Wednesday, May 25, 2011

angels and devils

No, this is not going to be about a Dan Brown novel.  sorry folks.

Being here, in Belgrade, Pris(h)tina, and Bosnia, events, the history, the politics are acquiring human faces. Many of the faces are ones lifted out of walking through the streets or ones imagined (like the face of the former owner of my shoes). Sometimes it is my face.
ok. so perhaps that is a confusing way to start. Let me begin here: I just spent the past week reading myself to sleep, and then reading myself awake the next morning with Slavenka Drakuić's book "they would never hurt a fly." I hadn't realized that last spring I had read another of her books "S." dealing with a  woman in rape camp during the war--even a year later, I still can feel the rawness reading S. left me with.
'They would never hurt a fly' takes the same scope of story--of war--looking in the other direction, not at victims, but at the perpetrators, now standing trial at the ICTY in the Hague. For me, she started breaking down this barrier between the imaginable and the unimaginable. Is it that these crimes are unimaginable, or that I don't want to imagine them (or the people performing them) as human, not only as human as their victims, but as myself?
If you should really want to hit this one home, watch "Ordinary Men," which, as a friend pointed out to me is "not a date movie." That perhaps is an understatement. but still an amazing film. I went into it not actually knowing what it was about (specifically, I had a general, vague sense), which, while made for an uncomfortable viewing, was also somewhat fitting, because then I discovered along with the main character--who is also in the dark--just what their task was.

In being here, as I learn more about the violent crimes, corruption, compliance (not to say that they are specific to here, this place, these wars), and thinking about not only issues of guilt but of responsibility, I can't help but begin to place myself within these narratives. Sometimes it's just through being an American, and the powerful role my state can play in the world, in the lives of others, others who I may never meet, or see, or even know were impacted.
But there also is a very personal face. In one of the interviews I conducted for my ISP, one man, after recounting his experience of being displaced in 1992, living in a refugee camp, returning to a twice ethnically cleansed community, told me, "my story is your story because we are both human. we all have the capacity to be as kind as angels or worse than devils." 

It's hard to know how to follow that up. I remember after he said that, we sat for a few moments in silence, contemplating.

Not exactly "Good Night Moon"

[I wrote the bulk of this from Sanski Most, Bosnia and Hercegovina, along the border between the Federation and Republika Srpska, but am now back in Belgrade, having finished my program and finally having a little time to reflect].

For the past three weeks I've sleeping with "War Crimes in Bosnia: Volume II" [which I just want to add covers the year 1992] beside my pillow.  While it doesn't steal the covers, wet the bed, or snore (so things could be worse), and I somehow manage to fall asleep every night without being woken by nightmares, I do start and end every day with the war. In many ways I think I'd feel guilty if I didn't. The house I'm living in was burned out, the family I'm living with fled, the village where I'm living lost several hundred, Sanski Most, about the distance from West West to Putney away, was ethnically cleansed twice during the war. Perhaps one of the reasons why I am so intrigued by what has happened here is that walking through the streets, driving through villages, if I don't look closely enough, I don't have to see the war. I can see farms and a lot of newly constructed houses, some abandoned ones, but I don't have to ask questions about them, I can see boys on bicycles, babies and burek-places (filo stuffed with meat, or other things--but then it's not burek (just to be clear), it's sirnica or zelenica, or tikvica...). But (perhaps) because I haven't seen Sanski Most in 1996, let alone 1992, and thus have nothing to forget, I want to remember.

One thing which still strikes me about being here is the newness of houses: many of them haven't been plastered yet, and are just red brick and gray cement, with red tile roofs. Of those that have, some are discreet yellows, fresh whites, but some are fire-engine red, or bright orange, purple or green. Those tend to stick out. I'm learning to pick out the old houses by the color of their painted plaster, usually muted pastel greens, blues, some yellows, and their windows. Hardly any houses have wooden window frames and that old, not quite perfect window glass that gives slightly imperfect reflections of the world around them. Windows. Just another unsung victim of violence. It's strange to be on the one hand searching for the old--the old stone foundations, worn tile roofs and water stains, while at the same time be living in a village overwhelmingly populated by the elderly, where I find myself wondering where all the children are. 

And these are just the physical things, which I can see, the things which survived. What I can't see is how places have changed. Last night, driving back from the office, Vahidin took a different side road. "this village" he said, "this one wasn't destroyed during the war. down there," he gestured to a field we drive past every day, "that was the air field of the Serb Army while they were here, and that building," green with an industrial sized dough mixer out front along with other cast off equipment, "that was the air base." "and there," a field in the floodplains of the river Sanica (little Sana, the Sana is the river running through Sanski Most, and gives Sanski Most it's name), towards the river it looks like a family is having a picnic. "that's where the first mass grave in Vrhpolje was found."  (How) can I now drive by those places and not now think of them as changed? And yet, the next day, we drove past those same fields, those same houses. are they different houses? are they new fields? no. The physical things havent changed, but their meaning has become more complex.

