Bojana, are you ready to go on? Alright.
I want you to focus again and try to remember everything, even things you forgot, wanted to forget and think you don’t remember. You limbs are getting heavy…heavier. It feels as if your hands and fingers were made of lead…You are sinking into perfect relaxation. I’ll count backwards now. 10, 9, 8…Inhale. Exhale.7….deeper still…6…let it all go now…5. Still drifting down…4, 3, 2…You feel this heavy relaxation in all parts of your body…deep and misty…Allow yourself to relax. Open your mind and your heart. Unburden…1.
Tell me what’s going on.
It’s Sunday afternoon, May 4, 1980 and we’re enjoying our weekend. The TV screen goes black for a few seconds. A statement is read live on national TV:
‘Comrade Tito has died. His great heart stopped beating at 3:05 PM.’
I’m 3. ‘Mom, why are you crying? Mom, don’t be sad. Is it me? Did I do something wrong?’ I’m too little to understand, too little to remember. Scenes of mass crying in the streets and during the live broadcast of a soccer match. The whole country is mourning Tito’s demise, expressing numbed disbelief and promising to remain loyal to his policy. He is buried in Belgrade, Serbia, in the House of Flowers a few days later, in the presence of 209 delegations from 127 countries, 700,000 people and a direct television broadcast of the funeral procession in 58 states. Tito’s funeral is noted as the most attended presidential funeral in the history of mankind to that time. To date, 17.5 million people have visited the Mausoleum.
Tito’s regime outlives him by as many as 10 years. An average Yugoslav lives in blissful ignorance throughout the 80s, that is the one who has a job. Life is comfortable. My family travels a lot: France, Italy, Spain, Bulgaria, Greece, Egypt. Little do we know that in a few years from now everything will fall apart. No one sees an economic collapse and civil unrest on the horizon. Nobody could have predicted such a downfall, really.
The mid 80s are challenging time for a country poising precariously between economic welfare and social catastrophe. Yugoslavia is falling into heavy IMF debt due to the large number of loans taken out by the regime. Another concern is the unemployment rate, severely aggravating in the second half of the decade. Self-management ultimately drops the ball by the end of the 80s because of its bureaucratic degeneration and authoritarian political structure, where the seemingly autonomous working class has always played second fiddle to strong leaders, accepting their decisions uncritically. Basically, CEOs have been responsible to higher CEOs, instead of workers’ councils, and have as a rule had strong political ties. Knowing that the party has been god of all gods there, I’m sure you get the picture. What is more, after Tito’s death, political elites promote the idea of republican or ethnic working classes, as opposed to the united Yugoslav working class advocated by the late president. In other words, republics and autonomous provinces favorize their own working class by for example giving their workers inordinate wage increases, which creates even a bigger gap between the more developed and underdeveloped republics. The regional inequalities result in an economic crisis which further leads to a deterioration of the living standard. Let me put it into perspective for you. The scope of work is decreasing, companies are becoming insolvent, low wages, unsteady paychecks, lower wages, minimum wages, no paychecks AT ALL, millions are behind on bills, workers’ motivation is non-existent, work discipline zero, efficiency fictional. The outcome: the end of the movie for self-management. It was nice while it lasted. Two thumbs up for workers’ councils that survived for 40 years. Wow. Honestly. No kidding. I guess it would have been too much to ask…
However, there’s another problem. Besides the financial crisis, there’s also the crisis of system legitimacy after Tito’s death, with the long-simmering revival of nationalism coming to a boil by the end of the 80s. The introduction of self-management and decentralization was meant to encourage the liberalization and democratization of the mutual space. However, market competition turned the companies and republics into competitors, which then made republics’ party oligarchies act first as the guardians of republic interests and then the nationalist ones in the 80s.
With Tito’s death, Yugoslavia’s 6 constituent republics gain more autonomy, with a rotating presidency. The main issues troubling the elites in the post-Tito era turn primarily into a Serbian-Slovenian debate, marked by a growing divergence in the ‘national question.’ Confusing time. Before long, the fragile union he held together starts to unravel. The forces of nationalism he kept under control are unleashed, culminating in a brutal three-sided civil war hard to imagine in 20th century Europe. The outbreak of nationalism is followed by the awakening of patriarchal values, as is often the case. Sure there are civil initiatives, organizations and groups in all republics warning of the rapid militarization of society, nationalist mobilization and consequences they might have. Unfortunately, none of these anti-war movements is strong enough to prevent or stop the war. The end result: over 100,000 people killed (and God knows how many missing), 2 million driven from their homes, and Yugoslavia disintegrated.
