My traveling partner Ollie and I arrived in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on a bus from Sarajevo, where we’d spent a few days learning the history of the Siege of Sarajevo—the longest city siege in the history of modern warfare. Our friends in Sarajevo told us NATO forces broke the Serbian siege, saved the city, and the lives of every Bosnian living there. Before that, we’d been in Belgrade, Serbia, where a huge banner flying in front of parliament memorialized fallen Serbian soldiers as “Victims of NATO Aggression.”
Same story, two sides.
This is what you will find anywhere in this region of the world, a geographic region in southeastern Europe, collectively known as “The Balkan Countries.” I encourage anyone who believes in the concept of absolute, empirical truth to spend some time in the Balkans.
That’s because in the six (or seven) nations that now occupy the space on the map that was former Yugoslavia, there is no one truth. There’s not even agreement on the number of independent countries in the region: Kosovo may or may not be included on maps of the region, depending on who made them.
With this context in mind, it’s not surprising that the biggest proprietors of “fake news” during the U.S. election were—you guessed it—based out of the Balkans. A group of teenagers in Macedonia (FYROM) gained international notoriety when Buzzfeed News wrote a long expose about how they were getting rich peddling ‘alternative facts’ online.
While the media in the U.S. scoffs at this phrase (Alternative facts), I doubt they’d think twice about the idea in the Balkans. The Serbs and the Bozniaks will tell you two very different stories about the same war. The Croats, a third faction in the conflict, will have their own version. All the groups will insist their version of the truth is the only acceptable one. And that’s far from the only such dichotomy in the area.
Cigarettes here are required to carry their health warnings in three languages: Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian. It’s two identical lines, and a third line which uses the same words, but written in Russian instead of Latin characters. “It’s all the same fucking language,” a local friend in Sarajevo told us. “Remember, this all used to be the same country. We were all Yugoslavia.”
It’s a muddy, confusing area for foreigners to try and navigate. The people are welcoming to tourists, but the history and delicate social constructs are almost impossible for visitors to read.
Our friend continued: “You can’t understand our war if you’re not from here. Don’t even try.”
The scars of war are visible all across Bosnia and Herzegovina. The country was the site of a bloody civil war in the ‘90s, a brutal ethnic and sectarian conflict which rivals the current carnage in Syria.
In Sarajevo, the scars left by mortar shells have been filled with red resin, creating what are called “Sarajevo Roses” all across the city. You can barely take a step without being reminded of a time when it was regular for death to rain down from above. The countryside is still scattered with landmines, which regularly explode, indiscriminately injuring farmers, shepherds, and tourists alike. And in Mostar, the tallest building in the city remains windowless; pockmarked with high-caliber bullet holes. It stands empty and abandoned. It was used as a sniper’s nest during the war. Now, it’s where junkies go to get high.
The carnage that swept across the region when the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia collapsed cannot be overstated. One needs to see these places, talk with the people, to truly understand the scope of the destruction.
But in former Yugoslavia, the story you get depends on the people you talk to.
If you aren’t immediately familiar with the term “Yugoslavia,” that’s understandable. We aren’t taught much about Yugoslavia in the West—maybe because it’s a very complex story, and maybe because — at least according to people who lived through it — Yugoslavia was one of the most successful Communist states in history.
Doesn’t align so well with the traditional capitalist narrative.
These days, the territory once occupied by the large and influential Yugoslav Republic has been carved up into seven separate states: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and the disputed Kosovo. The majority of these countries are wracked with crippling unemployment and widespread poverty.
Lots of people will tell you life was better under Communism.
Is it any surprise we don’t hear that narrative in American schools?
But, back to Mostar, where my British friend and I have just arrived.
Mostar is famous for the “Stari Most,” a.k.a. the “Old Bridge” in the center of town. The bridge in its current form isn’t exactly old, since the original, 15th-century bridge was destroyed by the Croatian army during heavy fighting in 1993. But thanks to a lot of international money, the bridge has been rebuilt according to its original specifications, and is now a protected UNESCO World Heritage site.
It looks old, in the Instagram photos and on the tourism brochures.
Fifty meters from this shiny tourist attraction, countless buildings still lie in ruins—too dangerous to live in, and too expensive to rebuild. Bullet holes and graffiti cover the city — there are many, many reminders scrawled in red paint: “Don’t Forget.”
Tired from a day of travel, my friend and I find a hostel. We have no reservation, and no idea what to expect. We have been recommended the “Hostel Nina” from a fellow traveler. We ring the bell. The owner greets us with what we have come to understand is typical Bosnian hospitality. He lives upstairs, he says, so if we need anything, don’t hesitate to shout.
“I also own a bar,” he says. “Best view of the old bridge in town. Since you are guests at my hostel, your first drink is free! It is a Sunday night, and you are out-of-season, so I don’t expect there will be many guests,” he says apologetically. “Maybe a few locals.”
In the hostel, Ollie and I met Sam, a Canadian solo female traveler. We strike up a conversation and cajole her into joining us for a free drink at the bar.
