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Finding a Normal Path in Serbia

June 19, 2013 ·

Many ethnic Serbs fled -- or were expelled from -- Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo during those conflicts of the 1990s.

Many ethnic Serbs fled — or were expelled from — Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo during those conflicts of the 1990s.

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

Angelina Jolie and Serbian refugeeEven today, the country in Europe with the largest population of internally displaced persons (IDP) is Serbia. More than a decade after the end of the wars in former Yugoslavia, more than 200,000 people remain in limbo in Serbia. Many ethnic Serbs fled – or were expelled from — Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo during those conflicts of the 1990s. All of the IDPs are from the Kosovo conflict, a significant minority of them Roma. The vast majority will not likely return to where they once lived. Since 1999, according to one estimate, only 3 percent of the IDPs from Kosovo have achieved what’s been called “sustainable return.”

For her book With their Backs to the World, Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad visited the refugee camps that house the IDPs and reported on the squalid conditions where so many of them live: the substandard housing, the health problems, the lack of employment opportunities. And rather than being treated with compassion, most of the IDP community continues to be viewed as second-class citizens.

“‘They’re more like Albanians than Serbs,’ is a commonly held sentiment,” Seierstad relates. “‘They speak Serbian worse than Albanians do,’ people say of the Kosovo-Serbian dialect, ‘They act like Albanians, speak too loud, park wherever they feel like it. They sell their humanitarian aid at the market, they’ve got money that they hide so they can beg for more, they have as many kids as the Albanians, their kids are noisy and vandalise the schools.’”

A major challenge for Serbia is “refugee fatigue.” The society already worked to integrate the earlier wave of refugees from Croatia and Bosnia, and that was not an easy process. And the Serbian government still harbors the hope of sending many of today’s IDPs back to Kosovo, even if most of them don’t want to return.

Daria Gajic’s family was relatively lucky. They arrived from Croatia before the huge influx of refugees later in the decade, and they had family connections in Serbia. But it was still a culture shock for her. “It was difficult because I didn’t know Cyrillic,” she told me in an interview at her workplace, a radio station for the Orthodox Church in the Serbian city of Nis. “It was also difficult psychologically, I guess. We didn’t have any place to live. We lived with relatives who really didn’t want us there. I think I also had problems in school. I was shut down.”

The ethnic Serbs coming from Croatia encountered fear and hostility. “When a number of people came to Serbia in 1990 when the crisis started, people here were thinking, ‘They will take our jobs and we will have even less than what we have,’” she told me. “I remember in 1995 during Operation Storm, my relatives came from Krajina to Serbia. A friend of mine said, ‘Can you imagine, in those trailers, I saw that they have some things from their households. When did they have the time to pack those things? And why did they pack an umbrella?’ Those people, two days before, lost everything they owned in their lives. They had only two hours to pack everything in their lives into a car or a trailer or to hide it on the train.”

Daria Gajic does not dwell on her time as a new arrival in Serbia, and our conversation did not focus exclusively on this issue. Having worked at a radio station in the Serbian enclaves in Kosovo and now working with the radio station of the Orthodox Church, she has a unique perspective on the role of religion in Serbian society and the importance of Kosovo for Serbian identity. We also talked about the Serbian nationalist organization Dveri Srpske, the image of Europe, and the Gay Pride march.

The Interview 

Tell me about how you first got involved in this work at the radio station of the Orthodox Church here in Nis.  

In 2005, I married a priest. A year before that, I finished university. I’m a journalist. But I never believed that as the wife of a priest I would be a journalist. Also, I have some problems with my character. I’m not aggressive sometimes. I don’t know if I can be objective enough. But it was natural when this radio station opened that they offered me this position.

What kind of work do you do here?

I’m a journalist here. I’m a radio host of certain programs.

And the topic is connected to the Church?

We have a morning program here. It’s very rarely connected to the Church except when it’s a holiday or an important saint day, and then the program is about that. Usually it’s about the weather or traffic. When something really important happens with the Church, then we’ll cover that. But the Church is not the kind of organization where something new and big is happening all the time.

