A Baedeker of the Lands That Once Was Yugoslavia by Dario Pio Muccilli – Red Hook Star-Revue

Once all part of socialist Yugoslavia, the Balkan countries are so different from each other that you feel the changes instantly as you pass through them. This is exactly what I did this summer, crossing the border between Italy and Slovenia, then towards Croatia and finally Bosnia and Herzegovina. The further south you go, the poorer these countries are, but the difference is not only economic. You can see the culture, environment and people changing mile after mile. It is not surprising that after the fall of the socialist regime, they all felt the need to seek independence which led them to the bloody wars of the 90s.
Slovenia was the first country to secede from Yugoslavia. It didn’t take long for them to be recognized, as the war against the central government based in Serbia only lasted ten days. If you go to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, you might understand why they were the first to secede: they were the richest.
When you walk through the city center, you will see German-style palaces and beautiful churches. Everything is clean there, and while I was there I was told that this country has always been known as the Switzerland of the Balkans. Later, in Zagreb, capital of Croatia, K., a Croatian sculpture student, explained the origin of this name. “Much of the Yugoslavs’ savings were in Slovenian bank accounts, their region was powerful and after their independence they took all the money.”
The process of Slovenian integration with the West has been difficult. “They went on their way and when Croatia fought for independence they didn’t help, they left us alone. My father, then a soldier in the Croatian army, hated them a bit for this thing, he lost friends in the war, like the one whose name I bear”. I can trust K. for his truthful view of Slovenians who just want to go alone, but at the same time I don’t know if I can blame them, what would I have thought if I was Slovenian and the war has lasted a few days and not years as elsewhere? It is quite difficult to judge them. Ljubljana shows no wounds from the past, life goes on here like nothing happened, and war is just something you can watch in memorials or museums, like medieval castles, not on the streets or in the eyes of the people there.
In Zagreb, Croatia, you can feel the war and the socialist regime much more, all along the city’s river, the Sava. The castles are tougher, gray stone and somewhat decadent. But the traces of the decadence of the war are also found in the city center, even if the tourist industry wants to hide them. Lower Town in the city center is quite Germanic, like Ljubljana, but you can see there isn’t the same concern for aesthetics.
The Upper Town is like a jewel, with amazing places like St. Mark’s Church, on the roof of which there are heralds of Croatian historical regions, or the city’s cathedral, with its Gothic-style spiers, strongly damaged by an earthquake that took place in 2020. But yet, even in the upper town, the war takes center stage, as if you enter Radiceva Ulica from the central square of Jelacic, you will see a tunnel, called Tunel Gric, opening on your left. Used by civilians during the war for shelter, it is now open to tourists, but remnants of the past can still be seen with the word Voda written in it, which means water.
If you get lost in the tunnel, there are plenty of exits and some of them are covered on the outside with graffiti, done by local artists. In fact, I met one of them. LP teaches K, the sculpture student. We met him on the street and he invited us to his studio. Seeing his visual art, I quickly recognized in them the style of a graffiti I had seen hours before.
I asked him about the art scene in Croatia and he told me it was really free because basically there is no market for art so if you want to be an artist, you can make a living teaching at the academy and be completely free to express your creativity everywhere else.
I felt his need to express himself freely in the large canvases he showed me, sometimes abstract, sometimes not. Its biggest theme was movement and that’s pretty much the best way to define Zagreb as well, always on the move, never firm. I went to a big exhibition with paintings hanging like in a Salon XIX. Everything is always in motion, at the height of a wave of creativity that dates back to the Yugoslav era, when Zagreb was the center of a world-famous cartoon studio that mixed the local east and simple graphics with a smart storytelling. Simplicity and creativity are the best words to define the city, which is not elegant like Paris, but rather growing towards an increasingly bright future.
Sarajevo and Bosnia and Herzegovina
Sarajevo and Bosnia and Herzegovina deserve a whole book or a saga. The recent history of the country is quite sad. Being a crossroads of cultures, Islamic-Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian, the country was hardest hit by violent nationalism during the war that lasted here from 1991 to 1996.
The country was the scene of the biggest attempted genocide since the Holocaust. The Serbian army invaded the country, besieged towns, committed mass rapes and murders of Muslim-Bosnian people, the manslaughter of Srebrenica (1995) being one of the worst crimes against humanity ever committed by an army. In order to balance the ongoing ethnic conflicts, the Dayton Peace Accords shaped a strange form of government for the country, which is divided into two republics, the Serbian Republic of Serbia and the Federal Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and into three communities, representing the three ethnic groups mentioned above.
Each community has a president, and all three are the heads of state of Bosnia and Herzegovina. When you cross the border from Croatia, after a rather serious inspection of the documents, you can see how national pride is still present in Republika Srpska, where there are Serbian flags almost everywhere. In recent months, the Serbian president has claimed that the Republic has its own army, now deployed at the federal level, and he has expressly made threats of secession.
You may never know here when things are going to get out of hand. The roads to Sarajevo are long and cross mountains, where there are speed limits that hardly anyone cares about, despite the canyons and really narrow roads. The highway starts just one hundred and a half kilometers from the capital, and when you get there, the first thing you may notice are palaces with large holes in their facade. “These were made by grenades and bullets,” says the taxi driver as he crosses Zmajaod Bosne Avenue, once populated by snipers shooting anyone who crosses the road.
Now these streets are the main area where government buildings and embassies are located, which is somewhat amazing. You can still see red resin on the floor covering holes made at the time by bullets and grenades, creating a kind of concept art commonly referred to as “the roses of Sarajevo”.
As you get closer to the city center, you can see Sarajevo changing shape from a socialist-style capital to an Ottoman Muslim city. Indeed here the majority of the population is Muslim, being in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. There are mosques everywhere, the oldest and most beautiful dating mostly from the 16th century, when the city was an important commercial and political center of the Ottoman Empire.
As you go deeper into the narrow streets of the central market near the Sebilj fountain, you feel like you are in the Middle East. It’s not what most Europeans are used to, it’s like another world. I realized this from the first evening, when during a local music concert I met D., an Italian who has been living here for a few months and who told me a lot about the city.
“There’s no neighborhood where I didn’t feel unwelcome here,” he says. “Here they are Muslims but until 30 years ago the religion was not really strictly followed. After the war, they became increasingly religious as a reaction to Serbian nationalism and as a means of asserting their own identity. Now they even greet each other using the typical Muslim greeting Salam Aaikum, which was quite rare years ago.
Identity is such a harsh word here, where wars have been fought in its name – as I was in Bosnia and Herzegovina, there were clashes on the Serbian-Kosovar border. But still, you can’t deny how beautiful every identity is, from Serbian Orthodox churches to crowded, smoking Bosnian music clubs, to Croatian wedding ceremonies in the countryside with dozens of flags flying.
Everything here is stunning not just at first glance, but still. As a Turkish girl, B., told me during my stay in Sarajevo, what’s cool here is meeting local people, talking to them, hearing their stories and not just having fun. stop at the surface of things, because you have to go as deep as you can, like in the streets of Sarajevo or in the surrounding mountains, because that’s the only way to get to the top and throw a shot. look at the whole city, and with your fantasy of the whole of the Balkans, with all their history, with all their wounds, with all their amazing and fantastic people.

About Ariella McGuire

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