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War Babies: The Balkans’ New Lost Generation

On a sweltering summer afternoon in one of Sarajevo’s many café-lined streets, Marko Radovanovic waves aside what he says are the usual complaints in the Balkans—no jobs, corrupt politics—and gets serious. Moving his beer to one side, the sharp-eyed twenty-four-year-old Bosnian Serb leans in confidentially and explains that the region’s biggest problem is actually his own generation. “We are,” he says grimly, “a ticking bomb.”

In other parts of the world, such a comment might make one look nervously for the outlines of a suicide vest. Here it is just another reminder that the former Yugoslavia’s five million so-called “war babies” are also coming of age. The long-awaited arrest in May of Bosnian Serb war commander Ratko Mladic, who is charged with crimes against humanity during the region’s bitter 1992–1995 war, created the illusion that this region was finally emerging from postwar bitterness. Yet while the youth of the Arab world spring forward, the youth of the Balkans stand suspected of falling back. Nationalism has stirred once again among their ranks, whose war-torn childhood years were saturated by the propaganda efforts of a militantly ethnocentric government agenda. Such forces continue to shape the rising generation throughout former Yugoslavia, a region once revered for its ethnic and religious diversity, to a degree unthinkable even a generation ago.

“Our parents, the people who fought the last war,” Radovanovic explains, “had lived together for forty-some years. Even though they fought the war, they still have memories of ‘the good old times.’ They lived together, they went to school together.” The look on his face as he finishes this sentence carries the punch line: but this is no longer the case.

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Radovanovic has no memory of communism or its ideologically driven equalizing policies that put Bosnians, Croats, and Serbs to work side by side building schools and railways as comrades in the 1960s. He witnessed race-upon-race violence as a child, not community-building. Only fifteen years have passed since nearly one hundred thousand people died in an ethnically charged war that unleashed the worst brutality seen in Europe since World War II. But memory is persistent—and a social problem.

Today nationalism is not only socially acceptable in the region, it’s the default position, especially among youth. The Economist, tallying up mass demonstrations in Belgrade, Tirana, Skopje, and Zagreb over the last two months, recently counseled closer attention to serious “political instability” gripping the region. Many of the young people around Radovanovic’s age have developed nationalistic sympathies—some of them without even recognizing it, so subliminal has the messaging become. Should these young people gain a political foothold in the region, a return to conflict is not inconceivable given that, as Radovanovic explains, many were brought up “completely separated” from other ethnicities and religions. The rise of such an ethnically balkanized generation in the Balkans raises serious concerns. Will the region’s future leaders support the bloc’s EU ambitions? Or will the nationalistic propaganda they have been force-fed promote different and more dangerous priorities?

When I arrived in Sarajevo last year, I quickly discovered that this storied city, which Muslims, Jews, and Christians have all called home for centuries, displays its diversity like a proud vendor his wares. You want Islam? Go to the ancient city center and appreciate our fifteenth-century minarets. Christianity? Take your pick: around the corner you’ll find an ancient Eastern Orthodox church and a Roman Catholic cathedral, among the few buildings spared total destruction during the war. You want history? Franz Ferdinand paraded down this very street, and the footprints of his assassin, the man who began World War I, have even been preserved! But while the city puts on an especially cosmopolitan face for the internationally headlined Sarajevo film festival every summer—its EU bid surely in mind—tensions linger under the surface of civic life. There is a wariness, a sense that the community is actually a Potemkin diversity.

The subtle strains in Sarajevo are minor, however, compared to the growing disquiet in the region as a whole, a fact not lost on Al Jazeera, which recently announced plans to launch a Balkans channel. Bosnia held general elections in October 2010 but has yet to form a working government. Then there’s Kosovo, whose December parliamentary vote was denounced by rights groups as fraudulent, resulting in a scramble for power that left the young country leaderless for a full two months. In Serbia, tens of thousands gathered in Belgrade in April to demand early elections in a forceful demonstration against the ruling pro-Western party, which has refused to hold elections before the country secures its EU bid. Croatia, the next Balkan country due for EU accession despite waning popular support, did nothing for its international image when protestors took to the streets and the government slammed as “unacceptable” a recent UN court sentencing of two former Croatian generals charged with killing more than three hundred Serbs during the war. This explosive situation is exacerbated by a struggling economy, with unemployment skyrocketing (in Bosnia, as high as forty percent) in parts of the region. Many young people are over-educated and under-employed. Twenty-three-year-old Dino Kurbegovic, for instance, a Sarajevo resident who wants to be a teacher, tells me the only way to get a job is to cozy up to a political party. “That’s totally unfair. I chose my profession because I love it, and because I believe it has a higher purpose,” he says. “And now I have to beg someone to give me a job.”