Yesterday was also an unusual day in that I had two heavy interviews before noon, almost back to back (both of which mentioned towns I had been reading about the night before, before falling asleep), followed by what changed from an exciting mostly-understood conversation [directed at me] in Bosnian about if Osama bin Laden was a terrorist or not, to something almost word for word out of "War Crimes in BiH." I was thrilled to be finally understanding, understanding (I can't stress this enough) what was being said, and utterly horrified by what it was I was finally comprehending: expulsion, seeing family members killed, surviving an execution squad. It was also the first day for a new volunteer at CIM (Centar za Izgradnju Mira), and in the middle of the story--by this time someone was translating for us (from being surrounded by Bosnian I probably comprehend the most of the three of us, but am a leap and a bit away from being able to understand the complexities and details of the story, let alone translate them to others and still keep the thread of the conversation going) -- he asked "is it always like this" (we were sitting at a 3 year old's birthday party in someone's living room, drinking coffee, eating birthday cake and talking about ethnic cleansing)? "not really," I told him.

Because I've been interviewing people here in Sanski Most about their experiences of displacement and return to Sanski Most from 1992-1996, I've asked people to share with me some clearly uncomfortable things. I watched the most beautiful, clear blue eyes of one woman I spoke to yesterday become glossy with tears as she remembered "that time" of displacement, of Sanski Most in late 1995 when she returned.  But I haven't really had these stories just handed to me before. and it's hard to know just what to do with them.  I think that's one of the reasons why this ISP (independent research component of my study abroad program) became so meaningful to me, because it gave me a way, a forum for discussing, for sharing these stories that I had been collecting, gathering, reflecting on.
It's a way for me to strike a balance between remembering and forgetting (Oh Milan Kundera, I miss you so), of situating myself in the present. A present which is sunny and warm, and which shouldn't be spent sitting in front of a computer.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

quest(ion)ing for beauty

I think I've been struggling with this God fellow for a while. especially that of the Orthodox variety.

Today, Sabina (from Croatia, not to be confused with Sabrina) and I wandered into the Patriarch[head of the Serbian Orthodox Church]'s Church, just after a school group walked in. Now I can't be sure that they were from the run of the mill Belgrade public school, but they all cued up (maybe 2nd graders, just to give a picture, dressed in a lot of bright pinks and purples (mostly describing the girls), giggling and bouncing in that little kid way, adding a totally different vibe to the somberness and officialness of the church's interior) to venerate the icon at the center of the church--an event supervised by their teachers. As far as I saw, no one opted out.
(I guess I should add here that I'm the girl who could never bring herself to say the 'under God' part of the Pledge of Allegiance in school. it always left me unsettled to hear that phrase echoing around the room.)
Later we wandered into an exhibit of Serbian iconography held, of all places, at the gallery of the Academy of Arts and Sciences--a charged space, at least for me, and not a neutral actor at all in Serbia's recent past. Part of the exhibit, in addition to replicas of frescoes and icons, were "Icons on the Boulevard"-- showing pictures of people walking in the streets (protesting) with icons.

I see so much beauty in the celebration of God, in the smell of the church, the face of the woman praying in the corner, the way the dim lighting accentuates her eyes and the curve of her headscarf, the expressions of the faces in the icons, the music, the veneration, the peace and persoanlness of the relationship. In the way people talk about the role of religion in their lives (I just lived with an imam and his family, and some of the conversations and discussions had in his house about the role of religion in their lives, their family, their community was utterly beautiful). And the exhibit was beautiful. It was actually my second visit to it, and still I was captivated by the art, the dedication, the craftsmanship. A recording of a Serbian Orthodox Liturgy was playing in the background, and I got lost in their voices.

Yet part of me feels guilty in seeing beauty in such politically charged spaces, not only the Gallery but Churches themselves. Because I also see so much antithesis of beauty, not necessarily in those spaces, faces or voices, but what is done in the name of, to justify or "defend" those spaces. In what those spaces are a a vehicle for. In that fine line between art and politics, icons and activism (for example there's an anti--NATO rally planned for a few weeks time. I'm sure a politicized God will be there too, or at least someone politicizing God).
Let me elaborate.
The day before yesterday, I found myself in one of the Orthodox Churches (and this isn't meant to be a rag on Orthodoxy specifically--it just happens to be most prevalent religion here in Serbia) in Kalemegdan, the park on the opposite side of the Usce (or convergence) of the Sava and Danube Rivers from New Belgrade. Kalemegdan used to be an Ottoman fortress during Belgrade's Ottoman days, and the construction of two Orthodox churches on it I see as just another way of claiming this territory as belonigning to someone else, some other tradition--whether or not it actually does, or that there is a way to separate the traditions, the history. The churches are tucked back in a corner, with a lovely view of the Danube, old ruins below. The upper church, like the Patriarch's Church we visited today, is ornately frescoed, with a lot of glinty gold things. While the frescoes are new (relatively speaking), they're still stunningly beautiful, in perhaps a less intimate way than the frescoes in a place like Grcanica which show the wear and tear of years of being touched, kissed, loved and hated. The expressions on the faces of the frescoed in Grcanica spoke so beautifully.
In my state of appreciation, I happened to focus on the three chandeliers which hang over the sanctuary. It's a low building, so they were rather close, or at least close enough for me to realize that they were constructed entirely out of bullet casings (and light bulbs). The casings had been strung, almost like oblong copper pearls, in chains.

