Remembering What I Can’t Know

On Yugoslavia, Storytelling, and Impossible Identity

Exile, by Timothy Bergstrom.

In the early 1990s, a tall man with a small, stern face walked the streets of Zagreb. He had thick brows and a serious nose. He studied biology at the university, maybe biochemistry. The man had very little money and needed more; before finding a roommate, he lived above a chicken coop. Around him Zagreb looked like a timeline. Viennese, mustard walls met grayed Bauhaus slabs, and low-rise apartment buildings curved into new streets. Store windows were adorned with signs, ɢᴏᴅ ᴘʀᴏᴛᴇᴄᴛ ᴄʀᴏᴀᴛɪᴀ. The man was a Serb and his roommate was a Croat. This roommate heard through a friend that the Croatian military was looking for someone to translate a manual from English, and they were willing to pay. Perhaps he didn’t hear it through a friend but saw it on a flier, or it was announced on the radio.

Because the Serb was particularly good at English, his roommate volunteered him for the job and accepted it on his behalf. But the Serb, my father, shouldn’t really have been in Croatia by then. As nationalism swelled between the factions, it became more dangerous to stay in Zagreb. The chances of him being expelled from the country, or worse, grew higher every day. His roommate had also overlooked that the Croatian military sought someone to translate a manual for building a bomb to be used against the opposition, Serbians. If he obliged, my father would directly assist in the massacre of his own people. If he refused, he would advertise his alignment with the opposition, making himself an enemy of the military.

So my father flees the next day. Or at least, that’s how I remember the story. I also remember a version in which he translates a recipe for cupcakes instead, and then flees. That one seems unlikely and I can’t recall if it’s an invention on his part or mine. To be completely honest, I can’t be sure whether any of this story is true or not. He’d recount all this when my sister and I were young, looming over our beds before switching off the light and leaving us to whisper in the dark. The drama and stakes appealed to me as a child; this was the chronicle of his arrival in London and by proxy the story of my arrival into this world, set in motion by the impossibly bold actions of my father. It was the stuff of movies, and the story of our family gathered importance by association.

It was only as I grew older that I began to cast doubt on my father’s story. He is not a reliable narrator; the plot points seem extreme. Perhaps it’s a case of exaggeration—there were no cupcakes, he didn’t flee the following day, but within the month or year. Factual or not, it tells the unequivocally true story of a time in which individuals were forced to pick sides, to align themselves with a country and borders that had not hitherto existed, and the movement between spaces, whether for studies, work, love, or tourism, became nearly impossible.

I’ve never asked him what exactly happened and what didn’t, and I don’t think I ever will, afraid of pushing too hard on something I don’t particularly want to see break. But around age nineteen I began to itch for a story that felt truer and bigger. It occurred to me that I understood nothing about the place my father took me every summer for the first decade or so of my life, a farm located in Republika Srpska, one of two entities that form the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Republika Srpska is populated by Serbs in an otherwise Bosnian-Muslim majority country. The house is custard yellow, on one side sits the farm, its barn, pigsty, the hut that holds firewood. On the other are the forest and fields, yawning out, gesturing to something vast. There were sheep, pigs, farm cats, and once cows and horses but not by the time I started coming. The farm dog one summer was never the same dog the next, although they always looked the same: large, narrow-faced mutts named Rex.

The drive from Zagreb airport, where my father’s brother would pick us up, was long, and each year we passed an envelope of cash to soldiers at the border between Croatia and Bosnia. I remember bullet holes in the wall of my father’s school in Prijador, family members killed a few years before my birth. It evaded me the way conflict evades all children, which is to say not at all, but I still lacked specifics.

Brian Hall, writer and reporter on the region, writes that “Yugoslavia as a subject had a tendency to swallow its students whole.” And this rings true to me. There is something impossible about the task of knowing it, anyone who has attempted to understand what exactly went down in the conflict that decimated a good chunk of Europe only thirty-odd years ago will know the war is something like a stray thread; you pull to keep pulling until the entire fabric has come undone and still you’ve only seen history at an angle. Hall also comments on the commonly held belief among international reporters that the war was insufficiently reported upon in the West at the time. While one reason behind this is a lack of interest in the internal politics of that region, another is the sheer quantity of information unknown to a Western audience that would need to be delivered. “Any article would have to begin with five thousand words explaining terms (who was who, where they lived, how they got there, what they spoke) and by then the article would be over. Among editors it was a given […] that no one wanted to read ten thousand words on Yugoslavia.”

