meditations on yugoslavia

Meditations on Yugoslavia

What experiences shape our life trajectories and sense of self? What roles do family heritage, state formation, and linguistic and cultural barriers have in creating a person? Are we just byproducts of events and nature, both outside our control? The following personal essay focuses on the author’s background as a refugee from the former Yugoslavia and makes the case for why we should think of the ‘refugee experience’ as a distinct category from the larger ‘immigrant experience.’ The author argues that because refugees are forcibly displaced from their home countries, they have a unique relationship both to the places from which they had to leave as well as the places in which they ultimately end up.

I

            I was born in a warzone on the International Day of Peace. I’ve been paying for that ever since.

II

            So, where’s home?

            A friend asked me this once. We were in my car — I was giving her a ride after we had just had brunch with a pair of mutual friends. A small talk staple, though leave it to her to phrase it in the most poetic possible way. Then again, she writes poetry recreationally, so I suppose that wasn’t surprising. I answered that it was complicated. I said it in that half-joking, half-sincere sort of way when you want to warn someone of what’s to come. As it happened, up until the not-so-distant past, even I didn’t have the full story.

            Maybe I still don’t.

“Sarajevo, Bosnia,” by Stanley Spencer

III

            My birth certificate came from a country that no longer exists. I didn’t realize this until eight or nine years ago when, for reasons I no longer remember, my parents retrieved it from the safety deposit box at their bank. Up to that point, whenever anyone had asked me where I was from, I had always said Bosnia. I was born in the fall of 1991, in the midst of a civil war and all of the geopolitical reshufflings that went along with it. But I suppose that I had assumed that I had come into the world on the other side of all that. My parents, too, told people that they were from Bosnia, rather than Yugoslavia, even though they’d been born nearly three decades before the war broke out. Whatever the political circumstances at the times of our respective births, it made sense for all of us to say we were from Bosnia. After all, Bosnia existed, and Yugoslavia didn’t, not anymore. Moreover, saying we were from Yugoslavia would almost invariably require a CliffsNotes lecture on twentieth-century Balkan history guaranteed to make the listener instantly regret having asked.

            And besides, Yugoslavia was never really real anyway.

            Seeing my birth certificate upended all of that, at least for me. Written along the top were the words “Socijalisticka Federativna Republika Jugoslavija”: Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. And below that “Socijalisticka Republika Bosna i Hercegovina”: Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Embedded in the background was the state seal of the SFRY: two stalks of wheat that formed an arch, with a red star as its cornerstone — a design adopted, in one form or another, by virtually every Communist state — and six burning torches at the arch’s feet, representing the six member republics of Yugoslavia. It was the first time that I learned that I was actually from Yugoslavia. True, the two weren’t mutually exclusive: I could be from Bosnia and Yugoslavia, like my parents were. But my birth certificate underscored that I was from Bosnia only in the same way that some people are from New York or Oklahoma. Although people may have strong attachments to the state in which they were born, they belong first and foremost to the larger polity known as the United States of America. A simple Google or Wikipedia search could have told me that, given when Bosnia’s secession occurred, I was technically still in Yugoslavia at birth, and I’m sure that I did such a search at some point. Seeing it on my birth certificate, though, offered a certainty that no depersonalized history posted to the Internet ever could.

            Depending on who you ask and how you formulate the question, there were either two Yugoslavias, or one Yugoslavia, or none. Unlike, say, Poland or Albaniaor Hungary, Yugoslavia was not intended as a country for one specific historical ethical group. It was, rather, a regional entity that encompassed several distinct populations. What was once Yugoslavia is presently seven separate countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Kosovo. Two different states have called themselves Yugoslavia. First there was the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, alternatively known as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, forged in the aftermath of the First World War from fragments of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, part of the same project of self-determination that birthed much of Central and Eastern Europe. It lasted until the spring of 1941, when Axis forces invaded and carved it up once again. Germany and Italy directly absorbed certain parts and turned the rest into puppet states. Out of occupation and partition emerged three distinct factions whose conflict amongst themselves defined the Yugoslav front during the Second World War: the Chetniks, a Serb monarchist group led by Draža Mihailovic; the Ustaše, a fascist party who ruled Croatia under the leadership of Ante Pavelic; and the Partisans, Communists led by Josip Broz Tito. The Partisans ultimately emerged triumphant and restitched together Yugoslavia, only now as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the state into which I, evidently, had been born. It had a longer run than its regnal predecessor, though it too came undone in the 1990s, albeit through internal strife rather than external invasion. Technically speaking, Serbia and Montenegro continued calling itself Yugoslavia until 2003, but that was an etymological hangover more than anything else.