When the three of us finally locate the bar, as predicted, it’s totally empty. The owner is sitting all by himself, watching a talking head on TV. He looks pleased to see us, and offers us all shots of rakija, a popular homebrewed liquor. The stuff is absurdly strong, and ubiquitous in the Balkans.
“I have been waiting on this documentary for a long time,” our host says, pointing to the TV. “HBO. About the Yugoslavia space program,” he says. “Many people think this is why Yugoslavia collapsed,” he says with a conspiratorial nod. “Watch!” He turns up the volume, and the four of us settle in.
Though we missed the beginning, the documentary is clearly well-made, with high production values and a host of recognizable characters, including an appearance by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. It’s mostly in English, but occasionally there are five to fifteen minute stretches where the language switches to Croatian (or Slovenian, or whatever). These sections have no subtitles. Our host offers a general translation of these parts for us—when he remembers.
The doc tells a fairly fantastical space-race story, about the time Yugoslavia’s leader, Tito, sold phony rocket technology to the U.S. government. The sale of said technology, for $3 billion (about $20 billion today, adjusting for inflation), financed major improvements to the Yugoslav army and social services, drastically raising the standard of life in Yugoslavia, putting the country on par with the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. By the time the Americans realized the technology was worthless, the money had been spent. Tito could not repay the debt.
Tito tries several different tacks to satisfy the understandably ticked-off U.S. government (including, the doc alleges, designing the notorious Yugo car for the U.S. market), but in the end, the Americans get to the moon on their own—with no help whatsoever from the expensive Yugoslav technology. The U.S. government turns that $3 billion into a loan, and demands collection. This puts a huge financial strain on Yugoslavia, which begins suffering under efforts to repay the money.
Tito dies, nationalism begins to rise within the seven separate Yugoslav republics, and the film ends with the dark suggestion that the CIA encouraged these forces in order to destroy the Yugoslav state, because it would be easier to negotiate repayment with individual nations instead of one powerful republic.
By the time the doc ended, we were fairly drunk, had spent far more money than we intended to, and our minds were blown.
“You’d never hear that story in the U.S.!” I said to Ollie, walking home. “I’ve never even heard of that, have you?” The other two shook their heads. “Not at all. That’s wild. I had no idea Yugoslavia was so influential.”
For the next two months, I tell anyone who will listen about this story, as an example of the way our worldview is skewed by our media.
Only when I decide to do some digging, and see if I can find the film on the Internet, do I discover something shocking: it wasn’t a documentary. The film, which is titled “Houston, We Have a Problem,” is described alternatively as a ”docu-fiction” or a “docudrama.”
The main character in the film—supposedly a retired Yugoslavian space engineer—was played by a well-known actor. You wouldn’t know this from looking at the film’s IMDB page though, which lists Slavoj Zizek as the only actor. And you certainly wouldn’t know it from talking to the man in the bar in Mostar—he may not have known himself.
The film’s director, Ziga Verc, told Tribeca that his intention with the film was “to take a critical stance on the perception of reality in the media.”
It’s been four months since that bar in Mostar, and I’m still questioning what’s real. I’d say he did a good job.
Here in America, things are certainly different. Our new president is viciously attacking the media, the media is viciously attacking the president, and I’m becoming increasingly aware that more of the Internet than we would like to admit is fake, or astroturfed. Both sides are claiming that political opponents are “paid protestors,” and people are claiming that even well-produced, credible-seeming outlets are “fake news.”
It’s increasingly seeming like we are living in two Americas: Middle America and Liberal America. Each side refuses to reach across the aisle and acknowledge the other. It’s beginning to seem a little like Bosnia, where you need to pay attention to what flags people are flying to understand where you are.
Yugoslavia was torn apart by deep ethnic divisions; although the borders have been redrawn, those divisions still remain. For the locals, they track ethnicity by asking your name. Does it sound Serbian? Croatian? Or Muslim? “No matter what I do, who I become here,” our Sarajevan friend told us, “I cannot escape my name.”
For visitors to former Yugoslavia, without the cultural context, you need to watch the flags.
The official flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina is blue and yellow, with a triangle and stars. But throughout the country, you’ll find red, white, and blue Serb flags and Croat flags flying, almost as often as you’ll see the nation’s official colors.
In Mostar, the city is mainly run by Bosniak Muslims. But if you go 400 meters from the river, our barman tells us, that’s Serb country. There, quite literally, they fly a different flag. No matter what your passport or your mobile phone says, that’s not Bosnia. That’s Republika Srpska.
Anyone who tells you different is spewing “alternative facts.”
At this critical time in our nation’s history, Americans would do well to look to Yugoslavia. We might see more of ourselves there than we would like.
Thanks for reading. If you liked this piece, I’d love it if you share it with your friends, on social media or in real life! Or just leave a comment below, I’d love to hear from you!
And to lighten things up a little here at the end, I strongly encourage you to watch this commercial for the Yugo car (it features the slogan ‘buy more freedom for less money’), and this ’80s tourism video for Yugoslavia (because the area really is beautiful, and has so much more to offer than war).