“Samo da ne bude rata – as long as there's no war”*
Delusion and confusion exploring former Yugoslavia
My family stuck out like a sore thumb in the German village where I grew up, my father being Turkish and my mother originally from Berlin, I never really associated myself with this small township. Luckily, I found an exotic comrade in this traditional environment when I started elementary school: a boy whose family had fled from the war in Bosnia. We were best friends for four years, until his family unfortunately got deported in 1999 when Germany deemed the situation in former Yugoslavia safe enough for them to return to the ruins of what they had once called home.
Of course his departure was sad for me, but entering a higher school in a bigger town in addition to the general transitory nature of a child’s mind, I more or less forgot about my childhood friend and went on with my life. A strong desire to travel, always nurtured by my venturesome parents drove me to some remote corners of the planet, but it was not until I had to decide what I wanted to do after high school that I was unexpectedly confronted with my old friend’s home country, or more precisely, home region – the Balkans.
The combination of a merciless German admission system for medical school and my everlasting hunger for new cultures and experiences can be considered the reasons why I resettled in Belgrade, the former capital of Yugoslavia. The country that I had continuously heard tragic stories about on the news during the 1990s but never really understood why people were waging war with each other and why the NATO was bombing it.
To be fair, there still is a great deal of details that I do not understand, but I have done my best in the last two years to investigate, taking as many perspectives of the conflict into consideration as possible. Even though I study in English, the majority of my fellow students are children of families who escaped from the war. They were born in different parts of this once huge country and grew up all over the world. The thing they have in common is that no matter where exactly their families were from, they consider themselves ethnic Serbs and Serbian orthodox Christians.
Speaking to these people, as well as to people who grew up in Belgrade and did not escape during the war, the image I got of the conflict was probably as one-sided and unrealistic as the one I had beforehand. In popular Western media, the Serbs are largely blamed for everything that went wrong, they are portrayed as a cruel, ferocious people who mercilessly slaughtered people of different beliefs and tried to take away as much of their land as possible.
Bearing this in mind, I was surprised at the friendliness and openness of the Serbs that I encountered upon my arrival in Belgrade and was quick to believe their stories of how the war was mainly caused by Americans and big European nations who were shivering in the face of a supposedly strong Yugoslavia, which could have theoretically dominated the continent if it had further progressed after Tito’s death. So, according to many Serbs, naturally those scared big nations tried to kick up a breeze to manipulate the extremely multicultural Yugoslavs into killing each other and destroying almost everything that had been built up in this region for centuries.
After two years of living in Belgrade, I have visited practically all the shattered pieces of the former Yugoslav republic. It may be a coincidence that my own background – German and Turkish – is in some way a reflection of the main influences that have clashed on the Balkan long before Yugoslavia was even founded. The Western European, mainly Austro-Hungarian and middle Eastern, former Ottoman empires shaped these regions culturally and architecturally which is still apparent while walking through any city center in this region today, no matter how relentlessly they have been battered by the First and Second World War, the civil wars as well as the NATO intervention in 1999.
Riddled with countless other cultural influences, the metaphor that comes to mind is a puzzle, and looking at a current political map of the former Yugoslav countries it seems miraculous that they were once united under the same flag. As different as for example Ljubljana and Pristina may seem at first glance, I could not help but see far more similarities than differences between all the different people I have met on my travels. For one thing, most of them share a grammatically complex but beautiful language rife with consonants.
Furthermore I have found all people to be warmhearted, hospitable, curious, and polite. Not once did I come across any hostility, not when I told the people in Kosovo that I study in Belgrade, not when I talked to Croats and Bosnians in my broken but obviously Serbian Serbo-Croatian, never when anyone heard that I am German, Turkish, and non-religious. The attitude that I was constantly greeted with was genuine interest, about why I would leave Germany to live here, what I thought about the Balkans, and which my favorite type of Rakija was. Approval is the general reaction I received whenever I mentioned how beautiful I think all Balkan countries are.
Perhaps war is the expectable outcome of centuries of heteronomy, multiculturalism and a long period of soiling picturesque scenery with brutalist buildings, but this case seems exceptionally tragic to me because of how recently it happened. In Germany we are constantly reminded of the dark history of our country, but very rarely do we encounter any people who remember the times. When we meet them, the age gap is so significant that it is hard to grasp their sentiments about the Second World War. For me it is unimaginable what people my age may have lived through here.
To the astonishment of anyone who enters Belgrade for the first time, there is a big ruin towering over one of the most central streets. It is the remnant of the ministry of defense that was bombed by the NATO in 1999. After the NATO had already taken action in Bosnia in 1995, they thought it was a good idea to intervene once again four years later to stop the Serbian rampage in Kosovo. The German foreign minister at the time made claims of having seen “concentration camps” in one of the football stadiums of Pristina, but diplomats and journalists in Kosovo at the time denied all such claims.
Media coverage in Serbia at that time was rather secretive, so the bafflement of the general population when they first heard the sirens is imaginable. Only strategic points were bombed (and yet around 500 civilians died through this campaign) but what I find particularly interesting about this is, that the NATO conference in which the mandate for this intervention was concluded, was held in in April 1999, but the first bombs hit Belgrade on March 24th.