            Alternatively, you could argue that, although these two Yugoslavias were organized differently politically, they were both part of the same project: namely, to fashion a new transnational state and transnational identity for southern Slavs. Or you could make the case that there was simply no such thing as “Yugoslavia” or Yugoslav identity. The weak version of this argument says that it existed for a time, but that the civil war of the nineties killed it off for good. The strong version says that it never existed, that it was merely the invention of post-World War I powerbrokers that the people of the Balkans came to reject by century’s end. All ethnic and national identities are constructs, of course, but it’s also true that some feel realer than others. Russian, for example, feels realer than Soviet, Czech and Slovak more than Czechoslovak, and Serb, Croat, and Slovenian more than Yugoslav. They come to feel real by the passage of time, by continued acceptance across generations, by the sets of norms and traditions that develop around them. In an 1882 lecture, the French historian Ernst Renan defined a nation as “a large-scale solidarity” that “presupposes a past” but also depends crucially upon “the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life.” On those counts and others, Yugoslav seemed to fall short.

            And yet, here was this piece of paper telling me that I had been born in a place called Yugoslavia. Something had existed.

Hercegovacko-neretvanski kanton, Bosnia and Herzegovina

IV

            In the United States, people like to talk about the “immigrant experience.” The country is routinely described as a “nation of immigrants,” a notion that an insurgent nativism hailing from the political Right is presently striving to undermine. But the category of “immigrant” is too broad, too flattening. Within that lies an altogether distinct phenomenon: the refugee experience. Being a refugee isn’t the same thing as being an immigrant. The two overlap, to some degree. All refugees are, by definition, immigrants, but not all immigrants are refugees. The defining feature of being a refugee, the thing that distinguishes refugees from other people who move from one country to another, is displacement. Refugees are forced by circumstance to leave the country in which they reside, whether on account of war or persecution or genocide or economic hardship or natural disaster. Implied in this is that the circumstance pushing them out is unduly burdensome. So, a person who leaves their home country because there aren’t a lot of jobs in their industry wouldn’t be considered a refugee, but someone leaving because their country faces a famine and they’re starving to death would be. This displacement can either be temporary or permanent: sometimes refugees return to their country of origin after whatever circumstance drove them out has gone away, and other times they never go back. Either way, the fact of displacement means that refugees have a unique relationship both to the places from which they have had to leave as well as the places in which they ultimately wind up that separates them from other sorts of immigrants.

V

            Bosnia is a complicated place. Maybe the most complicated of the constituent states of the former Yugoslavia, with the possible exception of Kosovo. In a way, it’s a kind of mini-Yugoslavia, with its own patchwork of ethnic groups living side-by-side, sometimes more uneasily than others. Bosnian Muslims, also known as Bosniaks, represent about half the population, with the remainder divided among Bosnian Serbs (the second-largest group), Bosnian Croats (the third-largest), and then various smaller populations. During the war, as Yugoslavia proper disintegrated, Bosnia itself was nearly carved up as well, as Serbia and Croatia each attempted to establish spheres of influence over regions where “their” people lived, with the hope of one day incorporating them into their own states. When peace came in 1995, it reified these divisions, setting up a system in which one country was split into two regions: Republika Srpska (the Serb Republic), which runs along the north and eastern borders of Bosnia, and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina — the rest. In Republika Srpska, right across the border with Serbia, about an hour and a half’s drive west of Belgrade, you’ll find the city of Bijeljina.

