A Bit of Empathy for the Serbs: Autumn in Belgrade and the events of 1999


In my mind, there are two annual tourist seasons that are drastically different. On the one hand there is the summer, where every imaginable wanker from across the world converges on Europe and reflects with amazement on the quality of the coffee and the magic that is cobblestones. On the other hand however, the period between the middle of October to just before the Christmas season offers, for me, the most ideal time to travel. It is that brief window of time when there is absolute nothingness. It really isn’t a defined space of time, other than within its transitional quality. You never see any other tourists, apart from the cunts like myself who think that 9 degrees is a more suitable temperature to wander around the Balkans in, unlike the 40 degrees in July.

Despite all the nothingness, I can’t think of a more romantic period to be here. For a short moment, the sun setting at 16h appears almost to heighten intimacy and draws out a more pensive mind. You start to review your year by assessing your state of mind, failed relationships, occupational successes, and maybe start contemplating taking it easy on the booze over the Christmas season. It isn’t the period that you want to be listening to bombastic summer anthems or engaging in massive personal transformation. No, it is existential squeaky bum time; the quest to rescue your state of mind. You’re more inclined to watch Hannah and Her Sisters on a first date or just listen to Sunday at the Village Vanguard by Bill Evans in a big sweater on days like this. All this coincides with my birthday as well. A wonderful time of year.

I flew back to Belgrade after spending some time there this past summer. During my entire time there I felt that it wasn’t the right moment. It was too hot, there were too many walking tours, and there were too many Brits trying to cop tickets to the Exit Festival. Belgrade is one of the few cities that you can see the remarkable intellectual capabilities of its citizens on its streets. There are murals of writers and actors on the walls everywhere. There is also one of Eddy Grant in a FK Partizan shirt. I had no idea! The thousands of pubs or cafes across the city are filled with men lingering for hours, reading Danas, arguing about football or how shit Pink Television is, or whatever. This city has produced some of the most innovative and exciting music of the 1980s, such as VIS Idoli and my personal favorite, Šarlo Akrobata. Paket Aranıman is single handedly the greatest compilation of music commited to tape. Everyone in Belgrade dresses better than I do. The fuckers are good looking too! Despite hearing Modern Talking far too often during my time here, I’ve got to say that the autumn is a far more befitting season in which to enjoy Belgrade.

I might be wrong though. This image is contrasted with the overwhelming narrative of Belgrade as being a city full of Turbo Folk fans that love nothing more than screaming genocidal threats while holding a flair in the street. Hollywood has had a genius effect in shaping the image of your average Bogdan. I imagine most Hollywood cinema studios have an entire make-up department dedicated to giving actors the ‘Serbian heavy’ look. Just you watch the likes of Behind Enemy Lines or some other shite film about the region; you’ll find legions of Serbs that have a permanent five o’clock shadow, shaved head, and always speak in proverbs (when not yelling something about 1389). Think of the fucking money Rade Serbedzija has made off this shit.

Serbia has become Europe’s go-to for bad guys. It still lays claim to Kosovo, you can find t-shirts of Putin posing like some cunt on VK in Republic Square, and for reasons unbeknownst to me, all the popular right-wing leaders, such as Aleksandar Vučić and Slobodan Milošević, look like your perverted Uncle Ronnie. Jesus, if I was asked to draw a photo of a paedophile as a kid then I would have drawn fucking Vučić. Don’t accept sweets from fellas looking like him, kids! For being the largest party during what was perhaps Europe’s most existential moment since the Second World War, Serbia is treated with little to no empathy for the traumas they suffered throughout the 90s.

Throughout Kosovo, Bosnia, and the other former Yugoslavian republics, the narrative of the conflicts of the 90s are that of a small people that rebelled against their colonial oppressors and were resisted by the all-powerful Serbian army, hell bent on crushing their wee cultures. The reality is that it is rather difficult not to feel sympathetic towards these causes. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Srebrenica, which has forever imprinted on the minds of all Europeans that we’ve only progressed so far as a collective society.

