Posts Tagged ‘ History ’

Language Lessons

Many of my friends and family from home ask me the same question:  What are the differences among the Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian languages?  I understand their confusion, because last year I studied Serbian language at the Centre for Serbian as a Foreign Language at the University of Novi Sad in Serbia.  Lately I speak of my commitment to improving my Bosnian language skills now that I live in Sarajevo.  Most people in the United States still think of the language as Serbo-Croatian, and always I carry a pocket Croatian dictionary in my purse.   This probably sounds confusing to many people, so here is a brief explanation for clarification.

For centuries, the dialects of the South Slavs have developed independently with slight regional variations.  By the mid-19th century, writers and linguists worked to standardize the language, and they began to call the unified language Serbian-Croatian (or Croatian-Serbian).  In 1918, the first Kingdom of Yugoslavia named the language Serbo-Croato-Slovene, making the previous efforts to create a supranational language official.  In 1929, the names of the country and language were changed to Yugoslavia, in order to eliminate ethnic divisions among the people.

Communist Yugoslavia did not solve the language issues, but it suppressed ethnic tensions to some extent.  In 1954, groups of Serbian and Croatian intellectuals signed the Novi Sad Agreement, which stated that Serbs, Croats, and Montenegrins speak the same language with some differences in pronunciation.  Many Croats were uneasy with this declaration, and viewed it as Serbia’s attempt to assert political dominance over the region.  Following the political pressures in the 1980s and 1990s, the forced merging of the languages ended, and speakers called the language whatever they wanted.  The wars surrounding the breakup of Yugoslavia emphasized differences among the people, and language politics became very important.

It is impossible to provide a short explanation of language politics in the former-Yugoslavia.  However it is most important to state that Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, and Montenegrins can easily understand each other, despite the different names for the language.  In a recent B92 article, a Croatian linguist states that everyone in Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, and Montenegro are speaking the same language.  She speaks of how emphasis on small regional language differences is a mask to spread political intolerance.

Constantly, I am reminded of my Serbian professor who told me that in the former-Yugoslavia, the small differences matter most to people.  Although everyone can easily understand one another, language is an important factor of national pride.  In Bosnia, everyone has the right to education in their “own language”  and differences are emphasized.  In Serbian schools, children are taught in Serbian in  the Cyrillic alphabet.  Similarly, schools with Bosniak Muslim or Croatian majorities emphasize their own regional dialects and spellings. For example, Serbs say uvek and Bosnians say uvijek (always), gde and gdje (where), lepo and lijepo (beautiful).  The differences are hardly noticeable in conversation, but greatly matter to teachers and parents when it comes to educational and classroom settings.

In conclusion, most people would agree that the people of these four countries speak the same language.  Internationally, this language is usually called Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian to be as politically correct as possible.  International organizations are working to ease the tension over language in the Bosnian education system.  For my own purposes, it does not matter that I studied Serbian language last year and now I live in Bosnia.  For the purposes of my CV however, I can say I speak three languages when I really speak only one.  🙂

My collection of books- Serbian dictionary in Cyrillic, Bosnian dictionary, pocket Croatian dictionary, Serbian workbooks, Bosnian workbooks.....

For more information, please read the recent B92 article on linguistics here. (In Serbian)

Also, wikipedia provides explanation on the differences between Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian here.

11 July 1995

I would like to acknowledge the victims of Srebrenica since yesterday was the 15th anniversary of the tragedy.  Yesterday afternoon as I sat in a crowded cafe in Sarajevo, I watched the extensive news coverage of the memorial events at the site a couple of hours away.  Around 50,000 people gathered in Srebrenica, including many world leaders and the presidents of all the countries of the former-Yugoslavia.  They buried 775 victims next to the 3,749 bodies already in the cemetery. Leading up to the ceremony, 5,000 people marched for 68 miles through the Bosnian mountains.  This march takes place annually, and the participants walk the same journey (except backwards) that around 15,000 people took to escape the mass killings.

Burial of victims on the 15th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre

Not surprisingly, the United Nations cowardly did not send any representatives to the anniversary ceremony.  During the war in 1995, the UN declared Srebrenica a safe area for civilians, but this “protection” resulted in the largest mass murder since World War II. Fifteen years ago, 30,000 Bosniak Muslims sought refuge in Srebrenica, but the Republika Srpska forces arrived and made the Dutch peacekeepers let them inside. The Serbs sorted out the Muslim men and boys and killed over 8,000 of them in a massacre. A few months later in an effort to conceal what happened, the Republika Srpska army dug up the mass graves and moved the victims. The bulldozing tore apart the bodies, causing some victims’ remains to be spread across different sites. Many bodies still have not been found.