            I’ve been to Bijeljina twice. Both times I felt incredibly isolated and alienated from my surroundings, despite the fact that I was surrounded by my extended family. Or perhaps because of that. Outside of my parents, I’m not especially close to my family. It was only a few years ago that I became aware of something that I’d been doing for as long as I could remember: almost without exception, I refer to all of my extended family members by their first names, or sometimes by how they’re related to my parents, rather than by how they’re related to me (i.e., “Grandpa” or “Aunt So-and-So”). I never really grasped the significance of that, but now it occurs to me that this might be an unconscious act of dissociation, that I have such a weak relationship to them that I don’t even acknowledge their ties to me. When my grandfather — my dad’s dad — passed away in March of 2017, I remember thinking how unfortunate it was, both because of the circumstances that led to his passing as well as the pain that I knew it would bring to my dad and grandmother and uncle. But I can’t say that I personally grieved. We were just so removed from each other’s lives.

            Every person is made real inside our heads — before that, they exist only as a spectrum of possibilities. And the surest way we have for making others real is conversation. I knew some Serbo-Croatian when I was a young child. According to my parents, I was bilingual when I started speaking, alternating between the language of my birthplace and the language of my first adopted home country, Germany. However, that proficiency eroded as I assimilated into German, and declined further still when we had to relinquish one adopted home country for another and move to the United States. Today, I retain a fairly decent listening comprehension of Serbo-Croatian, but apart from a few choice words or phrases, I can’t really speak it. My paternal grandfather knew some English, but not enough to carry on a conversation. Because of this, I’ve never had a substantive conversation with any of my aunts or uncles or grandparents.

            But maybe this is just a cop-out. Because I do have cousins around my age who do know English fairly well, and I’m not any closer to them than I am to my non-English speaking relatives. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that I probably wouldn’t have a particularly strong relationship with my extended family even if all of them were fluent in English, or I were fluent in Serbo-Croatian. Because an arguably even more formidable barrier than language is culture. The reality of displacement has made it so that we’ve spent so much time apart now, living in such different countries and leading such different lives, that it’s difficult to find the points of overlap on which we could build solid and intimate relationships. In a way, the culture barrier is just another kind of language barrier. Effective communication requires not just a shared language, but also a shared social context. With my English-speaking relatives, we can say whatever we’d like to each other — there’s just nothing to say. It’s like trying to form a relationship with someone who’s much older than you, or much younger. Denied, then, the ability to make my family real through conversation, I’ve had to settle for grainy facsimiles cobbled together from second-hand accounts.

            There are certain questions that I can’t satisfactorilyanswer about my extended family, questions that I almost feel ashamed of for asking. Do I regret not being closer to them? Regret presumes that one has options. Being closer to them would require not only common language, but, as I just suggested, common space: giving up my world — or a substantial portion of it, anyway — and inhabiting another so that we could have something to talk about. Perhaps some other version of me could have been closer to them, but not, I suspect, this version of me. Only that me, then, would really have the capacity to feel any regret.

            Do I love them? Insofar as love is the inertial consequence of being related to someone, yes. I love them because they are my family, and because they’ve done nothing that would justify me revoking that love. But that’s just another way of saying that I love them coincidentally: swap out any one of my relatives for any other randomly-chosen person on Earth, replay my life ceteris paribus, and I would have loved that person just as much. We all love coincidentally, of course, but the strongest types of love — the ones that drive people to marry, or donate organs, or throw themselves in the path of a bullet — all outgrow coincidence. When it comes to my extended family, mine never did.

