“It is we who changed. Everything else remained the same”, the Croatian waiter at Monte’s Trattoria in New York City told me while pouring Prosecco into my crystal glass, barely able to withhold an emotional flood that was erupting inside of him.
He was probably in his late sixties, with warm eyes circled by thick black rim glasses frame. Wearing an old school black jacket he looked more like my grandfather to whom I came for Sunday lunch with my All-American boyfriend to make sure that we were both eating well and genuinely wanting to know how I was. He has been living for thirty-six years in New York City with his Danish wife who, by his own confession, did not speak a word of Croatian.
Although he rarely went back to his native country, he still remembers Yugoslavia and times when we were still one country — the sisters and brothers of great Tito who said no to Stalin in 1948. He still remembers our vanished homeland of army parades and the obedient pioneers, a social experiment of the peoplehood who overnight turned against each other just because someone suddenly decided that we — the comrades of six United republics— were the enemies. That’s how we found ourselves in the middle of “The War of the Roses” and set on fire the house we were living in.
Across from me, my All-American boyfriend kept asking me why I was suddenly on the verge of tears, in this romantic vintage restaurant he took me to the heart of the bohemian Greenwich Village. We were sitting at the place that teleported us to Old World Europe, through delicate flavors of home cuisine and delicious Italian wine. The place, in which an accidental encounter with a Croatian waiter had opened the memory jar of personal stories of war, disruption and violent disintegration of the country of my birth. Two decades later, or how many exactly I lost count, I could once again feel the rustle of the wind that runs through the ruins of Yugoslavia.
In all my travels, there has always been some accidental encounter between me and the citizens of the nation that no longer exists. We were no longer Yugoslavs, we were the Serbs, the Bosnians, the Croats, the Kosovars, the Macedonians, the Slovenians. Being happy to be able to speak in our native tongue, even just for a moment through some simple words like Thank you and How are you?
We were the expats who spread ourselves throughout the world in search of better opportunities, through adjustment and hardship, through our voluntary or forced exile.
The wounds of war were not forgotten and yet, we were like some old lovers who found themselves on the opposing sides, vacillating between the greatest love of all and the violent rupture of brotherhood and unity.
If we were really a product of cultural and ethnic hatred as the official reality dictates, how can our warm and nostalgic encounters be explained? Why this innate sense of belonging in response to something that we went so violently to demolish? What was it we were fighting so desperately for? Have we defended our dreams?
Through all our personal trajectories, we went on a search for something better. Countryless and affected by the war, lenient to violence, tolerant to fracture and able to move forward when everything around us was falling apart; we, the people of Yugoslavia who are exiled from our homeland, could give the best masterclass on the repercussions of warfare. We could teach a life class on survival at the times of life’s earthquakes and ruptures, those that shake you and break you and throw you to the cold and wet ground. We, who survived, we who were exiled in search of a center—of—the—world, a better place for us, have we defended our dreams? We, the witnesses of the epoch of brute force engraved in our hearts and minds, the proud citizens of a brave capitalist world, successful in our new homes, have we found what we were looking for?
What did my generation experience? Cruelty, disorder, rioting, and ferocity. Disobedience—well, some of us. Bombs and shelters. Empty food shelves in the supermarkets, uncertainty as certain as the survival into the next day. During the nineties, the Revolution against Milosevic was our new found place of freedom. We believed we were this fearless generation who stood up against police cordons and was the last bastion of defense of our own ideals for freedom that the leaders of war have burnt to the ground. We were willing to suffer and sacrifice for ensuing generations but once it was all over on October 5th 2000, we packed the suitcases and left the remains of what once was our country, knowing that—as the Croatian waiter at Monte’s told me —everything would remain the same but us.
After that Sunday lunch at Monte’s, I could not sleep for the whole three nights realizing that my generation was not the only one who suffered through the horrors of war.
