In this installment of Diaspora Voices, an occasional series of conversations with ex-Yugoslavs living abroad, three people on three different continents—Australia (Parramatta, NSW), North America (Vancouver, BC), and Europe (Amsterdam, the Netherlands)—share stories of their journeys to and through life in diaspora. Home, identity, nationalism, family, love…and that disappeared country that connects us across the planet and the ages.
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PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your guide Peter Korchnak.
Today’s episode is the second installment of Diaspora Voices, an occasional series of conversations with ex-Yugoslavs living abroad. Three people from three different continents will share stories of their journeys to life in diaspora.
We talked about home (leaving home, making a new home, returning to the original home), about identity (ethnic and Yugoslav and just human), about nationalism and rejecting it, about family and love and that disappeared country that connects us across the planet and the ages.
Between the conversations, I’ll play a couple of songs by diasporans: Yugo Project from Cleveland, Ohio, and ArHai from London, UK. Please give them some love on social media and buy their music; I’ve included the links in the episode show notes at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
And before we get to it, as always, this episode is brought to you by…you. Thank you to everyone who has signed up to support me and Remembering Yugoslavia on Patreon.
Including my first guest, Nick Stetic who had answered the call for stories in the first Diaspora Voices episode. From refugee to tween nationalist to business man to husband and father, he keeps the memory of the disappeared land of his birth alive in Parramatta, outside Sydney, Australia.
NICK STETIC: I was born in Osijek which is now Croatia in 1980. So I was 10 years old when things started to go south. I was 11 when we left home. We spent three years in Serbia during the 90s.Then I was 14, when I, when we left the Balkans for Australia.
I grew up as a typical communist child in communist Yugoslavia. I was one of the Tito’s pioniri. We sort of followed the Yugoslav line, we were proud Yugoslavs. My grandfather was a World War II veteran, decorated communist, a lifelong party member. So we sort of were just a normal family living a normal life. We were, I wouldn’t say affluent, but both fairly well off.
In the late 80s, all the nonsense started happening. And in 1991, when actual skirmishes started in Croatia between Serbs and Croats, we started receiving death threats. And one of our former neighbors he said outright to Mom, he said—there was a skirmish in a nearby village—“If something like this happens again, we’re going to murder your child.” And mom just freaked out. This was really hardcore stuff. So dad picks us up that afternoon, drove us to the airport, and we fled to Macedonia for a little while.
And then we decided to head back home. Things were getting worse. And in August of ‘91, we decided to flee to Serbia for a period of time until things settled down. So we just packed a couple of suitcases, took the gold, took the cash, left everything else, and headed to Serbia for a few months. That ended up being three years. Shortly after we arrived to Serbia, the barricades went up and the borders were closed. So we were basically now stranded in Serbia without any of our belongings.
We went from a place where we were told we’re not desired because we are Orthodox, we’re Serbs. We’re into a place that we’re told we’re not designed because we’re from Croatia, even though we’re ethnic Serbs. It wasn’t an easy experience. I was bullied by locals. I had one of the one of the kids at school call me Ustasha. It really struck home because we come from a family of antifascists.
At the time, I started to swing right pretty hard. I was supporting Vojislav Šešelj, even like somebody like a kid who’s 11 or 12 years old. You’re a kid growing up and you’re trying to sort of understand what’s going on. The resurgence of nationalism in those early 90s was ridiculous, and the propaganda on TV was just phenomenal. I mean, at the time, you accepted it as a truth because you want it to be the truth. You embrace it, you do what other people do as a kid, you just go, “Yep, okay, this is it, I’m angry, I’m angry at the other side, because they kicked me out. And this other side is against them.”
PETER KORCHNAK: In Serbia, Nick’s family lived in Sombor and in Novi Sad.
NICK STETIC: We had some cash, enough to buy a crappy old apartment or house. So we thought, “Okay, well, let’s buy something, let’s settle, start a new life.” And to buy property you must be a citizen, to be a citizen you must own property. It was an infinite loop.
So my parents started talking about the future. By ‘93, ‘94, we had spent all of our savings. My father had an uncle living in Australia. We still had enough money to pay for our air fares. And they said, “Look, we can help you sort of apply for a visa. And if you get it, well then come here.” Which we did, and the rest is history.
PETER KORCHNAK: Where are you now with the whole nationalism thing? It sounds like you’ve now recovered from that affliction.
NICK STETIC: It sticks with you for a long time, it becomes ingrained in you, especially during your formative years. Honestly, it has taken me the best part of 20 years to reset myself to some sort of norm where I don’t follow the “We’re the victims and they’re the aggressors” narrative. No one is 100% right or 100% wrong; there’s always two sides of everything. And it has taken me a long time of living away from that mindset to actually reset myself to some sort of a center.
