A year before the official breakup of Yugoslavia, I spent the better part of the summer in the capital, Belgrade. As it turns out, it was to be the country’s last.
The bright glow of 1989’s events shone into the new year. Change was sweeping across Eastern Europe. In November of 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, signaling the end of the Cold War. Old orders were falling, new political parties were rising to challenge single-party communist rule that had exercised de facto control over Eastern Europe for more than four decades.
In Yugoslavia, after more than four decades of single-party rule under Tito, there were more open displays of nationalism, and the creation of new parties to challenge single-party rule. Among other events, that year marked the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo on June 28th. To mark the auspicious occasion, the Serbian Orthodox Church had taken the remains of Prince Lazar, killed in the Battle of Kosovo, around the country, heightening the nascent nationalist spirit beginning to awaken across the nation. Such awakenings had the effect of upsetting the delicate political and ethnic balance that had been in place since the end of World War II.
Closer to home, an uncle of mine from Yugoslavia had visited us during the late 1980s looking into the possibility of emigrating with his family to the U.S. He was interested in the job market here and if he could enroll his children in school. Sensing a brewing storm back home, he was looking for a Plan B should the unthinkable come about.
At the time I didn’t really understand his interest in emigrating. In hindsight, it makes more sense. Anybody living in Yugoslavia or émigrés (like my parents) who were familiar with the country’s history and politics probably saw that the country’s power structure was beginning to crack at a faster clip since Tito’s death in 1980, and sensed that at the very least some type of upheaval was likely.
Summer of 1990
Yugoslavia that summer was a strange and exotic land to me, a child of immigrant Serb parents who grew up in the U.S. within a close-knit Serbian community.
We spent a lot of time in Zemun, the town across the Danube and Sava rivers north of Belgrade, with my father’s side of the family. I hung out with my cousin and his friends, all of them a few years older than me, as we made our way from small street cafes and hip “underground” places to parties at one of the hundreds of identical apartment blocks in New Belgrade to art and music happenings all over town. We got around mostly by public transportation, the bus system that apparently nobody paid to use. He didn’t have a car of his own so on very rare occasions we’d borrow the car my uncle owned, a late ‘70s Moskvitch, a Soviet-made tank-like sedan that my uncle cared for like it was one of the family, going out each night to securely cover it with a tarp.
We went to a music festival called Avala Fest held on Avala, a wooded, hilly park a few miles south of the city. It was famous for being home to the Avala Film house founded in 1946. During its time it was involved in filming and producing hundreds of films, both Yugoslav films mainly for domestic consumption, but also international features. One of the last projects was “Around the World in 80 Days”, an NBC mini series that aired in 1989. The production company was Avala Film.
Decked out in our jean jackets like all of the other rokeri (rockers), we drank Belgrade’s BiP beer, smoked cigarettes, and wandered around the festival with its surreal movie scenery that doubled as music stages for the rock bands playing on into the cool summer nights.
A big attraction were the Belgrade McDonald’s. The first one in the communist world opened in March of 1988 on Slavija Square. A second one had opened on Terazije, which would be heavily damaged by protesters during the NATO bombing of 1999. For my younger brother and I, both fond of American fast food, it was comforting to be amidst something so familiar. A small slice of home. For my Yugoslav family, going to McDonald’s was mostly a pricy novelty.
There were some lost-in-translation moments as well, as when asking about the tea on the menu. “Is it iced tea?” I recall asking a young cashier, who looked at me in genuine puzzlement as to why anyone would want cold tea. “It’s hot, like tea is supposed to be,” he snapped back. As if to say, “What kind of idiot asks for cold tea?” I ordered a soda instead.
The experience of shopping was disorienting as well. Buying an item in one of the many drab state-run department stores, with its layers of bored, annoyed workers and the intricate steps involved in making a simple purchase, was unlike anything I was used to back home. Visiting one of the newer privately run stores in town made the difference all the more stark, as eager clerks would greet customers and promptly ask them how they could help. It was clear to even a naïve teenager like me that the state-run model was the old way of doing things, and that it couldn’t possibly survive much longer alongside the better alternatives that were springing up.
Outside of the city, I recall watching TV with older cousins and young nieces and nephews in my mother’s village south of Belgrade. There were movies about medieval Serbian history, epic battles with the Ottoman Turks, but also the spectacle of World Cup soccer. We watched the Finals on July 8th, West Germany vs. Argentina, with the Germans winning 1-0, lamenting that Yugoslavia had lost to Argentina in the quarterfinals on penalty kicks, 3-2, only a few days earlier.