Thousands participate in the annual peace march before the anniversary

Thousands participate in the annual peace march before the anniversary

While fixated on the news coverage of the political speeches, flashing images of coffins and people overcome with emotion, one story stood out to me in particular. I learned about the project of a German NGO to build a memorial for the victims and to point blame at the UN for the massacre. Called the ‘Pillar of Shame,’ the monument is certainly not subtle. Its design features massive letters U-N made out of plexiglass, which are to be filled with 16,744 shoes representing the 8,372 victims. It will measure eight meters high, and the shoes will even have a few spaces that look like bullet holes. As the campaign in Germany for shoe donations from around the world continues, the huge collection was placed in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin this weekend for the anniversary. A small version of the letters was placed on top of the pile. When completed, the final monument will stand on the hill next to the memorial center/cemetery in Srebrenica, which opened in 2004. The Mothers of Srebrenica, a Bosnian organization for families of the victims, will decide the names of Western politicians and military leaders “to shame” by including their names on the monument. Construction should begin in May 2011.

Berlin's tribute to the victims of Srebrenica

I feel that the strongest aspect of this tribute to the victims of the massacre is the idea to include the shoes. After visiting Auschwitz/Birkenau a couple of times while living in Krakow, the part that resonated with me the most was the room that showed the personal belongings taken from camp prisoners. It would be impossible to see this display of collected shoes, or the chopped off hair in a huge pile, or the pile of eyeglasses without feeling sick over the sheer number of these objects reflecting the number of victims. Perhaps this is the origin of the idea for the inclusion of shoes in the forthcoming Srebrenica memorial. Using everyday objects to represent the number of victims will be a powerful statement in itself.

However, I am rather uneasy about the memorial’s blatant assignment of blame. These massive letters will completely change the landscape of the site and in my opinion, distract from the cemetery and memorial already in place. When I visited the memorial last year, I was overcome by the amount of names written in a stone semi-circle in a similar fashion to the Vietnam Wall in Washington DC. The number of pristine white headstones was overwhelming and even on that particular afternoon last summer, they were burying victims. Seeing the temporary headstones of the latest burials and the way the graves extended up the hill as if they ran out of space for everyone was truly a powerful sight. In a few years, people who visit the memorial will only be able to look at the massive U-N monument which will take the focus off of the victims themselves.

Pointing blame at the UN is understandable, but I think writing names of individuals who did not intervene is a step too far. The whole world knew about the war in Bosnia and ignored the tragic events that took place. Is it really necessary to list individuals? I do not think this feature of the plan should be included because I think its unfair and unnecessary. Since the purpose of this tribute is to assign blame, it should only refer to the UN or other big collective groups that should have intervened in Bosnia. In my opinion, a better option would be to blame the world in general for allowing genocide take place.

The list of victims at the Srebrenica memorial site

No monument, no matter how big or angry, will ease the pain of the relatives of the victims. With the Chief of the Republika Srpka army during the war Ratko Mladic still at large, justice cannot take place. Several of the speeches at the ceremony yesterday stated the urgency of his arrest and trial. The people of Bosnia cannot move forward with their grieving while knowing that a man responsible for so many deaths is still alive and free in the world. The assignment of blame should come from the Hague trials for the war criminals, not from an eight meter high monument.

The powerful images from the news combined with my discovery that the Bosniaks who live in Sarajevo are very willing and open to talk with me about the war provided a powerful first few days of my relocation to Bosnia. For more information or to support the Pillar of Shame project, please visit the website provided below.

Sources:

Pillar of Shame project website

Article on Anniversary Ceremony

Balkan Insight article about Pillar of Shame

Conflicts of Ostalgie: Budapest’s Statue Park

After World War II, the Soviet Union’s political, economic, and military consolidation of Central and Eastern Europe was enforced through a highly visible ideological campaign.  Symbols of change and progress were constructed in the form of buildings, bridges, and towers adorned with the Red Star of Communism.  Posters of Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin ushering in a utopian future hung in classrooms and factories, while statues of triumphant workers reflected that under the Soviet regime, art was used as a tool to educate the masses about the rewards of a collective society.  Other propagandistic monuments honoring the Soviet Army’s triumph over Nazi fascism were seen in every park and city square throughout Russia and the Soviet bloc countries in the post-war era.  These public works were blatantly symbolic of a new future.

Entrance to Budapest's Statue Park

The fate of these monuments in the post-Communist era, that is, after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the 1991 fall of Communism, differed in each country of Central and East Europe.  Focusing on the monuments of one place, Budapest, one can examine the collective memory of Hungarians through memorialization of their recent history.  This former Soviet bloc country has dealt with the symbols of its Communist past in the form of an open-air sculpture museum called Statue Park. Many Hungarians have found this to be a useful though problematic solution for what to do with their Soviet era statues, which reflects collective memory of Hungary’s unique history during the Communist period.