And as you start to mature and age, you start to question things. Probably the catalyst for me to really start questioning everything was a DNA test. I took a DNA test because I wanted to see how Serbian I am. And the results were really surprising. I’m about 75 percent Greek Balkan DNA, nonspecific, and the rest is a mix of general south European, East European, some Italian. Okay, I’m very much European. But what’s the Serbian gene? And then I started to look into things more and question things. And then the yarn becomes unraveled, the whole thing becomes jumbled up and I should try to make sense out of it. I’m still dealing with some of these remnants of my past nationalist, sort of, not upbringing, but beliefs.
PETER KORCHNAK: Nick met his wife, who too is from Serbia, in 2010. They married in 2015, she moved to Australia in 2016, and last year they added a daughter to their family. But I’m curious about life in Australia, adjusting to diasporic existence, so to speak. What’s it like to be a Yugoslavia-born Serb in Australia?
NICK STETIC: The original migrants to Australia were Ustaše and Četnici. Before that, there weren’t many Yugos in Australia. There was a Yugoslav Club in the 80s, which broke up when the war started, and that has been it. So here, you take one side and you stick to it. As soon as you step away from that nationalist narrative, you start to notice that people don’t really view you as [a] full Serb.
When we moved to Australia, we were pretty sick of that whole region, and honestly of the people as well. So we moved away from the suburbs in Sydney, which have higher Serb populations because we wanted to get away from that whole thing, and just live our lives.
I spent my teenage years out of the community completely. My friends were Indian, Lebanese, Italian, Australian. My high school had six kids out of 1,000 and a bit who were from the former Yugoslavia, that includes Croatians, Serbs. So we sort of said, “Hi,” “Hey,” “How’s it going,” “Kako ide,” “Šta ima?” But weren’t really friends. So I hung out with everyone else.
I only started getting involved with the Serbian community through church choir in the early noughties. For about 13 years, I was quite active in the church community. I’m still sort of a part of it, but not really, I’ve again withdrawn, and I’m trying to live my own life.
Like many migrants who can’t get work, my dad started a business in 1997. He was working in a dead-end factory job, and he was just saying, “Well, there has to be a way to do something else.” And so he decided to start a cleaning business maintaining residential buildings on the outside. I’ve been running the business ever since. we built it up from scratch. it’s not glamorous, it can be dirty work, but it keeps me physically active, and it lets me do my own thing while making enough money to sustain a comfortable life.
I struggled with this concept of being a Serb in Australia for quite some time. But then, as time goes on, you reconcile things, and you can be both Australian and Serbian. As long as you accept the land you live in the laws and the people, they will accept you too. And you can speak your language, you can eat your food, you can go to your church, you can do anything you like.
It’s no word of a lie when I say that, I do love this country. I get homesick after seven days in either Croatia and Serbia. I’ve gone back on a regular basis, but seven days later, I’m ready to come home. Every time I land in Sydney, I tear up because I’m happy to be home.
The way I put it is when we were told by two countries that were not welcome, Australia said, “Hey, come in. Here’s social security until you can find work. We’ll help you out. Here’s a visa. Yep. Grab his citizenship. He’s in a nice little blue passport. Enjoy life.” I will leave my bones here, I will not be buried over there.
PETER KORCHNAK: What about maintaining connections with the original homeland?
NICK STETIC: See it’s funny, I love going back there. I was here for seven years before I went back. And at the time, I was really, really homesick to go back to the Balkans because I was in my early 20s, and life was a bit difficult here, and I just wanted to go back.
And I kept having these recurring dreams of going back to my hometown, Osijek, but never actually getting there. I would have this dream on a regular basis. Until I went back. And the dream stopped.
And from that point on, I went back for fun, to see family, for pleasure, to see the graves because my grandparents’ graves are there.
Look I get emotional when I go back there. Because it’s a previous life, it’s where my previous life was.
The emotional reaction is not missing the country, it’s nostalgia, it is simply nostalgia. I’m yearning for what was back then. And that doesn’t exist anymore.
My hometown was a lively hometown full of kids. We used to go for walks along the river, there were kids, young families, everywhere. These days, the place is dead. Everyone has moved out, people have left. It is simply not the same place. And after going back on a semi-regular basis, I realize that what I’m missing, it’s not the place, it’s the time.