“Syracuse,” by Nicolas de Staël

VI

            If the preceding sounds disappointingly ambiguous, then I’m sorry to say that I have only more expectations to shatter. Because if there’s one emotion that most accurately captures my feelings about this part of my life, it’s ambivalence. I dread Where are you from?, particularly if I’m asked by a stranger. There are at least four ways I could answer it, each more convoluted than the next. I could say that I’m from Syracuse (where I’ve lived since the late nineties), I could say that I’m from Germany (the country from which I emigrated), I could say that I’m from Bosnia (the present-day country from which I left as an infant), or I could say that I’m from Yugoslavia (the political entity that existed at the time of my birth). Each is technically right, and each is technically wrong. When applying to undergrad and grad schools, I resented having to write about my background in the essay portion of the applications, resented that that would be the thing that made me “stand out.” For one, it felt exploitative, like I was using this geopolitical tragedy for personal gain. But more significantly, I disliked the thought of being defined by something that had happened to me, as opposed to something I had accomplished.

            Herein lies the first paradox of my life: being a refugee is at once profoundly significant to my life while also feeling very remote from it. Remote because it was all a happening-to-me. Everything I wrote about being a refugee was really about my parents: “my parents left,” “my parents decided,” etc. I had had no agency in the process. I hadn’t watched my homeland transform into a war zone. I didn’t have a child whose destiny I could so profoundly alter with a single decision. I didn’t have to say goodbye to my family and the only home I’d ever known, wondering if I would ever return or whether I would ever see any of them again. Through it all, I was, for all intents and purposes, luggage. There was something strange, then, in claiming it as part of my biography, though it unquestionably was. I wanted to write about what I imagined my peers were: academic achievements, awards they’d won, athletic events in which they’d competed, volunteer work they’d done, and the like. But this was the most interesting aspect of my life, and it would undoubtedly grab the attention of whatever admissions person was reading through my application. And since that was the point of the essay, I relented.

            Acknowledging such a profound happening-to-me is very unsettling. It requires accepting how little control we have over our own lives, how much of what seems like willful action is actually conditioned by factors outside of our control, by decisions not made by us, oftentimes without any consideration for us. The liberty that I possess to shape the course of my life by virtue of fleeing Bosnia is, in a way, just another kind of imposition. Western culture tends to celebrate freedom as an unambiguous good, but in truth it has disturbing implications: the flip-side of the ability to remake ourselves, to chart new paths, is the possibility that it might all come crashing down. All of our lives rest on far more precarious foundations than we sometimes realize. It’s a notion not unfamiliar to the religious. But even in that circumstance, there is often the presumption that the happenings-to-you belong to a larger divine plan, that they’re taking you in a certain preconceived direction. That won’t do for me, though. I believe not in fate, but in contingency and chaos. My happenings-to-me are, therefore, senseless, without any direction save whatever I — or someone else — give to them.

            I owe my entire sense of self to the fact of my displacement. If my parents had chosen to stick out the war and remain in Bosnia, I would be a completely different person from who I am now. I would speak a different language, embrace a different culture, move in different social circles, have different hobbies, different aspirations, different prospects. Not a single aspect of my life as presently constituted would, I think, have carried over. The same is true had the German government not forced us to leave the country after the war ended, although perhaps to a lesser extent, since I would still be living in a wealthy Western country.

            This leads neatly into the second paradox of my life. If I wind the clock back from the present to my birth, I find that the genesis of every good fortune and every opportunity that I’ve ever had is the war. It’s the reason that I have a doctorate in history, the reason that I have all the friends that I have, the reason that I love all the books and movies and television shows that I love, the reason I’ve been able to live — for the most part — a middle-class life with all the material comforts that accompany it. Had I remained in Bosnia, I would, by any conceivable metric, be worse off. That’s not to say that I would have had a bad life, that I’d never be happy or be doomed to destitution. But without question, the scope of possibilities for my life would be narrower. So while not poor, my alternative life in Bosnia would be impoverished, relative to my life as it has unfolded.                         

