Two members of the Serbian diaspora share their experiences leaving former Yugoslavia, making a new life in South Africa and the United Kingdom, and staying connected with their disappeared homeland. Plus a listener’s letter from Australia.
Nelson Mandela, Patreon members, and assorted Yugoslav sports stars also make an appearance.
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Episode Transcript (and More)
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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 host Peter Korchnak.
Since the 1990s the numbers of Croats, Bosniaks, Serbs, Montenegrins, Kosovars, and Macedonians who have left their homes in former Yugoslavia to seek a new life abroad, outside the former republics, have grown by…well a lot. It is nearly impossible to track down accurately just how many people have left the former Yugoslav republics since 1991 or how many people in the world were born in Yugoslavia.
Official statistics in both origin and host countries either lump those born in former Yugoslavia together with those who claim ancestry in one of the constituent nations or they don’t track ethnicity, national origin, or country of birth in meaningful ways.
At any rate, today an estimated 2 to 2.5 million Croats and up to 3 million Serbs, to count just the most populous diasporas, live outside their home countries. By another count, some 45 percent of Bosnian citizens, 21 percent of Croatian citizens, and 18 percent of Serbian citizens now live abroad.
The United States and Canada, Germany and Austria as well as Australia are the most popular destinations. Sizable diasporas of Croats live in Argentina and Chile, and of Serbs in France, Sweden, and Switzerland.
The numbers game aside, let’s just agree there are quite a few people out there in the world who come from former Yugoslavia. Today I’m going to speak with two of them. They were both born in the 1980s. They were both born in Serbia, which was of course then part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. They both left Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. And they both work in creative business professions: the first guest is a graphic designer, the second a copywriter.
I spoke with both of them online. After these conversations, stay tuned for a letter I received from a listener in the Australian diaspora. Yes, this episode spans four continents…
Nelson Mandela, Patreon members, and assorted Yugoslav sports stars also make an appearance.
Serbian Diaspora in South Africa: Ivan Colic
PETER KORCHNAK: Ivan Čolić was born in 1983 in Smederevska Palanka, an industrial town in central Serbia with the population of about 50,000. He has lived in South Africa since 1992, and counts among some 25,000 Serbs who live there. He’s had even greater challenges with the local pronunciation of his name than I have here in the U.S., but that’s another story. I’m interested in hearing the tales of witnessing Yugoslavia’s dissolution as a child and how he ended up in South Africa.
IVAN ČOLIĆ: Long, long time ago in a far, far away land in the late 70s… My father’s a Croat from Bosnia and my mom is a Serb from Serbia, which I think a lot of people in the former Yugoslavia are in mixed marriages. And I think that certainly created interesting problems once the war happened and once the diaspora kind of kicked off. And when my father went to study, he went to Crna Gora, to Montenegro, he went to Titograd, which is now Podgorica, to go and study there to be an electrical engineer. Around the same time, my mom was in Belgrade studying to be an economist.
As it wasn’t the olden days, engineers would move around to different republics or different cities, looking for work. And it so happened that my father ended up settling in a little town in central Serbia, where my mom was, where my mother’s family came from. And the two of them met and started dating, and a year later, I was born. And a couple of years after that my younger brother was born.
And I think obviously, in the 80s, already, there were some signs that Yugoslavia as a project was starting to go towards a difficult period. And my parents, being quite ambitious and being quite professionally minded, started looking around for options in terms of moving abroad and you know, they tried the usual routes of going to North America, Australia, New Zealand, those kinds of places. And this process was quite, quite long. Of course, this is back in the day before we had internet. So my parents were looking around for a couple of years trying to figure out what the next move would be.
And as the tension started rising, so I was was around 7, 8, 9, when all of this stuff was happening, and just like quite a difficult age: you’re not young enough to easily forget and kind of pretend that you don’t know what’s going on, but you’re old enough to kind of have a bit of an uncomfortable understanding that things are not right.
And most summers, I would go to my grandparents, just outside of Tuzla, Bosnia, to go and visit them and spend my summers there. And I remember watching TV with my grandparents late every evening and seeing the war starting in Croatia, and starting to see how things was moving. And I remember saying to them, like, “This is coming here.” I mean, I was eight at the time and somehow said it, and I remember then kind of hushing me like, “Ćuti, ćuti, Ivane.” Sadly, you know, that’s one of the last times I remember seeing them.
I remember around ‘91, early ‘92, one day, all of these refugee children came to our school, and suddenly the school doubled, there were twice as many children in my class, twice as many children walking in the hallways. And I didn’t quite understand. And I remember going home and speaking to my parents, and they would tell us that these were children that were running away from the war.
