No Man’s Land

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You go, Yugoslavia!

I’m fascinated with the former Yugoslavia. I’ve read every history book I can find on the subject, including the ham-fisted polemics from the various warring sides. Why? Because none of it made any sense. I had to untangle the knot.  I’m a curious bastard.

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The Yugo. It's cute as... a bug!

Through 15 centuries of endless subjugation the “southern Slavs” carefully maintained their various cultural identifications: Serbs, Croats, Slovenians, Bosnians, Montenegrins, Macedonians, Kosovars and yes, even those zany Voivods. They are all small republics whose identities and cultures persevered against overwhelming outside forces.

That’s what I like about them. These people are scrappy. They revere tradition, but they’re not afraid to try new things. Everyone tells them they are nothing – just a bunch of tiny “nations”, each about the size of West Virginia – but each has enough cultural pride to make an English football supporter hang his head in shame. They refuse to believe they are “small”. I appreciate that deeply. Everyone feels small sometimes, even here in America where we’re all supposed to be big and proud and rich and happy.

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Croatian girls - wouldn't YOU be proud?

Alas, the same nationalism that defines the southern Slavic peoples nearly destroyed them. The breakup of Yugoslavia was marked by some of the most heinous and hateful warring in Europe since WWII. Rather than bore you with the entire history of the place and the why’s and wherefore’s of the various wars, I want to hone in on what makes the place fascinating to me.

The Slavs moved into what was known as Roman Illyria around 500AD. Around this time, a penniless Illyrian named Justinian left home seeking his fortune and found it by becoming the Emperor of the Byzantine Empire. It’s good work if you can get it.

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Justinian - emperor, lawgiver and Yugoslav.

Trouble is, Justinian didn’t treasure the land of his father. As invading barbarians and bubonic plagues swept across Illyria, Justinian left the poor bastards to twist in the wind. He had bigger fish to fry in northern Africa and Italy. It goes without saying that the Illyrians weren’t the happiest subjects of the Emperor.

And this unhappiness would continue. Illyria had art, culture, civic institutions and churches on par with their European neighbors, but they got no respect. “Oh, the Illyrians,” everyone would sniff. “Aren’t they a bunch of dumb farmers on the wrong side of the Adriatic? Whatever.”

Things got even worse when Muhammed invented Islam. They needed to spread the Word, and the best place to start was close to home. And guess where you end up when you cross Turkey into Europe? Yup. Illyria.

After centuries of being bitch-slapped by raiding barbarian hordes and Muslim lunatics, in 1389 the Ottoman Empire walked in and turned the place into a godforsaken peasant colony.

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Life as a peasant sucked ass.

The Ottomans ruled Yugoslavia for 500 long years. Their one weak spot was relying on Muslim vassals (rhymes with “assholes”) to rule the colonies. This meant that Istanbul’s political reach was weak even though their military was mobile and effective. Political weakness made Yugoslavia a tempting No Man’s Land , an endless battleground between the Ottomans from the south and the Austro-Hungarians from the north.

Some of the Yugoslavs (Kosovars, Bosnians, Albanians) converted to Islam as a matter of expediency.  The Serbs tended to connect with Orthodox Christianity and adopted the Cyrillic alphabet. Closer to Austria, the Croats and Slovenes looked to Rome and were as Catholic as the Pope’s foreskin. The seeds of cultural disparity were sown.

The see-saw between Turkish and European control eventually ended in 1918 when both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires collapsed in the wake of WWI. This is somewhat ironic, for it was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 that started the whole goddamn war.

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Zapruder footage of Franz Ferdinand about to get capped.

For a brief period after WWI, Yugoslavia had a measure of new-found independence. Yugoslav thinkers and writers started waxing philosophical about a New Illyria, an independent republic of combined peoples born of a common Slavic heritage.

But while the academics puffed on their pipes and published their papers, an obscure Austrian corporal with a gay little mustache was busy building a new political party in Bavaria. Things in Europe were about to unravel again.

