Having been born post 1992 I never knew Yugoslavia in its glory. I have only been aware of war, genocide and poverty in these 98,766 square miles of forgotten land, and it seems that the rest of Europe shares in my ignorance. Following the end of the Yugoslav wars, media attention has shifted elsewhere and very little has been reported of this ex-nation. When a friend and I travelled to the Yugosphere we hadn’t a clue what to expect. All we had was a stereotype in our heads and a Lonely Planet in our hands.
Subotica, a small city in the previously autonomous Serbian province of Vojvodina, introduced us to former Yugoslavia.
I hadn’t ever seen Art Nouveau architecture in such abundance or of such a pure form. I had only ever seen one out of place building on a high street, maybe with an abstract caryatid, slopped with some garish tomato reds and pine greens. I was amazed, not just by the architecture itself, but by how well preserved it was in a town that was obviously well past the era in which such decadence was affordable.
These are the only well maintained buildings. The rest are tattooed with graffiti, pock marked with pebble dash, concrete, salmon pink, drab.
The town hall is the largest building in the town, on a spectacular scale and with an incredible level of detail. Surrounding it there are chic bars with sophisticated European names and sleek black chairs and wide beige canopies. Walk 100m from the town centre, past old style ice cream parlours and cafés, and you find yourself in the middle of a broad, paved promenade. It’s lined with enormous trees, black trunked, loaded with bright, bright leaves. It’s dotted with fountains and flowerbeds and has benches scattered all along its length.
Look behind these benches, past the flowerbeds and through the trees and you see rusted metal gates, battered cars, graffiti, broken concrete pavements, unswept roads. Look over the trees and tower blocks appear, tower blocks that look as though you could stretch your hand up and knock them down. Others sit, squat and stolid, immovable, they’ve seen many different regimes, lived in 4 different countries and are going nowhere soon. Look on the benches and there are toothless old women, debating, gossiping, gesticulating. Their jaws moving as if chewing the fat with invisible teeth. There are hoards of teenagers, boys and girls separated, sitting on the benches, barely communicating with one another in their gender dictated groups. They migrate in herds of 20 down the brick strip. The boys look charmless and shy whilst the girls, all of whom are beautiful, tanned and slim with irises that change from blue to grey with the sky, observe you with distrustful eyes.
More old ladies stagger past with shopping bags full of fruit to clapped out Yugos before grinding them into gear and clunking away. A man in nothing but skintight swimming trunks and a flat cap wobbles past on a creaking bicycle.
Davíd Varga, a young man I met in Subotica, told me what it was like to live there. “This region has been going downhill since I was born. This can be easily justified by the lack of smiles in general, the children are no exception. I may sound sentimental but it’s true and very saddening. To grow up in a place where you can learn that the best way to make enough money is through corruption, crime or foreign jobs is depressing.”
Subotica demonstrates perfectly the three most striking features of West Balkan life; dilapidation and poverty following the messy break up of Yugoslavia, a longing to be part of mainstream Europe and Yugo-nostalgia.
The dilapidation is obvious; the clapboarded windows, the unfinished building projects, empty fountains. The most strikingly sad image is that of the beautiful Synagogue, the only remaining example of Hungarian Jewish Art Nouveau architecture in the world. It stands empty, slowly deteriorating. It was built in 1902 when Subotica was Austro-Hungarian and the wealthy Jewish community numbered 3000. In 1931 the census counted 21,000 Jews in Vojvodina. Now, post Holocaust and Yugoslav wars, a gruesome combination of extermination and relocation has put the region’s jewish population at 329, under 90 of whom live in Subotica. This is just a fraction of the devastation caused by the Yugoslav wars, in which over 140,000 people were killed, and 4 million displaced during a period of bitter fighting that lasted eight long years. Forces from Belgrade clashed with Yugoslavian republics as they sought independence and a cultural identity. The fighting was not only state versus republic, but also an ethnic war between Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks. Over 97,000 Bosniaks were slaughtered, in bloody battles and bloody massacres. Of these, only Srebenica has really become etched onto our Western European minds. Atrocities were widespread; ethnic cleansing, horrific prison camps, genocide, over 30 massacres occurred in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Systematic rape occurred in “rape camps” where Bosnian and Croatian women were forcibly, publicly impregnated by Serbian soldiers, on official orders, to breed out non-Serbian ethnicities.
Hearing Davíd speak of the war and it’s aftermath is heartbreaking. Despite never encountering conflict as a child he witnessed many of its effects: “as a kid I didn’t like the sounds of sirens warning us about possible air attacks almost every second day. My friends couldn’t come out to play. There was a lack of water, food and electricity. Once again a lot of people fled seeking fortune elsewhere.”
