Serbs Face the Future

One Nation Divisible

This story appears in the July 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine.

In the isolated village of Velika Hoca in southwestern Kosovo—a new nation or a rebellious province of Serbia, depending on whom you ask—people still talk about a brawl that broke out several years ago. It was after the Kosovo war, which had begun between separatist Albanian guerrillas and Serbian forces and had ended when NATO air strikes pounded Serbia and its strongman president, Slobodan Milosevic, into submission in June 1999. The West had stepped in to stop atrocities against Kosovo Albanians and avert a refugee crisis, assuming peace would reign once the dictator and his fighters were vanquished.

But the postwar reality fell short of peace. The majority Albanians were now on top, with the minority Serbs shoved to the bottom. Killings of civilians continued. And a new stream of refugees, Serbian this time, flowed from mountainous Kosovo, a region of endemic ethnic strife and economic stagnation smaller than metro Los Angeles.

On the day of the brawl in Velika Hoca, where a few hundred Serbs hunkered down in a valley between rocky hills, a local politician and former soldier named Bojan Nakalamic—stocky, swaggering, not yet 30 years old—struck a blow for Serbian pride. There's little enough of it left in this land Serbs call their ancient heartland.

As the story goes, several Albanian youths entered the village and began paying too much attention to some local girls. The day ended with the Albanians properly humbled and ejected from the Serbian redoubt, and it was Bojan Nakalamic who led the beating. To the people of Velika Hoca, it proved Serbs could still produce a champion, a man to fear. To me, each retelling made Nakalamic sound more like a nationalistic thug.

So it was a surprise when I finally met him to learn—in a classic, mind-bending Balkan reversal—that this tough guy who bashed Albanians for crossing cultural lines has sided with them politically, joining their new government and defying Serbia's in the process. Supporting Alba­nian nationalism is not Nakalamic's aim. As a member of a beaten people in a hostile land, though, he has concluded that withdrawing inside a Serbian ghetto spells doom. He told me in careful English, "If we want to survive in Kosovo, we have to participate."

The flag of the Serbian Orthodox Church, a guar­dian of Serbian singularity throughout centuries of struggle, carries the motto "Only Unity Will Save the Serbs." It flies over a people as deeply marked by the past as any can be. Wars and the whims of conquering empires have dispersed the Serbs, who number over ten million, southward to pockets in Kosovo (where 125,000 remain) and Montenegro; throughout central Serbia, where most live today; north to Hungary; and west across Bosnia and Herze­govina and Croatia. (Many others have dispersed to Western Europe and North America.) For centuries they have striven with epic fervor to unite their scattered people, define their lands, preserve their unique identity.

But unity is a quest that has brought the Serbs into harsh conflict with their neighbors in the Balkan ethnic patchwork and with the wider world. Today they are often viewed as the primary aggressors in the bloody wars of the 1990s that dismembered Yugoslavia. With many impli­cated in crimes against humanity—including ethnic cleansing and genocide in the war in Bosnia—Serbs heatedly protest that the West singles them out for special vilification while overlooking similar crimes perpetrated against them. They face a vexing question: What can Serbian unity mean in 21st-century Europe?

The question is as divisive for the Serbs as it is unsettling for their neighbors. To Nakalamic, the answer begins with taking care of his own village. So he has accepted a seat as the lone Serb on the Rahovec (Orahovac) municipal council, which oversees local villages, including Velika Hoca. The council answers to the Republic of Kosovo, the nine-tenths Albanian country that declared independence from Serbia in February 2008, with strong support from the United States and most of Europe. To many Serbs, that makes Nakalamic a traitor.

After Kosovo grabbed independence, TV viewers worldwide watched radical nationalists storm through Belgrade, Serbia's capital, smashing windows and torching a symbol of arrogant foreign meddling—the U.S. Embassy. The Serbian government views Kosovo's indepen­dence as an illegal dismemberment of Serbia's sovereign territory. It ordered Serbs in Kosovo—many of whom receive cash assistance from Serbia—to boycott elections there, and most obeyed. Without the requisite ballots from his district, Naka­lamic lacks a council vote and thus can't fully participate in drafting budgets or ordinances.

Yet many Serbs seem resigned to the new borders, and to the prospect of a smaller, tamer Serbia at ease with its neighbors. "People are marching and demonstrating, but no one really believes we will get Kosovo back," said Marina Alavanja, a young woman I met in Belgrade as she and her fiancé, a Caribbean American from New York, had a midnight drink with friends on a stylish Belgrade street. Alavanja, a student in Florence, is the kind of liberal, internationally oriented Serb on whom Western governments pin their hopes. After Kosovo independence and the resulting riots, Serbian voters, in the spring of 2008, surprised the world by propelling into power a pro–European Union government that vowed to track down Serbian war criminals—evidence of a widespread belief that the country's best hope for cultural and economic growth is with the West.

