Danica Ilic left Serbia to work for the BBC in London a decade ago. She says that the fearless and progressive part of society she once knew has largely disappeared from view, and that many in Serbia live a life of compromise, having allowed themselves to “forget who Vucic, Dacic and Svetlana ‘Ceca’ Raznatovic are and what they represent”. Read about why she is still optimistic, even though she believes the situation in Serbia has, in many ways, never been worse.
This interview is part our series “That Great Diaspora”, inspired by the Rachel Zucker poem of the same name. On a bi-monthly basis, we will publish writings from people who have, for one reason or another, found themselves living in another part of the world. We’re interested in hearing stories from people everywhere, so we’re soliciting your essays or your willingness to be interviewed at editor[at]balkanist.net. Whether you’re classified as an immigrant, an expat, a migrant worker, a refugee, a foreign student, or an asylum seeker, we want to talk to you, members of That Great Diaspora.
Danica Ilic, Journalist, London, UK
“Things have changed, claims the BBC. Even Vucic and Dacic have changed, says Natasa Kandic. Somehow I don’t believe them at all”. – Danica Ilic
Danica, in 2004 you left Belgrade to live and work in London, that was four years after the fall of Milosevic and only a year after the murder of Zoran Djindjic. In Belgrade you were a journalist for Radio B92. What was your life in Serbia like in those years? What did you like about it and what didn’t you like?
Before I left Serbia, my life was all about Radio B92. It’s important to emphasize that we are talking about radio, meaning the “old” or some may say the “true” B92 where one could hear the best, the most progressive music, where the founders of the techno scene of Serbia worked, where educated, free, funny, and simply the best people hung out. This was the only place where I felt free in the time of Milosevic’s rule, but also after he was gone. It was only there where there were the people who spoke the same language as me, who shared the same values as me, who were fearless. At B92 it wasn’t just work; my private life was there. However, the sense of purpose I felt since the times when, as a teenager, I became politically and socially engaged slowly began to fade for me in Serbia as the 21st century arrived. This probably had to do with my maturing; ideals I had as a girl and young journalist began to fall apart. The city started to look different.
I didn’t want to leave. Still, my professional and private life took an unusual turn when I heard that the BBC needed journalists from Serbia. I applied, got the job and signed a one-year contract. I knew right then I wouldn’t return. When I lived in Belgrade I remember we used to hang out on the splavovi (river boat clubs) with unusual, even vulgar names where the best parties with the best DJs took place. At the time, there were not as many splavovi with primitive aesthetics that foster a culture of violence where shootings often occur. The progressive part of society used to overlap with groups that still longed for lawlessness, for the moral and physical violence of the nineties, yet there was the hope that the progressive thinkers would ultimately overpower them. Now, it looks like not only have these other elements come to power again, but they’ve also resurrected the darkness that infiltrates theaters, dysfunctional movie theaters—the darkness that radiates from TV screens, that spills over from one country to another in our region, that simply stings my eyes every single time I land at Nikola Tesla airport. And at the same time, I’m the happiest woman alive when I arrive. Because I return to “my people” who still live in that country: a classic immigrant story.
In 2004 you arrived to London. What were your first impressions? How did you find a place to stay and how did you manage logistically? How did your perspective on Belgrade change in those first months of living in London?
I was lucky to have had a couple of colleagues and friends from Belgrade in London who also came to work for BBC. They were my “first aid” in getting around and later in accepting the fact that my life had changed. In a month, I found a place to live in the area where my friends lived also. That flat on Crouch Hill with a view of all of London would later be my biggest comfort and my refuge over the next couple of years of difficult adaptation to the city. It wasn’t at all easy. Even with friends, a cousin who also lives here, even with an interesting job and the opportunity to learn completely new ways of doing journalism here at the BBC, every night over those first couple of years I would go back home sad and lonely. My telephone bills in those months were astronomically high. I missed everything I had left behind in Serbia, as if someone had ripped me away from my country and thrown me far from everything I had ever known. Everything was different in London, with a very neat and organized public life, parks all around, very aggressive anti-smoking campaigns, dinners served without bread, daily beers after work, and recycling containers at every step (and this I highlight as this is nonexistent in Serbia). Therefore, it wasn’t just the new job and the city that I was adapting to but a completely different way of living. Today, London is my city and we’ve completely accepted each other.
Where do you see human rights and Serbian society compared to 2004?