Things started looking really, really more and more complicated by early 1992. My parents started looking with increasing desperation to try and figure out a way of just just getting out. It doesn’t matter if it wasn’t, you know, Plan A, we were looking at Plan B, C, D, and so on. And at the time, South Africa, because it was under the previous kind of apartheid regime, they had identified that there was a lot of experts from the former USSR, from other former Eastern Bloc countries, and obviously from, Yugoslavia, former Yugoslavia, whatever you want to call it, that were suddenly looking to get out. These we’re, you know, technicians, engineers, you know, all sorts of really highly talented people. And they were, you know, just getting them all in, giving them visas, basically making them work. And what a lot of people didn’t know, of course, when they came, they were leaving, obviously very difficult circumstances from their countries, but they were also kind of moving into another uniquely complicated place, which was South Africa in the early 90s.
So it gives you some sense of the kind of bravery and the resilience that my parents had, and I suppose to some extent, even the desperation in terms of the kind of dreams, kind of rapidly tightening in terms of what they were able to do.
So in 1992, I think in the middle, I think it was June, July, my parents obviously sold the apartment, the little Fiat we had, all the little possessions we had. We got a gentleman to drive us from Serbia all the way to Switzerland, from Switzerland, we flew to London, and from London, we flew to South Africa. To me at the time, I’m grateful to say, it felt like a big adventure. I thought it was quite quite a lot of fun. I remember all the people were very kind on all the planes and it was a strange time. And I think we were leaving a country that was kind of falling apart, and we moved to a country that was kind of trying to figure out what it wanted to be.
And I remember there was a big group of families that had moved around the same time. We all kind of settled in the same hotel in downtown Johannesburg. A couple of Serbian families, a couple of Montenegrin families, a couple of Bosnian families, everybody was there and we all kind of tried to make do. And it was so bizarre because we all found ourselves in this hotel in a completely different world, trying to make sense of what is gonna happen next.
PETER KORCHNAK: You’re a graphic designer. Did your experience relocating from Yugoslavia to South Africa in the 1990s impact your career path in any way?
IVAN ČOLIĆ: I remember distinctly growing up in the 90s and South African kind of feeling like I closed the door on the experience of having lived the first part of my life in Yugoslavia and kind of just happily walked into the South African experience. You suddenly had democracy come, Nelson Mandela became the president, everything suddenly felt brilliant and bright and beautiful. All the dark, nasty problems of South Africa’s kind of past seem to have been dealt with in the 90s, which is like the period of my life where I was kind of pinned to my teenage years were brilliant. There’s lots of just a wonderful, wonderful sense of like discovering other people, other people’s cultures, and it was just wonderful. It really was like the medicine ethic my soul needed after like the sadness of having left my family and my old life behind.
But the whole time I kind of remember feeling like, I never really understood people and I never understood the culture. I don’t know, I was almost afraid that I wasn’t being understood, I wasn’t able to communicate. So I became increasingly kind of interested in almost I would say, obsessed with the idea of design and designing anything and everything. So whether that was art, whether that was music, I just wanted to kind of understand expression.
And like I remember distinctly 1994 when Kurt Cobain died, I didn’t know who Nirvana was, I didn’t know grunge, I didn’t know any of that stuff. But I could see all these kids around me in South Africa just be completely heartbroken. And I remember feeling so upset that I didn’t know what was going on, ‘cause all the heroes that I had, Monica Seleš or Goran Ivanišević or like, Robert Prosinečki, suddenly these people were not Yugoslavian anymore, like they were either American or they were Croatian. You couldn’t be proud of them anymore.
So I remember being really lost, so I just kind of decided, okay, like, I wanted to figure out, like, how to just control things. I know that sounds very strange but I think when you’re a little kid living in a very turbulent time, that’s what that’s what you want to do. You want to kind of protect yourself and try and create things in a way that kind of makes sense to you.
PETER KORCHNAK: Though they were in technical disciplines themselves, Ivan’s parents encouraged his creative side. But they also viewed his creative side in a pragmatic way. Which is how he ended up in advertising, a burgeoning industry in South Africa at the turn of the millennium.
IVAN ČOLIĆ: Combined with that kind of immigrant Yugoslavian mentality of just, you know, being resilient and tough, you can make anything work.
PETER KORCHNAK: Nearly thirty years later, what’s your relationship to the country where you were born?
IVAN ČOLIĆ: I’ve had a bit of a complicated I think relationship with— Complicated is a funny word. It’s been an unresolved part of my life, let’s just say that.
