, let alone with the uneven surfaces. The hours on the bus are also not helping and each time we get off the bus, I feel like I’m getting off a long haul flight with slightly swollen feet… normal cobbles are bad enough, but these ones in this town are really just rocks planted in concrete worn smooth, so they’re proving extra fun.

In the middle of the old town is a Mosque, a Synagogue and a Catholic Church, we see here again the one-up-man-ship of each party trying to be superior to the other – part of it is about religion and yet weirdly not about religion at all. Some 70% of Serbians are not practicing any religion, but their religion defines their heritage and ethnicities in a way we just don’t’ really get back home. The Croats are Catholic and Orthodox, the Bosnians are Muslim and the Serbians lost as many as 80,000 of their Jewish during the Srebrinca Genocide (this is really contentious, a huge proportion of Bosnians would never use the term ‘genocide’ to describe what happened to the Jewish people in Serbia- but I don’t know what else it’s called when they’re rounded up into exterminated in mass graves). 😐

The result of this, being religious as a way of identifying your ethnicity while not really being a practicing religious person means that the Fazi Husrev-Beg mosque at the centre of the Old Town is very welcoming to everyone. There are still women’s sides and men’s side and shoes are off and scarves are on, but they are not so strict with their prayer times etc.

It’s a relatively simple mosque with one minaret and a single dome, and was built in the 1500s century. At the time it was built, a very forward thinking engineer/architect suggested they build a public toilet nearby by persuading the imams that they wouldn’t want their workers doing their business all over the ground where their beautiful mosque was going to be – and wouldn’t you know it, the public toilets they built are still there and in operation today, though I’m inclined to think the coin operated turnstiles are a more modern addition.

Ramadan feasting clock – this clock down’s show actual time as we know it – it is set to show when sundown occurs so people fasting know exactly when it’s okay to eat. This is a replica of the famous vehicle that the Archduke Ferdinand was in with his wife, Sofia when he was assassinated , triggering the WWI. Sounds like the entire plot was a bit of a clusterfuck and it was luck that the ragtag team of assassins managed to get anything right. A previous assassination attempt had failed and the various members of the untrained team were sitting around a coffee shop figuring out how they were going to kill him before they got in trouble with their handlers, when the Archduke’s driver took wrong turn and stopped them right in front of the coffee shop in question. One of the assassins opportunistically shot the Archduke, while another tried to immediately kill himself rather than being captured and chomped on an expired cyanide pill that just made him immediately ill, but didn’t kill him… he then ran away spewing his guts up and jumped off the nearby bridge which is barely 4m off the ground and doesn’t have much water in it, so he ended up being apprehended with two broken legs and sick from his failed suicide attempt. And yep, these stupid teenage pricks started a World War. The covered markets in the Old TownCompete with Bosnian Delight stores – not Turkish Delight, mind you, Bosnian… though stuffed if I can spot the difference. After thisThe Catholic Church in the centre of town, which is as big as they could make it in the space that it previously occupied. During the Balkans War (and Iknow this isn’t coming across very well in my pictures) the enemy armies that were attacking Sarajevo would take high positions on the hills around the town… you can see their elevated advantage from nearly every direction around the city. People coming in and out of the churches and shops were at a huge disadvantage trying to move about town to find supplies of water and food.Out front of this church is a pitted piece of concrete which shows the place where some children were killed by snipers. They continue to pain the pitted concrete to remind people of the horrors that happened here.Our guide, said his mother never let him leave the house as a small child in a red t-shirt because it was too easy a target for the snipers… fuck that! I wouldn’t’ have let my kid leave the house at all!