Propaganda Poster of Comrade Rakosi

Hungary is a special example on which to focus because of its history during Communism, which began with practically a dictatorship and ended with relatively good living conditions in comparison to neighboring countries. Mátyás Rákosi, the chief secretary of the Communist Party during the Stalinist period, exercised totalitarian rule over the country and ruthlessly persecuted innocent people deemed to be “state enemies” with his special police force.  No other leader was trusted more by Stalin, and Rákosi developed a cult of personality with his images and statues spread throughout the country to remind everyone of his “wisdom”.

With a failing economy, poor living conditions, and virtually no freedom of speech, student demonstrators attempted to regain control of their own government with both large and small demands during the 1956 Revolution. In addition to demanding the removal of the Soviet troops and insisting on the right to free press, Hungarian revolutionaries insisted upon many symbolic changes, such as the replacement of the Soviet military uniforms with the old Hungarian style uniforms, the restoration of national holidays, and the coat of arms switched back to tradition.  Visible symbols are extremely meaningful and as in the words of George Schöpflin, the ‘use of flags, monuments and ceremonies is not a superfluous extravagance, but a central component of identity creation and maintenance”.  Although the Revolution worked for a short time, within weeks the Soviet Army regrouped and returned to control Hungary with a vengeance.  Many of the demonstrators were killed or injured, and after the Soviet Union regained control, thousands were imprisoned for having participated in the rebellion, and over two hundred people received the death penalty.  Until the fall of Communism in 1991, the records of this Revolution were hidden in Hungary and Hungarians were not permitted by the government to mention the events that took place in 1956.

1956 Hungarian Revolution

By the mid-1960s, life in Hungary improved with János Kádár as prime minister. He conducted a great deal of counterrevolutionary terror in the beginning years of his political office, but he also reorganized and reformed the Communist government.  In contrast to Rákosi, Kádár worked under the motto of “who is not against us is with us” and populations of other communist countries looked at developments in Hungary with envy.  He produced a set of economic reforms and allowed peasants to own private plots of land and to sell their products at uncontrolled prices in an open market.  The country’s economy thrived and Hungary had many goods and amenities not available in neighboring countries.  Greater value was placed on public opinion and human rights improved.  Often the period under Kádár with its mix of ideologies is referred to as “goulash communism” which is a witty pun on the national dish with many ingredients.

This unique communist history of Hungary influenced the debates that emerged over what to do with the Soviet-era monuments that still spread throughout the capital city Budapest in 1991. Statue Park, one solution to the Soviet monument problem, is a physical manifestation of the mixed feelings Hungarians have towards their communist past. Budapest’s post-Communist city authorities were divided over the question of what to do with the most visible symbols of the old Soviet regime.  Numerous statues and monuments stood throughout the city honoring both Soviet and Hungarian Communist leaders and many suggestions were proposed for how to handle these symbols”.  One group campaigned to have all of the statues removed in order to cleanse the city of Communist traces.  A more extremist group threatened to blow up the statues if they were not taken away.  Yet another group thought the statues should remain in their respective places as reminders of Hungary’s experience with the Communism, which helped to shape its history.  There were many residents of Budapest who did not care one way or another.

In December 1991 the General Assembly of Budapest reached a decision.  Each individual district of Budapest would decide for itself which of the statues were to be removed and which would remain in place.   This process exemplified the new democracy in Hungary.  If a district opted to have the statues removed, they would not be destroyed; rather, they would be relocated to Statue Park, the new sculpture park on the outskirts of the Budapest. The cost of relocation was estimated at an exorbitant $616,000 due to the sheer size and massive weight of the Soviet style public sculptures.  However, Budapest city authorities predicted that these costs would be recovered by the financial gains of a sculpture park that could tap into the huge foreign tourist boom that the city was experiencing since the fall of Communism.

Ariel View of the Design of Statue Park

A competition called for designs for Statue Park, and the Hungarian architect Arkos Eleod was chosen democratically through a juried selection process.  Eleod’s intention was to create a park both politically and artistically neutral, neither celebrating nor condemning Communism.  His purpose was to acknowledge the statues as part of the history of Hungary.  Eleod did not want to create a park to express his own anti-propaganda message, as he did not want to erase the original meanings of the sculptures.   Although Western critics have unfairly labeled Eleod’s park a “theme park,” Statue Park was intended to be and succeeds at being an open-air museum that thoughtfully commemorates a significant aspect of modern Hungarian history.

Statue Park, built on a half-acre of land in southern Budapest, opened to visitors in 1993.  Despite its name, the open-air museum contains more than just statues.  It consists of a wide variety of monuments from the Communist period, most dating from after the 1956 Revolution. Of the forty-one sculptures in the space, seventeen are statues or busts, thirteen are memorial plaques and the remaining eleven are metal or stone monuments.   Situated near the entrance of the Park are the sculpted boots from the Stalin monument that the 1956 revolutionaries demanded to be removed and ultimately chopped down at the knees.  For several days after the Revolution, Stalin’s disembodied boots symbolically stood on their pedestal, as they do today near the entrance of Statue Park.

