The scars of the Siege of Sarajevo have marked an entire generation of Sarajevans—and their children. How do children of Bosnian refugees growing up abroad, the third culture kids, form their identity? What culture do they belong to? Where is home? And what of Yugonostalgia among the post-1991 cohort?
An installment of the Diaspora Voices series. With Anja Savčić and Arnela Išerić. Co-produced with Jelena Sofronijević.
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PETER KORCHNAK: The war in Ukraine is in its fifth week at the time of this recording and it has become clear it may be a protracted one. “Stalemate and siege,” as the Institute for the Study of War has described it.
The Siege of Sarajevo has defined the lives of the guests in this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia. Their parents left the city during the Siege, in 1994, becoming refugees in Canada and the United States, respectively. Thirty years on, the scars remain.
Some 3 million Ukrainians–most are women, children, and the elderly–have been forced to leave their homes for safety abroad, with another 7 million displaced internally, within the country. That’s a quarter of the country’s population. The scars of this war will mark for life not only them but also their children, including in ways today’s guests will discuss. This episode is for them. And if you’re listening in 2052, it means there is hope and the world will make it.
Thank you for listening, wherever and whenever you are.
PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your host Peter Korchnak.
Every now and then I receive pitches for collaboration. A few months ago, one stood out, and this installment of the irregular Diaspora Voices series is the result of the collaboration that ensued.
A podcast producer out of the UK with a Serbian name, Jelena Sofronijević, professed to be “an avid listener of Remembering Yugoslavia” and “someone personally, academically, and politically invested in Yugoslavian history,” and she suggested we work together on an episode about diasporic identity, particularly among people like her who were born too late to have a lived experience of actual Yugoslavia. If you’ve listened to the podcast, particularly the Diaspora Voices episodes, you’ll know this is something I’m very much interested in. And because it also ties into my interest and very much an under-researched sub-field of Yugonostalgia among people born after 1991, we combined the two. Though really the concept, the questions, the format, is all Jelena’s doing.
With that, let’s meet the co-producer of this first-ever collaborative episode of Remembering Yugoslavia. Jelena Sofronijević called in from London.
JELENA SOFRONIJEVIĆ: I’m an audio producer and freelance journalist and I was born in the Yugoslav diaspora of Telford in the West Midlands. It was the subject of BBC Radio Four Thought that I wrote back in 2020 called Telford, Little Yugoslavia and the program was about the fact that I am partly Yugoslav though I’ve never set foot in Yugoslavia myself.
Originally from Serbian-majority area in what’s now Croatia, my great grandfather first came to the UK as a displaced person after the Second World War. My grandparents and then my mother and my late uncle followed him thereafter to Telford, which is my hometown. On my father’s side, my father moved from Kosovo to Salford in Manchester in 1990, just before the civil conflict, so they’re both ethnically Serbian.
My parents came from completely different places in socialist Yugoslavia, which was a state they characterized through peaceful coexistence and groups identifying first and foremost as Yugoslav to me as I was growing up. As a result, I’ve always been absolutely fascinated in questions of diasporic identity because of my family’s very connection to Yugoslavia, a country which no longer exists.
And when I first visited Serbia back in 2017, I discovered that my upbringing in Telford might have actually been more traditionally Serbian and Yugoslav than that of my Belgrade and Novi Sad relatives. So I find myself, despite being born completely after Yugoslavia ceased to exist, drawn to its quite blended nationalism.
My lived experiences have always traversed quite strict border lines that I saw being drawn in the 90s in the aftermath. And Yugoslavia itself a country born of republics was quite similar to Telford the way that it’s a collection of small independent towns. So that’s what brought me to make this podcast with Remembering Yugoslavia today.
I am also, I should say, Remembering Yugoslavia Day One listener. I listened to the very first episode about Yugo cars. And I was fascinated by Peter and the project because I found there were so many intersections with my own interests.
Before the pandemic, I’d actually planned to go and spend a year living and working in Serbia. Half of that was going to be in a place called Mini Yugoslavia, which I know Peter featured in one of the very early episodes of Remembering Yugoslavia. So I just kept finding myself running into this podcast and now especially as an audio producer of my own it felt like the perfect collaboration to do.
PETER KORCHNAK: The episode is a bit different from what I usually do on the podcast. Not only is it a panel discussion, I stepped out into the background, so to speak, and let Jelena take the reigns, or the mic as the case may be, to moderate the conversation with two excellent guests. I should also add the conversation was recorded a few days before Russia invaded Ukraine.
I’ve only lightly edited the conversation for clarity. I’ve also abridged this episode, leaving the discussion about food, music, and online communities for the extended version, available exclusively to Patreon and most PayPal supporters. Supporters like Marianne and naxy who just joined Remembering Yugoslavia’s supporter ranks—thank you both. To get access to the extended version of this special, collaborative episode, as Marianne and naxy just have and many others do already, head over to RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate.
You won’t hear from me again until the very end when I’ll circle back, as I usually do, with some concluding thoughts.
With that, let me introduce today’s guests. I should also add the conversation was recorded a few days before Russia invaded Ukraine.
Arnela Išerić is a Washington, DC-based supply chain consultant. She is the daughter of two ethnically Bosniak parents from Eastern Bosnia. In 1994, Arnela’s parents and two older sisters came to Vermont as refugees, escaping the Siege of Sarajevo, specifically the neighborhood of Buća Potok, for those familiar with the city’s geography. Arnela was born shortly thereafter. In her free time, she looks forward to spending her summers in Sarajevo, practices yoga, and she is working on her memoir.
Arnela recently reviewed Bosnia and Herzegovina’s 2021 Academy Awards entry, Quo Vadis, Aida? on the World War Brew podcast, which is where Jelena first found her. Arnela joined us from Miami, Florida.
