Words By Jeremy Klemin, Art By Brian Demers
After spending eleven months in Portugal without leaving the country, I find myself with a bit of expendable income and nothing to do until the start of my new job in late February. Resolving to see some close friends I met during my time as a graduate student in Scotland, I travel to the UK and to Palestine. It is a winter of rehashing old jokes and talking about books and sleeping on floors and being happy.
In between these two places, though, I decide to travel through the Balkans. I know little about the region’s history—the communist revolutionary Josip Broz Tito, the statue of Bill Clinton in Kosovo, a war that plagued the region around the time I was born. I tell myself I want to go somewhere cheap and cold, somewhere I can wear the same shirt for a few days in a row without having to worry. But pragmatic reasons aside, I want to visit a place no one I know has ever been. I want, perhaps childishly, to go somewhere “different,” to float for a month or so in a place free from mental associations and expectations.
About a week into my trip through the Balkans, I am on the way out of Belgrade, Serbia, heading toward Sarajevo, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The day, not unlike the city itself, has been grey and muted and beautiful.
I was told by locals that I could pay for a shuttle to Sarajevo for the same price as the bus and that the journey would be a few hours shorter, but what I assumed would be a large van filled with other travelers turns out to be one man in an old, beat-up sedan.
As we gradually distance ourselves from the center of the city and start making our way toward its marsh-filled outskirts, the driver and I begin to talk.
“Where you from?”
“The United States.”
“Yeah? I learn all my English from American movies. Never take one class, never study, nothing.” He grins, blowing his cigarette smoke through a thin slit above the driver-side window.
“What movies do you like?” I ask.
“The Gladiator. Russell Crowe strong. The Last Samurai. I like strong movie, you know?”
“Ah yeah, those are both great ones. Russell Crowe is a great actor.”
We’ve made our way out of Belgrade proper, but I can still see, to my right, the vague outline of the Danube curving eastward as we head toward the border. The driver mumbles something about his headlights and pulls into a gas station. After scrubbing the lights with a window washer, he reappears. The bulbs still seem next to useless, but he appears pleased by the return on his efforts.
After a long silence, I ask him what his schedule is like and how often he makes this trip.
“Three or four times week. Five hours ago I came back, and now I go again. Tomorrow I come back at night, and then do again next day.”
“Damn. Isn’t that tiring?”
“Yes. But I tough. Serbian people tough. I work anywhere, just want to work. Send me Mars, I work there. Serbian people work on Mars if jobs. This why it is dream of me to go to the USA. Work hard, yes, but make money. For who work hard, he live good.”
“Where would you want to go in the States?”
“Pfff. Anywhere. I go anywhere.”
He looks at me as if my question is stupid, as if choice is a luxury unavailable to him. I think about how many states I find Belgrade preferable to but decide not to mention the comparison.
“A lot of Serbs work like crazy on the east coast for a few months and then come back with a bunch of money. I remember going to Massachusetts—all they did was work a ton and drink a ton.”
“Yes, but students. I already forty. Forty-one next month!”
I can feel the air getting colder as we slowly make our way toward the border. As we approach, the driver tells me to give him my passport. While he inspects it, I consider the possibility that he might be memorizing my details. When I travel alone, I can’t help but feel like I am perpetually alternating between an unbridled, irrational belief that strangers are plotting against me and an equally irrational belief that all people are essentially good. I can’t say which is the better default mode, but vacillating between the two is emotionally exhausting.
“Always been my dream to have this passport,” he says. “You want get married, we get married.”
I pause for a second, making sure I’ve heard the joke correctly; gay humor seems incompatible with Balkan machismo.
“If Serbia joins the EU, then we’ll talk. I’d love to get EU citizenship,” I answer.
“Will never happen. Serbia won’t recognize Kosovo.”
“Ah, right. Serbians aren’t the biggest fans of the Clintons because of this, are they?”
“Fuck Bill, and fuck whore wife, too. What’s her name?”
“Yes. Fuck Hillary.”
Our conversation is then interrupted by the checkpoint at the Serbian side of the Serbian-Bosnian border crossing. After our passports are checked, the driver holds onto mine, and it takes me a minute to realize he’s keeping it because once we approach the Bosnian side the authorities there will also need to examine my ID. It’s my first time in a majority-Muslim country, and if there’s something in a person’s eyes that gives away their affiliation with a particular religion, I can’t see it. It seems that the only way to identify which religion a person belongs to is by their last name.
After crossing the border, we make our way up into the mountains. There is still no snow, but even at night, Bosnia’s topography is impossible to ignore. Every hill we ascend seems to switchback onto itself. With the Bosnian checkpoint still faintly in sight behind us, I can make out a mosque poking its head up from one of the small border villages.
