Serbia: Difficult to love

I learned, too late, that one cannot go to Serbia with an open mind after visiting Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina. There is just too much hideous, recent history between the countries and so much in Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina tells of Serbia provoking the wars in the Balkans, how Serbia armed and incited Croatian and Bosnian Serbs to fight for a Greater Serbia, how the Serbs massacred tens of thousands in the name of ethnic cleansing.

The last museum I went to in Sarajevo, the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity, graphically and with excruciating detail, displayed the worst of the atrocities committed by the Serbs, characterized by the Museum as drunks, criminals and the insane unleashed by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to run roughshod over the innocent Bosnians. To be fair, the Museum also portrayed negatively the Bosnian Croats who attacked Mostar, but, perhaps less fairly, the Museum made no mention of any atrocities by the Bosniaks (Muslim Bosnians).

I resolved to keep an open mind toward Serbia. My visit started well, on a tour through the Bosnian Republic of Srpska, a Serbian autonomous zone, and into Serbia. It was a pleasant drive, through hilly lands heavily given over to agriculture, the round roofs of Orthodox churches dominating the towns, occasional wooden churches and pretty rivers bisecting the land. But it wasn’t quite as scenic as Bosnia Herzegovina. The mountains had no snow peaks, farm land replaced forests and waterfalls, so prevalent in Bosnia Herzegovina, seemed to end at the border.

We approached Belgrade, the capital with a greater population of 2 million, and my initial reaction was of a big, ugly city. Buildings were either varying shades of grey or varying shades of beige. Social realism, meaning rectangular boxes sprouting up from the ground, flanked the sidewalks, decorated only by the ubiquitous air-conditioning boxes that protruded below every window. My hotel was right on the main square, Trg Rebublike, with the National Theatre and the National Museum fronting onto a statue of Prince Michael, but the square was under construction and blocked off entirely. It was not a pleasing first impression.


There is good reason why Belgrade is not particularly attractive. It has been sacked, razed and bombed 140 times in its long history, most recently in 1999 when NATO air strikes dropped thousands of bombs in hope of encouraging then president Milosevic to resign. How it came to that is a long, convoluted story and the commentary below is through my western perspective.

The Serbs were part of a great migration south from the Russian steppes that arrived in the Balkans in the 7th century, integrating with, or displacing the local tribes and the remnants of the Roman Empire. They converted to Christianity willingly, but of the Orthodox variety, not Catholic and not part of the Holy Roman Empire. In the early Middle Ages, many revered Orthodox saints came from, or practised in, current Kosovo when, by the 14th century, the Kingdom of Serbia covered vast parts of the Balkans, including parts of Bulgaria and Albania.

The Ottomans captured the region in 1540 and began settling Muslims or converting locals to Islam, with the promise of lower taxes and other state benefits. The Ottomans focused on the south, in current Albania, but gradually pushed many Serbs out of Kosovo where the Muslims became the majority. Throughout the Ottoman period, the Hungarians controlled the north areas and encouraged Serbians to settle there and assist in their constant wars against the Ottomans. Finally, Serbia rebelled against the Ottomans and achieved a sort of independence in 1817. Following the 1912 Balkan Wars, Serbia encompassed present day Serbia, Macedonia and Kosovo.

After WW1, Serbia joined with Croatia and Slovenia to form the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, which it dominated. During WW2, it was occupied by first Italy, then Germany and suffered extensive damage from Allied bombs. Post WW2, it was 1 of 6 regions in Tito’s Republic of Yugoslavia; Belgrade was the country’s capital.

Upon Tito’s death in 1980, things became difficult in Yugoslavia. The many loans Tito had secured from both the East and the West, while allowing Yugoslavia a greater prosperity than other communist countries, became due and no new money could be found. Unemployment and inflation increased; nationalism in each of the regions started to flourish as regions sought independence and, by 1992, Yugoslavia had disintegrated into chaos and war.

The region of Serbia, and Serbians living in other regions, were at the forefront of trying to maintain the boundaries of the former Yugoslavia as a single entity. The Serbian dictator, Slobodan Milosevic, spoke encouragingly of the Greater Serbia and armed and assisted Serbs living in Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina to resist those countries’ goals of independence, massacring large numbers of non-Serbs in an effort to ethnically cleanse areas the Serbs claimed, rightfully or wrongfully, as their own.

