LETTER FROM VIENNA

Posted on January 24, 2009

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Why I Haven’t Returned to Belgrade

By Slavenka Drakulic

01/21/2009

The Balkan wars of the 1990s may be of the past, but their legacy still haunts the region. People do not want to admit they took part in wars. But while they may not be war criminals or murderers, they still bear responsibility.

I was walking down Mariahilfer Street in Vienna not long ago when I happened to overhear a conversation between three young men. They spoke Serbian, and were talking about a gathering at which Bosniaks and Croats had also been present. What drew my attention to them was not the language they spoke, but rather an expression one of them used. “I didn’t expect there would be so many people there tonight who speak our language,” one young man said.

He used the term “our language” (nas jezik) deliberately, instead of referring explicitly to Serbian, Bosnian, or Croatian. Nas jezik refers to all of the closely related southern Slavic languages. After the wars in the former Yugoslavia, the term became a kind of code indicating good intentions. We are not enemies, nas jezik implies. We can still understand one another in spite of everything.

To my surprise, hearing these words warmed my heart. How important it is, I thought, that these Serbian youngsters are communicating with their peers from neighboring countries. It struck me that their generation did not experience the wars of the 1990s. Maybe they were even born after my last visit to Serbia, almost two decades ago.

That visit was in June 1991, just before my native country Croatia proclaimed its independence. One of those three young people could have been born then, perhaps that very month. Once the young men had passed me, the warmth gave way to a familiar mix of guilt and anxiety. How many times in the past 17 years had I been invited to visit Belgrade — by friends, my publisher, the organizers of various conferences? Every time I found a way to refuse their invitations. Why had I not visited for all of these years?

Was it about “them”? About what “they” did to “us”? Or about what Serbs did to themselves? If I traveled there I would carry two decades of images and emotions with me, like that of the Muslim woman from Srebrenica whose son was murdered by the Serbs. Her words, “I was forced to drink the blood of my own son,” are burned in my memory. So too is the photo of a young man bent forward over a railing with a gaping hole in his chest. How strange, I thought when I saw it, that you could see the railing through the hole.

Much has changed in 17 years. Friends in Belgrade have come and gone. Some were even connected to the Milosevic regime. Had I ever really known them? Can one really know people, trust them? These questions depressed me. Perhaps I was staying away from Belgrade to spare myself from these feelings.

Why would Belgrade be different than Zagreb, a city also scarred by war? I had to face the same kind of people in Zagreb — old friends and colleagues who became nationalists and opportunists. But it is not the same. I live and work in Zagreb. It is my city, and there is no way for me to not confront the postwar reality there. That is, unless I want to leave and never come back.

“Belgrade is a part of your past as well,” my friend Boris told me when we recently met here in Vienna. He returned home to Serbia from the United States several years ago. “You must come and see the city and the people there for yourself,” Boris said. “After all, cities are people.” We spoke about returning to the places that used to be ours. He described to me his first trip to Dubrovnik after the war. It was painful, he said, but not only because of his nostalgic memories or because of what shells had done to the beautiful medieval town. Above all, it was painful because the Yugoslav soldiers had destroyed it in his name.

Boris showed me a photo of his son, a handsome young man dressed in a suit. It was hard to believe that the little boy I once knew is now a student of law. I was reminded again of the whole new generation of Serbs that will soon be voting in elections and shaping their country’s future. I hardly know this new generation.

What do I know about them? For one thing, they cannot travel abroad without a visa. They cannot see London or Paris, or even Bucharest or Sofia anymore. How sad and humiliating their situation is. I remember how with the old red Yugoslav passport my generation traveled throughout Europe. As a student, I worked in Sweden during the summer and came back with enough money for a whole year. This was a source of pride for us, in contrast to the countries in the Soviet bloc. They envied us because we could buy blue jeans, Italian shoes, and foreign records. The other side of that freedom to travel, however, was that it meant accepting the political system. We were bribed into believing that “socialism with a human face” made sense and could work. We did not question it.

Today young Serbs are isolated and prohibited from seeing the world, and they are angry about it. At a recent conference, I heard a young Serbian man speak passionately about the fact that his generation was not even born when the wars broke out. They are not responsible for the crimes of their fathers. Because they are young, he implied, they are blameless. I must admit that this presumed innocence does not feel right to me.

I know something about this. My generation assumed our innocence in the bloodshed of World War II. What could we possibly have to do with crimes committed before we were born? Our fathers never spoke about these crimes, and yet I do not blame them for their silence — the same kind of silence that I witness today after the wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. I do blame our generation, however, for not asking questions. It is our responsibility to question our fathers’ justifications and their ideology. We didn’t do that. Our generation was responsible for finding out the truth. Instead, we believed in the histories laid out by school textbooks and nationalistic leaders because it was easier to live that way. Our attitude toward the past was one of the reasons that the wars of the 1990s were so easy to start.

I wonder how much the new generation in Serbia knows about its own past. Like ours, their generation is responsible for its silence, for not asking about what happened before they were born, for not caring about what their fathers did during those wars, for believing that they have the right to visas just because they are young and their hands are clean. Most of all, they are responsible for failing to ask their parents why they are deprived of visas. The youngest generation of Serbs cannot be held responsible for the past. But all of them are responsible for their present attitude toward the past. That was the lesson that we, their parents’ generation, had to learn the hard way.

I am no longer afraid to see my friends in Belgrade again. After all, we know exactly what each of us did, or said, or wrote during and after the wars. We know our mistakes and misunderstandings. We can account for each acquaintance, just as surely as the Serbs can account for what their friends and neighbors did in Bosnia or Kosovo.

People do not want to admit that they took part in wars. But while they may not be war criminals or murderers, they still bear responsibility. They believed that there was no alternative to nationalism and voted for a murderous regime. Serbs live in denial of their recent past, and there seems to be no motivation to face the truth. But we cannot be silent. We cannot repeat our mistakes and the mistakes of our parents. We all have to confront the past. The new postwar generation has its own responsibility: it must seek the truth. The youth of Serbia suffer because they are not asking questions.

This, I believe, is why I don’t visit Belgrade. I couldn’t bear the silence.

Slavenka Drakulic is a Croatian novelist and journalist. Her latest book “Frida’s Bed,” about Frida Kahlo, was published in 2008.

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