For the longest time, maybe up until about two years ago, on almost every level, I’ve kept the door closed on Yugoslavia. I think it was too painful.
My father is a Croat and he’s a Bosnian. I can’t say that I’m a Croat or a Bosnian. I can’t say that I’m Serbian. I can only say that I’m Yugoslavian. I can’t say anything else. And the longer I live and the older I get and the longer, further away Yugoslavia goes, the less I can even say that. I can more say that I’m a South African. But even then I’m not like that. They talk about, with a lot of people that are immigrants, you’re a third way again, non-aligned, I suppose you can say you’re not aligned so you’re not from the old place, you’re not from the new place is something different. And I think sometimes that can be an advantage. I think you constantly have your guard up, you constantly are looking for opportunities, you have a multiple kind of viewpoints from which to kind of read the world and to understand it. So whether that is in terms of the way you live your life philosophically, or whether it’s the way you run a business or look for opportunities or… It’s one of those things that I’m only now kind of waking up since or, while we’re talking today, like your podcast has been— It’s kind of like reacquainting myself with the heritage of where I’m from.
PETER KORCHNAK: Speaking of reacquainting. How often do you go back to Serbia? Do you go back at all?
IVAN ČOLIĆ: My parents go back quite often, but I only went back once, which was 1999, which is when NATO bombed Serbia and it was just after that, and it was awful. Peter that was like, that experience was the worst, worst experience. I just remember going back and seeing how everybody was living and again, you know, that resilience that that passion for life. We went everywhere, we went into Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, everywhere, everybody was welcome, they shared what little they had. But the tension of going to all those places, was just seared into my mind, I don’t ever want to relive that again.
And now you know, now that I’m married, to a South African lady, for a long time, I kind of thought, my goodness, you know, what is she gonna think if I take her back. In some ways you’re embarrassed, but then now I started to connect and like your podcast and your Instagram account and other young people, especially a lot of like kids from the States and like a lot of people that are from, like Bosnia and the former Yugoslav republics, that are like living in the U.S., they’re kind of making memes, they’re making fun. Like they’re identifying what makes them unique. So I mean, the people are rediscovering and reinventing and kind of redefining that whole experience which I think is great. But for myself at the moment, I haven’t quite figured out what that means for me.
For a very long time in South Africa, I can honestly say that I avoided other people from the former Yugoslavia. I think I was just overly sensitive, not overly sensitive, I was how I was, but those things felt very painful. Without going into too much detail, having met some kids and some families early on in our days in South Africa, and kind of navigating with those relationships, and I think a lot of people, you know, looking back on it now, I think, had a lot of unresolved issues of their own, that they projected onto us and my family and myself. It was hard, and people did the best that they could, but you know, at the time, I just the lesson I took away from it was like, “You know what, stay away, you’ll be best to just hang out with South African kids, and, you know, you’ll, you’ll be better for it.”
And that’s kind of like a principle that I’ve stuck with, for most of my life up until a few years ago, when I moved to Cape Town, and I met a really good Croatian guy I’m very good friends with. And he’s from one of the islands in Croatia, from Korčula. He was born in South Africa, his parents lived many, many years before Yugoslavia ended. And I think for them, they were always like, you know, more Croatian first. Yugoslavia to them wasn’t one of those, like, the positive associations, I think, you know, they’re, they’re their own journey. But this friend and I kind of made a bond, and we became close, and we still are, and what is quite interesting was, again, could making those connections about the cultural nuances and the funny little similarities and how you’re different from, from other people around you. There’s a loveliness in kind of seeing yourself in others and surprise around all of it.
PETER KORCHNAK: For some, I’m thinking Yugonostalgics, this would be an inspirational story, a Serb and a Croat becoming best friends in the diaspora… At any rate, it sounds like the door of Yugoslavia has been opening for you slowly but surely. What happened next?
IVAN ČOLIĆ: Once that door opened, I started thinking, “Well, you know, perhaps I should really look at all these things.” You do the deep dive, you check out the music your parents listen to, you look at the architecture that was achieved. There’s so much to appreciate.
And then the tragedy of it all is you sit back and say,” Well, you know what, I live in a country, an amazing country, but a country with a lot of problems.” And the people could not be more different, Peter, so different. And you kind of look back at what was lost, man, it hurts, it stings a lot. And I think there’s a wonderful Slavic quality to like really just brood and kind of be sentimental and nostalgic and really feel that pain and just like push through it and you almost enjoy the suffering at least maybe it perhaps, but perhaps it’s just me. But it’s one of those things where for a long time it was like it was it was a feeling I didn’t want to feel, it wasn’t a scratch, you wanted to itch. But then, you know, like you said, you get older, you want to have a look, you want to go for a deep dive.