Stalin's Boots Through the Entrance of Statue Park

The carefully designed Statue Park assigns these re-located massive statues new meanings.   Considerable attention was given to the organization of the Park so that it would avoid looking like a dumping ground for old memorials.  The design and layout contains many references to the Soviet period.  Statues of Marx and Lenin stand within an imposing façade at the entrance.  The red brick structure mocks Neoclassical Socialist Realist architecture, a style that aimed to make Russia “a natural successor to classical architecture but on its own legitimate terms”.   The Park itself is arranged with figure eight-shaped pathways that radiate off one central straight pathway.  The statues and monuments are displayed around these figure-eights. In the center of the Park, there is a flowerbed that forms the shape of a Soviet star.  Whichever direction visitors walk, they are led back to the same starting point.  The central pathway that abruptly leads to a brick wall is essentially a dead end. This obstacle, along with the whole layout, according to historian Duncan Light, represents the “dead end” that Communism represented for Hungary.

Based on Western museum models, Statue Park is owned by the city of Budapest but operated by a private company.  The company charges a small admission fee and manages the modest souvenir shop. The shop sells t-shirts with anti-Communist slogans, lighters depicting Lenin’s face, CDs of Communist music, as well as assorted candles, postcards, and posters.  One poster, as a spoof on the cartoon South Park, features Communist figures Lenin and Stalin standing in what is labeled “East Park”.  Such clever merchandise tempts the many Western visitors to the Park.  Yet the souvenirs are not the only reason tourists come to Statue Park. Many foreign visitors come to this unusual tourist attraction to gain a deeper understanding of Budapest’s history.  Their seriousness is revealed by the fact that they must seek out a bus to travel about 30 minutes from the city center to get to the Park, located in an out-of-the-way district of the city bordering a working class, industrial suburb.

Graveyard for Fallen Monuments, Russia

Graveyard for Fallen Monuments, Russia

Statue Park, while unique in many ways within Central and Eastern Europe, is not the only park of its kind in former Communist countries.  Both Russia and Lithuania have placed their respective Communist statues in parks as well. Neither the Russian nor the Lithuanian park functions as an outdoor museum, and the Russian park does not appear to be as well planned as Statue Park.  In Moscow, Russian officials placed some Communist-era monuments in a park named ‘Graveyard for Fallen Monuments’.   Here, a few Communist statues are haphazardly displayed among hundreds of other monuments that have little to do with the politics of the Soviet era, many perhaps commissioned during Lenin’s public art campaign in 1918.  All the statues have been removed from their original locations and dispersed throughout a grassy field.  This carefree atmosphere detracts from the Communist statues, which are inexplicably placed next to sculptures of cats, Ghandi, and other subjects.  The seemingly arbitrarily chosen and arranged statues suggest to visitors that Russia is brushing over its Communist history.

The Lithuanians have taken a more methodical approach with their outdoor statue display called Grutas Park.  Coined “Stalin World” by the locals, the park presents Lithuania’s Soviet-era statues along a beautifully landscaped path surrounded by lush trees and a lake. In addition to this open-air display and an outdoor gallery, Grutas Park is also host to an amusement park, a playground, a campsite, and even a zoo.  In this context, the Communist statues become part of a “Disneyesque” entertainment park, which in turn diminishes the seriousness of the Lithuanian effort to memorialize its history.

Grutas Park, Lithuania

James Young studies the ever-evolving relationship between a state and its memorials.  He writes that, “on the one hand, official agencies are in position to shape memory explicitly as they see fit, memory that best serves a national interest.  On the Other hand, once created, memorials take on lives of their own, often stubbornly resistant to the state’s original intentions”.   Although speaking of Holocaust memorials, these sentiments are true for the memorials in Statue Park.  The Communist authorities created the Soviet-era statues in Statue Park for propagandistic reasons.  In post-Communist Hungary, new meanings are assigned to these “leftovers” that reflect the new independent state.  Statue Park, the carefully constructed site of these statues, acts as a memorial in itself.  As Young explains, “New generations visit memorials under new circumstances and invest them with new meanings” .  Statue Park allows for a location for this act of collective identity construction.  As a place to reflect, the park shows Hungarian’s mixed feelings of the country’s recent past.

A preliminary interpretation of Budapest’s Statue Park asserts that the creation of such a park reflects Hungary’s confidence in the post-Communist era.  The Park suggests that the country is accepting of its past and wants to remember this critical period in its history.  Despite Hungary’s initial debate over what to do with the Soviet-era monuments throughout Budapest, there was surprisingly little protest over the construction of Statue Park.  This acceptance of the Park reflects the country’s history of “goulash communism”, which was a mix of ideologies and not communism in the strictest sense. Although Hungary had a harsh dictator for the Stalinist era, by the mid-1960s life in the country improved in comparison to neighboring countries.  With this history of political extremities, collective memory of communism in Hungary reflects mixed sentiments, as shown in Statue Park.    The National History Museum in Budapest, another popular tourist destination, seems to take a similar stance of acceptance of communism, but one that is also tempered with historical amnesia.  Opened in 1996, the museum contains a gallery that includes patriotic posters, a statue of Stalin, and displays on the gradual collapse of Communism over many decades.   The artifacts are presented as symbols of how Hungary overcame Communism but with little mention of the hardships the country endured.

