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Belonging and Not Belonging: The Yugoslav Diaspora in the Netherlands

"It takes a thousand voices to tell a single story." - Native American saying

"I have distanced myself from Sarajevo, but not from my people," Zdenko proclaims 17 years after leaving Sarajevo in early May 1994. In just a few years, the situation in his homeland had changed dramatically. As national and ethnic allegiances flared up, he became Croatian by default through the family in which he was born, with no involvement of free choice. Before the outbreak of the war in multicultural Sarajevo, declaring one's national identity was not done openly, let alone encouraged by the State; yet, people could tell from idiomatic expressions whether a person belonged to the Bosnian Croat, Bosnian Muslim or Bosnian Serb ethnic group. "I would never have left Sarajevo hadn't it been for the war," Zdenko states, recalling how different religions and cultures blended together in a mixed society where friendships across ethnic lines were common. "Belonging to a certain nationality was imposed upon us by politicians," he explains. All around him, with the onset of fighting people were choosing sides, and Zdenko aligned himself with the side he felt closest to: he became a Croat. 

Like many others, Zdenko had no choice but to leave. He was forced by circumstance to relocate to the country that to this day hosts the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), an institution that Zdenko mistrusts and dismisses as a political tool that promotes a utopian framework of justice without any results. He does not rule out a possible return to Bosnia and Herzegovina, but suspects he would not find home in the place he left behind. "The city would need at least 40 years to get back to normal," he concludes. In the meantime, like others, he remains in the Netherlands. 

One can still picture the horrific images of endless columns of people leaving the embattled areas of the former Yugoslavia; from Srebrenica to Foca, from Sarajevo to Vukovar, desperate to find shelter and peace. Some stories have been made public, but the bulk of them have remained silent. Yet, not every story fits this pattern: some immigrants are haunted not by war traumas but by the consequences of displacement. Some came before the war, and faced a different loss of identity. In general, the Yugoslav diaspora in the Netherlands only receives attention when some high-profile war criminal is arrested, and the Dutch media wonder what their opinions are. But we are interested in mapping their lives onto the everyday fabric of Amsterdam. Accordingly, we set out to uncover these hidden immigrant narratives through interviewing members of the Yugoslav community. 

There is little that we hear about the Yugoslav diaspora and their links with the homeland, and what we do hear often does not present a very positive picture. "Thousands of Serbs gathered in downtown Belgrade on Tuesday to protest against the arrest and the impending extradition of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzić to the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague," the CNN reported in 2009. The scattered images of Croats and Serbs protesting at the gates of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague have easily found their way to the world's most powerful media outlets. But where does that reaction come from? Is it representative of the perceptions among the Yugoslav diaspora in the Netherlands? How can we combine all these different narratives without losing the common ground of humanity?

The wars in the former Yugoslavia involved a diverse range of ethnicities that had lived together for decades under Marshall Tito's framework of 'brotherhood and unity.'  Economic hardships during the 1980s opened the road for gradual disintegration of the Socialist Federal Republic, ending in total war. Croats allied with Bosnian Croats, Serbs allied with Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Muslims and Kosovo Albanians fought a brutal campaign of terror and bloodshed that included the worst massacre since the Second World War, in the form of the genocide in Srebrenica. The history of the wars that started in 1991 and ended in 1995 throughout vast territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, as well as Kosovo between 1998 and 1999, can be found in the tribunal records and the work of scholars. But there are other histories made up of stories in which people function as dots on a map, with each voice tracing a potential line between events; betweenpeople; between generations.

By listening to each of the specific narratives that migrants have brought to Dutch society — whether through voluntary relocation or forced exile — we can pave the road for opening up the so-called hidden  stories, the silenced voices. We hope that commonalities, shared hardships and successes will emerge from these stories, regardless of ethnic lines. Not all the narratives have to do with hardships of war or death, but they all involve silences that punctuate the experiences of those who left the former Yugoslavia, in some way carrying with them those they left behind and making way for those who would follow them. 

