Iva Vukusic is an analyst and researcher in the Hague. Originally from Zagreb, she worked at Croatia’s Radio 101 and for the Special War Crimes Department in Sarajevo before moving to the Netherlands. Read about her experience of the 1990s, starting over with new friends in a foreign country, and the resurgent nationalism in Croatia — as well as some of the underreported opposition to it.
This interview is part our series “That Great Diaspora”, inspired by the Rachel Zucker poem of the same name. On a weekly or 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.
Iva Vukusic, Researcher and Analyst, The Hague, Netherlands
Can you say something about life in Zagreb? What was your life like there before you left?
I was born in Zagreb in 1981 and I spent the first 25 years of my life there. Everything was pretty great up until 1991 when the war started and then everything went downhill for a good part of the next decade. Maybe I remember the 80s as great because I was a child but for me, they were. I had a great time: kindergarden, summers with the grandparents on the coast, Cokolino, Branko Kockica… Then things changed. Clearly, in comparison with many other towns and villages in the former Yugoslavia, in Zagreb we had a ball. I was never hungry, no one in my family died, my house was not burned. But as a child of 10 or so I remember the sense of insecurity, rampant nationalism, the collapse of the economy and the middle class lifestyle, the mean jokes against kids who were Serbs, the Catholicism that was shoved down our throats in public schools and how isolating it felt to sit in the hallway when most other kids were doing Catholic religious education. It did feel like something was collapsing.
In 2000, things changed – Tudjman was dead, the opposition won, things looked great for a bit. There was so much hope. Soon though, the enthusiasm dried up and I guess most of us realized that all the negativity accumulated through the years won’t be solved in a short period of time. The consequences of the war were felt everywhere. There was bigotry and corruption. I was studying journalism, working at the lefty Radio 101 and learning – from books, from films, from colleagues. It was also where I was introduced to many like-minded people. It was then that I started traveling more and traveling farther away.
Did you move to Sarajevo to work for the Special War Crimes Department of the Prosecutor’s office? What was the transition from Zagreb to Sarajevo like?
I left because I got into a good masters program, in Sarajevo and Bologna. In 2006, I left a good job at Radio 101 and said my goodbyes without a thought-out plan. I guess I left Zagreb because it felt small and claustrophobic and very known to me. I wanted to experience something else. I wanted to go to Sarajevo as I traveled there before, it was a friendly city and I wanted to learn more about what they had been through during the war. That was a topic that was increasingly interesting to me.
Croatia is a small country and while at Radio 101 I realized there aren’t many interesting work options if you are a journalist. I thought going somewhere else might help. Bosnia was great – it was close and similar enough but also, it was different. The masters was taught in English and my colleagues were from various countries. I came back from Italy where I wrote my thesis, graduated and then decided to stay on (again, without a well thought out plan). Sarajevans were kind to me, I liked it there and had quite a few friends. I worked in war crimes documentation and research and finally, I spent two years at the Special War Crimes Department. I had excellent colleagues there who taught me a lot. I still miss them.
The transition was easy. I think I adapt easily. We obviously speak the same language and Bosnians are friendly. I traveled around the country, broadened my understandings of history and politics. I left journalism and decided to research human rights in conflict, war crimes trials and transitional justice.
What did you think of the Netherlands when you first moved there? Was there an adjustment phase?
The Netherlands was a big change. I arrived in early November of 2009 and it rained for weeks. I have visited before, but had few acquaintances. The air smelled different, I admired the million types of yogurt in the shops and the legal weed, the presence of dogs everywhere – because I love animals. In those first days I took in everything I could working in the building of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. I was suddenly seeing all these judges and prosecutors that I used to watch online – now they were in the hallway.
I still don’t have many friends here. The Dutch are kind and will help you if you fall off your bike but it is difficult to form close friendships here. Many expats tend to hang out with other expats. Everyone speaks English and you don’t have to learn Dutch so for most of us, it takes a while before we start learning the language. Once you do start, the Dutch like it and everyone is very supportive of my enthusiastic but often disappointing attempts.
I love living in The Netherlands because there are so many wonderful things to do – the museums are superb; the film festivals and non-blockbusters on offer are plentiful; there are design events and screenings and all kinds of events – many of them free. I go to Amsterdam and Rotterdam and Eindhoven for events regularly. The public transportation system is great. In The Hague specifically there are lectures on international law and the courts; everyone who is anyone in this field comes and speaks here and that is simply priceless. The Hague is a calm, quiet city by the sea and I love the biking. My quality of life has significantly increased. I am exposed to more interesting things.