            That surplus — the difference between my actual and hypothetical lives — was a gift of the war. The war, which ended so many lives and inflicted so much suffering, was the best thing to have ever happened to me. Being a refugee has led me to appreciate how what we call good and what we call evil aren’t always polar opposites: sometimes, they’re mutually constitutive realities. It’s not just that good and evil can co-exist in one particular context. Rather, one has the capacity to create the other, as it did for me. My saving grace was someone else’s nightmare, my beginning another’s end, and all for the same reason. In liminal spaces like war zones, good and evil collapse into one another and become impossible to neatly disentangle. This is why I don’t think of myself as “lucky.” Imagine you were walking down a sidewalk and happened across a fifty-dollar bill lying on the ground. Most would call this a stroke of luck. Now suppose later you learned that that fifty-dollar bill had actually fallen out of someone’s wallet as they were fleeing a robber who later caught up with them, took the rest of their money, and then murdered them.

            Are you still lucky?

            I once asked my dad whether he would give up the life we had here in the United States in exchange for the war never happening and us remaining in Bosnia. He said that, of course, he would choose the warless option. Am I selfish, or a monster, for feeling some hesitation to agree with him? Or is it just the understandable expression of what is arguably the most basic human instinct: namely, the instinct to self-preservation? Nietzsche once said that there had been only one Christian and that he had died on the cross. If that’s true, then I suppose I can’t be blamed all too much for not welcoming the notion of my own crucifixion.

            Being a refugee means having a special appreciation for the absurdity of life. It’s one of the reasons, among others, why I find the idea of the existence of God not just implausible, but, in a literal sense, unbelievable. I cannot, however, go so far as to say that being a refugee predisposes you to atheism, because I know refugees who are religious and for whom their experiences only strengthened their faith. I doubt any of them would agree with me that life has no intrinsic purpose and is only as meaningful as we make it. But I would venture to guess that even the most ardently faithful refugees lack, by virtue of what happened to them, a belief in desert. Each of us recognizes just how little separates those who “made it” from those who didn’t. Each of us realizes that somebody else could just as easily have been in our place. I don’t deserve the life I have. If we lived in a genuinely just world, I wouldn’t exist, and rightfully so — the life I’m living now depended entirely on the perpetration of a profound injustice. I didn’t shed any blood, but I have bathed and been baptized in it.

            Acknowledging these truths, though, only gets you so far. As much as these contradictions make me uncomfortable, nothing short of suicide can eliminate them. The premise of a contradiction is that all elements of it are true simultaneously, and in a godless world, there’s no higher force or entity that will resolve them. Consequently, I must find a way to transcend the ambiguity and embrace the contradictions, to incorporate them into my identity. To quote Camus: “The preceding merely defines a way of thinking. But the point is to live.”

“Homesickness,” by Rene Magritte

VII 

            I think back to my friend’s question: where’s home? I suspect she imagined it as synonymous with where are you from, but in truth they are fundamentally distinct. It is possible to hail from somewhere that isn’t home, just as you can consider somewhere other than your birthplace home.

            Which brings me back to the birth certificate.          

            Although I’ve never felt much attachment to Bosnia, I have had a certain degree of affection for the former Yugoslavia. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say the idea of the former Yugoslavia, since I only lived in it during its final months and was an infant at the time. I don’t necessarily hold up the SFRY as a model for other countries to follow — my political instincts have always erred on the side of more democracy and greater pluralism. I do, however, believe that separation hurt the six republics, and that a united Yugoslavia would be preferable to what presenting exists, although I have no illusions about the feasibility of that in light of everything that’s happened. I also admire the SFRY for refusing to submit to Soviet domination and for pursuing its own brand of socialism. When the Soviet Union and its satellites invaded Czechoslovakia to repress the Prague Spring in 1968, Tito condemned the violation of Czechoslovak sovereignty. And while I don’t believe in heavy-handed state management of the economy, I think that Yugoslavia’s attempt to blend worker self-management with a market system represents a working model for a possible future post-capitalism. On a shelf in my study I’ve fashioned a small shrine to Yugoslavia, admittedly an oddity for someone who considers himself a principled anti-nationalist. It contains, among other effects, a small Yugoslav flag, a bust of Tito, prayer beads and a pair of headscarves that once belonged to one of my great-grandmothers, a medal awarded to a great-grandfather, and a display of pins that my mom collected when she was a child. What few family artifacts I have sit beside symbols of a fallen state, all of them reminders of alternate pasts and alternate futures.