We pull into a roadside cafe to use the bathroom and get a coffee. I buy a bag of peanuts, bagel chips, and water. We sit in silence while the driver finishes his cappuccino and stares at his phone. I recall thinking as a child that at drive-in movies you wouldn’t be able to see the film if you left their car, that it only played through a windshield. Our dynamic seems to work in a similar manner—whatever brief rapport we built in the car seems to have evaporated into the thin mountain air.
We are on the road again, and it’s clear that neither of us has anything to say. He turns the music on. After a few minutes, I ask whether the music is Serbian or from somewhere else in the Balkans.
“Serbian! Frank Sinatra of the Balkans. Everyone like his music. He like Bob Marley. Everyone like.”
I know nothing about Balkan music, but I can tell that he is excited, so I continue to ask general questions, letting him play various songs from his phone. Soon, the conversation switches to Serbian players in the NBA, and not long after, the local Serbian football league.
It is not yet snowing, but there is snow on the ground everywhere. It’s been at least an hour since we saw the last village, but every few kilometers a smattering of lights can be seen on hillsides, far removed from the main road.
“What your name?”
He says a name I don’t understand, but then tells me his friends call him Zoran.
The fact that this exchange is taking place so late into our trip together, that I am only now learning his name, surprises me. But if there is a point in nascent friendships when not knowing the other person’s name becomes unbearably awkward, we apparently had not yet reached it.
While alternating between driving, smoking, and searching for football videos on his phone, Zoran excitedly tells me about the Serbian league. There seems to be an inverse relationship between his excitement level and his ability to speak English correctly, but knowing the details of the conversation doesn’t seem as important as showing interest.
“This my team. Good team, strong team. Not long ago, there was a big fight where people watch the game. Croatians came, did shit.”
“Ah right, I actually saw that. Weren’t there, like, only ten of them? They coulda died, man. I saw the video. Weren’t they MMA fighters or something?”
Zoran laughs. “MMA mean nothing if there are ten of you against big crowd. They were paid.”
“It’s kinda like those two teams in Glasgow, isn’t it? One Protestant, one Catholic.”
“Yes! Rangers and Celtics. Never just football. Can’t be just football. Always football plus other things.”
“You ever play?” I ask.
“For national team, but war start, so I stop.”
“Do you still play for fun?”
“Yeeeeees, yes. I still love. But I’m old now, you know?”
We both laugh, and though I am increasingly uneasy about the fact that his car is little more than a tin box and the roads we’re on seem less than safe, I continue to watch the football videos he finds for me. And then he shows me a picture of his ten-year-old son.
“Are you and his mom still together?”
He has difficulty explaining this, but I am able to gather that he and the mother are separated, though not legally divorced.
“Do you guys get along well?”
“Yeeees, yes. We good friends. Must be, for my son, you know?”
“Yeah man, I understand.”
“You see woman that left my car when I pick you up? She is love of my life. Before my son’s mother, we were together. Young twenties, first time in love.”
“Wow, how did you find her again? How long have you been seeing each other?”
“Maybe eight months.” He starts to laugh. “She work in bank. My mother went into her work, saw her, and she ask about me. I get her information from my mother, call next day. She thought I was still married, or else she find me, she say.”
“And did she ever get married?”
“Yes. Her husband work in Germany. It’s complicated.”
I’m not sure whether this means that, like Zoran, his girlfriend and her husband are separated, or if Zoran is simply ashamed to admit that he is the other man. I don’t ask him to clarify.
“Do you think it will last?”
I watch Zoran attempt to work through his own thoughts and then translate them into English. It is unclear whether he delays because he wants to do justice to my question or because he is simply having trouble with the language.
“I don’t know! I still love her, but it’s different now, you know? I love seeing her, but we not twenty anymore. She is not she and I am different. I hope it will last.”
After a few seconds’ pause, he adds, “Balkans women very beautiful, no?”
I nod, and we both laugh.
It is snowing now, and Zoran’s smoke breaks are noticeably shorter; neither of us can tolerate 11 p.m. mountain cold for more than a short burst—nor, more importantly, can Zoran’s poor windshield. His flood lights still seem laughably spent and totally unequipped for the mountains.
We are on a main thoroughfare in the mountains, though we’ve been here for at least an hour, which means that we are fairly deep in. As we pass by yet another nondescript European hatchback headed in the opposite direction, it flashes its lights at us. I assume the driver is trying to tell Zoran that his lights are crap, but I quickly discover this is not the case.
“Sisadzijo. That means police somewhere, waiting. Serbian people look out for each other against mother fuckers.”
“Ah shit, trying to catch people for speeding?”
“No, no speeding. Nothing wrong.”
Ten minutes pass in limbo, and then, sure enough, a man in a bright orange jacket and police attire signals us over to the side of the road.
“If they ask, we are friends. No money.”
