YU: The Lost Country. A Yugoslav in search of a vanished identity.

Being Yugoslavian

Dragana Jurisic was 16 when Yugoslavia began to disintegrate as competing nationalist movements started to resurrect once more the poisonous internecine hatred that had already brought so much hurt to the Balkans.  Once more, less than fifty years after World War 2 ended, Europe was going to experience a savage conflict, although this time it would be all the more bitter, since it was conducted by people who knew each other, who spoke the same language, who had been schoolfriends, studied in the same military cadet schools.  People who, at the height of the conflict, were still able to radio each other across the lines to ask how the wife and kids were getting on.

It was 1991.  Dragana was out with three friends, just messing around, when they came to the riverside walk and found it deserted, apart from groups of armed men.  Across the river was Bosnia-Herzegovina while off in the near distance was Serbia.  Go  home, the armed men told them. Run.  And so the war in Croatia kicked off, with the Yugoslav People’s Army, the JNA, making war on its own people.

Except that they couldn’t have been its own people, since Yugoslavia no longer existed, but then, what exactly was the JNA?  An army without a country?  The entity that had bound Yugoslavia together for five decades was suddenly an oppressive terrorist force that would shortly reduce parts of Croatia to rubble, paving the way for even worse terrorists, such as the criminal Arkan’s Tigers, the thug supporters of Red Star Belgrade, and the White Eagles, directed by the brutish academic genius, Vojislav Seselj, the youngest PhD Yugoslavia ever produced, now reduced to a thug.  Both groups would go on to follow the Yugoslav People’s Army through Eastern Slavonia, tossing hand grenades into cellars full of cowering civilians, abducting patients from Vukovar’s hospitals and murdering them, using rape as a weapon of terror.


On the other side, long-dormant passions would emerge, driven by Croatia’s dark past.  The country that produced the worst Nazi collaborators, the Ustase, would once more spawn sectarian, xenophobic, murderous paramilitary groups, as Colonel Bob Stewart revealed to the world when he confronted Croat murderers who had slaughtered 101 Bosnian Muslim villagers at Ahmici.  One leader of these factions, Mate Boban, a former Communist, saw the Muslims as irrelevant, and formed common cause with his “brother in Christ” Slobodan Milosevic, the former Communist Serbian leader (some would say the puppet-master) to carve Bosnia up between Croatia and Serbia.

Franjo Tudjman, the Croatian President, shared Boban’s vision of a Greater Croatia,  cleansed of Serbs and Muslims, even though he had fought the Germans as a Partisan.  It’s still hard to comprehend how Tudjman and Milosevic maintained a close, if covert, working relationship even when the JNA was destroying cities in Croatia, and when Arkan’s thugs and Seselj’s killers were terrorising the civilian population, but they did, and what’s more they put it on the record in a remarkable BBC documentary, The Death of Yugoslavia.  Creating a Greater Serbia and  a Greater Croatia was their joint aim, even if they had nothing else in common.

Who can explain why Tudjman chose to provoke such fear and paranoia among rural Serbs in Croatia?  Why did he do that?  Why did he assault the civil service, attempting to remove as many Serbs as possible, when he must have known that the urban middle-class Serbs posed no threat at all to his government?  Why did he reintroduce the chequered flag so quickly when he must have known that it was seen as a symbol of the hated Ustase by many?  A symbol as potent as the Swastika.  Why did he outlaw the use of Cyrillic script in official documents, thus alienating every Orthodox Serb in the country?

It’s impossible to know, but actions like these caused massive fear among rural Serbs, especially in the Krajina region and particularly in Knin, where a  local dentist, Milan Babic, became the focal point for a Serb uprising, thereby playing into the cynical hands of Milosevic.  Fifteen years later, Babic, in a fit of remorse for what he had visited upon what he called his “Croatian brothers”, killed himself in a prison cell, but not before the flame he lit had consumed much of Croatia and all of Bosnia.

Dragana Jurisic was only 16 when this conflagration sparked.   Before long the conflagration would consume not only Yugoslavia but the very apartment in which she lived, along with her father’s thousands of photographic negatives and all her LPs.   In what she describes as a bureaucratic genocide, millions of people who identified as Yugoslavians were wiped out, converted to Croats, Serbs and Bosnians by the heartless logic of political ideology.  It was a grim, if unknowing, echo of the Ustase in the 1940s, when thousands of Serbs were forcibly converted from Orthodox to Catholic in order to turn them into Croats.

How can we account for this sort of behaviour among plainly civilised people?  After all, despite the stereotypes inflicted on the Balkans by self-interested politicians and journalists in the more westerly nations, the fact is that Croats and Serbs are an educated and sophisticated society, among the warmest and most welcoming of folk, provided they don’t fear for their safety.

I once put this question to a taxi-driver in Croatia.  He was a kind man of infinite patience, who happily gave up his entire day to take us around and show us the sights, for a modest enough fee.  Curiously, I discovered later that even though he and his wife are Croat, they speak Italian at home.  I was interested in his take on Operation Storm in 1995, when the Croatian Army, newly re-armed by their old ally, Germany, crashed into the Krajina region and expelled a half million people who had lived there for centuries.  In a mixture of broken English, broken French and broken German, I tried to get his view.  How can such a thing happen?

He shrugged.  I win war, I take your house.   You win war, you take my house.  Is natural.

No, I thought.  It isn’t.  It’s not a bit natural.   But I wasn’t going to intrude on his easy-going nature by arguing with him about such a huge issue, though the question still troubled me, just as it had done in previous years when Serb forces dispossessed Croat and Bosnian alike, just as Israeli settlers evicted Palestinians and took over their homes.  Just as Hutu had murdered Tutsi in Rwanda.