The only thing which really tugs at the heartstrings is the ravnica, which is the flatlands. Because I was born in Slavonia, which is flat: a 20-meter hill is a mountain. So I grew up with vast blue skies and the fields of corn and then wheat. And that is what really tugs on the heartstrings for me. That’s the only place, when I go back, when I really feel like I sort of belong there: not in the city, not in the mountains, but in those cornfields because that’s what I saw as a kid visiting grandparents, playing with other kids. And that’s, that’s what really gets to me.
I don’t think I’ll be going back anytime soon. I like to go back there but I feel like I’m going to a nice place for a holiday. My heart isn’t there anymore. I take pride in our history in what my ancestors have done. But I don’t base my life on it.
PETER KORCHNAK: Nick is the first Victor-level supporter of Remembering Yugoslavia on Patreon. So of course I have to ask: what inspired you to support the project?
NICK STETIC: I’m a history buff. So I listen to a lot of his podcasts about history. And I thought, let’s see if there’s something there. So there you popped up.
This appealed to me, because it invokes that sense of nostalgia. And I can smell some of these places and events. And it’s like when you see a photo of an old Balkan kitchen, or living room, and you can smell what it smells like, again, you can hear the parkety creak underneath your feet and the way doors close. It just again, comes down to memories of a childhood and of a time gone past.
This podcast highlights events and places and people of a nation which wasn’t perfect but we had a great life. And Yugoslavia caught a lot of flack from all different sides: from the Western world that we’re socialist, from the nationalistic that we’re communists. But the reality is that back then, if you worked hard and you actually tried something, you could accomplish something. My father rose from abject poverty to comfortable middle class. And you could do that in a supposedly communist backward nation.
This podcast highlights the bad but also the great things that we had back in the time. And I remember the life quite well, so I do have a lot of memories from before the war.
I want people to know that what we had back then it wasn’t this horrible, awful, failed experiment. It wasn’t a perfect nation, but it was a good nation. And given time and effort it could have succeeded. But it was not to be.
I was listening to one of your most recent podcasts and I was just thinking and it occurred to me that in remembering Yugoslavia, to me, it’s not about remembering the country. It’s about not just remembering but actually keeping it alive. It’s not the actual country. It’s the spirit. It’s the ethos, it’s the brotherhood and unity, helping your fellow man. And to me, it’s not just nostalgia anymore. It is actually like, not a religion, but a way of life.
“Vreme je” by Yugo Project
PETER KORCHNAK: My next guest discovered me, or rather this podcast, on Instagram and, being a podcaster herself, reached out to connect. A daughter of a merchant marine and a chemical engineer, Iva Jankovic lives in Vancouver, BC, and even though, to my dismay, she is not a Canucks fan, her second-hand knowledge about Yugoslavia and what she does with it makes up for it several fold.
IVA JANKOVIĆ: I have no lived experience in the former Yugoslavia. I was born in Belgrade, moved to Canada when when I was three, right after the NATO bombings, my family immigrated here to Canada and I grew up in Vancouver.
I have for most of my life had this kind of nostalgic feeling or the sense that I’m from a place that doesn’t exist anymore. And the way that you capture that in your podcast is kind of a profound feeling. And so the nostalgia I think comes from more of a sense of like something that was lost that I didn’t actually ever have. And something that I feel like, I could have grown up in the place that I was born had it maybe still been that way. Maybe it’s more of a sense of longing, because I can’t actually say that I’m nostalgic for anything I personally experienced.
It starts with what my parents would say, they would always talk about, like, how things aren’t good over there right now but how when they were young, like, they lived in the best country in the world, and their passport, like, they could travel anywhere they wanted to, and like, all this kind of stuff that of course, like, as a kid listening to it, I was like, “Whoa, what is this dreamland and why can’t I go there?” Because it doesn’t exist anymore.
So I think it starts from there. But then it continues is like, in my regular life, I guess in Canada also, like, became involved in kinds of community organizing, and like, ways of thinking about life and economics and stuff that do line up with some of the ideas that like Yugoslavia represented, for example. And so I think that kind of early seed that my parents planted that socialism can be a functional society that those then like later were sparked again, as I kind of entered it in my adulthood.
This year I’ve spent a lot of time like doing my own research reading a lot and that has further kind of just built up the sense of both kind of passion but also like loss at like, “Oh, yeah, this doesn’t exist anymore, but now I’m less sad and now I’m more angry as to like why, I guess.
PETER KORCHNAK: Given all that, what relationship do you have to the place where you were born? Has it evolved over time, as relationships do?
IVA JANKOVIĆ: It’s really changed a lot over the years. I think there was like, a quite long period in my life where I totally just, like, ignored that entire side of myself and was focused on my life in Canada, really.
