Being a war generation ourselves, we have our part of traumas. The traumas of Artsakh (Karabakh) war are always in a corner of our memory and sometimes remind us about themselves. The intention of exploring trauma took us to Serbia – Belgrade, where we were trying to understand if the trauma was overcome after twenty years of the Serbian conflict.

Our aim was not turning to the war at all. Having our own Artsakh war memories we know what that is. We have tried to look beyond the borders and boundaries in the project, to explore someone else’s pain or the pain known to us from someone else’s perspective. Neither to represent the war, the unresolved conflict, nor to judge the right or wrong sides, but to see the consequences and impact of it on people, cities, and younger generations.

By Nazik Armenakyan and Piruza Khalapyan

 

The project includes three narratives, each of which uniquely discovers the relations of time and traumas.

While people — actual witnesses — and the bombarded buildings in the city center silently carry the traces of time, the younger generation tries to look ahead. The three narratives together try to create the psychological portrait of what we saw and heard in Belgrade after twenty years.

Historical overview

This conflict, arisen from the collapse of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, began in 1992 and continued up to 1995. Everything began when Serbia and Chernogoria (Montenegro), where Serbs were a majority, united and created the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In this phase of reorganization of the Socialist Federal Republic, uniting six states and two autonomous regions, other states – Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia also wanted to claim independence. And when in 1992 Croats and Bosniaks voted for independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina and declared it the bloody collisions with Serbs began. Bosnian Serbs had declared a new state – Republika Srpska. The Republic of Serbia is another political entity outside Bosnia and was demanding other territories from Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Serb minorities lived.

Even before the referendum the three ethnic groups had begun organizing their own small armies and militias, and the first collisions had happened yet in 1991 in the city of Ravno of Bosnia populated by Croats. But beginning from April of 1992 the bloodshed already included many other regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Bosniaks joined the battle of Croats and Serbs. In the beginning of the conflict Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks were fighting against Bosnian Serbs, but later there arose collisions between Muslim Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats making this war three-sided.

Different sources indicate that this conflict with the name the Bosnian War, which was the biggest conflict in Europe after WWII, had all three parts “right”. It would continue longer if not for the Dayton Peace Agreement by the interference of the international NATO and UN.

The losses of all three ethnic groups were huge. Different sources say human loss was as big as 100.000-200.000. 2.2 mln people were displaced. 12.000-20.000 women were raped, ethnic cleansings took place, according to some sources – a genocide – also many other war crimes, which were later investigated by the international court and many of the war leaders of the conflict were punished; mostly Serbs (45), but also Croats (12), and Bosniaks (4).

SURVIVOR’S TRAUMA:

These people having passed through the war have fled leaving behind all they had created, their houses, their familiar environment. Many of them have lost not only their material belongings, but also their mental calmness and health. Many of these people that live now in Belgrade, have not yet regained peace and normal conditions to begin their life again. They continue to be in conflict with their past and suffer their traumas once again after recalling it.

“There is one pain and it will remain forever, it cannot be cured or wiped away. There can be no greater trauma than when you see that your wife is falling and her arm is blown out. We tore a curtain and some dress to tie her hand. The bomb shrapnel hit her. I am a man, it would be easier for me to endure such pain. When I saw that her arm was blown, I first thought that they would have to cut it off. If they do that, what will she do then? We’ll carry it with us while we’re alive. No one can heal this, and we don’t even ask for someone to heal these wounds because they are ours.”  Milan Radisevic

“I now have a new home and I am happy. I am satisfied. I at least know that this is mine. I had an apartment and a big house in Sisak. I was left without anything. We couldn’t sell it and use the money to buy something in Serbia. We got this and feel grateful, one must be humble”

Nevenka Radisevic, 69

CITY’S TRAUMA:
People’s destroyment of the environment created by other people has a memory too. The bombarded building of the Serbian State Television is standing in Belgrade till now, which has a national value and is one of the bombarded buildings. This building carrying all the heavy traces of the war over it is an example of trauma and a unique memorial reminding about the circumstances of it.

“When I explain to people, I can’t picture what it looked like. It was like there was a huge excavator at a distance of 1 cm in front of you. There was no sound. Terrible silence at that second. You feel pushed by some force and unable to defend yourself. Suddenly – a total darkness. Two meters from me, I saw a light that had not gone out. But for the next five minutes, I couldn’t get to that light, because there was much dust, my throat was scratching from the dust and rocket fumes. The first thing was shock. I didn’t know whether I was alive or not.” 