If we hadn’t been held up with the cops for so long this morning I would have possibly tried to go see this exhibit of the Srebrenica Genocide. It is something I am not particularly educated on, and I feel it’s important that people learn about these historical incidents and don’t forget the victims. After our quick (and I mean quick!) walking tour of Sarajevo we had some free time to go shopping, have a poke about and find some dinner. Simon recommended a small restaurant back near the library and instructed us all to try the Cevapi, pronounced ‘cheh-vah-pee’, (basically ‘minced meat fingers), that are served with a doughy pita bread, raw onions and yoghurt drinks. I’m always up for the local food, and they serve them in hands – literally five meat fingers or ten. I opted for a small serve and it was quite tasty – the recipe calls for 80% beef, 20% veal and some salt, so it’s just meat sausage without any skins. After this it was off to our hotel, on the way we saw many many more buildings that were showing signs of the snipers’ handiwork during the war. I don’t know enough about this war – I vaguely remember Milosovich being mentioned a lot in the news, but spending time with Simon hasn’t really cleared it up. With three wearing factions, sometimes each in ally-ship with each other and then spinning on a dime to suddenly be fighting with their former allies, it’s all very complicated. I’m not sure anyone won…

Plovdiv to Sofia

This is what Philippopolis should look like (below)… but it’s currently full of modern concert equipment, chairs, tents and shit – so I didn’t bother taking photos. I can’t decide if it’s depressing or fabulous that they are using this ancient monument to have concerts still. I wonder what the impact is on modern speakers and the vibrations from the amplifications.

This walking tour stuff after a full day of being in the bus (and well, lost in the bloody bus!) is exhausting. Chilling in cafes with a cider and people watching is Turing into a favourite way to kill half an hour. After this we left Plovdiv for Sofia… where this portion of the tour joins into a much larger group of people with a new guide and a new driver (thank fuck!!!).

Oh look… on the way out of Plovdiv, a city our driver allegedly has family in, our useful-as-tits-on-a-bull driver takes us off the A1 highway and straight into the boonies where we start pulling over again and this time consulting old paper maps. Hello? Do you want my phone? It has google maps…No? Let’s just harass the local police for directions… I honestly can’t roll my eyes any harder at this stage. Seriously, us girls could have taken over the driving and the navigation and we would have saved hours. Eventually we end up in Sofia and check into our hotel, which was rather swanky, before setting out on a short bus tour in Sofia. This fabulous Bulgarian Orthodox Church is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral… it’s really gorgeous inside, but very dark and no photography is allowed. It’s probably a site that needs a lot of restoration. It’s build in a Neo-Byzantine style and serves as the main cathedral church of the Patriarch of Bulgaria. It is one of the 50 largest Christian church buildings in the world (by like square volumes of air or something0. It can hold about 5000 people inside and is the largest cathedral in all of the Balkans. It’s relatively ‘new’, with construction having starte din 1882 and the church being consecrated in 1924. Beautiful gold mosaics above every doorway.… and fine carving int eh stonework is really cool. This is not a photo taken inside the church you are not allowed to take photos in. >.>One thing I do love about Europe is the wonderful way they cover buildings under scaffolding so they don’t’ completely destroy the cityscape. You see buildings all over and (while this one is quite garish) you occasionally have to do a double take to realise that it’s a big cover over the facade of the building which is under restoration. The lion is a famous symbol of Bulgaria which is weird seeing they never had lions here, and the various artist’s representations of them make it pretty clear the artist has never seen one… this large bronze is a bout 3m long and he guards a tomb of an Unknown Soldier.

Saint Sofia Catholic Church – the oldest church in Sofia, it dates back to the 4th century. The building (some parts of which remains were where the Council of Serdica was held in 343AD and was attended by 316 bishops. In the 14th century the church gave its name to the city which was previously known as Serdika.

The photos don’t do the amazing stone work in the vaulted ceiling justice at all!There was a service being held when we were here – a memorial of sorts for someone whose funeral has already happened – so we were trying to stay in the wings and be unobtrusive.

After this, the youngin’s felt somewhat churched out and wanted a quick bite before we had to head back to the hotel and meet our new guide for the ongoing trip through the Balkans… I can’t believe we were in Sofia and they all wanted to go for McDonalds. But there we were!Looks just like every McDonalds ever – from about 20 years ago.Ordering was a little tricky though… I haven’t had McDonalds in years. It used to be a frequent travel stop – because we knew it would have clean (and usually free!) bathrooms, now it seems the crew wanted to hang out here for the free wifi. Which makes sense, most of them don’t have roaming data.