Upon further consideration, Statue Park also represents how Hungarians are uneasy with their communist history.  The Park was built on the outskirts of Budapest, so that only the most dedicated of tourists will visit.  The statues were removed from the most prominent locations around the city to the periphery.  Although the park was carefully designed, the location alone shows that Hungarians are not entirely accepting of their communist past. Although the economic situation in Hungary prospered after the mid-1960s and many consumer goods were available that were non-existent in neighboring countries, people did not have the freedom of expression of a democratic society.  For example, people were not allowed to speak of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 throughout the communist years or they would be considered subversive.

Statue Park promotes this multi-faceted way of remembering the Soviet period, as the sculptures carry meanings from their original contexts in the streets of Budapest and assume new, more critical meanings from their placement in the Park. Some native Hungarians are perplexed and even saddened that Statue Park draws such tourist appeal.  Perhaps these are the Hungarians who wish to ignore or erase the Communist period of their history.  However, other Hungarians are attracted to the nostalgia the Park offers.  For decades, Communism was the only life they knew.   Germany has a term for this sentiment: ostalgie.  The word, which is a combination of ost for east, and nostalgie for nostalgia, describes an East German longing for items that were no longer sold after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of East and West Berlin.  Some East Berliners missed specific food brands and old television shows, which led a re-unifed Germany to cater to this market, despite the fact that these products symbolize oppression under a former Socialist regime.

With regard to Statue Park, this concept of ostalgie comes into play most overtly with the souvenir CD of Communist propaganda songs that is sold at the gift shop and played over the loud speakers in the Park itself.  The shop originally released the CD, which satirizes the Soviet era and presumably expresses disdain for that time.  Ironically, the album is loved by young Hungarians and reached number one on the Hungarian music charts.  This suggests that feelings towards Communism in Hungary are not only complex and but that the meanings of Statue Park and its merchandise are far from monolithic.

Statue Park Logo

Statue Park can be seen as an ideal way for a country like Hungary to at once remember its past and look to the future.  Statue Park symbolically overcomes the Soviet era without ignoring it completely.  The outdoor space keeps the memorials in a contained area removed from the city center.  Hungarians and foreign visitors who were once confronted constantly with the Communist statues throughout central Budapest must now make a special trip to the outskirts of the city to seek out the experience.  Tourists can make the trip, as can nostalgic, curious, or historically conscious Hungarians.  By displaying the individual memorials in a closed-off space, far from their original locations, the Park allows Hungarians to preserve their history but also put it in its place.  Although Hungarians remain ambivalent and divided about Statue Park and their own unique Communist history, they are confronting their past in ways that suit their cultural needs and political ambitions.  Statue Park, in its strategically chosen location and well-thought out design, reflects Hungary’s desire to compartmentalize its past while forging ahead with its future.

Click below for a list of my resources for this post…

statue park bibliography

How Convenient: Mladić’s Family Wants Him Declared Dead

Although the international community patted Serbia on the back for cooperating with the trial of Radovan Karadžic, the arrest of Ratko Mladić remains a key condition for progress towards EU membership.  General Mladić was the chief commander of the Bosnian Serb army during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992-1995. At the end of the war, he was indicted by the U.N. court in The Hague for allegedly ordering the Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Muslims in 1995 and for his involvement in other atrocities of the war. Currently he faces charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

I am pretty skeptical of the YouTube videos that circulated this time last year of Mladić at his son’s wedding, however he probably is hiding in Serbia somewhere. And let’s be honest- it’s really not that big of a country. Karadžic lived in Serbia for several years, parading around as an alternative healer with a fake name, and even speaking at medical conferences in front of hundreds of people. Serbia had many opportunities to arrest him, but sometimes the country seems to protect its own.

Now Mladić is probably the most-wanted fugitive in the world. With an increasing pressure from the international community and a strong desire to join the EU, Serbia claims to be stepping up efforts to arrest him. However, I had a good laugh today when I read the latest news. The family of Mladić wants to declare him dead. The family would like to unfreeze his pension and stop the harassment directed towards them. Milos Saljic, the family’s lawyer stated: “The family has decided to stop the agony because it has long been convinced that Gen. Mladić is no longer alive.  No one has seen him for seven years.”

The chairman of the national council in charge of cooperation with the Hague tribunal, Rasim Ljajic, said that by making this request Mladić’s family “is making a mockery of state institutions” and that the request would in no way affect the ongoing search for his arrest. Under Serbian law, a person could be declared dead if s/he is over the age of 70 and there is no information about the person for more than 5 years. However, Mladić is only 68. According to his family, he was last seen 7 years ago and not in good health.