Dragan Tosich, 48

YOUNGSTERS’ TRAUMA:

More than twenty years have passed from the war. The younger generation is not the immediate sufferer of war memories. Their parents, grandfathers and grandmothers have formed their conceptions and memories by their stories, by passing their own traumas. The youngsters have learned about the past also from media, school, and street. For sure, the city scape also has its impact on them by its bombarded buildings. What do youngsters think about what has happened and about the future? Do they live by it or do they try to build the future? Or, on the contrary, do they want to destroy the bond between the past and the future?

“I do not have hatred for these people, because I cannot blame the whole nation for something that was the decision of specific politicians and concrete people at that time. I have an equal attitude to all nations. But I cannot say that there is no hatred in our nation։ That hatred is caused by a difficult period and because it is difficult to distinguish between what is a nation, what is a state, and what are individuals. That’s why I don’t blame people who feel hatred. They don’t want to go to America, they don’t like the West in general. I think that future generations should not be educated in this spirit. We should distinguish between politicians and who is to blame”. 

Katarina Drobnjakovic, 23

Survivor’s trauma

In 2019 about 270 refugee families from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, who are resident in the territory of Belgrade, received new apartments and resettled in the Zemun district of Kamendin (urban neighborhood of Belgrade). The apartments were built within the framework of the Regional Housing Program (RSP) with the support of the OSCE and UNHCR.

The notion of some certain space has interesting layers in it, it can tell a series of stories. The choice and order of minor details and articles can draw interesting parallels between the lives, moods, behaviours, natures, and habits of people.

In the corridors one could sense a completely different culture, unlike to ours. It was so different, but, meanwhile, so dear.

Though they have white, clean apartments now, and it seems, that their heavy past would let them rest a bit, we understood from our conversation, that white corridors will hardly wipe away their emotions and memories.

The people, who live in this area now and have their registration addresses at last, are no longer refugees. Every family living behind the doors standing next to each other in the white corridors has its own story of fleeing. “It has happened”, says everyone there. The stress and trauma of the witnesses have calmed down a bit, but not disappeared. Today their life does not represent what was before, the past is merely present and survives with them in their present.

“My biggest trauma is that I left everything I had, that I got sick here and lost my husband. Thank goodness, I have two children. They are fine. I think about how we were fleeing, and they were bombing us by planes from above. When you have no one, you are scared. The fear was great. There is no night for me to lie down without everything coming back to my eyes.” 

Stevanija Duric, 72

“There were people who asked us why we came at all. And there were good people who talked to us nicely. We had no problem with anyone. When Serbia was bombed, the people here saw how painful it was for us there (in Croatia) and they began to sympathize more with us. All in all, they accepted us well”. 

Stevanija Duric, 72

The family of Duric was the first one we were taking pictures of. In the middle of the conversation, when the eldest member of the family – Stevanija Duric – was emotional telling what had happened to them in the beginning of 90s, I asked her if she remembered any everyday details from their past, for example, the village, the landscape, or the curtains of the kitchen… She got more emotional and said that she didn’t remember anything but the torture, alas…

“My greatest trauma was when my daughter was captured. After that, she jumped out of bed for a month. She would jump and stand against the wall, looking at me and yelling mom-mom! I take her in my arms, she moans. We took her to see a doctor. She spent days walking and moaning. That is the biggest pain that remained”. 

Dragisa Dabic, 65

“My thoughts don’t go to those times. I’m a driver and sometimes when I’m alone, something comes back to me”.

Stevo Gundelj, 51

“I married my husband in Croatia. I worked there and we lived there for 18 years. In 1991, we fled the town of Sisak. We came to my husband’s family and stayed until Operation Storm started. I went to save our neighbor, an old man. Then a grenade fell and hit me. I was in hospital in Bosnia, separated from my family. I didn’t know that my husband and daughter were there, and they didn’t know where I was. I was in the Banjica hospital for two months. They came to Belgrade with a refugee column. There was a girl with me in the Banjica who was left without a leg. Her boyfriend had seen me in Prijedor and now he recognized me in the hospital. I asked him to call my sister in Bosnia for my husband to find me.”

“We left everything. Gold and the rest of the stuff, I didn’t even take my handbag with the documents, everything was left because we thought we’d be back.”

“And when I fled to Belgrade, even then I was struggling. I was scared for my daughter. You know, it is important at a crucial age for a child to have a good life, and I did not know what would happen to my daughter and what her options would be.” 

Nevenka Radisevic, 69

“There is one pain and it will remain forever, it cannot be cured or wiped away. There can be no greater trauma than when you see that your wife is falling and her arm is blown out. We tore a curtain and some dress to tie her hand. The bomb shrapnel hit her. I am a man, it would be easier for me to endure such pain. When I saw that her arm was blown, I first thought that they would have to cut it off. If they do that, what will she do then? We’ll carry it with us while we’re alive. No one can heal this, and we don’t even ask for someone to heal these wounds because they are ours.”  Milan Radisevic

“I now have a new home and I am happy. I am satisfied. I at least know that this is mine. I had an apartment and a big house in Sisak. I was left without anything. We couldn’t sell it and use the money to buy something in Serbia. We got this and feel grateful, one must be humble.” 