And what that means I think going forward is I definitely want to get more involved with diaspora, I love to get to speak to more more more people from abroad to see what their experiences are like. I definitely want to go back. It’s been more than 20 years since I’ve been back. And it’s you know, it’s fair to say that those countries have all changed as well. They’re not what they were like, back in the 90s, they’re completely different.
PETER KORCHNAK: Ivan is the first Patreon member of Remembering Yugoslavia other than myself and my wife. So of course I have to ask him: What inspired you to support the project?
IVAN ČOLIĆ: Peter, I think there’s very few people on the face of the Earth that can say that they’re part of the club, where that club is made up of people that come from countries that no longer exist, I think it’s you guys from Czechoslovakia, it’s us in Yugoslavia, you could probably say some people from the former Rhodesia, which is now Zimbabwe. But essentially, it’s a unique, you know, it’s a unique state of limbo: you’re neither here nor there, you have all these values, you have all these ideas, you are kind of wrapped with belief and ideology and kind of views of the world.
And I remember coming across your podcast, and I thought, “My goodness, like, you know, it does say something about the Yugoslav experience where it takes for somebody else to say here, but you guys are interesting. And you guys have something worth exploring.”
But essentially, I thought, you know, this is really, really brilliant. As I said, I think you came, your project came at the right time, where not only were you just speaking to everyday people, but you were opening doors to ideas that I think I had kind of secretly had been kind of knocking on.
You know what, I feel like you were an incredible therapist more than anything.
PETER KORCHNAK: My interview with Elma Hodžić, the curator at the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina—that’s episode “Das Ist Museum,” for those of you tracking—prompted you to ask how you can support the museum and similar efforts. Tell me about that thought process.
IVAN ČOLIĆ: The first South African friend I made, my first and best friend in school, was a young boy named Mark. And the way we played was, we would run around the school during our breaks, and we would play Rambo, and we would shoot arrows and shoot guns at each other. There was no talking, it was just pure performance and theater and jumping around and having fun. And he became very dear friend to me.
And Mark now lives in Stockholm and even though he lives there he does a lot of work, in terms of trying to help, you know, people who need it here in South Africa. And I know it sounds, you know, a little bit like First World or whatever and with all this funny connotations. But you know what, there’s so many people that are in the diaspora that could help back home. And we just don’t know how to, it’s like, I don’t think we even consider it as an option. And it’s something that I’m wanting to try and do.
I think Jewish people can teach a lot of us how to like kind of get together and get heritage together and work past your differences. Right now I don’t think we’re doing the best that we could. But then again, I say that as a person who can put his hand up and say, I know for a fact that haven’t done enough and I’d like to do more.
When I read that story about that Museum and how hard they were fighting to make it work, and all these people just putting in all this extra time, to make it happen, I just thought, you know, I have to get enrolled.
I think for a long time, for most, most people, kids that were born in the 80s, they got to experience the extinguishing of that Yugoslavian project. And it sucked, it sucked, there’s no other way to say it, and you don’t really know how to deal with it. I certainly don’t think most of our parents want to talk about it, because it hurts them even more. They lived in it and they believed in it. So you’re left with you know, all these ideas and all these questions and when when things in your current life get more difficult and complicated you sometimes turn back and you put on some Bijelo Dugme or you put on some Emir Kusturica films and you think to yourself, “We were great. We were really, really great. And we threw it away.” And it hurts even more but there you go.
Serbian Diaspora in the UK: Andrea Jovanovic
PETER KORCHNAK: Andrea Jovanović hails from Belgrade and was too little when she left to remember anything of the old country. She counts among the approximately 70,000 Serbs who live in the United Kingdom.
ANDREA JOVANOVIĆ: I was born in August 1989, in Belgrade, which was then the capital of Yugoslavia. My family were quite heavily involved in YUTEL—
PETER KORCHNAK: —a short-lived newscast, originally intended to be a country-wide TV channel, sponsored by Yugoslavia’s federal government in order to promote the joint country just as it was falling apart. The broadcast straddled the end of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia as a country, running from October 1990 to May 1992. Andrea’s grandfather Nebojša “Bato” Tomašević was going to be the channel’s CEO. More on him later.
