The Flight Attendant Who Fell To Earth – Vesna Vulovic: In The Direction Of Dreams & Nightmares

Pilgrimages are often made by the faithful to certain holy sites in central and eastern Europe. Despite communist imposed atheism on most of the countries in the region for almost fifty years, sacred sites, often centuries old, outlasted the tyranny of that godless system. Since the iron curtain fell, these places have hosted great masses of Christians who make a special trip to see them each year. Several of these can be found in the Czech Republic, home to multiple venerated sites. These include the Infant Jesus of Prague, a wooden statue of the baby Jesus gripping a globus cruciger (cross-bearing orb) in his right hand. This 16th century statue is often clothed in imperial regalia and topped with a crown. Pilgrims come and pray to the statue in the fervent belief that it will provide favors to them. Another site of pilgrimage is the Holy Mountain, just fifty kilometers south of Prague. This hilltop, overlooking the town of Pribram, is home to a basilica that houses the famed Our Lady of Sveta Hora. This 14th century Gothic statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary with the Infant Jesus, was venerated to the point that it was given a coronation by the Jesuits in 1732. Pilgrims visit the statue today in the hope that their prayers to it will be answered.

These sites of pilgrimage are predicated on history, legend, tradition and the abiding belief that they have miraculous powers which can alter an individual’s circumstances in this world. Every year tens of thousands make the trek in search of transcendence. Whether miracles result from these visits is largely left to the mind of the believer. They say you have got to have faith, but what about reality. Reality is what most miracle searchers are looking to transcend, but reality has produced its own share of miracles. One of the most incredible happens to have occurred in the Czech Republic and rivals anything in the annals of Catholicism. Located close to the tiny village of Srbska Kamenice is a potential pilgrimage site almost entirely unknown. Very few people, other than niche tourists or locals visit it.  That is a shame. For miracles really do happen and not just to the religious, but also to people like you and me. The skeptics and cynics who walk among us just might have their minds changed on miracles if they stop at a parking lot along road 25854 in northern Bohemia. This is where a small monument marks the crash of JAT Airways Flight 367. It is as good a place any to contemplate the miraculous life and fate of Vesna Vulovic.

Memorial to A Tragedy & A Miracle - The Monument in Srbská Kamenice to JAT Flight 367

Memorial to A Tragedy & A Miracle – The Monument in Srbská Kamenice to JAT Flight 367 (Credit: palickap)

Rising & Falling Fortunes – Loss Of Altitude
Vesna Vulovic was born into a post-World War II Yugoslavia that was a good place to grow up for those forced to live behind the Iron Curtain. Tito-era Yugoslavia did not place the kind of tight restrictions on western culture and travel that other Eastern European nations were mandated to uphold while under the Soviet sphere of influence. The relatively relaxed Yugoslav administration allowed western pop culture to permeate the Balkans. A teenage Vesna could thus fall in love with the Beatles. That musical passion led her to take a trip to Great Britain following her first year of university study. Soon she was traveling onward to Sweden before heading back to her hometown of Belgrade. Somewhere along the way, Vesna fell in love with traveling. After she saw one of her friends wearing a stylish JAT (Yugoslavia’s National Airline) uniform, she decided to become a flight stewardess. She hoped this would offer her many more opportunities to journey abroad. Soon she was enjoying a life aloft, jetting across Europe. This surely made her one of the luckier young ladies in the communist world.

Vesna was only in her first year of working for JAT when she flew to Copenhagen in the winter of 1972. She was excited to visit the Danish capital for the first time. Such opportunities were the reason she had been so eager to pursue this new career. Though only twenty-two years old, Vesna’s career was quite literally taking flight. After arriving in Copenhagen she spent an afternoon shopping with some of her colleagues. After staying overnight, they were ready to fly out the next day. The plane they would be boarding arrived late from where it had originated from in Stockholm, Sweden. Vesna and the crew were slated to work the final two legs as it went first from Zagreb and then on to Belgrade. Vesna and several of her colleagues noticed an irritated passenger leaving the plane after it finally arrived from Stockholm. Perhaps this was due to its delayed arrival. In retrospect it may have been due to something else. This man was one of the last things Vesna would recall about the flight.

At precisely 3:15 p.m. on January 25, 1972, JAT Flight 367 departed from Copenhagen for Zagreb. Forty-five minutes into the flight, the narrow body DC-9 entered the airspace of Czechoslovakia. It was cruising at an altitude of 33,300 feet over the rolling hills and forested woodlands of northern Bohemia when suddenly the aircraft was torn apart by an explosion. All except one of the 28 passengers onboard were suddenly ejected from the aircraft where they fell from a height greater than that of Mount Everest to their deaths. Meanwhile, Vesna was wedged into the fuselage by a food cart, at least that was what later investigators surmised because she had no memory of the crash. When the fuselage finally fell to the earth its free fall was broken by trees and snowpack.

Serbian Stewardess - Vesna Vulovic

Serbian Stewardess – Vesna Vulovic

Crash Landing– A Precarious Position
Vesna Vulovic was somehow still alive after hitting the ground, though her chance of survival was precarious. A local from the village of Srbska Kamenice, Bruno Honke, heard her screaming in pain and found her covered in blood. In a stroke of incredibly good fortune, Honke was well versed in first aid from his experiences as a medic during World War II. If it had not been for his assistance, Vesna would have almost certainly died on the spot. Instead, she was rescued and transported to a hospital. The fact that she was still alive was nothing short of miraculous. The question now was whether she would survive.

Survival Skills – Tito’s Luck: The 1979 Montenegro Earthquake

To survive as a dictator takes an extremely clever individual who is willing to do whatever is necessary to keep power. This often means resorting to measured brutality. A dictator must know not only when to act against enemies, but also calibrate how much force should be used. It is one thing to get rid of would be usurpers and dangerous political enemies, it is quite another to engage in continuous purges. The latter can lead to a counter revolt by those who think they might be next on a growing proscription list. The most successful dictators in history know when to act and how far to go (Note: For the record, I am not condoning dictatorship or authoritarian rule, just stating simple truths).

One of the best at knowing when to purge enemies in order to keep power was Yugoslavia’s longtime leader and erstwhile dictator Josip Broz Tito. His decades long grip on power in a region that imploded after his death speaks volumes about his skill in power politics. Like all dictators, Tito was obsessed with control and for the sake of self-preservation he had to be. Lose control, lose power, lose your dictatorship, lose your life. Tito never said those words in that was, but he didn’t have to. He understood this logic intuitively. Tito was going to do everything possible to never lose his grip on power and he never did, at least not when it came to ruling Yugoslavia.