a few weeks previously, we watched footage of soldiers being blessed by an Orthodox priest before going out to participate in what the ICTY has deemed genocide. Which bullets do those casings belong to? does it really matter?  Which struggle do they represent? or were they intended to represent? Especially from a place where genocide denial is still a problem, I find those chandeliers all the more troubling, as not only acknowledgment of, but the making sacred of, violence and those who do violence.

It's times like these where that separation between between beauty--which I can appreciate--and politics--which I can't [wow, this program has turned me into a proper anti-Political Scientist], is so thin that it's virtually impossible to see the two as separate.
and if I can see the beauty, am I not also appreciating the politics? Is there a way that I can separate the two? Do I want to separate them? Should I?
And so,
I think I've been struggling with this God fellow for a while. especially that of the Orthodox variety.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Well maybe Bogdan Bogdanovic was right

Or at least about some things.
On our way to Bosnia (Republika Srpska/RS to be specific) about a month ago, we stopped at the site of the WWII concentration camp in Jasenovac. Unlike a lot of other sites of memory we had visited (such as the house of Adem Jasheri in Kosovo--something I should write more about later--we'll see when that happens), the camp had been completely destroyed at the end of the war, as the Ustasa, supported/supporting the fascists in Europe, began to lose the war, and hadn't been rebuilt. We entered by driving past a huge, empty field, with some mounds, which, I later found out, mark where buildings had been.
I was eating a sandwich. and afterwords visited probably the cleanest, most well equipped bathroom in the Balkans.

oh the irony.

The camp played and in many ways still plays a large role in politics, and especially perception of victimhood, in the region. Across the river from the camp is now RS, and was the site where many of the prisoners were executed, in really gruesome ways, mostly involving bludgeons and unbelievably close proximity to those being killed. But what makes Jasenovac so important/contested is that many of the victims were Serbs--a narrative that especially post 1990s wars, Serbs are eager to bring up. Problematic for me is that the way it has been framed in popular discourse--Ustasha (usually code-word for Croat) concentration camp for Serbs. One, this conflation of the Croats with their war time leadership (or any entire  people with their political leadership--especially in the context of a violent regime) especially in hindsight, had/has horrible consequences. Secondly, Serbs weren't the only victims, a significant number of Roma, Jews, Communists, and anti-regime Croats also died there.

The museum attached to the site had inscribed the names of all the known and identified victims of the camp on glass plates which hung above the exhibition space. I think there were eighteen or so people listed who had the same surname as my host family in Belgrade.

Bogdan Bogdanovic, a renowned Yugoslav architect who made scores of monuments (spomniks) across the former Yugoslavia, was in charge of the memorialization of the space, and in the middle of the field was a concrete structure, in the shape of a flower about to blossom. The Flower Monument was supposed to symbolize the ultimate failure of the fascist regime to destroy the multi-cultural nature of Yugoslavia. (pictures can be seen at if you're interested). Seeing Jasenovac, especially in spring, that sentiment really rung true.

The only other time I had heard of Bogdanovic (other than seeing another of his colossal spomniks---looming on the hillside above Mitrovica in Kosovo) was an essay I read of his, "The City and Death" last semester. The essay was in a collection of writings by authors from the former Yugoslav space, all writing about the war. I think it was published in 1993, but could be wrong. Bogdanovic's piece focused on the destruction of urban spaces--what he termed urbanicide (intent to destroy in whole or in part urban spaces/culture)--by the uncultured peoples on the hills. When I read it I couldn't quite verbalize why that made me so uncomfortable.Was it my own rural upbringing? I didn't know.

But thinking of projects of ethnic cleansing as ultimate failures because we can't destroy life--lives yes, but not life itself--resonated with my optimist self.

