Archive for September, 2010

Former Yugoslavia Part 1 – What You’re Born With

All the parks in Sarajevo have been converted into cemeteries. On a hill overlooking the city, the view is all buildings, cemeteries, and great, damp mountains. History is so immediate here, in this region. A few hundred kilometres away in Western Europe, third-generation Germans are learning about their country’s legacy and wondering what to do with a guilt that isn’t theirs. But here in the Balkans war was just the other day, and this small, land-locked ball of Bosnia formed the front line. Trials for war crimes are going on right now, just down the hill from where we’re staying; the girl whose house it is works writing the reports. Post-traumatic stress is a real, but unremarked upon, problem. Many of those I pass in the street remember those parks when they were still parks.

Earlier in the trip, in Belgrade, I notice the event posters on the trams are out of date. Ewa, the friend I’m travelling with, and I stay with a couch-surfer and go out with her friends. We are cautious around the subject of the war at first, but it soon becomes apparent that it was a very real, and normal, part of their childhood and background – like the rein of John Howard was for Australians my age, for example – and it forms an undertone to conversations just like any other personal history might.

Our host’s family is Serbian but she was born in Croatia and her family had been living there for generations. But then the war came and everyone had to clear out and emmigrate to Serbia. I ask her what the discernible difference between Croatians and Serbians were – if she was born in Croatia, and her family was from there, I ask with the naïvety of the unattached, wasn’t she Croatian? When the war came, surely everyone had a Croatian accent and seemed Croatian in every way besides remote genealogy – couldn’t they have just said they were Croation so they didn’t have to emigrate? She tries to explain to me that it’s a matter of pride and identity. Her ancestors were Serbian, so therefore, she is Serbian – it doesn’t matter where she was born.

I grapple with this sort of nationalism, this strong identification with generations-old ethnicity. I was born in Canada and despite a shredded sort of accent and an extra passport, I don’t consider myself Canadian. My mother’s side of the family is all from Holland, but I wouldn’t call myself Dutch. My Dad’s got Scottish in him apparently, but I’m no Scott. I’m Australian. I grew up there, it’s the country I know the most about, identify with the strongest: therefore, I am Australian. Ethnically I may be Dutch, Scottish, Belgian, whatever else, but this is not how I define myself.

But then, what is Australia but a 200-year-old collection of mongrels from all over the world calling themselves Australian in lieu of anything more solid; in lieu of a continuous, geographically-based history. Perhaps this quick-fire, single-generational acquisition of national identity is as much a part of being Australian as Aussie Rules and barbecues for Christmas.

In the Balkans, however, you’re not a mongrel and you don’t necessarily carry the nationality of the country you grew up in; your nationality is the ethnicity – and the religion, and therein lies the real crux of the issue – you were born with.

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