Posts Tagged ‘ Serbia ’

A Need for Truth

I was surprised this summer to hear that many of my Serbian friends were afraid for their safety in Croatia. Serbs used to go to the stunning beaches on the Adriatic Sea before the breakup of Yugoslavia, but these days they seem to prefer Montenegro or Greece in the summertime. Before traveling to Croatia, a few people told me that a friend of a friend was beaten up while on vacation, or that any car with Serbian plates would be vandalized. The stories affected us so much that we were nervous to take a Serbian rental car across the border, and made sure to pick parking spots with careful discretion. The car traveled through Croatia unscathed and at the time, I dismissed these fears of my friends as paranoia. After all, people my age were children during the wars, and didn’t the wars end 14 years ago?

The more I study Southeast Europe, the more I learn that the conflicts in the former-Yugoslavia have not ended. I am reminded of this fact when I see photos of war criminals proudly displayed in a bus or when I read about segregated schools in Bosnia. Certainly I am hopeful to read about Serbia’s cooperation with the trial of Karadzic and I am thrilled that visa restrictions were lifted so that my friends can travel. Still, I do not think they will go to Croatia’s coast anytime soon.

Today the news reminds me once again that despite the EU applications, lift of visa restrictions, and other evidence of progress the countries of the former-Yugoslavia are nowhere close to moving past the war. Serbia filed a counter-lawsuit against Croatia at The Hague today for crimes committed against Serbs in the wars from 1991-1995. The decision to file a counter-lawsuit was passed on December 31, 2009, in response to Croatia’s claims for genocide filed on July 2, 1999 against then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Zagreb accused Belgrade of ethnic cleansing and killing of 20,000 Croats during the war and seeks reparations for war crimes, torture, the displacement of civilians and destruction of property. Serbia claims to want to address this issue out of court, but Croatia will not withdrawal their lawsuit from ten years ago. In response, Serbia’s counter-suit states that Croat forces committed war crimes and genocide against the civilian population during its offensives on Serb-controlled territories, including the expulsion of as many as 250,000 Serbs from Krajina towards the end of the war. The suit from Belgrade also includes a detailed report of the relationship between the two countries that dates back to World War II. The lawsuits fuel tension between two nations applying for EU membership.

I believe that people need truth before they can move forward. In Yugoslavia, Tito suppressed information about World War II in order to maintain peace among the ethnicities. Forced to live in silence, Serbia now brings up the atrocities of Jasenovac concentration camp in international courts over 60 years later. At first I want to dismiss these lawsuits on account of two countries holding grudges. After more consideration, I think Serbia and Croatia need to confront the past. They need to have a dialogue to promote understanding before either country can have a future in Europe. I wish this dialogue took place ten years ago, but memories of the past will not disappear. In the future, after discussion and time to heal wounds, I hope that Serbs again vacation in Croatia.

The coast of Croatia


Teaching Nationalism

The resurgence of nationalist rhetoric among the leading politicians in Bosnia and Herzegovina is alarming. The Bosnian government, partitioned by the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement, systematically strengthens nationalism in the country as they seek votes from largely mono-ethnic territories. As a result, the three main ethnic groups- Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs- all feel uneasy as the minority in various parts of the country.

Furthermore, the country is so focused on the relationships among these three main ethnic groups that the Jewish and Roma populations (labeled “Other” by the Dayton Agreement) are marginalized. Last week, European courts stated that Bosnia’s constitution discriminates against Jews and Roma because it does not allow them to run for parliament or president. Internationally mediated talks to change the constitution and give the country a chance to join the European Union are ongoing, but progress has stalled due to the inefficiency of Bosnia’s government. Bosnia’s constitution was hastily written in Dayton, Ohio in 1995 in a hurry to stop war, but it was only a temporary fix. Now fifteen years later, Bosnia is completely stuck in a mess of nationalism and the Jewish and Roma populations are long forgotten.

