Balkans Part 1: The story of me trying to find my way through the Southern-Balkans.
After two and a half months I arrived in Timisoara, a bordertown in Romania nearby Serbia. I booked a nice and cozy hostel just a bit outside the city center with an amazing garden. The original plan was to stay for two nights, check out the town and see their program as Capital Culture in 2022. But when I arrived in the hostel and saw how nice and relaxed the atmosphere was, I knew I was going to stay a couple of days longer. When I sat down on the cushions in the garden and started talking with the other guests, I realized how tired I was. After all these months of travelling I had reached my moment to stop and relax, before continuing my road. The first part of my travels were countries with a well developed infrastructure, but after going to Georgia, I moved up to Bulgaria and Romania. In those countries every trip that you make takes at least twice as long as you would expect and the comfort of the transportation drops as well.
What I also did not realize is that there is no public transportation going between Serbia and Romania. There is only one way to cross the border. Booking a mini-van from a company that is runned by a private tour operator. They pick you up from the hostel and drop you in Belgrade in your next hostel. For me this was a very convenient way of travelling, but it also made me realize how closed of Serbia still is in many ways. By crossing this border I once again entered the Balkan, but this time from the other side. It was like I knew I had to grasp some breath before crossing the border back to the Balkans and back to the history of the ex-Yugoslav states.
I’m glad I took this time because crossing this border, brougth up some really difficult questions and I needed a lot of time to think it over and over. I believe there is a certain responsbility to travelling in this area, to be aware of the history and the current political situation. That means for me to watch out a bit with my comments and questions, as sometimes I can be way to direct for people to feel comfortable with me. The second problem, which I was aware of before starting travelling, is my knowledge on the modern history of this area. Somehow I never really understood the impact of the shooting of Franz Ferdinand and why that caused a world war, but also the start of the Yugoslav war remained a mystery to me. I remember the lessons on school, I remember the classes on the university, but I was never able to put the pieces together. Maybe because my brain is trained to always put western history at its center, and in this case that does not work. Maybe because I did not know enough from the history of the Balkans before the Austrian-Hungarian empire. But as student European studies I was always a bit ashamed for my lack of understandment. Finally now, writing this article, I feel like the pieces are coming together and that I can do an attempt in understanding at least bits of the history. I’m starting to realize what I have been failing to understand before, because of the people I talked to, the museums I visited but also looking around and observing.
Belgrade was much bigger than I originally expected it to be. It used to be an important cultural capital as part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. It should not be surprising that also here the modernity and youth culture is flourishing in many ways. At the same time the city is chaotic, hectic and not so pretty as other Austrian-Hungarian capitals. Maybe it is exactly this combination of youth culture and mostly Soviet architecture that makes the city as attractive as it actually is. Belgrade is known for its wild parties at industrial areas, deserted buildings or at one of the boats on the river. The staff of the hostel invited us to join them to something else, a squatted boat on the other side of the river, where a group of friends are running their own cultural center. Beer is cheap, the toilet is non-existent, the stairs broken, the entrance based on donations and the overall atmosphere was really friendly. At first I thought everyone knew each other, but later I noticed that mostly just everyone talked with each other, no matter if they knew each other or not. We walked back home watching one of the most beautiful, sunsets I had seen in a while, and for just a moment I thought I was in Berlin. Again I had a confrontation between my excitement of being in this mind-blowing city, while on the other hand I realized this excitement also comes with surprise based on my presumptions about Serbia. Yes, everyone speaks highly of Belgrade, but it keeps surprising me how easily I can adjust to new European cities and feel like I already know the city.
From Belgrade I went to Novi Sad, the second biggest city of Serbia. From there I was planning to cross the border to Hungary, either towards Szeged or Pecs. Unfortunately for me, both wasn’t possible as to Pecs the transportation does not work and Szeged does not offer affordable hostels at that moment. Thus I decided to stay for 5 whole days in Novi Sad and really get to know the city and its people. At first I was a bit bumped about it, but in the end I learned a lot in Novi Sad. Novi Sad will be the first Cultural Capital outside of the EU in 2022 so I interviewed the International Relations Manager. He spoke with so much passion about the program and reconciliation with the neighbour countries through culture, I felt truly inspired. But in order to put his words in the right context I needed to educate myself better on the topic.
I talked during those days with a Bosnian Serb or a Serbian Bosnian? He did not want to identify with either, or with Europe. At some point he asked me what I think about the whole Yugoslav situation. And after thinking for a while I came to the only possible answer, I do not have an opinion about the situation. Because I do not think it is up to Western Europeans to take side or have an opinion on it. How could I? Even if I would know the whole history, background etc. I would never really understand the deep emotional background of the story. Somehow the idea of their roots is really strong and used to foster Nationalism. The identification as Croatian, Bosnian or Serb is present and plays a huge part not only in politics but also in their own personal lifes. The categoralization in these nationalities is mostly based on their religion or religious origin. Their history, politics and society are deeply influenced by this distinction, how do you get away from that emotional side of society, the deep trauma’s and the rooted hate? A question that will follow me for the rest of my time in the Southern Balkans.