The world basically stood by and watched, to intense criticism and humiliation to the token UN force stationed in Bosnia Herzegovina, as hundreds of thousands were killed or displaced in that country. A ceasefire and truce was negotiated in 1995, but when matters started heating up in 1998 in Kosovo, with the potential of more ethnic cleansing and actual widespread displacement by Serbians against primarily Muslim Kosovans, US President Bill Clinton ordered NATO air strikes against Serbia. For 78 days beginning March 24, 1999, NATO bombed Belgrade and Serbia. Between 400 and 1,500 people were killed, depending on who you ask. Although initially the targets were strictly military, the bombings soon expanded to include dual purpose structures: bridges, power plants, factories and the main television studio. Its shelled-out remains stand as a memorial to the victims of the bombing, including the 16 civilians who died inside it. Milosovic was warned in advance about the bombing, but he chose not to evacuate the building in the hopes of gaining more sympathy for his stance if NATO was seen to be killing innocent victims.

The bombed TV building in Belgrade

The bombings ceased after Serbia agreed to withdraw its Yugoslav forces from Kosovo. In 2008, Kosovo voted for independence from Serbia, a status recognized by 110 countries, but not Serbia. Milosovic remained president of Serbia until 2000, when he was overthrown and a year later, sent to the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague to stand trial on charges of war crimes. In 2006, he was found dead in his prison cell, apparently from an heart attack but at least one video I watched claimed he was poisoned by Western forces.

Walking Tour:

Davor, a former history teacher, led the history and cultural tour of Belgrade. Starting at the under construction Republic Square, he noted that no one ever really knew when construction projects would be completed in Belgrade and the anticipated opening date before the summer season was optimistic. “Maybe by next summer season?” he suggested.

Under construction Republic Square

Davor gave us a short history of Serbia, emphasizing its long history as an independent kingdom and its pivotal place in the former Yugoslavia. Our first stop was at the Moskva hotel, built by the Russians to house passengers on the Orient Express train, which used to stop nearby on its way from Paris to Constantinople, but the route ceased in 1977.

We passed the House of the National Assembly building, where a protest was occurring, apparently an everyday occurrence, crossed a park, saw a number of statues of famous Serbians on horses where I learned that if the horse has a single leg raised, its rider died in battle, two raised legs meant the rider had been assassinated and none raised meant a natural death. We then passed by the gargantuan main Post Office, a strikingly hideous example of socialist realism architecture. Davor said the Post Office was deliberately constructed largely so as to obscure the view of Church of St. Mark, nestled behind it.

Part of the Post Office Building

We stopped at the former TV building which had been bombed by NATO. Davor explained why he thought NATO bombed Serbia and the reasons were very different than what I had been led to believe. Kosovo, he said, is very rich in minerals, with coal, copper and silver mines. Bill Clinton is a major shareholder in the largest Kosovo mining company, so he ordered the bombing to enrich his holdings, I am not making this up; it was what Davor told us and what he believes.

We continued walking, passing yet another Nicholas Tesla museum (he was born in Croatia of Serbian parents, which is why both countries, along with the USA, claim him as their own). To the delight of Davor and the men in the group, we came upon a Yugo, the Yugoslav made automobile that was the darling of the communist regime. The company ceased manufacturing the cars in 2001. I had heard in Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina about the unreliable reputation Yugo had, but Davor had a different take on it. “It was very reliable,” he said, “because every Yugo owner had to be able to fix his own car.”

A Yugo

We finished the tour at the Church of St. Sava, the most revered saint in Serbia. The Church, started in 1935 was finally finished in 2017. It is impressive and entrance is free, but the 2 hour tour was entering its 4th hour, so I was not too appreciative of the extensive murals in the crypt area.

The Sava and Danube:

Despite the walking tour showing us the highlights of Belgrade, I couldn’t shake my impression that it was not a pretty city. A YouTube video I watched extolled the loveliness of the city by the water, so I went for a walk along the Sava River. Sadly, I was met with more construction, busy roads, unsightly industrial buildings and gas stations. Boat based bars lined the river, but I am too old to be into the nightclub scene. I did end up at Belgrade fortress, where views of the Sava River meeting the Danube were had, but maybe it was the overcast day or my pessimistic attitude, but I could not see anything of beauty.