These last two entries on minorities in Bosnia are the result of homework and a pet-research project, but I am obviously still in the brainstorming phases. Next week in sociology seminar class, it is my turn to lead the discussion on the topic of religious minorities in Europe, and I would like to use Bosnia as a case study. Also, the brainstorming led me to a topic that currently has me completely engrossed: school segregation in Bosnia.

I began thinking about primary and secondary schools in the Balkans this summer after my trip to Kosovo. A friend living in the Serbian enclave of Gračanica explained the troubles the Serbian schools face because they are so overcrowded as a result of ethnic migration. Children go to schools in four shifts from 6 am – 6 pm; learning is compromised in their formative years because the Serbian minority in Kosovo (I believe now less than 10%) wants to live together. Even more troubling is the fact that the history taught in the Serbian schools is completely different from the history taught in the neighboring Albanian schools, with each group spoon-feeding their nationalist rhetoric to future generations. NGOs are working to encourage the use of alternative textbooks from multi-ethnic perspectives, but it seems like an upward battle.

Now I am revisiting the topic of education as I study Bosnia, because I think this subject has the potential to blossom into a long-term project for me. Almost fifteen years after the Dayton Accords, the children of today’s Bosnia are growing up much more isolated than former generations. The three largest ethnic groups, Bosniaks (Muslims), Croats (Catholics), and Serbs (Orthodox) each view the past differently, with nationalism and grudges clouding their perspectives. For example, in Mostar, Bosnia which is divided between Bosniaks and Croats, there is only one Gymnasium that accepts students from both ethnic groups but it is not completely integrated. There are two separate curricula for Croatian and Muslim students. Only sports, school activities and a few classes, such as technology, are combined. Although this is not the only integrated public school in Bosnia, and there are a few multi-ethnic private schools available, the reality is that most schools in Bosnia are segregated.

In Stolac (located in the Southern part of Herzegovina), Croat students use the high school building for the first shift of the day and they learn the capital of their country is Zagreb. The second afternoon shift (the Muslim students) learns that the capital of their country is Sarajevo. The Stolac school is an example of Bosnia’s postwar emphasis on “two schools under one roof.” Each ethnic group learns different curricula and do not mix. The Muslim students cannot enter the building earlier than their designated time in the afternoon, even if it is raining. Sometimes they turn the heat off for the second shift of students. Many schools currently operate like this in Bosnia, and often parents send their kids to schools far away just so that they can learn with their own ethnicity.

In the early stages of researching school segregation in Bosnia, I realize this post lacks statistics. However, as I sort through countless articles about the current education system in Bosnia, I feel alarmed by the long-term damage that is obviously taking place. Before the wars, students of all backgrounds attended the local schools without problems. Today, almost fifteen years after the war, the young people of Bosnia are more isolated than ever before. Nationalism and stereotypes prevail, and the children completely lack skills and opportunities to intermingle. Although nongovernmental organizations and the international community are trying to help Bosnia reform their education system, Bosnia’s inefficient political system makes change difficult. I fear that the current situation of segregation in Bosnia’s schools and the way it promotes nationalism and hatred will destroy this country in the future.

Ethnic divisions in Bosnia (2006)- Bosniaks (green), Serbs (blue), Croats (Orange)

Click on the map (and zoom in) to view ethnic groups in Bosnia.

Ante Pavelić, Hitler’s Friend in Croatia

Ante Pavelić (1889-1959) governed Croatia under the protection of Germany and Italy from 1941-1945.  He is best known for leading the Ustaša Party in the Independent State of Croatia and using Nazi-like ethnic cleansing tactics to exterminate Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies during World War II.

Born in Bradina (present-day Bosnia) in 1889, Pavelić graduated from Zagreb’s Faculty of Law in 1915 with a doctorate degree. In 1918 after years of foreign domination, the Serbian monarchy formed the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Extreme nationalist groups formed in all of the countries in the region, and Croats quickly became as dissatisfied under Belgrade as they were under their previous Hungarian control.  In 1918, Pavelić began his political involvement with leadership roles in the Croatian Rights Party (HSP), and later represented the HSP in the Zagreb City Council.  Gaining recognition from several articles he published in the weekly Croatian Rights Party newspaper, Hrvatsko Pravo, Pavelić advocated for an independent Croatia.