She was born in Sarajevo during the start of the Yugoslav war and moved to Canada with her family when she was three. As she’s gotten older, she’s become more interested in the diasporic Yugoslav community and her relationship to her heritage. Years ago, she wrote a play called “Born in a Country That No Longer Exists” to help organize her thoughts on the subject.
Anja reached out to me on Instagram, to share some kind words on what I do, and we took it from there. She joined us from Vancouver, British Columbia.
JELENA SOFRONIJEVIĆ: I wanted to speak to people who had very different experiences of diasporas to me, different backgrounds and upbringings to see what it meant just across the board for people who were born or live outside of Yugoslavia, both in terms of time and in terms of geography, and why this connection to Yugoslavia remains so important to us all.
So perhaps starting with Arnela then, what would you say is your connection to Yugoslavia?
ARNELA IŠERIĆ: My parents are very Yugonostalgic, and I grew up with that experience. You know, as we made trips to Bosnia–I go to Bosnia very, very frequently–I understood that the way that my parents viewed Yugoslavia was very different than other people in my family and the diaspora itself.
And we always were brought up not looking at ourselves as, we are Bosniak, which ethnically I technically am, but my parents more so describe themselves as Yugoslavs, because Bosniak as a term did not exist when they were growing up, and they thus not what they consider themselves. And so, you know, we grew up with that mentality. And as the years have gone by, and the political situation is what it is in Bosnia, it has become more apparent to me that that is not the norm that most people have. And as I’ve grown more conscious of what is being said, in the media and reading Bosnian news outlets, is that there’s a lot of people who are actually very against the idea of Yugoslavia and being Yugonostalgic. Even people, some people in my family, for example, don’t really identify as Yugos, even though my parents do.
So I think for me, that connection very much comes from how I was raised in my childhood. So that’s where I see it. And I was, of course, brought up in not an American household by any standard. So to say that I had sort of an identity crisis when I started becoming an adult and people were asking me, “What are you? Are you Bosnian or are you American? That became a very hard question for me to answer back then.
JELENA SOFRONIJEVIĆ: Anja, what about you? Did you ever feel that kind of disconnect between your home identity and your identity when you were out with your friends or at school?
ANJA SAVČIĆ: Absolutely. I had a lot of trouble when I was younger, just adjusting to the culture. And I was so embarrassed that I spoke a different language, that my parents weren’t as well off as the neighborhood that I was attending school. Things like that made me feel like a really big outsider. And so I tried my hardest to assimilate. And that meant, you know, feeling a lot of shame for where I came from.
And I think as I’ve grown older, I think maybe it’s kind of the same with you, Jelena, I’m starting to understand that my culture is something that’s really beautiful and I can embrace more, and I don’t have to have that shame behind it. Especially because I live in Canada. Here there’s so many different kinds of people from so many different kinds of places that you can embrace that side of yourself, and you don’t have to feel uncomfortable about it. So I think that, for me, has been the biggest thing I’ve been traversing in my adult life is getting used to the fact that I am different, and that’s okay. And that I have assimilated and I sort of have won the thing that I wanted when I was younger, you know, a lot of my friends are Canadian. And when I work in America, and there’s just this feeling of, “Okay, I did it.” And now I can finally feel like I can embrace my roots, which kind of has a sadness to it. But it’s also an interesting part of my life I’m exploring.
JELENA SOFRONIJEVIĆ: I think what was really fascinating actually, when we had our early planning meetings to this, I’m only talking about your experience of school and how, for instance, you feel different because you bring in pita or burek for lunch, which reminded me of that very famous scene and My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I don’t know, you know, it was kind of a family biblical film for us growing up very much with those experiences.
And I have to say it’s a point of difference for me because as a child I was always told to feel great pride in this place called Yugoslavia and I was always so proud of where I came from and how that manifests itself. I loved having the seventh of January off school for Christmas, which I only have come to realize as time has gone on is actually quite a conflicting identity because that’s not something that’s really Yugoslav, that’s a much more Serbian thing. It’s, it’s an Orthodox thing to celebrate Christmas on the seventh. But those two elements of my identity, I could hold those at the same time and still be Yugoslav.
And it was only as I got older, and I came into contact, especially in the context of the wars, with people who couldn’t reconcile those two parts of my identity that that started to be a problem. And I think I then started to emphasize more my Yugoslav identity rather than a Serbian identity, because it was a really safe way, I suppose, of connecting with that, rather than the discrimination I was seeing much in Serbian community face at that time. I wonder if either of you have similar experiences to share?
ANJA SAVČIĆ: I definitely sometimes would feel that shame of like, “Oh, you’re Serbian,” you know. There is this tinge of discomfort sometimes when I would share that, especially when I was younger, and when I would come across people that were Yugoslavian and I didn’t know like, are they Croatian? Are they Bosnian? Are they Serbian? How will they view what I am and what I identify as? So for me for a long time, when I was younger, I didn’t like saying that I was Serbian. I would say Yugoslavian as well, but I feel like as I’ve gotten older, I’m like, No, I’m Serbian. Like, you know, I’m three fourths Serbian, I’m one fourth Croatian, my grandmother’s Croatian, and that’s fine. I can say that, you know. Just because things happened in the past, you know, that were obviously intense and difficult for that culture, I can still be proud of who I am, you know, and I feel like I still have trouble even just talking about it. I’m like, Oh, my God, like, how do I word that. But I think Jelena, you’ve sort of have the same feelings, right, around that?
JELENA SOFRONIJEVIĆ: Yeah, definitely. I wonder for both of you how then– you’ve both said that you connect to Yugoslavia perhaps more in your adult life, but what does that connection look like? Is it quite personal? Is it political? How has it changed over time? Maybe Arnela you want to go first?
