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Et in Arcadia Ego: A Balkan Holiday from History

The year 2011 marks the twentieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Yugoslav wars in 1991. Seeking to escape the ghosts of the past, the region is still haunted by faces of former “heroes”.

October 1, 2011 - Vesna Goldsworthy - Articles and Commentary



And yet, it is impossible to imagine the successor states of former Yugoslavia wanting to choose any other path. In 1989, I spent a couple of nights in Dubrovnik on my way from London, where I moved in the mid-1980s, to Montenegro, where I was heading for a summer holiday. One did not need to own an oil well in Siberia to afford a week on the Queen’s Beach in Miločer in those days. I recall little of that Dubrovnik stopover. The walled city must have been as beautiful as ever, and I must have felt the pleasure I had always felt on the sun-bleached streets which are as familiar to me as those of my native Belgrade. I had been going to Dubrovnik since I was a small child. Had I suspected that this was to be my last visit for more than twenty years, I might have taken better care to remember the details.

Everything, and nothing, is as it was before

For a summer or two I spent my holidays elsewhere, and then the disintegration of my native Yugoslavia changed things forever. I watched the television pictures of Dubrovnik under shelling from the surrounding hills. I might not have believed the veracity of the newsreels but for the fact that the voices of artillerymen could have been those of my Montenegrin cousins. Exile keeps you at a safe distance, but does not spare you the pain and confusion. Like later moments of iconic vandalism – the Serbian shelling of the National Library in Sarajevo, the Croatian destruction of the Old Bridge in Mostar, or the Albanian torching of the fourteenth century Serbian Monastery of the Virgin of Ljeviš in Prizren – the shelling of Dubrovnik may have been a smaller offence on the scale of human crimes than the killing of thousands of innocent people, but it had a symbolic impact beyond the destruction of mortal bodies.

These Yugoslav “Baedeker raids” – to borrow the expression coined in the German raids on Britain in 1942 –were poignant not only because the Baedekers had already offered slim pickings in a region which had suffered so much ravage and so many wars, but also because the havoc was wrought by my generation of Yugoslavs. These were people brought up in a relatively open and prosperous socialist federation which respected the cultural achievements of its constituent nations with the same exuberant zeal with which it stifled each minute breath of nationalist dissent. Now the former were being obliterated while the latter erupted with a vengeance, in a veritable explosion of the Freudian return of the repressed. As Walter Benjamin wrote, “There is no document of civilisation that is not simultaneously a document of barbarism”.

The year 2011 marks the twentieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Yugoslav wars in 1991, which started exactly half a century after the German invasion of the earlier Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1941 – for Yugoslavs the start of the Second World War. In the region therefore, 2011 represents 1961 in terms of the Second World War: the wars are sufficiently close for the survivors to feel the rawness of the trauma, and yet distant enough for an entire generation to have grown up with only a second-hand memory of it. The monastery in Prizren, set ablaze only five years ago, is still a charred shell, but, away from Kosovo, other iconic buildings have been repaired. A new “Old Bridge” in Mostar spans the emerald waters of the Neretva. As in the new “Old Town” in Warsaw, everything, and nothing, is as it was before.

As your parents knew it

This July, I returned to Dubrovnik for the fi rst time since that stopover in the late 1980s. I made two other visits to Croatia in the intervening years, but they were so brief that they barely count; an hour at Zagreb airport on one of the last Yugoslav airlines flights from London to Belgrade which had the Croatian capital as its regular stopover, and a few hours in Ilok, just inside Croatia’s eastern frontier, when I drove across from Serbia simply for the sake of experiencing an international border where, for most of my life, there had been none.

This summer, I went on a sailing holiday, taking in Dubrovnik, Split and a number of idyllic islands in between. In their easy hedonism, the pictures in the travel brochure promised an Arcadia with the sun and the sea untainted by the dirty business of history. They reminded me of the land of the lotus-eaters; indeed, fittingly, they included a visit to Mljet, on which Odysseus was reputedly delayed for several years by the nymph Calypso while Penelope waited on Ithaca. Both in London, where I live, and in Belgrade, which I visit regularly, huge billboards advertising Croatia and “the Mediterranean as it used to be”, or “the sea as your parents knew it”, have beckoned for several years with that unmatchable Yves Klein blue of my childhood memory.

I finally gave in to temptation, but I was worried too. The moment I utter a word in my mother tongue, my accent declares me unambiguously to be from Belgrade. If I spoke English I could preserve a degree of anonymity, yet I hardly wished to pretend I couldn’t understand Croatian. It would be as strange as trying to speak French to people in New York. But what if a person I addressed in Serbian was a Croat whose house was shelled or whose family member had been killed by a Serb? Or what if it was a Croat who took part in the Operation Storm, which cleared the Knin region of its Serbian population? Slobodna Dalmacija, Split’s daily newspaper, noted that in the 2001 census only nine people in the entire Split area declared themselves to be of Serb ethnicity. Not so long ago, there would have been thousands. I wondered who the nine were, but I also wondered who else might be asking the same question.