When King Alexander proclaimed a royal dictatorship of Yugoslavia in 1929 in an attempt to eliminate ethnic differences, Pavelić was forced to emigrate and lived in Vienna, Sofia, and Italy.  He most likely started the Ustaša Croatian Revolutionary Organization (UHRO) at the end of 1930 while living abroad.  Pavelić declared himself leader (poglavnik) of the Ustaša organization in 1933, and published a manifesto of the movement.  Ustaša literally means ‘one who takes part in an uprising’, and Pavelić was greatly influenced by Benito Mussolini and terrorist groups in Macedonia and Albania.  The aim of the party was to overthrow the government of Yugoslavia and with the help of Italy, to create an independent Croatian state.  While abroad, Pavelić organized other Croatian émigrés into army units, training them in military camps in Italy and Hungary. Soon Pavelić helped with the assassination of King Aleksander Karađorđević, the first king of Yugoslavia, in Marseille, France in 1934, and was subsequently arrested and imprisoned in Italy until 1936. Pre-war, Italy and Germany used the Ustaša party to disrupt Yugoslav power, but later found the Ustaša nationalism a burden.  In 1941, Germans needed to withdrawal from Yugoslavia and address the Eastern front, or perhaps they would have crushed the Ustaša power at this time.

The Germans conquered Yugoslavia in only 11 days in the Spring of 1941 and they were enthusiastically welcomed by many Croats.  The Independent State of Croatia was established on 10 April 1941 under leadership of Pavelić and the Ustaša party.  Hitler declared Pavelić poglavnik, and so Pavelić appointed the government and assumed the roles of president until September 1943.  He also took over the duties of the Minister of Foreign Affairs.  The new state was enlarged, encompassing regions of Bosnia and Serbia.

Using Nazi-like terror tactics to exercise power, Pavelić led the Ustaša party’s extermination of Serbs, Jews and Roma, and persecuted Croatians harshly if they did not agree with his policies of racial purity and genocide.  Although completely inaccurate, Pavelić claimed Croats were “gothic people” and thus superior.  Pavelić also used religion to distinguish “The Other”, and many Catholic clergymen helped the Ustaša party.  The head of the Catholic Church of Croatia, Archbishop Aloys Stepinac, along with many other aides were acquitted after the war in Yugoslav courts for collaborating with Pavelić’s government.  The Ustaša massacred whole Serbian villages in Croatia and Bosnia in attempts to create a “pure Croatia.”   In 1941 and 1942, around thirty German, Italian, and Ustaša concentration camps were built in the Independent State of Croatia in order to aid in their genocide, the largest of which was the Jasenovac camp.  Due to lack of accurate documentation, the number of victims from the Jasenovac camp greatly varies between 50,000 to 600,000, with Croatia claiming the lesser figure and Serbia the greater.

With the Yugoslav Partisans advancing in 1945, Pavelić fled the country with the help of the Catholic Church in Italy, seeking safety in Argentina using a false identity. He survived an assassination attempt in 1957 and fled to Spain, where he died in 1959 in a German hospital in Madrid due to complications of the bullet in his spine.

Although Pavelić was certainly not the sole source, he became the face of Croatian nationalism during World War II.  He was one of the founders of the Ustaša movement, and the most important leader in the Independent State of Croatia.  Pavelić led a specifically Balkan holocaust against Serbs, one that many people in the West do not realize took place.  For Serbs today, the Croatian flag is a symbol of Fascism and the atrocities committed against their nation during the war.  Later Josip Broz Tito forbade discussion of the Jasenovac exterminations in an attempt to keep peace in a multi-ethnic Yugoslavia.  After the death of Tito and during the wars in the former-Yugoslavia in the 1990s, much of the nationalism from the World War II and Pavelić era resurfaced, causing utter destruction in the region.  Many people hastily attribute the tension among the nations of the former-Yugoslavia as some kind of ancient hatred; rather, the hatred stems from only as far back as World War II.  Supporters of the Ustaša party are still present in Croatia today. Although Ante Pavelić alone cannot be blamed for nationalism and hatred in the former-Yugoslavia, his leadership during World War II created a lasting divide and the region still suffers effects today.