Bold of authors to write it, then. Bold of me, perhaps, to threaten you with ten thousand words here, in what you’ll surely have realized is an essay on Yugoslavia. Bold of me to have made others hear it. At twenty, I wrote it all down, everything I’d understood. I made my boyfriend at the time read it, the two of us sitting on the grass in a park in South London, bees circling our heads as he hunched over the four or five pages I’d printed. He was a skinny boy with dark curls and blue, watery eyes. I remember thinking he was too good for me; that he held more goodness inside him than I was capable of matching. It was actually something we’d argue about.

He let me tell him these stories over and over again. I can’t remember what he said that particular afternoon in the park, in his goodness something endearing; it embarrasses me to think of it now. But I’m also endeared to myself, and to that hunger I had for telling what needed telling. It felt at the time like an unveiling, another small move towards closing that terrible gap between two people. And look, I would be amiss if I did not say I am doing it all again here. You are my ex-boyfriend, and we are sitting on grass and I am trying to tell you what happened, and I am hoping you will know me better.

There have been three definitive iterations of Yugoslavia, but as an idea—the joining of the southern (or yugo) Slavs—it can be traced back to the invasion of Bosnia and Serbia in the 14th century. When the Ottomans invaded Bosnia, many civilians who did not flee converted to Islam under the instruction of Ottoman forces, creating a community of Bosnian Muslims, known also as Bosniaks. The ethnic groups of Croats and Serbs responded to the invasion with nationalism-fueled resistance, eventually freeing themselves from imperialism in the early 19th century.

With Bosnia still under a weakening Ottoman rule in 1878, the Great Powers of Europe awarded the Austro-Hungarian Empire the right to occupy Bosnia to protect the Christian population from Ottoman (read Islamic) oppression. But the Serbs living in Bosnia, tired of living under any occupation at all and wanting the liberation they saw in Serbia, began to rally against their new leaders. Many began to desire a unified South Slav federation. This would come to a head with the infamous assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by Gavrilo Princip, a member of the military society known as the Black Hand, or Unification or Death, in Sarajevo in 1914, setting in motion the First World War.

Very little was known of Tito abroad when he first emerged as a prominent figure during WWII. When English Prime Minister Winston Churchill set out to “simply to find out who was killing the most Germans and suggest means by which we could help them to kill more,” he was not entirely sure whether Tito was in fact a single man or an entity. He was, of course, a man. Josip Broz Tito was born to a Croat father and Slovene mother. During WWII he was the leader of the Yugoslav Partisans, a guerrilla movement that successfully fended off Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia, and in 1946 became the architect and leader of a new, distinct shape for what was then the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Under Tito it would become the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), composed of six republics: Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (known informally as Bosnia), and Macedonia. In addition, the two provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina in Serbia were given autonomous status. This Yugoslavia was a single-state communist republic led by Tito. It had a liberal travel policy; its borders were open to all foreign visitors and citizens could move freely. There was very little to prevent people from returning from their vacations with branded jeans and Western music. It was the longest-lasting iteration of the three Yugoslavias: 1946 – 1991.

Turning to literature and non-fiction accounts, I went looking for information that would pad out the vague ideas I had from childhood about the war. One such text that I have mentioned already here, The Impossible Country by Brian Hall, is a kind of travelog from May to mid-September 1991, chronicling the collapse of Yugoslavia, moments before it splits and the republics go to war with one another. Hall’s interest lies in human character and the minutiae. He speaks to people, sleeps in their homes, and sits with them at bars where he watches the news cycle play on TVs attached to brick walls. He notes the faces of friends and strangers as they speak about the opposing sides.

He argues with his friend Dimitrije, who held, in Hall’s opinion, “a mystical view of the nation as a superpersonality, with its own memory.” Hall disagrees. How could there be a superpersonality, a national ego with its own distinct character and memory, if what is remembered and agreed upon as truth changes so quickly and effortlessly? And needless to say, the superpersonality with a shared collected memory can be a dangerous idea, a way of turning people away, strengthening borders and differences, and claiming some truths to be absolute in the face of opposing truths. But what is behind the idea of a community, the sense of belonging that comes from a shared history, location, culture, if not a superpersonality? This superpersonality becomes complicated when it comes to the second-generation immigrant. What memory do I hold as not only someone born after the fact but in an altogether different geography to the fact? My relation to this superpersonality has been constructed through the stories my father told me.