ARNELA IŠERIĆ: I would say I connected more to it as a child just because growing up that is what my parents really connected to. But I was born in the postwar period, I was born in a different country. So I feel like I don’t have a right to say, “I’m Yugoslavian,” that I have a connection to Yugoslavia. I actually, you know, in that sense, it’s not my special thing to feel personal about. It’s something that my parents and my sisters, I think, they are more emotional about the topic than I ever could be. Because I will never understand that time and I will never yearn for that time. And so as I’ve kind of grown up in my adult life and have gone to Bosnia more, I’ve been feeling more Bosnian in the recent years in terms of my identity, and you know, trying to accept that fact.
I mean, it’s funny that we all have such different experiences, but they’re similar like in the sense that Jelena and Anja you say that there has always been some discomfort in your identity and talking about your identity from other people. But the discomfort with my identity has come from my own people, my own family, should I say, like, when I go back to Bosnia, because I’m not viewed as 100% Bosnian so that is where most of my discomfort has come from because in their eyes, I’m not what they are, I’m this hybrid. So for me, it’s kind of been detaching from Yugoslavia in a sense and listening to my family speak about their experiences because for me the only things that I really know, outside of what is said in academia is what my parents say and my parents have a very different view on it whereas my sisters hate it. They don’t consider themselves Yugoslavs, they hated growing up in Yugoslavia, but my parents loved it. So it’s this really interesting dynamic in my family, where we just kind of don’t really talk about it, because everyone has a different viewpoint. And I’m here in the middle. I’m the youngest daughter, I’m the only American-born, and I’m like, my connection is through you. I feel like in some kind of way, I feel like I don’t have a right to have a feeling about it, since there’s such strong opinions about it. So that’s why I say I feel a bit more Bosnian, just because all of my experience has been in Bosnia.
JELENA SOFRONIJEVIĆ: Anja, what about you?
ANJA SAVČIĆ: For me, my connection to Yugoslavia, it changes. Right now I feel very nostalgic for it and connected to it. And like I was saying before, when I was younger, I really wanted to just distance myself from it and I didn’t want anything to do with it, because it made me feel different and made me feel Other, and I wanted to be included. So now, I’m really coming to terms with being from there and having visited just like Arnela says, you know, we’re both from Sarajevo, so we’ve been back, and it’s different from what my parents would tell me about it. And there’s a different feeling in the air. And I don’t know what it was like before, but I have this weird nostalgia of the things they would tell me and you know, how they would travel to Italy to go get their jeans and like, you know, these, like, sort of funny, but interesting anecdotes of how everyone sort of lived peacefully and you know, they they have this obsession still with Tito and stuff. And I find that so fascinating. Because, you know, here if you talk about Tito, people are like, oh, you know, it’s a terrible ruler and everything. And it’s like, no, for them it’s this beautiful time when everyone got along and everyone celebrated New Year’s together and that’s when you would open your presents and it wasn’t very much about religion. And I feel like now I think this is sort of delving into a different topic, but we’ve talked about the diasporic communities and how they feel stronger when, when you’re when you’re in them versus when you’re actually in the country itself.
JELENA SOFRONIJEVIĆ: Let’s go back and talk about the roots of this nostalgia, if you will. I know that we’ve kind of alluded to the fact that it’s almost a secondhand nostalgia that’s passed on by our families. But what do you know about Yugoslavia from your parents? What kind of stories did they tell you? And how did those stories affect, I suppose, your sense of self, of who you are?
ARNELA IŠERIĆ: I think for me, like from my mom and my dad I’ve only heard the most wonderful things. And you know, I’ve heard about how things were cheaper, when they went to school they didn’t have to pay for their textbooks, for example, and that they didn’t know who was who growing up. That was something that wasn’t even thought about. You just hung out with people that you hung out with. It wasn’t looked at by who’s called what because there is a strong attachment to people’s names as, as you all know. And they just spoke about how, you know, it was so safe, and they felt like they could go anywhere and they were able to travel. And there was just the sense that, you know, their sports teams were doing really well, and that how Tito died like that was a tragic, tragic moment for them, and my parents were saying how everyone they knew they were crying, and his funeral was so widely attended. And they really yearn for that time where they said everything was great, we had everything we could ever need.
And then it’s interesting to hear from my sisters who hated it. I mean, my sisters were 18 and my second sister was nine when they left. So my sister who’s older, she has a lot more concrete memories of her childhood, and she absolutely hated growing up in Yugoslavia. She grew up in Sarajevo, she was like, “We were always poor. I hated it. We didn’t have any mobility.” You know, my sisters had two very different experiences. And my parents said, who always talk about how beautiful and wonderful it was, and how it’s never going to ever be back.
And so for me, I kind of had that secondhand nostalgia for my parents, but then my sisters were like, “Yeah, you guys were seeing everything through rose-colored glasses and that’s how we had our experience.” And so that has been a huge internal conflict that I haven’t really settled in myself. But my parents, certainly, their conversations and their memories have, I guess, taken over my sisters, because, you know, my parents were much older and they spent a lot more time in that country than they did. So it’s been this very interesting dynamic in my family.
JELENA SOFRONIJEVIĆ: Anja, what about you?
ANJA SAVČIĆ: I would agree with Arnela. My parents had a very positive view of Yugoslavia. And it’s so interesting she mentioned Tito’s death, because my dad’s told me before how, you know, he still remembers the day when he was at school and they announced it and everybody was crying and everybody got the day off. And there was obviously this nationalism going on in the country and everyone was in it together. And I think this death symbolized, I mean, it was a really big tragedy for everyone.
