Ever since high school I’ve been fascinated by Yugoslavia. At the time, it was a war raging in Bosnia that caught my attention, and I began to read about a region that, until that point, I had only heard of as the ‘powder keg of Europe’. The news was filled with reports from exotic-sounding places: Belgrade, Sarajevo, Srebrenica and Zagreb. I was writing for my school newspaper in those days, and I remember reading up on all of the events surrounding the conflict so that I could do a piece on the war. It was tragic reading, but at the same time I felt excited to learn about these places and what was going on there. Discovering the ancient context for modern bloodshed was as eye-opening as it was saddening. More than just 20th century tensions lurked behind this animosity, and the key to understanding them went much further back than the assassination of an Archduke or the drawing of borders in the wake of the First World War.
Ultimately, I was told not to write that story. The paper did not feel that it was an appropriate topic, and although I fought for it, I was simply turned down. Sadly, I never even wrote the story, busying myself with reporter duties that covered education and crime, topics that seemed more suitable to my editor. If I could go back and do it over again, I’d write it and keep it, perhaps even present the finished product to the editor just the same and see if I could somehow get it in. I didn’t, but my interest in what was soon to be the former Yugoslav republics was piqued. Add to that the film Force 10 From Navarone (starring Harrison Ford and Robert Shaw as Allied soldiers dropped into Yugoslavia to help the Partisans take out a bridge before the Nazis could cross it), and it was only a matter of time before I set my heart on studying Balkan history.
As a college student, majoring in International Affairs of Russia and Eastern Europe, I took what little was offered at my university that specifically dealt with Balkan history and politics, supplementing with further reading and internships. I took a keen interest in the Kosovo independence movement and the war we fought, under cover of NATO, with a Yugoslavia that by that time consisted only of Serbia and Montenegro. I wrote papers on Serbian nationalism and my mistrust of this nation as a kind of bully began to grow. I am sorry to say that I allowed politics and media hype to colour my impression of a country and its people, painting a picture of the Yugoslavia that had intrigued me for years as a country of xenophobes bent on ethnic cleansing. The war ended relatively quickly, but the attitude toward Serbia persisted, especially as long as Slobodan Milošvić remained in power. Even after his arrest and the eventual break up of the rump Yugoslavia that had remained, Serbia was blackened with an image of two recent wars and shouts of genocide.
As I grew older and my life took unexpected turns, my preoccupation with southeastern Europe faded, though my interest never did. Attempts to visit the area fell through, time and shifting attentions made me less aware of what was happening on the ground, and eventually an interest in the region was all that I had. My language research as a graduate student in Germanic linguistics took me further north, studying Yiddish and Polish and learning to love the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Nevertheless, the persistent call of the south never abandoned me, and when I came to visit Slovenia a few years ago, the Balkan winds took hold of me and have kept my mind on this region ever since. This journey deserves a post of its own sometime; for now I will say that since becoming enamoured of southeastern Europe once again, Serbia has been on my mind.
As I mentioned in a previous post, coming to Serbia is truly the fulfillment of a life-long dream. There were times when I was suspicious of this country and its people, something I feel quite ashamed of, but it has lingered in my mind as a place I was always keen to visit. The stories I have heard in the last years from travelers who have come here have been unanimously positive, highlighting the kindness, openness and hospitality of the Serbian people. These impressions have been reinforced by the interactions with everyone I have met here. I have learned that, as with any country, it is the people that make it what it is, not the politics. Coming from the United States, a country known all over the world for its own mistakes, as well as for its contributions, I should have never lost sight of that fact. Separating politics from people, and even people from their politics, is necessary if we are ever going to begin to understand each other. It’s something that I suppose I will always be learning, and I am very much enjoying learning this first-hand here in Serbia.