Good-intentioned and progressive thinking people that travel to these countries naturally empathize and can’t help but identify with the suffering of these individuals. Their stories of emotional suffering, the helplessness, the women that were systematically raped, and the men that were lined up one by one and shot are real, and the pain remains deep rooted. At the most elemental level, an emotional response is the only pathway to digesting these stories. The emotion is foregrounded in a basic humanistic desire to avoid pain. However, what is at risk in allying with these particular groups and taking up a “JeSuisSarajevan” stance is an absolute reduction of the conflict between those that are ‘goodies’ and those that are ‘baddies.’ Of course, in almost every circumstance the ‘baddies’ are the Serbians, which is tremendously problematic.

Undoubtedly, the Serbian leadership was directly responsible for more deaths than any other party, which has lead many to argue that the Serbs ought to be stigmatized as the problem child of the Balkans region. This represents poor logic and it can be explained through the basic reality that Serbs are the largest population. As Alain Badiou argues, when speaking about Milošević:

“But he is (a little) more powerful than his Croatian, Bosnian, Montenegrin, Macedonian and Albanian neighbours and rivals . . . So he will make do as, contrary to the others who acted in the same way when the occasion presented itself, the designated criminal.”

In all likelihood the other groups fighting in the wars would have acted in a similar fashion if afforded the opportunity. Just look at the wonderful Croatian Ustaše leadership that took the opportunity to inflict as much pain as possible on its ‘enemies’. Also, in equal fashion there have been many individuals on all sides that have been charged with war crimes for committing some acts of genocide. Suggesting that one group is more guilty than the other and one might be more of a ‘goodie’ neglects the reality of the situation.

What is so problematic about tourists allying themselves with different parties in the Balkans is that their allegiance is defined by the dominant Western political narratives of what occurred during the wars of the 90s. The glaring omission when it comes to this narrative is that any mention of sympathy for Serbia and the suffering they experienced, particularly in 1999 with the NATO bombings. The bombing undertaken by NATO reflects a unique political movement in the use of violence. It renders the conflict to that of those who inflict violence and those who don’t, while not expressing any political element. Speaking about how the Western media covered the event, Žižek argues that the bombings were treated as merely a media event that was somehow devoid of casualties. Influenced by Baudrillard, he describes it as,

the new notion of war as a purely technological event, taking place behind radar and computer screens, with no casualties, and the extreme physical cruelty too unbearable for the gaze of the media—not the crippled children and raped women, victims of caricaturized local ethnic ‘fundamentalist warlords’, but thousands of nameless soldiers, victims of anonymous and efficient technological warfare.

As a result, this was not a spectacle of Serbian suffering. Their suffering was mute. The upwards of 500 civilians that died were never accounted for. It is muted by the argument that the Milošević government just turned into such a monster that bombing Belgrade was a necessity. Where is the universal humanism within that?

Visiting Serbia, you won’t find tourists quickly allying themselves with ‘the poor Serbs’, nor will the walking tours be structured around it. A taxi driver might make reference to the air strike that hit the Radio Television of Serbia headquarters on the way over the Sava to Old Belgrade. No one really cares, despite the graffiti across the city commemorating it or the obvious stress expressed by Belgradians and other Serbs when you bring up the subject. What’s the point? They won’t garner any sympathy, other than a lot of questions about how big of a cunt Milošević was.

Despite many tourists’ impulse to empathize with the suffering encountered by almost all parties in the Balkans, those ties tend to be structured upon neglecting another’s suffering, as we’ve seen in the case of Serbia. They tend to derive from a dominant political discourse which is incredibly problematic. Perhaps, we should instead lament the fracturing of the former Yugoslavia, not just as a colossal Balkan problem, but a failure for all humans. Starting from there, travelers can at least not cheapen their humanism to simple team sports of ‘goodies’ versus ‘baddies.’