Yeah, I always found that so interesting. And it’s cool to hear Arnela talk about her sisters because I don’t really know anyone that is the age of, say, your older sister that has such a different experience, All I hear is this idyllic view of what it was like and so that’s what it is in my head. So I wonder what it would have been like, what we would have experienced or how we would have felt if we would have experienced it like your sisters or if we would have experienced it like our parents. And I wonder if the indoctrination of the obsession of Tito is sort of what spurred that for them as well, you know. You weren’t really allowed to say you didn’t like him or anything against his party. So maybe that was part of the reason they view it so positively. They were sort of brainwashed if you will, perhaps.
ARNELA IŠERIĆ: Right, like, I’ve struggled with that my whole life. Like we have literally a picture of Tito hanging in my kitchen right now.
ANJA SAVČIĆ: Amazing.
ARNELA IŠERIĆ: And my sisters would never be caught dead with his with his picture in their house. And yeah, all of my sisters just talk about, they didn’t say anything, because they really couldn’t, they could not say anything against him. And people don’t talk about Goli Otok or those people who spoke out against him. Or for example, when they found out someone was homosexual, what happened to those people? It wasn’t really a wonderful and great story. And so it makes me wonder, Anja like, what was it like?
And so I try to suspend judgment and let everyone live out their own truth. But yeah, sometimes I’m like, I really, I do feel this nostalgia, and I’m like, why? Like, I don’t even know anything, it’s odd.
ANJA SAVČIĆ: It’s so so strange.
JELENA SOFRONIJEVIĆ: So my mum was three years old when she came to the UK and would go back to Yugoslavia on holidays and to go visit his family, things like that, but never spent a prolonged period of time there. Whereas my dad was in his late teens when he came over here, and they both talk about it and certainly about Tito and things like that, and from completely different perspectives. I wouldn’t say it’s quite the way it is in your family, Arnela, where you’re saying that, you know, your sisters and your parents are kind of completely opposed on this.
But I’ve kind of noticed the opposite in that my mum, who spent comparatively little time over there also, I suppose, has a very nostalgic view of things, even the way that she talks about Tito. Whereas my dad, unlike your sisters where you’re saying that they don’t talk about certain things, my dad’s quite openly critical of what his life was like there. And I suppose the contrast between the two is something that I’ve had to navigate growing up, and just, I suppose, educate myself as much as possible to try and determine what life would have been like living there. And you’re right, what life would have been like for me as a teenager.
But I think that’s also something that’s colored by time as well as geography, it would be what would my life be like in the UK in the 80s, you know, it’s very, very different and a difficult question to answer.
So, Anja, then, what is it that you are nostalgic for, do you think, if anything? We’ve said that we don’t necessarily think that our feelings are connected to the concrete lived reality of Yugoslavia. So what is the draw of Yugoslavia to you now?
ANJA SAVČIĆ: You know, I think it goes back to when I first came to Canada and feeling like my name was different, feeling like no one could say my last name, feeling like no one understood my language. And then whenever I would go back feeling like, “Oh, I’m normal here, I’m accepted here.” And I think that feeling of acceptance is really what drew me back into it and made me go, “Oh, I belong somewhere.”
But then again, in terms of the diasporic community, which is really what I was a part of, I didn’t really belong, because I was also simultaneously Canadian as I was Serbian, so it was just a difficult— It was a difficult terrain. And it still kind of is for me, and I think the nostalgia is like, “Oh, well, maybe if I’m more that, you know, maybe if I can delve more into my roots, then I’ll know where I belong.” But I feel like even when I do that, I’m learning things that, “Oh hey, that doesn’t really make sense.”
Or even us talking about Tito right now and what that was like to live in that regime, it’s like, I don’t know that that was really a 100 percent as positive as I’m hearing from my parents or other people, thinking about the past. So it’s difficult. I don’t know what it is I’m specifically nostalgic about, I just know that I feel included there. And that makes me nostalgic.
JELENA SOFRONIJEVIĆ: I want to pose the same question to you, Arnela, what is it that you’re nostalgic for?
ARNELA IŠERIĆ: I’m not nostalgic for anything. I do feel left out in that sense that I didn’t get to experience that opportunity. And, you know, at times, I had been really annoyed or angry sometimes that I didn’t grow up in a community where I felt like I necessarily belonged. Whereas my entire family did for the first part of their lives. So it’s just that sense of belonging and missing out on that experience of that nation that what I heard as a child was so great and will never be again and not being able to experience it firsthand and have my own solid opinion definitely is something that I wish I did know.
I’m definitely not nostalgic for anything but I miss going back there so much. I think that’s part of the reason why I try to go back as much as I can. And I do miss being there and I miss listening to our music and being amongst people that just understand you and your emotions.
JELENA SOFRONIJEVIĆ: So let’s talk about diasporas then. So both of you, what’s your experience like with your respective diasporas where you live now. Do you consider yourselves part of them? And I know, Arnela, you’ve got very strong opinions on the side I’d like to turn to you first if that’s okay.
ARNELA IŠERIĆ: Yeah so I grew up in such a, like a really tight Bosnian community in Vermont. And a lot of the people that, you know, I grew up with, and– like, let me preface this by saying like, once I graduated high school, I never went back to Vermont. Like I have not stepped a foot back into the state. I
I had a really negative experience with that diaspora community and I still continue to, you know. I meet diaspora communities when I go to St. Louis, obviously, that’s where the most Bosnians are, or when I go to Boston or even in Florida, there’s a diaspora community. And I just feel as though, one, those people are more nationalist than my friends in Sarajevo and certainly more nationalist than my family. And I have received the most judgment about my identity from diaspora communities than anyone else.
I just haven’t been able to relate and sometimes I really get angry. And like, I know, I don’t have I don’t have necessarily a right to but I’m very, very close to the diaspora community, I know so many people here and I know how often people go back. And a lot of these people never really go back often. They’ve been back maybe once or twice and they’re very far removed and their Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian is very, very broken, but they feel so much pride and so much nationalism. And I find it a bit ironic at times, because I know, it’s like not right for me to get into people’s identities or how they feel. But when I’m confronted sometimes with questions about, you know, who I hang out with or what I do from people in the diaspora community, I’m like why?