But outsiders should never mistake resignation for acceptance, says Alavanja. "It's Serbian pride," she says. "We can't say, 'Sure, take Kosovo. Do whatever you want to us.' What kind of people would we be?" Srdja Popovic, a human rights lawyer who pursues accused Serbian war criminals, says the gulf between unreconstructed nationalists and Western-style Democrats, including Serbia's president, Boris Tadic, is not as wide as outsiders may think. To Popovic, all major parties to some extent cling to the ideal of uniting Serbian-inhabited lands—a catalyst for war in the 1990s. "It's charitable to say this country is divided between democrats and nationalists," he says. "In reality, the nationalist ideal rules."

So does an obsession with the past, which for Serbs is a narrative of national suffering and valor. "Small peoples are often the victims of in­jus­tice," reflects Dragoljub Micunovic, an oppo­sition figure during the Milosevic years and now a high-ranking Democrat. Micunovic cites the 1908 annexation of Bosnia (home to many Serbs) by Austria-Hungary. Though outraged, Serbia was forced to accede. But in 1914 Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip struck back, assas­sinating the Austrian crown prince in Sarajevo and spark­ing World War I. Half of Serbia's military-age male population may have died in the war, but the offending empire was obliterated, and in today's Serbia, Princip is a hero.

Ground zero for Serbian martyrdom is now Kosovo. To right-wing Serbs, politicians like the Democrats who decline to battle for it tooth and nail are Judases. The slur's religious imagery is inten­tional, for many Serbs regard Kosovo as their spiritual heartland. Slobodan Milosevic exploited this sentiment in the 1980s. He rose to the presidency partly on the platform of crushing Albanian power in Kosovo and died in 2006, during his marathon trial for war crimes that included violence against Kosovo Albanian civilians. It is difficult to judge whether the lin­gering aura of his propaganda offensive or authen­tic cultural veneration is what moves some Serbs to call Kosovo their Jerusalem, and some their Golgotha.

On the hill west of Velika Hoca, below an obser­vation post manned for nearly a decade by NATO peacekeepers, is a graveyard with a panoramic view: Along with clusters of old houses and hillside vineyards that supply the town's winery, owned by the Serbian Orthodox monastery, more than a dozen tiny churches pepper the valley. Some are medieval treasures adorned with ancient frescoes of the life of Christ, icons of saints, the Last Judgment. No one, including the local priest, can explain why this unassuming agricultural place came over the centuries to be invested with such a weight of the sacred.

Some of the village churches, Bojan Nakalamic says, were built during the reign of King Stefan Dusan in the 14th century. The greatest ruler the Serbs ever had, he built a Serbian empire larger than any before or since. Kosovo was at its center when Dusan dubbed himself "Emperor and Autocrat of the Serbs and Greeks, the Bulgarians and the Albanians."

Chuckling, but with his hand on his heart, Nakalamic says: "Outside, I'm a small Kosovo politician. But inside, I'm Dusan."

Only a few decades after Dusan's death, in 1389, an army of perhaps 25,000 Serbs met a superior Ottoman force on Kosovo Field and went down in what many Serbs regard as glorious defeat. Serbia withered in the face of the expanding Ottoman Empire, which erased the country from the map within little more than a century. But the Battle of Kosovo lived on in Serbian literature and song as a symbol of the struggle against foreign domination.

Serbia regained independence in the 19th century and retook Kosovo in the 20th, during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Yet several centuries of Turkish domination had not only shaped the Serbs' sense of persecution, but also scattered them across the western Balkans. At the close of the 20th century, the tides of history turned again with the collapse of Yugoslavia. Many of the descendants of those who had fled Ottoman rule came surging back, adding a new chapter to the story of Serbian suffering.

The slight twist, which those familiar with Slavic given names might have guessed, is that Tanic is himself a Serb. Like several thousand other Bosnian Serbs around Sarajevo, Tanic took up arms against the Serb forces that laid siege to the city soon after Bosnia declared inde­pendence from Yugoslavia in 1992. Under the cir­cum­stances, religious heritage mattered less than who was shooting at him. "They were attacking my home, and if someone attacks my home, I defend it."

But he was in the minority. Other Bosnian Serbs—unwilling to live in a country where Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks, would dominate—elected to fight Bosnian independence. They controlled the arsenal of the Yugoslav Peo­ple's Army and overran 70 percent of Bosnia in the first months of the war, forcing non-Serbian populations out of the land they conquered. The order of the day was to clean the territory of large, troublesome minority popula­tions unsuitable for inclusion in a unified Serbia.