In Hall’s book, I recognized something of myself. The names of the people he met echoed my family’s, ones I’d never encountered in the UK. A man had the same name as my father. I finished the book quickly, turning the final pages on a wooden bench in a small cemetery. Bunhill Fields Burial Ground is a three-minute walk from my home, the closest green space to me in an otherwise loud and excitable part of London. Both the prolific English poet William Blake and author Daniel Defoe are buried there, but that seemed irrelevant to me, turning the pages of Hall’s account. Everything true and resonant in that moment was in the book. The superpersonality hummed. I wrote to Hall not long after finishing it: “In the people you wrote about I saw my aunts and uncles, I recognized the food and the landscapes, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that had circumstances been different, it could have been my dad you were speaking to.” I wanted to write my family into his work, and see their history as an amount in the larger sum. 

Hall is an American man among Yugoslavs; his observations are those of an outsider with a way in. Wasn’t that what I was too? In 2018, my friend and I boarded a bus from Poland to Bosnia. Despite years of my childhood spent in Bosnia, I had never wandered outside Republika Srpska. I had never visited the capital of Sarajevo or the famous city of Mostar, home to the iconic Old Bridge, now the new Old Bridge after it was destroyed in the Bosnian war. She and I poured in and out of the bus at the border in the early hours, our faces squished from broken and uncomfortable sleep. It was all road around us, and borders didn’t look like anything. As we waited in queues with passports, lights blinked red and men called out to us in a language I hardly understood. My ears rang with familiarity but that was all.

When I started my MFA at Columbia University in 2021, I signed up for a language class in something called BCS: Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian. The name for this language is, I believe, an invention of the university itself. This is hardly surprising; the name of that language differs depending on where you go and who you’re asking, so it’s understandable that Columbia would want to absolve itself of this particular politics. I spent one term in a subterranean classroom three times a week, surrounded by undergraduate and graduate students, each of us with our particular cocktail of ancestry and nationality. I had a French mother and a father who was a Bosnian-Serb. One girl had a Serbian mother and a Croatian father. Our professor was Serbian. The class was for beginners but still, we arrived with differing abilities. I was the only Brit, and therefore had grown up much closer to the region than my American counterparts. And hadn’t I, after all, visited once, if not twice a year, for all of my childhood? Still, I knew far less than almost everyone else in the class. 

My classmates were in some ways more like me than many people I’d encountered, their last names sounding strikingly similar to mine, their features like something you might call Slavic. I wondered if the stories their families told them mirrored my own. The language is not particularly useful outside of the region; we were all here because of family ties, an emotional thread pulling us to this room every other morning. I struggled with the language, its multiple alphabets and how two letters differed so subtly yet crucially in their pronunciation. I grew frustrated by how nothing came naturally. I had hoped to find the language built into me, and of course, it wasn’t.

My friend and I didn’t visit the farm on our trip, I had meant to, but grew intimidated by the idea of returning without my father there. He was an essential link between me and that world, and without him a visit to the farm seemed closer to tourism. I thought of it often though, checking our distance from Republika Srpska on Google Maps as the bus veered south towards Sarajevo. The picture I had was fond: waking in the early afternoons to mosquito bites and sticky air, my knee-length denim shorts and loose t-shirts, long hair sticking to my face in the heat. Kicking footballs in the yard in the evening as the adults drank beer and smoked, feeding dried corn to chickens, newly laid eggs cracking in my pocket. One year my cousin attached a strip of mesh across the dining table and we played table tennis there for hours. When we visited in the wintertime, we went sledding and built igloos. On Orthodox Christmas, celebrated January 7th, the tradition is for adults to hide sweets and pennies in a pile of straw in the living room. Children scramble together in the straw to find them, and this is what my sister, cousins, and I did every year. In English, my sister and I announced what we had found. In Serbo-Croat my cousins did the same. They spoke much better English than their parents, who had learned only a little in school growing up. Of that generation, just my father, who picked it up quickly and was the only one to attend university—then acquire a Master’s degree, then a PhD in London—could speak English fluently. By then he had lived in England for almost half of his life.

Of his siblings, my father was his grandmother’s favorite. He describes her as a small, bossy woman. She walked with one real leg and one wooden, and in her old age sat against a tree trunk to call out orders to her children and grandchildren while they worked. She loved my father the most for his intellect and sensibility. He was kind to her and good in school. He read novels and wrote poems. If any of them would benefit from higher education, she thought, it would be him. She had, according to my father, also served as some kind of mole for the Serbs in World War II, and in exchange for her services was awarded a sum of money. This money she kept locked in a chest, and although no one in the family had ever studied beyond adolescence, she poured it all into her favorite grandchild. It’s for this reason that my father found himself at the University of Zagreb while his country collapsed around him.

