Serbs in London: Serbia at war in the Portobello Road

London's Serbs are under siege from a press which condemns their countrymen as Nazis. How do they react? Mary Braid talks to three generations of emigres. Photographs by Adrian Fisk
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The Sunday sermon has only just finished in the Serbian Orthodox Church, off west London's fashionable Portobello Road, but already the priest is next door in the bustling community centre and he's in an intense, bright-eyed rage. "And what did the British press write in the First World War about the Serbs?" he asks, as the men around him nod, and sip sljivovica (plum brandy) from small, thick glasses. "I'll tell you ... it was all in the superlative."

Ah, those were the days. In that war the Serbs were British allies. Such was the admiration they inspired, Scottish nurses who went to the Balkans to treat the wounded ditched their uniforms to take up Serb arms. In 1915 the formidable Mrs St Clair Stobart mounted a black charger to lead part of the Serbian retreat across the Albanian mountains. Even the Serbian Orthodox Church in London was set up with the help of Lady Paget, wife of the British ambassador to Belgrade, at the end of the Second World War for the Chetniks (Royalists) who fled Yugoslavia after General Tito's Communists took power.

But that was then. And this is now. And while all ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia are today swimming in blood, Serbs are judged the most monstrous. Transmutation from courageous allies to butchering Nazis is ironic when so many were killed in the Second World War by the Croats, who were allied with Hitler.

The descent into despised race has been traumatic for Serbs in the former Yugoslavia. But perhaps even more so for those who made Britain their home after the Second World War, and those who followed in the 1960s, when Tito relaxed border controls, and again during President Slobodan Milosevic's war-torn 1990s.

Serbs living abroad are acutely aware of the disgust at a litany of Serbian war crimes and massacres since war broke out in 1991. Revulsion rose again this month when Serbian police killed more than 40 ethnic Albanian villagers in the conflict over independence for Kosovo. Tribal hatreds have not just welled up behind the borders of the shrunken former Yugoslav Republic. They have flooded through emigre communities, shattering Serbs' sense of who and what they are.

There are many responses to the violent downfall of a nation. At the church community centre, a battered people take shelter in the past - and in conspiracy theories. "There is a great injustice being done to the Serbian nation," insists the priest. He defends Serb atrocities on the grounds that Croats and Muslims have been just as wicked and insists a conspiracy, involving the international media, and Serbia's old enemies, the Germans and the Catholic Church, has been hatched to blacken the Serbian name.

Nenad Petrovic, 75, one of the Chetniks, complains that over-simplification of the recent war has left Serbs as the only baddies, despite atrocities from other sides and the international community's many blunders. Above all, he argues, Serbs are the victims of the media's ignorance of history. The trouble is that for people like Mr Petrovic everything began yesterday, never today. The past is a bolt-hole from the guilt and responsibilities of the present. Amazingly almost none of the old Chetniks has yet visited their homeland since the collapse of communism. Nenad Petrovic has not seen his country in 51 years. The old men are defending a Yugoslavia long-lost, and a mythical Serbia vastly different from the place from which young Serbs are fleeing every day.

Seventy-five-year-old Rastko Marcetic, chairman of the Serbian Information Centre, insists that London's Serbian community has not changed since the war started, except to get bigger. Estimates now put it at 40,000 strong - just 10 years ago, it was believed to be 10,000. And it is true that the community centre with its Serbian folk dances and Sunday-school classes in Serbo-Croat and Serbian history still draws new refugees. Young people, raised in the atheist, Communist tradition, are apparently being baptised there by the score. In the centre's bar, brooding young men, still struggling with English, sit nursing drinks and dark grievances. Many were driven from the Serbian enclave of Krajina in Croatia. They too have come to detest Milosevic, but not for unleashing the nationalist demon. He has, they complain, urged Serbs to arms, only to desert them once the battle started. Saving Kosovo, some say menacingly, is his last chance.

But the fact is that the Serbian community has altered entirely, and so has its homogeneity. The old emigres were more Serbian than Yugoslav. The young, however, were raised first and foremost Yugoslavs by the Communists. In London they would have to be dragged screaming to the Serbian Church or community centre.