ANDREA JOVANOVIĆ: As things started to kick off in sort of mid-1991, as tensions were rising, my grandfather was brought up on charges several times, and we started to sort of worry for ourselves. My father was also working in YUTEL at the time. So we left shortly after my grandparents did. My grandmother is English, so that kind of helped. After my grandfather got out of the Partisans, he received a scholarship through the Yugoslav government to go and study in Exeter University, which is how he met my grandmother, who was an English woman—is an English woman, rather. They got married, and she lived for about 50 years in Yugoslavia, working as a publisher and a translator and a professor. She had a British passport and a car with British number plates. So my parents and I got in the back of the car, and we drove to a very, very small border crossing on the Hungarian border, where luckily, they didn’t seem aware of who was on the blacklist and who wasn’t. And from there, we drove to Newton Abbott in England, where we had sort of temporary accommodation. And here we are, you know, almost 30 years later, I’m living in London.
PETER KORCHNAK: You have no personal memories of Yugoslavia. But your connection with that country is strong through your family. Tell me about that, what is that connection?
ANDREA JOVANOVIĆ: I suppose my connection is just living in the legacy of family members who were quite, I would say, quite well respected in the Yugoslav hierarchy. I mean, my grandfather was a child partisan. His sister, Stana Tomašević, ended up being one of the highest ranked females, female colonels, in the Partisan army. It was her battalion which primarily defended Titov Drvar. And she was the subject of some photographs taken by the English photographer, John Talbot in 1944, in Drvar, which were then dropped around Europe to encourage resistance. So she went on to have a pretty amazing career.
So she went on to become a federal minister in the government. Later, she was the first woman amba— female ambassador for Norway, Iceland, and Denmark. And by the time she died in 1984, she had just resigned as the president of the Federal Chamber of Yugoslavia, the parliament. So she was fairly well known. And I think for that reason, I think we were well connected, and everybody really believed in it. So we’ve always been raised with that kind of, I suppose, socialist mindset.
PETER KORCHNAK: We met on Instagram and from the photos you post there I thought you were from Croatia.
ANDREA JOVANOVIĆ: My grandfather has always been heavily involved in publishing. And in the 70s, he set up a publishing association called the Motovun Group. And it was named after a small village in Croatia, which at the time was kind of half abandoned, sort of left to ruin, which is now rather a big UNESCO World Heritage Site and very popular. And he persuaded all the members of this publishing group to buy houses there. And we bought a house there, I think, in ‘71. And so the whole family has kind of holidayed there every summer, every winter ever since. And eight years ago, I fell in love with the boy down the road and married him. So I’ve kind of continued the traditional relationship with the town, I suppose.
I did try to live there. But I think going from London to rather a small place can be a bit tricky. So as it happens, he lives here with me, and we go there, I’d say six or seven times a year.
Sometimes it’s just for a weekend. We will literally land in Pula, spend the weekend in Motovun, and come home. Sometimes I’ll go to Belgrade myself for an extended weekend just to see friends or family. But we go fairly often.
I mean, I, my Serbo-Croatian was very, very bad until four or five years ago. In fact, it was pretty much non existent. But I’ve since taught myself. Obviously, I think I can only correctly use about four out of the seven cases. But I read and write fluently and people understand me, although my accent is quite confused.
PETER KORCHNAK: Did you go this year as well? Since March?
ANDREA JOVANOVIĆ: We went over the summer for three weeks. I mean, Istria has been pretty much COVID free not so much because of the measures or anything but I mean it’s an agricultural area. You know, the largest, our village has what 300 people within the actual village and another two or 300 scattered around in the same sort of council. And you travel in your own car, there’s no public transport to speak of. I mean, you just don’t tend to get as close to people. And you don’t spend as much time indoors either.
PETER KORCHNAK: And what about your parents? Do they maintain connections with the old country?
ANDREA JOVANOVIĆ: My parents don’t go back to Serbia at all. I suppose my father is a Serb Serb, my mother is a mix, she’s half-English, half-Montenegrin, but the way they see it, their country doesn’t exist anymore. So they’re not keen on going back. I think I’m the last person in, in the family who’s got a passport, a valid passport. Although obviously getting a Yugoslav passport converted to a Serbian passport was an interesting exercise in bureaucracy.
When my parents first came to the United Kingdom, my mother, obviously being half English had a much easier time getting recognized status in the UK. And my father, and I waited, I think, from 1992 until around 2001 to get passports and permanent residency. Yeah, they worked very, very hard in the beginning, because we really had nothing here. In the beginning, we lived with them with my grandparents, but you know, it’s one house and three generations. And then my sister was born shortly afterwards. So we didn’t see a lot of them as kids. They were pretty much at work until late at night.
