Wednesday, October 13, 2010


I'm not going to pretend to understand what happened in the "former Yugoslavia" in the mid-90s. I mean, I do understand that a brutal war occurred, that thousands were slaughtered, that atrocities against humans were committed, and that many lives were shattered. And I understand that ethnic divisions/hatreds/histories between Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians (or Bosniaks) were at the center. 
     At the time, I remember NPR reporters asking experts and insiders of all kinds to explain to the rest of us what the sources of these ancient conflicts were. 
     Historical battles, borders, territories. These were some of the answers. My friend, Vesna Neskow, a writer whose family comes from this part of the world has given up (I hope only temporarily) on the novel she wrote about these people and this world. 
     "It started to seem too much like a lesson in history," she told me, "as if I had too much of an agenda," she said. "Do people understand what that war was about?" she asked me. Speaking for myself, no, not really, but on the other hand, yes, of course.
     What prompted me to take up this topic this week was a story I heard on NPR a few weeks ago. The story started out by saying that 15 years after the war, Sarajevo appears to be a city healed. But the reality of the region is that ethnic divisions remain.
Education, which should foster a multicultural society, has instead been manipulated by each ethnic group. There are separate education ministries, and each draws up its own ethnically based curricula and textbooks.
The part of the story that struck me most deeply was this:
In many towns and villages, few refugees displaced during the war have gone back to their homes. More and more young people are segregated: They've never met anyone from the other two ethnic communities. . . .
Says organizer Emin Mahmutovic, "Young people, they are starting to think that ethnic divisions are normal."
 One thing I like about writing this blog is that I don't need to come to any conclusions. I can do with this material whatever I want, including simply putting it out there. While reading about Bosnia, however, I did learn that during the war, this beautiful bridge in Mostar was destroyed. 
It has since been rebuilt, but what could be more metaphorical than a bridge destroyed? And what could be more normal (at least for me) than worrying about what normal can or should be.


Margaret P. said...

I had the pleasure of spending a week with an outstanding group of women police from that part of the world at a conference recently. The women that my organization sponsored were from Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia, and Albania. "Off-duty" I learned that some of them had left young children at home with parents or husbands and this was hard on some of them. I heard both bad news and encouraging news about the prevalent attitudes toward women in their respective workplaces. I asked them about the languages they spoke and what languages they were speaking to each other--there were several languages and they explained the differences to me, but I can't remember the details now. Officially the Serbian was not allowed to sit on the same panel as the Kosovars (and she dutifully left the conference when the Kosovars spoke), but socially, as a group, everyone seemed to get along well enough. It was hard to tell what ethnic groups the women represented and I didn't ask. What would have been the point of emphasizing those differences?

Susan Messer said...

Interesting that it seemed cordial on the social level but that the groups had to be separated for the panels. And interesting about the language differences. Language is such an important feature of ethnic-group identity.

Could they understand each others' languages? You know how it is when you can't understand someone else's language and you feel like they might be saying something bad about you? Lots of potential for suspicion, especially if there are bad vibes already.

Also interesting about not being able to tell by sight which group they were a part of. That was something I often wondered about during the war. How did they know who the enemy was? In the world wars in Europe, I guess you could tell by the uniforms?

Anyway, sounds like a great experience you had. Thanks for sharing it.

Jim Poznak said...

Not knowing anyone outside of one's own ethnicity? Shades of Grand River and Joy.

Susan Messer said...

As difficult as it can be to get to know and be comfortable with someone outside one's circle (ethnic or otherwise), it's kind of scary to think of never doing so. Especially when there's a bad history, the suspicion and fear just keeps getting passed along with no opportunity for being disproved.

Margaret P. said...

They all spoke each others' languages. But what language they were speaking changed depending on who was speaking to whom. Perhaps there is a hierarchy of languages. That would have been an interesting question...but alas, I didn't go that deep.

Susan Messer said...

hmm. probably is some kind of hierarchy. Not that this is related to hierarchy, but I was at the supermarket recently, and the woman at the checkout counter had a little tag hanging below her name tag, and on it was written something in a language I did not recognize. Feeling uncharacteristcally friendly (at last at the grocery), I asked her what it said, and she said, "I speak Serbian." It surprised me that there were enough people around who might want/need to know this. said...

Normal? Abnormal? Who knows?

Not being sure of the meaning of "jihad", I Googled the word, surprised to find a number of definitions. Try it! Interestingly, depending on the source, the definition varied from being extremely negative to middle of the road to positive.

Such is "normal." Normal is however the source defines it. It is normal for females in some groups in Africa to bare their breasts. Abnormal actions become normal if one has a problem or issue that causes the abnormality.

Some of the most poignant comments I heard about Sarajevo were made not by a politician, but by skater Scott Hamilton who recalled the beauty of the land and the people during the Winter Olympics held there. A new "normal" is prevalent there since the war. A lot of abnormal has become the norm.

A new "normal" in this country is using electronic devices to communicate as I am now. One can argue the pros and cons of such communication, but it is normal, although it was not normal before it happened.

Like "Jihad", "normal" is not black and white.

And that is normal.

Susan Messer said...

True, that normal is a constantly shifting entity, and always defined in the eye of the beholder. But some normals seem more comfortable and less dangerous than others. Once upon a time, "mental health professionals" drilled holes in the skulls of those who behaved abnormally. Once upon a time, a person who protested against being a slave was seen as abnormal.

But having such a high wall separating ethnic groups, so that they have no exposure to each other, especially in a place like the Balkans, seems dangerous. Of course, contact could be dangerous too.