The survivalist - Josip Broz Tito

The survivalist – Josip Broz Tito

A Matter of Control – Assassination Inspiration
Despite his longevity, uneasy was the head that wore the crown of leadership in post-World War II Yugoslavia. Tito was constantly threatened with assassination, much more by external foes rather than internal ones. After he broke Yugoslavia away from Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union, Tito was a marked man. By some accounts, Tito managed to withstand no less than twenty-two KGB originated assassination attempts. Some of these seemed like fodder for James Bond novels, the most notorious of which involved a box that would be opened and spray Tito with a poison gas. None of the attempts came close to being successful, nonetheless they must have made Tito contemplate his mortality more than a few times. It spurred him to even greater control of his own personal security and surroundings. Political preservation and self-preservation were inextricably intertwined, making them literally a matter of life and death. Tito instinctively knew this, but even the most powerful dictators, and was certainly one of them, still must deal with events beyond their control.

The most unpredictable of these do not always come from human adversaries, instead they sometimes arise by force of nature. Tito learned this lesson in the 1979 Montenegro earthquake which nearly took his life and rule from him. How does a dictator protect himself from an earthquake? The answer is one of two things, either they do not bother worrying about such infrequent cataclysms or they manage to get lucky. And when it came to keeping power in the Balkans it is sometimes better to be lucky than good. There is no better example of Tito’s luck than the exceedingly nasty 1979 Montenegro earthquake. It was certainly bad luck to have such a catastrophe strike the Yugoslav state in the first place, but not surprising since the area has been riven throughout history by repeated temblors. The quake hit during the spring of 1979 when on the morning of April 15 the coast of Montenegro and the near inland area was jolted by a 6.9 magnitude earthquake.

Damaged goods - Hotel in Budva following the 1979 Montenegro

Damaged goods – Hotel in Budva following the 1979 Montenegro (Credit: R McGuire/U.S. Geological Survey)

No Rest For The Weary – Mortal Dangers
By several standards of measurement, the 1979 Montenegro Earthquake was more powerful than the terribly destructive one that had leveled much of Skopje in Macedonia a decade and a half earlier. Not as much is heard about the Montenegrin quake because it did not strike a densely populated area or major city. In this case, it was not just the rumbling ground, but also the roiling sea which wreaked havoc along the Montenegrin coast as a six-meter high tsunami crashed into parts of the shoreline.
A great deal of the 1979 quake’s destruction was wrought upon the historic town of Budva which hugged the Adriatic Sea. Its Old Town sustained major damage to cultural properties, while local residences crumbled. The same thing occurred in many of the communities around the beautiful bay of Kotor.

On April 15, Tito was staying at Igalo, on the northside of the bay at one of his personal residences. He was spending time resting and relaxing in this vibrant coastal resort area. Tito was in the final phase of his life, an 86-year old all-powerful leader of a nation that only he could control. As unwieldy as Yugoslavia was to lead, it was nothing compared to dealing with an earthquake. One gigantic tremor and suddenly the omnipotent Tito felt his own mortality. When the quake hit Igalo, it was still rather early in the morning and Tito was reportedly resting. He, like hundreds of thousands in Montenegro, felt the full terrifying force of the ground shifting beneath their feet. Unlike other Yugoslavs, hundreds of kilometers away in Sarajevo, Skopje and Zagreb who felt tremors, Tito was much closer to the epicenter. He received nature’s greatest wake up call, a much more powerful and personal experience than he had with most natural forces in his life. He was lucky to escape without injury. In the past, Tito as Yugoslav leader had shown up to review earthquake damages, this time he was part of one.

Long live Tito - Graffiti in former Yugoslavia

Long live Tito – Graffiti in former Yugoslavia (Credit: anjci)

An Act Of Nature – Out Of Control Forces
Tito only lived three more years after his earthquake experience. As he faded in his final years, much of the Montenegrin coast that had been damaged by the 1979 Earthquake underwent a slow, yet substantial rebuilding process. The lifeblood of Montenegro has been and always will be its coastline, where trade and tourism thrive. The 1979 Earthquake turned out to be a major aberration in the area’s development, but one that would be overcome. As for Tito, the earthquake was a reminder of his mortality and the fact that some forces would always be beyond his dictatorial control. The earthquake did not take his life, but the end was near. No one survives forever, especially in the Balkans, not even Josip Broz Tito.

Clock Stopping – The 1963 Skopje Earthquake: Twenty Seconds Changes Everything 

The Balkans is a popular byword for fragmentation. The region became synonymous with ethnic upheavals that led to warfare and endemic divisiveness during the 20th century. The word Balkans was transformed in the 1990’s by the dissolution of Yugoslavia. This led to the term Balkanization, which stood for ethnic and political divisions into smaller and smaller units. Both Balkans and Balkanizing were almost always used in the context of geographic regions, empires and nations-states. Both terms are still defined by the region’s rancorous politics that continue right up to the present. Yet some areas of the Balkans have another history of breaking up, not from within, but below. Just like politics, earthquakes have had an unsettling effect on the region, most prominently in Romania and Bulgaria. They have also struck in other areas of the Balkans, including what was then the nation of Yugoslavia during the post- World War II era. One of the many earthquakes to strike Yugoslavia gained such infamous notoriety that it is still commemorated to this very day in a uniquely singular manner.

Monumental movement - Alexander the Great statue in Skopje

Monumental movement – Alexander the Great statue in Skopje (Credit: Diego Delso)

City Of Importance – Monumental Movements
The Macedonian capital of Skopje has gained a fair bit of fame for a major redevelopment project that took place in the city center from 2010 to 2014. The project was marked by huge doses of monumentalism such as a Triumphal Arch that caused one local wag to ask exactly what triumph was being commemorated. The Macedonian parliament building was crowned with glass domes, integrating symbols of modernity and deep history. Statues of historical personages that reach far back into “Macedonian” history tower over onlookers. This statuary references leaders from such disparate ages as the Serbian Empire, Macedonian-Bulgarian Empire, Byzantium and Classical Greece among others. This reflects an outsized yearning for Skopje to be something other than what it was, a provincial city that through historical forces beyond its control became a city of either great, minor or no importance depending on the time period.

Such monumentalism is also a convenient political device that allows the nation’s leaders to thumb their nose at Greece. The Greek state is a perennial thorn in the side of Macedonians due to its refusal to recognize Macedonia as anything other than an interloper trying to co-opt the Hellenistic legacy. Greece insists that Macedonia stop referring to itself by that name. According to Greece, the name Macedonia is an irredentist claim to the Greek territory of northern Macedonia. While most non-partisan observers consider this ridiculous, it has been a useful ruse for the Greeks to keep Macedonia on the outside looking in when it comes to such exclusive organizations as the European Union.

For their part, Macedonia’s leaders have used the Skopje redevelopment project to irritate the Greeks. Foremost among these efforts is a 26-meter high statue of Alexander the Great that might be one of the few things in history equal to the conqueror’s own ambitions. Such monumentalism is an attempt by Macedonia’s political elite to remake the city, and by extension the nation, into something greater than its history might suggest. It also distracts from one of the most revealing sites that represent the modern history of Macedonia. This site is none other than the old city train station, turned to ruin a half century ago and left in situ as a stark reminder of just how quickly everything can change in Skopje.