Ask Dubravka Markovic, 42, who fled to Britain from the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, in 1992, with her son Stefan, now 15, and his sister, 11. "Stefan just does not want to be a Serb," says Mrs Markovic in exasperation. "He thinks, wrongly, that only the Serbs are to blame for the war."

Stefan refuses to attend church, or cultural occasions, and when addressed in Serbo-Croat answers in English. "I do not want him to be ashamed of his Serb blood," says Mrs Markovic, who is half-Serb, half-Muslim, and divorced from Stefan's Serbian father. "He must understand his grandparents. But after he learnt English he followed the situation closely on TV. He listened to Clare Short calling Serbs the scum of the earth. He was very upset."

Stefan arrived in Britain with just three English words, "car", "apple" and "xylophone" ("I had an abc book"), but mastered English with ease and, unlike his mother, has no trace of an accent. Now at a private school, where he has an assisted place, he might have lived here all his life.

"I am striving to be English," he says, with disarming straightforwardness. "That's partly because I am ashamed, and because you don't know what you are anyway being part-Muslim, part-Serb. It's only useful during a World Cup."

He insists it is his mother who has undergone a bizarre identity change. "In Sarajevo we were nothing. It never mattered if you were Serbian or Muslim. But my mother started going to the Serbian Centre here and she has gone all religious. She is die-hard nationalist now."

If he carries any sense of identity from the old country, he says, it is that he is Yugoslavian. He hates the corralling into crude categories of Serb, Croat and Muslim, and the ethnic hatred which tore his country apart. Oddly, Stefan's mother, despite her mixed heritage, is pushing Serb culture hardest. "Like me, my dad does not give a toss," says Stefan. He has just returned from Australia where he saw his father for the first time in eight years. "Yugoslavians," he says, smiling, "mix more easily there." His father's new wife is a Bosnian Muslim.

In Britain links between Serbs, Croats and Muslims seem to have withered almost as soon as Yugoslavia imploded. While some friendships do survive far too many Croats, Muslims and Serbs seem to have just headed for their allocated corners. Mihajlo Stojiljkovic, a Serb who left Yugoslavia almost 30 years ago, says that old friends just stopped calling. He did not need to ask why. The British Yugoslavian Society's membership meanwhile has plummeted from 2,000 to 500 as members, many with Yugoslav relatives, took sides.

Leicester Square's Golden Parrot nightclub, in the heart of London, is one of the few places where the old Yugoslavia lives on, at least for the under-40s. Up to 500 Serbs, Croats and Muslims gather every week at the club, named after an old Belgrade disco. Bands from Serbia and Croatia play here, big 1980s Yugo stars, who have a rare chance to perform before mixed, and wildly enthusiastic, audiences. At home, in both countries, the young are being force-fed dire nationalistic folk music.

"It is a place to mix and feel a little sad for the old Yugoslavia," shouts one teenage girl, above the latest "Yugo-stalgia" hits. "We all still love the same music."

Marijana Marjanovic, 18, whose mother is Croatian and father Serb, arrived in Britain five years ago. She adores the London club, where no one asks what you are. "I can't explain properly," she says. "But it is like being home again. I did not even know what I was before the war started. I had to ask my mother. She told me I was Yugoslavian and I still say that today, though there is no such country any more."

Nostalgia for another time, and another place, however, does not wipe out nationalism, even here. Gordana Hubanic, a stunning 20-year-old from Croatia, collects the admission money at the front door. She loves the Golden Parrot because "everyone is mixed and no one could care less about war". But she is also happy about Croatia's independence.

"I love my country and it just feels better," she says. But mixing robs nationalism of its poisonous edge. Until she came to London, she says, she disliked Serbs, though she did not really know many. Now the majority of her friends are Serb. "I've learnt that war is engaged in by a part, not the whole, of a nation," she says.

