Sunday, July 7, 2013


Belgrade, or "Beograd" ("White city"), as we frequently saw it written in the Balkans, is the capital of Serbia, and with 1.2 million people, it is not only the largest city in Serbia, but one of the largest in southwest Europe.  Strategically located on the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers,
it has been in over 100 wars and has been razed dozens of times. It has been conquered and/or ruled by the Celts, Romans, Slavs, Byzantine Empire, Frankish Empire, Bulgarian Empire, Kingdom of Hungary, Ottoman Empire, and Habsburgs.

World War I began in 1914 when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia after Serbian nationalists assassinated Austria-Hungary's crown prince (see prior post). After looking over that list of conquerors in the previous paragraph, I can understand why the Serbs wanted to rule themselves. According to our guide, by the end of the war, 56% of the country's men had been killed, so Russian emigres--mostly intellectuals--were invited to Serbia, and they had a great impact of the architecture and culture of the country. After the War, Belgrade became capital of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, which was renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929.

Yugoslavia tried to stay out of World War II, but in April 1941, Belgrade was bombed by the German Luftwaffe, killing 24,000 citizens, about 7 or 8% of the total population. Serbia was then invaded by Axis powers and incorporated into the Nazi State of Croatia. Guerrilla fighters formed a resistance movement, but during a particularly brutal period, the Nazi policy was to shoot 100 Jews and Serbs for every Nazi killed by the guerrillas.
Belgrade, World War I. Picture from here
To add insult to injury, Belgrade was bombed again in 1944, this time by the Allied forces. The city was finally liberated from the German army in October 1944 by the Red Army and Communist Party of Yugoslavia. About a year later, Marshal Tito rose to power and proclaimed the independence of Yugoslavia with himself as president. Things settled down in Serbia for a time, but when Tito died in 1980, the kettle started boiling once again.

According to my limited, American media-influenced understanding, Serbia was the aggressor in the Yugoslavian Wars of 1991-1995.  Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic sent troops and weapons all over the Balkans in an attempt to restore Yugoslavian unity and to cleanse the country of undesirables. In particular, he wanted Bosnia for the Serbs without competition from the Muslims (Bosniaks). During Milosevic's presidency, Ratko Mladic, a Bosnian-Serb, oversaw the genocide of more than 8,000 Bosniaks in Srebrenica in northeastern Bosnia in 1995, an event that has been described as the worst crime on European soil since World War II.  Milosevic succeeded in driving many ethnic groups out of Serbia as well, which is now 83% Serbian in ethnicity and 85% Serbian Orthodox in religion. Massive demonstrations against the Serbian government in 1991, 1996, and 1997 caused more deaths and more destruction in Belgrade.

Milosevic turned to Kosovo in 1998-1999, starting a process of ethnic cleansing there. That war killed up to 13,000 in a two-year period, most of them ethnic Albanians, Serbia's target group. NATO finally stepped in and bombed Belgrade for 78 straight nights in 1999, doing substantial damage to the city and killing about 500 (US estimate) to 5,000 (Serbian estimate) civilians. Although this NATO intervention stopped Serbian massacres and the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo Albanians, Serbia still does not recognize Kosovo as a sovereign state, and neither do a five other European countries (Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus, Romania, and Greece).

Buildings bombed by NATO fourteen years ago are still found around the capital city:

In 2000, a year after the NATO bombing, more protesters took to the streets, with the result being the ousting of President Slobodan Milosevic, who has come to be known in some circles as "the butcher of the Balkans," but who is still a heroic figure to some Serbs. Milosevic died of a heart attack in 2006 in a UN prison in The Hague, Netherlands.

Sure, the last dozen years have been an era of relative peace and prosperity, but can you really blame me for being nervous about going to Serbia?

Luckily, we had hired a private guide for the day, Snezana Bulatovic from Serbian Heritage Tours. She and her driver picked us up at our hotel at 8:00 a.m. and brought us back at 8:00 p.m. after a full day of perspective-changing sightseeing. Snezana is a fascinating person in her own right. She told us about how good life under Tito was, but how things fell apart after his death. She moved to Venezuela during the Yugoslav War in the early 1990s and came back after the war was over, but conditions were so bad that she went to London to live with friends for a year or two and waited for things to stabilize. She told us she hated all the "rules" in England, but that she loved feeling safe. She seemed to have a very cosmopolitan view of Serbia's current situation. For example, she believes Serbia should give up Kosovo, accept the loss, and move forward.

Snezana is quite brilliant. She speaks four or five languages and has a deep understanding of and passion for Balkan history. She was especially knowledgeable about the Orthodox Church, which we really enjoyed. She adapted her usual tour to fit our desires (e.g., no winery tour and wine tasting, more churches and monasteries), and piggy-backed two tours to cram as much as possible into one day for us. She was open and honest and fascinating to listen to.

English scientist John Lubbock said, "What we see depends mainly on what we look for." During our time in Serbia, I learned a whole new way of looking and seeing. We discovered a beautiful country full of peaceful, hardworking people and a rich religious heritage.


  1. I love your historical background on the Balkans. It was sobering to see the bombed out buildings in the center of Belgrade, very near our hotel. They really out to leave those buildings that way as a reminder of the past, for all of us.

  2. Can hardly wait to go on your guided tour with you!

  3. What an incredibly tragic history! It's amazing what a people can endure.