A mountain of rubble - Skopje post-earthquake in 1963

A mountain of rubble – Skopje post-earthquake in 1963 (Credit: State Archives of the Republic of Macedonia)

Bombing From Below – The End Of Progress
In 1689 the Austrian Army occupied Skopje, officially known as Uskub when the Ottoman Turks ruled over it. The Austrians had a terrible experience during their short stay in the city, suffering along with the locals from an outbreak of the plague which was raging in the city. The decision was soon made to retreat from Uskub. Before retreating, the Austrian General Enea Silvio Piccolomini decided the city should be burnt to the ground. From the moment that martial destruction ended until just before daylight on July 26, 1963, Skopje grew by fits and starts until it was home to a population of 170,000. That number was the most people to ever live in this city which had straddled both sides of the Vardar River since pre-Roman times. The modern progress of Skopje came to a catastrophic halt in just twenty seconds.  At 5:17 a.m. a 6.1 magnitude earthquake erupted from beneath the city center. Specifically, the epicenter was located beneath the city’s central square. Three buildings on that square immediately collapsed, including the grand bank building. Anywhere from 40% to 80% of the city’s structures were destroyed. Over a thousand people were killed, more than three thousand injured and a majority of Skopje’s citizenry were immediately rendered homeless.

The city was transformed into one vast ruin. The New York Times foreign correspondent David Binder, who arrived in a devastated Skopje just after noon that same day, likened what he saw from the air to the aftermath of “a heavy bombing raid”.  While flying into the city he noticed the “haze of brick and mortar dust which hung over the city.” As much as the earthquake tore Skopje apart, it also served to bring Cold War enemies from the communist and capitalist worlds closer together than they had been in decades. Since Yugoslavia was part of the non-aligned movement of nations that were officially neutral in the Cold War, all sides of the international community were welcome to provide much needed aid to the city. That is precisely what happened as Americans, Brits, Soviets and other nation states ignored political differences to launch a major humanitarian initiative. They provided food, water and shelter among other necessities of life that helped save tens of thousands of lives. From horror to humanitarianism Skopje rose from the rubble.

5:17 in Skopje - One thing that has not changed (Credit: Furmum)

5:17 in Skopje – One thing that has not changed (Credit: Furmum)

Tragic Timing – From Ruin To Relic
Skopje would have to be rebuilt in order to make it livable once again. This process was long, arduous and has never been entirely completed. The vast redevelopment project has overhauled much of the city center, but the most poignant relic of the 1963 earthquake still stands a few hundred meters from the main city square where the earthquake first struck. What was then the city’s main train station partially collapsed. The part still standing included an exterior wall with a clock. The clock stopped that morning at exactly 5:17 a.m. It remains there today. The clock hands have never moved since that moment, forever telling the time when tragedy struck Skopje and changed the city forever.

An Approximation Of The Past – Baedeker In Sarajevo: The Unknown Anniversary

A trip I did not take has haunted me for several years. Despite my most fervent wishes I could not make it to Sarajevo for the centennial commemoration of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie’s assassination by the Bosnian Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip. The assassination was one of the most consequential in human history. It led directly to the Great War, which killed or maimed tens of millions leading to a reordering of the geopolitical landscape that reverberates right up to the present. On June 28, 2014 a ceremony was held in Sarajevo at the spot where Princip carried out his deadly historical deed.  Due to the nature of my work, I was unable to travel during the summer of 2014. All I could do was read about the ceremony and dream about what might have been.

My disappointment was ameliorated by the memory of a visit I had made to Sarajevo in March 2011. On that trip, I visited the street corner where the assassination occurred. Little did I know that I could have done another centennial commemoration on this trip, one that had nothing to do with the assassination. That is because in 1911, three years before Princip fired those fateful shots, Baedeker published what was to be the last edition of their Austria-Hungary Handbook For Travellers. The firm had no way of knowing this at the time. Just as they had no way of knowing that Austria-Hungary would disintegrate a mere seven years later at the end of World War I. The 1911 Baedeker’s coverage of Sarajevo makes fascinating reading when compared to how one modern guidebook chose to interpret the city.

The Final Journey - Sarajevo on the inside

The Final Journey – Sarajevo on the inside

A Multi-Dimensional Portrait – The Way To See Sarajevo
The difference in descriptions of Sarajevo from the guidebook I used while visiting in 2011 versus that of Baedeker’s in 1911 are easily discernible. The Lonely Planet guide to the Western Balkans begins its description of the city with this chilling sentence: “In the 1990’s Sarajevo was on the edge of annihilation.” Contrast that reminder of the apocalyptic Yugoslav Wars with the detail laden description of the city by Baedeker: “Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, seat of the provincial government, headquarters of the 15th Army Corps, and residence of a Roman Catholic Archbishop, of a Servian (sic) Orthodox Metropolitan, and of a Mohammaden Reis-ul-Ulema, with 51,870 inhab. (18,460 Mohammedans and 6400 Jews) and a garrison of 5000 men, lies in a narrow valley of the Miljacka, at the foot and on the slopes of partly wooded hills rising to a height of 5250 ft.” Reading the former, one cannot help but sense that the city has just barely managed to survive a near death experience. The feeling that fate fell heavy handed on Sarajevo, no matter what else is said after that initial sentence – much of which is quite positive – cannot be shaken by the reader.

In contrast. Baedeker opens its introduction to Sarajevo with a withering amount of facts. While they might be construed as nothing more than hard data, these details leave much open to the readers interpretation. From this intro, the reader comes to understand that Sarajevo is a religiously diverse city. The words Catholic, Orthodox, Mohammaden and Jews are all found in a single sentence. At the same time, the reader also learns of a martial aspect – “15th Army Corps” “garrison of 5,000 men”- to be found in Sarajevo. The topographical description of the city’s situation “lies in a narrow valley” and “at the foot and on the slopes of partly wooded hills” is picturesque. The overall effect of Baedeker’s style is to create a multi-dimensional portrait. Modern guidebooks have the difficult task of trying to rescue Sarajevo from the shadows of its 20th century history. Baedeker had no idea of the future. Its job was to describe the present and past. And that is just what it did, making Sarajevo shine like a ray of sun within its pages.

The Old World - Baedeker in 1911 on Sarajevo

The Old World – Baedeker in 1911 on Sarajevo

Bazaar Transformations – The Near Abroad
To an astonishing degree, most of the sites in Sarajevo listed by Baedeker still existed when I visited. This, despite the destruction wrought by two World Wars and that internecine conflict of the 1990’s that was just as deadly. I was able to visit the Serbian Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Cathedral and Husref Beg Mosque. At the latter, just as Baedeker advised, I was only allowed to enter the mosque “using the overshoes which the visitor must put on.” Business and commerce were largely segregated in much the same fashion in 2011 as Baedeker described a century earlier, with one sad caveat. The guidebook stated that in this “modern part of the town trade and business are mostly in the hands of Jews and Christians”. The Jews were decimated by the Holocaust, but the reconstructed, modern part of the city is a westernized, prototypically small European city center, largely run by the non-Muslim portion of the population.