JELENA SOFRONIJEVIĆ: It was a real point of tension between you and the diaspora. I remember listening to a podcast where you talked about having relationships with people from different Yugoslav backgrounds and how that was never an issue for you and never an issue for your parents but it was an issue for other people in the diaspora. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
ARNELA IŠERIĆ: My past two relationships were with ethnic Serbs. And my sister actually married a Serb right after the war. They got together in Vermont. And that was a huge bombshell because her and her husband started seeing each other in 1998. And so my sister told me at the time, like she was really ostracized, because that was right after the war, it was very fresh, and no one thought that it would last. And you know, our people love to gossip, gossip over coffee, and that’s exactly what happened.
But for me, especially when I was in those relationships, and you know, I have really good friends who are Serbian and of course, I hang out with my sister and my niece and nephew, they’re baptized as well, they’re Serbian. I get, you know, it’s like, oh, like, aren’t you dating a Serb? What do your parents think about that? What are you doing? And for me, it’s just very funny because I have a mixed family. Like for us, that’s very normal. And mixing was very normal back then. I understand now it’s something that it’s much more taboo but it it has certainly made me uncomfortable. And at times, I don’t know how to respond. Because I get why they’re asking me the question, I get why there’s the discomfort, I just can’t believe it’s coming out of the mouth of someone who’s from the diaspora community and it’s not coming from my parents who actually carry wounds of the war. And for them, they don’t have a problem with it, but for you to come and tell me like, oh, you mention it or you tried to slight me when you’re born in America but you’re from the diaspora, it’s just a very, very tense thing to navigate. It’s never been like a bright spot when it’s brought up for me.
JELENA SOFRONIJEVIĆ: What about you, Anja, have you found that there is exclusivity in your engagements with the diaspora?
ANJA SAVČIĆ: Definitely, I would agree with Anila that, it almost seems like there’s a lot more obsession of where you’re from in the diaspora community. You know, I’d met Serbian people that have, like, you know, the Serbian crest on their arm or something, which is if you actually went to Beograd, and you, you know, walked around with that people would be like, Okay, why? It’s not as obvious there, you know, people are just living their lives. And I think in the diasporic community you could definitely meet a lot of people that are nationalistic.
And I wasn’t very much in those communities when I was in Calgary, and I was younger, I did go to a school where there was a lot of Yugoslavian people, kids, and I would walk to school with, you know, two Bosnian kids and my other Serbian friend and we just loved that we spoke the same language. We didn’t know what had happened, you know, we didn’t have discussions about the war but you could tell through their actions and through the things they would say sometimes that their parents were maybe leaning one way or the other. And that was really hard, because I was learning about the war through the things my friends would say to me, and then asking my parents about it, and then sort of going, “oh, let’s not, you know, we’re not going to talk about that right now because you’re 10,” right, and they don’t really know how to approach the subject with you. So I found that really hard.
And then, when I moved to Vancouver, I wasn’t really a part of that community at all. But I had some friends or some people I knew that were really entrenched in it and did become sort of nationalistic, and I didn’t like that at all so I stayed away from that. Which is, which is sad in a way that, that I felt it so strongly that way, and Arnela you felt it so strongly that way as well because there’s something really beautiful about connecting to people that are from the same place as you. But when it feels negative, or too intense, you know, I don’t want to let myself into that, because I’m also busy trying to assimilate into Canadian culture, so I didn’t really have time to throw myself back into that.
I also found that a lot of people that moved to, let’s say, to Vancouver that were from Bosnia or Serbia or Croatia, that if they were newer, like they had come more recently, they wouldn’t really jump into the Canadian culture the way I had. They would just more so find that group of people from the same region they were from and just basically live like they were living back home. And I found that kind of interesting, because to me, I really like that here I can meet all kinds of different people and all kinds of different cultures. And it’s made me really open minded, I think, and more educated and cultured, which I really enjoy.
JELENA SOFRONIJEVIĆ: Arnela, I know you’ve spoken in the past as well about learning about the Yugoslav wars over family dinner tables. And you heard some quite challenging and disturbing things really from your friends’ parents, didn’t you?
ARNELA IŠERIĆ: I was the youngest, and I think it’s not something that necessarily is we’re not open about but similar to you, Anja, you know, bringing it up when I was younger, my parents are like, “This is not something that you could ever understand at the age of seven or eight, like, ask us about this in 10 years.”
But, my parents only hung out with Bosnian people as expected. And so every weekend, someone would host a party at their house and every weekend the children would be tugged from house to house and the adults would sit in the living room until like three, four a.m. drinking and smoking and talking, and I would kind of listen when I wasn’t supposed to. And that’s how majority like I accumulated all these stories.
And, from what conversations that we are gleaning, but a really, really close family friend and someone in our community committed war crimes. And they had admitted to it openly, they had talked about it openly. And everyone in the community knew this about this person, their family knew it. But no one ever really wanted to say anything because it was like, “Oh, he’s one of us.” Like, we’re not going to out a member of our community, it’s fine.” And growing up, it was something that was never talked about but it was always known. It was just like very, very crazy to me. And as I grew older, I would confront people about it. And I would ask my sisters about it and I asked my parents about it, “I’m like, is this true? Like if people are gossiping about this?” And they would be like, well, you know, you know, we don’t talk about these things. But I mean, yeah.
And it’s just crazy to me how I found out all of this stuff from listening to conversations I wasn’t supposed to be listening to. And that man is, I mean, I know who he is. I don’t know if it’s true. I don’t know if he was just talking about war crimes to inflate his ego and seem really cool in front of people. But you know, the things that they were talking about was just like, “Yeah, he did it, it happened, who’s gonna say something now, like it happened years ago.”
