#4 Belgrade

I’m glad I’ve made it from Ljubljana to Belgrade in just one day so I decide to stop for a week to explore the capital of Serbia. I’m staying at the first hostel of my trip and it is nice to enjoy its young, international and festive atmosphere.

Beograd is fascinating with regards to language, religion and history. Serbia is the first country of my trip that uses the cyrillic alphabet, a similar but not identical version of the Russian one, alongside the latin alphabet. Bilingual signs are the rule although Cyrillic is still predominant. This scriptural difference gives Serbia an exotic dimension. While it is sometimes possible to infer the meaning from foreign languages using the latin alphabet, it is impossible here.

The change of scenery applies to the religious sphere as well. No more Catholic churches to be found here, roughly 90% of Serbs are Orthodox. Belgrade is home to the Saint Sava Cathedral, the largest Orthodox church in the Balkans. It is interesting to watch how believers worship. Similarities with the Catholic church can be observed as the two variations of Christianism have taken separate paths only from 1054. Just like the Catholic  church, the Orthodox church has an important tradition of music. Yet, unlike the Catholics who use instruments such as the organ, they rely entirely on choral music and chanting. From the moment they enter the cathedral with repeated signs of the cross to the point when they kiss the icons – representations of holy characters and scenes from the Bible – Orthodox believers seem to have a more gestural and tactile relationship with religion.

Jingoism and heightened sense of ethnic and religious superiority

What strikes me most during my stay in Belgrade is the way a broad segment of Serbian society is dealing with its recent history. The breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s was marked by a series of deadly conflicts whose memories are still very vivid in people’s minds. I would like to underline that my experience is limited and thus should not be taken for any kind of universal truth. Nonetheless, having travelled through five of the six former Yugoslavian republics, Serbia stands out for its jingoism and heightened sense of ethnic and religious superiority. One of the biggest “attractions” of the city is a military museum where dozens of tanks and other war machines, some of which date from the Yugoslavian wars, are proudly exhibited. Large posters condemning “Muslim war criminals”, “Albanian terrorists” along with NATO, the EU and the USA have been hung in front of the Parliament and the courthouse, and therefore seem to embody the offical political discourse.

Some very graphic photographs of mutilated and dead people are also to be seen, giving this whole “exhibition” a veneer of cheap propaganda. If the essence of war induces that atrocities were commited by all parts, some of the claims found on the posters are distasteful and have dubious veracity. One of the slogans states for instance that Serbs were the victims of the Srebrenica genocide. This flies in the face of the historical consensus whereby over 8000 Muslim Bosniak civilians were slaughtered by Serbian soldiers. The thorny issue about Kosovo also lies at the heart of those tensions. Serbia must indeed recognize the independence of its former province which is now mainly inhabited by Albanians if they want to join the EU.

It is crucial to remember one’s past, yet it is at least as important to look to the future, as new conflicts might otherwise arise in the region.

My camera was stolen in Slovenia so the pictures used in this post are taken with my phone which has a pretty poor quality camera.

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