I wasn’t concerned about personal safety – too many Serbs and Croats, politicians, business people, and tourists like me, had already paved the way by visiting each other’s country since the hostilities ended in 1995. Rather, I worried about the ethics, the appropriateness of such a holiday. Wasn’t it better to go to Greece, Spain, or Italy, where I could travel without any of the baggage of history which seemed to weigh heavier as the day of departure approached?

In the end, curiosity and nostalgia prevailed. If any of the dozens of Croats I spoke to as I travelled harboured any hostility towards me on hearing my accent, they chose a perverse way of showing it, by being unfailingly kind, and often going the extra mile to express delight at not having to struggle with English, German or Italian.

The coast was as beautiful as I remembered it, the crickets as noisy, and the pine trees as headily scented. I was determined to take a break from the messy business of Balkan history. Without internet connections, and if one averted one’s eyes from newspaper stands in the island ports, it was easy to pretend that one had escaped it all.

It was not always possible. As often as not, the jolt which brought back reality was the image of Ante Gotovina, the Croatian general sentenced to twenty four years imprisonment at the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague in April, 2011. For many Croats, Gotovina evidently remains the national hero. His image is displayed on huge roadside billboards near Dubrovnik airport, and it hangs over a street in Diocletian’s sprawling palace in Split. His face looks out from a framed picture on the walls of shops and cafés, and from the T-shirts on dozens of souvenir stands.

Haunted by “heroes”

If I was made to feel welcome in Croatia, this image, sternly militaristic and macho under the gold embroidered visor of a general’s cap, repeated with insistent regularity that it might be wiser to pack up and go. I am sure that a woman from Zagreb or Sarajevo would feel the same looking at the pictures of Ratko Mladić, which are perhaps just as frequent in Serbia. The region may seek to escape ghosts of its past but it is still haunted by faces of such “heroes”. Hastily scrawled graffiti on the walls proclaim them to have been betrayed and sold for a fistful of euros. No sooner than I was back on dry land, I was again reminded of the dark shadows which were briefly banished by the Adriatic sun. Goran Hadžić, the Hague Tribunal’s last remaining Serbian fugitive, was arrested by the authorities on 20th July in the rolling Fruška Gora overlooking the Danube, close to Novi Sad, the capital of the Serbian province of Vojvodina. Hadžić had neither the dubious charisma of Karadžić, nor the macho militarism of Mladić and Gotovina. Compared to the spectacle of the earlier arrests, this one seemed a bit of an anticlimax, the last line on a to-do list crossed out.

Two days earlier and a little further up the Danube, in Budapest, the Hungarian high court acquitted Sandor Kepiro, a former gendarmerie officer accused of taking part in the Novi Sad raid, a massacre in which over a thousand Serbs, Jews and Roma perished in January 1942. Many of the bodies were thrown into a hole in the ice which covered the Danube at that time of the year, while the Hungarian forces continued shooting at drowning survivors. Kepiro himself, allegedly, killed at least thirty of the victims. He was tried, found guilty andsentenced to imprisonment by both the war-time right-wing Hungarian government and by the post-war communists. He escaped the former by fleeing to Austria and then to Argentina, and was tried by the latter in absentia.

While the Jewish organisations declared the acquittal outrageous and the people of Novi Sad expressed anger and disbelief, the international news agencies reported that the courthouse was full of people, many with obvious neo-Nazi leanings, who cheered, clapped and chanted after the judge read his verdict. It was not the court’s decision, based on alleged absence of evidence, which allowed a 97-year old to go home to die in his own bed that troubled me, not nearly as much as that audience response. It made me, perhaps for the first time since 1989, more worried about the direction that Hungary was taking, than about Serbia or Croatia’s path ahead.

In a way, that is a good sign for the former Yugoslavia. In delivering the indicted to The Hague, the governments of Yugoslav successor states may primarily have been hoping to speed up the process of joining Europe, but they also, much more importantly, did the best thing they could do to help their countries move on and progress.

Whether or not “joining Europe” is still the high prize it had once seemed, it is impossible to imagine the successor states of former Yugoslavia wanting to choose any other path at the moment. With their experience of the failed socialist federation, which, like the EU, came out of the trauma of the Second World War, and which in ways both positive and negative resembled a kind of EU avant la lettre, the “former Yugoslavs” may turn out to be good for Europe, as much as they themselves would benefit from it.

Just as important is the self-examination which The Hague both imposed and offered an opportunity for, and a hope that it leads to political maturity. Paradoxical though it may seem to say so at the moment, such a self-examination, which moves away from depicting oneself as an innocent victim of historical storms generated elsewhere, is a process some former Warsaw Bloc countries, more easily ensconced in the EU, may well have missed out on to their ultimate disadvantage. To judge by the sounds which greeted the verdict in the Budapest courtroom, the ghosts invoked as peculiar to the former Yugoslavia are just as virulent elsewhere in Europe.

Vesna Goldsworthy is a Professor of English Literature at Kingston University in London. She was born and raised in Belgrade, (then) Yugoslavia. Since 1986 she has resided in London. She is the author of two widely translated books, Inventing Ruritania, an influential study of the Balkans in Western imagination, and Chernobyl Strawberries: a memoir.

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