I was becoming really interested, I guess, in history and also in urban planning at the time, when I was 17. And I was like, “Hm, I come from this like place that has really interesting architecture and so I made a whole trip, a personal kind of research trip, to Serbia working with the— it’s called the urbanistički zavod. It’s like the urbanism center or whatever. And this led me to just a deep dive into the history of Belgrade as a city and the way that captured a lot of like the history of the region, specifically I guess the region of Serbia. But that got me interested again.
And of course spending time there like, I guess I maintained my connection through like food, food has always been big. We’ve always done slavas here with my family and with our friends.
PETER KORCHNAK: Slava being an annual feast in the Serbian Orthodox tradition to celebrate a family’s patron saint.
IVA JANKOVIĆ: And to be honest, I don’t have much family there anymore.
So I think my connection at this point is more through just like friends that I have that live there and really just a lot of like personal kind of interest and studies.
I love Serbia. I love being there. And I do feel like in real time connected to it still.
PETER KORCHNAK: In our earlier conversations and today already you mention studying former Yugoslavia. How, if at all, does what you’ve been learning play into your life, into what you do?
IVA JANKOVIĆ: I think significantly, actually. I study cooperatives, the cooperative business model. And I also work for the BC Cooperative Association, which represents co-ops across BC. And I became really interested in this model, because of my own experience after graduating university and having some difficulty finding work, my friends, and I formed a worker cooperative. And so this, this idea of workers controlling their own means of production, I guess, was really, really interesting to me. And I started learning more about this idea of like, socialism, as cooperatives kind of do fit very nicely into that whole system of thinking.
And I didn’t previously really engage with that, because of notions that I had, that were really due to growing up in a very capitalist system that we’re like, “Oh, socialism never works, it’s failed in all these places.” But then discovering that, like, there was a period of time during which socialism really flourished, in Yugoslavia, and was really like, changed the way that social relations were in that place. That really reinvigorated my interest in that.
So I think learning about kind of worker self management in Yugoslavia, which was kind of this idea that basically workers control industry, they basically own like the big industries in the country lines up interestingly, with the co op model, I would say. I mean, partially, also these industries are state-owned as well, which is not the case in cooperative ownership.
PETER KORCHNAK: How does what you’re learning about cooperatives translate into your work in Canada?
IVA JANKOVIĆ: The way that I’m applying that research back to my work here in Canada is actually kind of in the sense of worker-led organizing. Because here in Canada, we do actually have a lot of consumer cooperatives, which are very different I would say. It’s basically the idea that, as a customer of a store or of a service, you can co-own that service. But I think really, what I carry from learning about the history of worker-led socialism basically in Yugoslavia is that, that is kind of the more important time type of cooperation. And so this is why I like really am interested in worker cooperatives here. And I frequently try to bring up in all conversations that I’m a part of that like, if there’s any kind of cooperative, be it a consumer co-op or a producer co-op or whatever, like the workers should also be members of this co-op and have democratic power and stuff. So I think that’s how that learning from Yugoslavia translates to my work today.
I’m currently very interested in seeing like, how has that history of worker self-management and worker organizing, how might that actually have laid the groundwork for a potential cooperative movement in Serbia today? Which doesn’t exist currently, really, but could it? Is kind of what I’m interested in. Yeah, I’m curious whether they can be a tool for economic organizing and building a democratic society, basically.
PETER KORCHNAK: This is very interesting to me, on so many levels. Ideas developed in Yugoslavia being applied today in not just the world but also one of its successor countries. Co-ops as a tool for democracy. How did you get involved in this work? What are you up to?
IVA JANKOVIĆ: There was a cooperative movement in Yugoslavia. Some of the earliest co-ops in history were formed in that region.
I guess, the way that I got kind of connected to cooperative organizing in Serbia, is through the protests that were going on this summer, actually.
PETER KORCHNAK: The mass protests Iva is referring to, if you’re not familiar, took place in Serbia last July following the decision by the Vučić government to reimpose a nationwide lockdown after having opened up the country before the elections that had taken place in June. The protests turned violent.
And they also had an international element: A number of younger-generation Serbs in the diaspora around the world joined forces with activists in Serbia and organized protests in their cities and online. Iva participated in this movement in Canada. Things took off from there.
IVA JANKOVIĆ: Yeah, myself and a bunch of other folks from around the world and in Serbia, we started just to talk, to communicate, and to share ideas. And out of that a group of people who are interested in the cooperative model as a tool for people— We are all I guess from Serbia proper. So that’s what I’ll say right now. But we as a group of like, like Serbian diaspora youth, basically, we’re thinking of like, how could this model potentially be a tool for economic development and for, like, youth empowerment in Serbia. For basically more autonomy and independence for people and for communities, both economically and like democratically.