You mentioned that in 1991 your family came here from Zagreb. I know that this was a difficult time. Was the decision to leave Croatia voluntary?

It was not voluntary. There was pressure in our neighborhood from the community and at the workplace on my parents. We didn’t feel that we were safe. It’s better to sleep peacefully at night then to stay in your house.

Did you feel any pressure in school as a child?

Yes. For example, we had geography in fifth grade, in 1990, when Yugoslavia was still a country. The teacher said we had to write down the names of the republics. Everyone in the class said, “We’re going to write Serbia last.” Me as a Serbian, and everyone knew that I was Serbian, I couldn’t do that. At the same time I couldn’t write Serbia first. So I started from the beginning: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, then Serbia.

I felt pressure also in September 1991. That was the month when we came to Belgrade. In my neighborhood, the children didn’t want to play with me any more.

Were you the only Serbian child in your school?

In my class, yes, I was.

That must have been very difficult.

It wasn’t too bad. Class was only for two weeks that September and then we went to Belgrade. For the kids who stayed longer, it would have been more difficult. It would have been more difficult for me if we had stayed.

Did you keep in touch with anyone from that period in your life?

I was in Zagreb in 2001 and I saw many friends from my neighborhood. And they asked, “Why did you leave? You didn’t have to leave! Nobody would have touched you or hurt you.”

What did you say to them?

I pretended that it wasn’t my decision, that it was the decision of my parents. I didn’t talk about how it felt in 1991, about what was really going on.

When you arrived in Belgrade was it difficult to adjust?

Yes, maybe for the first four months or more. It was difficult because I didn’t know Cyrillic. It was also difficult psychologically, I guess. We didn’t have any place to live. We lived with relatives who really didn’t want us there. I think I also had problems in school. I was shut down. From that period to now, I have exhibited certain behaviors. So, for instance, it’s really important for me to feel accepted. When we arrived in Serbia, I changed school maybe three times in six months. Every time it was a stretch for me. Finally, in the third school, when I felt accepted, I said to my parents, “I don’t want to leave any more. I want to stay here.” Before that, I pretended I was sick so I didn’t have to go to school.

At what point did you decide you wanted to be a journalist?

When I finished high school. It was not really a big wish for me. I just knew that mathematics or physics was not for me, and I thought journalism could be for me. I like to talk. I’m good with words sometimes. The problem was, when I enrolled I realized that maybe it’s not really for me. You have to be a certain type of personality, which I wasn’t.

Not aggressive enough?

For example.

Before you married the priest, what was your relationship with the Church?

It didn’t exist, almost. I was in fifth grade, in 1990, when my father gave me a bible for young people. That was my first encounter with God. That’s when I realized that I need to believe in something. But I was still afraid to come to the church and talk to the priest. In my family, we were not even baptized, nobody: not my parents or my brother or me.

I wanted to come to church. But I was thinking that if I come to church, I wouldn’t know anything, not even the right questions to ask. I wouldn’t even know how big my ignorance is!

In 1998, I met my husband. He was studying theology. He was still in high school. And maybe a year later, he asked if I would come to church. And I said I would, but I was afraid. And that’s when it started.

What would you say the role of the Church in Serbia is?

I’m not sure that it is as huge as maybe some people think it is. I think that it should be more than it is. The Church is not doing enough when it comes to certain questions that are important to the Church. And maybe it is interfering in some things that maybe it shouldn’t waste its time with.

For example?

For example, I think that the Church has many problems within itself. And the Church is not paying enough attention to what people are saying. Anyone from the Church can go out and say whatever they want, and it’s considered the opinion of the whole church even when it isn’t. The Church has lots of problems with certain organizations that are active within it. Those people are believers, but I don’t think that everyone shares their point of view on every single topic.

When you say “organizations inside the church”…?

