For a long time now I have been living with feelings of alienation from the culture of my youth, as well as the pain that comes with the feelings of non-belonging. I was a product of a mixed marriage, a type of institution hailed as the perfect model of nation-building in Tito’s Socialist Yugoslavia. Growing up in the fifties, my parents believed in the message of “Brotherhood and Unity.” Not unlike many Sarajevans of their generation, they denounced the practices of segregation based on one’s religious background. While there has always been a rich tradition of co-existence in Bosnia, most people chose to preserve the homogenous nature of their family ties through marriage. The horrific fratricide during the Second World War stunned an entire generation of Yugoslavs away from ethnic animosities.
This is not to say that my parents’ marriage was a form of political activism. I still prefer to believe that there was some love involved in their initial union. However, the political and social environment they grew up in allowed for opportunities and gave social acceptance to the mixing of religions. So my father’s Orthodox Christian background joined my mother’s Catholic/atheist heritage (my grandfather was a Communist.) In Yugoslavia there was always confusion between religion and nationality, but my parents always insisted on making a distinction between their religion and their nationality since, after all, they lived in a multiethnic society. They asserted that it was their full right to declare themselves as Bosnians.
Growing up with these sensibilities, I found myself unprepared for the rise of ultra- Nationalism and the movement of public discourse towards ethnic homogeneity, and calls for ethnic cleansing during the late eighties and early nineties. The fact that I was in my teens during that period did not help either.
I remember the first time I became aware of the problematic nature of my multi-ethnic background. It was 1991 and I was listening to a radio talk-show following the start of war in Croatia. A majority of calls received called for the isolation or destruction of “unclean and polluted” members of the society, since they were seen as the traitors of their various ethnic groups. While most callers were guarded and somewhat diplomatic in how they expressed these views, there were a few who outright called for violence and murder. I distinctly remember a woman who stated that the unborn children of mixed marriages should be “cut out of their mothers’ wombs.” What I did not fully understand at that time was that I was witnessing an evolution of my society towards war and genocide.
My precarious problematic identity was highlighted and scrutinized often during the Bosnian War. Anxiety, fear and the pain people felt had to be released in some way, and my sister and I were often the closest and most convenient target for those unable to contain their emotions for long. I recognized that, for the most part, the personal attacks were misdirected attempts to regain some sense of control over the chaos and destruction of war. However, this visibility as a problematic demographic helped shake my belief that I truly belonged in Bosnia. I felt unwelcomed not just by those who sought to kill us, but also by the same society which I identified with and hoped to help preserve. Society was changing, and I could not find my place in it anymore. I was an outsider.
I often wondered how was it possible for me to find myself at home in America and adjust to my life here so well. Now I know that being an outsider was a familiar milieu, the one in which I functioned so well. I came here and joined others who did not “belong” and began my quest towards reconciliation. Witnessing my country’s gradual destruction and evolution into a war culture made me acutely aware of nuanced social change. That is why the Department of Homeland Security’s report on a potential uprising by White Supremacist and Hate groups is particularly troublesome. This time I am prepared to stand up to intimidation and fight against discrimination, racism and threats of violence. I see things more clearly now. I have been here before. Perhaps being an outsider is not a terrible thing after all.