And so that has been something that has never really left my mind. It’s a really fascinating story.
JELENA SOFRONIJEVIĆ: I think it’s just really difficult to comprehend diasporas, because I think they’re inherently contradictory places. In some respects, as we’ve mentioned, they’re really exclusively, they can be quite conservative, because clinging to our identity can be a means of coping with this secondhand trauma that’s passed down to you, almost like anxiety, which I suppose is that fight or flight response for a non-existent threat that is still looming over us.
And Arnela you mentioned that about the Bosnian American community being a lot more religious than your own family were. I think it’s really difficult without having that lived experience at the state because I know, for instance, if you’re going to a football match, then that sectarianism can rise again.
But I do also think that diasporas can be more inclusive. I have friends who live in Germany, for instance, who talk about what they call the Yugo communities who live in different cities. And just by merit of being the Other in a place that can encourage you to club together and transcend those divisions.
It can so depend on the exact context of whatever situation you ‘re in. And I remember for instance, when I tried to join the Yugo society at my university, I was rejected because they had a really strict language requirement, and I’m not fluent in our language. But at the same time, I was welcomed with open arms at Bulgarian society events because they would see my name and kind of categorize me as Balkan.
So this idea of the diaspora as both something that could be inclusive and could be exclusive is really interesting to me. And I wonder, as well, whether diasporas, because they’re geographically and because they’re temporally distant, could actually even be more Yugoslav in some ways than post-Yugoslav states today. But what I’m hearing from both of you two is that I don’t know that that’s necessarily the case. I think that diasporic nationalism is probably a stronger sentiment than diasporic unity. Would you agree with that?
ARNELA IŠERIĆ: I was talking about this with a good friend of mine who is from Sarajevo but moved to the United States about a few years ago. So [he] very, very rejects the idea of Yugoslavia grew up in it, hates it. But we were noticing that, you know, over the past few weeks, everything that’s going on with Bosnia and Dodik and the ethnic tensions that are flaring, there has been this you know, people love to post on Instagram when something is going on to show their support. And when that situation with Dodik was going on everyone who I knew that was posting like those supportive infographics on their Instagram stories were diaspora. It was not my friends in Sarajevo at all like I did not know a single person from Sarajevo that posted something regarding the situation. And you know, my friend that I was speaking to was like, “Yeah, no one in Sarajevo is posting about it like the Bosnian Americans are because they actually have to live that reality of, you know, living with with people who aren’t just Bosniak.
And, you know, my best friend, her boss at work follows her on Instagram and he says He’s not ethnically Bosniak. So can you imagine her posting something like that on her Instagram story and then going to work the next day, it’s just awkward. And I think those people in Sarajevo are very, very conscious of where they’re living and what they’re doing and how they’re all living together, especially in Sarajevo in some parts. And then the diaspora community is much more vocal about these issues and nationalist. And it’s funny, because sometimes they haven’t been to the country in years, but they’re posting about it like they do live there. So it’s been a really interesting social media thing that I’ve been noticing.
JELENA SOFRONIJEVIĆ: Anja, what about you?
ANJA SAVČIĆ: I agree with that. I think it’s interesting that people that live there, how different they are from the people that are in the diaspora community. Again, there’s a lot more resistance to letting go of your identity, when you’re away from your country, where the people that live there they’re already so ingrained in it and of course, they’re entrenched in the political issues and problems. And I think that the threat of more violence or things going wrong again is really scary for them.
And when I talk to my cousin or my grandma about the things that are happening in Sarajevo now politically, they don’t want to talk about it, because it’s gives them so much anxiety. And I think for people that are away from there, it’s really easy to just say things and discuss things in a more biased manner, when they don’t have to live that reality, just like Arnela said. So, I find that really fascinating, it was a really good point.
JELENA SOFRONIJEVIĆ: A big part about connecting with Yugoslavia for me is Yugoslavia as a means of understanding or connecting with some form of communal organization in what is an increasingly individualistic Western liberal society. I think we’ve all talked about kind of belonging neither in your diaspora nor in the place where you are now from, whether it’s Bosnia, Serbia, the respective states of the former Yugoslavia. And I wonder for both of you, I think there’s quite a political point about migration here. But why are we connecting to this other place and time? What does it say about how integrated we are in the countries we’re in now?
ANJA SAVČIĆ: Something that came up for me was, you know, my family that’s still there I’m mostly connected to my grandparents and some cousins. It feels like when my grandparents are there no longer I won’t feel as connected to the place because my heritage is sort of gone, you know, the people that I know there, that are rooted there that I speak to you from there are gone. And I felt that a lot when my grandma passed a couple years ago. I felt the sense of “where my identity go?” She was a part of me and now she’s gone. And now, a big part of the reason I travel back is gone, and that felt really hard.
And I guess creating a new life here in Canada, in North America, I’m kind of just letting go of that part of me, if that makes sense. And I think that’s a really weird and tricky thing to go through. And I see my parents dealing with the reality of knowing that they’re living here in North America for probably the rest of their lives, yes, traveling back and forth but living here, and coming to terms with the fact that they won’t be going back to live. It just feels like a shift in yourself, if that makes sense.
ARNELA IŠERIĆ: I think as individuals everyone goes through a period in their life where they question their identity and who they are, but I think more so when you are what we are, which is third-culture, kids, where you, your home culture is a distinctly different culture than the one that you’re growing up with outside of your home. And so for such a long time, you know, I went back and forth and I wasn’t sure about how I felt. I’m here, I’m not necessarily American, over there I’m not necessarily Bosnian. And so I think, at least for me, being nostalgic for another time and place has been my way to hang on to that part of my identity that I feel like is so elusive here.
