When I was six, while watching a news report on the homecoming of three American soldiers who had been ambushed, beaten and imprisoned in the course of what I thought was some faraway war, I learned that I was a bad person.
Their captors had shoved old socks into the soldiers’ mouths to keep them quiet. I thought about what it would be like to taste the fibers of an old sock. I felt sorry for them. But when I said so aloud, my mother’s then-boyfriend snapped at me: “Those are our people.” And I realized he didn’t mean the soldiers.
We were here by grace of the green card lottery, recent arrivals from Slobodan Milošević’s Serbia watching the aftermath of the NATO strikes we had fled. In my narrow understanding of good and bad, it was devastating to think that I was somehow the enemy of the men on the TV receiving a hero’s welcome. Though I had only been stateside for a few months, I loved my new American childhood and I wanted to belong here, not with people who tortured others with socks.
I also noted the fear that flickered in the adults’ eyes as the broadcasts from the war went on. I took it as a fear that we would be sent back, to a country that was slipping from my memory as a land of quiet, rolling farmland and becoming instead a bombed-out hellscape. Years later I would understand that it was actually the shock of finally understanding how the rest of the world saw our war.
The mark of Milošević’s rule was a shrewd and absolute control of the narrative. He rose to power as the country grieved the death of another beloved strongman, Josip Tito, whose legacy as the man who stood down Stalin and the West had overshadowed his more repressive tendencies. In this vacuum, Milošević emerged as a cruder model of tyrant, a hawk for the post-Cold War era. He rejected the united Yugoslavia that Tito had championed, seizing instead on the disquiet of a rudderless country facing an economic downturn. Milošević kindled longstanding grudges into a virulent nationalism. He told Serbians that they were the victims, both of a vast global conspiracy and of an internal insurgency.
He sold this message to the masses via a national television news network that parroted the official line of his regime without question. Independent media that refused were punished with “shortages” of ink and broadcasting equipment that stopped just shy of actual censorship. Those journalists didn’t want Serbia to succeed, Milošević’s government said. And so, they collaborated with Serbia’s enemies to spread misinformation. “Fake news.”
Throughout his tenure Milošević made it clear that the woes of the country could always be blamed on someone else: inflation, the fault of the UN; war, the fault of Croatia; destruction and death, the fault of the Clintons. He created a narrative that cast fellow Serbian nationalists as victims and heroes, and himself a great patriot defending the kingdom.
“Milošević believes in twilight, semi-darkness, a controlled amount of light,” wrote columnist Stojan Cerović . “Just as with electricity, he would like to switch it on and off and to whomsoever he wishes. The important thing is to know whose finger is on the switch.” But what he found to be an intolerable murk was for others a comfortable dimness; for some, turning on a bright light can be painful.
I didn’t learn much of this history until I was in college, having long since lost my accent and suppressed my earliest memories of Serbia. For most of my life I’d had a sense that my roots were rotten, but the only details I had gleaned were from the euphemistic summaries available in high school history books, or finding that a Bosnian peer in middle school would have nothing to do with me. Milošević was a name I’d grown up knowing like a distant uncle’s; when he gave the Hague tribunal the slip by dying, I remembered him vaguely, as my family whispered about the rumor that he’d taken cyanide in his cell. Even his death sounded villainous to me.
It was only later, when I started reading about the time I remembered only as a blur of childhood interspersed with flashes of the bomb shelter and the day we fled, that I confronted my family about my childhood boogeyman, this totalitarian figure lurking in our past. I grilled my mother for details about what life was like in the absence not only of food and heat, but of information and truth.
She shrugged; she had no interest in rehashing a hellish decade. We had fled the fallout of wars that Milošević had not only sparked, but cultivated, but my family insisted that the conflict was always two-sided. Milošević’s propaganda machine pushed this line in order to make the bloodshed more palatable. Even as he sat awaiting trial, he swore that his version of events was the correct one, that the Americans were interfering in his democratically-elected government, and that “world global networks have been assigned the task of being an instrument of war and of disinforming the public.”
To this day, his lingering die-hard supporters are quick to argue with anyone who dares to say that Milošević played any part in Serbia’s ills. The hunger they remember was caused by inflation, which was caused by international sanctions from the U.S. and Europe. Not by Milošević.
I brought up all that I had learned from historians contextualizing the era, as well as interviews with those that had lived it, like an archaeologist presenting the find of a lifetime. My family was quick to check my facts. Who was the author of whatever you read? An American? Why believe that? Besides, they said, “Your media doesn’t tell you everything either, you know.”
I realized that the news reports I remembered from my childhood—the ones that forever colored my view of my heritage—sounded entirely alien to my family members coming in from the media void that Milošević had created. Like hearing that the sky is actually purple, or that penguins are mythological creatures, the truth runs counter to everything they’d heard before, and all that the people around them believed. Also, in this version of events, they’d have to accept a new role not on the side of good, but in a gray space, or worse.
And there’s another catch: if they do recognize that they were lied to, it’s logical to expect to be lied to again. So why trust any news source, or politician, or anyone who’s not part of some immediate circle? That suspicion and bitterness is Milošević’s legacy nearly two decades on.
I’m not sure it will ever be possible to convince those who lived through a decade of fear, hunger and war to take an objective look back. I worry too that my adoptive country is also slipping into semi-darkness, and that spending too long there will make it impossible to look around in bright light again. When I watch the news now, I always wonder what those that don’t share my views are being told. Every once in a while, the old childish need to believe that I’ve chosen the right side crops up, but I’ve accepted that it’s rare that such a thing exists. Instead I keep another of Stojan Cerović ’s quotes in mind, written to encourage his readers that they didn’t have to choose between peace and freedom, or freedom of the press and their health and safety.
“It is the task of the independent press to assure you regularly that you are not insane because out of two good things you want both, and out of two evils you don’t want either,” Cerović wrote. “But Milošević wants each of us to feel like the last and only madman.”
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