Flags Symbolizing Hatred

Now that I am researching Ante Pavelić for a history class assignment, I finally investigated a question I’ve had for a long time- what does the Croatian flag mean and how is it connected with the country’s fascist government from World War II?  When it comes to history of the former Yugoslavia, it is truly impossible not to let biases affect research.  Until now, I never thought about how much living in Serbia and making friends with Serbs affect my views on certain issues.  I heard a comment from a Serbian friend that the checkerboard pattern on the Croatian flag symbolizes fascism and lazily, I never doubted it.


The current flag of Croatia

It’s not really my goal here to give a history of nationalism in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, or the history of Yugoslavia from 1929 onward, so please excuse me as I leave out plenty of details. Most importantly, I want to stress that during World War II, the Independent State of Croatia was a Nazi puppet state led by Ante Pavelić and his Ustasha regime. Pavelić greatly admired Benito Mussolini, and used ethnic-cleansing tactics like Hitler to eliminate non-Croats.  With 26 concentration camps, the Ustasha party especially targeted Serbs, but also killed Gypsies and Jews.  In Jasenovac (the largest camp) alone, up to 200,000 Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and political prisoners were killed, resulting in a mini holocaust, specifically Balkan, that most people do not even know took place.


The flag of the Independent State of Croatia during 1941-1945, the Ustasa flag.

The checkerboard pattern on the Croatian flag was in fact used during the fascist era, but the shield actually dates back several centuries.  Croats claim the checkerboard shield is one of the oldest symbols in Europe.  Whether or not this is true, it certainly dates back long before Croats were exterminating Serbs in Jasenovac.  However, when Yugoslavia broke apart in the 1990s and nationalism raged from all sides, the Croatian flag was used militantly and conjured up its World War II meaning for Serbs once again.  On the opposite side, as Serbs destroyed villages and raped women in Bosnia and Croatia, they wrote their own historic shield and slogan all over the place- Само слога Србина спасава/Samo sloga Srbina spasava (meaning’Only Unity Saves the Serbs’).  I saw the C C C C slogan written all over the region when I traveled this summer.  This slogan means “Greater Serbia,” Milosevic and utter destruction for Bosnians and Croats.


Flag of Serbia, with the acronym for the slogan in the crest.


Само слога Србина спасава/Samo sloga Srbina spasava (Only Unity Saves the Serbs)

Without attempting any groundbreaking conclusion, I ponder the symbols found today in the former-Yugoslavia, and how they perpetuate memories of a bloody past for all parties involved.  A small part of me respects pride for national history, but mostly I am saddened by the messages the flags imply.  These symbols and flags may mean the beginning of a nation for one country, but for a neighbor- they hurtfully mean genocide and destruction.  Visual symbols make a huge impact on people.  Idealistically, I wish Croatia and Serbia would change their flags for a new era…to find new symbols for a peaceful future. Realistically, I know that the countries of the former Yugoslavia prefer to live in the past.

Look here to see the evolution of Croatia’s flag throughout history.  Notice the use of the checkerboard pattern in 1848-1852, and 1860-1918.

Serbia Moves Forward

Serbia’s future is starting to look a bit brighter. Due to the country’s cooperation with the current United Nations’ war crimes trial of Radovan Karadzic, the European Union will lift its trade ban on Serbia. Previously, the Dutch government was opposed to the trade deal, demanding that Serbia try harder to track down war criminal suspects such as General Ratko Mladic. The implementation of the trade agreement is expected to boost the country’s economy and foreign investment in Serbia, and government officials in Serbia feel closer to applying for EU membership.

