War Babies: The Balkans’ New Lost Generation
The war in the Balkans may have ended years ago.
The repercussions of the conflict are still fresh and open wounds- not the least of which is the yearning and mourning for the days when different ethnic and religious communities lived together in peace.
Those were the days, as the song goes.
On a sweltering summer afternoon in one of Sarajevo’s many café-lined streets, Marko Radovanovic waves aside what he says are the usual complaints in the Balkans—no jobs, corrupt politics—and gets serious. Moving his beer to one side, the sharp-eyed twenty-four-year-old Bosnian Serb leans in confidentially and explains that the region’s biggest problem is actually his own generation. “We are,” he says grimly, “a ticking bomb.”
In other parts of the world, such a comment might make one look nervously for the outlines of a suicide vest. Here it is just another reminder that the former Yugoslavia’s five million so-called “war babies” are also coming of age. The long-awaited arrest in May of Bosnian Serb war commander Ratko Mladic, who is charged with crimes against humanity during the region’s bitter 1992-1995 war, created the illusion that this region was finally emerging from postwar bitterness. Yet while the youth of the Arab world spring forward, the youth of the Balkans stand suspected of falling back. Nationalism has stirred once again among their ranks, whose war-torn childhood years were saturated by the propaganda efforts of a militantly ethnocentric government agenda. Such forces continue to shape the rising generation throughout former Yugoslavia, a region once revered for its ethnic and religious diversity, to a degree unthinkable even a generation ago.
“Our parents, the people who fought the last war,” Radovanovic explains, “had lived together for forty-some years. Even though they fought the war, they still have memories of ‘the good old times.’ They lived together, they went to school together.” The look on his face as he finishes this sentence carries the punch line: but this is no longer the case.
Radovanovic has no memory of communism or its ideologically driven equalizing policies that put Bosnians, Croats, and Serbs to work side by side building schools and railways as comrades in the 1960s. He witnessed race-upon-race violence as a child, not community-building. Only fifteen years have passed since nearly one hundred thousand people died in an ethnically charged war that unleashed the worst brutality seen in Europe since World War II. But memory is persistent—and a social problem.
Today nationalism is not only socially acceptable in the region, it’s the default position, especially among youth. The Economist, tallying up mass demonstrations in Belgrade, Tirana, Skopje, and Zagreb over the last two months, recently counseled closer attention to serious “political instability” gripping the region. Many of the young people around Radovanovic’s age have developed nationalistic sympathies—some of them without even recognizing it, so subliminal has the messaging become. Should these young people gain a political foothold in the region, a return to conflict is not inconceivable given that, as Radovanovic explains, many were brought up “completely separated” from other ethnicities and religions. The rise of such an ethnically balkanized generation in the Balkans raises serious concerns. Will the region’s future leaders support the bloc’s EU ambitions? Or will the nationalistic propaganda they have been force-fed promote different and more dangerous priorities?