By Zala Bhan (IV)

I took part in Pingry’s “What is a Nation?” virtual Global program in December 2020, which specifically explored the history of Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia, which emerged in the aftermath of the Yugoslav Wars. Yugoslavia existed in the Balkans region in Southeast Europe. The Balkans is home to a diverse and complex religious history, as many religious followings took shape there; these religions include Christianity brought by the Romans, Orthodox Christianity following the East-West Schism, and Islam spread by the Ottoman Empire. In the Balkans, such religious diversity resulted in conflict in the late twentieth century. On top of this existing entanglement, the peninsula was also a playground for foreign forces, from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Third Reich to the USSR and NATO. As a result of these influences, harmony in the region has been difficult to solidify. I have always found the convoluted manner in which history unfolds intriguing. While I gained much insight into the region during this program, there continue to be many knots to untie in hopes of approaching the truth.

The Yugoslav Wars, which took places in the 1990s, were caused by ethnic nationalist sentiments. Pingry’s Global Program, What is a Nation?, covered the basic history of these events and gave a compelling overview of its complexities. During the program, we had an opportunity to hear from speakers from the Balkans; their first-hand insights led me to realize the destruction of the war left deep wounds in the people’s hearts and planted the seeds of strife. No one in the region seems to “recognize [the others’] victims,” said Alec, our Serbian guest speaker. However, there was a brief period of unity in the region under Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia, a country formed following WWII, which included modern-day Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. Tito’s emphasis on brotherhood during his time in power resonated with many people in the region. He kept, as Alec described it, his “beautiful, […] honorable dream” of making Yugoslavia strong by denouncing nationalism (calling it a bourgeois concept). As a result, he founded the Non-Allied Movement during the Cold War and adopted market socialism, which united a diverse region. However, suppressing nationalist sentiment only led to its eruption when Tito died; in 1991, 11 years after his death, the Yugoslav Wars began. Throughout the wars, over 140,000 people died, as Yugoslavia crumbled.

To me, it’s unsettling to accept that this conflict occured recently. After hearing witnesses’ first-hand accounts, reading articles, and analyzing the political climate during Pingry’s virtual program, I became aware of the long-lasting impacts of the conflict. For centuries, nationalism and religion have turned Balkan politicians to hatred, a pattern that many historians have tried and failed to figure out. When the “political elites […] revert to nationalist rhetoric to maintain support” in the region, I cannot see a solution ever being found. Therefore, I put my hope in the future generation of politicians; the youth can look past the gruesome divides to build a future based on peace and progress. The youth has the burden of inheriting authority control over the Balkans and bringing the region to either success or ruin. We are at a crossroads, as the roads diverge. Thus, I ask: will the region continue to dwell blindly on the past and strengthen the tradition of hatred and division, or will it rise above conflict? After hearing the refreshing ideas from our guest speakers, I see hope not just for this conflict, but others too. In the recent past, we have seen nationalism rise globally; although each global conflict has its own set of circumstances, people, and demographics, the underlying theme remains the same: competing narratives of history and schism rooted in ethnicity, religion, or region.

 Our guests from the Balkans agreed that there must be a mutual acceptance of shared narratives for reconciliation. As a result, the shared economic interests will bring everyone together.

When two roads diverge, humanity cannot travel both, and now it is up to the youth to decide which one it will be.