Like for some reason, I feel very, very protective over it as if someone is going to go and take it away from me. And I’ve never really been able to understand why I feel so emotionally charged and enraged at times when someone from Bosnia says like, Oh, I’m an American. Like, that makes me so enraged, because I’m like, but over there, I’m not. And so you’re living in this weird gray area. And so me being nostalgic is my way to hang on to that and to make sure that I don’t lose it. I mean, as if I could ever lose it, it’s a part of me.
And my parents had that fear, like, we don’t want you to ever not be proud of where you’re from and who you are and where we came from, we want you to be proud. And they’re very surprised at how fervently I defend my identity and how much I want to hang on to it. And I think it’s just, I want to honor it. And I’m still trying to find a really good balance.
I don’t think I’ll ever figure it out. I think I’m gonna be in a perpetual state of identity crisis. But I’m happy to say that. I feel like you can be both at the same time, and that’s okay. And that is just a reality that I’ve only recently have come to accept. But I do still get very emotional when other people try to define my identity for me. And I haven’t been able to explain the psychology behind that. I’m sure there’s a good book I can buy or read. But I think it’s very personal for a lot of us.
ANJA SAVČIĆ: It really is. It’s like, maybe our identity is this third-culture kid identity. I have a friend that’s from South Africa and she’ll talk to me about, you know, specific foods that she’s eating that are only from South Africa that she got at this little store nearby. And it’s like, we were talking, what does that feel like? How do we explain that to someone, you know, I don’t think people get it unless they’re experiencing it. So I find it cool that it’s not just me connecting to people that are specifically from Yugoslavia and the diasporic Yugoslavian community, it’s anyone really that’s experiencing this clash of cultures and trying to find themselves in this middle ground. It’s just such a strange place to be because you really don’t know who you are but yet you do.
JELENA SOFRONIJEVIĆ: Growing up witnessing how the Yugoslav wars were portrayed actually made me realize how my connection to Yugoslavia instead of it being something passive and something that was a safe retreat, a way of connecting with my identity that wasn’t charged, it was really something being much more active in the cause of my own critical outlook and political engagement.
I mean, just anecdotally, my dad contributed to our local newspaper. He was interviewed when the bombings were happening in the late 90s. And I only read that article for the first time very recently, and I didn’t realize but my dad had this photograph taken with me as a baby, which is a really, it’s a really visceral image. Now, that reminds me how much this has been in my psyche from the very beginning. And now I think I’ve pursued Yugoslavism quite actively as a way of trying to redress what I see is not just the media, but a political, general academic neglect of this history that is so complicated and wide ranging.
I think that actually our connections to Yugoslavia are quite political in many ways, because in our efforts, even in the conversations we have, it seems like we’re working to try and reintegrate Yugoslavia into global history, into global discourse.
And from a personal perspective, it’s about better understanding how responsibility for Western intervention fits into that. But I think it’s also about understanding how we grapple with our politics, with our society today from our uniquely quote unquote Yugoslav perspectives, whether that’s how we can help manage fake news in our own lives, or understanding, you know, the plurality of perspectives that you might have on a single issue now through the lens of the fact that we’ve already gone through that in many ways in the 90s and trying to understand that history.
And I think it can be really overwhelming because as much as you try and educate yourself, it seems like it’s never enough, it’s so complicated—
ANJA SAVČIĆ: Totally.
JELENA SOFRONIJEVIĆ: —and that retreat into history is never safe, because any opinion you have or any fact or any historical date even that you want to try and bring up will always be rebutted by someone else who’s read a different source. But in some ways, I think that has prepared us better than other people I know for grappling with the exact environment that we face now.
ARNELA IŠERIĆ: It is very hard understanding and trying to form an opinion or reading about something. But I think it’s even harder when you have the names that we do and you have our identity. And it’s very difficult because in a lot of ways everyone is pitted against each other when you read about what happened and the history. And regardless of whatever opinion that you have, being from that region, we are forever, we are tied to it and we are tied to our ethnic identity whether we want to say we are, so no matter what we say, it’s always taken with a grain of salt. No matter what you’re saying, if you’re a nationalist, or if you’re not. So it when people try to ask me about it, I really try not to talk about it.
ANJA SAVČIĆ: Same, me too, I feel totally the same about that. And it’s hard because I feel like there’s so much bias when it comes to that topic that for me, I’m still figuring out my opinion on it, my view, like what is the truth? What are the different pieces of truth that I’m missing that I haven’t found yet. And it’s kind of like, I don’t know that I’ll ever feel content with my outlook on it. Because it is so complicated.
And that’s why I really enjoy something like this podcast where we can get together and talk about how we feel and how on a personal level it’s affected us and our relationships and our environments. And that to me is really something that is rooted, you know, that actually has a clear truth to it. Where books and things and putting together my own analysis I still feel like I’m going to find a bias and that freaks me out because, like Arnela was saying, you know, there’s a lot of nationalism in these communities, especially these diasporic ones, and I just want to be on the right side of things. So but I don’t know what that right side is and I don’t know that I’ll ever find it.
JELENA SOFRONIJEVIĆ: And I think there’s also more of an expectation that you are on the right side or that you are on the definite side, I should say. There’s much less flexibility, you’re almost expected from a young age to know and be totally comfortable with your identity as you can define it.
And for me, that’s why I always came into conflict talking to other people about saying that I’m Yugoslav because I know that I am not from Yugoslavia myself, but my parents are—that’s the country that they left when they came to live in the UK. But it’s also the most accurate way of describing my mixed family because both my parents are ethnically Serb that they would be from different nationalities now. And trying to come to terms with that yourself as a child is hard enough but then having to explain that to other people is really difficult, too, because your opinion, as you said, can change, and my opinion has suddenly changed over time, the way I define myself has.