Parts of the ruin of the former ministry of defense are visible from my balcony. How many times I sat on this balcony, wondering who sat there the day the bomb dropped and the impact the explosion must have had in the whole neighborhood. I also wonder where this person is now. Every single individual here has a story to tell, and what gives me hope is that there seem to be more and more people willing to listen to these stories.
My impression is that people on a global scale seem to have accepted that the Balkan war was a messy affair on all sides, that not one party can be blamed for everything, but above all, that these countries have not been irrevocably havocked by this absurd decade at the end of the 20th century. This is evidenced by the increasing number of tourists that flock to all former Yugoslav countries, of course most to Croatia, especially now that it entered the European Union, but I have met a fair number in every country, even in Kosovo. It is inspiring to see that people are focusing on the bright sides of these countries and that they are finally not so isolated anymore. I am especially happy that around 60 Erasmus students have come to live in Belgrade for one or two semesters for the first time this year. They are all as enchanted by Serbia after their first two months as I still am after two years.
One of my best friends now is another Bosnian who was born in Sarajevo a few days before the siege started in early 1992. The haunting image I get when I think of his family’s refuge is of his mother running away from gunshots with a crying baby in her arms. He lived a comfortable life in Sweden but never wants to go back to Sarajevo because of what happened to his family, which I can hardly blame him for. The least I felt I could do to pay some sort of respect when I went to Sarajevo was to visit the synagogue, because my friend’s family is Jewish and his great grandfather was a famous Bosnian author, Isak Samokovlija.
As I walk from my backpacker lodge in the buzzing part of the old town towards the river Miljacka, crossing it via the Latin bridge next to which Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, I am again haunted by the thought of the five year-lasting siege. I get goose bumps when I look at the hills covered in forest surrounding the city, knowing that shots were being fired onto almost every house in the city from up there, which is creepily evident by the bullet hole covered façades of almost every building.
The woman in the synagogue is surprised when I ask her about Isak Samokovlija and smiles warmly after I explain my interest. She is touched by the fact that two people can be best friends, in spite of their families being German, Turkish, Jewish and Serbian respectively. She points out of the window on the first floor, back across the river towards the city center and tells me to look for Isak Samokovlija’s statue in front of the Serbian Orthodox Church. When she hears that my next stop is going to be Višegrad, she writes down this Samokovlija quote for me: "Drina je za me jedan od najdubljih doživljaja. Zanosila me je kao neko živo, božanstveno biće.", roughly translated: “The Drina is for me one of the most profound experiences. It swayed me like a living, divine creature.” (Drina: a river that forms part of the modern border of Bosnia and Serbia, site of many battles throughout history)
Slowly crawling up and down the hills to Višegrad in my old car the next day, the view constantly blocked by trees, I am enthralled when we finally make it over the last hill and descend into the valley of the Drina. I am not sure if the people here are so attached to their land because they are not nomadic half casts like me, or if Samokovlija was right in his quote, but this valley really is one of the most beautiful places I have seen in the world. The hills still lightly covered in snow, while down by the river life has been set in motion by the timid spring sun. The water clearer than glass, the meadows full of bees and the air smelling of flowers, there are few audible sounds except for the tender purl of the river and the joyful chirp of the birds. It is somehow ironic that I consider this the most peaceful scenery I can imagine, when you think of how much blood must have blurred this river and of the brutality it has witnessed.
Stirred by the beauty of my surroundings, I get upset at the misleading information and rumors about the region that are circulating in Western Europe, I shake my head vaguely remembering my politics teacher in high school blathering about concentration camps, I think of the German government that is currently trying to blackmail Serbia and Kosovo into resolving their conflict at the cost of their respective interests, even though nobody, including me, really understands the conflict. Of course a puzzle is not going to solve itself by letting the pieces fight each other endlessly, but neither is it going to be solved by some outsider, who crams unsuitable pieces together like a colorblind person with no sense for shapes.
These thoughts fade at the sight of the Mehmed Paša Sokolović bridge in Višegrad. Regardless of the fact that it was once the site of a massacre in a civil war and destroyed and rebuilt in both World Wars, this quote by Ivo Andrić now seems more meaningful to me than ever: “And the bridge stood still, as it has always been, with his eternal youth and perfect ideas of good and great human acts that do not know what is aging or change and that, so it seems, to share the fate of the transient things of this world." (Bridge on the Drina**)
Me in front of the statue for my friend’s great grandfather, Sarajevo 2012
After a NATO bomb hit Novi Sad, 1999 (from Wikipedia)
Mehmed Paša Sokolović bridge in Višegrad (from Wikipedia)
Former ministry of defense in Belgrade, bombed by the NATO in 1999 (from Wikipedia)
*Samo Rata Da Ne Bude (So long as there is no war) by George Balasevic.The song was an urge to the people of Yugoslavia by the popular singer of Serbia not to go to war. He begins by showing a haunting picture of nationalism and war: "Drunk boys march down our lonely streets, behind them follow weeping girls. Don't you know? They are headed for the army. Just let there be no war". He uses extreme examples of possibilities to imply "Even if the worst of the worst could happen, it is still better than war".
** А мост је и даље стајао, онакав какав је одувек био, са својом вечитом младошћу савршене замисли и добрих и великих људских дела која не знају шта је старење ни промена и која, бар тако изгледа, на деле судбину пролазних ствари овога света.“ Ivo Andrić, 1945 in Bridge on the Drina