They’re not organizations inside the church. They represent themselves as such. I think the Church is not doing enough to distance itself from those people. The Church is a community, and everyone in this community can have different opinions on different matters that are not religious. But some people are louder than others, and some in society consider these people to be the true representatives of the Church.

Can you give an example?

Dveri, for example.

I had hoped to interview a representative from Dveri today, but they cancelled the interview.

This is something very personal for me. I don’t agree with everything they say. And It bothers me when they say something in public and then it seems to people as if I also have their opinion. People think that everyone in the Church is extremist and narrow-minded.

In many religious traditions, there’s a tension between the more conservative branch and the more reformist branch. Is that the case here as well?

Yes, I think so.

Where does the struggle take place? Publicly? In the media?

I’m not sure. Because I think I’m not objective enough. Because my husband is a priest and I know more about what’s happening inside. Sometimes the Church is a closed structure. I’m not sure how people who are not religious perceive this.

The reformers in Catholicism originally pushed for the mass to be conducted in English and not in Latin. They continue to push for a more liberal interpretation of birth control. But I don’t really know what it means to be reform-oriented inside the Orthodox church. Can you explain that to 

Those who call themselves reformists or are considered that way do not try to reform attitudes of the Church toward certain social questions like contraception. It’s more inside questions like how many times should people take Holy Communion, for example. Half the Church is obsessed with the idea that the Catholics are all trying to convert us to Catholicism and that they have spies on the inside. And the other half think that this is not a threat any more. It was, but it’s not any more.

I understand that the number of people who come to church has increased in Serbia over the last 20 years.

Yes. The statistics are that 97 percent of people in Serbia say they are religious and are Orthodox. And only 3 percent come to church.

Wow, that’s quite a dramatic gap! When you say only 3 percent come to church, is that regularly or at all?

Regularly. Some people come in the afternoon just to be in a peaceful place. I wouldn’t put them in the 3 percent.

What is your sense of nationalism here in Serbia today?

In Serbia, everyone goes to extremes. It’s very hard for us, in reacting to what happens, to find a normal path. You have extreme nationalists and then you have the other side who thinks that “nation” is totally unimportant. Neither of these positions is particularly healthy. There are not many people in Serbia who have a normal sense or understanding of what nationalism really is. For me personally, I love the fact that I am a Serb. I’m proud. At the same time, my religion for me is more important than my nationality. The first thing in my life is that I’m an Orthodox Christian, and then I’m a Serb.

Do you think the majority of Serbs would reverse that?

Yes. I think even people who come to church, very often it is more important to them that they are Serbs. And especially the 97 percent that declare themselves Orthodox, it’s not a sign of religion but an equation of “I’m Serbian and I’m Orthodox.” People here don’t understand that you don’t have to be Serbian to be Orthodox.

Do you think that there has been an increase in extreme nationalism in Serbia?

No, it’s been the same since the war. I think that there are more people since the war ended who are on the other side. They are fed up with everything: with war and questions that are important for the Serbian nation. They don’t want to deal with any of it any more.

For instance, they’re just focusing on joining the European Union.

Yes.

And what’s your attitude about joining the EU?

I wouldn’t have anything against that. But from what I know, the EU also has problems, especially economic problems. I’m not really totally excited about becoming a part of the EU. There will be many benefits, but I think there will be some downsides. I would like if we could preserve the lifestyle we have here and at the same time to have the living standard of the people in Europe.

When you say preserve the lifestyle you have, do you have a feeling that other members of the EU have not been able to preserve their lifestyle when they became members, like Bulgaria or Romania?

I don’t think that Bulgaria and Romania have achieved the standards of the EU. I don’t think that the minute that Bulgaria and Romania became members of the EU, many things changed there. I also think that the decision to become a member is mostly a political decision — and not just about achieving certain EU standards.

When you said to preserve the lifestyle, what were you thinking about?

Working only six hours a day!

That’s an excellent lifestyle! I would like to join any place that allowed me to work only six hours a day.