So we have been talking, I guess, for months now. And recently, we’ve been planning online discussions, that would be kind of like little brainstorming groups, where we would invite a couple of different organizations or speakers and have these kind of co-op cafes, where we would work through some of these challenges and come up with ideas for cooperatives. So we’re still at the very like conversational stage and have been just doing like a lot of research primarily to understand the context.
PETER KORCHNAK: It would seem this kind of work connects you with the diaspora not just in BC or Canada but around the world, right?
IVA JANKOVIĆ: Yeah, honestly, I’ve never been this connected, I guess, globally to the Serbian diaspora or like ex-Yugoslav diaspora. A couple of folks from Vancouver, maybe, but a lot of people in New York, a lot of people in Northern Europe, Central Europe, some folks in Australia. Yeah, kind of a wide range of places.
I made so many friends this year it was— I did not expect to make friends during COVID at all but we’ve stayed connected, we’ve just been chatting and it’s just been so like, affirming to meet new people who I didn’t even know existed basically with really similar ideas, very aligned and just friendly. Like we’ve just been chatting and staying connected like over WhatsApp.
PETER KORCHNAK: What you’re describing sounds like a new generation of the diaspora. You call them diasporadicals, which I love. You’re focused on, well, not necessarily your nation, which is what a lot of diasporans, not just Serbian, around the world, tend to do. What kind of connection, if any, do you maintain with the, let’s call it the traditional or old-school Serbian diaspora?
IVA JANKOVIĆ: I grew up in a diaspora community. We were connected, very connected with the Serbian community here in Vancouver. We all kind of helped each other like, when we all moved here, I guess, kind of these like diaspora networks the way that they do that. We were a somewhat insular community. And yes, very, very nationalistic.
From an early age, I found it very weird. You know, I used to go to like Sunday school and they would make us wear like “Kosovo Is Serbia” t-shirts, and walk around. And at that point, I told my parents like, this doesn’t feel good. I was five, I was like, really young. And even then, like, it didn’t feel okay to me. And so this is maybe why I have a bit of a[n] awkward relationship with, in particular, my Serbian identity and with the Serbian community that I grew up around. I feel like I set boundaries for myself that I can enjoy my time with them, I can enjoy slavas, I can enjoy kind of our meals and our traditions and things but I in no way want to participate in any kind of nationalist narrative.
And so much of my work and my, like, personal research has been about dismantling that for myself. I personally understand that my background and my heritage is very, very diverse, comes from all parts of ex Yugoslavia, as well as like Hungary and Mongolia and Germany and like, Middle East as well. And so, like, I have, personally no— nothing to do with Serbia except for being born there. And, you know, having like the cultural upbringing that comes with that, so yeah, it’s been a very interesting kind of relationship.
PETER KORCHNAK: In one of your podcast episodes—and we’ll get to your podcast in a bit—you said something along the lines of you don’t see a future with the Serbian identity for yourself. I found that intriguing, can you tell me a little bit more about that?
IVA JANKOVIĆ: I don’t see it as like, helpful for myself to see myself as like, you know, a Serb who’s been dealt like injustice by the world or whatever. That’s a dead end.
There’s a number of different kind of identity issues that Serbs have and one of them is the sense of like being wronged by history.
For myself, I explored that rabbit hole just to see what it was about really like in a very kind of skeptical way, and was like, “Okay, I see the arguments here and they really don’t lead anywhere good. They lead to like extremism and to stagnation.”
And so that really kind of made me think of going the opposite direction and just kind of leaving that to the side, acknowledging like, yes, I’m Serbian, I was born there, I carry kind of this sense of identity with me but that’s not all I am. And I can also be who I want to be and like, also identify myself how, how I want to, and Serbian isn’t what I want to identify as, I think.
Letting myself explore different parts of my history, and not even my own history, but also the history of the region has helped me to kind of see what forces have shaped that region as well. So I think identity for me is also very historical. I can also directly kind of refer to like, my family that I have, that’s Croatian and that’s Hungarian and all these different kind of groups and kind of use myself as almost like a subjective understanding the history of the region as well. So that that’s just kind of like a really interesting thing you can do when you’re from a confusing place.
PETER KORCHNAK: Ok, so the podcast.
IVA JANKOVIĆ: Like about 50 percent of people in the world I started a podcast during COVID because I just felt disconnected from conversations that I was used to having when I was able to gather with other people. And, you know, a lot of my friends I haven’t connected with in years because they live around the world that I’ve met in various kind of life situations and the podcast— I guess I should say it’s called The Common Denominator. I would say it’s mostly on Instagram and archive.org right now.