Then on our way back to the hotel, someone asked Georgi if he could take us to a souvenir shop so they could buy some little presents – and wouldn’t you know it, the only place he could think of was a fucking newsagent/tabac stand in a train station which was down three flights of stairs. Never mind, my feet just aren’t having it after two city tours today, so I stayed above ground with this famous statue of Saint Sofia. Then back to the hotel to meet the people who are going to be on the rest of our trip. The ill fated crew from the positively disastrous Travel Talk tour through Transylvania and Romania in July 2022… Shauna (IRE), Josh (USA), Holly (AUS), Sarah (USA), Stacey (AUS), Ginger (CHN), Robyn (AUS), Robyn (AUS), & Angus (AUS)

The Long Long drive from Sibiu to Ruse

Today is a transit day – no sightseeing unfortunately, we had a lot of ground to cover to get to Bulgaria within Nick’s (the driver) regulated driving hours – not sure I’ve mentioned much about Nick, but today it became apparent that he has been navigating all over Romania using a Tom Tom that seemed to be about a decade old. It turns out his mobile phone was broken so he didn’t have Google Maps and for the life of me I don’t know why Georgi wasn’t navigating for him, but we’ve had several wrong turns and many kilometres where we’ve retraced our steps. :/ Today was going to be one of *those* days but we were determined to make the most of it – well most of us were!

Our petulant Annoying American was sulking – like, literally, in the most unbecoming way considering she’s a 40 year old engineer contracted to the US Defence Dept. 😐 I had to snap this because I didn’t think people would believe me:

Yep, that’s her hiding under a blanket for a NEAR SEVEN HOUR DRIVE. To be honest, most of us were quite happy that she was moping; it meant she wasn’t trying to talk at us for the whole drive. Hurrah! I’ve never been on a tour with someone like this before – it’s bewildering.

The country side is beautiful as we wound our way through farmlands primarily of wheat and sunflowers, and my poor little fibro feet (while unhappy at me sitting on a bus for hours) were kinda glad to have a rest from the cobblestones for a day.

We had a quick and dodgy servo lunch, which I passed on – but insisted that Angus try the weird Eastern European petrol station hotdog. Maybe you just had to be there? But in Poland we thought they were odd… they have a bun, shove a hole in and tip sauces (into the bottom only) and stick a very thin hotdog in it. It’s kinda crunchy and not very filling… perhaps he should have opted for the double dog one.

We got to the Bulgarian border quite late in the afternoon and Ruse is barely 4 miles from the border.

Wouldn’t you know it? Nick got us lost again, and all of us thought it was hilarious – except AA. Of course. Eventually I gave Georgi my phone with the Google maps open and we made it to our hotel. 🙂 We didn’t have anything planned in Ruse for the evening so we just went into town and had a wander through the main square while hunting for a restaurant that could seat eleven of us – yes, I was trying to placate the AA monster, she’d been howling all the night before into the ether (ranting on WhatsApp) that people have been leaving her out of things and that she’d had to eat by herself, and when I tried to talk to her about this ostracism, she told me to leave her alone. I shit you not.

I suggest to Georgi that he find us a restaurant and that we eat as a group so Ms AA Emily doesn’t feel left out. He finds a place that say they’ll accomodate us in 15 mins so we go for a bit of a walk about to take in the town while we wait.

IT’s a pretty place with lots of empty buildings. Apparently over the last 30 years (well, pretty much since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet thingy collapsing, people have been moving to Western Europe for better jobs etc. Bulgaria has lost half their previous population which no doubt is problematic for social services etc. Anyway – real estate is cheap if anyone is interested (inner city, 2br walk up from 20-30k Euro).

