I’ve never experienced an earthquake before, I can only imagine it’s power as the sliding plates shake so detrimentally it puts cities into obsolescence. The closest I’ve ever come to one was my time through Serbia. However, no tectonic plates were at risk of sliding, I was just standing on a global political fault line. I could feel the earth ready to split at my feet.
How did I get here?
Arriving in Serbia I had known the broad strokes about its history in the Yugoslavia and Kosovo war. Sentiments towards Serbians were unfavorable as recently as 1999 when they were subject to global humiliation while they were being bombed by NATO forces in retaliation to the genocides they were committing in Kosovo.
I had anticipated for things to feel different from the prior leg of our journey through Slovenia, Hungary, and Romania. These were countries that were all liberated from communism in ‘89, and moving through this region left me with intense empathy for their oppression. Given the recency of these events, dramatic lifestyle changes, and loss of life endured in liberation, these were dark moments of their past that were still being worn on the faces of the locals, realities still pained in their eyes.
These historical realities consumed our traveling; we spent a large portion of our time attending museums and participating in conversations with locals. Even when not actively seeking these stories out, one couldn’t help but experience them through the liberty of their arts scenes (especially notable is the underground Techno scene in Romania – who knew).
However, there was something that would make our time in Serbia different. Serbia was the recent aggressor of the past. Today they’re the only remaining remnant of the former fallen Yugoslavian empire, but also are responsible for some of history’s most brutal and dehumanizing genocides… that were being committed up until only twenty years ago.
I wondered what it would be like to walk the museums of Belgrade, would there be a sense of remorse or acknowledgment?
We check into the hostel after a days-long journey into the capital from Romania. The soft-spoken woman at the reception, Stephanie, gave us a map of the city and highlighted several of the cities attractions. The only two museums in the city are dedicated to their military, and their former king.
Following Stephanie’s suggestion, we make our way to the fortress for the afternoon, a large former castle of the Serbian empire that sits at the highest point of the city’s walls. There we stumble across a row of twenty decommissioned tanks that dated back to the First World War (interestingly Belgrade is the city where the First World War started). However, amongst the vintage tanks were modern Soviet-era rocket launchers that were used to defend against NATO attacks in 1999, and city-crawling tanks used to “defend” the Yugoslavian empire only thirty years ago. Machinery that was responsible for the hundreds of thousands killed and displaced in the name of ethnic cleansing.
It felt uncomfortable standing directly in front of one of those city crawling tanks. Its wheels were designed to climb and descend stairs of city streets. I felt the fear of those before me that stood in front too.
The silence of my mourning was interrupted by the children that were playing on the relics, I was standing in the middle of one giant jungle gym. What 10-year-old can resist the temptation of climbing a big metal vehicle with ladders and a long barrel to hang off of?
It’s the encouragement of these acts that felt unsettling like nails on a blackboard.
Feeling confused, we trekked on with the hopes of leaving the fortress.
The fortress opens up into a large park where families are enjoying their Sunday afternoon. There are kids running circles around the old men that are gambling on chess games, pigeons picking at scraps of picnics left behind, and a fair. Today happened to be the Belgrade Police fair, a day used to educate children about the role of officers, and with hopes of having them aspire to their positions.
They’re handing out lollipops and coloring sheets adorned with a smiling officer rescuing a cat off a tree.
What’s making up the majority of the fair is rows of large fair tents, 30-40 of them adorning the paths of the park. In each tent is about five active service military guards and policemen that are there to explain their unit. And then, there are the tables.
Foldable tables sit at the front of the tents, and they’re adorned with guns. Guns of every shape and size. There’s everything ranging from pocket pistols to 80-pound sniper rifles outfitted with night vision scopes, and artillery turrets. There are also frag grenades, smoke bombs, mortar, battering rams, riot shields, and special K-9 unit weapons. It felt as though we were at a flea market, there was no rhyme or reason for their quantity or organization. Thousands of weapons were repeated in these tents, more than a gun show in El Paso. Except these were fully automatic, military-grade, and would be illegal to own in most of the States.
Yet again, sitting in disbelief, disturbed by the sheer volume and intensity of these weapons, my silence was interrupted by the children that were playing with the guns, I was standing in the middle of one giant jungle gym.
Officers were there to help supervise the children’s curiosity about the armory. I watched one serviceman show a 6-year-old how to open a revolver, spin the magazine, and then proceed to blank fire the empty weapon. The kid had a knack for spinning that revolver, he looked like a real champ holding it. I also watched as kids held AK-47s, climbed up the mortar barrels, and peered down the barrels of sniper rifles and shotguns alike.
After being handed an AR15 by an eager serviceman, looking down its laser scope I learned that this was his personal favorite gun. Apparently it’s fast and accurate for drug busts.
As he was showing me how to insert and quickly release the magazine, I asked him if these guns were actively working. Of course, I was told, they’re currently in service weapons, firing pin and all, and, as they’re police weapons, none of them have a safety trigger on them. After all, why would they disband thousands of weapons just to show them to children at a fair?
That was enough of Serbia for one day. We legged it back to the hostel and called it a night.
There are countries that fly by, and ones that let you know they’re there. Our second day in Serbia was no different, I couldn’t be more confident that I was there.
With a lack of museums, we tried our hand at a walking tour of the city. In a city like Belgrade, there’s an incredible amount of history that’s shaped its present form. And we were guided through it all, passing from monument to building, to church. Luckily the guide was loud and engaging, yet his inability to filter painstaking details out took us to the four-hour mark without a moment of silence. He managed to spend half an hour talking about the roofs of Ottoman churches, but when it came to the era of the Yugoslavian war and Serbian genocides, all he had said was “and then from 1989 to 2001 there was a bloody and brutal war that’s now thankfully peacefully over”.
While we stood outside the parliamentary building, our guide went over every detail of the building itself and the composition of the Serbian political system. He failed to acknowledge the giant Russian flags and permanent police tents that adorned the entire face of the parliament. A Greek woman on the tour asks, “why are all these Russian flags here”, to which he responded, “oh sorry, I didn’t see that, that’s just a small protest”.
It was clear that in Serbia we wouldn’t learn about the histories that brought us there. We would experience them; the Serbia of 1991 in many ways was the same as Serbia today. At that moment it couldn’t have felt more real. All the Russian flags, T-Shirts being sold with Putin’s face on them, and the locals walking around with the Russian army “Z” on them only furthered this reality. Coming from Romania, which shares a large border with Ukraine, and standing in Serbia, only a couple hundred kilometers away, I felt the low rumble of the current political war that’s currently polarizing the world.
Serbia shook me awake, poured me some ridiculously cheap beer, and let me know I was traveling in a world that’s a very big place, with opinions and circumstances far different than anything I had conceived before… It’s different when things are felt.