Late in the war, ethnic cleansing would lapse into simple slaughter around the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica. There Bosnian Serb forces killed perhaps 7,000 mostly civilian Bosniak men and boys—lining some up and shooting them, hunting others down as they tried to escape. It was the bloodiest single episode in Europe since the close of World War II—the first instance of genocide in Europe since the Holocaust, the International Court of Justice ruled.

Srebrenica was a defining event in the modern history of the Serbs. Although the court later ruled that Serbia itself was not directly implicated, the Bosnian Serbs who carried it out had helped cast all Serbs as bloodthirsty killers—damaging national interests, perhaps, more than any of their enemies could.

When the war ended in 1995, and the four-year siege of Sarajevo soon after that, Bosnia was left more or less cleanly divided between ethnic groups. Today, though most people get along in a fashion, ethnic leaders continually squabble. Bosniak politicians inveigh against Serb separatism and war criminals who still run free, while leaders of the Serbs—37 percent of Bosnia's population—tweak Bosniaks with rhetoric about secession. In the capital, most Serbs have decamped for Serb-controlled parts of Bosnia, while Bosniaks have flowed in the opposite direction. Sarajevo retains a patina of multiethnicity—Tanic and his Muslim-Croat wife, Sanja, are an example. But in reality, today it is a mostly homogeneous Muslim city, unlike the one Dragan Tanic remembers from childhood.

At a café on lively Ferhadija Street, just steps from places where scores of civilians were eviscerated by Serb shelling during the war, Tanic said: "I grew up just around the corner, where my mother still lives. But I can sit here for two hours and see no one I know."

High above the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers in Belgrade, the massive Kalemegdan Fortress guards a hill where Roman soldiers camped. Later, foreign empires that ruled this land used the castle as a border outpost. Below are the shabby-elegant streets of Belgrade's Old City—sprinkled with buildings still in ruins from attacks by NATO warplanes during the Kosovo war a decade ago. To the west across the Sava is New Belgrade, a faceless, sprawling urban grid thrown up after World War II. And on the city's outskirts is a leafy, peaceful little camp—a former communist youth center—that houses Serb refugees who fled the new countries born during Yugoslavia's disintegration.

One is Maritsa Stula, a small, serene woman in her mid-50s with a distant smile. Her home was Osijek, a Croatian city a hundred miles northwest of Belgrade, in a region where, centuries ago, Austrian rulers gave land and religious freedom to Serbs fleeing Ottoman rule if they agreed to guard the military boundary against the Turks. By the 1970s, when Stula began building a family in Osijek, both empires were long extinct, but more than 600,000 Ortho­dox Serbs lived in Roman Catholic Croatia—making up some 14 percent of the population.

In those days, Stula says, no one cared who was a Croat and who was a Serb. Yugoslavia was strong and prosperous, President-for-life Marshal Tito still held power in his able hands, and all Yugoslavs were equal.

So she found it incomprehensible that her neighbors should listen when, in the waning days of Tito's rule, the trumpets of nationalism began blowing in Belgrade and the Croatian capital, Zagreb. Serbs spoke of how Nazi-allied Croats had confined them in death camps and slaughtered them in the hundreds of thousands 50 years before. Were new massacres in the offing, they wondered? Croats told of persecution in Yugoslavia by Serbian communists, who now plotted to appropriate thousands of square miles in the heart of Croatia for Greater Serbia. The power of nationalist politicians across tottering Yugoslavia grew, and life in Osijek soured. In 1990 Serbs elsewhere in Croatia declared independence, driving Croats from their homes across nearly one-third of the republic. Then in June 1991, Croatia voted to secede from Yugoslavia.

One day the following month, an anguished Croat neighbor appeared at Stula's door; hard men had ordered him to shoot her family if they didn't leave at once. These were not the good peo­ple of Osijek, but angry country people—perhaps they'd lost their own homes, Stula says. She boarded an eastbound bus with her three children, her husband followed, and she has not seen her home since.

Stula was part of a first wave; hundreds of thousands more fled at the end of the Croatian war for independence, when Croatian forces overran the breakaway Serb regions with logis­tical and air support from NATO countries. Hundreds who stayed behind, mostly the elderly, were murdered in the aftermath.

As of 2008, Serbia harbored almost 320,000 people uprooted from the far corners of the former Yugoslavia. About 200,000 came from Kosovo, where Milosevic's response to NATO bombing had been a bizarre scheme to empty large sections of the province of Albanians. When Milosevic folded and more than 850,000 Albanian exiles streamed back from foreign refugee camps, many Serbs fled, knowing they were ripe targets. More were driven out later, de­spite the presence of international peacekeepers, who sometimes failed to respond as angry mobs attacked unarmed civilians.