Nevenka Radisevic, 69

City’s trauma

On the first day Belgrade was mysterious, it was exuding different moods. Among the traffic jams and noises there were standing somewhat incomprehensible, grey buildings. Our walk through the city center with the translator stopped at the historical ruins of the National Television building. The demolished face of the building and the shadows of hundreds of pigeons in its silence was striking.

After the long corridors a metal door opened, which took us to the bombarded section of the building, where there had been much hustle and bustle and people had been providing everyday TV streaming.

Though the facade of the building was completely open, the air inside was heavy. The building had turned into a living area for pigeons in years, the traces of them were everywhere – on the walls, floors. The layer of feathers, excrements and dead bodies of pigeons seemed to cover, disguise what had happened. But the building was whispering “what had happened” as if reproducing voices, scenes, smoke, fire…

Dragan Tosich, who has worked and continues to work at National Television, shared his memories about the night of the bombardment. Now he works as an editor of Sports Program.

The burden of the air and time would sit on your shoulders. It seemed what we were photographing did not exist. It was neither in the past, nor in the present. The building was a timeless space, the presence and absence of which simultaneously reminded of the trauma.

“There was one situation four days before the bombing of the building. I was on a night shift. The head of the news program at the time received a report that we would be bombed that evening, so we left the building. After a while, we returned to the building but did not go to our working positions. The next day, three days before the bombing, the director of the RTS ordered to post a notice in the building that we would be immediately fired if we left the building”.

“I’ve been a democrat all my life. I’m a legalist. I couldn’t explain to myself that a television could be a legitimate target. People at work told me that colleagues from CNN and other media houses said that their companies had not sent them to film that day. That was a sign. In communication with all the people around me, and there were about ten of us in the office where we worked, no one believed that this could happen”.

“Then it happened on April 23rd. I was on a night shift that lasted until 7 am. We broadcast news every hour. I was an assistant director and worked on the program. Everything was normal. There was nothing to suggest that what would happen in one second would happen”.

“When I explain to people, I can’t picture what it looked like. It was like there was a huge excavator at a distance of 1 cm in front of you. There was no sound. Terrible silence at that second. You feel pushed by some force and unable to defend yourself. Suddenly – a total darkness. Two meters from me, I saw a light that had not gone out. But for the next five minutes, I couldn’t get to that light, because there was much dust, my throat was scratching from the dust and rocket fumes. The first thing was shock. I didn’t know whether I was alive or not”.

“There is just one question: why did I stay alive and the others didn’t? Just that.”

“I remember that scene when I turn to my colleague. The wall of the building is an entire meter thick. Now there’s a hole. My colleague is standing there. There is nothing behind it. The rest of the building should be there, but the building is demolished. The building no longer exists. And the next thing to see is the church of St. Mark. It’s a scary scene: my colleague is holding onto an armature of the building, and behind him stands the church of St. Mark”.

“After three minutes I came to myself. By inertia, I turned to the side where the effect had come from. The dust settled a little. I saw an older colleague behind me, even closer to the explosion. It was seven meters from the blast, and he was two meters closer. The force of the bomb had knocked him down. He got up and stumbled. The moment I looked, I shouted to him to stop, he stopped and we saw that he was standing literally on the edge of the collapsed building. He could have fallen down”.

“After I did what I wanted to do – I saved those colleagues who were inside. The first feeling that came to me was anger. That’s the only feeling I can remember. The next feeling came 20 minutes later. It was sadness”.

“After a month I went back to work as if nothing had happened. I love my work very much. It’s dynamic. I have always practiced sports and then I got a job in the sports section. I have met many athletes, local and foreign. And older athletes. All through recording and socializing. It’s a wonderful world. There are always 50 people in one show, I’m surrounded by people and I love working with people a lot. Because that’s my love. Whatever happens, you can’t escape love.

For the first year, I couldn’t sleep until 5 in the morning. Even today, my dirty hands bother me.

I went to see a psychologist and a psychiatrist. It’s a normal outcome when you survive something like this. They prescribed me tranquilizers. I have never taken any tranquilizer. You have to deal with everything in life. And with things like this and with beautiful things. That’s life. That’s nature. You have to live your life as nicely as you can. After this and some other tragedies that have come, I still think life is beautiful and I want to live it as such”.

Youngster’s trauma

During our full working days in Belgrade there was a moment when it was not possible to digest what we had heard and seen. The heavy stories of people had made us emotional. The fragile, lifeless scenes of the Television building were insisting to stay with us even out of the building.

