Yugoslavia's delicate ethnic balance is notoriously difficult to grasp. The major “ethnicities” of Yugoslavia were all South Slavs — they're descended from the same ancestors and speak closely related languages, but they practice different religions. Catholic South Slavs are called Croats; Orthodox South Slavs are called Serbs; and Muslim South Slavs (whose ancestors converted to Islam under Ottoman rule) are called Bosniaks. For the most part, there's no way that a casual visitor can determine the religion or loyalties of the people just by looking at them.
While relatively few people are actively religious here (thanks to the stifling atheism of the communist years), they fiercely identify with their ethnicity. And, because ethnicity and faith are synonymous, it's easy to mistake the recent conflicts for "religious wars." But in reality, they were about the politics of ethnicity (just as the "Troubles" in Ireland are more about British versus Irish rule, than simply a holy war between Catholics and Protestants).
"Yugoslavia" was an artificial union of the various South Slav ethnicities that lasted from the end of World War I until 1991. Following the death of its strong-arm leader Tito, a storm of ethnic divisions, a heritage of fear and mistrust, and a spate of land-hungry politicians plunged Yugoslavia into war. Many consider the conflict a "civil war," and others see as it as a series of "wars of independence." However you define the wars, they — and the ethnic cleansing, systematic rape, and other atrocities that accompanied them — were simply horrific. It's almost miraculous that after a few bloody years (1991-1995), the many factions laid down their arms and agreed to peace accords. An uneasy peace — firmer and more inspiring with each passing year — has settled over the region.
But there's no substitute for traveling here in person. Walking with the victims of a war through the ruins of their cities gives you “war coverage” you'd never get in front of a TV. Seeing how former enemies find ways to overcome their animosity and heal; enjoying the new energy that teenagers — whose parents did the fighting — bring to the streets; and observing combatants who followed no rules now raising children in the ruins resulting from their mistakes...leaves a strong impression on any visitor.
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You are reading "The Balkans", an entry posted on 22 June 2009 by Rick Steves.