Gordana has a Serbian boyfriend, though she admits her parents were shocked. Her friends back home are "curious" because they have no chance to mix with Serbs, and some, she suspects, think she is "sleeping with the enemy". She and her boyfriend occasionally argue about home - he opposes independence for Kosovo, while she supports it - but mostly they leave politics alone, like most of their generation. Bojan Gojnic, 30, who runs the club, says this generation is completely apolitical. No chance of any opposition in exile blossoming here.

While young Yugoslavians spilled all over Europe, Bojan says the intelligentsia chose London. And unlike previous emigre generations they harbour no dreams of returning. "There would never have been a war if the people from the cities had had the choice," he insists. "But it was peasants led by lunatics ... and it looks as if lunatics will be in charge for another 50 years."

Many of the young stubbornly persist in calling themselves Yugoslavian. It is a rare political badge, from an apolitical age group. Several say that their middle-aged parents, however, have rediscovered their ethnic roots. Marijana Marjanovic says that her father, despite always encouraging her Yugoslavian identity, has, in London, become a Serb reborn. He now celebrates Serbian customs and traditions like orthodox Christmas. He never did before.

"He is even practising his Serbian dialect," she says. One of the cultural absurdities of the break-up of Yugoslavia is the attempt by Croatian and Serbian nationalists to make two distinct languages out of dialect differences within Serbo-Croat.

It is not just the newly arrived middle-aged who are discovering their Serbian-ness. The same process has taken some post-1960s emigres by surprise. Mihajlo Stojiljkovic, 57, whose grandfather helped found Yugoslavia as a nation state, was always Yugoslavian first, Serb second. He is no nationalist die-hard. He believes Serbs have themselves to blame for their downfall, while understanding the community's desire to deny responsibility. "Who wants to admit his nation committed a crime when the crime was committed in his name?" he says.

Still, he also thinks media coverage has been "misleading", and that all Serbs have been lumped together. He left the Labour party last year over threats by Nato to bomb Belgrade. "I almost had a fight at a Labour party conference when a bloke started shouting that all Serbs are fascists," he says.

He seems a little puzzled by his own growing interest in his Serbian heritage. He thinks he has become more Serb because political realities have forced him to choose. So perhaps, perversely, has international condemnation of his people.

However liberating it might feel, is it really possible, even for the young, to ditch one identity, and start again? "Stefan thinks he can just be English," says Mrs Markovic. "But I know he will never really be accepted - and everyone must belong to something."

Some worry that rejection of identity and culture could prove disastrous, not just for the British Serb community but for Serbs at home. Those who might have been expected to oppose Milosevic are now mostly overseas, and sick to the teeth of the old country and its politics.

Art dealer Vesna Petkovic, 44, has helped found the new Serbian Society, to act as a bridge between the divided generations. She insists it is a matter of culture and identity, not politics. But they are hard to separate when Milosevic has hijacked so many Serbian traditions.

While she laments the passing of Yugoslavia, she says it is pointless to persist in being Yugoslavian any more. It is now time to build up the battered Serbian identity, "for the sake of our children". Her efforts to promote Serbian culture - and a more positive Serbian image - in Britain have sparked death threats and insults, but she persists. "You cannot libel a whole nation for the actions carried out in their name," she says.

Lawyer Marco Kraljevic, 32, wants the Serbian society to ignore politics and try to identify "the bare minimum that binds us". But in a society this divided, that bare minimum may not amount to much. Perhaps ignoring political differences, and smoothing over unpalatable truths, is not the answer.

Journalist Desimir Tosic, 79, was one of the few old Serb emigres with the energy - and courage - to return to Yugoslavia in the 1990s. To take a role in the new politics he risked his lifelong dream of a glorious homecoming. It has been a harrowing experience. Back in England for a holiday, he says that the old country does not exist any more, and the old emigres in London do not know the people they are defending.

He is outspoken about Serb faults. For years, he says, Serbs lived under the illusion that they were important political players. After decades of Communism, followed by Milosevic, the country is now criminal, corrupt and amoral, populated by narcissistic people, with no liberal democratic traditions. He struggles on in Belgrade opposing Milosevic but is pessimistic about the political future. What is essential he believes is that Serbs recognise and accept responsibility for their crimes. Until then they cannot progress.

That may apply to those abroad, as much as those at home

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