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Balkan Booster

Logo http://multimedia.dw.com/balkan-booster

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Face the Balkans

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These are the voices of Balkan Booster. Fourteen young people from all over the Balkans born during or after the Yugoslav wars who are tracing the history and identities of their own region.

For the very first time they are visiting their neighboring countries, facing both acceptance and rejection from the local people. They are learning the other side of the story and rethinking the history they know from home and school.

What did they encounter, how did they feel? Visit the cities of Vukovar (Croatia), Srebrenik (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Bitola (Macedonia), Novi Pazar (Serbia) and Gracanica (Kosovo) to see what they experienced. Lean back and take your time for their stories. 

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Paris, Berlin and Madrid - places to go, to see, to explore. Neutral places, where you can just be a tourist.

But in the Balkans you have to belong to someone, you have your identity if you like or not. Is that why young people prefer going somewhere far away, where you can be yourself and not live by the definitions of others?

This is the medieval fortress of Srebrenik in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Only a four-hour car ride from Lea Kotlica's home. She is from Kula, a small city in northern Serbia. It’s her first time here in Bosnia and Herzegovina even though her grandparents are from nearby.

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Lea Kotlica about here first visit in Bosnia and Herzegovina

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Lea is listening to a band from Srebrenik (BiH). It’s called Generation without a compass. These five old-school punk rockers tour stages throughout the Balkans. They formed in the 1990s, the time when Yugoslavia disappeared from the map. A time when everybody felt like they were living without a compass.

What about now - a quarter of century later? What about the youth? Is it still searching for a direction: Overburdened with history, facing the harshness of the present, lacking having the strength to see into the future.

On average 46 percent of the young people in the former Yugoslav countries are unemployed. Many are packing their belongings to go to western Europe in the hopes of finding a better future. But Lea is staying - for now.

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The complete destruction of the city of Vukovar, the killings and the expulsions that came with it are 26 years in the past. But time has not healed all the wounds. There are still people here living in the past, searching for the bodies of their relatives.

Jovana Georgievski from Serbia and Orland Novaku from Albania talked to women in Vukovar who lost their husbands, sons and brothers in 1991.

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Being in Vukovar for two weeks before November 18th, the day when Vukovar fell, was the closest I have ever felt to walking through a minefield. Occasionally, it seemed like stepping on landmine and hearing it click under your foot; like a moment of uncertainty stretched over a period of time, during which my colleague and I were trying to gently interact with the surroundings and not cause more disturbance than necessary.

I, of course, know nothing about how it feels to step on a landmine. However, it seems to me that I can now relate to the feeling that once you’ve stepped on it, you have the rest of your life to trying to figure out how to pull your leg out. Stating you were Serbian in that specific part of Croatia every now and then felt exactly like hearing the click, as the atmosphere would suddenly grow cold before going back to normal, without anything exploding.

There was the kind of moment in which you realize that something has happened that has predetermined your life, and there is nothing you can do about it. Suddenly, where you come from matters. I guess that is also one aspect of the war that touched all the people that found themselves caught up in it, regardless of their nationality.

I, of course, know nothing about how it felt to be caught up in the events of 1991. What I saw 26 years after the war was people starting to tackle the topic around the third sentence of the conversation, but without saying much beyond "it was unspeakable," "it was unimaginable," "it is difficult to understand."

I saw great need to talk and great reluctance to do so. I saw grown men trying not to continue the conversation they seemed to feel like having, because they thought they should not. I saw a hint of fear in the eyes of strong Balkan men that say they carried a shotgun as they mentioned weapons. I think I also saw a hint of sadness as they were talking about how they don’t visit some of the friends they used to be close to before the war. I saw an old woman struggle to convince herself 'I am alright to talk to even though I am Serbian.' I watched her thoroughly examine my face, to happily decide I had Asian cheekbones, which suddenly made me acceptable (along with a Macedonian last name.) I noticed a gentleman secretly observing how I would manage in a party I was invited to when other people were told I was Macedonian.

I saw people’s expressions shift between tension and calm, as they heard my accent 'clicking' between us, and then watched the tension fade completely when the words be exchanged made the conversation feel safe again.

I saw curiosity and the need for contact, with ambiguity creeping in every now and then. I saw trust in ruins and it made me realize how much work we have left.

Jovana Georgievski from Pirot, Serbia

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One town, three nationalities, two religions, two official languages.

A population in pursuit of their identities, people here are town between the glorious past of the Sandzak region, the nostalgia for Yugoslavia and the present as citizens of Serbia.

Suadela Balliu from Albania (text) and Aleksandra Najdovska from Macedonia (drawings) explored the city.

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''I love my town. Everything is great in Novi Pazar. I love the life here,'' says the man, speaking in English but also using gestures to get his point across.

Nebojsa Milosavljevic is a physician working at the Novi Pazar state hospital. He returned to his hometown after studying in Pristina, Kosovo, for four years. He is currently enrolled in a surgery program in Belgrade.

''We get along pretty well here. I've lived in Pristina and I love Albanians,'' he says. "I am Serbian and my best friend is a Muslim. There is peace here between different religions," he concludes before offering to show us some of Novi Pazar's well-known sights.

