It’s late morning, and Geoff and I have just gotten on the elevator in the building of our AirBnB. We’re heading out for the day to explore Belgrade, Serbia’s capital. Right before the elevator doors close, a young woman with a toddler gets on. The doors close, and we begin our descent seven floors to street level.
The toddler is blonde and wide-eyed. He stares happily at us, and I say hello in the way you do with toddlers and babies: it’s exaggerated and high-pitched. The woman coos at her son, and encourages him in English to say hello. Of course, he does not. He doesn’t even speak Serbian yet, let alone English. She asks us where we’re from, and I reply Canada just as the elevator touches the ground floor. The doors open. She says goodbye as we walk to the bus. It’s an innocuous exchange, one I normally wouldn’t think twice about. And yet…
Geoff and I spend the 15-minute bus ride to Belgrade’s old town in silence. We get off the bus, and as we’re waiting to cross the street for our short walk into the old town, Geoff looks and me and says: that’s the first time I’ve ever felt uncomfortable telling someone we’re Canadian.
His discomfort reflects mine, and it’s as if he has read my mind; in fact, I’d spent the bus ride thinking the same thing.
(Photo used with permission. Credit to Marc Smith of 30 Day Adventures)
To understand our hesitation, you have to understand something about Serbia and the region formerly known as Yugoslavia. People of a certain age will no doubt remember the wars that raged throughout this region in the 1990s, leaving a trail of destruction, death, and socio-economic devastation that is felt — in Serbia, at least — to this day.
Ethnic cleansing. Slobodan Milošević. War crimes. Tribunal. I remember the names, footage and photographs of refugees and mass graves, and my mother’s horror, which I think, matched much of the world’s as global cities like Sarajevo, which hosted the 1984 winter Olympics only six years before the start of the Siege of Sarajevo, descended into an unimaginable hell not seen in Europe since you know who.
In 1991, when the collection of individual conflicts that are together known as the Balkan Wars began, I was 10 years old. In 1999, when the war in Kosovo formally ended, I was 18. I grew up watching wars that took place over 9,000 km from the safety of my home on the evening news, and if I’m feeling reflective (I am), they played a role in my moral compass and my understanding of what it means to be Canadian. Despite not fully understanding what was going on, or having the maturity or critical thought to consider the complexities of the situation, Canada’s role in these conflicts engrained in me the idea that Canada is a peacekeeper.
Except, Canada wasn’t a peacekeeper in the Balkans. Not exclusively, at least.
Fifteen years before our visit, Canada — acting as part of a NATO mission — bombed Serbia. From March to June 1999, NATO launched ~2,300 missiles and dropped ~14,000 bombs in Serbia, resulting in the death of over 2,000 civilians and destruction of countless schools, hospitals, libraries and homes, among other things. Canada’s role was small in the scheme of things: we sent 18 CF-18s out of 800+ total aircraft used in the bombardment and dropped bombs in ~225 missions.
At a press conference in June 1999, Ray Henault, the Lieutenant-General and Deputy Chief of Defense Staff, said that Canada’s contribution would “always be a source of great pride for the Canadian people….”
Fifteen years later, speaking from an elevator in Belgrade and brought on by a chance encounter with a young mother and her wide-eyed toddler, I want to tell Mr. Henault, No: it is not a source of great pride for me.
I’m not trying to open old wounds among Canadians who served in the Balkans, among people who found themselves on different sides of the wars, among Serbia-Canadians, Kosovar-Canadians, Albanian-Canadians, or anyone else. I’m not even saying Canada shouldn’t have gotten involved; there was a genocide. The mass graves were real. Serbs were certainly aggressors in many aspects of the conflicts. In the war crimes tribunals that have since been held, certain Serb leaders (and non-Serbians as well) have been held accountable. It’s done. It happened. War is ugly, and this one was particularly so.
Putting that aside, I want to talk about how this experience changed me and my idea of what it is to be Canadian. And my new understanding is more nuanced than it used to be.
In Canada, I think it’s fair to say we are prone to reveling in our superiority over our southern, and more military-oriented, neighbours. But the ugly truth is this: while we love to revel in our roles as peacekeepers around the world, and many Canadians lament the decline in peacekeeping activities, we do it somewhat blindly. We don’t like to think about the ugly truth that not all sides consider Canadian troops to be peacekeepers; that we are sometimes seen as aggressors; that some countries may not like us. This realization — I must admit — stings and makes for uncomfortable (albeit self-imposed discomfort) in elevators decades later.
A few days later, Geoff and I are waiting for a train from Belgrade, the Serbian capital, to Novi Sad, a lovely city in the north. The train station in Belgrade is confusing: we have no idea at which of the 10 platforms our train will arrive. Two young Serbian men take pity on us and take us under their wing, and we spend the entire three hours talking with them. When we arrive, we continue the party, and one of the men — a high school senior far wiser than his age would suggest — adopts us and becomes our tour guide for the day and into the evening, before he finally has to catch the last bus home. We have a fun day with him, and over beers at dinner, we work up the courage to speak the word we hadn’t dared mention to any other Serbians: Kosovo. We tell him about our hesitation in the elevator a few days earlier, and he laughs at our caution. Most Serbians, he said, don’t spend much time thinking about Canada. For the most part, NATO is equated with America.
Our concern was, in many ways, typically Canadian: dwarfed by our bigger and bolder neighbours to the south, we’re insecure and desperate to be liked.
People say that traveling is not about the seeing of sites. The Louvre; Machu Picchu: these are sites we’ve missed. Geoff and I often leave countries feeling like we haven’t really seen the things we were supposed to, and we’re okay with that. Because it’s true that travel really isn’t about the seeing of sights. Sightseeing is something to pass the time while you’re doing what travel is meant to do: teach you, question you, force you to grow.
While the Balkan countries, besides a few destinations in Croatia, aren’t yet tourist hotspots, it is quite possibly my favorite region to which I’ve traveled. Scarred by a brutal war in the recent past, and still divided in some places along ethnic and religious lines, we’ve been fortunate to meet locals in each country we’ve visited who’ve opened up to us about the war, politics, and the specter of nationalism that, frankly, still threatens to ignite the region.
What have you learned about yourself and your culture by traveling abroad? Have you ever been uncomfortable to tell someone where you’re from?