What the end of Yugoslavia taught me about belonging

A. Baric’s family were forced to leave the former Yugoslavia as refugees when the country collapsed amid civil war. But even if the socialist nation is no more, the mark it has left on local identities lingers.

22 June 2020
Text: A. Baric

My father, like many others, loves a good dad joke. His are just more likely to riff on traumatic experiences of war, ethnic cleansing, and displacement.

One of his favourites is a zinger he offered while being interviewed in a refugee camp in the early 1990s. Yugoslavia as we knew it had disintegrated, and my family and I were applying for asylum in the United States. We needed to prove to the UN Refugee Agency that our situation was desperate enough to be taken in. When my dad asked about his “mixed marriage” to my mom — the reason we had to flee for our lives — my dad responded with a faux-insulted air, as if he didn’t understand the concept. “What do you mean I have a ‘mixed marriage’? There is no cheating. I don’t have a girlfriend.”

It is easy to romanticise a state that no longer exists. This is particularly true for the former Yugoslavia

He had a point though. My parents’ marriage was labelled “mixed” because they came from two different Christian denominations. His joke was a refusal to acknowledge that the small differences between being a Croat and a Serb could warrant either a special label, or expulsion. And yet, because hardline politicians were lusting after power, so our “mixed” family was villainised and purged, spread across two hemispheres, three languages, and countless communities and identities.

When the former Yugoslavia dissolved, so did my family’s sense of belonging. The process of starting a new life in the United States was never going to be easy, but it was made more difficult by the fact that our former homeland was obliterated as a country and concept. The future it promised — “Death to fascism! Freedom to the people!” — was corrupted, co-opted, and then literally erased off the map. There would never be a home to return to. Today, there are seven new countries in Yugoslavia’s place: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia.

When this sense of being uprooted becomes particularly painful to face, my parents will sometimes lean in to what was a time when it seems that ethnic diversity was a source of strength, rather than a reason for fragmentation. It is easy to romanticise a state that no longer exists. This is particularly true for the former Yugoslavia, which even has its own term for the poetic languor over what was, and could have been: Yugonostalgia. A pining for a state with jobs for everyone, housing provided by the state, and a multicultural embrace of brotherhood and unity (bratstvo i jedinstvo). Some of this nostalgia can almost feel like Cold War era propaganda, complete with children “pioneers”, who wore navy blue hats and red kerchiefs around their necks while saluting the photos of their president, Josip Broz Tito.

Pioneers March in Ljublijana. Image: Wikimedia Commons under a CC licence

I can understand why so many people miss the Yugoslav promise. There was free education and health care, guaranteed jobs, good pensions, and a freedom to travel that was limited by income, but not by passport. Yugoslavia also felt freer than the Soviet states it is often confused with nowadays. Its leader hit above his political weight. After breaking his pact with Stalin in 1948, Tito affirmed Yugoslavia’s independence by creating the non-aligned movement with Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, and Indonesia’s Sukarno. This new consortium carved out a space for independent and newly decolonized states, who wanted to fight against racism and foreign occupation. They were radically anti-colonial and anti-imperialist, refusing to choose between the Soviet Union and Western power blocs, calling for self-determination instead.

Read more ‘The country of my youth didn’t exist anymore’: capturing the final months of Yugoslavia

The “third way” Tito promised to Yugoslavs, offered a good quality of life for all, and empowered workers through self-managed socialism. Josip Broz, dobar skroz.

At the time of writing, there are almost 15,000 virtual residents of an online forum proclaiming itself the “Home of Cyber Yugoslavs”. The website states, “we lost our country in 1991 and became citizens of Atlantis. Since September 9, 1999 this is our home.” Here, every citizen is created equal, and a secretary of something: Secretary of Brandy, Secretary of Lost Dances, Secretary of the Flora of Florida. Once they reach five million members, the online community says they plan to apply to the UN for member status, and ask for 20 square meters of land for their server. The community straddles the line between earnest and tongue-in-cheek. But for many, there is nothing facetious about the loss of a nation, and thus identity.

Of course, the full story of Yugoslavia is not so simple, and nostalgia has a tendency to blur out the unsavoury details. Yugoslavia provided for its citizens in many ways. However, while its leader was sometimes a benevolent dictator, he was sometimes a brutal authoritarian. The patriotism he demanded verged on brainwashing, and critiques of his regime were not tolerated. Those who fell out of favour with the Communist Party could find themselves in a labour camp. Even Tito’s glowing achievements, including fighting against the Axis powers during the Second World War, could be double-edged. Tito’s Partisans fought against fascism, but they also turned to mass murders, and trials without jury, by the end of the Second World War.

Workers take a break during a labour campaign in the former Yugoslavia. Image: Macedonian State Archives under a CC licence

This tension between oppression and freedom from want in the former Yugoslavia can be difficult to reconcile, and sometimes it is easier to focus on its brotherhood and unity, rather than its one-party rule and war. My dad will acknowledge this, but still owns a t-shirt with Tito’s face on it. Sometimes he wears the shirt under a polo, like a Superman costume ready to be unveiled when pluralism is threatened, and nationalism rears its ugly divisive head. When he finds the right audience, he will reveal his shirt with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. This is the bold vision we once had, he seems to be saying. This is what we gave up for nationalism.

