How Bosnia came to Bayswater

In the wake of the Balkans conflicts, more than 12,000 former Yugoslav nationals came to Britain, and although the old ethnic divisions live on, there are good times too.
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Sunday in an up-market restaurant in Paddington, west London. A hundred or so young Croats gather each week at what they call the Croatian Club. Here they dance to their favourite Popa, drink traditional grape brandy and talk about home. Marija from Osijek sips brandy at the bar. She came to London just before the war started in Yugoslavia, and has been here ever since. "I lost my brother in the Serbian invasion and I can't forget that," she says. "We never mix with Serbs. Why should we? I would rather meet English people."

Dozens of bars, clubs and restaurants have sprung up in London for Croats, Serbs, Bosnians and Montenegrins, refugees from the conflict back home. And just as their homeland is split on ethnic lines, so, too, is their London.

011 is a small, dark, basement restaurant in Shepherds Bush where you can order a variety of pork dishes, drink hot plum brandy and hear traditional folk music. But you won't find a non-Serb at the tables. The digits 011 are the dialling code for the Serbian capital, Belgrade, and Croats and Muslims stay away.

Bosnian Muslims have "exclusive" cafes in Bayswater, and a weekly "Muslim night" at a club in Earl's Court, while nearby, in Royal Oak, is Nest, a Balkan restaurant run by Montenegrins. A rock band plays at weekends and the food is traditional Montenegrin. Again, few non-Montenegrins come.

By last year, 12,455 nationals of the former Yugoslavia had been granted some form of asylum in Britain. Most of them have been given temporary "leave to remain", which must be renewed each year, but it is estimated that almost three times that number have come to Britain since 1991, making them one of the fastest-growing communities in the country. Despite the ceasefire in Bosnia, for most the bitterness of the war still runs deep, and prejudices often rear their heads.

There have been incidents of abuse hurled in shopping centres in north London, where many of the refugees have chosen to settle, often in the same streets. Some Croats and Serbs tell of trading insults in pubs, or of being the brunt of racist comments. Mladen, a Serb from Croatia, recalls a Balkan restaurant in Holland Park where he ordered using the Croatian word for soup. The owner swore and refused to serve him.

Of course, given that most refugees have lost friends and families in the war, some division is inevitable. There are five separate embassies here for the various ex-Yugoslav national groups, and there are separate community and advice centres for the dislocated refugees. The Croatian centre is tucked away south of the river in Clapham, while the Bosnian Advisory Centre is in Ladbroke Grove, west London, only a mile from the Serbian Centre in Lancaster Road, Notting Hill.

The Serb centre is not new, for there has been a large Serbian community in Britain since the Second World War. Serb victims of Nazi occupation were granted residence here during the war, and refugees fleeing the communism of Marshall Tito followed. By the mid-Fifties, 40,000 Serbs had settled in Britain, and for many of the new refugees, the long-established Serbian Community Centre and Orthodox Church in Lancaster Road has become their only link with home. Last 7 January - Christmas Day in the Gregorian calendar - over 1,000 people gathered in the magnificent converted Anglican church, among them many of the new arrivals. "I don't believe in God, I just come to be with my people," said Aleksandra, who fled to England from Brcko in 1992. She was never christened in Communist Yugoslavia, but intends to be christened in a special Orthodox service here this year.

Even in cosy Notting Hill the bitterness between the groups is apparent. "We have nothing to do with them," says Alex Petrovic, Chairman of the Chuch Council, when I ask about the Bosnian centre nearby. "There is too much bad blood between our people. Besides, it's more than a mile away." A Muslim girl from the Bosnian Centre, who did not want her name used, expresses similar sentiments. "We stay away from them. We cannot fight each other in this country, but it's too soon to talk about brotherhood."

For most refugees, it is also too sooon to talk about returning. Some distrust the ceasefire, while others feel London is now their real home. It is rare to meet a young ex-Yugoslav without a university degree or knowledge of film, literature or economics. Anna, a Muslim from Sarajevo, arrived here in 1991 and could speak no English. In three years she became the editor of the college magazine at South Eastern University. Now she wants to work in the film industry and has joined London Screenwriters. "I love London," she says. "I miss everything back home, but I want to start a new life here."