We stop the car and Zoran starts talking with the police officer. Another stands closer to me, near the passenger door. By the tone of Zoran’s voice, I assume that the exchange isn’t going well for him. He gets out of the car, and they spend another five minutes arguing. I notice Zoran holding his wallet and an ID card between his fingers. He slips money into the officer’s front coat pocket and walks back toward the car.
“I pay them, maybe 600 dinar. He keep talking, all bullshit, until I give him money, make me waste time. Until I pay, he continue.”
For a trip that costs about twenty-five dollars total, six dollars is nothing to scoff at.
“What was the justification?” A few moments pass, and I think of a better way to formulate the question. “What reason did he give?”
Zoran laughs. “No reason! He doesn’t need reason. Until I pay, he bullshits. I fuck all their mothers. Dogs, all dogs. We call them dogs in Serbian.”
“In English, we call them pigs.”
“Idu u picku materinu. Fuckers.”
This, by far, is my favorite insult in Serbian. Go back to your mother’s vagina.
“Is this something that happens in Serbia as well, or only here in Bosnia?”
“Happen everywhere in Balkans. Everywhere.”
When we get back on the road again, Zoran makes a phone call. I am surprised by the gruffness of his tone, how aggressive he seems when speaking in his native tongue.
Maybe he comes across as more affable in English because he’s forced to simplify his ideas. I’ve seen this in others—my grandfather, wittier in English; my cousin, far more likely to crack a joke in English than in Portuguese. My grandfather was born in Portugal, and I spent the last year there learning his language and trying to gain Portuguese citizenship. If I am overly sensitive to how Zoran comes across in English, it is because I saw this same disconnect in others while in Portugal. For non-native speakers of a language, I think, humor feels more accessible than sincerity. Countless times I’ve tried to convey a thought or feeling in Portuguese, only to fret for weeks after that I’d been misunderstood in some small, trifling way, that I was almost understood.
From the phone call, I gather that Zoran works under someone else, that this venture does not belong to him. This means he is likely making far less money than I calculated, although his boss would have to cover the unforeseen expenses.
I ask Zoran how often these incidents occur.
“He do this before, same dog. Last week. I tell him, come on, I give you money last week, you not remember me? Look at me and tell you don’t remember me. This happen in US?”
“Well, no, you probably won’t get shaken down for money. You might get shot, though.” I’m not sure if he understands what I’ve said, so I let my words evaporate as we drive on.
“I don’t hate cops, you know. Just dogs. We all dogs here, in the Balkans. You know I was in the military when I was young.”
“Oh yeah? What branch?”
It takes a joint effort for us to find the right words in English. Special Forces.
“I jumped from planes.”
Very few questions can be asked in the Balkans without implying the war. I can’t ask people when, or where, they were born; I can’t ask the myriad of NBA fans I meet whether they think Michael Jordan or Lebron James is better. To talk about the 90s, or someone’s birthplace, or childhood is to talk about the war in a negative space; the war makes itself the focal point of conversations precisely because of the lengths taken to avoid talking about it.
As such, I’m afraid to ask Zoran about the timeline, but it seems appropriate given the context, and I am even more afraid to let the opportunity slip away.
“95 to 96.”
The tail end of the Bosnian War, one of a number of related ethno-political conflicts brought about by Yugoslavia’s disintegration in the early 90s. For four years, Serbian snipers occupied the lower part of the mountains we are driving through and shot at civilians, killing somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 children during the 1,425-day siege of the city. Zoran was either nineteen or twenty at the time.
“If you could do it again, if you could make different choices, do you think you would have stayed in the Special Forces? You know, made a career out of it?”
“Oh yes. I made stupid choices. Nineteen, you know? Too young. Would have made a lot of money. Big house, stop working young. Maybe by now I’m not even working anymore. But it’s okay, I work. I like to work.”
I have little trouble imagining Zoran in the military, especially after hearing him speak his own language. Though he’s opened up to me about his kid and his anxiety about the future of his relationship with his girlfriend, he is still intimidating. His voice is hollowed out from all the smoking and his default expression is far from inviting.
I wait for Zoran to tell me more about his time in the Special Forces, but he doesn’t. Instead, he dials his boss again and I am struck, once more, by the chasm between his demeanor in English and his mother tongue.
Snow batters against the car’s windshield. Pinus Peuce, better known as Balkan Pine, are visible on either side of the road. Even through the snow, I can smell the trees when Zoran opens his window to blow out smoke.
Forty-five minutes and twenty kilometers later, another car passes, again greeting us with a flashing of headlights. Zoran laughs.
“Can’t happen twice. Let’s see.”
But we are signalled over, again, while cars behind us pass by, unmolested. Zoran starts arguing with one of two police officers. After ten minutes and another six dollars USD, we are allowed to continue on.
Zoran is no longer angry. Instead, I detect some combination of sadness and amusement. I ask him to recount the exchange, and after some vocabulary fishing, he tells me that, technically, he is required to have a fire extinguisher in his car.