My first stop in Bosnia-Herzegovina was Banja Luka, capital of the Serbian Republic in Bosnia. Here I went to the National museum of the Serbian Republic, in an attempt to get to understand the origin of this area. The Google reviews already warned me that the museum will be subjective about the Serbian, Croatian history and the role of the Serbians in some conflicts. This only made the museum more interesting, because it offers an unique inside to the Serbian narrative of this area. The museum did not disappoint in this perspective at all. One of the first things you will read about this area is that the Serbian tribe was there first. The second thing you will learn is that already in 13th century they said that the Bosnian Kingdom was made of Serbs. The Serbs were the original habitants of the Bosnian kingdom. The third milestone is when the Serbs went as first into rebellion against the Austrian-Hungarian empire, but did not get what they were demonstrating for and in the end the area became Yugoslav. A very simplified version of the development into Yugoslav was presented, and the whole war afterwards is not even mentioned. The history department of the museum stops after the Second World War. Maybe it is too soon to be able to make a museum on the recent history of the Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In the bus from Zagreb to Banja Luka I started talking with a Croatian, who had some hours to pass in Banja Luka before his transfer. We went into the city together and he told me a lot about his perspective on the Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian conflict. There is this theory that the Americans promised the Serbians this autonomious region if the Serbs would all move out from Croatia. He called it a form of Ethnic cleansing, because now the Serbians were excluded from Croatia and moved to Bosnia-Herzegovina. This game with borders and autonomious regions is no way near solved. As just a couple of weeks ago the Presidents of Kosovo and Serbia announced to be open to talk about different borders. And as this may sounds like their problem could get solved, this means that they will shift the border in order to clean Kosovo of the Serbs as well. It is modern, less violent way of reaching the same goal, combining a state with a homogeneous nation.
So I guess I said it, we can make the story long or short but in the end it will comes down to Nationalism and ethnic categoralization. The idea that there are specific Bosnians, Serbs or Croatians, is, in my perspective, far fetched. As their countries did not specifically came from all sorts of different tribes, they are Slavs and Ottomans, they had for a significant long time the same empires as rulers. So maybe there is not so much an ethnic difference between these groups. So what is it that makes the nationalism so strong in these countries? Is it maybe that history goes so far back that you are forced to identify with one nation and stick with it. Is it the retelling of all the history, who did what to who and so who has the right to what? Or is it that the form of communism in Yugoslavia was threatening the capitalist world so it had to be demolished, by nationalism and a civil war? And if it is all of these reasons, how can people ever let that go if the politics of these countries are based on these reasons?
The young people that I spoke to in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-herzegovina did not seem to obsessed about these questions. And yes to be honest, the people that I get to speak to are probably more open and progresssive as I meet them travelling or at parties. But they dream about careers, chances, open borders and being part of the EU. They are not worried about the exact drawing of their borders and who belongs to which part exactly, they are worried that their economy is not getting better, that they have no savings, no pension, no future as there are not enough jobs. Some told me that the time of Tito was not even that bad if you look at how it is now, he did open the borders, brought some economic growth and security to the people, but mostly they were together.
Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina are not part of the EU yet, though they have been candidates for quite some time now. Croatia is member of the EU though, which also creates some problems between the neighbours. Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia will not get member of the EU as long as the borders with Kosovo are not acknowledged.
As I experienced in Belgrade and Banja Luka, there is not much place in Serbia yet to talk about the recent history and a lot of problems among the countries are not solved yet either. These problems go deep into society, like the celebration of national days or the search for ‘missing people’ that disappeared during the war. The road to the EU may be a long one, but the road to Europe is really short. I was told that you can go up the streets in Serbia and ask around, people will tell you that they are European but are not sure if they want to be part of the EU. The same I have experienced during my time in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The longer I stay in the Southern Balkans, the more I’m learning about their history, their stories and their perspectives. I have rewritten this article for a week now. Because there are so many sides, so many stories, so many perspectives. At the same time I feel that I’m starting to understand bits of it and that I’m getting more confused what I should write down. This article is only the first part of a longer story that I will try to write down the best I can. But there will never be enough time for me to write down every story, to make sense out of everything I have heard the last couple of days. I can only do my best to honour the people that have been so open and honoust to me about their past and future and I hope I will do right to them. The coming two articles wll be about Novi Sad as cultural capital and how they will bring the European dimension to their city. The second one will highlight Sarajevo and a project for young cultural students trying to make their way in a city recovering from war. While my travelling is coming to an end, and therefor this part of my project, I have come to realize it is only the beginning of my interest in these areas as there will always be so much more for me to learn and discuss.