It is now the 10th January and I am taking my leave of Serbia, having spent my time in the personable company of Aleksander Zograf (a pseudonym of Sasa Rakezic); a comic strip writer from the industrial town of Pančevo, about 12km from Belgrade.
It was interesting to read this book immediately following the 'Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo', just to get a different perspective on the tragic events that were happening in this area at the end of the millenium.
As with Paula Huntley's book, this book takes the form of a journal - spanning the years from 1993, during the inital Balkans conflicts, through to the UN bombing of Serbia at the end of the decade and ending with the death of Slobodan Milošević in 2006. The key difference here is that - Aleksander being a cartoonist - much of this account is made up of comic strip / graphic novel format (with a strong visual influence from US cartoonist Robert Crumb), with the middle section being a compilation of sporadic emails that he sent to his international friends during the 'crisis in Serbia'.
The visual aspect is an interesting one, as is the perspective of this individual who is well placed to represent the 'ordinary man in the street' in Serbia during this conflict. After the demonisation of Serbs in the previous book - this brings a needed balance (Paula Huntley herself admits to having no contact herself whilst in Kosovo, with the Serbs who remained there under KFOR protection).
Indeed Zograf himself - certainly no supporter of the regime that he finds himself under - takes a laudably balanced approach to the conflict: equally concerned for the innocent victims of the UN bombings in Belgrade as for the Kosovan Albanians suffering at the hands of Serbian paramilitaries. He even finds time to sympathise with the UN pilots who are bombing his home-town ("It must be a really hard job...I guess every land, viewed from the air, looks beautiful, and the pilots have to drop bombs, right on the towns and people below, and risk their lives for some reason that is more or less abtract to them...In a way, they are the victims of this war, just like those tiny little people down on earth.")
What really comes across here is the sheer frustration of an ordinary individual who just wants to go about a normal life, and who cannot understand the madness unfolding around him; in the form of Serbian propaganda and aggression in Kosovo, seemingly random UN bombings of his home town and Belgrade, and the slow disintegration of the social structure within which he has lived.
That said, Zograf - whilst no doubt psychologically traumatised by the circumstances he finds himself in - is somewhat removed from the full horrors endured on both sides of the conflict. The bombs that drop on his hometown shake his building and invade his dreams but he is never directly impacted upon by an explosion at close range (his one injury incurred during the narrative is a broken arm - a result of falling off his bike), and he is able to travel abroad to the US and Italy at times during this time period.
That is not to trivialise what must have been a terrible experience, and certainly one which I could never comprehend, it is just to say that the true value of this work is to show that - for many people during times of conflict - life simply has to go as normally as possible. Also, this approach (and I am getting ahead of myself a little here) made the graphic, immediate, descriptions of the horrors of the Balkans conflict featured in the next leg of my journey ('Sarajevo Marlboro') all the more shocking and visceral.
To sum up then, this book is highly recommended in that it gives a view of an ordinary Serbian - rather than the Serbian extremists - and reminds us that all sides suffered terrible innocent casualties during this conflict. I would also recommend that you least read an overview of the context of this conflict before reading this, and the previous book, as it really will add value to these legs of the world trip. Indeed the next few ports of call on my journey are all former Yugoslavian states which were badly affected by the conflicts of the 1990s.
And so, I move on from Serbia to Sarajevo, the capital of neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is back onto the 'Beograd Centar' commuter rail line into Belgrade and from there I make my way across the city to the Lasta Bus Station (I walk as I have some time to spare - the one bus from there to Sarajevo does not leave until 4.00pm).
I embark on my journey in a pleasantly clean and comfortable Lasta bus which stops frequently over the next hour until our last port of call in Serbia, a picturesque-looking village named Jarak. From there it is direct for several hours (I resist the urge to snooze in order to enjoy the amazing scenery), until I am deposited in Sarajevo's main bus station at 10.45pm.
Thus begins my next leg of the round the world journey... 'Sarajevo Marlboro' - a collection of short stories by Miljenko Jergović, written in 1994 (in the midst of the 1992-1995 'Bosnian War') - and thus giving a perspective of life in the epicentre of this violent period.