In 1980 Tito died, and the reason for the continued union of the six republics of SFRY seemed to die with him. It became clear that whatever measures had been put in place to maintain his political infrastructure were insubstantial. The republics became antsy and unwilling to partake in what soon felt like a political circus, a Serb-leaning government masquerading as Tito’s old vision of pan-ethnic slavic unity. When Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence twelve years after Tito’s death, the ties that had painstakingly held the nation together fell apart and Yugoslavia progressively split into competing, rageful fragments. Serbian forces, led by President Slobodan Milošević, fought aggressively to resist Croatia’s nationalist efforts, and those of other Yugoslav republics who desired autonomy. Nationalism was strong across all six republics and their ethnic groups. The third iteration of Yugoslavia emerged: two republics, Serbia and Montenegro. Which left the pressing question: what was to become of Bosnia? 

For the government of Bosnia, the answer was independence; it declared its official separation from Yugoslavia in April 1992. This Bosnia would have a majority Bosniak population, which concerned the Bosnian Serbs residing in Bosnia, who wanted political allegiance with Serbia. There was also, many argue, residual hatred towards Bosniaks, who Serbs claimed assisted Croatia as they colluded with the Nazis in their efforts to invade Yugoslavia during WWII. Serbs mobilized their forces inside Bosnia and Herzegovina, launching a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Bosniaks. It is estimated that tens of thousands of people were killed. After international intervention, borders and territories were eventually established between Croats, Bosniaks, and Serbs in Bosnia. The latter group, the Bosnian-Serbs, were to occupy the Republika Srpska, where my family’s farm is located, while the Bosniaks and Croats occupied the Federation of Bosnia. 

The sense of division between my father’s family and my sister and me became starker as I grew. By fourteen, the last time I visited the farm, I felt more keenly than ever how my father handed each of his family members cash in envelopes, how we could only say simple things in their language and relied on their English to communicate. That we arrived with expensive mobile phones and white trainers and always returned back to London after two weeks. In an article titled “We Took a Bath with the Chickens,” the Brighton University academics Russell Kinf, Anastasia Christou, and Janine Teerling interview Greek and Greek Cypriot second-generation immigrants. When the interviewees reflect on their summer holidays in what the article calls the homeland, it is with a nostalgic, tender lens. These memories all take place in summer: “Every summer we would go to Greece, every summer, for about a month.” says Thomas. “As we were growing up, every summer, my father would bring us over to Cyprus.” says Alexandra. And in these summers of their childhood, they recall a distinct sense of freedom, a lawlessness and spirit they couldn’t find back home—the UK or America—and some new quality in their parents, a levity and ease that only existed in the homeland. “One word stood out in the narratives of all these summer holiday visits—freedom. Children saw themselves as allowed much more freedom to run about without supervision, to stay out late, and to do things that were forbidden in their ‘host’ countries.” The reason for these trips taking place in the summer is obvious enough, but it exacerbates an almost inevitable truth: the child is on holiday, the life here is a refuge and break from her realer, truer life. I generalize, of course; these trips won’t always be pleasant or freeing, but there’s something there. The child, raised in the UK, cannot possess a perfect balance of her many worlds. She becomes more one thing than another, and anything that sits outside of the primary life is a dreamy side quest, something to recall with nostalgia and a kind of vacation-soaked sweetness.

The meaning of the term Yugo-nostalgia probably does not need explaining: people miss the way things were. In Wolfgang Becker’s 2003 film Good Bye, Lenin!, Alexander’s mother, a member of the Communist Party in East Berlin, falls into an eight-month coma, entirely missing the revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall. When she wakes, doctors fear the shock of her new world could send her into another cardiac arrest, one she wouldn’t recover from. Hijinks ensue as Alex goes to extreme lengths to make it appear that her communist East Berlin is still alive and well. “On 79 square meters, East Germany lives on” proclaims the trailer. Her children search through the garbage for products stores no longer sell, and tape their own news clips when she wants to watch TV.