Often I think about those first days in a new place. The air smells different; you have that sense of being a bit lost, not knowing how things work, how you pay bills and when the trash gets picked up in your street. That adjustment is tiring but empowering. Now when I travel and I land at the Amsterdam airport, it smells familiar and it feels comforting. It smells like home.
Sometimes I miss having more close friends…That is the thing, when you move away – most often no one will know you from before, there is no reference to the ‘old you’. Every relationship is a fresh start and that can be great but it can also feel lonely because every conversation appears to need an intro. Those things are often taken for granted with old friends.
Can you say a bit more about why you feel free in the Netherlands and not in Bosnia or Croatia? Did you feel that way right away or were you nostalgic for Zagreb/Sarajevo for a while first?
I guess I am not a very nostalgic person by nature and I don’t really miss Zagreb or Sarajevo. I miss my family, my friends and the family dog Demoiselle. I miss the fun times we had and I miss some food. I miss the sea on the Croatian coast. Never once in the eight years I have been away have I thought I made a mistake or that I want to go back to Zagreb. As difficult as it can be moving away, it has been a good decision for me and I benefited from it immensely. I like going back for visits, but nothing more.
Moving abroad can be liberating because in the new place, you don’t have any history. You can try and be a better you if you want – all options are open. There is hope in that.
I love the fact that my street looks like the UN General Assembly with everyone from everywhere represented. I love the fact that my next door neighbor is a British girl and the guys downstairs are from Ivory Coast and the U.S. My dentist is Greek and yoga teacher is British. My boyfriend is Dutch. I have a friend from Tel Aviv and my favorite foods are Middle Eastern and Asian. My colleagues are former Yugoslavs and Americans and Canadians and I met someone from Mongolia once, in French class. I have never met anyone from Mongolia before. There is just more exposure to everything. It is also easy to travel – London, Paris and Brussels are so close.
I feel free because I don’t feel suffocated by nationalism, by bigotry and by repression. By the time I was leaving Bosnia, I was tired of the feeling that society wasn’t making enough headway. The politics were stuck. And they remain stuck to this day.
If you want, you can be gay and married here. You can smoke weed and take your dog into the post office. You don’t break any laws and you can just be you. My expat experience is probably partially shaped by the fact that I am an educated white female that speaks English really well, who is now also now an EU citizen (even though Croatia still has many restrictions). If I arrived from Somalia, Iraq or Syria my experience would likely have been different. Not everyone has the opportunities that we, educated middle-class people have and I try to be aware of that.
I find countries to be like clothes. They either fit or they don’t – for the long term especially. It can be a beautiful dress, but it’s not for me. That is how I feel – The Netherlands just fits better. I also know quite a few foreigners that love both Croatia and Bosnia. They probably provide something for them that they missed. And that is the beauty of it. Hopefully, we all get to select what is the best fit for us. And for many, the best fit is their own country. I know quite a few people that say that The Hague is dreadful and boring and horrible. I, on the other hand, love it. That said, I think I have another move or two in me and then I will stop. I can’t move forever. And I will only go back to Croatia if I absolutely have to – for family reasons. And then I will likely leave again.
There is also an added element – when shameful things happen in The Netherlands (and they do – racist things, for example), somehow I am not as affected. I am not Dutch after all (I guess that is why it affects me less) and this is, overall, a very liberal place and quite open. While in the former Yugoslavia, I was intensely feeling the elections, repressive moves relating to minorities, laws that I found to be violating that ideal country that I wanted to live in. Here it is easier to detach. That makes life a bit less stressful – but I still get worked up over things, such as the recent referendum in Croatia.
At what point did you realize you didn’t want to return to Bosnia or Croatia?
I don’t know when I decided that and if there was ever a process of deciding at all. After these eight years I think that is just how it is. I am used to some other things now and it would be difficult to go back. Most of my friendships don’t exist anymore beyond superficial contact, except a couple of friends, I don’t miss anything. I honestly don’t want to live in place where the Cyrillic script is hated by so many and the signs smashed, where people collect signatures to discriminate against others — I just can’t do it.
However, all these unfortunate developments also remind me of how many people want to make the country better. The opposition to the referendum and the constitutional changes in Croatia was a wonderful, inspiring movement and I loved it and supported it. Many of my friends and colleagues were involved. They are doing important work and ultimately they will succeed. Every time there is a lot of hatred and bigotry being mobilized, there is also so much opposition, so many smart individuals raising their voices against it. I admire that fight and I will do what I can to support it, I just can’t be there to participate in it, that’s all.
How has your perception of Croatia changed since you left? What are your hopes for Croatia?