Swans Commentary » swans.com April 10, 2006  



Yugoslav Glimpses


by Martin Murie





(Swans - April 10, 2006)  The excellent analyses of the ordeal of Slobodan Milosevic by Gilles d'Aymery, Louis Proyect, John Catalinoto and Sara Flounders brought back a flood of memories. Tito was still alive in the winter of 1969-70 when Alison and Martin and daughter Raven, a high school graduate, debarked at Split, a Croatian city on the Adriatic. Nothing spectacular happened to us as we travelled through the republics of Yugoslavia, yet when that year of infamy, 1999, brought our country's air force over the fields and cities and mountains of Serbia it was as though the victims were friends and neighbors. We can't forget. We won't let others forget.

Split. A woman who speaks excellent English intervenes in the cluster of people offering cheap rooms. "You had better come with me," she says. She leads us to her second floor apartment. Our room has a balcony with a view across tile-roofed houses.

Twenty-four years after the war against fascism these lands are barely emerging, trying to become more industrial while preserving public services and subsidies, such as government bread stores and cafeterias. There is grumbling about partisan fighters who receive pensions while other citizens struggle in poverty.

Mount Kozjak, peaceful in spite of grumbles from the cement plant. A woman leads a laden donkey up the mountain, the man carries the baby. Goats tethered in back yards. Dry country, chaparral ecosystem on steep slopes.

In downtown Split a merchant beats a Gypsy woman on the back, drives her out of the store.

We climb Mount Mosor, led by our landlady and her two young sons. Strong wind at the summit brings a spell of hail. We climb down the far side into a zone of quiet. Traffic thin on the distant coastal highway. A spectacular flock of choughs -- large black birds with orange beaks -- drift down the slope and disappear in a cave in the karst rock, basic structure of coastal Croatia. Rain disappears through porous channels, soil thin and scattered. Terraced hillsides show the great labors of centuries past.

The verve and optimism of the two kids is something wonderful. Their mother is not that way. She says that when Tito dies there will be trouble. The older son tells his mom, "No, it will be good." She has no reply.

We come to a big stone building. The kids try climbing the vertical walls, using mortared indents between stones for toe and finger holds.

I try it too. Silly, but we can't resist. Two steps up and we fall off.

Inside, we join a boisterous and happy mix of adults and young people for a long, leisurely lunch. Early February, dark comes early. We find our way to a half abandoned village and are welcomed into a small room for a glass of local vintage. We three travellers sit happily silent, listening to the sounds of language we don't understand. Once in a while our landlady interprets, edges us into the conversation. One topic is the drift of young people from hard scrabble farming to urban life.

Dubrovnik, outside the walls. An old man meets the bus, approaches us with an offer of a room. The price is in the range we can afford. A little uncertainly we go with him to his house and into a room with two big beds. He apologises for lack of heat, but gives us two huge down-filled comforters. We take off our shoes and flop on the beds under the thick yet amazingly lightweight comforters, and are warm.

We take our bread and cheese to the coast and watch the sea swell and crash against the rocks. Two young men in skimpy trunks arrive, dive in and swim, briefly.

Next day our landlord asks us to join him. He serves slivovitz in little glasses. His English is good, we visit, unhurriedly.

Dubrovnik, a city of stone. On the placa, stone pavement and stone walls absorb heat and reflect it on old men sitting at little tables, passing the time of day, drinking Turkish coffee.

We take Turkish coffee too, inside a pastry shop. Pigeons walk the floor, picking up crumbs. Pigeons and humans step with care.

Mostar, in Bosnia. At a store Raven finds a few paperbacks in English. We buy three, one for each of us. That evening I wander up the main street which turns into a mountain road switchbacking below rockbound ridges. Snow and mud and wind. I can't see that Mostar is making any use of those steep slopes. Well, so what? Some places on this earth are not good for our species. Leave them alone.

Sarajevo on a cold evening. We leave the train station. Packs on our backs label us as tourists. A young man taps Alison on the shoulder, advises her and Raven to wear Canadian or American symbols to avoid being mistaken for Germans.

We find a hotel that fits our budget. Its rooms are rather grand. We wonder if it might date from Victorian days when aristocrats took the Grand Tour.

Next day, damp, cold and smoggy. I walk in mud and snow on mountain streets. Kids and some adults are coasting on sleds or afoot. Someone is carrying a pail of water from a communal pump. Kids shout to each other, their tones are not shrill.

Higher, houses turn more ramshackle, some of them two-room huts roofed with flattened drums. Girls and women wear full skirts tucked in mysterious ways to give them freedom of movement. I meet two kids, about nine and eleven. They want their pictures taken. I comply, but tell them the film has to wait to be developed and by that time I will be far away. They show no comprehension of my English, but my sign language seems to get through. They keep grinning, accepting disappointment. They are bare handed and wear street shoes. Meanwhile, a few upscale people -- tourists like me? -- are walking higher, bundled up, carrying skis. I stop and look down on the city. Up here poverty and snow and mud, down there a cosmopolitan city.

Raven and I, wandering the wet streets, go into a big hotel that looks like the spitting image of a British outpost. Sure enough, in the lobby is a rack holding the London Times. We buy a copy.

Can't forget those kids.

Slavonski Brod, on the floodplain of the Sava. We step off the train. A helpful citizen tells us we shouldn't be getting off. "There's nothing here." He means that this is a country town, not a tourist destination. We consult, thank him, decide to stay. Luck is with us, a small hotel we can afford.