I was never outside of Serbia, so it’s an opinion based on what I’ve seen on TV and maybe what some people told me about life outside Serbia. I feel that Serbia is in some ways safe. I feel like I can let my kid, who is only six, go out and play. I have friends in Canada where it’s against the law.

…to let their kids go out and play?

Yes, if the parent is not present to supervise the child.

I have relatives in Germany — we don’t see each other often but we are friends on Facebook so that I can see what they are doing — and when I see the Love Parade in Germany…

I don’t know what that is.

It’s in Berlin.

I can imagine what it is, given the name.

I wouldn’t like to see that in Serbia. I think that I would like us to be sometimes more conservative. I think weare conservative. But I wouldn’t like us to be so open to everything as people are in Europe, especially young people.

One of the things planned for tomorrow in Belgrade is the Gay Pride march, unless it’s been cancelled.

It’s been cancelled.

Ah. So, what’s your opinion about the march?

I’m against the march. It has to do with the fact that I’m Orthodox and I’m part of the Church. I’m not sure how objective I can be because there are so many people around me who are against it. So I listen to what they tell me. I’m not against gay people or a society in which they have all the rights that other people have. And I think that maybe tomorrow my child will come to me and tell me that he’s gay, and I wouldn’t like my child raised in a society that treats him in a wrong way because of his orientation. At the same time I pray that my child is not gay.

I have a problem with how it affects children. I think there are some psychologists who also agree. When you are very young, certain images that you see can affect you very much. I’m not sure that all gay people are born like that. Maybe some are, I don’t know. Sometimes it has to be the environment where you grow up and what happened to you in certain parts of your life. If you grow up in a society where your parents are two fathers or two mothers, I don’t know how that will affect you as a child. That’s one of the reasons why I’m against the march.

You said that most people around you who are against the march. Is there anyone around you who is for the march?

Maybe my friends from high school. But we haven’t talked about that. I’m guessing because they’re all in Belgrade and they’re all liberal.

Is Belgrade considered more liberal than Nis?

Yes, I think it is.

Because it’s the cosmopolitan center of Serbia?

Yes.

The big issue in terms of European integration is, of course, Kosovo. The Serbian government refuses to recognize Kosovo, and the EU says that there has to be negotiations, and Kosovo says that it won’t agree to partition. It seems to be a deadlock. What do you think about this?

I think the situation is political, and it makes no sense to me. Why should not recognizing Kosovo stop Serbia from entering the EU?

I don’t have a clear stand on this. One thing is the reality in Kosovo. The majority of the people there are Albanians. So if Kosovo were part of Serbia, then we would have even more Albanians in Serbia and it would be an even bigger problem. The other thing is that there are still Serbs in Kosovo and their lives are hard enough as it is. If Serbia recognizes Kosovo and there is a clear border, their lives would be even harder.

As a Serb, I cannot be objective. I can’t forget that the majority of Serbian monasteries were in Kosovo. I can’t forget that the first state that Serbians had was actually in Kosovo. So history does play an important role. And I think that the EU has a double standard. I think it’s just a game for them that they’re playing. I heard a few years ago that Turkey has to fulfill certain standards to become a member of the EU. But basically Turkey will never fulfill those standards. Because Turkey is a Muslim country and if Turkey becomes a member they’ll have even more Turks inside Europe. Even if Turkey becomes a great state to live in with great standards and all that, it will still not become a member of the EU.

I think it’s the same with Serbia. I don’t think that Serbia fulfills the standards right now. But I don’t think the biggest problem is Kosovo. Why wouldn’t they allow Serbia to enter the EU and then recognize the decision of the Serbians not to recognize Kosovo? But with or without Kosovo, we still have a long way to go.

Have you been to Kosovo?

Yes. I worked there. For maybe a year in KFOR at a radio station in the northern part, the Serbian part. I was a radio host and a translator.

Which towns?

Zvečan and Leposavić.

What was your experience there like? Did you have any contacts with ethnic Albanians?

I didn’t have any contacts with ethnic Albanians. I didn’t want to have any contact. I was afraid. I was too afraid to go in my car to the Albanian part of Kosovo.

