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Punctuated Equilibrium

Serbia, July – August 2008:  A travelogue

Travis Woodson

September 18, 2008

July 24, 2008.  I arrive with my Serbian-American wife and Christopher, my teenage son, in Belgrade after a connecting flight from London on an old Yugoslavian Airline 735.  Pedrag, my wife’s affable, wry, and hospitable cousin, is there to meet us.  We go together to Pedrag’s apartment.  The outside of his apartment building is old, dilapidated, and covered with graffiti, but his apartment, though small, is clean and orderly.  We plan to stay in Belgrade for a few days and then travel to Kopaonik, a mountain resort in southern Serbia, where Chris will be attending basketball camp.  We have brought Chris to Serbia in the hope of connecting him to his Serbian roots.

While staying with Pedrag, I watch Serbian television and, with the help of a dictionary and my wife, read the local Serbian newspaper.  The arrest of former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic is the big news.  In the photographs of Karadzic, he looks like a guru, with long white hair and a full white beard.  The Serbian government has stated that Karadzic (who has a medical degree) had been practicing in Belgrade as a “bioenergetic” health therapist for some months prior to his arrest.  Pedrag is skeptical and wonders if Karadzic’s arrest was due to the recent change in the composition of the Serbian government.  I ask Pedrag if there have been or will be demonstrations regarding Karadzic’s arrest.  There have been a few, he says, and there will be a few more.  I ask, what is the point of view of the demonstrators?  He tells me many Serbs believe atrocities were committed by all sides in the Balkan wars — by Muslims and Croatians as well as Serbs — and that it is unfair to single out the Serbs. 

July 26, 2008.  We head into the center of Belgrade to stay at a bed and breakfast run by Milos and Myroslava.  Milos, like every Serbian man I’ve met in Serbia, is eager to talk politics.  I ask him about the Karadzic demonstrations and he tells me just what Pedrag told me — that many Serbs believe the Serbs have been unfairly singled out.  I touch on the topic of Kosovo.  Milos is adamant that the Serbs and Albanians cannot live together as one people.  The cultural differences, he says, are too great.  He insists that crime, particularly drug traffic, is rife among Albanians in Kosovo, that they are uneducated and culturally backward, and that they have enormous families they cannot support.  I tell him the American view:  establish economic prosperity and basic civil liberties in a modern democratic government in Kosovo, and this will draw the Kosovars away from organized crime and ethnic conflict.  It will never happen, he says emphatically. Milos is a race realist.

July 30, 2008. After dropping off our son at the basketball camp, we travel to Studenica, a Serbian Orthodox monastery about an hour’s drive from the camp.  In the center of the monastery grounds there is a church built in the twelfth century that has been considerably ravaged by time.  UNESCO and the Serbian government, however, are painstakingly restoring the church and in particular its beautiful frescoes.  I notice on the frescoes that the eyes on the icons of several of the saints have been scratched out.  I ask one of the monks about it.  “The Turks,” he says.  This area, which is about twenty kilometers from the Kosovo border, was for many centuries a battleground between the Orthodox Serbs and the Muslim Turks. 

July 31, 2008.  We travel far up into the mountains to stay with a Serbian family in a small farming village named Rudno.  The road leads so far up into the mountains we begin to believe we’re lost.  Finally, Rudno emerges.  We drive to the end of the village to find our host, Nenad, his wife Bosa, and their two daughters, Tiana, 16, and Ana, 14.  The girls are tall, skinny, shy, polite, and to my eye, quite beautiful.  Tiana speaks a little English.  Everyone is friendly and hospitable, like so many Serbs I have met. 

It transpires that Nenad and his family will be providing our food while another Serb, Dejan, will be letting us stay in his mountain cabin.  We meet Dejan and his 15-year-old son Bogdan, another polite Serbian teenager.  Dejan is a great outdoorsman and is training Bogdan to be one as well.  They show us our cabin, where we find pelts of wolves and bears on the floor and walls. 

We have dinner that night with Nenad and Bosa.  The food is delicious.  It turns out that Nenad is a local government official of some sort, in addition to owning five cows and farming about 40 acres of land.  Part of his job involves keeping track of local births, deaths, and other demographic statistics.  I ask him if the local population is increasing.  No, it’s decreasing; the young people are going into the cities.  Do the Serbs in this area have large families?  No, generally two children.   Why?  Economic reasons, he says.  Do the Kosovo Albanians have larger families?  Yes, they typically have six or seven children.  Are there many Muslims in this region?  No, only Serbs.