But Bogdanovic and I weren't over yet.
As part of our study abroad experience, we each had to design a research question and jump into the field to find out more. After hours of driving through empty/emptied villages, houses with no roofs, and with trees in the driveway rather than cars, past red hazard signs marking land not yet cleared of land mines, I chose to explore the process of returning to communities utterly devastated by war. I'll let you know how things turn out.
But in my research I again came across Bogdanovic and urbanicide. and I realized why that bothered me so much--the war wasn't just over urban spaces. Yes people living in urban spaces, and unbrnity it self was targeted by the war, but they most certainly weren't the only victims. While the siege of Sarajavo received more prime time than the war in other places, the fact that the TV cameras weren't looking certainly didn't stop the destruction. That's something that, especially living as I am now in a village just outside Sanski Most, I'm really internalizing.  In contract to urbanicide, some authors proposed "domicide"--the intent to destroy home (physically, socially, emotionally) as an integral part of the project of ethnic cleansing.

I can't even imagine what Sanski Most was like during or shortly after the war. Even though my research centers around this question of leaving and coming back, there are things I can't imagine. (Thank you mom and dad for not having a TV in the house, for allowing me to grow up without a violent imagination). But the stories I'm hearing are more than enough.

But then I look out the window of the Center for Peacebuilding, a local NGO where I am volunteering/based, and I can see men biking to work in the fields with their sickles hooked over the handlebar; or children returning from school, backpacks bouncing; tulips grow; neighbors visit, drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and talk about the price of tomatoes. Bogdanovic was right, however disgusting, brutal, unthinkable ethnic cleansing is, the living are proof of its failure.

wow. I'm an optimist.
And I'll have to write about Republika Srpska some other time.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Belgrade at Eternal Derby Time

On the tram home today, I overheard a boy (perhaps 5 years old) ask his mother "why is the army out in the streets?" to which she replied "no son, that's the police." [a distinction with some fuzzyness around the edge I'm discovering.] Or, as my host sister calls them, the Turtles--named for the riot gear they don for days like today: the Eternal (just to make it that much more dramatic) Derby, where two of Belgrade's biggest soccer/football (depending on where you live) clubs play each other: Red Star (known, as Dejana informed me, as the Gypsies) and the Partizans (who call themselves Gravediggers--attractive, I know).

Two months ago tomorrow, as I was waiting for the flight to depart Istanbul, I noticed the plane slowly filling up with young men--in their twenties perhaps--all wearing the tell-tale coordinated costumes of a sports team and having a bit more energy than my all night traveled self could cope with. The ensignia on their breasts had a football in the center, and something about the Partizans around it (my Cyrillic was a bit rusty). Oh ignorance. (Oh bliss?).

Now jump ahead two months: Derby day takes both Dejana and I by surprise--neither of us follow club sports, but I mention to her over late lunch that Red Star and Partizans are facing off again today. The block next to ours is covered in red and white--the trash cans, the concrete, graffiti--all showing neighborhood allegiance to the Red Stars. While I've heard a lot about the hooligans--I honestly don't know what that means. We watched footage of the violent response to the Gay Pride Parade here last year--and I can't quite accept that any Joe Shmoe I pass on the street, or stand next to on the tram could have been there.

A note of caution for anyone from Belgrade: nemoj da brines, everything will be alright.

And so Dejana and I find ourselves on our way to the stadium. The game has already started and it's unclear if we would be able to find tickets, or get in. But somehow we do and wedge ourselves on the stairs on the west side of the stadium. The stadium is divided into four quadrants: North (for Red Star supporters), South (for Partizan), West and East for the unaligned (ironic isn't it?) among us.

I've never seen anything like it before.

The Red Star stadium is literally a block away from the Partizan (this match was on Red Star home turf), and the roads leading to the stadium were lined with "Turtles," including the mounted police forces. The area outside the stadium was virtually empty, except for a woman selling Red Star shirts and scarves, a few men selling peanuts and the hoards of cops. Just waiting. With their police vans ready. As we approached the roaring in the distance became sounds, syllables, one voice made of many.
We entered.

Inside, the top row of seats was ringed by another layer of cops in riot gear, another line separated the Partizan fans from the rest of the crowd. Another ring circuited the field itself. And the fans. We had to weave our way through stairs brimming with them, mostly men (although we weren't the only women, but we certainly got our fair share of looks). Although we were on the West side--technically neutral space, it was clearly Red Star territory, and while the chants and hand waving wasn't as coordinated as in the north of the stadium--it was clear that they were practicing. The stadium rumbled with footstomping, seat kicking, thankfully no vuvuzellas on the premises.

Thousands of people, all yelling the same chants, jumping in unison, clapping, waving red and white flags, making hand motions, turning as one to face one direction (thousands of faces all fixated on one point--totally eerie), turning their backs, en masse, to the pitch. In some ways it was kind of like watching a huge performance or some strange ritual--with thousands of participants, all following the same script, and with someone down front with a megaphone directing as it were. At one point Dejana nudged me and pointed at the Partizan fans, who had produced, as if on cue, green flares and were waving them wildly before throwing them down towards the pitch (the Red Star goal was on that side of the field that half).