Nearly all refugees know of people who have paid to "marry" British or European citizens in order to get a passport, such is the fear of repatriation. But many without that piece of paper may soon have no choice but to return. Over 90 per cent of non- programme refugees (those who have fled but are not part of the official refugee scheme) are still refused asylum in Britain, and their "exceptional leave to remain" status exists until the government believes it is safe for them to go back. Already, some Croatians have been repatriated.

Despite deep ethnic divisions, the experience of one London club shows that rapprochement is possible. Le Scandale in Soho's Berwick Street has achieved what would be unthinkable in Bosnia today. It is the old Yugoslavia caught in a time capsule. Here, every Monday night, over 300 young Croats, Serbs and Muslims come to dance to the music they grew up with before their country blew apart. Young women in trendy, skin-tight lycra tops groove to bands such as Bijelo Dugme and Electricni Orgazam. Strong, handsome men in brown bomber jackets stand at the bar talking films and football - Kusturica's award-winning Underground, Croatia's perfomance in Euro 96.

Among the crowd are former Serb paramilitaries and former Muslim and Croat soldiers, but on Yugo Night the war is forgotten. For Anita, a Croat from Zagreb, it is the only time she mixes with Serbs. "We just cannot talk about the war. It will tear us apart."

The inspiration behind the club is the Montenegrin, Zoran Vujovik, who came to Britain 10 years ago. He launched Le Scandale in 1993, distributing flyers in areas where many young ex-Yugoslavs had settled - Notting Hill, Shepherds Bush, Kilburn, Vauxhall and Brixton - and they have been coming ever since.

For many, Le Scandale brings back memories of nights spent with friends in the bars and cafes of Sarajevo. "It was a beautiful place," recalls one young Muslim Serb woman, "a bohemian city full of musicians and artists, where everyone would get on. But it is ruined. Now this is the only place we can be together."

She comes most Mondays with a group of friends from the London college where she studies economics. They are from different ethnic backgrounds and all have lost someone. Some have not seen their families for five years, but being in London has healed some of the wounds. "We can't go on hating each other over here," she says.

Goran, a Croat, recalls a song by a Croatian band that was banned in his town. It is called "I have a friend in Belgrade", and could describe him here. Despite his background, he mixes happily with Muslims and Serbs. He came to England to get away from war, not to discuss it endlessly, pointlessly.

There are certainly those in London who are bent on fomenting hostility between ethnic groups. Zoran Vujovic has been warned to stay away from certain bars in London, or risk being "cut up". Recently, he met a group of young Bosnian Muslim women who had been told that, if they went to his club, the people there would beat them up. He put these young women on the guest list. "Even in London, we have this element of people who want to divide us," he says. "This is how things started to go wrong in Yugoslavia. People spread rumours about each other and it split us apart."

At Le Scandale he has only one rule: "No politics. If someone talks politics, I take them outside and say 'Come back next week.' " In three years, there has never been a political incident at the club.

'WE DON'T CARE ABOUT POLITICS ANY MORE'

The spirit of reconciliation at Le Scandale is found elsewhere in London, too. Every day in Vauxhall, south London, Biba pops next door to visit Stevan for coffee and a chat: basketball, music, how they miss the food back home... Biba is 26, a Serb from Bosnia. She came to London in 1991, just before the war started, and has been stuck here ever since. Before the ceasefire in Bosnia, her uncles had been fighting for the Serbian army in the mountains near Tuzla. Stevan is 28 and a Croat. He fought in the Croatian army before he came to Britain two years ago, and his politics are clearly very different from Biba's. The "no politics" dictum is a good one for neighbourly relations in London SW8.

When refugees of different ethnic groups do mix together, it is an unstated rule that they do not talk about the war. "They want to forget about it," says Sladjana Vujovik, a playwright and actress from Montenegro who has been in Britain for eight years. "They have had to start new lives in London, and they know that politics will tear them apart. It's not good to bring up such things."

It has allowed remarkable friendships to develop. Sanella, a mixed Muslim- Serb girl from Sarajevo, came to London in 1992 just as the war started. Her father was killed for refusing to join the Serbian army, and she has not seen her mother for four years. Yet her best friend is Liljana, a Serb girl whose father was killed fighting the Muslim army.

"We don't care about politics anymore," says Liljana. "For a while I hated Croatian and Muslim people after my father died, but now I'm tired of it. You can't keep thinking like that for ever." Sanella agrees. "Now we just hate politicians,"she says.

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