More exciting news for the citizens of Serbia (as well as for Macedonia and Montenegro) is that EU governments agreed last week to allow visa-free travel in the Schengen zone starting from December 19 this year. The Schengen zone includes 25 European Union member states, as well as Iceland, Norway and Switzerland but excludes Britain and Ireland. Bosnia and Albania are disappointed that the new rule does not apply to their own countries, but the EU deems them “not-ready”.  Before visa requirements were introduced in 1991, citizens of Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia enjoyed visa-free travel to Western Europe for 40 years as part of Yugoslavia, the only communist country that permitted its citizens to travel freely abroad.

Spending some time in Serbia, I saw how difficult it was for my friends to travel, even to bordering countries. They deserve the same opportunities as the students from the United States or the European Union, to research, study and vacation in other countries. According to a Belgrade survey, more than 70 percent of Serbia’s young people have never traveled abroad. Soon this will change in time for the holiday season, and JAT airlines, the main carrier for Belgrade will offer special airfares to entice travelers.

However, the good fortune of some countries in southeast Europe is causing tension in others. Bosnian Muslims feel at a disadvantage because in their ethnically split country, Bosnian Serbs may obtain a Serbian passport and ethnic Croats in Bosnia, who hold Croatian passports can already travel. The EU claims Bosnia’s troubles are of its own making.  The decision to lift visa restrictions on Serbian citizens is also prompting Kosovo Albanians to claim they live in South Serbia, so they can access the travel benefits. Most applications for residency status are denied. It’s ironic that as Kosovo is currently defending the legitimacy of its declaration of independence from Serbia in the International Court of Justice, some Kosovo citizens are attempting to declare residency in Serbia. Serbia is right to refuse their applications, as citizens of Kosovo cannot change their nationality when convenient.

Reminded of Kosovo…

The first time I visited Serbia was in February 2008, less than two weeks after Kosovo declared its independence. A few days before my departure, a video clip on the news from Belgrade alarmed my friends and family who knew of my plans: the American Embassy in Serbia was lit on fire by a mob of protesters. Although the protest was largely peaceful for the whole day, at the end a bunch of hooligans got out of hand and torched the embassy. Of course the news in the United States only really showed the embassy on fire without much context, and of course my mother was very worried that in a few days her daughter would go to a country with a burnt American embassy. The visit was wonderful and Serbs, as usual, were extremely hospitable. However, one thing was clear: Serbia was angered by Kosovo’s declaration of independence and they did not want to accept what they considered to be an “unlawful” declaration of independence.

A year later I returned to Serbia for a much longer stay, to take language classes and to truly immerse in the culture. With more time to travel, I finally visited Kosovo much to the dismay and shock of some of my new Serbian friends. A friend and I traveled from Novi Sad, Serbia, to Mitrovica, Kosovo, where Serbs occupy the northern party of the border city. No passports were stamped because Serbia recognized this place as their own, the land of their most prized cultural treasures. Today, two million Albanians and 120,000 Serbs live separately in Kosovo, and Mitrovica clearly exemplifies this ethnic split. The north of Mitrovica is inhabited by Serbs and the south by Albanians, with the two areas separated by barbed wire, some UN stragglers, and a bridge.

Former Orthodox Church...curren military base- Prizren, Kosovo

A monument spelling “NEWBORN” (in English) stands in the center of Pristina, the capital city. A wall in Prizren, Kosovo thanked the 63 countries, including twenty-three EU member states, which recognize Kosovo’s independence in their own languages. However, 140 of the UN’s 194 members do not recognize Kosovo, including Russia and Spain. Traveling through Kosovo with someone from Spain was an interesting experience. When standing in a Serbian enclave, my friend was personally thanked for his country’s position, and when speaking with Albanians, I was thanked as an American. For Spain, a country struggling with its own separatist movements, this issue is a personal one. Mostly on this trip, I noticed the division and tension in Kosovo, saw indications of years of hardships in destroyed religious buildings, and felt uncomfortable after dark with the barbed wire and armed UN troops on patrol.