As world war once again swept into Yugoslavia, the passions of ethnic groups who had longed for centuries to express themselves vented in violence. The Croats formed a pro-German fascist state while the Serb majority aligned themselves with Russia against the Nazi onslaught. The lines between ethnic groups were never drawn clearer. Atrocities were committed throughout the region, and any Jew caught in the crossfire was quickly liquidated.

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Fascism and Catholicism - two great tastes that go great together!

After the war, the Croats had some ‘splainin’ to do.  Before anti-Croat reprisals got too out of hand, a new face emerged that promised to end the strife, heal the wounds and unite the people. This is that face:

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Tito looking very happy about things.

Josip “Tito” Broz  was a communist organizer who kicked some Nazi ass during the war. After the war, he muscled his way up the food chain to unite Yugoslavia under one banner: “Brotherhood and Unity”. To stitch his new nation together, he created his own version of a communist-style planned economy. Tito’s plan re-imagined Yugoslavia as a tightly-knit confederation of workers who put aside ethnic animosity towards a common goal of self-sufficiency.

“But, Ted!” you say, “Communism blows!”

Well, you’re right. Sort of. Difficult times call for drastic measures. And Tito wanted all Yugoslavs pulling together on the same rope, so he put a yoke on them all. And to everyone’s surprise, it worked.

Unlike Stalinism or Maoism, Titoism was a kinder, gentler communism. Sure, he had secret police. And yes, his planned economy was fairly unyielding. And yes, life under Tito was significantly less fun than life across the Adriatic in Italy. But Tito had a hard road to walk. Like his countrymen, he was sick and tired of foreigners exploiting the southern Slavs. He wanted to kill two birds (ethnic strife and economic weakness)  with one stone (communism).

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Goshdarnit! Commies!

At first, the communist government under Tito was closely aligned with the Soviet Union. But Tito didn’t like Moscow dictating how he should run his hodge-podge of excitable Slavs. Eventually, Tito told the Soviets to go fuck themselves. And let me tell you, back then NOBODY told the Soviets to go fuck themselves. Tito had brass balls and wasn’t afraid of waving them around.

At home, he loosened the apron strings. Compared to their Russian counterparts, Yugoslavs had some freedoms. Tito introduced a more mixed economy and eased off on central planning. It was easier for Yugoslavs to travel abroad, start a small business, listen to western music, move to a new apartment or just relax and enjoy a nice glass of Slivovitz without some party apparachik demanding to see an alcohol permit.

After ruling a unified Yugoslavia for about 30 years, Tito died in 1980. Unfortunately, his successors were not up to Tito’s standards. They were barely fit to lick the man’s boots. As the Russian economy nose-dived and western Europe  worried more about a unified economy than about  trade with those weirdos in the Balkans, Yugoslavia began falling apart. Its economy was in the shitter and nobody was happy.

The Slovenians were the first to bolt. After all, they had borders with Italy and Austria and no border at all with the politicos in Serbia. They knew which side of the bread their butter was on.

When Serbia failed to force Slovenia back into the fold, Croatia saw that the gettin’ was good and declared independence with great haste.

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Things got ugly.

Serbia told Croatia they weren’t going anywhere – not as long as Serbs lived within the borders of the new Croatia. Thus began the ungodly wars over every inch of various West Virginia-sized republics.

I won’t get into the land claims of the Serb Krajina, Republika Srpska, Croatian Bosnia, Albanian  Kosovo, etc etc etc. There isn’t enough space on this webpage to recount the details of the wars. Suffice it to say that shortly after he died, Tito’s “Brotherhood and Unity” went out the window as quick as you can say “Fuck you, leave me alone.”

After much internecine warfare, the various proud republics (who had labored under various occupation for over a thousand years) finally settled in behind uneasy borders. Slovenia is now a full member of the European Union. Croatia is a hot tourist destination. Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo are at peace but with an obstinate Serbian presence. Serbia still considers herself the heart and soul of a greater Yugoslavia. They even have a “J” (for Jugoslavia) sticker on their cars.