What were your fears exactly?

That they would kill me. That I would become a slave. I also know that people go and nothing happens to them, of course.

But it’s not just that. I was in Croatia in 2001, and it happened to me also that I was afraid: not that people would kill me in the street but that when they realize that I am Serbian, because now they can hear I’m from Serbia, they would say something bad to me or yell at me. I think that there are people in Croatia who still remember the war and are very passionate about those times.

Do you think the relationship between Serbia and Croatia has become normal more or less?

In some aspects, yes. I don’t know how many years will have to pass before it becomes truly normal. There’s a lot of history. The war between Croatia and Serbia didn’t start in 1991. My mother was born in Croatia, and her ancestors who were also Serbs were also born in Croatia. And they remember in 1941 the problems they had with their Croat neighbors, not with the Germans. In the First World War, also. After the wars they became friends, but it stays in the collective memory, and it’s not easy to erase those memories.

There are people in Serbia who now go on holiday in Croatia. Personally I would never go. But some people go. And there are Serbs who live and work normally there. There are mixed marriages again. And singers from Serbia go there and vice versa. I do think we should have normal relations, but I don’t think that everything is normal.

To go back to Kosovo for a moment, Kosovo is often referred to as the cradle of Serbia. I know that there were a lot of monasteries and churches there that were destroyed. I’m wondering what Kosovo represents for the Church. Is it just the history, going back to the battle of Kosovo, as well as the monasteries and churches there? Or is there something else that is important about Kosovo?

I’m not sure I understand what you mean.

Let me give you an example. I was reading a memoir from 1913 by an English woman who came here to Serbia and wrote about the oral poems. I didn’t realize that these poems were so much about Kosovo. They were so much part of the culture.

I’m not sure how it is for each and every individual in the Church. I don’t think that for young people in Serbia Kosovo is a big issue. Most of them have never been there or imagine that they will ever be there. But for me personally, I would say that we only have ourselves to blame for the situation in Kosovo. Yes, I know that the Kosovo Albanians were having seven or eight children while we were only having one or two. And they were buying the land from Serbian people and most of the land was sold for quite a sum of money. So I can’t go there and defend something that is actually not mine any more.

But at the same time, there is the problem of the people who are still there, and they are not safe. The people living in the Serbian enclave together with their children are living their lives like caged animals. I don’t think it’s normal. I don’t think that they should live like that. I don’t think that they are the ones to “save” Kosovo. I don’t think that they have the responsibility for that, especially kids. For the Church, the question of the people who are there and who are Orthodox Serbs is number one, followed by the question of the monasteries and churches.

What do you think the ultimate solution will be?

I don’t think about that. It’s beyond me!

I’ve read accounts of the large number of Kosovo Serbs who came to Serbia as refugees. I’ve read that there is often a prejudice against Serbs from Kosovo, that many of the prejudices against Kosovo Albanians are applied to Kosovo Serbs. That they don’t speak Serbian well. That they are more like Kosovo Albanians than Serbs. That they are second-class Serbs. Have you encountered those stereotypes about Kosovo Serbs?

Yes, I have. Like they all stick together. Or that they all have now a lot of money because they sold their land. Some of them did, but some of them didn’t and they’re just refugees. Yes, there are stereotypes and not just about people from Kosovo. There are stereotypes about people from Nis, probably! And for those living in Belgrade also.

Did you encounter any stereotypes when you came to Serbia from Croatia?

Yes, but I also encountered stereotypes from people who came from Croatia about people in Serbia.

What were those?

They thought Slovenia and Croatia were always closer to Europe and with higher standards than Serbia. They thought that people here didn’t have the same standard. They thought that Zagreb would be cleaner than Belgrade, which has Gypsies and is filthy. They didn’t understand how they could make sarma without potatoes.

When you arrived in Belgrade, how many of those stereotypes turned out to be true?

