Balkan Stories

Serbia

When Vesna was a freshman in university she joined the student movement that would eventually bring down Slobodan Milošević. We were sitting having coffee in the Sarajevo sunshine when she casually mentioned she’d been its PR person. It was her job to send footage of abuse of protestors to international news organizations – the BBC, CNN.

I peppered her with questions.

Milošević was stealing votes in all his elections, she says. He would lose, but could claim that he’d won. Students mobilized, determined to show the world that they were living under a dictatorship. They took courses in media relations, in effective protesting techniques, but they traveled to Montenegro to do it because they knew they were under surveillance.

Once, she returned to her apartment and found the door ajar. The flat had been completely ransacked, ‘like in the movies,’ she says. Any data she’d collected on Milošević was confiscated.

Sometimes strange men would show up at her door, and say her parents would be fired if she didn’t stop working against Milošević.

‘It didn’t happen, they just wanted to scare you,’ she says. ‘My parents didn’t care, they said if that was the reason that they lost their jobs, then they’d just have to lose them.’

Did they ever think, while they were working, that they could actually do it? Bring down the president?

‘No,’ she says. ‘But we couldn’t just do nothing.’

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bata was 22 when Croat soliders came to his family’s door looking for him. He hid in his parents’ room, and heard a soldier calling. ‘Bata! Where is Bata?!’ He decided to go out and face them. He says he thought he was going to die, but once he made that decision, he felt calm.

Soldiers were going door to door in the apartment building, rounding up Muslims. The soldier who had called Bata’s name was inside the flat, a few others were standing at the door.

‘Bata!’ the solider said. ‘Good to see you! Don’t worry guys, he’s one of us.’

Bata hadn’t recognized the soldier until he leaned in close to his face. Then he realized who it was – an old school mate, but someone he hadn’t considered a friend. They’d been on opposing soccer teams, hadn’t really liked each other. Bata doesn’t know how the soldier knew where he lived, or why he covered for him, didn’t turn him in. ‘He wasn’t a good guy, he’d committed war crimes,’ he says.

The soldier died a year later in the war, so Bata never got to ask him.

His family left Bosnia after that. Bata went to Sweden and lived there for 14 years. His parents left later, after Sweden’s border had been closed, and moved to Norway. His sister, Majda, got a visa to work as an au pair in England, and once she got to London she applied for refugee status.

When the family moved back to Mostar, they found a Croat doctor had moved into their abandoned flat and set up his practice. When they said they wanted their home back, he tried to sue them – he sent them a bill for improvements and repairs he’d done to the place while they were gone. The charges included €300 for moving items out of the flat – trying to bill them for having stolen all their belongings.

‘He sued our ass, so we sued his ass back!’ Bata says (loudly, of course). They sued the doctor for unpaid rent, for all the years he’d been occupying their home. They won.

Croatia

Ricardo’s family has lived in Gradac for over 400 years. The street he lives on is named after them. He’s a war vet, and defended Dubrovnik in the siege.

Ricki moved to Italy once his military service was done. ‘I told them at the border I was going to buy clothes,’ he says, laughing. He stayed for 11 years.

Now he and his sister Monika are back in their home town, and opening a travel agency that will take people on bike and boat tours of the area. I helped him one day to paint walls in their soon-to-be-opened office.

When we finished we had some cherry brandy in a restaurant downstairs. He lit up a cigarette, took a long drag.

‘I’m going to quit, once we get our business started,’ he says, exhaling.

‘How long have you smoked?’ I ask.

‘Sixteen years, but I quit for two and a half.’

‘You started again after that long? Why?’

‘There was a time, during the war, when the Serbs bombed us for 48 hours straight. It was difficult not to smoke during that.’

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About aasaelsewhere

I like Saskatchewan fine, but am hitting the road soon anyway. First on the itinerary: Portugal, England, Ireland, then England again. I have Yellow Fever immunity, a pending visa, and a blank passport, and can't promise anything.
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One Response to Balkan Stories

  1. Dhana McIver says:

    You need to get this, exactly as you wrote it, out for publication somewhere. What a great piece!

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