We went to dinner and unsurprisingly, they had two tables for us (this really needed this to be a whole group thing), and also unsurprisingly AA is nowhere to be found. She’d gotten tired of waiting and gone and ordered a salad somewhere else and sent someone to the table saying she’d be there shortly. Well, she did turn up and was the rudest, most embarrassing person I’d ever had the misfortune to dine with. She was rude to the waitress, insisting three times she wanted to be on her own check, but speaking to her like she was an idiot child. She sarcastically thanked us for ‘accomodating her and saving her a seat’, and also muttered something about being stuck at the ‘pleb’ table. Bitch please! The only reason I wasn’t sitting with the others was to make her feel more included. Seriously!

On a lighter note – dinner unexpectedly had a sushi menu, so I had me some sushi for the first time since I left Aust… very tasty indeed. This place lives on too much bread and pasta for my liking.

We have our meals and relax a little, I’m listening to AA saying horrible things about the perfectly lovely people we are travelling with and felt I had done the wrong thing in trying to ‘fix’ the situation – she’s irredeemable. After dinner, she wandered off to find some vodka lady (whatever that meant) and we found ourselves discussing what to do about her. For some reason I was under the impression that the other pax had spoken to Georgi about how frustrated they were with her disruptive, rude, inconsiderate and bullying presence but they had initially and on getting no response had gone up the chain from there.

I spotted Georgi across the square and thought we had best nip this in the bud, it was getting ridiculous. They all followed me over there and I told Georgi that I felt we have been trying, but every kind gesture over the last 48 hours was met with derision or passive aggression. He then told us that his bosses had three times already told him to ‘leave her in the middle of the road’ – and that’s a direct quote. I said ‘Why haven’t you removed her from the tour then?’ And he said, he has been a guide for many years and if he starts with ten he wants to finish with ten. Ummm… no, that’s not how this works. I told him in no uncertain terms that this wasn’t about him and right now it’s not about AA either – it’s about his duty of care to the other nine passengers on the trip and how he has allowed her to bully her first poor roommate, and waste the time and kill the morale of this entire group. This is the first travel many of us have been able to do since before the pandemic started and he was letting AA ruin it for all of us. I finished off by saying ‘Well it’s your choice Georgi, you can have one disgruntled and unhappy passenger or you can let her stay and you’ll have nine passengers complaining not just about her but about your handling of this matter.’

To say I was surprised to see her join us all at breakfast is an understatement… tbc.

Ruse and Roses and Plovdiv

Off bright and early again this time to Veliko Tarnavo to see the Tsareverts Fortress. The Tsareverts Fortress is a medieval citadel that was built as the primary fortress of the Second Bulgarian Empire. It has early signs of human civilisation here dating back to the 2000BC, but the fortress as it stands now was primarily built between 1185 and 1393 to house the royal and patriarchal palaces. It’s quite an enormous complex being the size of a small town – there is evidence of up to 20 churches here, and 400 independent dwellings. There is also archeological remains of blacksmith and various medieval craftsmen’s workshops – unfortunately, there is no museum accompanying the site to show any artefacts, but the site itself is phenomenal. It would have been very impressive and daunting to invading forces.

Baldwin’s Tower… You can see ‘Execution Rock’ on the map above – when I first saw it I expected a small paved area with an execution site (like in the Tower of London) but no, apparently the preferred method of capital punishment here was just to heave the condemned off the citadel to face the 600 foot drop.

The citadel was conquered by Ottoman Forces in July 1393 and was heavily sacked (as you do) so much of the buildings here are reconstructed, but this moment basically marks the end of the Bulgarian Empire. The views up here are fabulous… when one isn’t being pushed to one’s death, I guess.

After this we went for a week wander into town – it’s a pretty enough modern little Bulgarian village, with some interesting civic art, stray cats and graffiti. But it was starting to get hot and we had totally lost the Annoying American again, so we pfaffed around until we found here and the hit the road towards Kazanlak via the Shipka Pass. The countryside we are driving through today is really beautiful as we go over the mountains.