We walk a short way, the town ends, farming begins. Each house and its outbuildings have their backs to a long strip of cropland. Most places have long-handled water pumps. Chickens abound, there is a smell of hogs. A farmer shouts directions to a plow horse.

At the hotel our room is on the second floor. Downstairs behind the reception area a young man and the night clerk shout at each other, far into the night, playing chess.

Beograd, a sizeable city at the joining of the Sava and the Danube. We are shielded for the first time from valleys, plains, mountains. Our lodging is at the end of a complicated back alley. Inside, all the comforts of home and an invitation to slivovitz. We are learning that people who meet strangers at bus and train terminals are making what money they can from the transactions, but once inside their homes they treat travellers with non-obtrusive friendliness. There is no hard sell, and no rush. And one does not imbibe slivovitz power in one or two gulps. Friendly talk comes easily. We have heard much about the happiness of being once again a part of Europe.

New Beograd across the river has tall apartment houses, box style, but in different exterior colors. They are set at varying angles to each other. On this wintry day far from the buzz and diversity of the inner city, it has a cold sameness. A few kids are playing in mud, a group of young men stand in an entrance.

Alison and Raven go into the art museum. I walk around the museum's spacious grounds decorated with a formal layout of patches of shrubbery and flowering plants, all hibernating now. I suppose in spring and summer these will lend some cheer.

Zagreb. We have found lodging in a family's living space, paying for occupation of their livingroom on the fifth floor of a new apartment building. We have brought a bottle of wine with us. The man of the house notices, cautions us. "Please, don't get too drunk" is the message. This is the single display of nervous concern we have encountered. On the wall a print of Van Gogh's bridge. Also a romantic scene of a man and a woman representing pastoral peace and drapery.

On the train station platform waiting for the night train to Ljubljana. A young German joins us, says he is changing plans, will take the first train out. Inside the station Yugoslav men have been harassing him. He thinks it's unfair. "I wasn't even born when Hitler was in power."

We exchange traveller gossip, but I barely keep up with it. I'm busy with a question: Is responsibility personal or national? Are Alison and Raven and I responsible for Slavery and Wounded Knee and President Polk's invasion of Mexico and President McKinley's invasion of The Philippines and President Wilson's war to end all wars?

Ljubljana. No one meets us at the train station offering cheap lodging. We find a room in a multipurpose building that also houses offices, even a local headquarters of the Esperanto movement.

Many houses are made of wood, substantial, and picturesque in a style we think is much closer to Austrian-Swiss alpine than to the stone and concrete of Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia. The lumber for these houses comes from Slovenian forests. Beyond style and building materials, there is an appearance of prosperity, of order, of formality. Quite a shock, and our budget will take a hit.


On March 24, 1999, sirens sounded in Novi Sad and Beograd. Our country attacks the remnants of a country of coalitions who dared to call themselves Socijalisticka Federativna Republika Jugoslavija. Our landlady in Split was right, though I can't imagine she had in mind such senseless horror. Day after day terror from the air. All I could do was write a poem.


They still have unwrapped bread
in the Balkans. We saw the loaves
on TV, handed from back ends of trucks
to outreaching hands.
Life substance, these loaves, tough
and yet resilient. Crust you can thump.
Do you know it, the sound of real bread?
You can tuck a loaf under your arm
with confidence, it won't squish, it's not
kleenex suffocated under plastic.
These are loaves of the centuries,
of civilizations. They have breathed free
and taken heat.
Do they still stack them by hand
like cordwood on bare wood shelves
in dry yeasty stores?
Here, break off a piece, feel how it weighs
in your hand.
Summer coming on in Serbia,
wide fields stretching back from the Sava
and the Danube. Spears of bright green now,
under high altitude aircraft.
Take a bite. Remember hunger.
Do you know the taste of the after stink
of a smart bomb gone astray?

(Raven Chronicles, 9 - 1-2.)


When Milosevic's body was returned to Beograd a sizable gathering of people took to the streets. The reporter for National Public Radio dismissed them as "hard liners," and "old." Now that is a potent brew. Ageism and cold war cliché, mix well together, serve to citizens of the greatest democracy in the world.

We've got our work cut out for us, that's for damn sure.


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Internal Resources

Slobodan Milosevic, 1941-2006: A Cursed, Blasted Statesman, by Gilles d'Aymery - May 13, 2006

The Demonization And Death Of Slobodan Milosevic, by Louis Proyect - May 27, 2006

The Milosevic Case: John Catalinotto Interviews Sara Flounders - May 27, 2006

The Balkans and Yugoslavia


About the Author

Martin Murie retired early from his teaching position to go back to the land and write novels, poetry, and rants. Murie grew up in Wyoming. He served in WWII with the 10th Mountain Infantry. With an undergraduate degree in literature/philosophy and a PhD in Zoology, he taught life sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, and Antioch University.



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This Edition's Internal Links

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Creative Destruction: From Iraq To Iran - Gilles d'Aymery

Dispossession - Milo Clark

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Public Access TV Can Fill The Void - Philip Greenspan

Improving Shakespeare - Charles Marowitz

Nanni Moretti's Il Caimano - Film Review by Peter Byrne

The Case Against The Case Against Israel - Book Review by Jacob Amir

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The Accident (for Kelso) - Poem by Laura Madeline Wiseman

A Martian Conspiracy - Deck Deckert

Letters to the Editor

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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published April 10, 2006