But what unsettled me more than being one of a handful of women in the audience, or that the mean age was probably 28, or the intensity of emotion in the air, or even the coordination and cooperation of such a bulk of people, was the inherently political nature of the gathering--it felt in many ways like a political rally with a football match going on concurrently. I'm honestly not sure how many people were actually watching the progression of the ball across the field. Both sides (Sever (N) and Yug (S)) had flags or huge signs commemorating Uros: a Red Star supporter/hooligan recently sentenced to 10 years in prison for trying to shove a flare in a policeman's mouth after a particularly rowdy match. Across town are signs calling for "Justice for Uros," not because they think his actions were unjust, but that he was wrongly imprisoned. The Partizan side had a huge banner "1389"--an uber-nationalist political party especially vocal on the Kosovo issue (hence their name), but that's just one of many elements to their platform which make me shiver. I watched one young guy (he couldn't have been older than myself) have his picture taken  (against the backdrop of the crowd with the field beyond) making the three-fingered sign of Serbian-ness popularized (much too innocent of a word to describe it) during the war especially by the Serbian paramilitary forces [who, I learned, garnered a lot of their support from supporters of football clubs--such as Red Star, during the wars]. Fathers brought their young sons, who jumped and chanted along with the adults. The Serbian four C's featured prominently on the Red Star side, which, I guess has become quite normalized in Serbian society--for example it's on many receipts as the official seal of Serbia, but it certainly carries baggage (I highly recommend S. A Novel about the Balkans by Salavenka Drakulic for an ample dose of that baggage). Before the match these daily encounters with hooliganism had been utterly faceless. Now there were thousands (41,682, to be precise) of faces to choose from.

Dejana and I left when there were still fifteen minutes left on the clock--not because it wasn't fascinating (although I found watching the crowd more interesting than the game itself), but because we weren't terribly keen on seeing the army of Turtles in action, let alone being swept along in the throng. Especially if one team (and it looked like the Partizans this time) lost.
Instead, we just watched the lines of cops, falling into position, preparing. Waiting.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Shoes of Another

So usually I have no qualms/queasy spots in my mind about used clothes. In fact examining my wardrobe here, the overwhelming majority of things are second-hand. And their second-handed-ness is part of their allure. I like that these clothes carry other memories.
But (and there is always a but), I bought some used shoes in Kosovo. This isn't a story of medical mishaps or anything of that sort (Mom, please don't worry--nemoj da brineš). In fact I'm perfectly happy with the shoes. Except that I can't stop thinking about the question of whose shoes these were before. and is that person still alive? have they become a displaced person, someone who left their life (including their yellow trainers) behind? am I walking around with the leftovers of war on my feet? the spoils of war? I want to ask my shoes "are you two innocent?" which I know is totally foolish because my shoes can't talk. They can't tell me where they've been, or what they saw or how they feel about the current round of negotiations between Belgrade and Pris(h)tina. But people can.

This, I know is a rather strange way to begin talking about Kosovo. But indulge me a little further. On Wednesday we went to a lecture at the Faculty of Political Science--here in Belgrade--(which was an entirely different story. Two of the most popular/most contested football teams were playing each other (that evening!) and the entire city was carpeted with riot police. that felt really strange to me), but the lecture dealt with issues of responsibility as a political category, which when boiled down stems from this logic: guilt is purely personal (I and I alone can be guilty for the crimes I commit), where as responsibility, in addition to being personal, can also be collective. Her argument was that citizens (the people the State acts for) by nature of being citizens must hold themselves responsible for the actions of their State. She told the story of a colleague of hers who calculated how many bullets could have been bought with the tax money she paid to the State of Serbia during the war years. Is she responsible for those bullets?

