I can remember going into the cafeteria of Central Connecticut State University’s New Britain campus to watch an art student paint a mural on the wall protesting the Kosovo war of the late 1990’s.
This war in the Balkans was the first real war of my generation. I was just a little smiget of a child during the first gulf war, and all I remember is the fear that I felt when my mother woke me up early for school one morning with the ominous words: “We are at war.” I later remember being in grade school and running for cover in the coat closets when the sirens for air raid drills would go off. It strikes me as odd now that a primary school in the middle of nowhere, USA would prime their children for potential air raids. I simply cannot fathom that it was a possibility in those days that Iraq could have ever bombed anything anywhere close to Albion, New York?
But the Balkans war was different. I was just becoming a real person in the late 90’s, and was beginning to formulate the who part of “who am I.” Part of this particular “who” that I was cultivating meant that I opposed all forms of authority and, most certainly, all military action. I especially thought the actions taken by the US government were particularly horrible. My thinking in those days went as follows:
If a government is taking a large scale action in a foreign land, then it is probably malevolent. If the US government is taking large scale action in a foreign land, then it is super malevolent. Perhaps my logic has proved itself correct, though I could not have really known so as a smugly sheltered 19 year old punk rocker. But I did have a feeling that rebelling against the seemingly nonsense logic of rural America was of merit in and of itself – even if it was solely to seize a working definition of self.
I also thought it was really cool to watch an upper class artist paint a mural with bombs and skeletons all over the walls of the cafeteria. I became friends with her and donated a full two dollars to her cause. I forget her name, but she was nice. She told me about the war in the Balkans and what NATO was doing. I ate her words up, pretending that I knew what she was talking about. She painted my name in the “thank you” portion of her mural. My name “Wade Shepard” sat beneath portraits of a massacred village in Kosovo along with crying old ladies and huge, smiling NATO skeletons, dropping even huger bombs upon everything.
NATO aircraft in Kosovo War.
I am quite sure that I knew nothing about the war in the Balkans at that point. There was no way that I could have, tucked up tight in the USA. I am beginning to get the impression that there is no way to know about anything in any place of the world if you do not go there yourself – if you do not expose yourself, talk to people, observe, and earn your own impressions. The media is a puppet in the hands of a marionette, ever reaffirming the status quo of public opinion and being the voicebox of the guiltily uninformed. And university professors, as well as the books that they write, have a tendency to be out of this world, bereft with exaggerations and tunnel vision.
So, to these ends, I am traveling through the Balkan to test the waters of what actually happened when Yugoslavia broke up into this mess of little states. I would like to find out, in the people’s own words, what happened in what is now Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Serbia during the turbulent decade of the 1990’s.
I am in a hunt for the aftereffects of war, ethnic strife, inter-tribal conflict, and the stories of people who grew accustom to bombs falling over their heads.
“What happened here?” is my simple question as I travel through the Balkans.