We do talk about a lot of different things but they are kind of all different takes on community organizing, on justice, on different kinds of ideas or models, as compared to kind of our current system. So I really have been using the podcast more as, I would say, a platform to share ideas. I like to kind of interview my friends when they’re organizing events or when they have different campaigns or whatever that they’re working on to help to highlight those because I think that our media system doesn’t do a good job of that, especially for the most important things. And so I wanted to just work with them to be that voice or that platform. So it’s been a fun time. Like I really love doing it.
“Beneath the Tree” by ArHai
PETER KORCHNAK: The third and final Yugodiasporan today is my discovery, so to speak. One day I was scrolling through the #rememberingyugoslavia hashtag on Instagram and found her post in which she eloquently shared her feelings about her former homeland. Milena Damnjanović lives in Amsterdam with her husband and daughter and works for, let’s say, a major player in the tourism industry.
MILENA DAMNJANOVIĆ: I was born in Belgrade in 81.
PETER KORCHNAK: And today, I mean the day of this episode’s official release, is Milena’s big birthday. So, Milena—
[SOUNDBITE – SONG]
MALE VOCAL: Srečan, srečan ti rodjendan… (“Happy happy birthday to you)
MILENA DAMNJANOVIĆ: I basically grew up in Belgrade. I finished university there, I started working. And at some point, I met my husband when I went with friends to the seaside to Croatia. That was the first time after the war, that I went back to Croatia. That was 2005, 10 years after the war ended.
We actually got to know each other in one of the most Yugoslav part of the coast, and that’s Istria. And even to this day, Istria for me it still has the values and it still has the
vibe that I can remember from Yugoslavia. There’s a huge antifascist pride that you can still feel in Istria. The streets are still named after the heroes from the Second World War. So these things changed almost everywhere but not in Istria. You can still see the monuments with the red star, Marshal Tito squares… You can still have the feeling of the country that once existed.
For the first few years, we were seeing each other between Zagreb and Belgrade. And it wasn’t easy, because back then, in 2005, these relationships were very rare. It was still a lot of tensions, very palpable tensions. It wasn’t really something that people welcomed on either side, this mixed relationships.
But then I decided to make a brave step and move to Zagreb, which completely came as a surprise to my parents, to all of my friends. They thought that I’m really crazy. And then I spent six-seven years living in Zagreb. And that was quite an experience to be a young Belgrade girl in Zagreb and Croatia building her life there. But it ended up as a really beautiful story. And I’m very grateful for that part in my life.
PETER KORCHNAK: You lived in Zagreb for seven years. Tell me more about living in Zagreb as a Serb, about the challenges living there at the time, the changes you experienced.
MILENA DAMNJANOVIĆ: For the first few years I really felt almost like the second I started to talk, the second the people detect[ed] Serbian I was viewed almost as the enemy. And then people would say things like, “Sorry to say but you are Serbian, right?” Like they would apologize even like being Serbian has a negative meaning in itself. Like it wasn’t a neutral word. I felt that somehow I don’t belong.
And I put myself a bit into a position where I needed almost to be allowed to be [an] equal member of society. My closest friends helped me actually make a transition into saying, “Hey, this can be my home, regardless of everything that happened between our nations.”
When I got my first job, on my way to the office, there were three buildings. All of the graffiti were about hanging Serbians. Like, “We will hang Serbians,” or “Kill kill kill Serbians.” Like they were saying these things and I really thought this didn’t bother me.
From Zagreb, we moved to Amsterdam, six years ago together. We didn’t really look for opportunities, I just got a job offer and we decided to take the chance. And now we are here since 2014.
And then only when I came to Amsterdam, I realized at one moment that I am not afraid to look at the buildings with graffitis [sic]. It became clear to me that all these years, actually, I was passing these walls thinking they don’t bother me, but my whole body was like clenching and I was extremely nervous. And I only let go of it once I was in Amsterdam after maybe a year or so of living here.
PETER KORCHNAK: What of the nationalism you talked about earlier? Have you seen any changes since leaving Zagreb and now only visiting it?
MILENA DAMNJANOVIĆ: There is again, a strong nationalistic element in their politics, regardless of whether they are in the center of the spectrum. Even some of the so-called left options are heavily conservative and nationalistic, and in a very populistic way, too.
This summer for example we went to Croatia, and the first day when we arrived, there was a small demonstration on the street and there were young men gathered together holding a big sign saying, “We are going to fuck Serbian women and children.”
At that time, I was seeing a therapist and I called my therapist from Croatia and I told her about the story and and there was, I swear to you, there was a moment when she thought that I imagined it. And she went to check on the news and then she admitted to me, she said, “I really for a second thought that it’s more likely that you imagined it, than that it really happened in 2020 in the middle of the EU capital.”