One of the things which unsettled me the most in Kosovo was actually the reverse of an experience we had on one of our first days here in Belgrade (which was also uncomfortable then). On exploring the market just up the road from our faculty, two young guys jokingly gave us the "ward off evil" sign when we told them that we were Americans, saying "US, NATO [something in Serbian sounding negative]." Some graffiti around town also shared similar sentiments (although perhaps less jokingly). It made me uncomfortable, to be tied, just by virtue of being an American, to something I as a 10 year old, didn't really feel responsible for, and which was clearly a significant part of their childhoods (while not being definitive in mine). In Kosovo, on the other hand, after visiting the statue of Bill Clinton, waving over a unbelievably congested intersection in Pris(h)tina, holding a document symbolizing the NATO resolution to bomb Serbia over activities in Kosovo, we went to a monument to the Jashari family--Adem Jashari had been a prominent KLA fighter/leader and died with his family in a JNA ambush of his house. The place itself was spooky, two bullet ridden houses with a constructed three story walk-way, so that we, as visitors could see into all three floors of the house where the infamous battle happened, into the rooms where the family died. Down a ways from the houses were the graves of the individuals who died, with two armed guards (at all times), and lots of granite. A huge portrait of Adem hung from the eve of the house (as well as looked out over Mitrovica and one of the squares (I think by Mother Teresa Bulivard) in Prishtina). Behind the destroyed house (which you could see through holes through the house) was a playground, and the house of the two (?) surviving family members, who moved back, and now live, and raise their family literally a stone's throw from the houses. The house/shed/room which separates the museum/preserved? houses and their living spaces are two rooms full of things which were in the now destroyed house which have been removed for safekeeping--from tables, to a motorcycle. The man who was giving us the battle's blow-by-blow, repeatedly thanked us, as Americans, for visiting them, and for bombing the Serbs.
In both of these interactions there wasn't really any space for personal opinions about the bombing. What I realized, walking out of Wednesday's lecture, was what made me so uncomfortable was that both of these interactions were asking me(/sticking it staring in my face) to acknowledge my responsibility (or their perception of my responsibility) purely by being an American. Certainly the lecture didn't make accepting these responsibility any easier--but I hadn't quite known how to put my finger on what made me so uncomfortable as we departed from the Jashari  complex.
and I guess that's what my shoes ultimately keep walking me back to. back to responsibility. as an American or a citizen of any State, or/and more broadly as a person. and where, once I can carry this responsibility, will it take me.
But for now, I've only got the shoes.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

the same dough: reflections on visiting Vukovar

We just returned from a two day (one night) excursion to Vukovar--a city formerly known for it's beauty, prosperity and well integrated Croat and Serb communities. During (and after) the war, Vukovar gained a different, less joyful reputation: as a besieged (and later totally destroyed) city, and now a strongly divided community.
Visiting Vukovar was our first time, as a group, experiencing physical remnants of war. The plaster of buildings driving into Vukovar was chipped off in bullet sized chunks, some buildings had been completely refurbished, some were in the process, and for some the process hadn't yet begun. Many buildings had trees growing in them--homes where the family hadn't returned, or didn't have the resources to begin reconstructing. Even on the main street buildings were fenced off, billboarded over, or just left. Some buildings, such as the one next to the hotel where we stayed, still had scorch marks on the bricks from the fires that must have raged there. Belgrade, while experiencing violence during the 1999 bombing by NATO, doesn't have the feel of a place totally consumed by war. Vukovar, on the other hand, feels very much that way.

We visited the cemetery erected for those who fought in the "defense" (for some they were defending Vukovar, for others they were rebels) of Vukovar in the 3 months it was under siege from the JNA and paramilitary groups. We visited in the middle of an extensive snow falling--giving the cemetery a graveness, silence and solemness. The cemetery consists rows and rows of graves--each giving the name of the individual, a religious symbol or picture, if they desired, the date they died and the words "Defender of Croatia." This collective identity of the dead is really interesting to me, especially as we've spent a lot of time talking about essentalized narratives, and the narrowing of the gap of identities available to individuals during the war (and post-war). Even in death somehow these identities are still narrow. At the center of the graveyard was a huge teal cross/cross made out of negative space (there's a picture of it somewhere), a cross of absence in a way. Below the teal cross that is not a cross, is a white cross representing each of the dead. There's a power to these physical representations of numbers.

Photos of Vukovar (and other adventures here) found here:

On day two, we went out to Ovčara--site of a mass grave of individuals killed after Vukovar became under JNA/paramilitary (Serb) control. I'm having a lot of difficulty writing about historical events because events are so politically/socially charged--even the words we use proclaim sympathy with one side or the other.

The floor of the memorial/agricultural shed where the prisoners were held before being executed was poured concrete with bullet shells scattered on top. It was the first thing I noticed walking in. It left me feeling really unsettled. The memorial consisted of pictures of the dead and then artifacts, either found at the site (or things that were left behind before they were killed) or things donated by their families in their remembrance. One guy (most of the people killed were male) had a knitted square--it looked like part of a sock--something someone had knitted for him. More than the portraits on the walls, that made the victims human.

Thankfully visiting Vukovar wasn't only about looking back--at past atrocities and examining past grievances--but meeting with individuals who are looking forward.
On the first day, we met with a young guy--probably in his late twenties, early thirties, who had returned to Vukovar after the war (he had grown up there but left during the war) and did ethnographic research on how the war was memorialized/remembered. Vukovar at that time (and still now) is considered a divided city--Serbs go to Serb cafes, Croats go to Croat cafes. The other minorities who used to live in Vukovar have, for the most part, not returned. His article was fascinating (for anyone interested [Mom--this most likely means you]: Remember Vukovar: Memory, Sense of Place and the National Tradition in Croatia), and he shared a lot of stories with us of his time doing research--exciting and intimidating for us as we begin to think of our own research beginning in a few short months, and the role of official narratives/how those narratives are memorialized.  I'm really curious about what that means for the future development of a city/town/region/county/person if their primary identity becomes something rooted in the past--how does one look forward?
The following day we met with another Vukovarian who works in an NGO which is trying to dismantle the divided school system (one school for Serb students, another for Croat) and create one unified school. He didn't really answer my question about how this new school would treat the sensitive issues of history/cultural education, but it's an issue I'm intrigued by and would like to understand deeper. One of the things which he said which struck me most was that "we're not raising human beings, we're raising Croats and Serbs." when really we're all made from the same dough (thanks Nino!)
[Nino was a woman Mom befriended in Tbilisi who, one night lamenting problems with men, said "oh men, they're all made from the same dough!"].
Our final visit was with the Mayor of Vukovar--his party is a non-ethnically affiliated party (the two other main parties are ethnic parties, who, it seems, gain a lot of their political power through exploiting the past and memories of the past). He made a point of meeting with Croat constituents in a Serb cafe, and Serbs in Croat cafes--trying piece by piece, person by person, to break down some of the barriers erected through the war/reintegration (not reconciliation) process.