Un-becoming a Yugoslav

Most stories of exile from the former Yugoslavia begin with the day when the population was compelled to identify with one of the ethnicities. Until that point — and longer for those who lived in homogeneous enclaves— identity ran at the local level, in the smallest sphere of belonging. One would identify with the community of Šibenik — like Blansa did — before identifying with Dalmatia, and Croatia was a much more abstract category. But when a choice of nationality had to be made, for some the label came naturally, while for others it represented a tear in the fabric of a family identity cemented through intermarriage. 

Senad A. first heard the term "Bosniak" at age 10, and he felt it became him. For him, the Yugoslav identity under Tito was an artificial construct with a built-in expiration date. Although like others he identified publicly as a Yugoslav, privately, he always felt himself a Bosnian Muslim. In contrast, Zdenko S. would describe his Croatian identity as an accident of birth: the nationality of his father cast the lot of the family, but it did not carry defining elements in itself. Inter-ethnic differences did not amount to a real division. Zdenko had friends across ethnic lines in vibrant Sarajevo; being a Croat was but a matter of speech patterns, some linguistic differences that set him apart from compatriots of other backgrounds. For him, the war was not a sum of combat engagements but a state of mind in which divisions were created. Sinisa, a Croat who had always felt Croat, claims that the truth was somewhere in between: if you were Macedonian or Slovenian, you probably felt Yugoslav, but Croatian and Serbian identities always had political undertones.

Bjelka, from the harbor city of Rijeka in Croatia, found the omens of war in a census question. The daughter of a Serbo-Croat woman and a man from Dalmatia, where heavy fighting occurred during the Croatian war of independence, she was faced with an impossible question when asked to identify with  a given nationality. Until that point, group identity had not been discussed in her family; it had not been a matter worth pondering. But when the census official posed the question, Bjelka's father responded by proclaiming himself still a Yugoslav. Her mother, in contrast, called herself a Serbian for the first time. The surprise of that announcement was compounded when the brother identified himself as a Croat. What could Bjelka herself answer, but "I don't know"? Caught between the lines, she was likely to face the kinds of impossible choices that her family members would have to confront later on, as her brother mobilized with the Croatian army and her mother actively hampioned Croatian nationality status for the Serbian minority, at the cost of death threats. But Bjelka instead faced a different type of challenging decision: summoning the resolve to leave, un-become Yugoslavian, and reject other labels in order to adopt the most versatile and intractable of titles ― exile.  

For some, like Igor Ivakic, that moment of decision followed the familiar war story pattern of gathering essential belongings only 15 minutes prior to the flights. For many others, however, the decision was a deliberate choice that preceded the onset of hostilities, and reflected the agonizing realization that nationalism would trump understanding. Even for those who found acceptance across ethnic lines, like Zorko or his fellow musicians for whom travel and international fans were the norm, there came a time when the Balkans could not sustain the dream of a pan-Yugoslav identity. That was the time to leave.

Becoming a member of the diaspora

In the words of Igor Ivakic, for the newly arrived the Netherlands resembled a Legoland. The first impressions recur: orderly land, crowded place, full of opportunities. Croat Blansa describes the country as women-friendly, while J. evokes the surprise of seeing the realization of equality in the capitalist world so demonized by his education under Tito. The memory of seeing his first gay pride parade in Amsterdam still brings a smile to his lips.

However, this potential equality would elude some of the Yugoslav emigrees for quite some time. In fact, their memories of the war often go hand-in-hand with their recollection of the hardships confronted upon arrival. All interviewees chose the Netherlands for their sojourn because of pre-existing contacts: fathers that had come as guest workers, friends who had fled earlier, artistic organizations that provided a route of escape. But the mere existence of that social network did not always guarantee an easy transition. 

