The Balkans changes perceptions

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Researching Balkans

by Carina Louise Julig
SIT Fall 2018
University of Colorado Boulder

In the fall of 2018, I decided to immerse myself in a completely new experience and go study abroad in the Balkans. The program ended up being a couple of the best months of my life: I made incredible friendships, I learned more in a semester than I had in the preceding two years of college, and I got to live in and learn about one of the most incredible and complicated regions of the world.

Latin Bridge, Sarajevo

I came into the semester knowing very little about the Balkans, essentially only that I wanted to go somewhere that was culturally different from the U.S. and where I would have the opportunity to learn about something that felt important. I read Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, about Western countries’ repeated failures at genocide prevention, when I was a college freshman, and it remains one of the books that has had the biggest impact on how I see the world. I knew vaguely about Bosnia and Kosovo from her descriptions of the wars, and felt like it was a place I should know more about.

After arriving in Belgrade, I quickly learned that even though the 1990s still cast a long shadow over the former Yugoslavia, there is so much more to the region than violence and suffering. I fell in love with the Balkans, with all its beauty and immense sense of history, so quickly. When our program came to an end people asked me if I was homesick, but the truth was that I wasn’t ready to leave.

Back in the U.S., I’ve struggled to describe the Balkans to people who ask about it. Just like I used to be, most Americans’ only association of the region is with war and ethnic violence. I had a hard time explaining the complexity of the region and the tensions that still exist to people without making it sound as if the only thing here is conflict. Pretending like everything is fine now would be a lie, but I didn’t know how to get people to see beyond their preconceived notions. I complained about this to my friends, now in our separate universities hundreds of miles apart. How can I explain this place to people in a way that makes sense? How can I make them feel what I felt?

As Americans, we’re often arrogantly conditioned to view war and violence as something that happens to other people, in less privileged countries. But of course, violence is never just “over there.”

Old Jewish Cemetery of Sarajevo

Midway through our program, we received news that a gunman had killed 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, in what is now considered the worst attack on the Jewish community in the U.S. We didn’t discuss the incident at length in our cohort, but it’s fair to say that all of us were shaken by it. Belgrade was the first city in Europe to become staro judenfrei, and across the Sava River from our classroom were the ruins of the staro Sajmište concentration camp. It felt like the violence we were seeing and learning about was bleeding into our life back home.

Shortly after the attack, I left Belgrade to spend my independent month in Sarajevo, where I wrote an article about the city’s Jewish community. Before World War II Jews made up to a fifth of the city’s population. Now the community is very small, even if their history has been built into the city for centuries.

Once one of the most ethnically mixed cities in Yugoslavia, Sarajevo suffered greatly during the siege and is now much more homogenous. But I was still struck by the religious tolerance there today that rivals some of the gleaming capitals of progressive, Western Europe. The city is called the “Jerusalem of the Balkans” for being one of the only places where a mosque, a synagogue, a Catholic church and an Orthodox temple are all within 400 feet of each other. The synagogue has no security, a rarity in Europe as anti-Semitic violence continues to rise. Indeed, when I spoke with Jakob Finci, the leader of Sarajevo’s Jewish community, he insisted the country has no anti-Semitism.

Srebrenica–Potočari Memorial and Cemetery

One of the major things we learned in our program was that the idea of “ancient ethnic hatred” was a fiction. Our professors taught us to question the conception of ancient hatreds cultivated by authors like Robert Kaplan of Balkan Ghosts fame. Intractable clashes of civilizations are not real. Dehumanization of the other is always in someone’s self-interest.

That all became horrifyingly real to me when a white supremacist killed 50 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand last month while they were praying. It was deeply disturbing to read about the shooter’s incorporation of music symbols from the Balkans after having stood at Srebrenica not months before and bearing witness to the atrocities that anti-Muslim rhetoric can abet. And once again I was reminded that there is no “there” when it comes to violence—it happens here too. The Balkans gets scapegoated as uniquely unstable, uniquely prone to ethnic violence, but there is no country that is immune to bigotry and dehumanization. We are all vulnerable.

The Balkans taught me a lot about conflict, and I wasn’t prepared to feel like what I learned was so relevant to my own country. But it also gave me hope, because it allowed me to dream bigger about what a peaceful society would really look like. In Serbia, in Bosnia, and in Kosovo we met so many people who were invested in the work of making their own communities and countries more peaceful and just places to live. It’s not easy work, but we all have a part to play. And I’m ready.


Zemun, Belgrade
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