War tore apart Yugoslavia only two decades ago and divided families, towns and friends into ethnical groups. It left the rest of the world with a clear and simplistic narrative, in most cases with Serbia as the nationalistic aggressor and the rest of the region as mere victims. A new generation of Serbs, who didn’t experience the war, fight the stereotype of Serbia as a bloodthirsty country. And that is far from easy.
“I am from Serbia but not a war criminal,” says Dimitri when he shakes hands in a hostel lobby in Hamburg, Germany. This satirical way of introducing himself works and people laugh. It is his way of showing that he is aware of the stereotype of his country: Serbia as a war loving country infamous for its war crimes.
Almost every young Serb who travels abroad recognises the fixed ideas of what their country looks like, mostly based on the bloody history of the 90s. “Is there a still an atmosphere of war?” and “how do you face someone from Bosnia?” are common questions for youngsters crossing borders.
“My students are painfully aware of how the world sees them,” says Jovo Bakic who is a sociology and politics teacher at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Belgrade and specialises in how the history of the 90s is interpreted beyond Serbia’s borders. “Some feel ashamed, some angry and others have had unpleasant experiences abroad. I have a big mixture of feelings in my auditorium.”
Some defend or deny history in nationalist movements, others join NGOs and start fighting the image but the biggest group are the ones who simply don’t know their past.
“I had no clue at all about the war until I was 16,” says law student Jovana Prusina (22), who had to discover her country’s history on her own. “In school there is hardly anything to find about it. We have two pages of history in class which differ from what people in Bosnia and Croatia learn.”
Discussing mass-graves over lunch
Her quest for answers led her to the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR), which has offices in every former Yugoslavian capital and strives to reconnect the Balkan youth since 2003. “When I entered YIHR on the age of nineteen, it was really emotional,” says Serbian director, Anita Mitic (24). “It was the first time I really learned about what happened during the 90s. I visited the mass graves and it always gave me the feeling that I have to say sorry, although I was born in 1990.”
Most children are not informed at the dinner table back home, according to Bakic. “It’s not like Germany in the 50s and 60s were everybody agreed on how bad Nazi-Germany was. That’s simply not the case here since Serbians feel that we were all victims.” This is something that Mitic and Prusina both recognise. “My mother cannot handle war crimes and mass graves over lunch,” says Mitic. “She prefers to not talk about it and pretend it never happened. That increases the responsibility for us.”
“We, this generation, have to do it. We have to meet and see each other in this region,” says Prusina. “The reason people in Western Europe have stereotypes about us is because we maintain that here in the Balkans by talking poorly about each other.” It is not easy to tackle, according to Bakic. “National narratives have been constructed in such a way that it is very difficult to bridge the gaps between South-Slavs. Bosniaks, for example, nurture the collective feeling of being the victim and try to monopolize this while a lot of Serbs are victims as well. Both sides aren’t constructive.”
‘Rape camps’ as the dominant interpretation
The result is a big contrast between the Serbian vision of what happened and the idea the rest of the world has, including their neighbouring countries. According to most Serbs, the Yugoslavian war was a civil war and not a clash of civilisations, the internationally dominant idea that was – according to Bakic – constructed and spread by Western media. “On top of the clash of civilisations narrative, they added the already existing discourse of the Balkans as a primitive and aggressive area,” says Bakic. “This all resulted in a huge misinterpretation of the war in influential newspapers like The New York Times and Die Welt.”
The influence of media is something, which was heavily debated in the West as well. “American journalists who repeated unconfirmed stories of Serbian atrocities could count on getting published, with a chance of a Pulitzer prize,” writes political writer Diana Johnstone in her heavily debated book Yugoslavia, NATO, and Western Delusions, The 1993 Pulitzer was indeed handed out to two American reporters, one of them writing for the New York Times, for their stories about the cruelties of Serbian soldiers. Both prize-winning articles were heavily criticised afterwards as people claimed that they were based on rumours or one-sided interviewees far from the battlefield.
Stories challenging the expected narrative weren’t published, according to Johnstone. “There was no market for stories by a journalist who discovered that reported Serbian ‘rape camps’ did not exist, or who included information about Muslim or Croat crimes against Serbs.”
She continues, “It became increasingly impossible to challenge the dominant interpretation in major media. Editors naturally prefer to keep the story simple: one villain, and as much blood as possible.”
For Bakic and his generation, this is still hard to swallow. “Milosovic was an extremely bad and irresponsible leader and it is understandable that Serbia is punished for it. But it isn’t good that it is always this one-sided.”
Young, highly educated Serbs such as Prusina and Mitic are less interested in the nuances and want to move on. “For us it is much more easy because we didn’t experience the war directly,” explains Prusina. By organising guest lectures at high schools, workshops and bringing youth together abroad, those at YIHR motivate their peers to do the same.
