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Finding a Normal Path in Serbia

Even today, the country in Europe with the largest population of internally displaced persons (IDP) is Serbia. More than a decade after the end of the wars in former Yugoslavia, more than 200,000 people remain in limbo in Serbia. Many ethnic Serbs fled -- or were expelled from -- Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo during those conflicts of the 1990s. All of the IDPs are from the Kosovo conflict, a significant number of them Roma. The vast majority will not likely return to where they once lived. Since 1999, according to one estimate, only three percent of the IDPs from Kosovo have achieved what's been called "sustainable return."

For her book With Their Backs to the World, Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad visited the refugee camps that house the IDPs and reported on the squalid conditions where so many of them live: the substandard housing, the health problems, the lack of employment opportunities. And rather than being treated with compassion, most of the IDP community continues to be viewed as second-class citizens.

"'They're more like Albanians than Serbs,' is a commonly held sentiment," Seierstad relates. "'They speak Serbian worse than Albanians do,' people say of the Kosovo-Serbian dialect, 'They act like Albanians, speak too loud, park wherever they feel like it. They sell their humanitarian aid at the market, they've got money that they hide so they can beg for more, they have as many kids as the Albanians, their kids are noisy and vandalise the schools.'"

A major challenge for Serbia is "refugee fatigue." The society already worked to integrate the earlier wave of refugees from Croatia and Bosnia, and that was not an easy process. And the Serbian government still harbors the hope of sending many of today's IDPs back to Kosovo, even if most of them don't want to return.

Daria Gajic's family was relatively lucky. They arrived from Croatia before the huge influx of refugees later in the decade, and they had family connections in Serbia. But it was still a culture shock for her. "It was difficult because I didn't know Cyrillic," she told me in an interview at her workplace, a radio station for the Orthodox Church in the Serbian city of Nis. "It was also difficult psychologically, I guess. We didn't have any place to live. We lived with relatives who really didn't want us there. I think I also had problems in school. I was shut down."

The ethnic Serbs coming from Croatia encountered fear and hostility. "When a number of people came to Serbia in 1990 when the crisis started, people here were thinking, 'They will take our jobs and we will have even less than what we have,'" she told me. "I remember in 1995 during Operation Storm, my relatives came from Krajina to Serbia. A friend of mine said, 'Can you imagine, in those trailers, I saw that they have some things from their households. When did they have the time to pack those things? And why did they pack an umbrella?' Those people, two days before, lost everything they owned in their lives. They had only two hours to pack everything in their lives into a car or a trailer or to hide it on the train."

Daria Gajic does not dwell on her time as a new arrival in Serbia, and our conversation did not focus exclusively on this issue. Having worked at a radio station in the Serbian enclaves in Kosovo and now working with the radio station of the Orthodox Church, she has a unique perspective on the role of religion in Serbian society and the importance of Kosovo for Serbian identity. We also talked about the Serbian nationalist organization Dveri Srpske, the image of Europe and the Gay Pride march.

The Interview

What is your sense of nationalism here in Serbia today?

In Serbia, everyone goes to extremes. It's very hard for us, in reacting to what happens, to find a normal path. You have extreme nationalists and then you have the other side who thinks that "nation" is totally unimportant. Neither of these positions is particularly healthy. There are not many people in Serbia who have a normal sense or understanding of what nationalism really is. For me personally, I love the fact that I am a Serb. I'm proud. At the same time, my religion for me is more important than my nationality. The first thing in my life is that I'm an Orthodox Christian, and then I'm a Serb.

Do you think the majority of Serbs would reverse that?

Yes. I think even people who come to church, very often it is more important to them that they are Serbs. And especially the 97 percent that declare themselves Orthodox, it's not a sign of religion but an equation of "I'm Serbian and I'm Orthodox." People here don't understand that you don't have to be Serbian to be Orthodox.

Do you think that there has been an increase in extreme nationalism in Serbia?

No, it's been the same since the war. I think that there are more people since the war ended who are on the other side. They are fed up with everything: with war and questions that are important for the Serbian nation. They don't want to deal with any of it any more.

For instance, they're just focusing on joining the European Union.

Yes.

And what's your attitude about joining the EU?

I wouldn't have anything against that. But from what I know, the EU also has problems, especially economic problems. I'm not really totally excited about becoming a part of the EU. There will be many benefits, but I think there will be some downsides. I would like if we could preserve the lifestyle we have here and at the same time to have the living standard of the people in Europe.

When you say preserve the lifestyle you have, do you have a feeling that other members of the EU have not been able to preserve their lifestyle when they became members, like Bulgaria or Romania?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.

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