The Croats and Slovenes, always reserved about Yugoslav unity, decide to secede. The latter try to avoid warfare, suggesting a plan for a loosely united country, based on the Swiss model of independent yet confederated cantons. The proposal is however turned down by other parties wanting full autonomy. Slovenia is the first Yugoslav republic to hold multi-party elections in the spring of 1990, which comes as no surprise. It is the most western-oriented, prosperous and ethnically homogeneous. Tensions are growing. The future of the country is at stake. We are cool…or just pretending. I’m an 8th grader about to take the grammar school entrance exam in Serbian (easy peasy) and math (ouch). My parents are panic-stricken and worried about my future. She’ll never make it. She sucks. Yeah, I know. But I’m cool (for real, not pretending). I rarely study.
Croatia is next to request more autonomy. First armed incidents begin, with open hostilities escalating in the majority-Serb populated areas in March/April 1991. Practice questions and tests, exam registration information, FAQs, tips, prep books, workbooks, study guides…not for me though, for my sister. She’s ready (read: if she’s ready, I’m ready too). I walk into the big room full of students and teachers, cool as ice. A kick-ass cheater, Tito’s school. Slovenia declares independence on June 25, 1991. Belgrade sends the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) to take control of its borders with Italy and Austria. Fighting breaks out on June 27, which will last 10 days. A total of 47 JNA soldiers are killed, aged between 18 and 22 from all the ethnic groups of Yugoslavia. The whole nation is shocked. I pass the exam with honors by applying the infamous partner (sister)-cheating method, that is copying down the answers sissy wrote on a ruler, and disposing of the evidence without getting caught. I’m shocked. I knew I’d pass but never thought my test scores would show such brilliant performance. I’m 14 and happy. I’ve got a crush on an out-of-towner. In September, the Republic of Macedonia gains its independence from Yugoslavia. My freshman year in high school may officially begin.
As violence erupts in Slovenia and Croatia, predominately Muslim Bosnia and Herzegovina (43% of the population) is ominously quiet until the fall of ‘91, when President Izetbegović starts to pursue independence. Bosnian Serbs (31%) oppose, creating their own ‘state’ and enjoying military support of Serbian President Milošević and JNA. The stage for a bloody secession is set. On the first school day, I sit down at a random empty desk in the third row by the window, where I remain till the end of high school. By the time I become a senior, it’ll be full of scribbles, hard to decipher by anyone but me.
The methods used by Croatian President Tuđman are extreme, invoking the spirit of the fascist and ultra-nationalist past. Its more than half-million Serb residents see the writing on the wall and begin to rise up, declaring independence from Croatia. JNA, now dominated by Serbs, sweeps in to put down the Croat rebellion and keep the nation together. The standoff lasts from 1991 to 1995, throughout my high school, and is full of scribbles, hard to decipher by anyone to date, let alone me. The now well-equipped Croatian army retakes the Serb-occupied areas in two offensives, retaliating for earlier ethnic cleansing by doing pretty much the same: torturing and murdering people, and destroying their homes. Scenes of warplanes opening fire on refugees. An eye for an eye. Most of remaining 300,000 Croatian Serbs, many of whom have been killed, are forced into Serbia. Up to now, few have returned. Croatia immediately establishes the borders that exist today.
In spring 1992, the Serb take control of a strip of Muslim-majority towns, also invading numerous mixed-ethnicity towns and villages, executing, and arresting thousands of Bosniaks and Croats (17% of the population), many of whom are taken to concentration or rape camps, while the remaining ones are forced to leave their homes. Bosnia, with its gruesome attacks and unthinkable atrocities, is torn apart, along with many families forced to choose sides. Absurd time. I now live in the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, created from the two remaining federal republics of Yugoslavia after its breakup in ‘92. Cut-off phone lines between post-Yugoslav republics become an everyday reality. The best is yet to come. In the beginning, Bosniaks and Croats fight together against Serbs but, once tensions increase, the former allies engage in open conflict. There’s the so-called Croat–Bosniak war, or ‘war within a war,’ part of the larger Bosnian war, lasting from Oct 1992 to Feb 1994. Bellum omnium contra omnes (the war of all against all). Violent time.
