The Loss of Identity

Transposing emblem by Aleksandar Skobic

There was this country called Yugoslavia. It consisted of six different republics and three different nations and a number of national minorities, all joined under the flag of brotherhood and unity. The country was young, full of enthusiasm and its industry and economy were expanding.

I was born in a town that was built right after WWII, around the newly constructed factory. The population in my town consisted of 21 different nationalities. Can you imagine it?

I cannot, or at least I could not at that time, because I thought we were all Yugoslavs. We were all one. We were raised on propaganda movies, TV shows, parades, various social events, all having a strong message that we are a young nation that should gather under one flag, around one person – the son of all our nations and nationalities. I will not say his name because he is a ghost now. Maybe he always was, but we were so dazzled by the myth about him that we did not notice it.

Nothing happens over night. Historical events and the events that destroy the history we know develop over many years, decades… The same goes for the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Most of the kids in my class at school suddenly started to become divided, to form smaller groups, to point fingers at each other. Muslims took one corner of our classroom, Croats the other, Serbs the third. The fourth corner belonged to those kids from mixed, interethnic marriages. I was asked one day, politely, without any antagonism or “a must”: Come over here, we would like to ask you something… And that’s how I became someone else, without having an opportunity to grow up and become someone in the first place.

So, instead of drawing a Yugoslav flag, we all started secretly drawing emblems and flags of our own nations. We would whisper verses of national songs, and I have no idea how we even knew the lyrics of most of them. They were probably encoded in our DNA. Or we just listened carefully to our parents and cousins who would quietly sing these songs, half-drunk, half-mesmerized by something they called (and despised publicly) as nationalism.

And again, not over night, but anyway it caught us who believed in Yugoslavia, as a surprise – all hell broke loose.

No one can understand it, even those of us who experienced it, still can’t understand how it is possible to lose your identity so fast, so suddenly, that it takes you years to comprehend it, to get over it, to rise from it in a different body, mindset, soul.

You stopped being Yugoslav and became somebody new. Serb, in my case. Our town became a place of tensions, polarization, and segregation. Local Croatian militia patrols “controlled” the streets, armed, often drunk, yelling through the night, harassing everyone, and we lived in constant fear. No one was safe because no one really knew where the danger was coming from.

My sister and I were on the last bus that left my town for the next two years. We travelled through barricades full of bloody, drunk and reckless militia members of all three nationalities just to play the role of refugees amongst our own (because not many of my cousins, neighbors and the other Serbs considered us equal to themselves, but as refugees).

My parents were held captive for the next two years, and we did not know if they were alive. Sometimes, we would get a message over the amateur radio that they were alive and well, from people we never heard of, very often from people of the same nationality that held our parents as captives.

Today, 20 years after the civil war, we are now a deeply divided society, in a country that no one is happy with. But what amazes me (and frightens me at the same time) is that you don’t need someone who is of a different nation to be an extremist. No, it works perfectly well in every town, in every village, in every street of this poor so-called country.

Due to the civil war, there were many displaced persons, and communities are now mostly mono-ethnic. Nevertheless, divisions and polarization are clear as day. People divide between natives and refugees, where natives consider themselves to be the sole group entitled to employment, politics, etc.. The displaced (or the refugees) usually stick to themselves, thinking that if you are organized in a group, it will help you achieve what you want. But that’s only until you achieve it, then you need no one else.

And that’s not all. Even the refugees are divided by the places they come from (I wouldn’t be surprised if we started to divide ourselves by the streets we grew up in, or even by building entrances). And the tensions between these groups are visible everywhere – in bars, at weddings and funerals, in work places and on lines in front of the employment offices. And you can see these divisions amongst Muslims, Serbs and Croats, and ironically, we are again united in these divisions.