Kosovo Thanks Prizren, Kosovo

Today on December 1, 2009, I am reminded of Kosovo because this day marks the start of the International Court of Justice trial to determine whether Kosovo’s stance is legal. Serbia would like Kosovo to remain an autonomous province, and Kosovo claims that their declaration of independence is “irreversible.” Judges at the ICJ, the U.N.’s highest judicial body, will hear statements from 29 other nations over eight more days, with key testimony from Spain, the United States and Russia expected on December 8. With the hearings expected to take months, and almost two years since Kosovo’s declaration, I have to admit that I agree with Kosovo’s stance: I think their statement of independence is irreversible. With the area populated by an Albanian majority by over 90% and the 1990s still fresh in the minds of all the inhabitants of the Balkans, Kosovo like the NEWBORN statue reflects is beginning to forge ahead to a new future. With the conclusion of these hearings, irregardless of the verdict, I hope Serbia can do the same.

NEWBORN Monument- Pristina, Kosovo

Out with One, Waiting for Another

Not too much to report on the trial of Radovan Karadžić in the Hague tribunal this week…considering he has yet to show up. The former Bosnian Serb leader is charged with 11 counts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the 1992-95 war in which 100,000 people were killed and 2.2 million were forced from their homes.  Perhaps one last pathetic attempt to exercise some control over his life, Karadžić who is representing himself, asked in vain for a ten-month postponement to prepare his defense.  He plans to boycott his trial again on Monday, in which case he will be issued a lawyer for the hearing that could take 2 years to complete.

Meanwhile, Former Bosnian Serb leader Biljana Plavšić returned to Belgrade on Tuesday after being released by the United Nations war crimes tribunal.  Known for her extreme statements while in political office, she served only two-thirds of her 11-year sentence for crimes against Muslims and Croats during the war in Bosnia.  In 1992, a widely circulated photograph shows Plavšić in the Bosnian town of Bijeljina, elegantly dressed and literally stepping over dead bodies of Muslims to congratulate another Serbian leader for “cleansing” another village.  Plavšić is a well-educated woman, formerly a biology professor at the University of Sarajevo and a Fulbright Scholar to Cornell University.  During the war she often called the killing of Muslims a “natural thing”.

Although slightly ashamed to be a visitor, I went to the small town of Srebrenica in Bosnia this past summer.  As the largest mass murder since World War II, over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were massacred in the Srebrenica Genocide.  I walked through the place that triples as a graveyard, place for prayer, and a memorial that looks very similar in style to the Vietnam Wall in Washington, DC.  Names of victims are listed in alphabetical order, but I quickly noticed one striking difference- in Srebrenica, there are consecutive columns of the same family names.  Is this because they are common Muslim names, or because several generations of families were completely wiped out?  I think both. As I walked out of the memorial site, a car passed me with an old woman weeping in the backseat.  These women will never get over the brutal massacre of their families in 1995, and around 160 of them traveled all the way to the Hague for the trial this week.  Looking for justice, they waited outside angry that Karadžić did not appear.

Karadžić could serve 25 years for genocide, yet Plavšić was released after only 9 short years.  Because she pretended to be repentant in the international courts, she avoided a charge of genocide and has now returned to Belgrade to her family’s apartment.  The judges believed her dramatic repentance and hoped this would influence others awaiting trial.  However this spring, she was quoted in the Swedish magazine Vi explaining that her “confession” was nothing but an act.  Riding a bus from Kosovo to Serbia only a few months ago, I couldn’t help but to notice the portraits of Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić prominently displayed next to the driver.  My stomach turned as I stared at those photos for the 7 hour trip.  Although the wars are over and many people have moved on with their lives, hatred is still present in the Balkans… on all sides. With such weak sentencing of Plavšić as an example, is the international community helping to put the hatred to rest or to prevail?


Stone near the entrance to the memorial in Srebrenica


Memorial in Srebrenica, Bosnia


Close up of repetive names

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