Am Johal: In the Land of Tito
In the Land of Tito
By Am Johal
When Tito, the dapper, benevolent, womanizing leader of Yugoslavia was sent by the Soviet Union to purge the Communist Party in the 1930’s Balkans, he advocated for the break up of the country and agitated for changes against Serbian domination. Ironically, he would become the father of the modern state who deftly modernized the nation but left a leaderless tinderbox susceptible to the structural weaknesses of fractured nationalisms. As the Berlin Wall fell, it foreshadowed the ugly rupture that would become the Balkan madness only a few years later. In a way, what transpired was what he had originally advocated for, before becoming leader. There is now a Balkan diaspora throughout the world which resulted from the collapse of the state.
Rebecca West, a famous chronicler of the region, once wrote: "If the whole human race lay in one grave, the epitaph on its headstone might well be: "It seemed a good idea at the time." She also wrote that life ought to be a struggle of desire toward adventures whose nobility will fertilize the soul. The Balkans have always lured people in to the region historically for its incomprehensibility, charm and character.
Former residents of the region lament the loss of multi-ethnic Yugoslavia where Slovenians, Croats, Bosnians, Kosovars, Montenegrins, Macedonians and Serbs all lived in the same cities and shared each others holidays. They miss the Non-Aligned Movement which included Egypt and India. They still talk about the fact that in Tito’s day, the Yugoslav passport was the best in the world because you could travel to the West and to the Communist East. Although Tito’s socialist model was more open than the authoritarian one led by the Soviet Union, it still relied too much on the cult of Tito to survive as a resilient entity after his death. The Sarajevo Olympic pins from 1984 still make the rounds as the last symbolic reminder of a united Yugoslavia. Even North Americans went through an embarrassing Yugo fad.
Writers such as Ivo Andric (Bridge Over the Drina), Rebecca West (Grey Falcon and Black Lamb) and Robert Kaplan (Balkan Ghosts, Eastward to Tartary) give varying perspectives and frames to this region for the outsider.
Day 1 - Zagreb
I took the train from rural Hungary in the morning and arrived in the Croatian capital of Zagreb around 2 in the afternoon. I was met by a travel companion who had traveled all night from Switzerland and a classmate of mine who was a former Japanese human rights worker with the UN during the conflict.
The World Cup fever was in full display where all the plazas had big screen TV’s rolled out on to the promenade. Hundreds of people were loitering in cafes and everything seemed to give off a European charm. The Croatians have always had a greater European connection historically than the rest of the region which is why it seems to so effortlessly give off the sophisticated air of any Central European capital. With a remodeled bus station and EU integration moving along, Croatia seems economically confident and ready for business.
After lingering on the plaza and visiting some great bookstores, we headed to a mosque in Zagreb which showed that there is still a multi-ethnic society despite all the divisions that have happened since. Zagreb has a central square and the downtown can easily be transversed in about an hour.
Our tour guide was Satoshi Ashikaga, probably one of a handful of Japanese people in the entire world that can speak Serbo-Croat fluently. Having documented human rights violations early on in the conflict, he stayed in the region and worked with the UN Development Program after being as traumatized as anyone else. He is another kind of exile of the conflict. He continues to publish a Peace Journal based out of Zagreb.
Day 2 and 3 - Sarajevo
We took the morning bus to Sarajevo and arrived by afternoon. The dodgy bus company charged us money to check our bags in the luggage rack under the bus.
Undeterred by this brand of petty thievery, we checked in to a cheap place and immediately cabbed up in to the beautiful hills of Sarajevo to the Kod Bibana Restaurant. There, the band played in the open air for the handful of customers taking in the afternoon sun over picnic tables with a view of the hillsides and central Sarajevo.
A Russian friend once told me that if you’ve lived a day in the life of the city, it’s as if you’ve lived an entire life. Anyone who has ever fallen in love with Sarajevo has been to the hills of this completely original, magnificent city.
In the Old City, a mosque bears the new look of hijabs and the new Islam that has overtaken the city. The call to prayer still happens in the evening. The Library which the Bosnian Serbs bombed resulting in the loss of over 2 million books still sits empty as a monument to Serb aggression. The yellow Holiday Inn where all the reporters stayed during the war sticks out like a sore thumb as much for its pungent color scheme as for the eery idealism evoked by the symbols promoting the 1984 Winter Olympics in host city.
This is a city that is easy to have an emotional connection with largely due to its aesthetics. It effortlessly fits in to its natural surroundings. It is cheap and easy to get around.
There is something that is tragic and weathered about this place too– as if everyone’s experienced everything before. There’s no need for words or questions or acknowledgements – it’s just best to move on. This is where Susan Sontag staged a production of Becket’s ‘Waiting for Godot,’ while the city was under siege.
We visited the university and sauntered through neighbourhoods and cemeteries. We had dinner in the Old City and later hopped on the night bus to Kosovo.
Day 4 - Pristina
After hitting the violent switchbacks in the hills of Bosnia, we motored on along rural reststops and eventually reached close to the border of Montenegro as daylight broke. The Balkan pop music which crossed over with Albanian and Turkish rhythms set the tone. We arrived around 9 in the morning before a friend picked us up and took us to a well kept hostel known as the Professor’s House. We slept for a few hours and our friend brought us home baked cakes.
Along the way we passed Mother Theresa and Bill Clinton Boulevard. There was a portrait lining a building in downtown Pristina of the former US President waving. Clinton is still a hero here for choosing to intervene when the Serbs attacked in 1999. Former President Rugova’s grave was five minutes from where we were staying and the square was filled with flowers as tour buses rolled in from the outskirts of Kosovo to pay their respects.
