I have just recently come back from an unscheduled trip to Serbia to cover a teacher who was sick. I have passed through the country several times but never really spent more than a few days there and always in hotels in Belgrade where I was so busy I didn’t get time to get out and see much. On previous occasions I was always taking part in multinational seminars and conventions to promote English courses and so didn’t really get to know the local people. This time was different. This time I spent ten days in a small town near Belgrade actually teaching and meeting the locals.
I have to admit that although I went with an open mind, I had a lot of preconceptions about Serbia and most of them were not good. After all, NATO went to war with Serbia over Kosovo and whenever you think about the break up of Yugoslavia and the wars that followed (particularly in Bosnia and Herzogovina) you are left with the feeling that the Serbs were very much the bad guys; and particularly savage ones at that…
Without exception, the Serbian people I met over the past couple of weeks were amongst the warmest, most hospitable and friendly people I have ever met. They were also very generous with their time and money. I was slightly embarrassed because my hosts refused to allow me to pay for anything on the numerous occasions they took me out for drinks or meals. In short, they were lovely. In soon transpired however that they had a very different view of history to me. Their versions of what actually happened after the break up of Yugoslavia was very different to the one that I knew via CNN and the BBC. While they concede that Serbia did some bad things they claim this was mostly in response to long standing historical disputes and aggression against Serbia that I don’t recall being mentioned at all in the western media. I met several Serbian refugees from Kosovo who had been forced out of their home country long before the term ethnic cleansing was invented (and years before NATO jumped in on the side of Kosovo).
So when I got home to my hotel each night my head was spinning and not just from the delicious local plum brandy. Could I really have been so ill informed? Were the BBC and CNN so biased that my previous knowledge about Serbia was fatally flawed and inaccurate?
Well the Serbians are certainly aware that the rest of the world has a bad impression of them and they are eager to show visitors a much nicer side to their character. Perhaps I was just being taken in by their charm offensive? When I poked a bit more deeply beneath the surface I did find some holes in the almost too nice to be true feeling I was getting from my hosts.
They are more overtly nationalistic than some people and they do harbor grudges and resentments against most, if not all, of their neighboring countries. Some of these are petty and are spoken of in a jokey way, others are clearly more serious. With regard to Kosovo they are keen to tell their side of the story and explain themselves from that perspective, but with regard to Bosnia I watched them flinch and go out of their way to change the subject. So yes, the Serbians do have outstanding issues and to tell the truth I got the feeling that any one of these issues could explode and engulf the country in further conflict and violence at any moment.
I don’t know how much of the news I have watched about the conflicts in former Yugoslavia over the past decade was true and free from bias and my experiences in Serbia will cause me to watch the news ever more critically. However, I am sure the news from the Serbian perspective was at least equally biased and so there seems to be a huge reality gap between what we have been told happened and what actually did happen (whether we are Serbians or foreigners). At some point some uncomfortable truths are going to have to be assimilated.
The town I stayed in was small and unspectacular. The style of the houses was something between what you might see in Austria and Greece. There were a lot of unfinished buildings and dirt tracks posing as roads. All in all, a little run down and sometimes shabby. There were also wild dogs roaming the streets which were more than a little bit unnerving. On the other hand, you could buy anything you needed in the local shops and the shop-keepers were friendly and patient with my lack of Serbian. Prices were generally very cheap for everyday items. There was a fairly modern sports complex and the school I taught in had every modern amenity despite being in a rather old building.
I did get the chance to see more of Belgrade as a tourist this time and found it to be a busy and exciting city with a great night-life (my head aches just thinking about it but it was fun)! The newly built The St Sava Church, the biggest Eastern Orthodox Church in the world, is spectacular and a must-see for all tourists. I also enjoyed the area around the old fortress where you get a great view of the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers.
So what are my final or lasting feelings about Serbia?
I think you’d have to go a long way to meet friendlier and more hospitable people and I have developed a real affection for them. I don’t think they are as blameless for the sins of the past as they would like to believe but nor do I believe they are the universal bad guys it is convenient for many to paint them as. They need to be heard and they need to be understood if there is to be any hope of lasting peace in the countries that once formed Yugoslavia. I hope they will join the EU and the mainstream of European politics as I think this will give them an outlet to solve the problems they have with their neighbors in a peaceful way.
Germany had the Marshall Plan. South Africa had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s. Serbia needs and deserves a route back to the mainstream of western society. Politically Serbia has spawned some monsters, but it is not unique in that. It’s people are basically good people and they have gained a friend in me. I would certainly recommend travelers and tourists to explore Serbia; it really has a lot to offer.
Serbia is at a crossroads. That is always an interesting part of any journey.