Today my country looks tired, impoverished and disempowered to me. It has been robbed after the selling of all its public companies, various corrupt affairs, and all the loans taken from world “money lenders”. But that is not the worst of all the problems. What is worse is the lack of a critical spirit in the media and more generally, in public life. All of the courageous, thinking people still speak, write, paint and sing in order to draw attention to the faults in society and in the country. That will never be a problem in Serbia. The problem is that no one can see them or hear them anywhere. Even when critical articles get by the filters of censorship and self-censorship, some mediocre manager never fails to warn the author about the links between those in power and those who advertise, and then about the “cause and effect” links between advertising revenues and salaries, and the next installment of home loans. Movie theaters are not working, and some theaters would be better off if they shut down. But Serbia is not the only country where one can see a lack of progressive thought and a lack of ideas to confront the values of the capitalist system. The entire world is in crisis. But at the global level, movements like UK Uncut and Anonymous emerge, books like Indignez-vous (Time for Outrage) are printed and analyzed. In my country, an era of stronger resistance to censorship, austerity measures, kitsch and questionable valuesi has yet to come. Freedom always stands by those who are courageous and Serbia has many courageous and smart people. The internet is on their side, too.
Naturally, when I compare the Belgrade of ten years ago to today, the quality of the Ibarska highway that I take when travelling to Kraljevo to see my family, the number of new restaurants with the most delicious food in the world, I can’t help but come to the conclusion that much has improved. But that’s to be expected, which is why I won’t elaborate any further. I believe more effort needs to be put into fixing the degree of freedom and change.
You say that the courageous and smart have the internet on their side. Why is it that so many stories do not translate well or not at all to offline media? For instance, apparently the former First Deputy Prime Minister (now Prime Minister) of the government has married for a second time. Stories, discussions, and even photos from the wedding have been all over social networks for days. The mainstream media kept quiet about it, apparently due to censorship. One of the main questions coming from communities on social networks was why the media and even the tabloids kept quiet? Danica, why do you think not one mainstream media outlet asked Aleksandar Vucic for the name of his new wife?
I don’t know what happened to all those journalists who weren’t afraid of wars, of NATO, of Milosevic, or of Dacic and Vucic. I’m certain they’re not afraid of them today and they wouldn’t have a problem with asking even Vucic about other more important issues. These courageous and righteous colleagues in Serbia write and publish blogs and columns, but you won’t hear about them in the media because the media is run by cowards. Editors are cowards. It seems like right now everyone is calculating what will pay off better, how a lesser evil will cover up for a bigger one, etc. Decades are lost in such calculations, and more importantly, credibility and morals are lost. I have hope for those who still believe in ideals and will not shy away from anything. They are part of the younger generation that will use technology and new media. A new guerrilla radio will rise in Serbia, for sure.
What will this guerrilla radio talk about?
About why all of Serbia is discussing Aleksandar Vucic if has remarried on social networks if while no one can ask the same question publicly. The guerrilla radio would ask why children of certain politicians use official vehicles for personal use, and who decided to have Svetlana Raznatovic (“Ceca”) sing in central Belgrade on New Years Eve and why. The radio station wouldn’t forget to remind the public of where Vucic, Dacic, Tadic and others have been, and what they’ve done in recent decades.
The guerrilla radio in Serbia of 2014 would talk about who censored Dusan Masic’s text about the shame of the Serbian media and why; who is introducing GMOs through the back door and why; and it would say that it isn’t acceptable to increase the legally permissible level of aflatoxine in milk in accordance with what some state secretary, mayor or minister would like. These are the same people who endangered the health of citizens with their carelessness and ignorance while the media assisted them with irresponsible, shallow and subservient reporting.
The guerrilla radio would remind the public that the president of Serbia is a man who is not sorry that another man — journalist Slavko Curuvija — was murdered.
On this radio station, we could hear what the Roma population thinks, and not just about their education or housing from an outsider’s perspective. I’d like to hear what representatives of the Roma community think about all other social issues that are discussed in media. I’d like to hear what Albanians, Syrian refugees, members of the gay community, people with disabilities, teenagers and women think… and not just because they are “minorities” but also because they are constituents of this society. The Serbian media must reflect its society as it is and not as it is seen by power-holders and members of the elite, who are enriched by the impoverishment of the country.
On this guerilla radio station we would hear that state-owned and other television stations are airing criminal programing that insults the intelligence and the taste of citizens. Voices on this radio station would not incorrectly accentuate the word “television” as is always done by the anchors on TV who smile to the camera while reading news about another bomb exploding in Iraq.
On this radio station we would hear something about why the Serbian Orthodox Church is interfering in state matters, and about investigations into the abuse of minors by certain priests. We would also learn where certain church representatives got all their money, and why they have no shame driving around in limos in a country where almost 10 percent of citizens live below the poverty line.
There would be programs dedicated to classical music, comics, and other cities and regions that are not Belgrade or Novi Sad. We would hear about what goes on in the neighborhood and globally; particularly on those matters that the world media doesn’t report on, such as rebellion against capitalist exploitation, racism, corruption, neocolonialism and military interventions.
This ideal radio of mine would speak the truth clearly and boldly, without the need to make anyone in particular happy, and without excluding anyone. That would be the only guiding principle for my guerrilla radio.
Let’s step away from media for a while and from Belgrade. Your family lives in Kraljevo. How are they doing?
