The Balkan Tribe

The people of the Balkans look forward to the millenium with the eyes of the fourteenth century. It is a world where Michael Jackson meets the Ottoman invasion. On a moonless summer night in 1992, I became its prisoner.

Image: Bucharest, Romania, five days after the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife had been executed.

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The first time my path crossed that of Nikos Economopoulos was the fearful spring of 1990 in Timisoara, Romania. Nicolae Ceaussescu and his wife had been stood up against a wall and executed in December. Snipers from Ceausescu’s securitate remained in their rooftop perches on the city’s tallest buildings. Their victims were remembered in family snapshots posted over the sidewalks and streets where they had been shot.

There was almost no food in the stores. People settled for dinners of stewed rat and cans of rancid beets. But they scrounged for gasoline wherever they could find it, crossing the border into Hungary and selling off family heirlooms for a few liters. Then they drove — nowhere in particular, the idea was just to drive. One of my acquaintances, a young engineer on Timisoara’s ruling Revolutionary Council, drove me all over the southern Romanian countryside in a rusty 1973 Mercedes with Bill McPherson of the Washington Post, who had loaned the car to him. The engineer, like everyone else on the road, refused to stop for red lights.

“That was Ceausescu’s law,” he said. “Now we are liberated.”

Belgrade, Yugoslavia, 1991. Serbs gather at a nationalist demonstration.
Belgrade, Yugoslavia, 1991. Serbs gather at a nationalist demonstration.

The nation-state is a compromise, a negotiator between bribes and conflicting interests. Born with the emergence of France as a distinct entity in the twelfth century, it had, by the nineteenth century, grown to be the world’s dominant instrument of political power. It passed laws. It made the army a state monopoly. It told people to stop at traffic lights. What we are watching today in Europe — and elsewhere, notably, in Africa and Central Asia — is its demise.

Nowhere is that demise more evident and wrenching than in the Balkans, perhaps because the Balkans have never been comfortable with the very idea of compromise. Consider the record: Kemal Ataturk in the post- Ottoman Turkey of the 1930s; Ceausescu, who ruled Romania through chicanery from the 1960s until 1989; Josip Broz Tito, who tried to unite the speakers of Serbo-Croatian into a single state until his death in 1980; Enver Hoxha in his Albanian hermitage — all of them, in their way, tried to impose state order on countries that were larger in conception than the tribes that inhabited them. They also tried to seal these countries off from the trends that were leading toward a broader identity or an even broader “world” culture.

They failed on both counts.

Bozidar Pavnovic, a gaunt Serbian man with deep-set blue eyes and a wispy blond beard, had crossed the divide that separates obstinacy from madness. But no one in the village of Vucitrn, not even his wife or two daughters, seemed to take notice.

As far as I could tell, the other Pavnovics had done his crazed bidding, without the slightest hesitation, following him to Vucitrn on foot from their former home in Bosnia-Hercegovina, ninety miles to the west, and erecting a forty-square-foot army tent in an abandoned Serbian Orthodox cemetery. They had been living amid the tombs for six months when I met them on a sweltering August afternoon. They were the only. Serbs in this part of the Yugoslav province of Kosovo, roughly 85 percent of which is now populated by, ethnic Albanians.

The two teenage daughters outfitted in Levis and Serbian monarchist T-shirts, polished gravestones with moist rags while their father and I talked; his wife brought a bottle of plum brandy out of the tent and stoked up a coal fire to brew coffee. We sat on folding chairs that had been carefully arranged in a half-circle around the tent entrance: a parlor without walls or roof. Although we had only my pidgin Serbo- Croatian and Pavnovic’s pidgin German in common, he was at great pains to explain why he and his family were there. The conversation meandered fitfully through half a dozen rounds of brandy before I stumbled to my feet and tried to leave. “Wait,” he said, and summoned the oldest daughter with an impatient gesture.

She sat next to him and, in a labored scrawl, filled four pages of my notebook with the statement that her father dictated, pinning his eyes on me in a blinkless stare the entire time he spoke. As I rose a second time to leave, the daughter asked me in schoolgirl French if I would send her a tape of Michael Jackson’s new album. “Il chante comme les anges,” she said.

When I showed the notebook to a group of Albanians in the village center, a nearby cluster of ragged shops, one of them spit into it. A week later, I had the pages translated in Belgrade by a Serbian friend. He couldn’t make it all out, he said, “but I can tell you that it is mainly about the history of Vucitrn. How it used to be a place for Serbs and must be again. How our ancestors fought for it a thousand years ago. This man says he has come there on behalf of all Serbians, the dead and the living, to bear witness to the truth. He says he will not leave until Vucitrn is Serbian again.”

My friend said that in his opinion the statement didn’t read like the words of a crazy man.

In the stark black-and-white photographs of Nikos Economopoulos, the Balkan paradox is as inescapable as the stare of Bozidar Pavnovic. Economopoulos says his intention is to document the existence of what he calls the “Balkan Man”: to knit together the skeins of a collective identity in a region whose historical convulsions have made its name a synonym for implacable differences. It would appear to be a fool’s errand. But almost anyone who has crossed the madman’s web of frontiers and borders that stretches over the Balkans, from Istanbul to the Italian border, is likely, to agree with Economopoulos’s premise — and to recognize, in his work, the contradictions that sum up Balkan truth. Against all odds, there is a consistency in this shattered landscape, a singularity of habit and experience. A commonality.

Albania, 1991: Refugee child near the Greek border.
Albania, 1991: Refugee child near the Greek border.