Although the Serbs were, in most cases, the perpetrators of the atrocities, it is no easier for them to recover after the wars, in many ways more difficult, as they are still looked upon as the baddies of the Balkans. The Serbian race itself isn’t evil, but they were led by incredibly evil, corrupt and ruthless men. Despite these leaders being apprehended and placed on trial, Europe still seems to hold the Serbs accountable, and Serbia can’t shake the shame.
The poverty too is evident. People tell you of how they were once part of a well off family, but now life is a daily struggle. A friend in Subotica told us of how his friends, with poor career prospects, had fallen into cycles of addiction and crime, continuously in and out of prison. He told me that without career prospects in Vojvodina there is no motivation to get an education. Even large firms struggle to survive in the economic climate. In 2011 a huge bakery company called Fidelinka went to administration. This is shocking when you consider that most of Vojvodina has the perfect soil for growing cereal crops.
The longing to be part of the European Union is clear. Once some of the few holders of a passport that would allow citizens to travel freely from East to West, Serbia citizens now struggle to leave the country with anything but a 90 day tourist visa. Work visas are near impossible to get. Anyone with a drop of Hungarian blood in their veins battles for Hungarian citizenship, opening up work opportunities in the Eurozone. Young people have become disillusioned by the wait for EU accession. Despite becoming an official candidate in October 2011, the Serbian government has set a target for full membership in 2014. In the mean time the nearest they can get to feeling part of Europe is drinking coffee in one of the trendy bars.
It is the Yugo-nostalgia that was most interesting. In Serbia these feelings run the highest since it was the last bastion of Yugoslavia, and the Serbs were the dominant race. Now Serbia is left, standing alone among the clutter of a house party that got messy, with all its guests gone, wishing it could put the clock back to the 1970s, before things had started to go wrong.
Subotica, until 2012, was home to Yugoland. Old Yugoslavs came here by the bus load to experience their heartland for a final time. With folk bands and old records playing 40 year old music, Yugo-nostalgics came here to drink beer as they gazed out over Mount Triglav, Yugoslavia’s highest peak, represented by a 20-metre mound of dirt. Another victim of the poor economic situation, Yugoland was forced to close after its owner fell into financial difficulties.
As we travelled we encountered many people who waxed lyrical about Tito’s magnificence and strength. An old lady selling Yugoslavian memorabilia in Belgrade, told us, in broken English, that Tito was the greatest man ever to have lived, and Yugoslavia had been the strongest country in the world. An 80 year old man, with proud eyes and worn, workers’ hands, spoke to us in tender Bosnian as we sat opposite him on the train from Mostar to Sarajevo. He told us softly and slowly that he had been part of the workforce responsible for creating the tunnel we were about to pass through. Despite not understanding his language, we understood him through his sentiment and gestures. He had tears in his eyes when recounted how Tito had come to visit the workers as they dug through the mountain. To them Tito was the man who had lead the partisans to liberate their homeland from the clutches of Italian fascists and Hitler. He was the leader under whom Yugoslavians had enjoyed free health care, free education, a job for life, and peace.
Even young people miss Yugoslavia, despite never knowing it. Davíd, who was born in 1989, talks of “the great Yugoslavia”, describing it as “one of the most modern and wealthy communist countries in the world.”
We initially found it hard to believe that life really was better under Tito. Coming from Western Europe we were used to being bombarded with skepticism about former Yugoslavia and the USSR. We had picked up on the fear of communism that still hangs in the air. GCSE History had taught us that communist states are rife with corruption and suppression. Wikipedia had told us that Yugoslavia had fallen into huge amounts of debt forcing Tito to accept IMF loans.
It was only when we got back to the UK that we really understood the nostalgia. When in Subotica we had visited a camera shop, wanting to buy black and white film. The old man in the shop laughed at us, saying how out of touch we were. “Why would you want black and white film? We have colour film here now.” Eventually he gave us a handful of old films, marked ‘made in Yugoslavia’. He refused to let us pay, insisting he would have thrown them away otherwise. When we had the films developed we made a remarkable discovery. Alongside the snaps of us as we continued our trip around Europe we found 14 photos of a Yugoslavian family, taken on the same film 40 years before. The atmosphere of these photos couldn’t have contrasted more with the atmosphere 25 years later as David described it. They exude complete serenity and joy. The pictures of the children tucked up in bed together, larking in the sea, laying around on the beach and beaming as they sit around the lunch table remind me so much of the childhood holidays that form my happiest memories. My childhood stretched on into privileged teenage years in a peaceful country. It’s impossible not to wonder what became of theirs.
Special thanks to Octavia Sheepshanks for the photographs. You can see more here.