I am visiting my brother in Kaiserslautern, a small town in southwest Germany.
Nowadays, both my brother and I hold American passports, although our parents were Yugoslavs and identified as such in Tito’s Yugoslavia. I left Yugoslavia for good in 1980, the year Tito died. My brother stayed on to cover the wars for the Associated Press, and subsequently worked in several different countries. He now works for the US military publication Stars and Stripes in Kaiserslautern.
My brother lives in a new apartment building surrounded by single family homes. Just down the street, two new buildings are being built. I walk my brother’s dog every morning and as I was passing by the construction site last week, I heard someone speaking Serbo-Croatian. The language unites Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, and Montenegro, even though for political reasons the four countries purport to speak different languages.
I approached the workers, introduced myself and asked them where they were from, a question that never used to be asked in the former Yugoslavia but one that has become routine ever since the wars took place. One was a Serb, and the other a Croat. They told me that they had been in Germany for decades, and had not witnessed the wars back home. I asked them how they got along.
The Serb put his arm around his Croat colleague and laughed: “A Chetnik and an Ustasha together! We get along great!”
Photo: Anita Lekic
I told them I had left the country while it was still named Yugoslavia and that as far as I was concerned, we were all one and the same. The Serb, who introduced himself as Dragan Mirkovic, told me: “Me too. I am sickened when I think about what happened. They [the three leaders] were all the same. It was ‘divide and rule’. Nowadays, I couldn’t care less about politics; it’s always the same old story.”
And how was life in Germany? “Good,” he replied “If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here.” The Croat, Milan Simic, added that they are employed by Opifex, a construction company, and that in 2017, there were Croats, Bosnians, Serbs, Montenegrins, and Macedonians, all working together on the same projects.
“Now we don’t know what we are, and there’s no going home,” Simic said.
Germany has a population of eighty-two million. In 2016, the total number of resident foreign nationals from the former Yugoslavia was over 800,000, including Croatians, Serbs, Bosnians, and Macedonians.
That same day, an acquaintance told me about the Cafe Bistro owned by Bosnian Amir Zunic downtown, where those who were once residents of the country we knew as Yugoslavia tended to meet. I dropped in on the following Sunday.
Since I am a “Yugo-nostalgic,” a derogatory term used in the seven successor states, I was a bit apprehensive. When I walked in, I met Amir who was tending the bar, and he introduced me to Haris Djulabic, 49, a Bosnian Muslim from Vitez. Djulabic fought in the Bosnian Army during the wars that consumed Yugoslavia in the nineties, and left his native Bosnia when the war was over.
Regulars at Cafe Bistro. Photo: Anita Lekic
I also met Franjo Nac, 60, from Zupanija in Croatia, who emigrated to Germany in 1985, and a Serb, Boza Gorickic, 62, a Serb who had worked in Germany for decades. They were very friendly and were telling me about themselves, when a new guest arrived. “Here comes the Chetnik,” they announced, breaking out in laughter. The name of the new arrival was Slavisa Drazevic. A Serb from Kraljevo, Drazevic was lucky enough to get out of the country in May of 1991, just before the wars broke out. “I got out at the very last minute. But if that country were ever to be reconstituted, I would want it to be like Tito’s Yugoslavia,” he said.
A Bosnian Muslim, Smail Dizdaric from Bihac, had also dropped in. I asked the six of them how they could be on such good terms here in Germany, after the fierce fighting that had rent the country asunder.
“I feel like a Yugoslav,” Dizdaric said. “While Yugoslavia was around, things were great. You could go anywhere and do anything. As far as who’s from where, what counts for me is that man is a man.” These were the words of a man who had lost two brothers in the fighting in the Bihac region during the war: Admir, only nineteen years old, and Asmir, also still a child at twenty-two.
After all the propaganda and the hatred spewed on all three sides in the nineties, after a vicious civil war with fatalities now estimated at 100,000, these men were friends. They shared a common heritage: the same country, and a common language.
Were the wars worth it? Not for them. The economies of the successor states that emerged were in tatters, and many sought work abroad, leaving their families behind. But here in this peaceful little town in Germany, I found my old country, Yugoslavia, living on quietly in coffee shops and on construction sites.