Posted in Europe on July 14, 2013
A bit of background info / Before you read on: The Yugoslav Wars were a series of wars fought in the former Yugoslavia throughout the 1990′s between the republics that sought sovereignty on one side, and the government in Belgrade (Serbia) on the other side. The Serbian government at this time was headed by Slobodan Milošević. He later died in 2006, in his UN war crimes tribunal detention centre, whilst awaiting trial for a series of war crimes. For more information on the Yugoslav Wars in general you can go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yugoslav_Wars.
When I first came to Serbia in 2011 I really didn’t know a lot about the country. As a primary school kid during the 90′s I was too young to really remember or comprehend much of what had went on during the Yugoslav Wars. I have brief memories of my dad watching the news, in particular on the day when the UN was given control of Kosovo in 1999. I remember the scenes that were displayed across TV channels in the UK during that time but not really much else. Being just 11 years old at the time in 1999, the decade of war that had preceded this period meant I was only a baby when it began. My memory of events is therefore somewhat brief and blurry. I am certainly no expert on the subject (and will never claim to be.) Regardless, this week I had some revelations whilst travelling in Serbia. Particularly when it comes to the affect that war has on a country’s global image, even many years after events have ended.
I realised (this week) during my second visit to Serbia that there are very few destinations I have travelled that have been through a war during my life time. Serbia is one of few that I have visited personally that fit into this category. It was never a purposeful decision. I have never tried to avoid a country simply because it has been through a war. In fact, in a sad and slightly strange way this is sometimes what makes a country interesting - to hear its back story.
Anyway, I had noticed a distinct change in how people back home responded/reacted when I mentioned that I was going to Serbia on this trip. Having already been before once in 2011 I was not particularly worried. I knew the country was perfectly fine to travel, but others who had not visited Serbia before clearly had other (often misguided) perceptions. Even other former Yugoslav countries, such as Croatia for example, never got the same response as Serbia did when I mentioned I would be travelling there on previous trips. Is this because Serbia were the aggressors of the Yugoslav Wars? For a while they were certainly seen as the ‘bad man of Europe’ as a local Serb told me last week, and when you look at the history of the wars it’s not easy reading. No account of war ever is. It’s only very recently, as the country makes steps towards joining the EU, that the image seems to be softening slightly. Even then, it is clearly still having an affect on the country’s global image more than a decade on.
Many of the backpackers that I spoke who are/were on a similar route as I am, having travelled through Serbia or who are going there next, they told me they experienced similar questions from people back home. They all got the ‘is it safe?’ question like I did from some people.
For the record Serbia is not dangerous at all. Certainly not anymore. It is no longer a war zone and hasn’t been for many years. I’ve visited twice now and gone beyond just the capital city. The truth is the place is pretty normal. Sure, some of the buildings don’t look too nice, it’s a bit grubby looking in parts, but other than that it’s just like any other developed country. Almost boringly so. People go to work, eat out, drink out, and do all the same sort of things as we do. They even have McDonalds! That’s not to say having McDonalds is a strong point or an advertisement for a country, but it is somewhat of a symbol of normalcy or Westernisation in my mind - even if I would rather go hungry than eat in one!
While I was in Serbia I found the local people to be quite kind, laid-back, friendly, and helpful. I’ve found this throughout most of Eastern Europe actually. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that people in Eastern European and/or Central European countries (including Serbia) are way more friendly than those further West! This is ironic seeing as we are the one’s often questioning whether it will be safe or not to travel there. I’d honestly be more worried walking the streets of London than I would the streets of Belgrade, Novi Sad, or Nis.
Anytime I was lost and needed directions in Serbia, or was struggling a bit with the local language, local people always seemed more than willing to help. In fact I found many people in shops and restaurants striking up a conversation with me out of pure interest at who I was or to practice their English a bit (especially in Novi Sad). For me this was really cool.
Of course bad things can happen as they can in any place, and you have to be sensible on any trip you make ANYWHERE to limit your risk of such things, but in regards to general safety in Serbia - it’s absolutely fine. It’s really up to you to stay safe in the same way you would back home, i.e. don’t walk alone at night, always carry a mobile phone for emergencies etc etc. Most importantly though, please don’t let anyone put you off going to Serbia if you’d like to visit the country, especially if they’ve never been before!