Bombs Over Belgrade

If I were to sum up Belgrade in one word, it would be “gritty.”

After an amazing couple of weeks in elegant Bosnia and relaxing Montenegro it was a shock to the system to be dropped in the center of hot, urban Belgrade.

Also a shock:

I’d encountered my fair share of bombed out buildings in Bosnia, and was moved by the horror of the wars there, but these tall gaping monsters felt different. The dark holes, like missing teeth, seemed almost accusatory. Unlike the shattered remnants of Sarajevo and Mostar, the damages in Belgrade had been inflicted by my own country.

Well, not JUST the United States. It was actually NATO that bombed Serbia during the 1999 Kosovo War. Unfair or not, most of the Serbian anger over the Kosovo issue seems to be directed solely at the US.  Just a few months prior to my arrival, riots has broken out in front of the US Embassy in response to Kosovo’s renewed declarations of independence.

I walked past the American Embassy, now shuttered and boarded up and felt a twinge of nervousness. Belgrade is the only place in Europe where I’ve actually run across anti-Americanism. I never felt unsafe; most of the jabs were harmless, despite their serious undertones. I was subject to a lot of subtle digs though (for example, locals kept sarcastically asking me if I was “looking for McDonalds.”) My friend Liz, a Canadian, managed to escape the hostility.

Needless to say, Serbia did not feel as friendly as the other Balkan countries I visited.

Although it made me squirm a bit, it did give me a picture of Serbian psychology. The people there have strong national pride as well as a remarkable respect and connection with their past.  There seems to be a reverence for the “glory days” of the former Yugoslavia. This was evident when we visited the grave of Grand Marshal Tito.  Even at 10am on an unremarkable Tuesday the place was buzzing.

One of the things that challenged and fascinated me most about my time in the former Yugoslavia was the rawness of history there. In the past twenty years huge shifts in culture, nationality and politics have occurred- often with terrifying force. Serbia sits at the center of these conflicts; many see them as the aggressor, they see themselves as victims. I won’t comment politically except to say that in some ways both are true.

As a result it’s impossible to walk down the street in Belgrade and not contemplate this turbulence. While not the most drastic consequences, the buildings are the ragged physical reminders of upheaval. They refuse to be ignored and refuse to be forgotten.

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24 thoughts on “Bombs Over Belgrade”

  1. Sunshine, Marshal Tito was ethnic Croatian who ruled Yugoslavia. Serbs have no love for him…

    However, he was a good friend of United States. Please, next time you visit some country read up on US foreign policy. You will get suprised…

  2. Please don’t forget…….Kosovo is part of Serbia. Kosovo<Serbia…Serbia=Central Serbia+Vojvodina+Kosovo. Thanks…!!!

  3. I find your article very biased. Just like every other American (and even other ignorant Europeans, mind you) you just see the facade and base your judgments on that..
    You have not spent enough time in Belgrade to see past the bombed buildings (which, by the way, you are not allowed to photograph) or to even realise that they have achieved their purpose in the way they affected you.
    You said that it was the only American-unfriendly place you have been to…but why should they be particularly liked in a city that was bombed by them?
    As for the danger, those riots shed a bad light on Serbia and the reality looks very different. Americans are just all hyped about something that isn’t real. It’s perfectly safe, the people are warm and friendly, very chill and all into partying! People like you just perpetuate the terrible, undeserved reputation of Serbia all over the world to the point that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
    Just to reiterate, Serbs don’t hate Americans, because if they did why would Chicago be the third-largest Serbian city in the world?
    What you said about Serbian national pride and everything is true, they often do feel or act like the victims but what can they do when they have had such a turbulent history as you mentioned earlier, and that they have such a reputation even in Central Europe?
    I hope I don’t sound too harsh, but I don’t like it when people just judge a place superficially and being a resident in Belgrade, I daresay I have more profound insight than a simple traveler. Hope I helped to clear some things up.
    Oh yeah one more point, Serbia is a poor country. And those buildings cost a lot to knock down. 🙂

    1. HI Belgrade Girl,

      I’m sorry you felt offended by my article. My aim was not to pass judgment on Serbia or Serbs, or to make sweeping generalizations, but to explain what it is like to visit Belgrade as an American. It is supposed to be biased because it describes my personal thoughts and experiences-it’s not meant to be a travel guide.