In Yugoslavia, there was always some war to wage and to survive
In Yugoslavia, there was always some war to wage and to survive. My grandparents used to tell me how fortunate I was to be born and live through the peaceful times while they lived through the Nazis. No one could predict the war of the nineties. But then before that, there was communism, the Informbiro, the repression of freedom of speech and the Communist Central Committee. Then, the story of my parents who did not belong to any party and who were buying their own apartment at times when everyone else would be getting the one for free based on their political affiliation. That was something when I was growing up I could not understand, so I blamed my parents for not wanting to fit in. I begged them to simply quit being dissidents and just become the majority. Only later in life, I could understand an uncompromising personal and social fight for freedom and independence.
My mom was determined not to subject herself to the moral-political evaluation by the Communist party nor to all those who, as an express ticket to succeed in life, have pledged their allegiance to The Left. Communism was one big hypocrisy. The stories of the fighters for national and workers’ rights that Tito’s party was advocating publicly, run counter to their luxurious lifestyle behind gated villas in the most exclusive areas of Belgrade. These were the lounge communists, the ones who were sipping champagne for brunch with derby hats in the name of the proletariat.
Each generation in former Yugoslavia had some social struggle and big political question to deal with. Unlike the college undergraduates I was teaching at Yale University who were doing internships on Wall Street, I could not list any other “extracurricular activities” during my high school and college years but my own personal struggle through the war that culminated in revolution against Milosevic.
Voluntary exile and my own chronicles on freedom
Every generation in the Balkans had to create some own liberation movement and write their own chronicles on freedom. A ruthless plunder of our hopes and dreams, the story of greed, betrayal, and exile, remained hidden behind the deceitful ideals of Milosevic. What was behind the forbidden pages of our history? The stories of wasted lives against the regime and romanticized dreams about a carefree Serbia in the West? For decades, the storytellers and foreign correspondents were exposing their own readings of what we, the People of Yugoslavia have been living. The war crimes, the ethnic and religious hatred, ideologies, the greed and grievance theories of civil war — I heard them all.
I was sitting in the Ivory tower chambers of the most prestigious political science departments in the world to watch American scholars of war running regression analysis to explain our own personal dramas and tragedies. Simplistic explanations that could justify the theory of X, Y, Z on the cover of a prestigious academic journal. But who knew us better than ourselves?
Thrusting a finger in the eye of the official decrees of new found realities of the fall of Yugoslavia, on that late afternoon in New York City, moved by nothing but an accidental encounter and mere curiosity, I was about to write my own chronicles on freedom. The story of all of us who found ourselves out of the boundaries of the country that abandoned us. The story of all of us, the children of Yugoslavia, the country that overnight has disappeared in the bloody fratricidal war. The story of all of us, displaced or misplaced, who felt rejected and ruthlessly discarded by our own motherland under a subject line of voluntary exile. A grain of sand in a foreign desert.
The truth about our past, present, and future seems to have been defined by those who stayed in the dismantled country trying to re-position themselves on the right side against the enemy. The foreign correspondents were ready to record the messages of anyone who was ready to talk on the record, for one reason or another. The interviews for BBC, CNN, AP, the Voice of America.
The arbitrary conclusions to which big political agreements have arrived, washed down with whiskey and pork roasts with a group picture featuring the rulers of the free world in Dayton or any other city for that matter, just ticked off the “to- do-box “ on the foreign affairs agenda but did not really explain anything. It did not help us heal, and based on what is going on these days in Syria, Egypt, and the Middle East in general, it is a clear sign that the lessons have not been learned.
The hard lines of ideological division between pro Milosevic and pro democratic forces of my generation were in fact, false, and only sustainable in the midsts of the revolution. Every victory finds their own political defectors who over night, have changed into their new uniforms, learned the new lines, and confessed their change of heart for human rights, European integration, NATO, and democracy. All that in ruthless search for the new opportunistic gains while letting people believe they were acting in the name of justice and dreams of democracy.
We, the perpetually dissatisfied nomads who left the country on our own, cannot still quite decide if our leaving was departure or expulsion. With no government scholarships, and with no idea of how any of us would make it on our own, we found ourselves in the uncharted territory with nothing certain but the dream.