Those stereotypes were created when we arrived not before. Before that, we didn’t think about those things. It was a way for those people to defend themselves from what they encountered here. Most of them were not welcomed. It was normal but they couldn’t understand that. When a number of people came to Serbia in 1990 when the crisis started, people here were thinking, “They will take our jobs and we will have even less than what we have.”

I remember in 1995 during Operation Storm, my relatives came from Krajina to Serbia. A friend of mine said, “Can you imagine, in those trailers, I saw that they have some things from their households. When did they have the time to pack those things? And why did they pack an umbrella?” Those people, two days before, lost everything they owned in their lives. They had only two hours to pack everything in their lives into a car or a trailer or to hide it on the train.

Or I remember when people from Croatia came to Belgrade and the women were wearing fur coats. And people said, “They have fur coats and they are refugees?” Yes, that’s what they had, but they didn’t have places to live! They had their coats. At least they were warm. But they couldn’t bring furniture.

You’re right: you can’t wear a couch or a chair. On another topic, it’s very popular in Europe and the United States to have ecumenical dialogues between churches. Is there something similar here?

Yes. The Orthodox Church has a discussion with the Catholic Church. We had a schism 1,000 years ago. And there are efforts in both churches to overcome the differences. There are also some people in both churches — but I only know about people in the Orthodox Church — who are against this dialogue. They think that we have nothing in common with them or that if we talk with them they’ll try to convert us to Catholicism. Or that it’s okay to have a dialogue with them if they change everything and we don’t change anything and they admit that they are wrong.

Those who participate in this dialogue are also aware of the many differences and opinions on both sides. So it will take maybe another 1,000 years to overcome the schism! But it’s very important to have the dialogue to have a friendly relationship and respect each other. Because I think we have more in common than the differences that we have.

On the topic of big differences, is there any discussion with Islam, perhaps in the Sandzak region? 

I think not. The Church participates in certain meetings, like the World Council of Churches, and that includes all churches and Catholics and Muslims.

What’s your feeling about Islam in general? Do you see it as a threat? Or do you see it as another monotheism?

I have a problem with Islam in Serbia because there are Islamists in Serbia who are actually politicians. 

In Belgrade?

In Sandjak. I don’t believe that people running the Church should be politicians, whether Orthodox or Catholic or Muslim.

Do they want an independent Sandjak or do they want to join Bosnia?

I’m not sure. I think they’re just using Islam to win people over to their own idea and that idea is an independent Sandjak. I’m not sure that Serbia has the standards that it should have for Muslims, for example. I’m not sure how fair we are as a country. I don’t think about those things.

Do you support a strict division between church and state?

I don’t know if it can be strict. For example, I am part of the Church. I have a job here at the Church radio station. But I can also do other things. I am part of this society. And I do want Serbia also to value my opinion. And since 97 percent of the people in Serbia are Orthodox…

It’s difficult to have a strict separation when 97 percent of the population is Orthodox.

Yes. The prime minister and the president of this government and the last one visited the patriarch in Belgrade and had a conversation with him. It seems to the public that they are getting his blessing. I’m not sure for someone in the church whether this is necessary.

I guess now the prime minister was criticized because people think he banned the march in Belgrade because the Church is against it. I don’t think he did it because of the Church. I think he did it because he believes that the majority of people in Serbia are against it, and those people are voters. When the Church stands for something that the majority believes in, then the government can hide behind the Church.

Finally, some quantitative questions. When you think back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed since that time, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being least satisfied and 10 being most satisfied.

5

Same period of time and same scale, but your personal life.

8

And how would you evaluate the near future, on a scale with one being most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?

Today it’s 3.

And yesterday?

Well, each day is different.

Did something happen between yesterday and today? 

A lot of people in Nis over the last year went abroad. And there are people in my family who think that I should do the same. And maybe until a few days ago I was saying it was good here and it will be good. Sometimes when I think about pressure and work and home, I feel that nothing will change here and things will just get worse and worse. If something nice happens today, then maybe I’ll feel differently and tomorrow it will be 5.