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.