The Unhappiness of Others: A Visit to Serbia
If there were in the world today any large number of people who desired their own happiness more than they desired the unhappiness of others, we could have a paradise in a few years.
“May you live in interesting times,” our Serbian guide begins, quoting the old Chinese curse.
“Belgrade is an interesting city,” she continues. “It has been destroyed and rebuilt 40 times, and has never known more that 50 consecutive years of peace in all it’s history, unless you consider occupation by a foreign power peace?”
She leads us up to the huge fortress of the original city. We pass through the “modern” walls, surrounded by the cannon and tanks of two world wars, heavy wood-and-steal doors dented by cannon balls and pierced by bullets, and then through the thick, white interior walls, which are the original medieval walls of the city-fortress. “Belgrade means ‘white city,’ or ‘white fortress’,” she says, “because from the river these white walls are visible.” The fortress-city was built in the 8th century by Slavic settlers on the ruined site of an old Roman border fortress.
From the top of the high walls on the towering hill we look down at the confluence of the Danube and the Sava rivers. They split to encircle a large wooded island facing the white city. The ‘Island of War,’ she calls it, because it has regularly been occupied by those who wish to conquer Belgrade and control Serbia. She lists the consecutive conquerors: Bulgarian, Byzantine, Hungarian, Ottoman, Austrian.
“We built our home in a crossroads,” she says. “And not just a little, two-lane crossroads; we built our home in the intersection of major highways.”
Serbia sits like a little slice of cake between the hungry Hungarian Empire and the equally hungry Ottoman Empire, between East and West, between Islam and Christianity. We look down from the white walls at the watery highway and can almost see advancing armies between the trees on the Island of War. There has never been a generation of Serbians who has not actually seen this sight, or worse, lived with occupying soldiers on their streets.
She leads us down from the ancient walls into the city of Belgrade, where we pass a monument to Tito, who began as a bloody dictator, killing opponents mercilessly, and then became a benevolent dictator. “It was a time of peace and prosperity,” she remembers of the years under Tito, when Serbia was part of Yugoslavia. “We could travel freely throughout Europe. Yugoslavia included Serbs, Croatians, Bosnians; Catholics, Orthodox and Moslems; we all lived together, worked together, inter-married. And it worked. Tito’s only mistake was that he did not leave a successor.” She describes his funeral, the extent of their mourning, the end of prosperity and peace.
And moves on to President Slobodan Milosevioc. “I wish we had done to him what was done to the communist president of Romania,” she says bitterly, and a little enigmatically. Years of couching her political opinions in code, I wonder, as she continues: “Because he wasted 15 years of my life, of the lives of all Serbians, and made us the most hated country in the world.”
She points out the bombed shell of a few buildings, shows how accurate the American bombs were, that no neighbouring buildings were touched, describes being told in advance so the targets could be evacuated and no civilians killed. Still it was frightening, she adds, and I try to imagine how understated that comment is. One bombed site is close by a maternity hospital. “You cannot tell babies it is bad timing to be born today,” she says.
She talks of the difficulty of explaining what was happening, and why, to her children. “Why is the land of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck bombing us, Mommy?” her six-year-old asked her.
“Because we have a president whom we don’t want,” She told her daughter.
“Why doesn’t he go be president somewhere else?” the child asked.
“Because nobody wants him.”
“I know what, Mommy,” the little girl said after a few minutes’ thought. “He could go to the South Pole and be the president of the penguins.”
“We voted him out of the presidency, but he rigged the vote – he was caught with his own marked ballots. Still, he refused to leave. So we all gathered here,” she waves her arm around the large square we have just arrived at, “to protest. They called it the ‘peaceful revolution’. And finally, he announced he was resigning. He wanted to spend more time with his family, and blah, blah, blah. He was forced out, by us, because we hated him and what he did.”
As we approach our waiting bus, she tells us Serbians want very much to join the European Union, but that it will probably be years before they are allowed to. She would like to travel freely again, to live in a peaceful, prosperous Serbia. “One of our writers wrote in his book, Life without travel is no life,” she says. She points out a poster in a travel agents’ window and translates for us: Go and spend your vacations as your parents spent theirs – in Croatia. She explains that Croatia has seaside resorts and beaches, unlike Serbia, and that people are beginning to go there again. “People in Serbia have relatives in other parts of Yugoslavia, our children have made friends there. It is a beginning.”
“Belgrade is an interesting city, but for me, I have had enough interesting times. I want to rest of my life to be very boring.” The bus doors swing open. She thanks us for coming to visit her city.
How do you learn to live with the Island of War outside your front door, I wonder as our bus transports us back to the ship. How do you sleep when your tent is pitched at the intersection of a thoroughfare? What does it do to a people in a tiny, indefensible country, to know that their unhappiness has always been the goal of the empires that surround them?
I expect I will find at least part of the answer tomorrow, when we visit Croatia.