These naïve attempts by the family of Mladić to end the search are pretty amusing. As I wrote on this blog before, I remember sitting in a bus from Kosovo to Serbia, staring at a portrait of Mladić prominently displayed next to the driver. This war criminal is still a hero for many extreme nationalists in Serbia. Although the death of Mladić would certainly be convenient for the family and for the country seeking EU membership, somehow I think the search will continue.

Kosovo Orders 300,000 Inaccurate Textbooks

According to a recent nine-month study by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, there are an alarming number of mistakes in new Kosovo textbooks. This is certainly not surprising. It was my trip to Kosovo last summer that first influenced me to think about nationalism in education in Southeast Europe, which is now my main focus of research. I took a bus from Serbia to Kosovo in April 2009, a little over a year after the declaration of independence. Already Kosovo was creating a new national identity through billboards, signs, and statues.

Gračanica Monastery

Visiting a Serbian friend in Gračanica provided me with a valuable insight into the life of the Serbian minority in the country, which is currently less than ten percent of the population (CIA World Factbook estimates the following ratio: 88% Albanians, 8% Kosovo Serbs and 4% other ethnic groups). My friend worked for the United Nations so she did not live like the majority of the population (UN passport, nice apartment), but after living in Kosovo for almost a decade working for various human rights organizations, we had a very interesting conversation.  Gračanica is known for its beautiful Serbian Orthodox monastery, which was founded in the 14th century and is included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Judging from the look of the houses, stores and the town in general, this was not a place of luxury. Electricity and water shortages are a problem here as in the rest of the country and the population struggles to make ends meet.

The most alarming part of the conversation that day was her description of the school conditions. After decades of conflict, the Serbian minority migrated into a few enclaves scattered throughout the country. The problem with this is that the town of Gračanica ended up incredibly over crowded. The local school could not support the current number of students, so the solution was to have students attend the school day in four shifts. The result was that some students ended up starting their school day at six in the morning, and some went until six in the evening. None of the groups had enough classroom time to learn very much. The children’s learning was extremely affected by the ethnic divisions in the country, because the Serbian families understandably wanted to live in a community together. This day led me to investigate how they teach history in Kosovo. I found out that Serbian schools teach completely different history and geography lessons then the Albanian schools down the road, ensuring that Kosovo will remain divided for generations to come. Eventually this trip would influence me to write my master’s thesis on education policy reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is my favorite country in the former-Yugoslavia.

BIRN survey investigated the new textbooks that the Kosovo Education ministry ordered for 300,000 students. They analyzed 16 textbooks used in schools and found many mistakes such as out of date maps and even the wrong dates for the birth of Napoleon and Alexander the Great. BIRN states that the textbooks are overloaded with facts and contain many mistakes, and this will negatively impact learning in the country. Interestingly enough, the study showed that many schools are teaching their students with maps depicting Serbia and Montenegro as one country with Kosovo as a part of Serbia. Montenegro declared its independence from Serbia in 2006 and I would have guessed that after the declaration of independence, maps would change immediately to proclaim Kosovo’s new status. The children in Kosovo must be pretty confused about where they live.

An outdated map of the region (pre-2006)

According to the BIRN article, the mistakes do not end with geography; they are also found in biology, history and civic education textbooks. Some students learn that there are six continents, not seven. Eighth grade students learn that Latin America is the world’s “third largest territory” after Asia and Africa. The study also noted that students have to learn 60 to 70 dates or facts in each lecture, which is unrealistic and leaves no time for critical thinking. As far as I can tell, education in the former-Yugoslavia highly depends on rote memorization of facts and very little on critical thinking in general. The textbooks also contain various interpretations when teaching about the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Sixth graders learn that “to participate in fighting the infidel” is one of the five Pillars of Islam (the most important set of rules for Muslims in the Koran) instead of the ‘Shahadah’ or testimony of faith. Jusuf Thaci, the BIRN report’s author, said: “It can be easily noted that this promotes hatred, which is not in accordance with the law in Kosovo.” Most alarming is the fact that a great deal of time is spent teaching about the enemies of the Albanian nation whereas other important events, battles and movements, are just noted briefly without giving much background information.

These inaccuracies matter. They will affect generations to come unless someone steps in to fix the curricula problems at a national level. The international community and the NGOs involved in Kosovo should take a lesson from Bosnia. When the Dayton Peace Agreements were signed to end the war in Bosnia, no one thought about education. It took seven years after the war for anyone to address the need for education reform and the little progress has been made so far. Generally speaking, I would think it should be easier to reform the education system in Kosovo based on population statistics. Unlike in Bosnia where there are sizeable populations of Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats all competing through nationalist rhetoric and three separate curricula, Kosovo is almost 90% Albanian. With a little help, the Ministry of Education in Kosovo should be able to reform this one set of textbooks. The Serbian populations should also receive supplemental materials that address their population in more detail. With such a large number of mistakes and inaccuracies, irrevocable damage was already made. Taking a lesson from Bosnia, reform action must start NOW in Kosovo. After all…children are the future.

