22 October 2013

Biking through recent History

I had read some things about the Yugoslav Wars before the begin of this trip. After seeing the places with my eyes and hearing stories from people who were actually there in the years of the war, I'll try to write a few impressions about this topic with regard to Croatia and Serbia. If the journey goes as planned, I might visit Bosnian cities of Mostar and Sarajevo on my way back.

(It's not an "easy" topic, so any comment/correction is welcome, as always)

  • Vukovar:
    I must start from here. This city is the symbol of the Serbian-Croatian war. I've been told that it was one of the richest city in former Yugoslavia. You might agree that it's true just by looking at the many big factories and industrial buildings that you see if you arrive in the city from the west.
    Then, the war. The population, which was evenly distributed between Serbs and Croats (who had lived together peacefully until then), has dropped from 45.000 to 25.000: many Serbs moved to Novi Sad or Belgrade, many Croatians started a new life in Zagreb, far from bullet-marked houses, mined fields and an atmosphere which is still filled with hate and contrasts between the two ethnical groups. For example, Serb and Croatian kids are in separated classes at school until college. The events of the past are still too recent to be forgotten, the difference is about how people look at them: someone remembers and looks at the future, many other people remember with their heads turned back to the past.

  • Breaking news: my part in the history of Vukovar :)
    I arrived in Vukovar on October 17. On the same day the Prime Minister of Croatia, Mr. Zoran Milanovic, was in the city to talk to the nationalists and to the war veterans about the issue of cyrillic signs, which are to be installed because the Serb minority make up more than 1/3 of the total population of the city. High tension. In the previous days, 2-3 policemen of the special forces had to stand in front of every plaque written in cyrillic alphabet, because of people continuously trying to tear them down (big question: why?). So... this guy (me) who arrives on the bike seems an alien in this place at this time: is he a terrorist who hides a bunch of AK-47 in his panniers and aims at killing the PM? I don't know if they followed me or what, the fact is that the Police called Zoran, my Warmshowers host for the night, to make sure I was actually a normal traveller...
    Weird story, but it exemplifies well how the situation is around there.

  • My meetings
    A girl whose family escaped from the Croatian part of Baranya because of the war and then returned when it was over. A professor in Vukovar High School who was studying in Novi Sad during the war, having his family in the middle of the conflict. Now the big old house of some of his dead relatives has almost no value, since the city is still under reconstruction and has high unemployment and very little perspectives for the next future.

  • Yugoslavia and Tito: a compendium (trying to simplify complicated things)
    - Yugoslavia as known between 1945-1991 had never been a unique country in history, although some cultural traits are common to the people of the area. Parts of its territory were controlled until WW1 by Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Empire.
    - Croatians are mainly Catholic, Serbs are mainly Orthodox. In Bosnia and Kosovo there are big percentages of Muslims as well.
    - 1941-1945: Yugoslavia is occupied by the Nazis and other Axis countries. In Croatia there is a satellite fascist government (Ustaša), responsible for killing many Serbs.
    - 1945: Partisans led by Tito send away the occupants. It's the only European country which is not freed by the Allies, thus allowing it to take a Non-Aligned position and a certain independence from the Soviet block in the Cold War. Yugoslavia is organized as a federation, in which the regions are more or less those that now have become independent countries.
    - 1970s: Despite economic difficulties and rising requests for more independence from what has always been considered a Serb-centric nation (see Great Serbia), the country remains in peace until Tito's death in 1980. Tito was a dictator, but he represented at the eyes of most of the population a positive hero and a common symbol of anti-fascism.
    - 1980s: Changed economic balance in Europe (due to USSR's collapse), loosened grip of central government on peripherical regions, contemporary growth of nationalisms in Slovenia, Croatia and Kosovo.
    - 1990s: Breakup of Yugoslavian Communist Party. Referendum on independence in Slovenia, Macedonia, Croatia, Bosnia. The former 2 states obtain independence "easily", Croatia and Bosnia fight for it until 1995, when NATO intervention put an end to the conflict.
    In 1999 other NATO intervention in support of Kosovo Albanians against Serbia.
    - 2000s: Montenegro and Kosovo form independent states.

  • Consequences of the above:
    - Presence of nostalgia of Tito.
    - Serbians feel "victims" of US and Western European interests in the area (mainly regarding Kosovo, which they don't recognize as a country): good reason to "use" to raise Serbian pride, nationalism, etc.
    - Relationships among countries and among different ethnic groups in the same country are far from being stable (excluding Slovenia).
    - These problems stop Serbia from entering the EU. Macedonia has quarrels with Greece and Bulgaria as well.

  • As said by a disilluded Serbian guy at the hostel in Belgrade:
    "There are 2 political parties: one of them is the party of the football hooligans (of every team) and of the nationalist idiots, which are often the same thing; the other one is the party of the people with a little bit of brain, but it's mostly made up by idiots anyway."

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