Shipka Pass is the scenic mountain pass through the Balkans in Bulgaria. It marks the border between two provinces – Starsa Zagora and Gabrova, and you travel through gorgeous national park as you do so. The monument we could see high on the hill is the Liberty Memorial and is regarded as the symbol of Modern Bulgaria and the liberation of Bulgaria. The monument is actually in the national park and is located at the peak of Shipka Mountain. It is designed to look a bit like a medieval fortress and can be seen for miles in any direction. It was built in using donations from people all over Bulgaria and was built in 1934. The monument has powerful bronze lion on it which guard the entrance to the monument, and the other three sides are named for Shipka, Sheynovo and Stars Zamora… the three bat fields that were fought in to defence the pass. Under the ground is a huge marble sarcophagus containing the remains of Shipka’s defenders. Or so we are told – we did not actually venture up to the monument, in no small part due to the 800 steps to get up there!

Next we arrived in Kazanlak to visit the most prominent rose factory in Rose Valley – Rosa Damascena… but not before Nick got us lost first. Seriously at this point we just find ourselves laughing our arses off about it. He’s Bulgarian, and driving in Bulgaria and only speaks Bulgarian and Russian, and there was plenty of signage to this place (you know tourist signs with roses on them that we spotted) and he still managed to get lost enough to need to pull over and ask for directions from randoms.

Apparently the soil around here is particularly favourable to growing extremely prolific and fragrant roses. This particular operation is only 17ha, but they pull in millions of rose petals every season and distill them into oil to be made into cosmetics and food items.

There’s a very large facility here that caters to weddings, concerts, school trips, family groups – you name it. Feels like we are in the middle of nowhere and have suddenly stumbled onto a small rose themed entertainment venue. Oh and they also grow fields full of lavender and make lavender products also… so the air around here is so perfumed just from the gardens. A bit like walking through a Turkish spice bazaar but instead of getting a nose full of spices, the air is thick with floral scents. The Rose Distillery is housed in this quaint stone building which has been heavily frescoed to show all the traditional Bulgarian peoples ways of collecting, crushing and distilling the rose petals. All very modern, but all very elaborately executed.

And of course there is the gift shop on the way out where you can get rose liquor, rose honey, rose jam, rose cordial, rose essential oil, rose hand cream, rose body scrub, rose lip balm, rose hair treatment and so on and so forth.

After we stopped to literally smell the roses, we drove into Plovdiv and wouldn’t you know it – Nick got us turned about … yet again! Though we are led to understand that his family are from Plovdiv and he was looking forward to seeing them that night.

Such a hectic day all round – but wait! There’s more. With many hours on the bus with our extremely annoying friend, we found out that even more people on the tour had written complaints to the head office saying ‘WTF?!’, about this woman. And we were all told that the matter would be taken care of that very evening. Georgi had already told us that he was going to remove her from the tour in Sofia and we really weren’t happy that he had let her stay and be so disruptive for about four days longer than necessary, but finally the damn tour company got in the middle of it… not long after we got to Plovdiv and checked into our hotel rooms, Emily messaging the group saying she had been ‘booted off the tour’ and was asking if anyone knew what was going on because and I quote : she “couldn’t understand why they were asking her to leave.” Seriously? She’s been yelling abuse at people and bullying them, wandering off and making us get off schedule, generally acting like a manic crazy person (possibly bi-polar and not medicated) but generally driving every up the wall and destroying everyone’s enjoyment and she’s acting all surprised and confused that she’s been told to leave?! How can anyone be so completely clueless to the impact they are having on the people around them?

Sigh… oh well, she’s hopefully gone for good now and we won’t have to deal with her. She was sending me private WhatsApp messages trying to see if I was ‘on her side’ but I just blocked her arse and went to bed. So tired!

WashPo Article re: Civil War

‘They are preparing for war’: An expert on civil wars discusses where political extremists are taking this country

Barbara F. Walter, 57, is a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego and the author of “How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them,” which was released in January. She lives in San Diego with her husband.