“Three beers and the war comes up”
The most popular event seems to be the Kosovo trip where young Serbians meet up with politicians, NGOs and local journalists during the day and discover the nightlife in the evening. “When young people from the different regions meet each other, the first discovery is how much they have in common. They watch the same movies and listen to the same music. Even politics-wise there is a lot we agree on,” says Mitic. “After three beers, the war always comes up and that is always emotional. Especially because people just found out how much they are alike. Everybody’s narrative and prejudices are turned around.”
Although facing each other seems the most difficult thing, the real fight is back home where there is a lot of resistance. “It’s not hard to go to Kosovo, it is hard to come back and tell people that it was a great time,” says Prusina. Friends, family, colleagues, a lot of people are suspicious. “When I came back from a summer program in Kosovo and went back to university, where I studied Political Sciences, it became the biggest scandal. I was the girl who cooperated with Albanians. I was a traitor.”
Even Jovo Bakic, a traitor in the eyes of nationalists and a nationalist in the eyes of strongly progressive minds, knows how difficult it is to bring in other narratives. “During my lectures on Yugoslavian history, the massacre in Srebrenica is a theme on itself and not always well received by the auditorium. Some of my students are nationalists. They lean back, don’t listen or openly disagree. I always try to stimulate them to read literature writing from another point of view.”
This may sound obvious but it is rare in the Balkans. The war is still too fresh to come up with one tale of the turbulent 90s that is palatable for the different countries. It resulted in the unique system of ‘two-schools-under-one-roof’ in Bosnia and Croatia. In these schools, often located in border towns, different ethnicities attend school at different times to ensure that they receive their own version of history. This short-term pragmatism damages the long-term cohesion within these border communities.
In Vukovar, on the border of Croatia and Serbia, division between the groups that were facing each other twenty years ago, still runs deep. The town only consists of 27,000 people but involves different sport clubs, bars and any other possible meeting places for both groups in town. Serbs attend Serbian bars and Croats go to their pubs. “I have a good understanding with some Serbs and like them,” says Marko Mlakić (25), president of the Youth Council of Vukovar. “But it is hard to become close friends if you disagree on such fundamental issues as who invaded who in the 90s.” His friend Grga Krajina (23) adds to that: “Serbia crossed the border and attacked us. But they claim that it was a civil war and that they only tried to keep Yugoslavia together.”
Swimming to Serbia
Sitting at the restaurant of Mlakić’s father, the boys can see Serbia lying on the other side of the Donau-river, the only physical border between the countries. In a less politically heated environment, this would have been the trigger for a boy’s adventure to the other side of the river. But Marko and Grga are not curious and never crossed it. As long as the Serbians don’t agree with their vision on the common history, this is unlikely to ever happen.
Vukovar was one of the places that suffered the most during the war between Croatia and Serbia; every Croat in Vukovar knows somebody who lies in the mass grave outside town and youngsters have grown up surrounded by ruins and with the scars of war. “We are all marked by the generation before us. We embrace their stories,” explains Grga.
When asking people in Belgrade about Vukovar, their attitudes change and this reveals the discomfort Serbs have regarding the border town. “There are still tensions…” and “You know what happened right?” are common answers, but a real explanation often remains absent. Although travelling to the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo is becoming a more common thing; border regions like Vukovar and especially Kosovo are out of discussion for most people.
When Prusina told her parents that she was planning to go to Kosovo, they were concerned. “They were worried about my security,” she explains. “If I would have told them that I was planning on going to Africa, it would have been all fine.” Mitic laughs when she hears the story and recognises this. “I have a lot of worried parents on the phone now and then, who I have to explain that it is a safe trip. Besides that, I know for sure that we have children travelling with us who conceal that Kosovo is the destination.”
Just a drop in the ocean
Mitic and her team of 12 other, mostly, university-educated team members at YIHR, realise they might be a drop in the ocean. As in every capital in Europe, there is a strong young and cosmopolitan minority that travels, attends university and faces the future with optimism.
By visiting high schools and inviting a broad range of children, they hope to reach everybody and not only the highly educated. “Children are of course not the problem but parents sometimes are,” says Mitic. “You have to realise that only 30% of the Serbians believe that democracy is the best system of governance for the country.”
For them the unjust, in some eyes biased picture, of the outside world makes them sensitive to right-wing movements who take a strong stand and promote a an independent Serbia that doesn’t need the rest of Europe. Mitic: “Of course we cannot reach them, but we have to convince and influence the more moderate minds.”
Something only young people can do, according to assistant professor Bakic: “YIHR is one of the few NGOs I consider interesting since they are truly independent and young; they don’t have the luggage of older generations or politicians influencing their work.”
When crossing the border at Croatia’s Vukovar, everybody gets off the bus. All the passengers of the bus from Belgrade have to hand in their passports. That half of the group’s state documents now involve the letters EU, is a clear sign that what was once united as one Yugoslavia, is clearly divided now by visible borders.
“Many parents I speak with are pessimistic and don’t see a future wherein their children are united with children from neighbouring countries in the way that they were united before the war,” says Bakic.
The border between the two countries isn’t only a physical line. It also clearly separates the different views people still have and embrace: The Serbian version, and the version of the outside world.