      I think you are under the impression that I’m complaining about Belgrade, or telling people not to go. I’m not complaining at all: I’m glad the place affected me the way it did. I realize that American has done a lot of things that I don’t necessarily approve of or support, so it was emotional to see the fallout of that in person. I think it’s important for everyone to be able to see their country and it’s actions from other perspectives.

      I was only able to spend a few days in Belgrade and I’m sure there is a lot more depth to be seen and explored. This article however, only pertains to my initial impressions.

      I hope that clarifies things a little bit. I would just add that it’s not really fair to accuse me of being superficial and then accuse ALL Americans of being ignorant. Tolerance needs to go both ways.

  4. Its really great you decided to step off the well worn path of most US travelers to go to Belgrade. I wonder what really inspired you to go there in the first place. The irony is that even educated people here in the US often mix up Serbia and Siberia. I blame our education system for our geographic ignorance. For those who don’t understand why Americans don’t get abroad much my theory is this: 1. Our work ethic/culture imposes the least amount of vacation time possible and rarely do we even take the miserable 2 weeks a year off for fear of loosing our jobs in this dog-eat-dog economy. 2. When we have so little vacation time to use many of us visit family who live in other cities or parts of the country or use it to travel to some of our own countries world-class destinations. 3. Frankly its just darn expensive in terms of time and money to go to Europe or far away. Few of us can afford the cost of the ticket or the jet lag to eat up a precious day or two of flying. Its sad but this is why we tend to be more isolated and ignorant of other cultures and countries. So for every time an American actually manages to really connect with another culture on their own turf we gain so much in terms of awareness and understanding of our cultures. Impressions last a long time.

    These generations of Serbs have a hard time tolerating ignorance of foreign politics especially from Americans. That’s not to imply that you have to be well studied on this region to go visit but you do have to keep an open mind when you travel there. They probably know more about where our taxes go than we do. Judging from your comment about “NATO’s” responsibility for the airstrikes (not just the US) I suspect that you didn’t realize it was 99% US military forces involved. (That’s like saying that the US was not solely responsible for the war in Iraq – true, but would you be surprised if Iraqis felt differently about US travelers vs. Italians for example?) Serbs will probably for a long time to come see the US gov’t as the bullies because of its vast military. So despite the coalition of the willing’s involvement in the war US travelers will probably get a colder response than the French or British.

    If you had travelled there in the 80’s you would have found it to be one of the most US obsessed countries in Europe. Michael Jordan, McDonnald’s, Madonna and just about every US cultural export was golden. I have personally seen this shift over my years of traveling there before, during and after the break-up of Yugoslavia and war on Serbia. There was a really strong middle class and it was an economically vibrant country. Considering the shape it’s in now it’s no wonder people dream about those glory days. You have to remember that Serbia’s been both economically and politically captive for many many years now and they’re angry because they once had a better life and they remember it. The younger generations are scarred from the experience of growing up in the war and having to defend their nation from bombs by gathering on bridges on mass as human shields to protect them from “NATO” airstrikes for example. There is a very real “rawness” to their history, as you put it, because many of the people you run into on the street there has had to live through it personally.

    It takes a certain amount of imagination and empathy to really appreciate the people of Serbia and how far they’ve come and what they’ve had to endure. Unlike most Americans, Serbs know now how dangerous it is not to be politically mindful and aware of their government’s doings. We Americans like to think its a choice to be aware of what our government is doing or not both in our own country as well as abroad – we tune in or tune it out based on how much we can handle. But imagine if another greater power than our own in the world, let’s say China for the sake of argument, started airing our dirty laundry and attacking us and annexing parts of our country and like emotionally charged territories of land like the Alamo and Florida for example, places that mean as much to us as Montenegro and Kosovo mean to the Serbs. I think we’d suddenly find our political consciousness heightened very quickly. We’d all suddenly become very studied on Chinese foreign politics. And I’m pretty sure that warm American hospitality toward Chinese travelers would go right out the window. Multiply that by decades of war and inescapable political conversation and you have entire generations that are not only more politically savvy than your average American but equally desperately burned out of it and hungry for release. That may be why the nightlife in Belgrade is so much more vibrant than most other European cities.