Having studied civil wars all over the world, and the conditions that give rise to them, you argue in your book, somewhat chillingly, that the United States is coming dangerously close to those conditions. Can you explain that?
So we actually know a lot about civil wars — how they start, how long they last, why they’re so hard to resolve, how you end them. And we know a lot because since 1946, there have been over 200 major armed conflicts. And for the last 30 years, people have been collecting a lot of data, analyzing the data, looking at patterns. I’ve been one of those people.
We went from thinking, even as late as the 1980s, that every one of these was unique. And the way people studied it is they would be a Somalia expert, a Yugoslavia expert, a Tajikistan expert. And everybody thought their case was unique and that you could draw no parallels. Then methods and computers got better, and people like me came and could collect data and analyze it. And what we saw is that there are lots of patterns at the macro level.
In 1994, the U.S. government put together this Political Instability Task Force. They were interested in trying to predict what countries around the world were going to become unstable, potentially fall apart, experience political violence and civil war.

Was that out of the State Department?
That was done through the CIA. And the task force was a mix of academics, experts on conflict, and data analysts. And basically what they wanted was: In all of your research, tell us what you think seems to be important. What should we be considering when we’re thinking about the lead-up to civil wars?
Originally the model included over 30 different factors, like poverty, income inequality, how diverse religiously or ethnically a country was. But only two factors came out again and again as highly predictive. And it wasn’t what people were expecting, even on the task force. We were surprised. The first was this variable called anocracy. There’s this nonprofit based in Virginia called the Center for Systemic Peace. And every year it measures all sorts of things related to the quality of the governments around the world. How autocratic or how democratic a country is. And it has this scale that goes from negative 10 to positive 10. Negative 10 is the most authoritarian, so think about North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain. Positive 10 are the most democratic. This, of course, is where you want to be. This would be Denmark, Switzerland, Canada. The U.S. was a positive 10 for many, many years. It’s no longer a positive 10. And then it has this middle zone between positive 5 and negative 5, which was you had features of both. If you’re a positive 5, you have more democratic features, but definitely have a few authoritarian elements. And, of course, if you’re negative 5, you have more authoritarian features and a few democratic elements. The U.S. was briefly downgraded to a 5 and is now an 8.
And what scholars found was that this anocracy variable was really predictive of a risk for civil war. That full democracies almost never have civil wars. Full autocracies rarely have civil wars. All of the instability and violence is happening in this middle zone. And there’s all sorts of theories why this middle zone is unstable, but one of the big ones is that these governments tend to be weaker. They’re transitioning to either actually becoming more democratic, and so some of the authoritarian features are loosening up. The military is giving up control. And so it’s easier to organize a challenge. Or, these are democracies that are backsliding, and there’s a sense that these governments are not that legitimate, people are unhappy with these governments. There’s infighting. There’s jockeying for power. And so they’re weak in their own ways. Anyway, that turned out to be highly predictive.

And then the second factor was whether populations in these partial democracies began to organize politically, not around ideology — so, not based on whether you’re a communist or not a communist, or you’re a liberal or a conservative — but where the parties themselves were based almost exclusively around identity: ethnic, religious or racial identity. The quintessential example of this is what happened in the former Yugoslavia.

So for you, personally, what was the moment the ideas began to connect, and you thought: Wait a minute, I see these patterns in my country right now?

My dad is from Germany. He was born in 1932 and lived through the war there, and he emigrated here in 1958. He had been a Republican his whole life, you know; we had the Reagan calendar in the kitchen every year.
And starting in early 2016, I would go home to visit, and my dad — he doesn’t agitate easily, but he was so agitated. All he wanted to do was talk about Trump and what he was seeing happening. He was really nervous. It was almost visceral — like, he was reliving the past. Every time I’d go home, he was just, like, “Please tell me Trump’s not going to win.” And I would tell him, “Dad, Trump is not going to win.” And he’s just, like, “I don’t believe you; I saw this once before. And I’m seeing it again, and the Republicans, they’re just falling in lockstep behind him.” He was so nervous.
I remember saying: “Dad, what’s really different about America today from Germany in the 1930s is that our democracy is really strong. Our institutions are strong. So, even if you had a Trump come into power, the institutions would hold strong.” Of course, then Trump won. We would have these conversations where my dad would draw all these parallels. The brownshirts and the attacks on the media and the attacks on education and on books. And he’s just, like, I’m seeing it. I’m seeing it all again here. And that’s really what shook me out of my complacency, that here was this man who is very well educated and astute, and he was shaking with fear. And I was like, Am I being naive to think that we’re different?