Meanwhile the bazaar is still a vital part of the Old Turkish part of town where Bosniaks reign supreme. Conversely, many of the stalls are no longer run by Muslim merchantmen, but by attractive women. In 1911, Baedeker pointed out that many of the items on sale in the bazaar were not homemade, but reputedly came from Austria. A century later, I could not help but wonder how many of the “local” items such as rugs and copperware had been shipped in from Guangzhou. The influence of outsiders was just as pronounced in 2011 as 1911. Everything was supposed to have changed in Sarajevo during the 20th century, but I found the changes to be ones of nuance rather than degree.

The Edge of Innocence- Sarajevo before the Great War

The Edge of Innocence- Sarajevo before the Great War

An Unexpected Delight – Recreating A Lost Reality
Of course, Baedeker had no way of knowing that Sarajevo would prove to be the pivot point on which the world would turn away from peace and towards world war. They had no way of knowing that in their two excellent maps of Sarajevo could be found the place where fate and enmity would collude just a few years later, starting a process that would end up bringing an entire world to the point of collapse. It is both endearing and ominous to read Baedeker on Sarajevo a century after the fact. The no frills explanations of an astonishing city, one that Lonely Planet would later call an “unexpected delight”. An unexpected delight when what has come to be expected is war, upheaval and seemingly endless reconstruction. That was the Sarajevo I expected to see in 2011, thankfully what I discovered had much more in common with 1911. Reading Baedeker over a hundred years after its publication brought that lost reality back to me

Football Is War By Other Means – Fighting To The Finish: Dinamo Zagreb vs. the Red Star of Yugoslavia

The great Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz famously described “war is the continuation of politics by other means”. Clausewitz lived most of his during the first half of the 19th century, long before Europe was consumed by football madness. If Clausewitz had lived long enough to see the passions aroused by football he might have altered his famous saying to “football is the continuation of war by other means”. For the spirit of war has been pervasive on football pitches across Europe as fans of teams both domestic and national paint their rivals as enemies. They cry for blood and cheer for victory. In the interest of self-preservation, I have avoided the emotionally charged environment of football stadiums on visits to Eastern Europe.

On two separate occasions I have been warned off attending matches by locals. In Dresden, an English speaking local told me to avoid any matches involving the city’s clubs unless I was ready to engage in fisticuffs, racial taunts or worse. While in Berlin on that same trip I noticed police lined up at the entrance to U Bahn stations near the Olympiastadion. The reason for such a security presence was that a Hertha Berlin Sporting Club match was starting soon. Even though the city’s most popular football club sported a middling record at the time, there was still the threat of riotous behavior. From this activity I surmised that football matches were as much an invitation for animal instincts to run wild, as they were about cheering on your team.

Fans fighting at the 1990 Dinamo Zagreb-Red Star Belgrade football match

More Than A Game – Fans fighting at the 1990 Dinamo Zagreb-Red Star Belgrade football match

A Reputation For Violence – Proxy War
A few years later in Sarajevo, I inquired at my hotel about the possibility of seeing the stadium where the rock band, U2, had played a famous show in 1997. The owner of the hotel said the only way to get inside the stadium was to attend a football match. He then warned me that this was not a good idea for a tourist. He said that fan conduct often descended into violence. From what he said, it did not sound like a good idea for a local, let alone tourists, to attend a match unless they were looking for a fight. I erred on the side of caution, avoiding the stadium on match day. Sarajevo had seen enough war and bloodshed during the 1990’s, I did not care to see that experience replicated to a lesser extent at a football match.

Football and the Balkans have violent reputations based on warfare, both on the field and in the fields. Thus, it is not quite so surprising that prior to the Yugoslav Wars the football pitch was a proxy for battles between the disparate ethnic groups of a rapidly disintegrating Yugoslavia. The most notorious case occurred in Belgrade at a match between two domestic league titans on May 13, 1990. Following the death of Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito, infighting among the various ethnic groups began to occur with alarming frequency. Domestic league football teams began to represent factions. In the case of Croatia, the Dinamo Zagreb team was known for their hardcore Ultra fans, the Bad Blue Boys (BBB). The BBB was ready for war in the stadium or countryside, whenever the situation called for it. They would prove highly adept at both. The BBB represented the height of Croatian nationalism during that time, cultivated by football loving strongman and soon to be president, Franjo Tudjman. Tudjman was a former general in the Yugoslav Army who had been intimately involved in the nation’s football scene.

Taking A Seat - Fans fighting in the stands at the 1990 Dinamo Zagreb-Red Star Belgrade match

Taking A Seat – Fans fighting in the stands at the 1990 Dinamo Zagreb-Red Star Belgrade match

Cauldron of Chaos – Seething With Discontent
The Bad Blue Boys were Tudjman’s vanguard force in what was soon to become a battle for independence. Their blood enemies were Red Star Belgrade, which was viewed as representing a Serb dominated Yugoslavia. Ironically, at that time Red Star included players who were Croats, Macedonians, Montenegrins and Bosnian Muslims. This hardly mattered to hardcore nationalists on each side. If they played for Red Star, then they were enemies of Dinamo Zagreb. While Red Star zealots felt the same about Dinamo Zagreb. The fuse of this volatile tinderbox of nationalism was lit by a match in the spring of 1990 between the two sides. Existing tensions were stoked to a fever pitch after Croatian elections placed a government in office that preferred independence. The scene was set for explosive violence. And that was just what happened in Zagreb’s Maksimir Stadium.

Dinamo fans began hurling stones at Red Star supporters. The fences separating the two sides were no match for an acid solution that Red Star fans used to cut through them. Barriers were then torn away. Soon the two sides were engaged in a wild melee that engulfed all areas of the stadium. The players became involved as well, with one Croatian player managing to kick a Yugoslav police officer who was trying to detain a Dinamo fan. The only thing that saved the Red Star players from possibly fatal violence was an airlift by helicopter out of the stadium, spiriting them away from this chaotic cauldron. Hundreds were injured in the fighting, which included shooting, stabbing and stoning. It would not be long before the violence morphed from football games to outright war. In the waning days of Yugoslavia, football allegiance was aligned with nationalistic passions and ethnic hatred. The BBB soon took to the front lines in eastern Croatia, many of them were killed in battle. Football and warfare, warfare and football, it was hard to tell the difference as one beget the other.

A Degree of Normalcy – Keeping Your Distance
It took an entire decade of warfare before the nations that had been part of Yugoslavia came to anything approaching peace. It took at least that long for some degree of normalcy to return to the area. Football in the 21st century is much tamer in the region than before, but then again how could it not be. The threat of violence still exists at matches in the Balkans and eastern Europe just as it does across the continent. Football matches are a place where the marginalized, dissolute and frustrated can allow their worst impulses free reign. The stadiums have become a venue for overt racism that would not be tolerated in other public forums. Many people choose to be safe rather than sorry and stay away from the matches. I would still like to attend some football matches in eastern Europe for the experience. Perhaps one day I will. For now, I prefer to keep a safe distance.