Life in Kraljevo is not much different from life in other towns in central Serbia. People in Kraljevo survive thanks to food from family and friends from the countryside, neighborly loans of 200 or 300 RSD (approximately two to three euros), and thanks to good relations with friendly personnel who work behind bank counters. All my life I wanted to leave Kraljevo, which I did right after graduating from high school. Today, I’m happier when I return to Kraljevo than I am anywhere else in the world. And this isn’t just because of my parents, or my brother and his family who live there, but also because the provincial spirit I dread is somehow the least concentrated there. As (philosopher) Radomir Konstantinovic said, “In the world of the provinces, it is more important to hold on to fixed customs than to be an [authentic] personality.” Well, this is most noticeable in the capital of Belgrade, the center of power, small-mindedness and kitsch. The bigger the city the bigger a province it is. Despite all of its universities, libraries, media, and money, and despite its better access to the internet, Belgrade is more of a province than Kraljevo. The majority holds on tight to fixed customs. I don’t understand Belgradians who have an opportunity to be a progressive part of society, to be “personalities”, and to lead society forward, but who instead settle for a compromise.
But to avoid the pitfalls of generalization I emphasize that it doesn’t matter whether a person is from Kraljevo or Belgrade. My goal is to differentiate between the predominance of the provincial spirit everywhere, in every place in Serbia. Only in smaller towns such as Kraljevo do I see that more effort and more courage is invested to resist that provincial spirit and small-mindedness. It is harder for them and this is exactly why I am harder on the provincial majority in the capital. Also, in smaller towns the sense of community and solidarity is more visible. I’m talking about those people who work in banks who give a check or two more, and about the old ladies at the farmer’s market who give eggs to children and let you pay for them the next time around. I suppose that sense of togetherness is what is keeping all those people with shameful salaries and pensions alive. There you have incomparably fewer cultural opportunities, opportunities for children, sports centers, and workshops. But people don’t give up; they work their way around to resist the provincial spirit. For instance, some of the best shows I have watched were performed in the Kraljevo Theater. But to make myself clear, in London, I consider East Dulwich the most obvious example of small-mindedness and mediocrity that I’ve seen lately. I have no understanding for them and I believe that all those who grew up in privileged circumstances deserve a harsher critique.
Who do you believe should comprise the progressive part of society in Belgrade, those who are supposed to lead the society forward? And what sort of compromise are you referring to?
Politicians hold onto their posts the same way the theater managers, newspaper editors, and university professors hold onto their salaries and titles. They accepted a compromise the day they decided to forget who Vucic, Dacic and Svetlana Raznatovic are and what they represent. They’re those who don’t talk or write about it, who do not criticize the impoverishment of the country, spiritually and materially. They’re all those who plan to flee the country, believing that in capitalist countries they would be better off. Yes, it is good, much better than in Serbia, and that doesn’t mean we as individuals shouldn’t strive for a better life. But what happiness is there in being well off while the entire world is falling apart, morally and literally? What pleasure does it bring to live comfortably in warm well-furnished homes, to drive a good car and vacation in the Caribbean when you know — and you must know — that on the other side of the planet there are children dying, and young generations and people who are different being killed and oppressed? Here I am, living in London. Some will say, “lucky me”. But I’m not happy because all everyone who I love and respect in Serbia tell me that times have never been worse.
I don’t know how to identify the minority who will take Serbian society forward. I still don’t see this progressive nucleus that will save the societal consciousness from the darkness, boredom, and general apathy and acceptance of anything, no matter how bad it gets. Although I don’t recognize them, I know, and I am convinced, that moral, thinking individuals exist and that they will soon appear in the public space. Or better, that they will win it, as the public in Serbia will never give it away to them on its own.
Daily events in Serbia are not letting up as we wrap up this interview. I was planning to end it with the question above but in the meantime, Serbian police walked into the bedroom of Balkanist’s editor-in-chief, Lily Lynch, in the middle of the night. I would like you to comment this.
I don’t know the Balkanist editor personally, I only know her through the texts she writes and publishes. But I know the Serbian police quite well, as well as the responsible minister and main power-holder in Serbia (now Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic), and I expect anything from them. Moreover, barging into people’s homes, intimidation of journalists, censorship, extortion, and lying are all means that Dacic and Vucic used while I lived in Serbia and while they were in power for the first time. Therefore, why wouldn’t they use the same methods today when they’ve seized that same power again? These are people who know only know two things — force and censorship. But there are people who can’t and shouldn’t agree with the denial of basic human freedoms, as with what happened to Lily Lynch. And as far as I can tell, this disapproval of the government is, at the very beginning of the election campaign, being expressed in the freest of all forms – humor. First we will laugh at them — at Vucic and Dacic and Tadic and all other so-called politicians. I don’t want to call them “small people”, but why not when they reflect what Wilhelm Reich calls the “small man”? Serbia will laugh at them first and then will send them away from their fauteuils and cabinets and from the country’s TV screens. Free days are coming. I’m optimistic.
Follow Danica on Twitter: @dasha_i