That’s when I started to follow the data. And then, watching what happened to the Republican Party really was the bigger surprise — that, wow, they’re doubling down on this almost white supremacist strategy. That’s a losing strategy in a democracy. So why would they do that? Okay, it’s worked for them since the ’60s and ’70s, but you can’t turn back demographics. And then I was like, Oh my gosh. The only way this is a winning strategy is if you begin to weaken the institutions; this is the pattern we see in other countries. And, as an American citizen I’m like, These two factors are emerging here, and people don’t know.
So I gave a talk at UCSD about this — and it was a complete bomb. Not only did it fall flat, but people were hostile. You know, How dare you say this? This is not going to happen. This is fearmongering. I remember leaving just really despondent, thinking: Wow, I was so naive to think that, if it’s true, and if it’s based on hard evidence, people will be receptive to it. You know, how do you get the message across if people don’t want to hear it? If they’re not ready for it.

I didn’t do a great job framing it initially, that when people think about civil war, they think about the first civil war. And in their mind, that’s what a second one would look like. And, of course, that’s not the case at all. So part of it was just helping people conceptualize what a 21st-century civil war against a really powerful government might look like.
After January 6th of last year, people were asking me, “Aren’t you horrified?” “Isn’t this terrible?” “What do you think?” And, first of all, I wasn’t surprised, right? People who study this, we’ve been seeing these groups have been around now for over 10 years. They’ve been growing. I know that they’re training. They’ve been in the shadows, but we know about them. I wasn’t surprised.

The biggest emotion was just relief, actually. It was just, Oh my gosh, this is a gift. Because it’s bringing it out into the public eye in the most obvious way. And the result has to be that we can’t deny or ignore that we have a problem. Because it’s right there before us. And what has been surprising, actually, is how hard the Republican Party has worked to continue to deny it and to create this smokescreen — and in many respects, how effective that’s been, at least among their supporters. Wow: Even the most public act of insurrection, probably a treasonous act that 10, 20 years ago would have just cut to the heart of every American, there are still real attempts to deny it. But it was a gift because it brought this cancer that those of us who have been studying it, have been watching it growing, it brought it out into the open.

Does it make you at all nervous when you think about the percentage of people who were at, say, January 6th who have some military or law enforcement connection?
Yes. The CIA also has a manual on insurgency. You can Google it and find it online. Most of it is not redacted. And it’s absolutely fascinating to read. It’s not a big manual. And it was written, I’m sure, to help the U.S. government identify very, very early stages of insurgency. So if something’s happening in the Philippines, or something’s happening in Indonesia. You know, what are signs that we should be looking out for?

And the manual talks about three stages. And the first stage is pre-insurgency. And that’s when you start to have groups beginning to mobilize around a particular grievance. And it’s oftentimes just a handful of individuals who are just deeply unhappy about something. And they begin to articulate those grievances. And they begin to try to grow their membership.

The second stage is called the incipient conflict stage. And that’s when these groups begin to build a military arm. Usually a militia. And they’d start to obtain weapons, and they’d start to get training. And they’ll start to recruit from the ex-military or military and from law enforcement. Or they’ll actually — if there’s a volunteer army, they’ll have members of theirs join the military in order to get not just the training, but also to gather intelligence.
And, again, when the CIA put together this manual, it’s about what they have observed in their experience in the field in other countries. And as you’re reading this, it’s just shocking the parallels. And the second stage, you start to have a few isolated attacks. And in the manual, it says, really the danger in this stage is that governments and citizens aren’t aware that this is happening. And so when an attack occurs, it’s usually just dismissed as an isolated incident, and people are not connecting the dots yet. And because they’re not connecting the dots, the movement is allowed to grow until you have open insurgency, when you start to have a series of consistent attacks, and it becomes impossible to ignore.