Source: Kosovo School Textbooks Fail Accuracy Test by Shengiyl Osmani [http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/main/features/28254/]

Krakow’s 2010 March of “Tolerance”

Police and participants

This past Saturday I participated in the sixth annual March of Tolerance in Krakow, which is a march to raise awareness for sexual minorities.  The event received very little media attention as far as I can see, but according to Radio ZET, there were around 500 participants that marched from Plac Wolnica in Kazimierz (the Jewish District) to the Market Square in the center of the old city.  Krakow police reported that this year’s march was very calm and that there were no serious incidents.

Inside the crowd of particpants

From a Polish perspective the march may have seemed calm but it was an interesting experience for me as an American.  In the past, I attended and participated in the Gay Pride Parade in Philadelphia, as well as other events organized by the GLBT community in my city.  Certainly it is not fair to compare a liberal city in the United States with a smaller city in former-communist, Catholic Poland.  However I am used to events in Philadelphia and the march in Poland seemed anything tolerant.

Praying for parade participants

First I noticed a group of priests holding a cross on the grass outside of Wawel Castle.  Policemen encircled the group, each with a German shepherd on a leash, lazily watching the priests pray for the parade participants.  People watched as the parade walked towards the center, carrying signs, rainbow flags, and holding balloons.  Some stood on balconies gawking out of their windows as the people walked past.  Just before the market, nationalists threw eggs at the parade.  Some shouted (according to the article, because I couldn’t understand all of the Polish yelling) “Boy, girl – a normal family!” and “We do not give you Krakow!”  As the parade participants released the balloons at the end of the march, I watched a man who was standing with a priest that seemed to be his friend spit at one of the demonstrators holding a sign.  However the most interesting thing for me to see was the sheer number of policemen that worked the event.  The policemen, some holding large plastic shields or with tanks of gas on their back ready to control an unruly crowd, formed a tight wall between the marchers and the public.  They intimidated me, dressed in all black like members of a SWAT team.

Looking at Poland’s homophobia in the past decade, one can understand why the police reported this year’s march was calm, despite the eggs and shouting.  A decade ago, there were no politics of sexuality in Poland, and no one openly discussed any of these issues.  The first “Equality Parade” in Poland took place in Warsaw in 2001, but received very little media coverage.  As the community became more visible, the country reacted more strongly against it.  In 2003, there was the “Let Them See Us” Campaign, which was an exhibit of thirty photographs that opened in five galleries around the country.  The photographs featured same-sex couples in their everyday lives, holding hands, etc.  The more controversial subjects such as marriage or adoption were avoided.  Nevertheless, within days most of the photographs were destroyed, ripped, or painted over.

In 2004, violence erupted at the Krakow and Poznan equality marches.  The extremely nationalist group All-Polish Youth and their supporters attacked the demonstrators by throwing rocks and punches, and even beating some with clubs.  They chanted sayings like “labor camps for lesbians” or “faggots to the gas.”  The police were unable to control the violence.  In 2005, the “gay parade” and its legality was a huge topic during the presidential elections.  Recently deceased Lech Kaczynski (elected president in October 2005) banned the 2004 and 2005 marches when he was mayor of the city of Warsaw.  This decision strengthened his political career.  The 2005 Equality March in Warsaw was held despite the ban, which ended up adding to the event’s popularity.  Around 3,000 people participated, which was the largest march in the history of the movement. Later that year, the march in Poznan was also banned by the city’s major, but it was less peaceful.  Again the All-Polish Youth group organized the attack, and they threw eggs, horse manure and slurs.  As the crowd got out of control, the police ended up attacking the demonstrators rather than the attackers.  A participant reported seeing a boy dragged by police with his head hitting the pavement, another person was dragged away from TV cameras when he was talking about police brutality, and many people were arrested without explanation.  This time the media did cover the event, mostly criticizing the police brutality.

In January 2006, the EU Parliament passed a resolution against homophobia in Europe, which explicitly named Poland as a country where homophobia exists.  Poland perceived this as an attack against the country’s religious and moral beliefs.  Right-wing Polish members of the EU Parliament unanimously opposed this resolution, but it was passed anyway.  In June 2006, the EU Parliament adopted a resolution in response to homophobic and racist violence in Europe, and again specifically named Poland mentioning groups like the All-Polish Youth. A survey from 2005 found 89% of the population stating that they considered homosexuality an “unnatural” activity.  A Eurobarometer poll in 2006 found that 74% of Poles were opposed to same-sex marriage and 89% opposed to adoption by gay couples.  Only Latvia and Greece had higher levels of opposition.

