Author: Tea HADŽIRISTIĆ
Project: Being a Yugoslav Today
I was born on the tail end of the great Yugoslav experiment – June 1990, a year before Slovenia’s declaration of independence, which began the domino-like dissolution of Yugoslavia. I was born in Tuzla, a multi-ethnic town in multi-ethnic Bosnia, to a mixed marriage and parents who were not only Yugoslavs on the census but truly believed in Yugoslavia and in socialism. In many ways, I am the quintessential child of Yugoslavia, and was raised homesick for a place which does not exist. Family legend has it that when I was born, my aunt got me a gold necklace with a pendant of Tito’s face, though it was lost along with our house and possessions during the war that came shortly after.
Like many Yugoslavs, the wars in the 1990s found my family displaced. In 1993 we arrived in Toronto, Canada. We were profoundly lucky to find ourselves in the same neighbourhood with dozens of other Yugoslav diaspora, who whatever their ethnoreligious identity were qualified as ‘naši’ – ours. For my entire childhood there were only us and ours, the people who speak your language, were born in the same country. There was no ‘them’, except occasionally to refer to people who were slightly more nationalist in their leanings. For me there was no other word to describe my lovely diasporic family, full of mixed marriages and different dialects and hometowns, than as my fellow Yugoslavs. For my parents, any other identities were foreign to them: they were atheists and only country they had ever known was dead. This was the painful double displacement – not only were they far from home, but there was no home to return to.
It was later that I realized that it was the suspended nature of displacement that had allowed my Yugoslav identity to flourish. It was a privilege that my friends growing up in the broken-up Yugoslavia did not have, because I’d remained relatively unscarred by war, ethnic divisions, or nationalist narratives taught in schools. I read in BCS, the language formerly known as Serbo-Croatian, and I read Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian, Yugoslav books, listen to the music, and watch the films, none of which exist in isolation to one another. I feel a sense of belonging and understanding towards it all. Nationalism and new borders be damned, I still feel a sense of belonging when I’m in the BCS-speaking parts of the former Yugoslavia. This identity was firstly natural and normal to me, since it was the only identity that adequately explained who I was and where I came from. Only later did it become ideological, in the sense that I learned more about our history and solidified my anti-nationalist views. Even when I narrow my identity down to ‘Bosnian’ (for ease), my identity remains a collective one – not ethnic or religious. This identity is almost an anachronism, but I’d like to think it’s more than Yugo-nostalgia. For me, being a Yugoslav means understanding and valuing of what the idea of South Slav unification meant for my family in the past century and the marks it has left on us.
Typically, people in the Balkans do not regard their family merely as a narrow nuclear family unit. Instead, the idea of the family stretches back to older generations and ancestors, and also includes its future members. I’ve never been able to make sense of my own small family without thinking of the ancestors who lived through the upheavals, wars, and ideological battles of the 20th century. Socialist Yugoslavia, after all, had a shorter lifespan than most people: about 45 years. Most of my family members were alive for either its end or its beginning – some lived through the first Kingdom of Yugoslavia and Austrian occupation prior to that. My paternal grandmother was a refugee three times in her life: in the First and Second World Wars, and Bosnia’s civil war in the 1990s. My paternal grandfather read Marx in his youth in 1930s Sarajevo, back when it was still illegal to own such texts, but gave up on communism after the war. We had family members who were sent to labour camps, others who were ardent Party members, some who were Partisans, some who were dispossessed by the socialist reforms of the postwar period. Women in my family belonged to the Anti-Fascist Women’s Front, worked, went to university – all nearly unthinkable before Socialist Yugoslavia. My parents married without a thought towards their apparently unbridgeable ethnic differences. Thus in many ways being a Yugoslav allows me to understand who I am and why.
I saw a play here in Toronto with my mother a few months ago – Mali Mi Je Ovaj Grob, by Biljana Srbljanovic. The play is about Gavrilo Princip, who, in his own words, was a Yugoslav nationalist, though today he’s been appropriated and branded either as terrorist or hero by various ethnic groups. Just over 100 years ago, Princip fired a shot that would start a world war but resulted in the first Yugoslavia, the first time the South Slavs were unified. A century, two Yugoslavias, and three wars later, Yugoslavism is almost nowhere to be found, except in us displaced children of Yugoslavia. There’s a part in the play where Gavrilo Princip’s ghost is told about what happened, in the end, to Yugoslavia: “It doesn’t exist anymore. We don’t exist. We aren’t.” The audience was crying. The actors from Belgrade had tears in their eyes. Later, my mother and I wondered what was sad to them – was it the play? Or did they pity us, this small group of diaspora, an ocean away from home, lamenting the place we come from, the place which no longer exists?
Disclaimer: The content of this article does not reflect the official opinion of the Philopolitics. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in the article lies entirely with the author.