“With their backs to the world. Portraits from Serbia” by Asne Seierstad

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One of the things I noticed in common in all her books is how Seierstad talks about sisterhood. Her fellow reporter Bojana in Serbia, or in Iraq…

Back to “With their backs to the world”, the book came to life after three visits to Serbia between 1999 and 2004. She wanted to understand: “I couldn’t stop wondering about the Serbs, these outcasts of Europe. This people that started one war after the other, and lost them all.” And so she does and helps us understand.

I have to say that whenever I met Serbs, my brain was full of stereotypes from both western and eastern media. The book broadened my perception and I will look with a lot more compassion and empathy at anyone coming from a Serbia governed by Tito, Milošević and other subsequent governments. Seierstad talks to people and listens to them. She does not judge and offers no personal views. So that we take it unaltered from Serbs of different background, genders, age, social status, regions and income. By sharing their daily bread, she teleports us into their lives, dreams and regrets.

The lines I found insightful about the way Serbs think:

‘The bombing was the worst thing the West could do to us – it only validated Milosevic’s rhetoric about the West hating the Serbs. The West has committed a series of blunders in its dealings with Milosevic,’ Bojana explains.

‘I can’t let them down. I’m their voice, and I have to go after those in power, the new and the old.’ – a Serb journalist.

‘The media is another problem – journalists here have been taught to repeat what they’ve been told and have grown up in a culture of self-censorship. Most of them do what they’ve always done – they just have different bosses. And the new power base is happy to exploit the situation.”

‘The only way for a reconciliation to occur is by knowing the truth about what has happened here. So many atrocities have taken place, but in order to forgive I need to know who I am to forgive, and why. It will be a difficult and painful process, but we have to go through it in order to proceed. We need a truth commission, like in South Africa. If we don’t determine who is guilty of what, the entire nation will be guilty – just of being Serbs.’

“Because no one was ever held accountable for anything, people allow themselves to forget – or, rather, remember only the parts they want to remember.”

“And this is how so many wars have started in the Balkans – through stretching historical facts to fit an emotional state, through lying about everything from statistics to myths. Great wars start out as folk songs and camp-fire stories, and end in genocide and bloodbaths.”

‘The West should be ashamed. The bombing presented the opposition with enormous difficulties. At the last election I urged people to vote for a democracy styled on Western Europe, and then these very same democracies attack us. How am I supposed to justify this? I asked people to put their faith in the EU flag – and the next thing we know, we’re bombed by the EU!’

“The best way to shake people out of their inertia is to put them in debt. Then you give them the power to realise their dreams overnight, while ensuring that they’ll spend years paying for their dreams. This is the principle upon which the stability of the Western world rests.’

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