The rest came from Croatia, like Stula, or Bosnia. Stula speaks longingly of her lost Croatian home, but she says things could be worse. She found a job as a cook in a restaurant at Delta City, a new luxury mall opened in 2007 by Serbia's richest man. Thanks to the economic reforms of post-Milosevic governments, Serbia's economy has rebounded strongly, with growth in recent years averaging 7 percent. Personal incomes are rising quickly, and the mall is busy every day. It's certainly the best paying job Stula has ever had. But if she can save the money to get European Union travel papers, she plans to leave Serbia for good—maybe go to England, where her oldest son has managed to enroll as a college student.

Stula had patted my arm consolingly when she learned my nationality, as if sorry to be the one to break the news. "America. Ne dobra. Ne dobra," she said. Not good, not good. Why, she asked, does America kick poor people out of their homes in Kosovo? "Bill Clinton, ne dobra. Albright, Rice, ne dobra. Bush …"

At a small party one night on a houseboat on the Sava River in Belgrade, the upbraiding was less gentle, the sense of grievance far more raw. Two young men with long hair and red faces invited to me to guess how many tons of depleted uranium munitions the U.S. dropped on their country in 1999 and how many cancer cases could result. Did I know about the Serbian civilians killed by U.S. bombing in the Kosovo war? one asked. Not likely, they guessed, as the U.S. media effectively censor material in which Serbs don't appear as latter-day Nazis. They ranged further back, reviewing the tragedies of both World Wars. One of the two—an English speaker who looked like a twentysomething urbanite from anywhere in Europe—seemed on the verge of tears. Did I in fact have any idea of all the things Serbs have suffered?

There is a village in western Serbia called Sljiv­ovica, Serbian for the plum brandy known as slivovitz in English-speaking countries. It's one of a spectrum of fruit-based spirits calledrakija, central to the social life of Serbs and other Yugoslavs, a drink with which to toast friends and greet visitors. As a village priest in Kosovo said one morning after his wife poured a tiny glass of clear liquid probably well north of 100 proof, good rakija is a fire in the belly, not the throat. With watering eyes, I tried to give the impression all the pain was in my stomach.

But with Serbia edging toward EU membership and in the midst of harmonizing its laws with European standards, can true Serbian rakija survive? Liquor production is tightly regu­lated in the EU, favoring large distilling companies, while the most prized rakija is home­made, like the priest's.

Sljivovica seemed an apt place to find the kind of domestic rakija makers who might fear joining Europe. Men having coffee at akafana near the highway pointed to a narrow lane running up a nearby hill.

Beside the last house on the road, two men, one young and one old, worked at a blackened pot still that belched smoke and a sweet-sour barnyard odor. Eighty-year-old Ostoja Stanic fed the firebox, while Milan Stanic, 32, poured buckets of fermented plums into a pan. Half an hour later, the mixture began to boil, and a thin stream of alcohol flowed out. Sweet and weak, it is called soft rakija. A second distillation would bring it up to strength. I asked Milan Stanic whether EU bureaucracy could shut down this little still.

He broke into English to emphasize his point: "We want EU."

He showed off some new oak barrels—each holds thousands of liters—near a half-finished concrete building. The Stanic family was about to expand its operation, he said. A larger still was on order. Milan had been consulting agricultural experts about the family's plum crop and researching distillation on the Internet. He indicated an imaginary bottle hovering in front of him, tracing the lines on its label with his finger—"Sljivovica from Sljivovica." As the country grows closer to the rest of Europe, he said, new markets will open, and people who could find only industrialized slivovitz will soon be able to try the real thing. In the cellar of the house, Milan sucked on a plastic tube and siphoned aged rakija into a two-liter bottle. He winked, "I had to learn this during the NATO bombing; it was the only way to get gasoline." The topic is never far from the surface. Then he shook my hand and hurried off to the wedding of an employee of the family's kafana.

Ostoja Stanic stayed behind to mind the still. He spoke of the war of his own youth and the confusing, fratricidal exploits of two rival bands of anti-Nazi resistance fighters: Chetniks, loyal to the Serbian monarchy, and communist fighters led by Tito, Yugoslavia's eventual leader. The Chetniks used to cut people's throats around here, he said. To the teenaged Ostoja, the real heroes were Tito's Partisans, who made a heroic, doomed stand against the Germans in the nearby city of Uzice. But I knew that within a few hours' drive were other old men who could tell how Tito's fighters slaughtered the innocent there. It was a perfect slice of Serbian history—soaked in blood and bravery, with few happy endings or undisputed truths.

But Ostoja Stanic had only been making idle conversation. His real business is making rakija. He handed me the two-liter bottle of slivovitz, patted me on the back when I tried to pay, and went to load firewood into the smoking still.