 

I drove with Marko Radovanovic past a tunnel inscribed to Tito on our way into nearby Republika Srpska, Bosnia’s Serb entity. Yugoslavia’s former Communist leader is still widely praised, his legacy shrouded in popular myths of prelapsarian virtue. We zoom past gas stations, their “open” and “closed” signs slowly switching into Cyrillic. Serbian flags appear in front of houses and billboards.

We stopped at a local café that was obviously a student hangout. Ana Sumenkovic, a young Serb from Serbia, complained to us that there are no joint studies or seminars between Sarajevo and Srpska universities, despite the fact that the institutions are only a half-hour drive away. The general consensus at our table was that the lack of cooperation is politically driven, an effort to keep young people divided. But the liberal tone disappears the moment the conversation turns to Kosovo, as most conversations in the Balkans do sooner or later. Serbia does not recognize Kosovo, which has a majority ethnically Albanian population. The country’s 2008 declaration of independence is recognized by the US and many European countries. But even young, progressive, open-minded Serbian students like Sumenkovic see Kosovo as “a problem.”

Kosovars, she argues, construe Serbian aggression as “genocide”—referring to the 1998–1999 ethnic cleansing carried out by Slobodan Milosevic’s regime—and use it to bolster their argument for independence. No one talks about the experience of Serbs in Kosovo and how they fled the area. “Because they didn’t feel secure, they were killed,” Sumenkovic says, “and their homes were taken from them.” She has a point. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center lists more than two hundred thousand internally displaced persons in Serbia, the vast majority of them ethnic Serbs who fled Kosovo after the 1999 NATO bombing. Anti-Serb discrimination is reported to be widespread in modern-day Kosovo. Kosovo’s Albanians, for their part, pointing to the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians slaughtered by Milosevic, tend to attribute problems with its Serb population today to what they say is a long history of Serb oppression. There are, in other words, many competing historical narratives in the Balkans, almost all of which have been rewritten in one way or another depending on who controls the word processor. These narratives are reinforced by policy. Primary schools, and even some kindergartens, still routinely separate children by ethnicity. Despite efforts at reform, school systems in many areas remain biased. The Dayton Agreement, the 1995 peace accords brokered by the international community that imposed a cease-fire and largely ended the war, provided no long-term vision for inter-ethnic education. That meant a war-scarred generation would be raised in divided classrooms, many with overtly nationalist educational agendas.

Even football plays politics. When Bosnia and Serbia play each other, Marko Radovanovic says, Republika Srpska experiences an “apocalypse”: “If Serbia wins, then you have cars on the streets with Serbian flags. People, especially young people, don’t consider Bosnia their country in the Republika Srpska. They consider Serbia their country.” Republika Srpska’s prime minister, Milorad Dodik, has also become an increasingly troubling figure on the world stage. Recent US Embassy cables released by WikiLeaks reveal longstanding concerns over what one top US official called Dodik’s “increasingly—and dangerously—defiant and vitriolic” rhetoric and warn that while “Europe may believe that its ‘pull’ is sufficient to overcome Bosnia’s deep ethnic divisions or its dysfunctional state structures, the evidence suggests otherwise.”

In May 2011, Valentin Inzko, the international community’s high representative for Bosnia, threatened to annul a referendum on the Bosnian judicial system advanced by Dodik. Facing growing pressure and a flurry of meetings with top EU officials, Dodik backed down and dropped the measure. But his agenda of nationalism lives on, sometimes actively supported by the NGOs young people turn to for education and other assistance. One such group, the Republika Srpska–based Choice Is Ours, with a large youth participation, openly pushes for the entity’s secession from Bosnia. In Serbia, a far-right nationalist NGO, Nasi 1389, is working to change its status to a political party to get around restrictions on its activities.

 

Yet while the polarized environment encourages alienation, there are young people who display a markedly progressive ethnic and religious tolerance. Twenty-six-year-old Jasmina Lazovic, for instance, heads the region-wide youth collective called SD9 and also works for the Youth Initiative for Human Rights. Both jobs put her in contact with thousands of young people across the region. The first thing the young Serb says when she meets me is that I should try a Bosnian coffee. (It tasted like Turkish coffee; the Ottomans left their mark.)