You’re probably not as obsessed as me about the former Yugoslavia. But if you like watching movies, there have been a few good ones about the wars in Yugoslavia. One I recommend to everyone is No Man’s Land. It encapsulate the subject with irony and tension worthy of comparison to Dr. Strangelove.

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Movie still from "No Man's Land".

The film takes place outside Tuzla, near the Serbia/Bosnia border. The two armies – well-funded Serbs and scruffy Bosnians – stare at each other from distant strongholds. In the middle, a Serb recruit and a  battle-hardened Bosnian find themselves stuck together in a trench. Caught in the crossfire of a heated ethnic war, the two men barely eke out some common ground while a hapless UN force tries its best to accomplish nothing.

If you want a glimpse of what happened in Bosnia, watch this film.

In the mean time, I’m thinking about taking another trip to the region. I’ve been to Croatia and Slovenia and enjoyed them both immensely. I want to see Belgrade and cross the tense border into Bosnia. I want to sip nuclear Turkish coffee in Sarajevo and walk the bridge in Mostar. I want to see the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro. I want to see the battle-scarred streets of Vukovar and the calm islands of Dalmatia.

It’s a beautiful place, which makes all the violence all the more troubling and pitiful. One is hard-pressed to countenance ethnic hatred when beholding the bucolic rolling hills, snowy mountains and palm-lined seasides of the former Yugoslavia. It’s the Mediterranean paradise that everyone wants to forget about.

In parting, here’s some photos from my last trip. Enjoy!

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The Croatian countryside.

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The incredible beauty of Plitvice lakes.

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Signs of ethnic cleansing outside Senj

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A beautiful day in a beautiful place.

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The wind whips the Adriatic.

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Fun on a Friday afternoon in Rijecka.

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Stately hotels preside over Opatija.

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A fairytale castle emerges from a cave in Slovenia.

Thanks for reading!



8 Responses to “No Man’s Land”


  • Brilliant! One of the few blogs i would read a second time. And just what I needed to get a kind of understanding about the region. I really hope peace stays put, though it seems that Montenegro particularly is a piggy-in-the-middle of the US, European and Russian interests.

  • You didn’t visit Dubrovnik? That’s my family’s hometown, and I’ve never been there!

  • I hope to remedy that this year. I plan to travel through Bosnia then up the Dalmatian coast, starting with Dubrovnik. Please let me know if any of your female relatives are hot. ;0) – Citizen Ted

  • Excellent, wonderful posting. Bravo.

    I can recommend EVERYONE Joe Sacco’s “Safe Area Gorazde”, an excellent comic, a report from this city written months after the end of the war. If the author of this blog hasn’t read it already (which I very much doubt), I strong recommend it to him as well.

  • Thx, Eduardo. I haven’t read that comic, but now I’m hell-bent to find it.

