Written on the Walls

A significant part of adjusting to Belgrade has been about processing everything that I see during my daily routine. There is the bus I take, recently jam-packed with commuters, and the familiar voice constantly announcing sledeća  stajalište (“next stop”). When I step off the bus and onto the street, there is often the smell of cigarette smoke, and I typically witness people jaywalking across the street after looking both ways to make sure the police don’t see them. Sometimes I see a policeman jaywalking with them. Every so often, drivers get confrontational and blare their horns for a good 20 seconds; once or twice I’ve seen drivers leave their cars to yell at each other or greet a friend before driving away. If I’m on my way to an early morning class, I pass by trucks delivering fresh bread and groceries to the bakery and convenience store on the corner. When I remember to look up, I see buildings from various time periods looming above; some of them are modern, some have been standing for centuries, while others feature the concrete, blocky facade of communist architecture.

Historians often mention how cities are layered with history, how the bones and ruins of ancient civilizations lay beneath successive layers of streets. In Belgrade these layers are vertical, too. Even a single building can have layers from the inside-out. In daylight, I pass many buildings that look decrepit and abandoned (one of them didn’t even have a roof or glass in the windows); when I pass by at night, however, those buildings come alive with the lights, sounds, and smells of Belgrade nightlife. No corner in this city goes to waste–if there’s room, there will be a cafe or kafana.*


One of the buildings I passed that appears abandoned. It is a project in the Savamala area (a scene where Belgrade’s youth gather) known as “the Spanish House.”

Yet, the most startling element of my surroundings is something that isn’t foreign to me at all: graffiti. And it’s everywhere.

Graffiti here ranges from meaningless scribbles on the bus to elaborate, politically charged street art. In some cases, graffiti is how  local residents express their political views and frustrations. In other cases, it reveals hostilities between people with opposing values. I’ve come across negative, hostile, even chilling sketches; I’ve also seen constructive and inspiring critiques of Serbian society.

One particularly haunting image I passed featured Gavrilo Princip,  infamous for assassinating the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and igniting World War One. Princip remains a controversial figure, for according to some he is a terrorist while according to others he is a national hero. Serbia’s way of handling this controversy delicately was to name a street after Princip, but to choose a street that was not significant (in fact, this street is where prostitution in Belgrade took place). The original artwork displays Gavrilo Princip and the words he wrote on the wall of the cell where he was detained until his death: “Our ghosts will walk through Vienna, and roam the Palace, frightening the Lords.” Like many things written on the walls of Belgrade, however, this street art has layers: someone else came alone one day and blinded Princip by painting his eyes white; yet another passerby later added the symbol for marijuana, maybe indicating that the past is irrelevant to them.

The original graffiti (accessed http://www.vaseljenska.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Gavrilo-Princip-1.jpg)

The graffiti now, after numerous contributions.

I also pass by graffiti addressing current politics–especially concerning Serbia’s recognition of gay rights. This weekend, Belgrade held its first Pride Parade in several years; I’m happy to report that it was safe and successful, but not without a considerable amount of resistance. Belgrade’s street art reflects this dynamic, as some graffiti advocates gay rights and other graffiti is crudely added on top of it with expressions of open hostility.

Unlike graffiti in the United States, which is usually washed away or painted over, Belgrade’s messages become a part of the city’s atmosphere (most likely because there is neither money nor priority to undo it). Graffiti is also something that happens in broad daylight. I’m not sure if it’s completely legal, if street artists get lucky and escape the attention of the police, or if the police look the other way… regardless, I’m getting used to seeing those faces stare back at me every morning. Belgrade’s graffiti is yet another way for me to learn the language and social dynamics here. It makes the walls come alive–they evolve with the times and document the city’s history. Many people here keep telling me that Belgrade has a soul; I think they’re right, and I think its secrets are written on the walls.

belgrade street art robin williams

Two teenagers spray-painting a new image onto the street. And yes, that is Robin Williams on the wall (he appeared there the day after his death).


*more traditional bars/cafes known for playing local music

First Impression and an Unrelated Picture

A view of the rivers Sava and Danube where they meet in front of Belgrade's fortress, Kalemegdan. Photo cred: SIT Balkans

A view of the rivers Sava and Danube where they meet in front of Belgrade’s fortress, Kalemegdan. Photo cred: SIT Balkans

I would like to tell you about Belgrade, but I’m not sure where to begin. Even the most basic facts about this city, including the origin of its name, are up for debate. As a tour guide told us one day, there is one thing we can say for certain: everything here is complicated.

“If something is simple,” she added, “don’t worry–we’ll make it complicated.”

In addition to complicated politics and history, there is also a variety of opinions about these topics. A trivial example of this is the meaning behind “Beograd” (Belgrade). According to one opinion, Beograd–meaning “white city”– got its name from the white stones of the city’s ancient fortress.  The next day, I heard a different interpretation when our language teacher insisted that the color  white used to be associated with the direction East, meaning Beograd was named such for being an eastern city. In this case, the discrepancy isn’t important, but you can imagine how quickly things become convoluted. If you are a believer in facts, you will hate it here.