From The Orient Express With Love – Secret Agent Man: Following In James Bond’s Footsteps

My initial interest in the Orient Express in Eastern Europe did not come from Agatha Christie’s famous mystery, Murder on the Orient Express or Graham Greene’s thrilling novel Stamboul Train. These outstanding literary thrillers were not to my liking as a teenager. Instead my fascination with the train and its route came to me through the movies. As a teenager I fell in love with the early James Bond films. They offered a powerful sense of place to viewers. One of my favorites quickly became From Russia With Love. The locations showcased or spoken of in the film brought into my consciousness for the first time the European side of Istanbul, the heart of Yugoslavia as well as an Italian border city by the name of Trieste. The coup de grace came with Venice, where the final scenes were filmed. These cities and the train trip to or through them was enough to send my imagination soaring. I never forgot them or the film that first brought them to my attention.

Later in life, I would have the opportunity to visit each city shown in the film, sometimes going to the exact same locations where the movie was made. This was either entirely accidental or the fulfillment of a subconscious yearning, all done in the service of feeding an interest in exoticism. I did not know do this in a single trip, but across several. Piecing together a From Russia With Love city setlist. I only realized it was complete a couple of years after my last visit. In a sense I was a spy, keeping a private watch on these highly personal places. I might never travel the old Orient Express in its entirety or become a secret agent, but the places were still there. It was an astonishing feeling, to look back after multiple trips realizing what I had inadvertently accomplished. I had visited these venerable and famous stations where the Orient Express was never to return.

Simplon Orient Express poster

Simplon Orient Express poster

Murder, Mystery & Mystique – Danger On A Train
From Russia With Love can be viewed as an homage to the Orient Express. This was not what the filmmakers intended, but the train ended up just as much a character in the film as any of those played by the actors. The Express and several stations where it stops play a large role in the film’s latter half. Bond travels on the train with a beautiful Russian cipher clerk, Tatiana Romanova, as they attempt to make their way west to safety with a Lektor cryptographic device. All the while they are pursued by a death dealing operative of the international criminal organization, SPECTRE. The train scenes are replete with romance, drama and adventure. The compartment and restaurant cars are lavish while the setting is full of mystery and intrigue, nowhere more so than the train stations at Istanbul, Belgrade and Zagreb.

At the train station in Istanbul, Bond and Romanova make their getaway while pursued by a Russian agent. In Belgrade’s station, Bond tells the son of a Turkish colleague that his father died under conflicting circumstances. Then at the Zagreb station, Bond is due to meet a fellow 00 operative on the platform. Instead he is met by the Spectre agent sent to murder him. From Russia With Love’s compelling storyline is dramatically enhanced by the Orient Express and the stations encountered along the route. I would only later learn that the route was not that of the original Orient Express, but an offshoot. The first run of the Orient Express occurred in the autumn of 1883. Necessity, popularity and geopolitics eventually led to the creation of other routes in the years between the World Wars. The most popular of these was the Simplon Orient Express which began in 1919.

Route of the Orient Express Trains from 1921 to 1939

Route of the Orient Express Trains from 1921 to 1939 (Credit: Wikipedia)

The Path To Progress – Into The Balkans & Beyond
It was the Simplon Orient Express route which Bond and Romanova travel during From Russia With Love, this time going from east to west. The Simplon was also the route famously followed in Christie’s murder mystery. The name Simplon was taken from a rail tunnel that was opened in 1906 below the Simplon Pass on the Swiss-Italian border. This tunnel made a new railway route to Europe’s eastern frontiers feasible.  In 1912, the Simplon route which already ran from Paris to Lausanne, through Milan and then to Venice, was extended to Trieste, Austria-Hungary. This service might have been called the less than Orient Express.

Fighting in World War I, along the Italian Front led to the closure of rail service to Trieste, as battle lines encroached on the route. The Simplon would be reopened and greatly expanded in the years after the war ended. The expansion was a result of the postwar peace process. The western powers needed a rail route to Eastern Europe that avoided Germany and what had formerly been the lands of Austria-Hungary, which were now two separate nations struggling with economic chaos and political upheaval. Thus, the Simplon would continue eastward from Trieste (now an Italian city) into the heart of the Balkans, going through Zagreb, Vinkovci and Subotica towards its final stop at Bucharest. Another spur headed from Vinkovci to Belgrade, where it divided again, going either to Athens or Constantinople (the city’s name was officially changed to Istanbul after the Republic of Turkey was formed). It was in Istanbul that Bond and Romanova made their initial getaway, boarding at Sirkeci Station. Romance and danger awaited them.

Logo of the Compagnie Internationale Des Wagons-Lits which ran the Orient Express

Symbol of Quality – Logo of the Compagnie Internationale Des Wagons-Lits which ran the Orient Express (Credit: Murdockcrc)

Into & Out Of Trouble – Route Of Least Resistance
The Simplon Orient Express was the preferred travel route for the wealthy, politically connected, intellectually refined and haute bourgeoise during its heyday. Agatha Christie traveled it many times with her second husband, an archeologist. It would not have been uncommon for high ranking diplomats or spies to be found onboard as well. This was especially true during the Cold War. Intrigue and danger were an exception though. One that proved the Simplon was a vital lifeline for businessmen, politicians and tourists during decades of east-west tensions. It may not have been the “original” Orient Express, but it was just as worthy. The fact that spurs of the Simplon led to Venice and Athens only added to the fascination with it. James Bond knew this was the easiest route back to safety. It was the path of least resistance for him, as well as for generations of Europeans. The Simplon may not have been the original Orient Express, but it just might have been better.

High Maintenance– The Yugo Story: A Few Last Laughs

I was sitting in a movie theater in Bozeman, Montana in 1999 watching the Steve Martin/Eddie Murphy comedy Bowfinger. Bozeman was about the last place I would have expected to be reminded of the former nation of Yugoslavia. The only tangential connection was the nearby town of Belgrade, which had been so named as a 19th century shout out to Serbian investors in the Northern Pacific Railroad. That was all in the distant past. In 1999, an American led NATO campaign was dropping bombs on Serbia, which at that point was the last vestige of Yugoslavia. And what might you ask did the movie Bowfinger have to do with Yugoslavia? In his role as Bobby Bowfinger, Martin played a down on his luck, colossally inept director trying to get back in the movie business.

On the wall of his study hung a framed movie poster from one of his minor hits. The poster showed a car cresting a hill with a beautiful sunset in the background. The movie’s title, The Yugo Story, was printed in large letters across the bottom. Every time the poster appeared in the background I began to howl in laughter. It got to the point that I became self-conscious of disturbing the people sitting around me. The poster sent me into guffaws because the Yugo had been an automotive embarrassment of legendary proportions. A vehicle that had inadvertently become a symbol of communist craftsmanship.  As much as I enjoyed watching Bowfinger, there was a part of me that wished The Yugo Story had been an actual film. It was a story worth telling, if for no other reason than a few good laughs.