  • Here’s a-year-after comment, don’t know whether it makes sense to post any more, but I’ll do it anyway…
    I’m from Bosnia, and there is always this awkward feeling (I think for all of us, Southern Slavs) when reading something written by some stranger concerning our history or the way we define our national identity/identities:)
    I would really like to see which were your sources (books, articles, whatever) for forming such an opinion of us. Not that I’m offended, it’s actually rather nice to know that you guys in America & Western Europe even know that Balkans exist, not to mention wanting to understand our history. But, to be quite frank, I think you got most things wrong, my friend Ted. But since this article was written a year ago, hope that you had the opportunity to see what it’s really like over here, while travelling across my country, and possibly fill in the blanks…
    There’s this thing about Justinian. He was an Illyrian, and thus, had nothing to do with Yugoslavia. Illyrians are natives of the Balkans, and Slavs actually came there from the area of todays Poland. Illyrians (the ones that didn’t move away, get killed or something else) embraced Slavic language and customs, thus assimilating with the intruders. The name “Yugoslavia” litteraly means “land of the Southern Slavs” and was invented like 1000 years after Justinian died, so can not really be attributed to him. :) Anyways, don’t know why would it, since he lived in todays Turkey, which is as far from Yugoslavia as Rome is.
    The second thing that bugged me, was that … well, Slavs arrived here at (approximately) 8th century. The Turks came in 15th century. There’s this period of like, 700 yrs you forgot, or just skipped. Well. Most of those “West Virginia sized republics” were medieval kingdoms, formed in the period from 9th to 12th century. And they had it all, the arts, the culture, the letter (cyrillic: Glagoljica, Bosancica, Cirilica). Those are the roots of the countries formed after the breakup of Yugoslavia. The thing is, Slovenia and Croatia were under the influence (religious and cultural) of the West (Vatican), (and they still are two mostly “europeized” countries of Ex-Yu) while Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro where Ortodox-Christian, thus under Byzantine influence. In Bosnia (then Bosnia and todays Bosnia) there were some people of both Christian conffesions, but also of Church of Bosnia… Complicated, ha?
    Also, there was this thing about the Turks/Ottoman Empire. There is this essential western misunderstanding of the way of living under Turkish rule… Well – Turks came and occupied everything up to Croatia. Those small countries were still somewhat autonomous, and thus kept their “statehood ideas”. Turkish culture wasn’t that bad as you described it. Did you know that Sarajevo (Capital of Bosnia) had the first sewer system in Europe? In the period of what was called the Renaissance in Europe, people in the Ottoman Empire didn’t actually live any worse then the people in the West. Peasants, I mean. The society wasn’t feudal, in the means that peasants couldn’t leave the country. They had to pay the taxes, but since the land was in the possession of the Sultan only, not feudals, there was still some law and order for them.
    The Sarajevo Assassination was the biggest freud in history, performed by Austro-Hungarians, as an excuse for attacking Serbia, and thus starting the war, not that Serbia had anything to do with it, since it happened in Bosnia, and was organised and performed by “Young Bosnians”. :(
    The way Yugoslavia was formed, you got right. :) But the way it fell apart… Well, let’s confess it, it definitely had some foreign (by foreign, I mean, Western) influence. War in Bosnia, (1992-1995) was the longest conflict amongst those wars you mentioned. Try to figure out how it ended, and what kind of a state Bosnia is today. It’s something the world has never seen, (in the negative sense)… And if you stay tuned, you’ll understand where all of this is going. Hint: see Bosnia’s position in the map of Europe (yes, it’s in Europe, and no, we’re nowhere near Asia).

    All the best in your quest for the truth :)

  • “Child in Time”: thanks for the great response. It seems we actually agree on most things! Primarily: I have an extremely positive view of the Southern Slavs, their history and their culture. Let’s re-visit what I wrote and what you take issue with…

    You wrote: “There’s this thing about Justinian. He was an Illyrian, and thus, had nothing to do with Yugoslavia.”

    I didn’t mean to infer that Justinian was a Croat or a Serb. I wanted to associate Justinian with “Yugoslav” to demonstrate that the people of the Balkans were an important component of the Byzantine empire and that they were still too often overlooked by the Empire in preference to conquests in Italy and north Africa.

    You wrote: “There’s this period of like, 700 yrs you forgot, or just skipped. Well. Most of those “West Virginia sized republics” were medieval kingdoms, formed in the period from 9th to 12th century. And they had it all, the arts, the culture, the letter (cyrillic: Glagoljica, Bosancica, Cirilica).”

    Actually, I wrote of the post-Justinian Byzantine era: “Illyria had art, culture, civic institutions and churches on par with their European neighbors, but they got no respect.”

    We agree! :0)

    You wrote: “The thing is, Slovenia and Croatia were under the influence (religious and cultural) of the West (Vatican), (and they still are two mostly “europeized” countries of Ex-Yu) while Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro where Ortodox-Christian, thus under Byzantine influence. In Bosnia (then Bosnia and todays Bosnia) there were some people of both Christian conffesions, but also of Church of Bosnia.”