PETER KORCHNAK: Given your storied family background, I am curious if you, a writer by profession, albeit in the corporate sphere, dedicate any of your art to documenting that history.
ANDREA JOVANOVIĆ: The hard work has sort of been taken out of that for me. My grandfather wrote his biography, very detailed, I think the original was about 1,200 pages. My grandmother, being an editor, got it down to about 600. And it’s been published in about 11 languages. In English, it’s called Life and Death in the Balkans, by [Nebojšaä Bata Tomašević.
So yeah, I mean, whereas I’d probably be scrambling around in, you know, ancient papers and giving myself a headache with Cyrillic script, he sort of did that for us.
Because there were a couple of other significant events in his life. For example, when he went to England to seek permission to marry my grandmother—because he was in the diplomatic service and that was kind of frowned on in the Cold War period—he came back on the plane with the Busby Boys [sic], so the Man United team who were then killed when the plane didn’t take off properly.
PETER KORCHNAK: Aviation history refers to the incident as the Munich air disaster. On February 6th 1958, the British European Airways Flight 609 from Belgrade to London was refueling in Munich and it crashed upon take off. Twenty-three of its 44 passengers died, including some of the Manchester United football team returning from a European Cup match in Belgrade against Crvena Zvezda. Andrea’s grandfather was one of the 21 survivors.
ANDREA JOVANOVIĆ: So yeah, it made for quite an interesting book. And it has also saved me rather a lot of research, which I have no doubt I’d be doing otherwise.
PETER KORCHNAK: Your Instagram bio says you “love bikes, books, brutalism, and ex-YU.” What’s the story behind this?
ANDREA JOVANOVIĆ: My husband is a biker. In fact, both of my parents are bikers, and I sat on my first motorcycle aged five. So that kind of runs in the family. And I suppose we both like traveling, my husband and I, we kind of met on a bike, and he likes doing long pointless drives, and I’m fascinated by brutalist architecture, architecture, and its place in socialism. So we just compromised. When we sit down to plan a route, I’ll look at various monuments or things that I want to see and we’ll plan a route around that so he can find his motorcycle roads, I can sit in the back, and we can also stop all the places I want to see.
But brutalism for me. I’m not gonna say so much brutalism, as post-modernism is pretty fascinating in socialist context, because the whole narrative of Yugoslavia, or at least the ideal was, in a way, conformity to a new sort of Southern Slavic identity. And anything that didn’t really conform was, you know, I would say frowned upon if it was very public. And yet Tito openly encouraged a style of architecture that was completely out of this world, completely futurist that you wouldn’t expect, you wouldn’t expect that, if you see what I mean.
A lot of areas they’ve had a rough time, and, you know, the wars in the 90s may have swung people who had one viewpoint towards another. So you can also tell quite a lot about places when you go to see the monuments and the condition they’re in. There are certain places where you go and everything is abandoned. I mean, you need to take in other factors like what, what’s the area like? Have people left? Is there any money around? Is it just a case of, you know, nobody can afford to invest in something that’s concrete, and not directly bringing any benefit or tourism.
And then other areas, you know, there’s there’s gunshots. Or people have smashed, chipped the names. Or in certain areas I see that the red star’ been chipped off and replaced with some religious symbol. So I find it fascinating because it’s kind of a window into the local regional views. But it’s also it’s also very sad for me, and very interesting. Because, you know, regardless of how people now look back and see socialism, really these monuments commemorate fighting fascism and defeating fascism.
PETER KORCHNAK: The Yugoslav-era World War II monuments are quite the rage these days, wouldn’t you say?
ANDREA JOVANOVIĆ: The recent sort of popularity of things like I don’t know, Spomenik Database, it’s a very worthy project, and it’s admirable what he’s done. It’s just that the way that it’s taken off is perhaps not the way he initially saw it taking off. I mean, he’s done his research, you know, he’s gotten locals there. And not all of the research is 100% correct, according to some people, but then that’s, that’s going to be Balkan history for you. You know, it’s always going to depend on who you ask. And even if you have what’s what’s recorded, as fact, someone’s going to disagree.
Aside from the idea of commercializing something that represents socialism being slightly ironic, I find it a little bit sad that people are now taking a lot of these things at face value. So you know, they might make a great photograph. But when I see people, you know, doing yoga poses on something whilst being completely unaware that, you know, the text underneath says in Cyrillic or in Croatian or in Bosnian, you know, this is also a tomb for 3,000 fighters’ bones, I feel a bit… I’m not hugely comfortable with that. I don’t find it particularly respectful.