“I have! I have . . . look! I show him fire extinguisher, and then he ask for papers. He ask for . . . papers for fire extinguisher. As soon as he ask for the papers, I give him 500 more dinar. Never happen twice in one trip. Never.”
He calls his boss one more time, alternating between what sounds like cynicism and indignation. After the call, he turns to me.
“For me, is no problem, you know? Not my money. Just bad look for our people when I drive foreigners. Bad look. We are a country full of dogs. I am tired of this.”
“We have a saying in English, you either laugh or you cry.”
“Yes. Yes. Laugh today. Cry tomorrow.” He laughs. “You are good passenger. Best I’ve had. Time goes quick.”
“Thanks man, I’m glad we met.”
I’m not sure Zoran and I would be friends in a different context, not sure if he is the type of person I’d feel comfortable having over for dinner or on an evening out for drinks with close friends. I have trouble reconciling his enthusiasm for his child with his apathy about being involved with a married woman—not to mention the unmitigated enthusiasm he has expressed for his combat-heavy role in an army that is widely recognized as the chief perpetrator of human rights violations during the war.
Nevertheless, as our destination draws near and we finally begin our descent from the mountains, I realize that I’ve grown fond of him. Perhaps our exchange says as much about me as it does about him. I’ve always thought that my estimation of someone as essentially good or not was congruent with my fondness for them. But perhaps being an unequivocally good person is not a prerequisite for my admiration.
It is currently 12:30 a.m.; roughly six hours have passed since we left Belgrade. I can now see the scattered lights and smoke of Sarajevo in the distance. I imagine that, as in Belgrade, it will take us at least fifteen or twenty minutes to get to the city center, but the hub appears almost immediately, surrounded by hills. There is an unconventional beauty about it, precisely because of the layout. The city is like a ten-kilometer-long runway; homes drift off into the hills, but you can walk across the city in thirty minutes. The houses feel suburban, unlike the favelas generally associated with settlements on sloping hillsides.
I gather my belongings, surprised at how quickly we’ve reached the hostel. Zoran helps me carry my things inside, and as I’m standing at the check-in counter, I thank him again for the ride. I consider asking for his contact information, but in the moment I find it neither appropriate nor a particularly good idea.
“Hvala, prijateli.” Thank you, friend, he says. And with a smile and a handshake, Zoran is gone.
On my second day in town, I find that I’m rapidly running out of places to walk in Sarajevo. I decide to go to the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide. From my hostel, it’s about three minutes by foot.
The museum, like Sarajevo, is claustrophobic. I make my way through a number of narrow exhibitions, sometimes so physically close to an exhibit that I can’t make anything out; I am habitually taking off my glasses in order to read the text. On other walls, there are large, jarring images of human barbarism; mutilated corpses and horribly disfigured children are accompanied by banal timelines of the war.
Forty-five minutes later, I find myself in the final room of the exhibition. There is a small picture and a description of every single person charged with war crimes between 1992 and 1995—some crimes nondescript, others against civilians, and others still crimes against humanity. Listed, too, is the ethnicity of every perpetrator. I see Bosnian-Serb, Croat, and Bosniak, though the majority are Serbian or Bosnian-Croat.
I spend longer than I intend looking at each perpetrator. As I make my way around the room, I pause at one Serbian face. Though the picture is pixelated, I’m stunned.
It must be Zoran.
He has the same face, the same scowl, the same tense shoulders. I try, in vain, to parse through the details of our conversation, try to recall the unregistered sounds he made when he told me his name.
The photo says that this man was sentenced to twenty years in jail, which means, logistically, he could be out by now.
I begin to feel lightheaded, so I squat to the floor. Nobody else is in the room.
Upon second glance, I notice that written below the picture is a birth date. I quickly do the math and realize it’s not Zoran. It can’t be. This man is older, by just less than a year.
I curse the rapidity with which I’ve jumped to conclusions, with which I’ve tried to form connections that don’t exist. He and Zoran are not the same person, but the fact that it was even a possibility makes me shiver, makes me realize that the connection I tried to make, while hasty, was neither irrational nor unfounded.
As a child bored in class, I used to take blank pages and fill in all of the white space with lead. Then, I’d start erasing and see what I came up with. I must follow this same logic with Zoran; I must work backward.
I have learned much more about the war and his personal life, not from what he said but from what he did not say—from his regret, or in the most startling cases, his lack of regret left lingering in the spaces between our exchanges. Affability cannot be the only criterion in my estimation of him. There must be other things. An admission to being on the wrong side of history. A nod, at least, toward one’s own ethical pliability. After all, I only recognize this pliability in him because, in my evaluation of his character, I also see it in myself.
I get up, thank the museum curator, and leave.
Outside, Sarajevo, too, is grey.