PETER KORCHNAK: Okay, you go to Zagreb a lot. What about your hometown, Belgrade?
MILENA DAMNJANOVIĆ: I still go back home to Belgrade; my mom, my dad, and my sister, they all live there. I really, really love that city. But I can’t recognize it anymore and I don’t feel at home there anymore. And I’m deeply sad because of that. I cried many times after visiting Belgrade because I feel the relief. When I first realized that when the plane takes off, I feel what used to be pure sadness that now is a relief that I’m going into my normal life, that made me so sad.
PETER KORCHNAK: Let’s go to the Netherlands, to today. You consider yourself, and people call you, an expat, and that sounds like the correct term for your situation.
MILENA DAMNJANOVIĆ: Amsterdam is full of expats, right, like full of expats from everywhere in the world. Booking obviously is a good example, we are 5,000 people and a majority of people obviously come from all parts of the world. And then you see people going back home. Italians, Australians, Americans, they all go back at some point.
And this is where I feel anger toward my country. I really honestly feel anger because I don’t have a feeling that there’s a place for me to go back to. I don’t think that there’s any kind of decent life that I could live if I decide to go back. And this is where I really I am angry, almost as if it was a person. That’s how I feel anger toward Serbia, especially with our mixed marriage and having a daughter to raise. This is by far the safest territory to live our lives. But is this home?
I would love to go back. It’s just that I don’t see it as an option. And for that I am angry and I hold it against Serbia and I hold it against Croatia that we cannot just say, “Hey, we are coming back.”
PETER KORCHNAK: Having lived in the Netherlands in 2002 and three, I experienced and heard other people from outside of Western Europe experience what the Dutch “tolerance” means when it comes to what they call poor countries. What’s been your experience?
MILENA DAMNJANOVIĆ: That’s something that I do notice, absolutely what you’ve said. You are labeled as coming from that poor, a bit underdeveloped, a bit communistic a bit, somehow part.
I have repeatedly been told by men, “Why do women from Eastern Europe want to pretend and look like prostitutes?” Really that’s how I think Western Europe sees us.
When somebody would ask me where I’m from now I’m prepared for the reaction, People would say, “Oh, you’re from Serbia, but you speak English well.” Or, “You are from Serbia but you have a good job. Or, “You are from Serbia but you know, you are beautiful and you dress well.” And then they are confused. And you can see in that moment that you don’t match what is their perception or their bias toward the part of the world that we come from.
I don’t hold it against them. I think probably we too, have a lot of bias that we are not aware of also.
I see Dutch culture in a rather positive light. And it allowed me to start changing my habits or introduce new habits, new patterns. It broadened the way I see the world. It also helped me put Yugoslavian context into a different perspective and to emotionally detach myself. When I emotionally deta ched myself, I was really able to see our country in a different light. Being in touch with people from all around the world gives you a tremendous opportunity to re-examine the way you live your life, your values.
We bought the apartment in this building four years ago. And we joke that we represent Serbia and Croatia. And then on the fourth floor, we have our neighbor Aida who is from Sarajevo and she’s been living in this building for 20 years. And we always joke that we represent small Yugoslavia. And we hope that one day, we would have a Slovenian representative moving in. The base is here in the building already. We have three nations and three religions. So we really feel that we truly live those Yugoslavian values. And yeah, we are not only happy that we found each other here but we also really nurture the best of what Yugoslavia used to be.
We are not part of, let’s say official diaspora, absolutely not. I removed myself from the groups. First, I really wanted to be a part and I wanted to belong to a Serbian group or to Croatian group. I really longed for belonging. But then it became very quickly very political. And also I detected immediately a very strong nationalism in these groups. So I removed myself from all of the groups. I do have Serbian and Croatian friends, they are close friends, but they are all friends from work.
PETER KORCHNAK: Here’s an excerpt from the Instagram post that led me to Milena:
“I miss the country I was born in, the country that I loved, that felt like a safe big home to me. I still remember a small terrified 10 year old girl that I was, crying while watching the only country I knew and loved, disappearing in a bloody war. All these years later many people from my generation hate that country. They look at it as a dictatorship. The story about the country we were born in is much more complex than that. And for most of my life I felt shame to admit that I miss that country. That I still love something that does not exist. Something that so many people wanted to escape from, to leave behind, and off into their newly created independent states where the sun will shine brighter. Tonight I get to feel sad and to miss and to love the country that both of my granddads fought for in WWII. The country where I had the happiest childhood. Until I didn’t.”