That evening Tiana accompanies us as we walk to our little cabin.  The air is refreshingly pure.  Some old tractors rattle by, and then a horse-drawn wagon.  Tiana is sweet-natured and modest.  She tells us she hopes to go into Kragujevac, a city of about 100,000 that is about 40 kilometers away, to study pharmacy.  Her mother wants this but her father wants her to stay in Rudno.  She is conflicted and politely asks our opinion.  What do we think she should do?  I hardly know what to say, but am touched that she would even want my opinion.

August 1, 2008.  We drive to Kopaonik to pick up Chris and bring him to Rudno. We arrive in the middle of a basketball game and watch with great interest.  Chris is 6’3” but seems small and pale next to several of the bronzed 6’5” Serbs.  But he holds his own, fighting for rebounds and scoring a few points. 

Later, we meet with Chris in his room.  The electricity has gone out in his room for the third time.  Anomalously, the television still works.  As the boys scroll through the channels in the darkness, I see reports of a large demonstration two days before in Belgrade by Karadzic supporters, a demonstration that turned violent.  Karadzic’s attorney is interviewed.  The Serbian government wants to send Karadzic to the Hague immediately, but apparently he has the right to stay in Serbia pending an appeal.  Karadzic’s attorney says he filed the appeal, but the Serbian government claims it never received it and the time for filing has lapsed.  It seems pretty transparent that the Serbian government, which wants Serbia to join the European Union, has made a deal to send Karadzic to the Hague, and no demonstrations or rights of appeal are going to stop it.

Chris is unhappy.  Our plan to connect him to his Serbian roots is not succeeding.  “I don’t like the food, I don’t like the camp, and I don’t like Serbia,” he complains.  He wants to go home.  A major parent / teenager confrontation ensues.  We tell him we will be in Serbia for another week and he must open his mind to the experience.  He relents, but sullenly.

We arrive back in Rudno in time for dinner.  Nenad, Bosa, Tiana, and Ana all come out to meet Chris when we pull up.  Bosa’s dinner meal is again delicious, and Chris wolfs it down like a famished hiker.  It turns out there is a rickety basketball hoop nearby, and Chris goes off to play basketball with Tiana, Ana, and several of the local teenagers.  He shows off, making some threes and dribbling behind his back.  Then he walks back with Tiana and her friends. 

Chris’s mood has brightened considerably.  Good food, basketball, pretty girls – maybe Serbia is not so bad after all.

August 24, 2008.  We spend another three days in Rudno, fishing with Bogdan, eating Bosa’s meals, playing ping pong in the small local elementary school, playing basketball, making conversation, gazing at the stars at night.  Life is idyllic.  We seem to have traveled back in time to a simpler, more innocent, more wholesome age. 

At last it is time to depart.  We are sorry to leave, even Chris, although he won’t admit it.  Tiana tells us she is sorry to see us go and I can see she really means it.  I think she is fond of Chris.  If only my son would marry such a girl!  His American girlfriends fill me with dread. 

August 6, 2008.  After a few days in Belgrade we leave for London to catch a connecting flight back to the U.S.  When we arrive in London I am treated to a major dose of culture shock.  As we stand in line to have our passports stamped, of the 200 or so people in the line 90% are non European – African, Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern, East Asian.  And nearly all the airport employees, despite their British accents, are nonwhite.  There is hardly a white person to be seen. Am I in England?  The thought crushes me that, as Serbia moves toward integration with the West, the Belgrade airport may look like this in twenty years.  And how long before this multiracial, multicultural zeitgeist reaches Rudno — reaches Tiana and Ana and Bogdan?  A vertigo like that of the protagonist in Sartre’s La Nausée overcomes me. 

But then defiance rises up from some unknown source.  We must do something to counter this juggernaut of raceless, rootless materialism.  I must do something.  Doing nothing is not an option. The hour is late but there are things we can do, if we have the will and the vision.  We must find the will and the vision.   

When we arrive home in the US, I go for a long walk alone, and ask myself what I can do to help preserve the racial identity of the European people.  One thought occurs to me with clarity.  At a minimum I can write a substantial bequest into my will for organizations such as the Charles Martel Society.  This I will do.  

Travis Woodson is an attorney practicing on the West Coast.

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