For my parents, and many others from the diaspora, time is marked not by Christ, Allah, nor Julius Caesar. There is just life before and after the war. While it is technically over, the war continues to breathe its toxicity through nationalist leaders, dispersed families, and corrupt politicians. It leaves my own tongue tied in knots, mispronouncing words in my native tongue and fumbling through declensions that young children rattle off with ease.

​My dad still owns a t-shirt with Tito’s face on it. Sometimes he wears the shirt under a polo, like a Superman costume

I most feel the heaviness of what was lost when my family and I visit countries in the former Yugoslavia, which now have new names, identities, and standings in the world.

In the media, Bosnia and Herzegovina is often portrayed as poor and corrupt. Serbia is criticised for having an ex-Milošević mouthpiece as its president. Kosovo has its right to self-determination still contested by a number of powerful countries. These are the countries with buildings that still harbour bullet wounds, we are told. These are the people that are still struggling to forge their new identities. Croatia, meanwhile (where my family goes on holiday and visits our relatives) has all the amenities of a European beach holiday destination, minus the high cost (save, perhaps, for Dubrovnik). It used to be socialist (drab! sad!) but now has tasty seafood and beautiful Venetian architecture (as if that didn’t exist before).

Tourists in Dubrovnik, 1985. Image: Poudou99/Wikimedia Commons under a CC licence

When we visit, my parents paint their former summers on the coast as opportunities for people from around Yugoslavia to flock to the sea, listen to Dalmatian songs on the beach, while making new friends over coffee and cigarettes, and camp out if they couldn’t afford to rent a granny’s spare room. When we go there now as a family, it is clear that the driving force of Croatia’s economic success – tourism – has made it far more inaccessible for those from the region.

Take a glimpse into Tito’s secret bunker with filmmakers uncovering Yugoslavia’s ruins
Read more Take a glimpse into Tito’s secret bunker with filmmakers uncovering Yugoslavia’s ruins

“Everything is for sale,” my parents grumble, while paying extra for whipped cream in their coffee. “Literally everything.” They complain that restaurants serve fish at New York prices, and that ice cream is made from powder rather than milk. “It tastes like plastic,” they moan. Fuj. And don’t get them started on the lack of singers on the beach. Entertainment now comes with an entry fee, which is just further proof of how unfettered capitalism corrupts.

But of course the problem isn’t the prices. It’s that what they saw as an important part of their country is now not only unrecognisable, but also no longer really theirs. We were denied Croatian citizenship recently, despite spending time in a refugee camp for ethnic Croats some twenty years ago. My dad has siblings who had no problem attaining their papers, but since he married a Serb and left, his case has become complicated. We can blame nationalism and xenophobia, but maybe we are deluding ourselves about how our once Yugoslavian identity plays into modern conceptions of its constituent states. Maybe we need to move beyond Yugoslavia.

My dad is aware of the futility of this kind of nostalgia, and calls any pining for the past a waste of time.

“To have some kind of pain, or to be obsessed with that, is stupid. It doesn’t go anywhere. It’s sickness. Where I used to play handball now is now grass, trees, and one old building. My old street doesn’t have the same name. Why are you even thinking about it? We are sick. We are thinking about something that is over. It’s gone. You mix something that doesn’t exist in the past, with present, and what do you get? Nothing.”

Sunbathers in Mostar, 1970s. Image: Prof. Hans Schnaider/Wikimedia Commons under a CC licence

He stresses that, in many ways, the United States has been good to us, and that we shouldn’t look back. Though, of course we do. Now that we call the United States home, the world has become a lot bigger, and opportunities for my family are greater. But this came at a price. We can navigate different worlds and languages with relative ease, but we never fully belong to one. We gained a new life, but my parents had to leave behind theirs. As my mom recently messaged me, “I was always between two continents, somewhere in the middle of the ocean. Once you pull your deeply formed roots, you can’t replant them.”

The former Yugoslavia demonstrates how welcoming countries can be easily taken over by xenophobia and nationalism

National identity is useful for many things. From raising armies, to encouraging ideals and behaviours, and fostering that wooly but potent sense of “belonging.” The process of deciding who has a right to feel that attachment, however, can be up to the whims of leaders and bureaucrats, the tragedies of history, and the arbitrary decisions of the rich and powerful. People who have never lived in or felt attached to a certain country may be citizens, while those who were born and raised in a state may not be able to claim belonging. The grey area will always test the bounds of who is welcome, with the exception sometimes demonstrating the rule.

The former Yugoslavia demonstrates how welcoming countries can be easily taken over by xenophobia and nationalism. When that happens, it becomes apparent how fragile and arbitrary a nation’s identity can be. What do national identity cards and passports say, after all? The languages we speak? The religion we ascribe to? The values we have? Maybe in some cases. But definitely not all.

“I am a lemon in Siberia,” my dad once said matter-of-factly. “I don’t have a homeland.” The thing is, any one of us could become that lemon, as our nations change and evolve. With enough time, they all do.

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