Quality control - Yugo in a museum

Quality control – Yugo in a museum (Credit: dave_7)

Paying For Problems – Taking The Bait
Growing up in a single parent home of limited means in western North Carolina, cars always represented an unavoidable financial obstacle. We could only afford one, so that meant it had to be mechanically reliable with cost effective maintenance. Unfortunately, we bought a Ford Escort station wagon. It was purchased in the first year of their manufacture. The vehicle turned out to be a lemon, ending up in the junkyard after five years in which it drained the family finances. Such problems led me, a young and impressionable teenager, to start dreaming of short cuts to automotive stability. This was during the same time when the Yugo was first marketed in the United States. The spare, austere hatchback, looked like a savior with two doors and four wheels. Most importantly, the price was right.

Today the Yugo is the subject of ridicule, making it easy to forget the car’s popularity after it first arrived in America. Much of this had to do with the cost. A new Yugo GV (the GV stood for good value) with standard features – which included carpet! – was only $3,990 dollars in 1986. When calculated for inflation that figure comes out to $9,200 in today’s terms. That makes it the cheapest new car in American automotive history. Such a small amount of money for a new car shook up the American auto market. Suddenly a new car was affordable for millions of Americans. Tens of thousands took the bargain price bait. I recall seeing Yugos on the road in western North Carolina, a region where American cars reigned supreme at the time. The Yugos always looked cheaply produced, but what was one to expect at such a low price. Besides when compared to such American clunkers as the Chevrolet Chevette or Ford Escort, the Yugo seemed like it might be as good a bargain as advertised.

Yugo engine - Notice that the spare tire in the background is larger

Yugo engine – Notice that the spare tire in the background is larger (Credit: Sixthstar)

Cheating Death – An Owner’s Manual
In 1986, its first full year on the American market, nearly 36,000 Yugos were sold. This figure made it the top selling first year European import in American history. In 1987 the number sold increased to 48,000, which ended up being the peak for Yugo sales. Yugo dealerships began to sprout across the country, topping out at 300. It was a sort of miracle on four wheels that the Yugo sold as many models as it did. Many of the reviews were less than stellar. Consumer Reports said that Americans would be better off using their hard-earned cash on a good used car. Though promoted as a simple car, the Yugo required a great deal of attention. Owners were upset to find that the vehicle required regular maintenance. Those who ignored this fact would come to regret it. Failure to perform regular oil changes and have the timing belt changed every 40,000 miles often led to disastrous consequences. The Yugo was supposed to be a low maintenance, dependable automobile. Instead it was a high maintenance headache, that proved exceedingly temperamental if the owner’s manual was not followed to the letter. And even when it was, the Yugo was still prone to mechanical problems.

Word soon spread of the drawbacks to owning a Yugo. I distinctly remember people discussing safety concerns, making it sound like a Yugoslavian deathtrap. The vehicle was cheaply made and the odds of surviving an accident in it were said to be frighteningly low. Whether this was true or not, the Yugo suffered a loss of reputation that would never be recovered. Every time I saw a Yugo coming, I figured the people inside it must be either the bravest or stupidest people on earth. I started to believe that driving a Yugo was an attempt to cheat death. One wrong turn and the passengers could be goners. Soon the Yugo began to disappear from roads. An unscientific yet revealing measure of just how good a car is can be surmised by how many of a certain make or model can be seen on a road many years later. By that standard, the Yugo was AWOL from American highways. Little did I know that its disappearance had as much to do with geopolitics as it did mechanical problems.

Running down a dream - Yugo police car in Croatia

Running down a dream – Yugo police car in Croatia (Credit: Ishmael ZG)

A Dead End – Stalled Out
The Yugo Story in America ended tragically, a victim of the breakup of Yugoslavia.  Sanctions imposed by the United Nations after the country began to disintegrate led to imports of new Yugos being halted. Spare parts also became difficult to acquire. The one thing existing Yugo owners always needed was a good supply of spare parts. Soon the Yugo quickly faded from the American automotive scene. Multiple magazines deemed it one of the worst cars ever. Was it that bad? By American standards probably so, but in nations such as Croatia and Serbia, Yugos were a viable option until they finally hit a dead end with the last one manufactured in 2008. The Yugo Story was finished, except for a few last laughs.

 

Getting Away With Murder- A Tomb Without Tito: The House Of Flowers (Travels In Eastern Europe #36)

After the death of Josef Stalin in March of 1953 a few letters were discovered on his desk under a newspaper. One of these was from the leader of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito. The two men had fallen out in the late 1940’s when Tito decided that hardline Stalinism was not for Yugoslavia. This break with the Soviet Union was not without its dangers. Stalin was a man who brooked no opposition. He had shown time and again the ability to have his opponents murdered, even if they were living in far off exile on another continent. The assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico City is the most notable example of Stalin’s ferocious vindictiveness. In the case of Tito, Stalin planned to have him murdered just as he had done to thousands of others, but these attempts were unsuccessful. Even in Stalin’s last days before he suffered what would turn out to be a fatal stroke, he was still ordering attempts on Tito’s life. Why was Stalin so focused on killing Tito several years after the Yugoslav-Soviet split?

Strangely enough, Tito might actually have been one of the few people who actually scared Stalin. After all, Tito was one of the very few men to ever threaten Stalin and get away with it. The letter from Tito found on Stalin’s desk after his death stated quite clearly his intentions. “Stop sending assassins to murder me…if this doesn’t stop I will send a man to Moscow and there’ll be no need to send any more.” That is a remarkable statement. There is little doubt that Tito would have done his very best to carry out such a threat. He was no ordinary dictator. Tito was the very definition of a strongman. Not only did he issue a death threat to one of history’s most blood soaked dictators, but he also held Yugoslavia together for thirty-five years, a feat all the more impressive when one considers how the nation splintered into warring states a decade after he died. Tito was successful where others failed.

Josip Broz Tito

A different kind of dictator – Josip Broz Tito

In Life & Death – A Home For Tito
My visit to Belgrade offered me the opportunity to visit Tito’s tomb known as the House of Flowers (Kuća cveća). He was buried there after dying at the age of 87 while in Slovenia. It was a miracle he lasted as long as he did. The man known to adoring Yugoslavs as Marshal Tito had earned that title the hard way, by leading the partisan cause in World War II against three virulent enemies, the Nazis, fascist Croatian Ustashe and the Royalist Chetniks. At war’s end his Communist Partisans took power and managed to stay there, straddling the divide between East and West, communism and capitalism while playing each side off against the other. Tito emerged as a leader of international renown while spearheading the Non-Aligned Movement. For his efforts he would be revered, both at home and abroad. Following his death, Tito’s funeral drew an inordinately large gathering of international leaders and diplomats, making it quite possibly the largest state funeral in history.