For those who arrived before the official onset of the conflict, the Netherlands did not provide official channels for assistance. J. was fortunate enough to arrive in 1991, in Rotterdam with members of his music band, with whom he was able to secure gigs that would pay for food. They kept a roof over their heads by squatting, a less-than-ideal situation, but still better than the prospect of the draft from which he had fled. However, as the war began in force, other friends and acquaintances decided to join their living quarters. In the absence of profitable artistic skills, they relied on charity, and sometimes theft, to get by. Such an unsustainable situation forced many to return to the Balkans to face uncertain prospects of war, rather than certain consequences of destitution. J.'s best friend committed suicide after a hard winter in the Netherlands.

By the time Serbo-Croat musician Zorko arrived in 1992, the Yugoslav community of exiles had become better organized. He lived in a 20-room former shelter for domestic violence victims with other artists from the Balkans, and like J. resorted to music gigs to support himself. Later on, he would take intercommunal support to the next level by founding Peace For Peace, an Amsterdam organization that sought to raise money for Yugoslav emigrees, regardless of nationality, who had arrived in the Netherlands without a place to stay. 

That spirit of solidarity across ethnic lines was not found everywhere, however. Bjelka first came to Rotterdam to attend dance school, but quickly felt alienated from the rest of the community, where  divisions and distrust had been imported by the guest workers and some of the refugees. In contrast, upon moving to Amsterdams he was able to quickly establish a connection with fellow Yugoslavs, and became active in community organizing. 

After their initial stay, Yugoslav refugees faced different constraints when it came to becoming productive members of Dutch society. For Blansa, the process entailed beginning school once again because her psychology diploma from Croatia was not recognized. As a Bosniak, Senad attempted to follow the same path but encountered additional hurdles. After two years in refugee centers, Senad joined a group of refugees who sought to continue their studies in the Netherlands. Even though he was able to attend Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, he felt that Dutch students largely ignored the refugees on campus, as if they were a special group of second-class citizens. Sinisa speaks of the stigma which conflates "Yugoslav" and "nationalist" in the eyes of the Dutch, even for apolitical members of the diaspora. That stigma may have contributed to to Senad's continued experience of exclusion from the labor market, where he frequently felt that potential employers would not hear him out or pay enough attention to his qualifications. The equality that J. described was not necessarily for everybody.

However, such stories of setbacks and eventual successes were not processed in the same manner by all members of the community. J. himself had perhaps the hardest time of all. After acquiring refugee status 6 to 9 months after his arrival in 1991, he filed for asylum. However, years went by before he was allowed to stay on humanitarian grounds, because the case was harder to make for Yugoslav immigrants fleeing internal conflict than for other refugees escaping persecution by the state. His fight for legal status included a close brush with deportation that was averted by his lawyer just in time. Undefeated, once he secured his documents J. went on to found his own company. When asked about his impressions of the Netherlands, despite the bureaucratic hoops he had to go through he still insists on the procedural fairness and equality he sees around him. Perhaps that perception is colored by the fact that, in the end, he made a very good life for himself. Those who still struggle may see things differently.

Becoming strangers in familiar and strange lands

So, what are these immigrants' lives like years after their arrival? For the likes of Igor Ivakic, life may not be significantly different from the life of a Dutchman of similar station. Despite trips to the region, the more he advanced in his career he became, the more disconnected from the Croat community he felt. Bosnian Ziko likewise has few contacts with the community, but his parents — especially his mother — maintain an active network. The majority of Yugoslav emigrees find themselves somewhere between these two position: sustaining ties with their community in exile, somewhat estranged from those they left behind in the region, still outsiders in the eyes of the Dutch, but nevertheless able to function in society. 

Learning to speak Dutch was one of the most significant obstacles faced by the diaspora in the Netherlands. Senad admits that the language barrier may have contributed to his experiences of exclusion, while J. notes that it took him 16 years to be able to speak Dutch. In his case, the delay was partially due to his superb English skills. The Dutch love speaking English, he says, so he missed out on the chance of complete immersion. Today he has many Croat friends, and participates in the Croat weekend school project where we found many of our interviewees, but he insists that those connections are not about nationalistic or group allegiance, but about interpersonal relationships facilitated by a shared language.