This was another fascinating aspect of Vukovar: the peace agreement signed mandated reintegration of the two communities (Vukovar had been under Serb control and control was being transferred to Croat--with that entailed the return of Croat citizens who had fled/been kicked out after Serbs took control of the town). Reconciliation wasn't part of the ticket. From talking to the Mayor (and his staff) on the one hand that seems like a good thing--perhaps people don't want to reconcile, but I guess I'm still having a hard time piecing together in my mind how reintegration can be conceptualized without a reconciliation component: or if structured reconciliation is necessary in a structured reintegration process.

I need to get on with my day, thankfully the snow has stopped--but Dejana mentioned over breakfast that there was supposed to be snow until April--so I need to make use of it while I can.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Cultural Blunder #1: Folk is not the Folk you think it is

Well, it probably isn't my first cultural blunder (I tried to leave the apartment with wet hair, and even didn't wear socks with my slippers around the house. Both serious offenses), but certainly this one takes the cake thus far.
I introduced myself to a group of students at the Singidunum University (the private university in whose building we have our classrooms) as being interested in "folk" music. Not realizing that "folk" music means something completely different in this context. I later found out from my host sister Dejana that folk music means modern turbo-folk: about as far away from the kind of music I had in mind as I can get. Folk music here, she informed me, is called ethno or old national music. I certainly got some strange looks from the students--turbo-folk isn't considered high-brow from what I've gathered and is popular among certain sectors of society (and subsequently not popular among others)--especially when I explained how Mary Cay had been here in the 70's studying "folk" music. One student commented, but folk music in the 70's is different than folk music now. I guess I didn't really register how differently the traditions are labeled. whoops. oh well.

So now I know.
Dejana then spent almost an hour illustrating the difference between folk and village music with me--and, well, I think I've got it now. But now I feel like I've inadvertently presented myself to these students as something entirely different from what I am. oh well. Some clarification will be necessary. This probably also helps explain why I've had such a hard time finding the music I was looking for.
Mary Cay has also put me on the track of finding some folk dance--something I was having difficulty finding on my own.

I'm also finding that my village music background has equipped me with quite a strange vocabulary--do I know how to say "where is this bus going?'--well not really. but can I say "my sweet fawn, where are you" or "two quinces" (what the hell is a quince anyways?)--actually yes. perhaps not exactly the most practical vocabulary, but it's vocabulary none-the-less.

Aside from this, things have been going really well.
This week was our first full week of classes, next week we are heading out to Vukovar, and I think this will really start to make some of the things we're learning about clear(er). It's been a lot of theoretical discussion about identity, memory, nationalism. Yugoslav history. We're starting to get into discussing how we should start conceptualizing our Independent Study Project (from here on out the ISP). Thinking about the ISP is getting really exciting because there's a plethora of things I would love to study while I'm here.

We visited the Museum of Yugoslav History, which, oddly enough, doesn't really have anything to do with Yugoslav history (or at least not yet, they're still trying to define themselves as an institution, and more importantly add to their collections). The fame of the museum is that they house the House of Flowers--formerly part of Tito's compound where he met with his mistresses and where he is buried. They also have his entire collection of gifts, from both domestic and international communities. The workmanship on the gifts was remarkable, and to me, spoke of the degree to which Tito was revered by people within Yugoslavia. It was also really interesting to me that Yugoslav history--or at least where the museum is right now--really revolves around Tito. He is the history. I hadn't quite understood the scale of Tito before visiting the museum, and now it's starting to make sense. Or at least I'm getting it better. One of my first nights, my host sister pulled out a book ("It was honest to live with Tito"), and told me it was my host mother's graduation present when she (my host mother, not my sister) graduated. And Marica added, but it was so honest to live with Tito.

 Our entrance
 there's a school in the middle of the Block: it's set up in a rectangle, you can see the gymnasium in white, directly in front of our building.