Lazovic has wide-set, deep-brown eyes. Her voice is low, and she speaks carefully, with a measured intensity uncommon for her age. Growing up during the war was “terrible,” she says: “I can say the Serbs—from my point of view and from my side, because I’m from Serbia—really did a lot of brutal things in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.” “For eighteen years,” she continues, “I lived in a really small city in the west of Serbia, and during the war we had only national TV, a public service station that only broadcast information that was pro-Serbian and about Serbian victory and things like that.” When she finally came to Belgrade, Lazovic was shocked that there was so much she didn’t know about. She cites the Serbian army’s massacre of some eight thousand Bosnian men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995 as an example. “There are not a lot of young people in Serbia,” she adds, “who would say what I am saying.” But allegedly the Serbian nationalists who whisper in their ears recently marked the birthday of Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic, who is in hiding after being accused of war crimes, among them orchestrating the Srebrenica massacre. [Interview conducted before the arrest of Ratko Mladic] The nationalists are reported to have carried a life-size cutout of the general to various Belgrade restaurants to celebrate his birthday. The incident came just months after nationalists violently attacked marchers in Belgrade’s gay-pride parade—an event that security concerns prevented from even taking place this year.

According to Lazovic, nationalist groups have figured out politically disconnected young people in the region are a “good target,” adding that SD9 was founded to compete with these groups by trying to engage apathetic young people. The organization offers them an opportunity to join civic camps, participate in protests, and work in political campaigns. The group now boasts some sixty-three thousand members, ranging from seventeen to thirty-five years old, and chapters in Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, and, until late last year, Kosovo. The collective serves as the mother organization of the Youth Forum of the Social Democratic Party, and despite describing itself as nonpartisan, the group often campaigns for Social Democrat MPs in their respective countries. (Members are not required to pledge political support for the Social Democratic Party in order to be a part of the organization but are closely aligned with the party’s political goals, including EU integration.)

The most significant countervailing force against the gravitational pull of nationalism tends to be children of ethnically mixed marriages. These multiethnic families experienced a war that pitted one spouse’s countrymen against the other’s. Those whose marriages survived tended to raise their children with a strong sense of ethnic tolerance.

Now a pretty, twenty-six-year-old brunette, Ena Stevanovic was born with a shattered arm and a broken leg in former Yugoslavia in 1985, just as the then-Communist country was itself starting to splinter. Her limbs were crushed by accident during delivery. Doctors told the family there was no hope of recovery, but she healed nonetheless and today plays Prokofiev at concert halls and is set for her first concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall soon.

The Bosnian Serb army attacked Stevanovic’s birthplace, Sarajevo, when she was seven years old, during what became the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. Stevanovic’s father, a doctor, saved hundreds of lives during the war. His wife, Nevzeta Stevanovic, initially refused to consider leaving her husband and beloved city for a refugee camp. She relented when a sniper’s bullet grazed her oldest daughter’s head while she was playing in the family living room. After living on the edge of poverty in a refugee camp in the Czech Republic for two years, Nevzeta decided to return. It was 1994—the war was at its height—and Ena recalls standing with her mother and sister at the base of a mountain bordering Bosnia in the middle of the night, ready to begin the five-thousand-foot ascent, in spite of the presence of snipers all around them. They entered Sarajevo by way of a secret underground pass known as the Tunnel of Salvation, scrambled into a car that careened around the city to avoid sniper fire, and finally screeched to a halt outside the girls’ childhood home. Their return was the second miracle in Stevanovic’s life. She now believes “things are changing,” with moderates becoming stronger, but admits that if the nationalists continue to gain power, it will be devastating for the region.

As I wrap up my visit to the family home, Stevanovic’s mother, Nevzeta, expresses her disappointment that I would miss the call to prayer at the mosque next door. A minute later, she is leaning out of her window, shouting to the men in the mosque that they should begin prayer early—a no-no in Islam, in which the prayers are tied to the lunar cycle. There is an exchange of laughter, and after a few seconds of expectant silence, the singing rings out, calm and sweet, an invocation to heaven made at the request of a determined Bosnian mother. It is a melancholy fact that Nevzeta’s attitude is the opposite of the message being dinned into the ears of young people today. As in the dangerous and symbolic past, the Balkans today are once again a stick of dynamite with a host of political interests vying to strike the first match.

Kristin Deasy is a correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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