    I personally think going to Belgrade as an American is a brave and smart thing to do – but your experience there will mirror your degree of awareness and open-mindedness. Fortunately, you’ll find no shortage of English speaking Serbs willing to sit down at a cafe and give you their perspective and through years of dialog our relations will improve. Until then Serbia’s hidden gems will remain only for those brave enough to seek them because many people would prefer to take easy street and go to the Louvre, for example without having to deal with raw emotion and experience when they travel abroad.

    1. Thank you so much for weighing in Natalie. My original intention in the area had been to visit Sarajevo, but as I learned more I decided to spend a month seeing as much of the former Yugoslavia as possible (ultimately visited Bosnia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia and Croatia- next year I’m hoping to see Kosovo and Macedonia as well). Really fell in love with the entire region. I did some research before I arrived because I was pretty unfamiliar with the situation but it is definitely more moving to experience it first hand.

      Being in Serbia did make me think a lot about my identity as an American and what that means to other people and other countries. Really appreciate your (very knowledgeable) insight!

  5. It does weigh on you having to be America’s sole representative some times. Obviously we ARE out there though!

    My friend, and most of the travelers I met in the Balkans were Canadians. They seem to get around much more than us.

  6. It’s amazing how often I meet people, tell them I’m from America, and here them say, ‘wow, I never meet Americans traveling.’ Obviously we DO, just not in as great of numbers. I often get the half hearted jab about being a Yank, but I’ve never been in a country where I seriously felt unwelcome. A trying experience for you, I’m sure. I imagine it was nice to have a friend along.
    .-= Matt´s last blog ..A Look Back … 40 Years of Friendship in Turkey =-.

  7. I went to Belgrade for a school-sponsored workshop in 2002, and judging from your photos, it hasn’t changed very much. Definitely agree with it being gritty and industrial. I think that many Americans who travel abroad here in Europe still head for the usual destinations (London, Paris, etc.), and so certain stereotypes regarding us tend to stick. Hopefully things will change for the better, though!

    1. I think that they just don’t have the money to knock down all these buildings and rebuild. Same case in Bosnia and Croatia. They are such tragic reminders, I’m sure they must be depressing to the locals as well.

      That’s a good point about Americans heading to the same old places. I think that’s even more true outside of Europe where many americans never ever go.

  8. I definitely agree with everything said. Being an American abroad can at times be difficult and frustrating. But I do love it when people say, “You aren’t what I thought Americans were like.” We gotta get out there and help change the stereotype!

    1. I really wish more Americans were out there traveling; I think it’s the best way to disabuse the stereotypes that surround us.

  9. Something I’ve never thought of given Australia’s general love everybody attitude but I hope to never have to visit a country that judges me for being Australian.

    I can’t imagine what it would have felt like but I’m guessing you were glad to have a friend with you.
    .-= Chris – The Aussie Nomad´s last blog ..First Gear Purchase =-.

    1. Being an American abroad isn’t always the easiest thing, but it’s certainly educational. I’ve never felt threatened but I have been involved in a thousand uncomfortable political discussions. I am thinking now that Bush is not longer president things might be a bit better.

      1. If we do lunch on Monday and he’s not working, you two can chat. He is excellent with advice about Africa, since he lived in a combination of Benin, Guinea, Nigeria, and Botswana for a good chunk of his childhood, and his dad was head of the “African Relations” dept. at the State Dept. for years.
        .-= Kelsey´s last blog ..Fallschirmjager by the Fire =-.

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