And so, again, this is part of the process you see across the board, where the organizers of insurgencies understand that they need to gain experienced soldiers relatively quickly. And one way to do that is to recruit. Here in the United States, because we had a series of long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria, and now that we’ve withdrawn from them, we’ve had more than 20 years of returning soldiers with experience. And so this creates a ready-made subset of the population that you can recruit from.
What do you say to people who charge that this is all overblown, that civil war could never happen here in the United States — or that you’re being inflammatory and making things worse by putting corrosive ideas out there?

Oh, there’s so many things to say. One thing is that groups — we’ll call them violence entrepreneurs, the violent extremists who want to tear everything down and want to institute their own radical vision of society — they benefit from the element of surprise, right? They want people to be confused when violence starts happening. They want people to not understand what’s going on, to think that nobody’s in charge. Because then they can send their goons into the streets and convince people that they’re the ones in charge. Which is why when I would talk to people who lived through the start of the violence in Sarajevo or Baghdad or Kyiv, they all say that they were surprised. And they were surprised in part because they didn’t know what the warning signs were.

But also because people had a vested interest in distracting them or denying it so that when an attack happened, or when you had paramilitary troops sleeping in the hills outside of Sarajevo, they would make up stories. You know, “We’re just doing training missions.” Or “We’re just here to protect you. There’s nothing going on here. Don’t worry about this.”

I wish it were the case that by not talking about it we could prevent anything from happening. But the reality is, if we don’t talk about it, [violent extremists] are going to continue to organize, and they’re going to continue to train. There are definitely lots of groups on the far right who want war. They are preparing for war. And not talking about it does not make us safer.

What we’re heading toward is an insurgency, which is a form of a civil war. That is the 21st-century version of a civil war, especially in countries with powerful governments and powerful militaries, which is what the United States is. And it makes sense. An insurgency tends to be much more decentralized, often fought by multiple groups. Sometimes they’re actually competing with each other. Sometimes they coordinate their behavior. They use unconventional tactics. They target infrastructure. They target civilians. They use domestic terror and guerrilla warfare. Hit-and-run raids and bombs. We’ve already seen this in other countries with powerful militaries, right? The IRA took on the British government. Hamas has taken on the Israeli government. These are two of the most powerful militaries in the world. And they fought for decades. And in the case of Hamas I think we could see a third intifada. And they pursue a similar strategy.

Here it’s called leaderless resistance. And that method of how to defeat a powerful government like the United States is outlined in what people are calling the bible of the far right: “The Turner Diaries,” which is this fictitious account of a civil war against the U.S. government. It lays out how you do this. And one of the things it says is, Do not engage the U.S. military. You know, avoid it at all costs. Go directly to targets around the country that are difficult to defend and disperse yourselves so it’s hard for the government to identify you and infiltrate you and eliminate you entirely.
So, like with the [Charles Dickens’s] ghost of Christmas future, are these the things that will be or just that may be?

I can’t say when it’s going to happen. I think it’s really important for people to understand that countries that have these two factors, who get put on this watch list, have a little bit less than a 4 percent annual risk of civil war. That seems really small, but it’s not. It means that, every year that those two factors continue, the risk increases.
The analogy is smoking. If I started smoking today, my risk of dying of lung cancer or some smoking-related disease is very small. If I continue to smoke for the next 10, 20, 30, 40 years, my risk eventually of dying of something related to smoking is going to be very high if I don’t change my behavior. And so I think that’s one of the actually optimistic things: We know the warning signs. And we know that if we strengthen our democracy, and if the Republican Party decides it’s no longer going to be an ethnic faction that’s trying to exclude everybody else, then our risk of civil war will disappear. We know that. And we have time to do it. But you have to know those warning signs in order to feel an impetus to change them.
This interview has been edited and condensed.

KK Ottesen is a regular contributor to the magazine.

Democracy Dies in Darkness