Serbia, Croatia – and the Homeland War …
It’s the same language – different alphabet; it’s the same religion – different opinions on the origin of the Holy Ghost; it’s the same ethnicity – they are all Slavs, even the Muslims.
So why? And is it over? Has everyone suffered enough?
Of course, we are tourists. We aren’t going to see a deep truth; the surface is barely visible to us, as we go from site to site, not quite herded in groups, dutifully following our knowledgeable and charming tour leader. Listening to her, we could believe that everything is behind them now, that everyone is looking to the future, that there was never a problem between people, only between governments. And perhaps there is more than a kernel of truth, of reality, in her pronouncements. I don’t know. I can only tell you what I saw, my interpretation of the atmosphere.
We came first to Serbia, to Belgrade, home of one of Tito’s largest monuments. On my last two trips to this area, we heard much of Tito, how he “stood up” to Moscow, fostering his own brand of Western-focused Communism. On this visit, we found that the “older” generation continue to venerate him, wishing for those old days, when everyone had a job, everyone had a decent place to live, everyone knew that their basic needs would be taken care of. The standard of living, for most, was the highest of the Eastern Bloc countries. That this was propped up by US aid, in our own country’s fear and hatred of Communism, was not discussed.
We visited his memorial, I would dub it a monument, and heard from two generations. For younger people, Tito is ancient history. They talk about him in terms of “gramma’s time.” They only know the “freedom” of an economy where one has the “opportunity” to make it on his/her own. That they have national health insurance and other guarantees of coverage of basic needs is a given for them; they see themselves as operating in a free-market environment.
The older generations – those “grammas” – are not so happy. As with most of us, they see the past through a sepia lens, and are wistful for Tito and all the benefits his regime brought. Again, they seem unaware of the underpinnings of US dollars “fighting Communism.”
As for the city itself, it seems to bustle – lots of traffic, delightful commuter-filled streetcars, parks and open space. Definitely not the dark, somber world we imagined. Milosevic and his ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) seem like ancient history to those we came in contact with. The issue of Kosovo, however, is not. The Serbs we talked to (few) admitted that atrocities occurred but maintain that tiny Kosovo should remain part of Serbia from an historical standpoint. Well, this area has been a thorny one for centuries. I don’t think from my few hours in Belgrade that I’ll be able to solve that one.
A few hours north on the Danube brought us to Novi Sad, the capital of the autonomous region of Vojvodina. Again, more discussion of the war, as the Serbs call it, the Homeland War. Closer now to the Croatian border, it is interesting to see the blending, softening of attitudes. Perhaps it really is true that the closer you get to a people, the more you understand that we are all connected, all the same.
Novi Sad exuded a different kind of atmosphere, lighter, with its parks, its town square. A Catholic church sits on one side; we were told that the Croats/Catholics destroyed this church during the fighting. The citizens of Novi Sad, mainly Orthodox Serbs, joined together in its rebuilding. This Saturday morning we sat in the square, watching young families and their elders enjoying a spring day.
As we arrived in Croatia, it became obvious that the miasma of its history is never far away. Our first stop was Vukovar, a border town badly damaged during the Serbo-Croatian War (that is what they call it here). While much is rebuilt, thanks to funds from the European Union, there is still considerable evidence of the destruction of buildings, homes, and any optimistic view of the future. We had the opportunity to lunch with a family in Bilje, a small farming village that had once been occupied by both Serbs and Croatians. The family’s home, and the majority of homes had been destroyed in the fighting. During the war, they said that their Serbian neighbors, all of them, had left, most to return to Serbia. None had yet come back.
The family told us that when their house was destroyed, they moved into a house vacated by a Serb neighbor. They lived there until their house was rebuilt. Now the village is in stages of reconstruction, although perhaps every 10th house remains empty and in ruins.
The family said that relations with their Serb neighbors had been good, that is was governments, not people, who caused the problem. While their hospitality was lovely, I’m not sure that I buy what appears to be the party line for visitors. While I wish it were so, I don’t have such a high regard for human nature.
Perhaps this next generation of Serbs, of Croats, of Slavs, of Catholics, of Orthodox, can touch upon this ground that their forefathers have bloodied and make sense of it. Perhaps they can see that we are all connected, that we are all the same. Would that…
Next week — Budapest…