Engaging Minds, Transforming Lives

King Creativity at Southwestern

‘MIR’ Peace & Reconciliation Among the Yugoslavian Community in New York City

  • Photo by Donald Tetto

by: Natalija Milutinovic
Advisor: Eric Selbin

The breakup of the former-Yugoslavia was the most violent war seen on the European continent since World War II. What had once been a single country shattered into six, as well as several renegade breakaway provinces, the lines of which shifted back and forth. Allegiances and hatreds were drawn along ethnic lines as the various groups that had lived together for so long suddenly sought to claim territory solely of their own. Towns, neighborhoods, and even families were torn apart as a vile new word entered the lexicon: ethnic cleansing. Many people died, many were left homeless, and many more sought refugee status in other countries.

Those who escaped are thought of as the lucky ones. However, the challenges and pressures of surviving and adapting in a new country with the knowledge that their old country is destroyed makes life incredibly challenging. Refugees will in some sense be forever haunted by the past, and the result of a war in which atrocities were committed by all sides means that many former-Yugoslavian people now living in the US still carry deep and extremely personal hatreds in them against members of different ethnic groups.

I am from Belgrade, in what is now Serbia. I escaped to the United States in 1999 during the NATO bombing of my hometown. It has been difficult, but I have adapted well here in the US. However, I have felt that the demands of surviving in the present have in some ways cut me off from my past. The former-Yugoslavian community in the Central Texas area is very small and mostly Serbian. The place to go in the US to meet people from my home country is New York City, where over 200,000 people of Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, Slovenian, Macedonian, Montenegran, and Kosovar Albanian descent live amongst each other. For my King Creativity project I traveled to NYC with my friend and project assistant Stephen Smajstrla to investigate the former-Yugoslavian community there and record video footage to put our findings into documentary form.

We realized very early on that a fundamental problem with our project as proposed was the assumption that an actual “Yugoslavian” community exists. Yes, there are people of all the representative ethnic groups living in proximity to each other, and in some ways they interact, but there is no definable community. And yet, there are many things shared among the various peoples of the former-Yugoslavia in NYC that tie them together in some sense: language, foods, a shared past and shared challenges in the present and future.

We went in with the goal of learning about the reconciliation efforts of a group called RACCOON (Reconciliation and Culture Cooperative Network). Based in Queens, NY, the group is open to all peoples of former-Yugoslavian territories or ancestry that live in the area, and has the mission of healing old wounds and bringing people together. However, when we arrived we found that not much reconciliation was taking place, and that we needed to get out in the neighborhoods heavily populated by former-Yugoslavian people. For us this meant walking up and down the streets of Astoria, a neighborhood in Queens with large Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian populations. We talked to a lot of people and even made some friends, but found that most people were reluctant to share any of their views on film.

We went into New York with the mission of making a film about reconciliation of the former-Yugoslavian community there. We came away with the realization that the footage we did manage to capture, if put together in just the right way, would necessarily have to result in a film at once more complex and nuanced than the original idea, and hopefully a little closer to the reality that exists: people will live around each other if they must, coexisting. No one who lived through the wars will ever be able to forget, and many will never be able to forgive. Searching for reconciliation among the former-Yugoslavian “community” is in some sense a moot point because no real community exists nor has much likelihood of existing in the future because Yugoslavia itself is no more and will never return. However, there are undeniable elements of a shared past and of related cultures that will link in some, not always easily-defined ways, the peoples of the former-Yugoslavia together. This was the discovery I made in New York City. I want to thank Dr. Joseph King and Southwestern University for making such a meaningful learning experience for myself possible.