They all came to pay their respects in the hills of Dedinje, an upscale area of Belgrade that Tito would call home in life and death. This was the area I visited on a gloomy March morning. Grey bellies of cloud hovered over the city, spitting random drops of rain. I disembarked at the bus stop closest to the tomb. The only other person who got off at this stop was a lady who looked to be heading home. In the 1980’s lines of people would queue to visit Tito’s tomb. The day I visited, no one else was around. The only people I saw on the property either worked at the ticket booth, mausoleum or museum. The Yugoslav Wars and the resulting disintegration of Yugoslavia had sent visitation plummeting. The tomb was closed for many years and when it reopened, Tito was no longer popular. The memory of the man was intertwined with the failure of Yugoslavia as a state, even if it that failure took place long after he died.

House of Flowers - The tomb of Josip Broz Tito

House of Flowers – The tomb of Josip Broz Tito (Credit: Clay Gilliland)

Reflections – Tito Is Yugoslavia, Yugoslavia Is Tito
An air of indifference hung heavy over the complex where his tomb lays. At one time it housed the Museum of Yugoslav History, displaying over 200,000 items in its collection. All the old exhibits were shelved after Yugoslavia collapsed. This part of the complex was now used as a gallery to display local artwork. The area around the tomb did have exhibitions that were linked to Tito. The most interesting of which was a collection of batons. These were part of a relay that would take place each year leading up to May 25th, Tito’s birthday. The batons were carried on mountaintops, swum across lakes and handled by parachutists jumping out of planes, among other displays of undying devotion to Marshal Tito. Tito was treated with the utmost reverence. In retrospect, these accolades were well deserved. He was the single irreplaceable figure in Yugoslavia. It is no exaggeration to say that without him the country would collapse, because that is precisely what happened.

Statue of Marshal Tito outside the House of Flowers

Statue of Marshal Tito outside the House of Flowers (Credit: Ferran Cornellà)

Visiting the tomb meant I was paying respect to both Tito and the ideal embodiment of Yugoslavia. Here was the final resting place of the man whose persona reflected a nation. I actually found the setting a beautiful place to mourn. Tito’s wish was to be buried here. For a man who was at best a benevolent dictator, at worst an iron fisted demagogue, the House of Flowers gives his legacy a veneer of refinement. The tomb is set in polished marble with lush plants around three sides of it. The setting is peaceful and stately, worthy of an exalted head of state.

It was a worthy place to bury a deeply flawed, but great man. Only later did I discover that Tito is not actually buried in the tomb. His remains lie in a nearby flower garden. Thus visitors pay their respects at a tomb without Tito, to a nation that no longer exists. It is a fitting final commentary on a man who spent his life holding Yugoslavia together and whose death ultimately led to its dissolution.

 

 

Balkan Waters – Meeting Point: The Danube & Sava Rivers At Belgrade (Travels In Eastern Europe #35)

My main reason for traveling to Belgrade was to check it off on a list of Eastern European capitals that I wanted to visit. By going to the city I would be able to call myself a traveler rather than a tourist. Allow me to explain. Very few people visiting Eastern Europe go south of Budapest along the Danube. Conversely tens of thousands of tourists ply the river’s waters on exorbitantly expensive cruises through Germany, Austria, southern Slovakia and northern Hungary, but they go no further than Budapest. I have met an overwhelming majority of older Americans who arrive or depart on such cruises from Budapest. I have yet to meet a single American who was following the Danube into Serbia.

I will often ask these people if they have plans to travel further down the river into the Balkans by boat. The answer is always no. I suspect that they believe the Yugoslav Wars have continued unabated since the Cold War ended. I assume that for most of these tourists a boat ride to Belgrade is a risk not worth taking. The Danube might as well end at Budapest rather than the Black Sea. The reality is that the river continues onward, following a course that stimulates little interest among holidaying westerners. Budapest or even Bratislava sounds more appealing than Belgrade. These people have little idea what they are missing out on. For that matter so do I. I have never taken a boat ride on the Danube, but I have stood upon its banks in Belgrade, pondering its place in the city.

The Sava and Danube confluence at dusk

The Sava and Danube confluence at dusk (Credit: Wikipedia)

Two Great Rivers Converge – The View From Kalmegdan
All this comes to mind as I recall looking down upon the waterfront of the Serbian capital from the Belgrade Fortress at Kalmegdan Park. The river was deserted, its surface a glassy smoothness. A few boats were moored along the riverbank, but it was early spring, long before any tourist voyages would embark upon the Danube’s murky waters. The river was wide and full. And how could it not be? The Danube swallows its largest tributary by volume within sight from the heights of Kalmegdan. The Sava River is not considered one of the great rivers of Europe, but it should be. The Sava is a Balkan river through and through. It flows through the capitals of the three primary nations that the former Yugoslavia.

The Sava winds its way through Ljubljana in Slovenia, Zagreb in Croatia and finally debouches into the Danube at Belgrade. The city’s location at the confluence of the Sava with the Danube has ensured Belgrade’s importance in the region’s history. The saying that “geography is destiny” certainly seems apropos in this case, but what looks obvious to the historically minded is often obscured in the present. Only a handful of people come and go along either of these rivers today. I would guess that 99% of people traveling to Belgrade arrive by plane, car or as I did train. The Danube and Sava Rivers in Belgrade today have rendered lonely forces of nature by modern technology. They are crossed by bridge and hardly given a second thought.

Satellite view of the Sava and Danube confluence with Great War Island pinpointed

Satellite view of the Sava and Danube confluence with Great War Island pinpointed (Credit: Duja)

Wedding Of The Waters – Two Rivers Become One
Walking down by the rivers just below Kalmegdan Park was a strange experience. It was incredibly quiet. I felt like I was on the edge of a nature preserve rather than two forces of nature, the Danube and Sava, which wash the banks of this bustling city. Perhaps I had come to the wrong part of the river in Belgrade. My visit was certainly in the wrong season. Early spring was obviously a slow season for river traffic since there was none. It felt as though I had the both rivers all to myself. Only a few scattered stragglers walked close to the banks. I have read that tens of thousands flock to the waterfront during the summer, as opposed to the handful that I saw on my visit. On the opposite side of the Danube, trees lined the banks. No sign of development or humanity was within sight, though behind me stood a city of over a million people. The Danube’s width and breadth was intimidating. There was little doubt that it was swift and powerful. The river might be silent at the moment, but it had the ability to carry away anyone or anything that did not respect a deceptively forceful current. It was hard to imagine the Danube this way judged by its current state, a thick ribbon of dark water slowly surging under a leaden sky. The river seemed totally remote from its surroundings.