The children invariably grow up bilingual. Blansa highlights the local opportunities to learn other languages — like French and German— that will enable her kids to become global citizens. The weekend school, on the other hand, offers an opportunity to teach new generations about regional history and culture, to preserve the language, and create a sense of community that many find lacking in Western Europe. It does not offer a forum to connect to war experiences or discuss political events: everybody has a story of their own, as Bjelka says, and they are far too used to hearing about them. 

New and unsuspected identities arise from their presence in this "strange land." Having always considered herself a white Croat, Bjelka recalls her shock when a Surinamese woman told her not to bother with those "white, Dutch people," assimilating her for the first time into the "black" group in the Netherlands. But perhaps the most disconcerting identity shift is that encountered back in their native lands. When Senad went back to Sarajevo in 1996, he was accused of abandoning the city at the worst possible time. Whether manifested as distance or as an outspoken charge of symbolic treason, that divide between those who stayed and those who left means that few members of the Yugoslav diaspora could call their former abode "home." For Bjelka, that distance is a positive thing; a source of objectivity to judge events in both her native and adopted countries. Yet, over and over again, our interviewees echo a sentiment of "belonging and not belonging at once," which changes everything for them.     

Becoming the subjects of international justice

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was established as a response to the grave breaches to the Geneva conventions and other humanitarian laws that occurred directly after the outbreak of conflict. The International Community, under United Nations Security Council Resolution 827, founded the tribunal with the aim to "bring to justice those responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in the former Yugoslavia since 1991 and thus contribute to the restoration and maintenance of peace in the region" (ICTY 2011). Although the court has been in operation since 1993, it is still a controversial — if rarely discussed — topic for the Yugoslav diaspora in the Netherlands. 

Most people grant that the existence of an instrument for accountability is necessary, and agree that the ICTY has some role in establishing the truth of what happened in their homelands. As Sinisa put it, in war all norms fade, and the tribunal exists to reestablish those rules. Chief among them is the  acknowledgment of responsibilities by all sides; our interviewees grant that Croatians committed crimes too. 

Igor Ivakic also underscores the great symbolic value of the court, but is skeptical about the impact of its proceedings on the ground. The criticisms range from excessive politicization, to the complaint that the trials take too long,  to accusations of favoritism due to the lack of trials over American actions in Kosovo in 1998. The consensus is that beyond the legal victories themselves, the ICTY does little, if anything, to contribute to stabilization in the region.

Bjelka plainly states that the ICTY will not be a factor in reconciliation, and a number of hypothesis are offered to explain that shortcoming. For one, many of our interviewees doubt that the work of the ICTY could bring justice to the victims when smaller-scale crimes committed by individuals remain unpunished. In other words, prosecuting the architects of gross human rights violations is not enough when it is not accompanied by punishment of those who carried out the orders. As a Bosnian, Ziko does not know much about the ICTY's mandate, but he feels strongly that the role of the tribunal should be to ensure that every single crime is investigated and every single perpetrator convicted, in order to reconstruct a complete image of what happened. 

But even those who agree with the focus on high-level prosecutions have reservations about the ICTY's performance. Igor Ivakic laments that the convicted war criminals are still seen as heroes by their respective communities, which undermines the ICTY's work and contributes to volatility in the region. For Senad, the fact that Republika Srpska still exists, despite the indictment of its creators, evidences lack of political will on the part of the international community to accompany the tribunals's findings. In his view, the arrests of Mladić and Karadžić are not enough to overcome the denial that goes on in the region about the persistent divisions and ever-present threat of separation and annexation to Serbia. Senad believes that the ultimate role of the verdicts should be to function as catalysts for change to the constitution and future organization of the country. "If the court convicted the war criminals, then their creations should be abolished as well," says Senad, using the analogy of a scenario in which Nazi criminals were found guilty in Nuremberg, but their territorial gains were left untouched; in that case, the world would not have stood by.