I mean, they’re immensely photogenic, but that’s, you know, neither here nor there. I just think the whole thing is fascinating. I wish I had a smarter answer for that.
PETER KORCHNAK: The latest batch of your travel photos is from Goli Otok, where socialist Yugoslavia’s regime ran a prison camp.
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ANDREA JOVANOVIĆ: So my grandfather while he was alive had a pretty bad habit of understating things. So he’d invite me to something, you know, he’d say, let’s go for a casual lunch, and it would turn out to be at an embassy. And I’d turn up in some scrappy t-shirt that said, you know, Partizan FC or something and be very embarrassed. And this happened a few times, and he once invited me to lunch and again, I turned up, not overly well dressed. And it turned out we were having lunch with Jovo Kapičić, who was at least on paper in charge of Goli Otok.
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PETER KORCHNAK: Of course I ask Andrea what they all talked about but unfortunately, she didn’t speak Serbian well enough at the time to follow the conversation…
ANDREA JOVANOVIĆ: I find Goli Otok pretty fascinating as a subject. It’s a thorn in the side of most Yugonostalgics, I’ve always wanted to go and see it, but more so since I met the man who was ostensibly in charge of it. I mean, it’s a controversial subject. I can’t say anything smart about it. You know, everybody, you know, I’ve read, I’ve read biographies from people who were there who quite frankly, sounded like, sounded politically dangerous. But then I’ve also read biographies from people who were there or biographies of people who were there, sorry, who sounded completely innocent. It’s a very touchy subject.
And we went, we went this summer, we took a boat over private boats over from Sveti Juraj, which is one of the smaller towns you can get a boat over from. And I was pretty appalled at how tasteless everything is. The way I heard it, two brothers have kind of got a monopoly on everything over there. There’s a restaurant, the name kind of translates into something to do with sort of sizzling, which is not particularly funny, since obviously, the heat and the weather and the lack of shade was a big punishment there. And it is absolutely sweltering. I mean, it must have kind of gone over 40 degrees, but it felt like 50. We were completely burned. There’s a little tractor pulling a little train, which is slightly overpriced, which takes you around the main sort of sites. Graffiti artists have really done their work. But mostly, you know, we just saw a lot of tourists sitting at this restaurant, which was very, very, very crowded. There are only two toilets on the island, you have to pay to use them. And people on the beach having a great time. So it was it was unexpected, I suppose.
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PETER KORCHNAK: You said you don’t need to record your family history. You’re also a writer, though, and we writers have a tendency to get auto-biographical in one way or another. What about you?
ANDREA JOVANOVIĆ: I used to write for a couple of sort of magazines in the diaspora, but I don’t really agree with the way some of them are run, some of the things which are published, I, they believe more in sort of, God, now I suppose I am starting to sound like a socialist. They believe in allowing everyone to express their views. However, I don’t want to be associated with a publication that will allow certain groups to express their views freely, if you put it that way. Anyone who gets a platform to right wing revisionists, I, you know, I don’t want my name on that website, or in that magazine, just full stop, you know, guilty by association.
I very much admire a lot of people who are involved in the organizations. But on the other hand, I think revisionism is the biggest problem that the Balkans is facing right now. I mean, official revisionism, the government’s sort of posthumously forgiving, you know, Quisling leaders and that sort of thing. But also, revisionism in popular culture. You know, there’s a whole generation of kids now who really should be sort of free of the various issues that sort of haunt the older generations and actually are more are more vocal and more extreme in their viewpoints than the people who went through those things.
PETER KORCHNAK: Does that same separation go for your relationship with the diaspora?
ANDREA JOVANOVIĆ: No, not in the least, I run a couple of big Facebook groups. One of them is called Ex-YU in the UK.
The about section does explicitly state that, that, that the use of “ex-YU” is not is not in any way politically charged. It literally just refers to hit literally just refers to the region in this case, I don’t really I’m not trying I’m not trying to bring together a load of champagne socialists, because that’d be really weird. You can be you can nostalgic, or nostalgic for the idea or nostalgic for the country but if you’re living in a capitalist, capitalist society and happily pulling in, you know, three, four grand a month, then there’s only so much blowing your horn you can do about communism, without it sounding a bit…yeah.
People who live in economically developed countries have usually got more to say about the situation back home than people who live there. But we don’t face the same issues. And going back, you know, you go back to Belgrade and spend a week getting drunk, you know, that’s great, and it’s nice that you maintain a connection. But, you know, you don’t have to get up and go to work the next day on bad public transport, or breathe that air in all the time. So, of course, there’s a certain amount of privilege.