The Sava riverside

Day Trip:

Given my disillusionment with Belgrade, I signed up for a day trip out of the city. Following a drive through rich agricultural land, we arrived at Fenek Monastery. Originally built in the 15th century, the current Church was reconstructed in the 19th century and is typical of many Orthodox churches that dot the landscape.

The church as Fenek Monastery

I had listened to a podcast extolling the virtues of Sremski Karlovci, a town not captured by the Ottomans, but occupied by the Austria-Hungary empire, with architecture to match. Its buildings would have been at home in Vienna or Budapest, their facades ornately decorated and painted in reds, muted greens and other colours completely absent in Belgrade.

 Sremski Karlovci

Our guide, Bajan, was another history and archeology scholar. As we approached Novi Sad, also bombed by NATO, I asked:

“What were you taught in university about why NATO had bombed Serbia?”

He initially responded: “it is not taught as all the records are sealed and will be for another 15 years.”

“You must have your own thoughts on the reasons why,” I persisted.

“Well, there are two reasons,” he explained. “First, you must understand that before WW2, the US had a giant base in Kosovo and they want it again to keep an eye on Serbia. Second, Kosovo has all the rivers and the US wants to control the water.”

That’s what he told me. You can believe what you wish.

Novi Sad is Serbia’s second largest city, with a fort built by Austria-Hungary to keep a watch out for the Ottomans. The old military houses are still visible, not having been bombed by NATO, but the bridges were and have all been rebuilt. The city centre has a few churches, some Baroque buildings, a pleasant pedestrian walkway and a kiosk selling the best ice-cream I tasted in Serbia. I’ve not much more to say about it.

Novi Sad from the fortress

A Wonderful Departure: 

Those who know me are aware of my fondness for train rides and the quirkier, the better. Though the former Yugoslav countries boast a number of trains, the granddaddy of them all is the Belgrade to Bar line. Completed in 1976, the 476 kilometer track boasts 254 tunnels and 234 bridges. Running from Belgrade to the Adriatic Coast, it crosses 3 countries (Serbia, Bosnia Herzegovina and Montenegro), starting in the foothills of the Dinaric Alps, carving through the Balkans, past deep green valleys, over vertigo inducing bridges and, in the final 150 kilometers before Montenegro’s capital of Podgorica, towering mountains looking over deepest canyons.

The cars themselves have seen better days; no one would mistake it for a luxury train, especially at the price of about $40 between Belgrade and Podgorica, where I left the train after 10 hours. It reaches its terminus in Bar an hour later. There is no dining car, no food whatsoever for sale on board and the bathrooms require your own toilet paper.

My train car on the Belgrade to Bar line

The windows hadn’t been washed forever; fortunately the windows in the passageway opened to allow for photographs. But that was a cat and mouse game. The train entered long tunnels and I stood with my finger on the photo button hoping to get a good shot in the seconds after emerging from one tunnel and before entering the next. I managed a few, but they don’t do justice to the stunning scenery.

Final Thoughts:

Serbia is one of the first countries where there was a palpable anti-West feeling and it has nothing to do with Donald Trump and everything to do with Bill Clinton and the NATO bombing in 1999. It’s not surprising; if the Warsaw Pact had bombed Toronto, killed thousands and destroyed its economy for the foreseeable future, I would not be enamoured with Russia. I came to Serbia to try and understand their perspective and that much was accomplished: its claim to the Kosovo lands run long and deep and to a large extent, the Serbs have disavowed Milosovic. What I found unfathomable and disturbing was the Serbians inability to face or accept any responsibility, even the Croatian “we all committed wrongs” attitude. No “Belgrade during the war” tours are offered, no museums are dedicated to the wars, nothing is taught about it in the schools or universities. Instead, the people are fed what I consider to be erroneous and biased information about the causes of the wars. I doubt that the Western version I learned is completely accurate, but at least its veracity is debated and challenged. I doubt the same can be said for the Serbian propaganda.


Next: Montenegro