The meetings and conversations with the youth changed all that reality opening up a different, strong world. They had a precise imagination about what they needed to do. Almost all of them wanted to stay and work in Serbia considering it important to be a part of the developing country. Despite the attitude of their parents the youngsters talk with their own wounds seeing in them not only the anger and traumas of the past, but also trying to define what needs to be done for it not to repeat.

“I don’t think it can happen again now. People are aware that in the 21st century we are more advanced, that is, more connected thanks to the Internet. That’s the first. And secondly, today we have a conflict of interests between a large number of world powers. While in the 90s, the United States was the only superpower after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today we have more than one superpower country. However, even in the 90s, we did not think that this could happen, in the heart of Europe, at the very end of the 20th century. In the economic sense, our country has big problems due to the bombing, and the biggest part of the reason for the current bad economic position of Serbia is exactly what happened to us in the 1990s”. 

Uros Mitic, 19

“I think every Serb has a sense of war and freedom in him. I think every Serb must remember their history. We remember. That is why this sense of war is present. Our genes remember that. It can’t just be forgotten. That’s why freedom is for us a free sky over our heads. That is why our people should be more respected. We should also appreciate that we are free now. To me, war is associated with the loss of loved ones. The worst I can think of is that the people I love go to war and die there. That’s the scariest thing I can think of, that I can die in war. It’s a psychic feeling, it’s not a physical feeling like a sound. It’s a sense of dread. I think that war is a sense of fear for everyone. I did not forget what had happened, but if the war starts again, I don’t know what I would do. I would probably run away. Like many others. It’s a bit cowardly, but I don’t know if I could find myself in a situation of killing a man or seeing someone dying in front of my eyes or one of my loved ones dying. I don’t want to think about it at all and I hope there will never be a war”. 

Danka Radovanovic, 22

“The sirens we hear from time to time remind me of bombing, and they bring me back to those days in 1999. When they hit the refinery, a large smoke was seen and the carcinogenic compounds were released into the air. There was a strong wind that day and these particles did not fall on the city in a bigger quantity. If they did, people would not only faint, but would have lasting consequences”. 

Borislav Vranjes, 24

“Belgrade is beautiful. But every city is beautiful as people live in that city and have kind memories of it. The demolished buildings that bear the bombardment seal create sadness for me. I think it should be repaired, especially in the city center, because the city center should be representative. It is something that reminds us of all what has happened. Because bombing is all around us! The bombing is not only in people’s memories but also in those buildings. If damaged buildings were repaired or rebuilt, it would mean that people, in a way, have left it behind. They have not forgotten, but they have moved on”. 

Lenka Mihajlovic, 19

“The thing that I remember is our whole family packing in a hurry … me, my younger brother and sister. We got in my father’s car to go to my mother’s parents, in a town on the border with Republika Srpska, that is in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They believed that it was a safer place. We were afraid if we could cross the border because it was possible that it was closed. My brother and sister were babies, so in the car backseat sat my mom, me and them, small blue and white bags of powdered milk and loaves of bread. We were afraid we would have nothing to eat if the shops closed because of the bombing.

One of the most memorable scenes for me is this one. Whenever I walk into a store, I remember that situation. It stirs different feelings. Feeling safe – because I was with my family. But I had a feeling of fear and non-understanding, because I didn’t understand what was happening to us”.

“Another thing that remains in my memory is the sound of the siren. Three days ago, I was coming to college and heard the same siren sound as I did then. I just turned suddenly and that feeling came back into my stomach”.

“Relationships need to change. Relations with other countries must be strengthened, we must cooperate with everyone because we are not a big country. But in doing so, we must take the position that we will not allow anyone to attack us in any way. That is so we would not get into a situation tomorrow where Serbs remain in such small numbers that all of us can stand under a single plum tree”Marinko Mijatovic, 23

“There are people who remember this and who have traumas because they lost their loved ones. My generation doesn’t remember it, and we have no trauma in that sense. However, since we were bombed with depleted uranium, many got cancer. Since the war, many have died from the disease. So there are consequences”. 

Aleksandra Gecic, 22

“I do not have hatred for these people, because I cannot blame the whole nation for something that was the decision of specific politicians and concrete people at that time. I have an equal attitude to all nations. I do not have any hatred, but I cannot say that there is no hatred in our nation – that hatred is caused by a difficult period and because it is difficult to distinguish between what is a nation, what is a state, and what are individuals. That’s why I don’t blame people who feel hatred. They don’t want to go to America, they don’t like the West in general. I think that future generations should not be educated in this spirit. We should distinguish between politicians and who is to blame”. 

Katarina Drobnjakovic, 23