PETER KORCHNAK: The other group Andrea helps run is an advice group for people relocating to the UK from the Balkans. Now before starting Ex-YU in the UK, Andrea was active in another diaspora group on Facebook but she—
ANDREA JOVANOVIĆ: —got a fair amount of grief for sort of, I think, representing a fairly liberal perspective. I’m also not religious, which doesn’t go down well with some people and married to a Croat, which also doesn’t go down well with some people.
So I started my own group, which, in which you can write or speak in any language that’s associated with ex-Yugoslavia, or in English. There are a lot of sort of groups in the diaspora that don’t like don’t like writing or responding in English, which I find very strange, because, you know, if you don’t have an identity complex, you can be British and be Bosnian. You can be British and be Serbian, British and Croatian. There’s no reason to sort of make them mutually exclusive. Because really, for people who’ve been here for decades, it’s not.
PETER KORCHNAK: Diaspora Voices will be a recurring, if irregular segment on Remembering Yugoslavia. I look forward to featuring more ex-Yugoslavs in this occasional series soon. I know there are a lot of stories to be told. In fact, just as I was preparing this episode, I received an email from one such listener, Ana, who lives in Perth, Australia. With her permission I’ve edited the letter for length and clarity.
“Though not born in Yugoslavia, I am a child of Yugoslavia. My parents, with my two young sisters, migrated to Australia in 1967. It was the fashionable thing to do. Both parents are Croatian from the Dalmatian island Prvić Šepurine. There are more Šepurinians in Perth, Australia today than there are on the island! I always said to my parents as an adult, “How could you leave that beautiful island for these dull suburbs of Perth!” For them it was an adventure. They intended to stay only 5 years but with another 2 children added to the family, they became ingrained for good. I wish they went back. I feel like I missed on something special.
My [grandfather] and his 16-year-old son were Partisans in World War Two. My [grandmother] and her 4 children, including my Dad, spent 18 months in an Italian concentration camp. The story of this struggle was relayed to me again and again by my Dad. I am proud of my history. My parents loved Yugoslavia.
I was 22 years old when the 90s war broke out in Yugoslavia. It was a difficult time to be Yugoslav. I didn’t know how to identify myself. If I said I was Yugoslav I felt that I was identifying with either Serbs or communists. If I said I was Croatian, I was a nationalist. (…) It was a bitter time.
When I visit my island home I feel a sense of Yugoslavia. Most Šepurinian men enlisted with the Partisans in World War II. The names of the fallen, including my [grandfather’s] and [uncle’s] are memorialized in marble tablets in the village park. The old timers reminisce about Yugoslavia, some even sneakily slide in some Partisan mantras, like Partizani sa tri roga, borili se protiv boga [Partisans with three horned caps fought against god] which warm my heart to hear. I am very nostalgic about Yugoslavia.”
PETER KORCHNAK: As someone who too was born in a country that no longer exists, whose parents are mixed marriage, and who lives abroad, I can relate to some of Ivan’s and Andrea’s experiences. Questions of identity—of who I am and where I’m from—they’re real and they’re part of my being and they’ll probably never go away.
I can be both Slovak and American, part Ruthenian and part Hungarian and yet not beholden to any ethnicity or nationality at all. I can be from Czechoslovakia and from Slovakia; from Košice and from Astoria, Oregon. I can be man, husband, friend, brother, son; writer, manager, traveler, immigrant.
Identity is a malleable beast and perhaps one that shall never be tamed. But it’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it. So here we are, spinning yarns of loss and discovery, histories of the past and of the future, countries gone and those left in our hearts.
What’s your story? If you are from former Yugoslavia and live outside its imaginary borders, whether you consider yourself diaspora, exile, emigre, refugee, or expat, please share your story with me, as Ana did, on the Contact page at RememberingYugoslavia.com. I look forward to reading or listening.
PETER KORCHNAK: Next time on Remembering Yugoslavia.
OGNJEN RANKOVIĆ: It’s timeless design, those logos will always always be great.
PETER KORCHNAK: What’s so appealing, even timeless, about graphic design works from the socialist era? Who are the people keeping it alive?
On the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia: Yugoslav design and its legacy. I’ll speak with two graphic designers, from Serbia and North Macedonia, about Yugoslav modernism, marketing, and monuments as inspirations for their work.
Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe so you won’t miss out.
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening, wherever you are. Find additional information for this episode, a transcript, and subscription links in the show notes at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
And if you are from former Yugoslavia and live abroad, whether you consider yourself diaspora, exile, emigre, refugee, or expat, please share your story with me there, I look forward to it.
I am Peter Korchňak.