Some of the police leading the parade

So in comparison to past events in Poland, this year’s Tolerance March in Krakow was relatively peaceful.  Participating in the demonstration provided me with a valuable insight into the culture and mentality of the country.  It is only an excuse to say that Poland is homophobic because it is Catholic.  Now that it is a member of the European Union, it needs to catch up to the level of tolerance of the majority of the Member States. I was shocked by what I saw on Saturday.  Some of my friends with me felt that the strength of police presence shows that the country is willing to protect these minority groups but I am not totally convinced this is the case.  I could not help but feeling that the number of police was overkill, and that they were also meant to intimidate the participators themselves.  Maybe next year the city of Krakow will send less police, judging from this year’s calm result.  Eventually, I hope that Poland not only becomes tolerant for its Tolerance Marches.  I hope that Poland learns to be accepting and embracing of all minority groups in the country.

A wall of policemen walking with the parade

Source  for Historic Information: Graff, Agnieszka. We Are (Not All) Homophobes: A Report from Poland. Feminist Studies, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Summer, 2006), pp. 434-449

The Lost Jewish Community of Bosnia

As I research the history of the Jewish community in Bosnia and Hercegovina for school, I would like to provide more background information for my previous post on Jakob Finci. Jews first emigrated to Bosnia and Hercegovina after they were expelled from Spain as a result of the Inquisition. They arrived in the 16th century, and spoke Ladino, or Judaeo-Spanish as their local language. Their life in BiH was relatively peaceful but they were treated as second-class citizens like other “non-Muslims.” The Jews participated in trade, but they were not allowed to wear “Muslim clothing” or ride horses in town. Also, they were not allowed to carry weapons and they had to pay higher taxes than the rest of the population, which funded the local mosques.

Spanish (Sephardic) Jewish Woman in Bosnia. 1918

As Anti-Semitism became more apparent, the Jewish population relocated to Sarajevo. They received permission from the governor of the city to reside in a small quarter of about 2,000 square meters. Each received a piece of this land and a deed of property ownership. They also received permission (again at the cost of high taxes) to build a cemetery, which was how they began to establish their community. In 1833, the Jewish population was threatened with execution but they escaped this threat by paying off the high officials. In 1839, new civil rights laws were introduced and the conditions for Jews in the country improved. Again, they participated in trade and they were even allowed to run for political office.

When the Austria-Hungarian empire took over Bosnia in 1878, a new Jewish population moved to the country. Previously the Jews in Bosnia were Sephardic, but Ashkenazi Jews came at this time. Sarajevo became an important Jewish center in the region, and remained so until the formation of Yugoslavia in 1918. Most of the Sephardic Jews were involved in craft and trade but the Ashkenazi Jews were mostly involved in professions like medicine, law and teaching. The Ashkenazi Jews influenced many of the Sephardic Jews to pursue higher education. At one point in the 19th century, all the doctors in Sarajevo were reported to be Jewish.

In 1901, in a total population of 1,357,000 in the country, there were approximately 7,500 Jews. By 1941, there were a reported 14,000 Jews in Bosnia. At the end of World War II, there were only 4,000 Bosnian Jews still alive. They were killed by the Ustaše Party, which was the the Croatian nationalist far-right movement that ruled part of Yugoslavia under Nazi protection. Also, Bulgarian Muslims aided in their extermination.

After the Holocaust a united Jewish community was formed in 1945 that included both Ashkenazim and Sephardim. The Jewish population was led by the Federation of Jewish Communities of Bosnia and Herzegovina. At this time post-WWII, Yugoslavia was a loose federation of six republics- Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, BiH, Macedonia, and Montenegro, ruled by Marshal Josip Broz Tito who died in 1980. During Tito’s era, many Jews in Bosnia joined the Socialist movement. The Federation of Jewish Communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was based in Belgrade, became a socialist organization that focused on secular causes rather than religious ones. There were about 6,000 legally registered Jewish people in all of Yugoslavia, and the community was recognized as both an ethnic and a religious group. They were not persecuted like in other communist states, but they did however end up assimilating into society and losing touch with religious beliefs. There was only one rabbi in the country at this time.

In the 1980s, there was a growing participation in the various Jewish communities. They erected close to 30 memorials around Yugoslavia to help commemorate Jews that lost their lives during World War II. When war broke out in Bosnia in 1992, the Joint Distribution Committee provided the community with food and supplies, and they helped to airlift over 2,000 Bosnian Jews out of the country. Many went to Israel and remained there after the war. As mentioned in the last post, the Jewish community used their neutral status during the war to organize a great deal of humanitarian relief to the people of Bosnia. The community opened a pharmacy, school, and most importantly, helped 3,000 people of all backgrounds escape the war-torn country.

Because the Jewish community was largely organized at a national level during Yugoslavia, the collapse of the country made the continuation of these organizations difficult, even without the trauma of war and emigration. Gradually the communities recreated themselves after the war. There are only 500 Jewish people left in Bosnia today spread throughout the country, but they add an important dimension to the multiethnic history of the nation.

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