Sorry for the bulky inclusion of pictures: this is my neighborhood: Block 23. The first picture is of my entrance, but as you can see, it really could be anywhere in this complex. A few days ago, I thought, for just a moment, that I might have entered the wrong entrance--I was in a hurry and someone was going out as I was coming in so I didn't have to unlock the front door--and as I was walking up the stairs I was trying to figure out-do I recognize this place? It turns out it was my building, but for a moment I wasn't so sure. 

I'm hoping to meet up with the OTPOR folks--(check out this news story from Foreign Policy if you're interested, I'm feeling really busy here--but not active. if that makes sense. We have class basically all day (although I think the schedule is still being settled into), and while the classes are really interesting, I don't quite yet feel productive. just absorbing life here. I know that'll change once we start moving--and the fact that we travel so much might make volunteering somewhere difficult, but I guess I'm just not used to not being so involved in goings on around me. and I'd like that to change.
Well, cao for now,

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Grey Buildings in the White City

Although classes are held in the faculty of media and communications building of the Singidunum University in Belgrade (Belgrade means white city), a short walk from the center of old city, I'm living across the river Sava in New Belgrade. It's only a few minutes by tram, but crossing from old to New Belgrade is still a bit of a shock to me. The old city was built (and rebuilt) over a long period of time, someone mentioned that Belgrade was destroyed 13 times--and the buildings show that history. Next to an Austro-Hungarian (Belgrade was on the border between the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires) will be a building rebuilt in the 1950's--after WWII, or again in the 2000s, after the 1999 bombing. Although, unlike Sarajevo, Belgrade to me at least doesn't have a feel of really having been in the middle of a war. It's fascinating to walk through, with each turn it feels like I've jumped through a few centuries. 10 minutes or so (traveling along the banks of the Sava towards the Danube) from our campus is the Roman/Ottoman fortress of Kalemegdan, right at the convergence of the Sava and Danube rivers. Walking out to Kalemegdan, there's a sense of peace, a bit of removed-ness from the bustle of the city. Much welcome, especially after such peaceful times in Sighnaghi. Although that's probably also influenced by the cold these days which keeps most people (including sometimes me) inside.
We spent our first days in Belgrade staying together at a Hostel just around the corner from our faculty, which I loved because we were encouraged in organized or unorganized manners to explore the city (some of our first classes were basically scavenger hunts in the city). Irregardless, I still feel like my grasp of the city is quite small--which kind of makes the city feel small, just because so much is unknown.

New Belgrade. New Belgrade. I'm living in an apartment block (23, for your information). The blok has over 57 entrances (I'm not quite sure how many, except I know that my entrance is #57). Looking out on it--I'll post pictures later--kind of feels like the entire state of Vermont could be contained in just a few bloks. and the buildings are mostly gray, and especially without green leaves on the trees, the entire city has a kind of gray hue. Along the Sava and Danube on the New Belgrade side is a large park, with biking paths stretching for miles, but in the cold I haven't had much chance to explore those.

My host family is really nice, my host mother is an english teacher/tutor which means that my Serbian has improved minimally in the past few days, because when she speaks Serbian either with her daughter or husband they speak so quickly, I have virtually no idea what is happening. But it also allows us to have deeper debates/discussions about life. Today over breakfast we were discussing if will and ambition is genetic or not. Certainly a conversation I wouldn't be able to have in Serbian at this point (or at any point in the near future). Marica (c makes the ts sound in these parts) teaches english on the first floor of our apartment building, is in her 50's, and has blond hair. She's really nice, and always says "but don't worry"--I can't tell if this is a filler phrase, or if she really thinks that I am worried (about finding the tram, about what is for dinner, about the weather or safety...). Dragan, my host father, used to work in construction, but recently that has dried up so now he works in deconstruction--heading a team. Other than that I'm not quite sure what he does. He speaks less English than Marica--which means that we have some interesting conversations--for example he lent me a book about the interwar period (between WWI and WWII--just to clarify which wars) and then said he had another book written from a different perspective--but I couldn't quite figure out just how different those perspectives would be--nor could I figure out how to effectively communicate that to him.
Dejana--my host sister--is great. I'm really thankful to have another young person (she's 28) around--seeing how her parents interact with her I have a better understanding of how I can interact with them. Not that she is defiant or anything, but it just helps me get a better sense of how they treat their children. She's also just really nice, and really nice to talk to. But she's terribly busy right now, she's working on her PhD in Biology---food sciences--so she works in a lab in the morning and attends classes in the afternoon. But I'm hoping we'll get to explore the city together. I also met her boyfriend Uros(h)--who's in a metal band, which will be an interesting side of Belgrade to get to see. Dejana took me to see a Roma settlement. It was really startling, and I'm not quite sure how to write about that just yet.

Classes have begun. Although I think we're all still settling into this notion of work and class and work and class again. but I think it'll be good.

cao for now,