With Their Backs to the World: Portraits from Serbia, by Asne Seierstad

Book 3

One of two books by Seierstad, a Norwegian journalist, that has been sitting on my shelf for awhile.  I picked it up after a note from Women for Women that the lady I am sponsoring in Kosovo is graduating the program soon.  She is Albanian and this book is about Serbians, but it is all the same war.

Serbia is generally thought of as the Bad Guy in the Balkan Wars, so it was interesting to read these stories profiling Serbians.  They don’t all have the same politics; in fact some are supporters of Milosevic going way back.  Most blame him for the state of the country, but wanted him to have been tried in Serbia as opposed to the Hague.

Ancient history, I know.  The book was published several years ago and had more than one edition.  That was part of my problem with it, actually.  The author first published before the fall of Milosevic and went back around 2003 or 2004 to follow up with the people she had profiled earlier.  She elected to simply add on narrative to each profile and it was hard to tell exactly where in history we were when, with the next chapter and next profile, we were back in 1999.

One very striking thing was that almost none of the people she profiled are any better off at the end of the story than at the beginning, when the regime was still in place.  Another was that there are many, many Serbian refugees that were expelled from Kosovo and Croatia who are positively abused by the natives when they try to re-build their lives in Serbia.  Of course, many of them still want to return to their homes someday.

A third thing was the continual professed hatred for the West – Americans in particular.  I would like to say one more time that it seems we can’t win.  The United States is vilified for taking action and vilified for minding its own business.  “Imperialist” or “Isolationist”.

Mostly, though, I feel sad for this country.  The last profile was of a Serbian rock star who said that before 1990, if you had asked him his “nationality”, he would have had no idea what you were talking about.  Now he knows. His mother is Serbian and his father is half Croatian and half Montenegrin.

I haven’t followed the current events, so I don’t know if Serbia has turned any corners.  I kind of doubt it with the rest of Europe’s economy tanking.  Can you have a functioning democracy without a functioning economy?  And is that question getting a bit too close to home?

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