There’s much less forgiveness, and there’s much less space for you to experiment and think about that. Because from an early age, because all of these communities can be marginalized–
ANJA SAVČIĆ: Absolutely.
JELENA SOFRONIJEVIĆ: –especially diaspora, you’re almost always on the back foot. And you take on the mantle of representing that community. I mean, we joke about it even now but I always get asked questions about Djoković or whatever, because I am–
ANJA SAVČIĆ: Oh yeah.
ARNELA IŠERIĆ: Oh God.
JELENA SOFRONIJEVIĆ: —a Serb and that just opens up a whole other can of worms that you don’t– and you shouldn’t have to get into. But you’re completely right, it’s something that’s connected to your name, they’ll see the abundance of consonants and ends with an -ić and they think you can be asked anything or that you can represent anything.
ANJA SAVČIĆ: To me there’s also something interesting about the whole Djoković thing, or right now, you know, Jokić is really big in basketball, and my dad is really proud of that. And I think that that’s kind of cool because we’re reinventing what our culture is. You know, we’re not just this war that happened. And our name doesn’t just represent that, it represents basketball and tennis and, you know, soccer and whatever it is that we’re excelling in and I think that that’s we’re sort of revising our history.
And I think for me, like I’m an actor and I’m trying to make it in this very difficult industry and I have this sense of pride that, you know, my last name is Serbian and it’s Yugoslavian. And for me before when I would watch movies and whenever I would see an -ić at the end of, you know, the costume designer, or whatever, I’d be like, “Oh, my God, you know, there’s one of our names.” So I want to be a part of reinventing that. And I think we need more stories, not just war stories, because we are more than that. You know, and it doesn’t define us and it shouldn’t define us.
ARNELA IŠERIĆ: It’s very eye opening to me having these types of conversations with you all. One because I try to actively avoid it in my personal life, and when I do sit down and talk about it and try to think through it and think through everything in my head, it just seems more complicated than the last time that I revisited it and how I feel.
And I really think for me, it’s this lifelong journey of learning how to balance my identity, what to be proud of, what to say, what kind of information do I consume, and really I analyzing the information that I consume and then trying to understand biases in that information.
And it’s a really complicated existence, but it’s so, I want to say, wretchedly beautiful. I would never want to be anybody else. I’m very proud of where I come from, but it’s definitely something that I’m so happy to relate to you all to, just because I know that even those in my own circle don’t feel the same way. They feel very strongly in one camp and I’ve never really identified with that either.
But it’s a really heavy topic at the end of the day. And until you sit down and have this conversation and you try to talk about– and just even hearing your perspectives, you know, I don’t see that, and it’s really refreshing, and it also makes me feel like I’m not alone.
JELENA SOFRONIJEVIĆ: I think that there’s an open mindedness also amongst the third-culture kids, if you want to call them that, about connecting with each other because we do have a common identity amongst ourselves that isn’t Yugoslav, it’s post-Yugoslav in a way. But we’ve had so many shared experiences, despite being from completely different places that are somehow all tied together by this very long string back to Yugoslavia.
ANJA SAVČIĆ: Totally, I think we’re all stuck in this feeling of being kind of confused about who we are, but also sure of her who we are because we can sit down and have this conversation and feel like we are similar. Because we are, you know, we speak the same language, we come from essentially the same place, and there’s something really cool about that. And I think also the fact that we’ve all had these different experiences and these different hardships that have this similar thread, I mean, it’s just so cool to be able to talk to each other about it, and have it be about our experience and our feelings rather than this macro view of what happened, what went wrong, and how it went wrong. It’s more about, “Well, this is what I experienced living where I was and here’s how it’s similar to yours.” And they’re actually quite similar in a lot of ways. And I think that’s makes me feel more included and just sure of who I am even though I still don’t really know who I am. And like we said, it’s sort of this lifelong search of identity. But also like Arnela said, I wouldn’t have it any other way either. Because there’s something really beautiful in the complexity. There’s something really beautiful about the complexity of our identities.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Rubikovata Sfera” by Detective Spook]
PETER KORCHNAK: I tend to be skeptical about collaborations of a certain kind, as they often end up being more work than when I just do the project or task myself. But working with Jelena was a delight and the result better than what I could have done on my own. And so I look forward to future collaborative episodes of Remembering Yugoslavia. If you have an idea for such a collaboration, or even just for a story, I want to hear from you. Send me note at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Contact.
Research shows that third culture kids like Anja and Arnela, that is people who grew up and live in a culture other than their parents’, do not tend to be just bi- or even multilingual, they’re more tolerant, open-minded, sensitive, and culturally competent. On the other hand, as you’ve heard, they may grapple with identity issues. Who am I? To what culture do I belong? Where is home?
As you heard, for third-culture kids from the ex-Yugoslav space it can be both eye opening to have these kinds of conversations and reassuring to know they’re not alone. So know that this conversation continues online. Visit RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast, navigate to the episode’s blog post, titled “Third-Culture Kids,” where you’ll find a transcript of the panel discussion, and share in the comments section your take on or experience with any of the topics discussed. We all look forward to hearing from you.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić]
PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia:
Remembering Yugoslavia is taking a break through June 2022. I’ll be traveling to the region to rest and relax, my first trip there since just before the pandemic.
More importantly, I’ll be gathering material for the podcast. I have some great stories for you in the hopper already and, as things usually go, other stories will come up.
Stay tuned wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out.
Take care and hear you in June.
[OUTRO MUSIC – “Jugoslavijo / Od Vardara pa do Triglava” by Horn Orchestra]
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information and the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
Check out the extended version of this episode for more conversation with Arnela Išerić, Anja Savčić, and Jelena Sofronijević by making a contribution to Remembering Yugoslavia. Visit RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate and get access today.
I am Peter Korchňak.