What is that?  What causes kind, decent people to believe that they can murder, imprison and dispossess their neighbours, people they went to school with, people they knew and played with as children?  How does an average man, a plumber perhaps or a baker, suddenly develop the skills to draw up lists, requisition warehouses, hire buses and sequester all those he hates in a makeshift concentration camp at a moment’s notice, just as the Serbs did at Omarska?

Had the hatred always been there, in this case hidden under a Yugoslav skin?

The jewel wasp is a remarkable insect that knows precisely how to take over a cockroach.  First it stings the insect to temporarily paralyse its front legs.  Then it injects a precisely-measured amount of venom into exactly the right place in the cockroach’s brain to disable its  escape instinct.  Having achieved that, it leads the docile insect by the antenna, like a farmer leading a cow, to a tomb, where it lays an egg that will eventually become a larva.  The larva burrows into the cockroach and eats it from the inside out, taking care not to kill it, and at the same time spreading an anti-microbial layer to ensure that it has no competition as it consumes its host, until it eventually bursts out of the used-up husk, a newly-pupated jewel wasp.

I can think of no better analogy for the sort of evil ideology that has consumed not only the Balkans, but just about every country in the word.

What wasp stung Yugoslavia?

Slobodan Milosevic, of course, with his Gazimestan speech in 1989, where he invoked the ancient Serbian sense of persecution. Serbs are the only people in the world who feel more persecuted than the Irish, and Slobo understood this very well as he reminded the crowd that Serbia had been robbed by the Ottomans in 1389.  Irish people will understand this mindset very well.  Six hundred years of oppression.

Of course, the location was important, in the heart of Kosovo at a time when tensions were so strong between Kosovar Serbs and ethnic Albanians.  Slobo addressed a million Serbs who had been transported to Kosovo Polje,  the Field of the  Blackbirds, from all over Yugoslavia in a massive nationalist display of intimidation, replete with ludicrous symbols invoking everything from the blood of Prince Lazar to  the Orthodox cross.  It was a bizarre performance from a man who, only five years previously, had been a committed Communist, but it worked.  Slobo, the new Serbian Prometheus, had stolen fire from Heaven, though he had yet to understand that it would consume him and all around him.

We all know how that ended.

Dragana Jurisic, daughter of a Croatian father and a Serbian mother, went on to earn a degree in psychology from the University of Rijeka, followed by a Masters and a PhD in photographic research at the University of Wales.  She then discovered Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West, a massive, two-volume account of a journey through Yugoslavia in 1937, setting out in precise detail the itinerary, including dates and times of every journey, every arrival and every departure.   It was only four years later that the Axis powers invaded, splitting Yugoslavia into many fragments but never truly subduing its spirit.  In the end, as we know, the Axis powers failed to defeat Yugoslavia, and the native Ustase collaborators and their German friends beat many hasty and ignominious retreats, but not before they had created such obscenities as the Jasenovac extermination camp, commanded at one time by a Franciscan called Filipovic, whom the inmates referred to as Brother Satan.

When a friend told me that this talk was being presented by someone who spoke about the Serbo-Croat language, I knew there was something special afoot, since this is the touchstone of the silly division between one Yugoslav and another.  It reached its nadir during the early Bosnian parliament sittings when the Serb faction and the Croat faction demanded interpreters, even though their linguistic differences amount to little more than an accent in a country smaller than Munster.  Imagine a Tipperary TD demanding an interpreter for a Cork TD.  It was, and is, as silly as that.

Dragana decided to follow Rebecca West’s travels through Yugoslavia and it wasn’t an easy journey.  Using only an old Rolleiflex medium-format camera and confining herself to 24 shots a day, she encountered all manner of obstacles, not least of which was her obviously-Serbian name.  It wasn’t a help in Croatia, but it was a positive hindrance in Kosovo, where she was seen as a spy by paranoid policemen, followed everywhere and arrested more than once.

The project resulted in a series of images collated into an exhibition called YU: The Lost Country, but the story isn’t quite finished yet.

I had the privilege to hear Dragana’s presentation of this story at Limerick School of Art and Design, and throughout the talk, I heard her speak of a search for her lost nationality.  It was hard not to ask where she was going with this logic, considering what nationalism has bequeathed to Europe in the form of war and oppression, but the talk ended with an acknowledgment of precisely that point, for which I was glad.   Does it make any sense to be searching for a national identity, when the nation you yearn for has been torn apart by nationalism?

And yet, despite all the nationalistic nonsense, many people continued, and continue, to regard themselves as Yugoslavian, while other people, who promoted hatred for no good reason, are beginning to reassess the wisdom of their actions.  Serbia is in economic trouble.  Bosnia is a joke, a patchwork of unworkable municipalities based on the ridiculous Vance-Owen Plan.  Croatia is the only one with any possibility of economic success.

They had a wonderful country.  A free country.  A country with a high standard of living where citizens were free to travel, to study, to debate, discuss and disagree.  They had a country with an ancient tradition and a sense of brotherhood absent in so many other places.

And they broke it, for no good reason.


This is Dragana Jurisic’s website.



2 thoughts on “YU: The Lost Country. A Yugoslav in search of a vanished identity.

  1. “They had a wonderful country. A free country.”

    Brilliant Bock. The refugees flee yet to Canada. Where your words are most apt these days. Where they’ve found the Orwellian exists. Just as Ireland’s diaspora realizes is the case.
    Whither next?

  2. With 3 religions, 2 scripts and 7 or more languages this federation was doomed, unworkable. Yugoslavia guaranteed only to survive intact so long as Tito lived it seems. Not appointing a strong-man to run it after his death (like Yeltsin chose Putin as successor) , its demise looke inevitable.

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