Bittersweet Return to Belgrade

Sarajevo journalist goes back for first time since the war, impressed by city’s progress but mindful of its past.

Bittersweet Return to Belgrade

Sarajevo journalist goes back for first time since the war, impressed by city’s progress but mindful of its past.

Central Belgrade. (Photo: Denis Barthel/Wikimedia)
Central Belgrade. (Photo: Denis Barthel/Wikimedia)
Monday, 15 August, 2011

“Where are you from?” a gentle-looking taxi driver asked me as he drove me from the Belgrade airport to my hotel in the city center. It was a routine question, the one he probably asked every passenger he picked up at the airport.

But I didn’t feel comfortable saying that I was from Sarajevo, for reasons that were not clear even to myself. This was in 2009, fourteen years after the Bosnian war.

For a moment, I considered saying I was from Montenegro. With a slightly adjusted accent, I could have passed for a Montenegrin and thus avoided unpleasant questions, which I knew would ensue the moment I named the place of my origin.

“I’m from Bosnia,” I replied, hoping that the driver would assume that I lived in the Bosnian Serb entity Republika Srpska and stop asking me more questions.

“Where in Bosnia?” the driver persisted.

“Uhm, Sarajevo,” I said, hesitantly.

Now it was the driver’s turn to feel uncomfortable.

“Oh, Sarajevo!” he exclaimed and remained silent for a long minute, as if carefully weighing what to say next.

“I am from Bosnia, too. I fled to Belgrade when the evil things started to happen, but I still have many relatives there,” he finally said and looked at the mirror above the driver’s seat, trying to catch my gaze. But I looked away, glad that I was sitting in the back seat of his car.

Another moment of awkward silence passed.

“Sarajevo is a lovely city. I was there few years ago, for the first time in many years, and people…they were much nicer than I expected. No one bullied me because of my Belgrade car plates or my Serbian accent, not even in the Muslim part of the town,” he said, again looking at the mirror, waiting for my response.

“Yes, I know, people from Serbia often have prejudices about Sarajevo and think they’ll not be welcomed there, but that’s not true,” I said, hoping that this would be the end of this conversation. But I was wrong.

“So, what’s the situation there now?” he continued.

“It’s ok. Getting better every day. There is a lot of reconstruction going on, but people and the economy are gradually recovering,” I said, with a forced smile. I didn’t say what they were recovering from, though.

“It’s such a pity that all this evil was unleashed upon us all. Everyone in Bosnia suffered, you know,” the driver continued.

I noticed that whenever he referred to the events in Bosnia from the early Nineties, he avoided using the word war and opted for evil instead. Could it be because war implies responsibility, and that’s a subject he’d rather avoid, I wondered.

“Yes, it is a pity indeed,” I replied and turned my gaze to the window on my right hand side.

I couldn’t really blame the taxi driver for this game of words. For many people in Serbia it is still unclear what exactly was going on in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995. For years, especially during the regime of the former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, they were systematically fed with the news from the state-controlled media which put the blame for the Bosnian war on Bosniaks and Croats, and portrayed Serbs only as victims, not perpetrators of war crimes.

War crimes trials taking place at the Hague tribunal and in local courts have done little to change that because despite all the facts established in these courts about the wars of the Nineties, there has never been much information about these findings in the Serbian media.

As we drove along Belgrade’s wide avenues, I looked at the city which for three and a half years was symbol of all things evil for me and my fellow Sarajevans. As we struggled to survive the 1992-1995 siege of the city – the longest and most brutal in the recent history – we thought of Belgrade as the place where it all began, where plans for creating a Greater Serbia were forged, at the expense of non-Serb population in Bosnia and Croatia.

On those rare days when we had some electricity, we were hearing news reports about Serbia’s crucial role in this “evil that was unleashed upon us”, particularly that of Milosevic and his close circle of supporters, all residing in Belgrade.

In the years after the war, the documentaries were made and books were written about Serbia’s role in the Balkan wars, but not a single court judgement has yet established that Serbian political and military leaders, led by Milosevic, were the main culprits.

Milosevic, who stood trial at the Hague tribunal for war crimes committed in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, died in 2006, before the judges ruled on his case.

There are a few more ongoing trials at the tribunal involving Serbia’s former high-ranking military and police officials, which might shed more light on Belgrade’s role in these wars, but verdicts in these cases still haven’t been reached.

Even the International Court of Justice, ICJ, in The Hague ruled in 2007 that Serbia was only partially responsible for the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica, namely for failing to prevent it and punish the perpetrators – Bosnian Serb police and military forces.

We drove in silence as we passed by the rows of residential buildings and skyscrapers built during the communist regime, the darkest period for the architecture of the former Yugoslavia. They were just as ugly as most buildings from that era that can be found today in Sarajevo, Zagreb or Ljubljana.

They were built after the Second World War, during the communist era, and they all had the same purpose – to provide cheap housing for the hordes of people who left their farms and moved to the cities, which promised a better future for the working class.

But then we approached the Danube river and I looked in awe at elegant bridges, beautiful old pre-communist buildings, wide avenues and green parks. Despite the heavy traffic, the whole city looked very clean.

I don’t know why I’ve only now returned to Belgrade - fourteen years after the war. I never intentionally avoided it, but didn’t volunteer to go, either. I guess I didn’t know what to expect there or how it would make me feel.

The last time I was in Belgrade, almost twenty years ago, that city was the capital of Yugoslavia, the country I was born in. I remember that Sarajevo looked so small by comparison to Belgrade; its big rivers; glorious buildings; and beautiful villas in the exclusive residential area of Dedinje. Compared to Belgrade, Sarajevo looked like a small, undeveloped provincial town.

This time round, Belgrade was no longer my capital, but it still looked so much bigger and imposing than Sarajevo.

As I rushed from one business meeting to another, I looked through the taxi windows at all those suburbs I vaguely remembered from before the war. Villas in Dedinje looked even prettier than I remembered. The only difference was that they were now housing foreign embassies instead of communist party officials.

The city centre was full of exclusive designer shops, the streets were clean and people were surprisingly nice. In fact, everyone I met was nice and they didn’t seem to care that I came from the country which sued Serbia for genocide only a few years ago.

Big billboards were hanging from the city’s Arena stadium, advertising a concert by the international rock star Sting. I sighed with envy because I knew Sarajevo could only dream of having big pop and rock music stars performing there. The only comparable gig Sarajevo has staged was that for the band U2 right after the war, but the motives were humanitarian, not financial.

The painful truth is that a city as small as Sarajevo, with only 400,000 inhabitants, will never be as interesting to concert managers as a city of Belgrade’s size, which has some 1,7 million people.

Once Serbia joins the European Union – and that will almost certainly happen before Bosnia does – Belgrade will be able to rise to its full potential, due to the fact that Serbia, with its population of 7,3 million, still represents the biggest market in the former Yugoslavia and will be more alluring to foreign investors than any other country in the region.

Of course, Belgrade is still far from perfect and there is a lot of room for improvement, but it seems to be going into the right direction. Even during my short visit, it felt more cosmopolitan and way more cool than I imagined it would.

As another taxi driver drove me from the hotel back to the airport, all my unease was gone. I was sitting in the back seat, listening to the radio. They were playing pop hits from all over the region, including Bosnia.

“Where are you from?” the driver asked me.

This time I didn’t hesitate.

“From Sarajevo,” I replied, smiling.

“Oh, Sarajevo? That’s a lovely city,” he smiled back at me.

Merdijana Sadovic is the manager of IWPR’s Hague tribunal project.  

Support our journalists