            The day before my twenty-fourth birthday, my dad and I went out for lunch — we would have gone the day of but he had jury duty that afternoon. As we were driving to the restaurant, it occurred to me to ask him a question that another friend of mine had posed a few months earlier to which I had had no satisfactory answer. While telling her about my extended family, this friend asked me what ethnic group my parents and I belonged to. It was a reasonable question, given where I was from, but one I’d never thought about before. We came from a part of Bosnia heavily populated by Serbs, but not once had I heard either of my parents describe us as Serb. Nor, for that matter, had they applied any ethnic label to us whatsoever. I suppose I could have said “Yugoslav,” but for all the reasons I mentioned earlier, I wouldn’t have considered that a “real” identity, certainly not an ethnic one.

            So, I asked my dad. As it turned out, he didn’t know either.

            The question led to a retracing of our family genealogy. My parents were a “mixed marriage,” a euphemism of unique significance to Yugoslavia. The SFRY promoted mixed marriages as a means of overcoming ethnic fissures. Couples like my parents and — crucially — their children were meant to represent the future. The war changed everything: suddenly, orthodoxy became heresy. Ethnic cleansers despise overlapping spaces above all else. A mixed married couple and their child belonged nowhere in a fragmenting Yugoslavia. No longer were we a celebrated ideal: we had now become an inconvenience that one group or another would eventually try to liquidate. For most of my life, in other words, I have been an anachronism, born to be a member of a society that no longer exists. My dad’s family — on his dad’s side — was originally from Hungary; they had moved to Bosnia after Austria-Hungary had formally annexed the country following decades of informal control. My mom’s dad came from an Orthodox Christian family, while her mom’s family was Muslim. Their union was decidedly not encouraged. As a matter of fact, my grandmother ran away with my grandfather to get married, and in response her dad — my great-grandfather — assembled a posse on horseback to fetch her and return her home. The marriage ultimately occurred thanks to the intervention of a local Communist Party official, who informed my great-grandfather that he was powerless to prevent the marriage, that he couldn’t object on religious grounds because in the new socialist society, those distinctions didn’t matter anymore. After reviewing our polyglot heritage, I suggested — again, half-jokingly — that maybe “Yugoslav” was indeed the best label. And he, unjokingly, agreed.

            The fact that a country in which I had spent so little time, that no longer exists, has occupied so much real estate inside my head — and on my bookshelf — testifies to the weight that the past can bring to bear on the individual. I’ve come to the conclusion, against the view of many academic historians, that something like history-with-a-capital-H does actually exist. Not in the old sense of the term: progress isn’t inevitable, and humankind isn’t marching inexorably forward to some predestined idyllic future. But if each of us looks back into our own pasts, and the pasts of our parents and grandparents and on and on, we will, I think, discover that each of us stands at the confluence of multiple historical forces, each one essential to making our present-day lives possible. It was the First World War and the collapse of the old European and Middle Eastern empires that helped forge the first Yugoslavia. It was fascism and the Second World War that destroyed the first Yugoslavia and created the SFRY. It was the SFRY that made it so that my grandmother could marry my grandfather and have my mom, who in turn was able to marry a man who hailed from a Catholic family. And it was the demise of the SFRY that made me possible.

            My birth certificate doesn’t seem that weird anymore. What I once considered a relic actually has breath and pulse. Yugoslavia is home, but it is a home that I can never go to. Nevertheless, for the people who lived there and who owed and owe their lives to it, Yugoslavia was — and is — very real. It lives in and through those people. It lives in and through me.


Davor Mondom is originally from Bosnia and Herzegovina. He and his parents left following the outbreak of civil war in the early nineties, and they lived in Germany for five years before coming to the United States as refugees. He graduated with a Ph.D. in history from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University in June 2019. He has published an article in Modern American History, a peer-reviewed academic journal, as well as an op-ed in the ‘Made By History’ section of The Washington Post. He also self-published a novella titled it/me on Amazon Kindle.

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