Soon I found myself standing opposite of where the Sava and Danube mingled. For both waterways to converge at this point was an incredible act of hydrological travel. By the time it arrives at Belgrade the Danube has traveled over 1,500 kilometers and the Sava nearly a thousand. The waters wed within sight of the aptly named Great War Island. For it was on this piece of land, that one attack after another had been launched against the city. Depending on what source you care to reference, Belgrade has been conquered anywhere from twenty to forty times. Each time it was destroyed and rebuilt in a style that favored its conqueror. Belgrade’s reconstruction was done by the hands of man, while Great War Island had been restored by nature. It looked less like a place to mount an attack on the city and more like somewhere to watch birds. Time and technology had made martial usage of the island obsolete. A staging ground for centuries worth of war, was now peaceful and serene. Contrast and paradox define the stretches of riverfront that can be seen from Kalmegdan Park

Confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers as seen from Kalmegdan Park during 2014 floods

Confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers as seen from Kalmegdan Park during 2014 floods (Credit: Wikipedia)

Rivers Run Wild – Back To Nature
A couple of years after I walked that sleepy waterfront, the Danube and Sava once again became their true selves. In May 2014 deluges further upstream led to massive flooding. One Serbian minister called the inundation of cities, towns and farmland the greatest natural disaster in the nation’s history. The flooding caused an estimated one and a half billion Euros worth of damage in Serbia. Belgrade escaped the worst of the flooding, but the rising waters came frighteningly close to causing a cataclysm. It was a reminder that the rivers were still wild and always will be. They could never really be tamed. I did not see such wildness in the rivers when I visited. The Danube and Sava in Belgrade were a study in serenity the day I walked along their banks, but I sensed that eventually these rivers have to run wild and return to a state of nature.

The Other Side Of An Invisible Barrier – Conversations In Belgrade: Rebellion, Recklessness & A Refugee (Travels In Eastern Europe #34)

The memories of Belgrade that remain with me have nothing to do with the places I visited in the Serbian capital. This is not because the city was unmemorable. Such sites as the confluence of the Sava with the Danube River, the tomb of Yugoslav strongman Josip Broz Tito, Kalmegdan Fortress and St. Sava’s Cathedral were all worth seeing. It was just that the people I met were that much more memorable. Some of them were Serbs, several were not. Belgrade for me became a collection of fascinating personal interactions that I have carried with me ever since that visit.

My personal interactions with Serbs began at a grocery store just down the street from my accommodation. While I was picking up some provisions for the coming days, I noticed that a man stocking the shelves was wearing a Green Bay Packers shirt. I asked him if he spoke English. He replied in the affirmative. This began a conversation about his love of American football, specifically the Packers. He discussed at length the Packers’ past season. Our meeting went on for some time as he helped me find some groceries. I knew American football had been gaining in popularity around the world and Serbia has a reputation as a sports mad place, but a fanatical fan of the National Football League in Belgrade was a surprise. The reach of American culture, including sports, is hard to fathom until it confronts you in the dairy section of a Serbian grocery shop.

The War At Home – Seething With Resistance
My next extended interaction with a Serb came at Kalmegdan Fortress. A gentleman who looked to be in his thirties was working at the ticket selling counter. His English was impeccable. We started out discussing modern history, which brought us to the subject of Serbia’s relatively recent wars. I asked his opinion on the breakup of Yugoslavia. He began to speak with great passion. Serbia had been misunderstood. The Serbs were trying to save the South Slavic peoples from much worse. They had been wrongly cast as the aggressor. What had happened to Serbia was nothing short of a tragedy. It was a great nation that was misunderstood and deserved better. I sensed a fervent streak of unforgiving nationalistic sentiment. Until I was shocked by what he had to say about Slobodan Milosevic, the leader of Serbia during the Yugoslav Wars, who was eventually put on trial for war crimes. I expected a full throated defense of this demagogic nationalist.

Instead when I asked him what he thought of Milosevic, the man launched into an extended commentary of how he spent years protesting the idiocy of this pseudo-dictator who had nearly ruined Serbia. He finished up by saying how sad it was that nationalists in the post-Milsoevic era carried out symbolically foolish actions such as vandalizing a McDonald’s to protest capitalism and foreign intervention in Serbian affairs. After we finished talking he became completely calm and polite. I had scratched just beneath the surface with this Serb and discovered a complex nationalism. There was ferocity, but it was more a symptom of frustration. This was the upshot of losing wars as well as constituent parts of the nation. Yugoslavia was gone, Montenegro was independent and Kosovo was well on its way to statehood. I had the feeling that Serbs, like the one who stood before me, would never accept this situation. Here was a nation that even after being brought to its knees, was still seething with resistance. I found this quality admirable and frightening in unequal measure.

Belgrade - city of protests

Belgrade – city of protests (Credit: Geologicharka )

A Constant Instability – Serbian States Of Mind
My final day in Belgrade I was not due to leave the city until the evening. I spent the afternoon hanging out with the owner of my accommodation. There was another employee on duty, a young college age woman. I first asked the owner what he remembered about the NATO Bombing of Belgrade in 1999. At the time he had been a teenager. “Me and my friends had a blast. We got drunk every night, partying like crazy.” He said nothing about damage to the city or the fear engendered by bombs and missiles descending on his hometown. Instead the bombing sounded like a lark, a reason to binge drink. Maybe this was a coping mechanism or just youthful delinquency. From my few conversations with Serbs I sensed a reckless exuberance, the kind of people who would give the world a middle finger while laughing in the face of fear. An exaggerated assumption on my part perhaps, but there’s was an attitude informed by rebellion.

Earlier in my visit to Belgrade I had walked up on a large crowd involved in a protest outside parliament. Several of the protestors began to shout at me, but not in fury. They seemed to be upset that I had not joined them. I mentioned this to my host who said “those protests happen all the time, but nothing will change. Those people are wasting their time.” That might have been true, but I had a feeling that Serbia was the kind of place always on edge, where instability was a constant. The instability that marked the 1990’s in Serbia was not an anonymous faceless force that had been resigned to the past. Its ramifications were widespread. I found myself face to face with these consequences while talking with a young Serbian woman who was watching the front desk at my accommodation. While making conversation I asked her if she was from Belgrade. No she was not. She had been born in an ethnic Serbian area of Croatia, but as a little girl was forced to flee the war along with her family. As she put it, “The area was no longer safe. We had to leave.” Her family had relatives in Belgrade. This had brought them to the city and they stayed. Going home was impossible even after the fighting ceased.

Nothing Else To Say – An Invisible Barrier
The woman telling me this could have been mistaken for an American college student. She looked and acted perfectly pleasant. It was hard to imagine that as a child she had been a refugee. I knew the stories of inter-ethnic violence during the Yugoslav Wars. Women, even very young women whether Serb, Croatian or Bosniak had been raped by the tens of thousands. Others had managed to escape just in time. This woman had escaped such horrors, but just the idea was horrific. Some things are best not left to the imagination. My conversation with her trailed off, there was an invisible barrier not to be crossed. The Yugoslav Wars were no longer the preserve of journalistic accounts or history books. They were a kind young woman working the front desk, who as a child had escaped death or possibly even worse. That was the legacy of the Yugoslav Wars, there was nothing else to say.