So Milena, why post this on November 21st? Why these feelings?
MILENA DAMNJANOVIĆ: November 21 is the day of my slava. So it’s really about our family tradition. Normally, I would go back for slava, it’s [an] important day for me. And it’s the day that I want to spend with my family and honor my father and his tradition. But because of corona, of course, I couldn’t travel home.
Throughout the day, I was fighting nostalgia, I was fighting melancholy. But it was all about childhood, actually. And it was all about the happiness of the memories from Yugoslavia. And as the day went on, I really felt that I don’t have anyone to share this feeling with, you know, my husband doesn’t feel it, I realized that I’ve never discussed this with my friends, that in Croatia, particularly, people are either not nostalgic at all about Yugoslavia, or if they are, then they for sure hide it very, very well. And all of a sudden, I said to my husband, I have a need to write something and to share it.
And he told me, you know, if you do share it, you know, be ready to get a negative response. And that was the moment where I decided I am going to speak up. And I’ve never said out loud, that I am sad this country doesn’t exist anymore, that I was heartbroken, even as a girl, watching the country disappear in front of our eyes. All of a sudden, you know, I was so proud of our army as a little girl, about the values of the antifascist movement in the World War Two. I knew that side of Partisan history because my granddad’s fighting in the Partisans.
All of a sudden everything that was seen throughout my first years of childhood as [a] value that we need to uphold all of a sudden became something that we should feel shame about. And this country that I loved so dearly and truly in the way [an] innocent child can love someone or something, that country not only ceased to exist, but was turned into something ugly, filthy, it was distorted into a big bully. And I was quiet about that for decades.
And I realized on that day that you now say it was 21st, I realized, Peter, that actually, I never, ever learned how to love Serbia. I never learned that. I was forced to continue to love the country but that was not my country. And I’m 100 percent Serbian; there’s not a single drop of non-Serbian blood in my roots and I know my roots throughout the generations and generations and generations. And it was hard for me to learn to love the country that was basically all of a sudden forced on to me, that was one part of the country that was mine and not the entire country.
There is not obviously one story. The country used to have more than 20 millions of habitants people, and there’s so many different stories about that country. But I really do hope that these stories continue to live, that they are freely shared, that our children don’t have to feel ashamed if they want to know more, if they decide that there are things to love about this country, that they would be able to share it freely within any kind of community, and that the memory of the country is going to be as diverse and as inclusive, as I believe that country was. I truly believe that Yugoslavia was [an] inclusive country that celebrated diversity and that was built on really strong values, and that we should not be ashamed if we still have feelings for that country, despite all the bad things that did happen throughout its history.
PETER KORCHNAK: Who am I? Where do I belong? Where and what is home? Who are my people?
Living abroad certainly puts answers to all these questions in perspective, though it can take a good while to get to them. I say this both as a comment to Nick’s, Iva’s, and Milena’s stories, and from my own experience living outside my home country for 20 years now.
As a long-time student of nationalism, there’s a lot I find telling in these stories from the diaspora when it comes to ethnic and national belonging: these aren’t the only group identities one can have; they can be far from primary identity markers and conversely can be, and indeed are, but one facet of one’s identity; it’s possible to not use ethnicity or nation to define oneself, to reject these categories even, and compose one’s personhood of other identities, ones that are more productive to your well being and that of your community. As one sharp-tongued pundit recently tweeted, perhaps hyperbolically: “To be proud of being a Serb, Croat, Bosniak, Italian, German, Englishman, Chinese, Japanese is a sign you haven’t done anything in your life.”
The point is: you decide who you are. Not your government, not your priest, not even your parents—you. Ethnic or national identity isn’t in the blood; plasma, red and white blood cells, and platelets are in the blood. These identities, like all others, are constructs that result from nurture, not nature. You decide.
PETER KORCHNAK: Next time on Remembering Yugoslavia:
D.A. CALF: And then I realized that I mean, all the portrayals of them were through imagery. Coming from a sound background, where I thought deeply about sound and I understood the value of listening deeply, I thought, what happens when we listen to these sites? What happens if we listen to the monuments themselves?, but also the sites around them
PETER KORCHNAK: Artists have used Yugoslav socialist monuments as a canvas for their works. On the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia: a Croatian, a Macedonian, and an Australian artist and their interventions at various spomenici.
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PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information and the transcript of this episode in the show notes at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
Are you a diasporan with a story to share? Get in touch! Do you know someone who would enjoy this podcast? Tell them about it! Do you like this podcast? Give Remembering Yugoslavia a star rating or write a short review on your favorite podcast listening app, like Apple Podcasts.
I am Peter Korchňak.