We drove to the nearby town of Fushe Kosova where ethnic Serbs used to live in greater numbers. It was also the town where Slobodan Milosovic, as a Communist party official in 1987, had given a famous televised speech where he promised a crowd of angry Serbs, “No one has the right to beat you ... No one will beat you ever again." Two years later, he was propelled to the Presidency on a populist wave.
We visited the national library, art gallery and saw the empty Serbian Orthodox Church that had been built in the nineties, but its future is not still secure as it has been built on university property.
Our friend, Delfin Pllana, a local democracy activist, Kosovar Albanian and a fellow graduate student, has been trying to contextualize his experience during the last 15 years of conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. He and his family were driven across the border to Macedonia in the early days of fighting in 1999. However, they quickly returned back to Pristina when the fighting had died down but were traumatized and politicized by the events. Pllana studied in Germany, worked for the International Organization for Migration and started writing for local newspapers. He is now waiting for Kosovo to reach its next stage of development which he sees as full independence. He would like to get involved in politics in the future.
He later drove us further up the highway and pointed out the valley where the mythical Battle of Kosovo took place in 1389. There on the plains, Prince Lazar and his Christian Army were defeated by Sultan Murat and his Ottoman Army. In the hillside, NATO troops today still guard a historical site from the era and would not let tourists in. Serbian nationalists often evoke the story of Prince Lazar who famously said before the Battle of Kosovo that it was better to die heroically than to live under the enemy yoke.
Later, outside the Grand Hotel which has recently been bought by a Kosovar brick company, we passed Pakistani peacekeepers who were making home videos for relatives back home. It was a collegial atmosphere. I spoke to them in broken Hindi and we talked about Amitabh Bhacchan, Bollywood’s favourite son.
As we rolled on past markets and mosques, everyone we spoke to was worried about the pace at which the NGO and international community could back out of Kosovo and the implications it would have on the local economy. Many were hoping that the inevitable withdrawal could be timed over a longer time frame to ensure economic development and foreign direct investment could be secured while political stability could be maintained.
There is an infrastructure gap in Kosovo that dates back to earlier times under the Yugoslav Republic.
We hit the small patios for drinks and shared conversations about the future possibilities of Kosovo. The smoky basement bar favoured by locals that we went to had a cover band delighting the crowd with the youthful optimism of rock and pop standards like Dire Strait’s ‘Money for Nothing” and Prince’s “You Don’t Have to be Rich.”
Day 5 – On to Belgrade
The next morning, we ate chevabs and had Turkish coffee at the bus station and headed to Belgrade. Along the highway, Albanian farmers wearing their characteristic white hats rode carts pushed by horses. The land was flat with prairie fields interrupted by tiny villages along the road. The Belgrade bus station still has a squat down toilet that you have to pay for.
Upon arrival, we checked in to the Royal Hotel in Belgrade and had a beer at the hotel bar served up in that conspiratorial KGB way by the bow-tied waiter. We walked the streets of the city and enjoyed the nonchalant atmosphere of Belgrade. Though most of the older buildings date back only to the 19th Century, there is an element of elegant socialist realism to the concrete jungle that is Belgrade. Throw in a few Ladas and Peugots and it looks just like a 60’s Cold War film set. On a Sunday night, the park was packed with citizens and teenagers making out, while midieval singing was performed by women in traditional dresses. The walk along the ruins of the old city walls were full of park revellers. There were glass backboards for the basketball hoops set up inside the moat in the castle walls. The old Ministry of Culture man who ran the gift shop had the best collection of Yugoslav pins in the city. He was based along the walking route and had an encyclopedia for a mind. He sold us some Olympic memorabilia and other pins. We walked by two separate halls where lavish Serbian wedding parties were going on.
The next day we visited Tito’s Museum and saw his Bentleys in the foyer of the museum. Unfortunately, it was a Monday and most places were closed including the Tesla Museum. Although many cultural centers have been deteriorating structurally, there is still an apparatus of cultural workers attempting to maintain the historical and cultural institutions of Serbia.
That night we attended two art openings put on by emerging artists. Those who we met that attended, openly laughed at their government and made fun of the President for having once been a model. Many remarked that the secret service, one layer removed from the surface of power, was still actually in charge and that the old authoritarian characteristics of the regime had not yet been fully harnessed under a democratic framework. It was as if it was Belgrade’s dirty little secret but everyone knew it and even kind of laughed about in that wry, cynical, Serbian way.
Imagined narratives still govern the region. Everyone has their own version of the truth. It is as if there is no need for conversations.
No one has really forgotten what happened, but maybe everyone is ready to shrug their shoulders, maybe have a smoke and think about it for a while. It is the Balkan way to deal with the trauma of conflict.
We got on the night train to Budapest. The air was hot and sticky. We were ready to sleep and expecting to be woken up six times by passport control as the train headed north. No one was going to exchange our Serbian dinars back in Hungary.
We rolled in at daylight in time for the opening of the Gellert Baths. My friend got on her plane back to Berlin in the afternoon.
Rebecca West also said something that only someone who has travelled in this region could have written: "A strong hatred is the best lamp to bear in our hands as we go over the dark places of life, cutting away the dead things men tell us to revere." Perhaps history will show that the many factions of the former republic took her words too literally.
There were no conclusions or narratives of understanding on this trip.
Life goes on and the world is what it is.