My generation is coming of age, watching the war live in neighboring Croatia and Bosnia, with its unspeakable cruelties, monstrosities, sieges, shelling, mass murders, mass rapes, mass graves, attacks and counter-attacks, led by regular and paramilitary armies, with thousands of soldiers and civilians killed, displaced and disappeared on all three sides. The world loathes it, the world is disgusted, the world is watching in discomfort, the world condemns it. The world is sending over ‘the Smurfs’ (UN Protection Force). They have the best seats in the theater, sitting in the first row. They are watching. The world pays no mind.
We’re boisterous, feisty and tough, my friends and I, or just play tough. We don’t suck up to upperclassmen. We’re no underdogs. We’re the intolerant and contemptuous ones. There are no cuties to crush on either so we might as well hate their guts. Eventually, we decide to pursue a middle way. We’re sort of on speaking terms, but I can’t say we’re friends either. Befriending refugees with a suitcase full of memories. We hate rules and being told what to do. We hate things that are compulsory. We defy authority. The principal’s a jerk. Teachers too (with a couple of exceptions). Many look down on us, so how can we look up to them?! We are smartasses with superior intellect, perception and wit, beating them so easily that it hurts.
No one gets suspended or expelled. It’s not that kind of school. There’s nothing much they can do, which annoys the hell out of them. We’re unbearable. When a teacher starts asking too many questions, we sneak off for a quick grope in one of the empty classrooms on the 3rd floor. Experimental time sharing. The remains of soldiers are shipped like parcels back home on a daily basis. When we’re bored or restless, we play hooky. We hate kissasses. Currying favor with teachers is a big no-no, inconsistency, reluctance and fear being punished in not so subtle ways. Truancy is always intentional, though unjustified, and unauthorized. So, we show up every now and then, which in our world means attending school but not going to class that often. Skipping. Yes, we stay away from school without explanation (or with a lousy one), we are absent without permission, we shirk work, and evade duty. I study only the things I’m interested it, in which case I’m enthusiastic, pro-active, resourceful, detailed, alert, studious, meticulous and nerdy. I dodge the stuff I find utterly unappealing and pointless for that matter, in which case I’m idle, lazy, sluggish, passive and neglectful. I’m pretty good at it. Packed orphanages and shabby refugee centers wherever you turn. I don’t move in a girl pack only nor do I need at least two besties with me at all times when entering the school, going to the bathroom, or walking to class. We attend funerals, walk behind coffins and listen to funeral speeches, saying a last goodbye to those killed in war, ‘too young to reason and too grown up to dream.’ I shave my head, and have different-colored socks on, along with my grandpa’s funky ties which I love cutting off. I wear a Sex Pistols sweatshirt/T-shirt, cuffed pants or worn out jeans with frayed edges and big holes at the knee and black boots that I never ever take off.
Ethnic hatred grows as various incidents fuel the powerful propaganda machines on all three sides. We’re told who to love, and who to hate. We live in a black and white world in which we’re the good guys fighting the bad ones, that is evil incarnate. Our religion is better than theirs. ‘Our flag is the embodiment of history,’ and OUR leaders the epitome of courage, determination, commitment, principle and vigor. By contrast, THEY are the personification of omnimalevolence: their politicians, their soldiers, their citizens, their males and females, their children, their dogs. Confusing time. 18-year-olds are drafted into the army in the middle of the night and transported to war zones like cattle in trucks to fight for ‘our cause.’ On our way to school and back, my girlfriends and I touch each other’s breasts and send them kisses, waving hello and goodbye, and we can’t help but wonder if that’s the first and last time we’ve seen them. Mixed feelings of desire, lust, sadness, rage, fear and impotence.
We’ll call it a day now, alright? In a few moments, I will awaken you. This time much quicker than the last one….more relaxed. I’ll count from 1 to 5. At the count of 5, you will open your eyes. You’re relaxed…1, 2…You’ll feel wonderfully refreshed when you wake up…3, 4…so relaxed, so calm…whole day…5.
How are you feeling?