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When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Novi Pazar, the city put out billboards bidding him welcome in both Serbian and Turkish, people tell us. Nedzat, who works in the "Amir Agin Han," an 18th century Turkish inn that now functions as a restaurant, shows us a short video he recorded during Erdogan's visit.

You can see people crowding in the streets, cheering and chanting 'Welcome Sultan!' "Erdogan pledged Turkey would help build a road connecting the Sandzak region with Sarajevo, and he also promised to build a Turkish bath and a bridge in Novi Pazar," says Nedzat.

At football matches, they often support opposing teams against the Serbian national team. Some people admit they backed Turkey and Albania when they played against Serbia in Belgrade, even during an infamous match in 2014 which was cut short due to an outbreak of violence on the pitch.

Do locals feel more like Serbians, or do they identify as a part of the distinct Sandzak community? It depends who you ask. The picture we got from Novi Pazar is so difficult to explain - it is so diverse, so complex, so confusing. Two weeks in the city are not enough to understand lies behind the curtains.

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How is life in Novi Pazar for the youth, in a city where almost half of the population is under the age of 35? Are they bound by their ethnicity, or is the modern age erasing old divisions? Rifat Rifatovic is an actor, a director, and musician who was born and raised in this city. He tells us how he tried to use a theater play to complain about local problems. Politicians, both local ones and those in Belgrade, were not amused.

His play "Beton Mahala" had a successful premiere, but was soon taken off the stage and banned. The "Beton Mahala" (in English "Concrete Neighborhood") focuses on the relations between Serbs and Bosniaks, family ties, troubles with the educational system, the use of two languages, the Balkan mentality, and the issues that come with living in a Balkan city – all the issues that people usually don't talk about.

The play was praised and welcomed in several theaters in Serbia, Macedonia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. It captures the desire for Novi Pazar to be as it once was, with Serbs and Bosniaks sticking together, with visitors and merchants from Sofia, Dubrovnik, Thessaloniki, and Sarajevo flocking to the city. "Today, people just stick to identities that suit them best," says Rifat Rifatovic.

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Yugoslavia is gone, brutally wiped off the map. What is left are the narratives that make everyone a victim because they cannot acknowledge their own guilt. Overshadowed by ethnic labels and language disputes, there is a group of people who still identify with the former Yugoslavia.

Samir Delic, who has worked as a photographer for 30 years, says he was born a Yugoslav. Now, when his country no longer exists, he calls himself a man of the world. "I do not care who is Bosnian, or Serb, or Croat," he says. "It would be best for the people to turn away from the past and look towards the future." But people in Novi Pazar are still focused on the past, including both the old, Ottoman Sandzak, and the newer traditions of ex-Yugoslavia.

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Suadela Balliu, journalist from Albania

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Aleksandra Najdovska, illustrator form Macedonia

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You might think it’s easy being a writer in the Balkans. So many stories on the streets, so much history, so many different faiths.

Then again, you might think it is hard to be a writer in the Balkans, with no money and small markets. 

The two writers Željka Horvat Čeč from Croatia and Stefan Markovski from Macedonia explored Kosovo in search for new stories.

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"If I go to Bitola, I will walk on Širok sokak (Main street) and I will drink coffee," says one of the most popular songs dedicated to this Macedonian city. The locals says if you were in Bitola and you haven't walked through this street, it is like you have not visited the city.

And in the middle of that main street there is a unique, square, two-floor building – the House of Culture. With its modern glass façade, it differs from the other Ottoman style houses in the area. Since it was built almost 40 years ago, this place has been a center of all cultural events in Bitola.

In fact, you are in here right now, just listen to the sounds of Bitola.

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Bitola is a haven for the international cinematographers, wizards of film photography and cinema aesthetics. It is the birthplace of filmmaking in the Balkans. You don’t believe it? Well, Filip Andronik from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Art Haxhijakupi from Kosovo checked it out.

Here the first proof: Janaki and Milton Manaki - two brothers that became the first cinematographers in the Balkans. At the beginning of the 20th century they brought the first camera from London. Since then, filmmaking has become a way of life in Bitola.

In celebration of their legacy, the city of Bitola has been the host of the Manaki Brothers International Cinematographers' Film Festival for 38 years now. This festival is the first and oldest film festival in the Balkans, and one of the first in the world dedicated solely to the creativity of cinematographers.

See what Art and Filip also found out about the city.

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And there is a lot more to be explored in the Balkans.

Let's see what the Boosters will encounter next year.

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter:

#dw_BalkanBooster

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Implemented by DW Europe / Western Balkan (Head: Adelheid Feilcke)

Sponsored by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Editor: Rayna Breuer

Project management: Nevena Georgievski 

Balkan Booster participants:
Suadela Balliu, Leila Šeper, Željka Horvat Čeč, Arber Bajrami, Jovana Georgievski, Marko Kaselj, Lea Kotlica, Stefan Markovski, Aleksandra Najdovska, Orland Novaku, Azem Kurtić, Aleksandar Novović, Filip Andronik, Art Haxhijakupi

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