But if there is a perception of a lack of commitment on the part of the international community as a whole, this does not mean that the topic is not brought up by the Dutch in everyday life, nor that the Yugoslav diaspora actively engages in discussion of the ICTY and the future of the region. According to our interlocutors, the work of ICTY is not often discussed, especially because people do not follow the news and are tired of war stories. But being a foreigner in the Netherlands is an exceptional thing, says Bjelka, who points out that even when people do not actually discuss the ICTY at home, they are asked about it by the Dutch people. These conversations often take place after high-profile arrests, demonstrating preconceptions about what really happened. "Did Mladić and those guys commit crimes against Bosnian Muslims only, or against Croats as well?," one of Bjelka's coworkers asked on a recent morning. A Croat, she neutrally replied, explaining that "he committed crimes against humanity."  

Becoming the future

As the prospect of European Union accession enters the political landscape in the Balkans,  this  gives rise to different predictions by our speakers regarding integration. However, they agree that all countries should work on state improvement. Igor Ivakic is extremely pessimistic, in that he sees politicians using European integration as a mere talking point to secure electoral gains. Sinisa adds that people in the region cannot just import the European system into their countries, because of different cultural and legal legacies and traditions that are found there.

There is consensus among our interlocutors that the people from the former Yugoslavia will never be able to live as happily together as they once did. For Bjelka, with the end of the Cold War Yugoslavia was no longer needed as a buffer zone between the two blocs; thus, geopolitics led to international neglect and eventual chaos. But Senad does not regret such an outcome because, in his opinion, Yugoslavia was an artificial system which was bound to break one day. Therefore, even if all countries in the Balkans were to become members of the European Union and find ways to cooperate with one another, there would never be another Tito to unite various people in the region.  European integration may have positive effects for state reform and for those states' economies, but what it will not bring on its own is reconciliation, just as the ICTY cannot bring reconciliation or sufficient justice. 

The members of the Yugoslav community do not generally concern themselves with these large questions, however. They do not ponder the effects of the ongoing trials in The Hague, except when invited to do so by journalists or their colleagues. Many of them do not follow local news from their native region with anything more than resignation and a critical eye. Still, there are those who insist on having a stake in regional developments and cast their vote, and is it not uncommon for these people to vote for radical parties. International relations scholars often highlight that part of the diaspora that have resources, and may come to support the renewal of violence in the land they left behind. But then, there are the silent members of the diaspora; the ones who work on establishing networks of their own only to teach their children a language that should not be lost for future generations abroad, the ones who still cultivate friendships across ethnic lines, even if at an organizational level there is little contact between the different groups in the Netherlands. Those people are haunted by their immigrant blues, and every now and then they are revisited by the sudden desire to go back, only to have this subside when they contemplate the myriad opportunities available in Western Europe.  Instead, by idealizing their homelands   they find a way of overcoming the collective trauma of the war in order to focus on what was good, and pass that on to their children — perhaps in the form of a cheery event at a Croatian weekend school. 

Some have come to stay, and hold onto their traditions because they know there is no going back; others explicitly bring their kids into the community with the half-formed expectation that it may be they who go back to the country of their forefathers. Without knowing it; without having made a deliberate choice to take on an exemplary role, and often more aware of their jaded perceptions of prospects for the future; these people — the immigrants with hidden stories — raise their children to hold onto the positive aspects of their group identity, without the hostilities that have sometimes gone along with these. Those children may, one day, deliberately ponder the questions that their parents continue to elude in their own daily lives. Beyond the efforts of the European Union and the ICTY, perhaps reconciliation is a grassroots process which requires that distance, and must be pioneered by those who simultaneously belong and do not belong. 

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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2011


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