August ’08 – Belgrade – Serbia

By Bryan • personal, photography, tokyo to paris overland, travel • 19 Apr 2009

It’s tough being Serbian…your kebabs just are not as good as dodgy Polish varieties.

Belgrade – Serbia, a world without vowels

If I recall correctly, the Onion’s Our Dumb World Atlas lists Serbia with the heading Serbia: “So we’ve done a little ethnic cleansing…”

When you read that particular book you have to have a fairly liberal sense of humour and take it for what it is…a satirical atlas, even if some entries push the borders a bit too much (some of the entries regarding Africa go a little overboard).

If I had to write the entry, I think it would lean more toward Serbia: “What did WE do?”

*I write this at the risk of entering into something too big.

I spent quite a bit of time talking to the owners of the awesome little hostel I was staying at in Belgrade (I highly recommend it if you are in Belgrade).  The owners were about my age, which meant they were a few years shy of being really involved in the turmoil of the early to mid 90’s but old enough to remember the NATO bombings in 1999, old enough to have had a hand in kicking Milosevic out in 2001 and definitely had a few things to say about Kosovo and the EU.

I kept my distance regarding events in Bosnia and Croatia partly because of who I was speaking to and also because at the time I really only had the layman’s western interpretation of events.

Thoughts and perspectives on Kosovo were really interesting.  Kosovo is one of the West’s little darlings and perfect example of the ethnically oppressed rising up against the evil tyrants in a bid for freedom – the stuff of western legends.

That is somewhat how Serbia feels about that piece of land, except the other way around.  Serbia is just as nationalistic (actually, possibly more) than your typical nation-state and Kosovo is considered the birthplace of the Serbian nation.  The land were Serbs fought the Turks and guarded the Medieval gates of Europe.  Kosovo, in a nutshell, is to Serbia, what…….

There was a lot of bewilderment at being attacked by NATO over Kosovo in 1999 – questions over “Why are you attacking us?  We are just protecting fellow Serbs in Kosovo who were being cleansed by the Albanians.”

Resentment toward the West exists on that level, but also going back further to the early 90’s.  There is resentment that NATO loves to hunt down Serbian war criminals but demonstrates little ambition to go after Croatian or Bosnian counterparts.

I tread cautiously on these topics, especially regarding issues involving nationalism.  However, I found that talking to nationalists in Serbia was different than talking to nationalists that I had spoken to in Russia or China.  There was a level of reflection and issues of national interest  in Serbia that wasn’t strongly apparent in Russia, and wasn’t present at all in China.  This reflection idea is interesting because it would grow as my travels through the Balkans took me further “west”.

I could feel  from the younger generation that there was a sense of “that wasn’t us that did those things in the early 90’s….so why are you still after us?”

I figured I needed to know more about what was went on in the Balkans in the 90’s.  The definitive book on the subject is Yugoslavia: The Death of a Nation written by two BBC journalists who spent extensive time in the region during the rise of tensions in the 80’s to full out war in the 90’s.  I finally came across the book when I arrived in Sarajevo a week or two later.

People always talk about books or essays that just blow one away and change everything (well, maybe that is too dramatic).  I can’t list too many for me…Robert D. Kaplan’s The Coming Anarchy essay from 1995, Garret Hardin’s The Tragedy of the Commons from 1968…maybe one or two Richard Scarry or Bill Peet books :-p (The Wump World could be considered on of the first environmental books for kids)

Yugoslavia: The Death of a Nation is one of those books. I will never look at that piece of the world the same way again or even any kind of nationalist issue. It is difficult to describe this book – it’s hard to read…lots of names, very political.  It is completely not what one would have expected.

But the end leaves one going “wow…I had no…fracking…idea….”

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