My dad and his brother would read newspapers and watch the news on state TV that told of increasing persecution of the Serb minority within the republic of Croatia. How much of this was true, how much distortion of actual events on the ground, and how much was pure propaganda I really couldn’t say, mostly because my interests were elsewhere, being 19 and having just finished my first year of college, and looking to have a good time. So naturally what was happening in politics didn’t interest me much at all.
Nevertheless, I did end up at some kind of political rally in a park in Zemun with my dad, uncle and cousin. I can’t recall the occasion (if there was one at all), but we listened to a short, stodgy fellow with a Marx-like beard and a commanding voice give a dynamic speech to the assembled crowd.
I later found out it was Jovan Rašković we’d listened to. Rašković had founded the Serbian Democratic Party of Croatia, which took part in democratic elections there. He later encouraged a colleague in Bosnia and Herzegovina to found a similar party. That colleague was Radovan Karadžić.
By the time we returned home that August, the world would forever change. Within days of arriving back in the U.S., news reports were coming in that the Iraqi forces of Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, and that the U.S. and the U.N. were taking immediate action. The massive military build-up known as Operation Desert Shield would ultimately lead to the First Gulf War in January of 1991.
Yugoslavia continued its descent into political turmoil which would lead the following summer to declarations of independence from the republics of Croatia and Slovenia, thrusting the country into civil war.
Soon, males from their teens into their 40s (including a few relatives) would get the call to serve in the JNA (Jugoslovenska Narodna Armija, the Yugoslav People’s Army). Some answered the call and fought in places like Vukovar, and some went into hiding, refusing to become cannon fodder.
As the wars began to rage, back home in the U.S., all I could do was watch. Mostly, I couldn’t believe what was happening and the depth of brutality and savagery being attributed to actions of people that were my ethnic kin. I struggled deeply with this. I had grown up in a solidly religious household, attending church and Sunday School, serving as an altar boy for many years, and not once can I ever recall hearing about or being indoctrinated with any kind of ethnic hatred or distrust. Not once. And so for me, the sudden appearance of this orgy of violence was utterly baffling and troubling to the core. “How can they call themselves Christians and do the things they’re accused of?” I thought. Nothing added up.
There was so much I didn’t know or understand at the time. The background of my parents’ lives, their childhoods during World War II, my mother’s in Nazi-occupied Serbia (or the carved up remains of Yugoslavia), and my father’s in the Nazi-puppet Independent State of Croatia. And the likely reason my father and uncle went to hear Rašković in the park that day: their wartime experience as an undesirable minority destined for extermination, inoculated with the survivor’s reflexive “never again.”
Still, the mood that summer in Belgrade seemed as genuinely carefree as ever. At least to the young, war, economic sanctions and the destruction of society as they knew it was not anywhere on the horizons they saw. Maybe they had grown accustomed to the status quo. Or it was that only the young didn’t get it, didn’t see the coming catastrophe. The older generations, the politicians of the age, knew and planned for what was coming.
This is what makes the final days of Yugoslavia all the more painful. The sense that perhaps none of this was inevitable, that if different narratives had taken hold, or a willingness to hash out difficult political and economic issues, Yugoslavia may have continued to exist in some form or other. Or that even if republics did secede that there would be no bloodshed, not the slaughter that unfolded for years afterwards.
One of the songs I heard a lot that summer, both on the radio and from cassette deck stereos, was the syrupy ballad “Sto je bilo bilo je” (What was, was) by the Bosnian pop-rock act Hari Mata Hari, a song of break up and loss. In hindsight, it was the song that would define the history unfolding that summer, at least for me.
Ironically, one of the last memories I have of that summer in Belgrade was crossing the Sava river one night with my cousin and his friends in a rickety old raft with a straining outboard motor. It was an ink-black moonless night with only a few dim lights in the distance on Ada Ciganlija, the small island where we were heading. Secretly, I wondered if we’d ever make it to the shore, if we wouldn’t just sink in the river and drown, or be attacked by some monster from the depths of the river.
We made it to the shore and we didn’t drown. And there were no monsters in the river. The monsters, we later learned, walked among us.
Cover photo: Belgrade, 1990/Goldi/Skyscrapercity/All rights reserved.