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.
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.