Not long after Yugoslavia dissolved, Blasko Gabric set out to reconstruct a scale model of the former country, a theme park of sorts called Yugoland. Mount Triglav, Yugoslavia’s tallest mountain at almost 3000 meters (now located in Slovenia) was a 20-meter dirt pile, and the Adriatic sea, a small trench. Visitors queued to purchase back their now defunct Yugoslav citizenship for a few hundred dinars. Yugoland closed in 2012 to pay off the owner’s debt. So Yugo-nostalgia won’t make enough money to pay off the banks, but there’s a market for it. My father never called himself Bosnian, he didn’t feel he was. The country his home sat in wasn’t a country he’d lived in, it wasn’t a superpersonality that resonated. So when I’m asked, I say he is from Former Yugoslavia, evoking some ghost, some absence of a place every time I name it.

And there I am, on a bus to Mostar checking Google Maps, on the grass in South London with a small stack of paper and a boy generous enough to read them, full of, what, tenderness? For a place I never lived in and a time I never lived through. Which is not to dismiss the cost of that country, or plead to reinstate it. But it’s a hole, a question that gapes. Where does my family come from? The hole cries back, not anywhere you can go!

Last year I looked up the name of the tiny village near the farm. I could never have hoped to find it were it not for my time spent learning the language. Every word is spelled phonetically and as long as you learn the sound of each letter in the alphabet, you can spell any word, regardless of if you’ve heard it before. Waiting for two friends at a café on the Lower East Side, I opened up Google and typed the name. It felt good just to know how to spell it.

I clicked on Google Images and scrolled. There it was, a yellow house propped up on a hill, two floors and a balcony bordered by wooden slats. A dirt path leading up and the promise of wilderness on all sides. The image linked to a post on AirBnB; the house and farm were being rented out and nobody had told me. I’d known it was not as it had once been, with almost no animals and fewer people to tend it as cousins moved farther away, began their own lives, started their own families. The thought of the farm full of strangers made me feel sick. Where was my family living now? It was exactly the kind of thing my father would have neglected to mention. But as I continued to read up on the property, I began to wonder whether this was indeed the house I had visited so many times as a child. At last I could be sure that it was not. While so many features were the same, the curtains and balcony, the shade of yellow, the surrounding garden, there were too many incongruences. Where was the white extension my father had built? Where was the actual farm, with its barn and hut for firewood? The relief I felt was overwhelming. Briefly, I had totally lost the house—it in a literal sense, and in a larger sense because nobody had bothered to tell me, so far away was I from that world, so inconsequential to it. But it was not lost, it was there still, as far as I knew. And I was happy to know that.

I imagine the farm often. When I am sitting on the subway, I walk myself through the yard and into the garden, I peer into the summer cottage my father built one year, I reach for the unripe grapes that grow from the canopy above the wooden bench. Then I enter the house, there is one bedroom, there is another. There is the living room, its vast dinner table with a net for table tennis. There is the kitchen, plastic bottles of Coca-Cola in a row on the floor. There is the chunky 90s computer and the Philips television. MTV is playing. Circus by Britney Spears. Ironic by Alanis Morrisette. Janis Joplin now, “Oh Lord, won’t cha buy me a Mercedes Benz?”

Brian Hall begins his book with the following acknowledgment: “The enormous debt of gratitude I owe to the people who appear in this book will be obvious to the reader. I have repaid their generosity unkindly, by turning their stories into my own.” Hall and I are not undertaking the same project, and we have very different reasons for poking around at all. Still, I feel I know exactly what he means. I move through this essay and this world like some kind of absorbent, turning stories I’ve gathered into my own. Sometimes it’s work I suspect I ought to be punished for. The world is rife with questions right now on what we’re entitled to write about, just how far our imaginations can stretch until it’s an appropriation of the thing, an insulting or even exploitative approximation. Whose story should we tell, in essence? “Our own” is ostensibly the simplest and most morally-sturdy answer, but the question is rarely as simple. For the second-generation immigrant, the question chafes. What is mine? Why do we feel these pulls towards entitlement and possession of abstract concepts like heritage and ancestry when they are devoid of material substance? I’ve not mentioned an attempt to possess land, nor to own a passport, for example. The superpersonality becomes, like so much else, property I may or may not have some share in. And knowing all this, I want a share, but my stake sits in stories and they never feel sufficient. I worry constantly about their accuracy: Have I been told right? Am I telling them right? Nothing is resolved. But I insist on their weight, and on the currency of my own recollections too, my slanted piece of it all. “I remember…” they begin. I remember long drives from the airport. We went in the summer. Eggs cracked in my pocket.

Nina Reljić