    I am aware of all these things, but I need to make my blog posts short or American readers will get quickly bored. I also like to make snotty comments like “…the Croats and Slovenes looked to Rome and were as Catholic as the Pope’s foreskin…” to keep it light-hearted and funny. Not because I wanted to insult Croats and Slovenes but because I want readers to look at the geography themselves and understand how these larger outside religious influences affected the region.

    You wrote: “The Sarajevo Assassination was the biggest fraud in history, performed by Austro-Hungarians, as an excuse for attacking Serbia, and thus starting the war…”

    I covered this in another post: http://citizented.com/?p=1386

    I am aware of the back-channel conspiracy that resulted in the assassination in Sarajevo. When I was in Sarajevo, I mentioned this with the curator of the assassination museum and he confirmed it as true. I just didn’t want this short story about Yugoslavia to get off-track. Please understand I must cut corners or people get bored. I’m not writing a book here.

    As for the disintegration of Yugoslavia: it seems there as many opinions about this as there are people in Yugoslavia. Far too much to cover on this website. Cvijeto Job’s “Yugoslavia’s Ruin” is a good resource, particularly because Job was actually a disillusioned high-ranking member of the Party. He was there in the forests with Tito, he was there when Tito died and he watched as his precious Party because so corrupt that the republics rebelled – as did he.

    I’ve met Croats and Serbs with varying opinions of “whose fault” it was. One guy in Vukovar places most of the blame not on nationalism or government, but on the organized crime syndicates that flourished as the Party was falling apart. The gangs were ethnically divided, violent and wanted to foment instability in order to profit from it. Was he right? Was he wrong? Maybe he was partly right. Maybe Cvijeto Job was partly right. And you’re partly right, too. Both West and the Russians are to blame, I think.

    It really is a big thing. The American Civil War was also big and complicated and people argue to this day about the causes. It may never be resolved. But it was healed, for the most part. And if I’m going to end this on a positive note, it should be with what you wrote: “Try to figure out how it ended, and what kind of a state Bosnia is today.”

    Bosnia is a divided state today, and it shouldn’t be. The division is hurting both sides. I honestly believe that, just like in America, this bitter division will dissolve. I honestly believe that the children of Federated Bosnia and Republika Srpska would prefer to live together rather than apart. If I’m wrong, that’s OK. Because their children, or their children’s children, will one day get sick of this bullshit and learn to live together. We Americans know a lot about racial tension. :0)

    OK, I’m getting boring now. Feel free to email me to continue discussion. I’d look forward to it. Just remove the x’s: citizentedxxx@gmail.com.

  • Hey Citizen Ted,
    Great thoughts in your blog, seasoned with right amount of humor.

    I stumbled upon Saving the World (brilliant!) and then scrolled down to Yugo story.
    I like the way you put it simply and easy to read. As you said ‘ the American reader would get easily bored’, and I agree with you. The complex history of ex Yugoslavia is interesting and shocking, sad, and beautiful at the same time, but can get very confusing, and eventually could bore to death someone who doesn’t care that much.

    However, you brought out the key points in that short intro and, amid all the mess that troubled those poor nations have had, you mixed in some fun. And that’s exactly how the life is over there: laugh and cry interchanging.
    The ex Yugoslavia covered most of the Balkan peninsula, and word Balkan comes from Turkish Bal and Kan – Blood and Honey. (Hence the Jolie’s recent movie “In the land…”). And taking in consideration all the mess and wars we’ve had there every 50 years( so the saying goes), one could think that God had cursed nations of Balkan with periods of joy followed by periods of bloody war. And as most of us (Croats, Serbs, Bosnians..) know and remember: when we live and love, we do it all the way, like there’s no tomorrow. Unfortunately, the same goes for war and hatred.

    Anyhow, not to go deep into it, I enjoyed your blog post on Yugo story and laughed a lot.
    And since I’m originally from ‘battle-scared streets of Vukovar’ but now living in New York, I appreciate the humor and positive foreign interest in our WV sized republics and customs, and love to remember all of them with a smile, not a grudge.

    Keep on the good writing, and keep traveling.
    KInd regards,
    Ivan

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