That being said, there is still a lot of truth to unveil in the Balkans. In my mind a quote from the author Tim O’Brien keeps echoing: “A lie, sometimes, can be truer than the truth…”. Various memories, interpretations, and fabrications of events make it difficult to discover what actually happens, but after reflecting on all the narratives, it is still possible to understand the significance of what happens here. In other words, while different perspectives in the Balkans are often at odds with one another, it is entirely possible for all of them to be true. Furthermore, these narratives reveal a great deal about human nature and conflict beyond the context of the Balkans.

Belgrade reflects this principle in details as commonplace as street names. Depending on how power changes in the international arena or in the Balkans, the names of significant streets change, too. (For example, a street may be named after someone who is a martyr of one era, but considered a terrorist in the next). Sometimes you can ask several people what street you’re on and they will all give you a different answer. Technically, each answer is correct, since the street has been called all those names; however, the name by which each person calls it  indicates how long that person has lived in Belgrade, how in tune they are with current politics (or if they sympathize with the current government), or simply how much they care about something so trivial. By the time you finally make it to your destination, you still won’t know what street you’re on; but, you will know a little bit about its past and the people who walk along it.


*I was unable to upload a relevant picture because my camera died and I need to buy a new charger. My advice to anyone about to travel abroad: double-check that you packed EVERYthing. Like right now.

Actually, it’s none of those

People are excited for me. They can’t wait to hear about my experience in Siberia, Sweden, and “I know this isn’t right but…S-Syria?”
Thank you. But actually, it’s none of those.
When I say, “Serbia” (which is where I’m going), they get confused again.
No, it’s not in Russia; yes, it’s safe now; oh, it’s in the Balkans. The Balkans is a region between Italy and Turkey.
And actually, my decision to go there is not so random. Several years ago, I traveled to Bosnia (not Botswana, and it’s also in the Balkans) for a high school social justice and learning opportunity. I had no intention of returning to the region. However, a class in International Politics and many readings that mentioned Bosnia and Kosovo changed my mind.
In short, I realized that the Balkans is still relevant in American foreign policy. True, American news sources rarely report on developments in the region, but “the Balkans” continues to serve as a memory and a metaphor central to the concept of “humanitarian intervention.” Many students fail to realize that the foreign policy we debate in the classroom  is influenced by the role that the U.S. government played in the disintegration of Yugoslavia. In fact, I think it is fair to say that America’s approach to the Balkans became the blueprint for 21st century American intervention.
In current politics, diplomats who advocate intervention in countries such as Iraq and Syria enjoy pointing to the Balkans as an example of how successful American “leadership” can be. Well, “point” is an overstatement, given that so many people have trouble finding it on a map—let’s say they mention it. And nothing more. They drop the “B word” in passing as if mentioning it by name is enough to prove they are right.

On the other hand, there are journalists who criticize America’s approach to the Balkans by claiming that the region still simmers in “tribal hatreds,” barbaric nationalism, and the culture of an ancient era. (Even casual comments about the Croatian World Cup qualifier contribute to this stigma).

So, are we to regard the Balkans as an example of successful international intervention, a lost cause, or just another mess the U.S. got itself into?

Actually, it’s none of those. Because each of those statements is a way to dismiss the Balkans from further discussion. In many ways, countries in the Balkans are struggling; however, discarding them from political discussion in the West is both short-sighted and dangerous. Every country that I’m visiting deserves attention right now:

Serbia is caught between Western Europe and Russia, seeking membership in the EU yet refusing to impose sanctions on Russia as many countries have done as punishment for the situation in Ukraine.

Earlier this year in Bosnia people protested in the streets, finally expressing outrage at a government that is so dysfunctional it can’t even control the number of stray dogs inhabiting the capital city.

Among many troubles, Kosovo continues to struggle for international recognition (even for acknowledgement from websites such as Skype and Amazon.com).

Studying these countries will reveal a great deal about what it means to be a “new”  country in this century, the significance of national identity and how it is fostered, and how nations caught between East and West strive for their own best interests while forging relationships with surrounding, competing superpowers.

The Balkans is also relevant to ongoing international crises, due to its geographical location if for no other reason. Refugees from nearby conflicts (such as Kurds and Palestinians) and mercenaries training to fight in some of those conflicts (such as recruits of the Islamic State and al-Qaida) pass through the Balkans.

At the same time, a generation of people my age—a number of them born from rape in war camps—is struggling to be defined by something other than their country’s war, many of them moving away and causing a “brain drain” in the region.
People living in the Balkans are not the only ones recovering from the conflict; Americans are also affected by the action our country took there. Anyone who has lost someone important to them in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, anyone who is harmed by, concerned about, or merely interested in the atrocities taking place in Syria, must realize that our brief encounter with the Balkans has an impact on the U.S. government’s decision to get involved in such conflicts.

After suffering through different variations and snippets of what I said above, people finally ask me what I expect to learn from my semester in the Balkans. I find myself giving a slightly different answer every time: overlooked details in recent history, current developments in peacekeeping and political violence, the potential role this region has in international conflict, or methods and mistakes my own country made there. Because it’s all of those.



The area outlined in red is the Balkans; this semester I’m visiting the countries outlined in blue.



Until the 1990’s, Serbia, Bosnia, and Kosovo belonged to The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.