Economopoulos sends me twenty of his prints, gathered over six years of wandering in Serbia. Macedonia, Romania, Albania, Turkey, and his native Greece. “I am trying just to feel things” is all he says of them. “I am trying not to think in these photographs, but to feel….”

A child, a refugee, stares with that Pavnovic intensity at the camera, his eyes lost in an unbridgeable distance: But he is Albanian, not Serbian. The enemy of Pavnovic, not the son.

Elsewhere — it is a village in Greece, but I only know this because I insist on asking — a face peers out from behind dark glass: an old woman crosses her arms. In another photo, a bride is shrouded in white lace; she has the rough hands and fleshy cheeks of a peasant: a Turk.

Turkey, 1987. A wedding party on the shores of the Black Sea.
Turkey, 1987. A wedding party on the shores of the Black Sea.

A strange beauty surfaces in the photographs when you examine them closely — a fragility — that is another commonality of the Balkans. An unforgiving land and climate have carved the faces and figures of Greeks, Turks, Serbs, Albanians, Bosnians, and Croats in ways that make conventional beauty rare — and give that insistent presence of fragility a painful grace. The brides and children and gypsy musicians who people the work of Nikos Economopoulos have that grace, that beauty.

And they have the final, the defining, commonality of the Balkan world: a familiarity with violence — with horror — reaching back so many centuries that it has become second nature and stubborn habit. It is the aahabit of living amid lines. It is the habit of living on an edge. It is the habit of knowing only extremes.

Militant Islam collided with crusading Christianity here, and Latin Christianity with its Greek and Slavic rivals. This has been the divide between East and West, between North and South, between rich and poor. It is the frontier between Asia and Europe, through which Attila the Hun marched on Rome and Alexander the Great on India. All who inhabit the Balkans — and their ancestors before them for numberless generations — have been molded by this history, know it as surely and personally as though the Barbarian invasions and the fall of Constantinople (not to mention the war against Hitler a scant fifty years ago) happened last month, last week, yesterday.

In such a context, a Bozidar Pavnovic staring from his tent at a field of broken tombstones is the articulate norm, not the mad exception. “This is Serbia,” he had said again and again, gesturing at the tombs. “We fought and died on this ground.”

The battle he refers to, in which the Serbs lost their independence to the Ottoman Turks for five centuries, took place eight miles south of Vucitrn in the year 1389. In Pavnovic’s eyes, riveted on mine, I felt I could still see the shadows of those feudal horsemen, swinging their maces and scimitars. “We fought and died here,” Pavnovic repeated.

They are orphans, the people of the Balkans, left dangling by history in a measureless void.

The Autonomous Serbian Republic of the Krajina exists on no published map. It has no diplomatic relations, not even with the government in Belgrade, the capital of official Serbia. It has no capital and no currency. But it has a long and awful history, and since 1990 it has had an army. On a moonless summer night in 1992, I became its prisoner.

The moment of capture had the flat banality of a B movie. At a roadblock in the Danube Valley near the formerly Croatian town of Tovarnik about eighty miles north of Sarajevo, eight armed men surrounded my rental car. One wore a nondescript blue uniform. The rest were in Levi’s and T-shirts (like the Pavnovic daughters, I remember thinking). “Your papers are not proper,” the uniformed man said to me in English.

I was carrying press credentials issued in Belgrade by the United Nations Protection Force, which is nominally in control of the eastern Croatian borderlands along the Danube and Sava rivers. There were sixteen hundred UN troops in the area, commanded by a Russian, Colonel Victor Kromchenkov. They were a conspicuous presence on the daytime roads in their white jeeps and armored personnel carriers. But the night, even Kromchenkov admitted, belonged to the Serbian irregulars, to gunfire and unexplained disappearances.

“These papers are from the United Nations and from Yugoslavia,” my captor said. “But this is the Serbian Republic of the Krajina, and you must now accompany me to our detention center because you have broken our laws.”

They were the laws of a broken land, where tanks and heavy artillery had razed scores of towns and cities, leaving nothing behind but smoking ruins. I had spent the day in one of them, Vukovar, which had been a community of eighty thousand before the Balkan night descended in 1991. Virtually every commercial and public building in the city center — schools, churches, office towers, department stores, hotels — had been leveled to the ground. More appalling yet, the Serbian and Croatian armies alike had systematically destroyed every single home in residential neighborhoods of no conceivable strategic value.

According to Zoran Markovic, a local policeman who took me on a walk through the rubble, twenty thousand people still lived in Vukovar. They had been reduced to a tribe of cave dwellers, digging their way into the remains of the city to find any available shelter from the fierce summer rains. Some of them were Croats, some Serbs, Markovic said.

Across one third-floor window in a napalm-scorched ruin a block above the Danube, a makeshift curtain of torn clothing had been strung. The building’s concrete staircase wound through a maze of iron girders in the open air. An emaciated man stuck his head out. “Is reporter?” he asked in broken German. “I must talk you.”

Seconds later, he appeared in the staircase, then descended into the rubble, carefully stepping through the empty frame of what had been the building’s entrance. He ran up, stood directly in front of us two feet away, and — again that Balkan stare — gazed intently into my face. After a few minutes of utter silence, he began to laugh. Markovic took him gently by the arm and led him back into the napalmed building.

“He refuses to leave his apartment,” the policeman told me. “Nobody knows what happened to his wife and children, only that they are not with him. People put food in the building for this man … but he doesn’t eat, and I think very soon he will die.”

I asked if the man was a Croat or a Serb.

“It makes no difference now,” Markovic answered.

It still made a difference to the men who seized me at Tovarnik later that evening. The law I had broken was to have crossed a Balkan line in ignorance. One of the men aimed his rifle at a wall. “This for press,” he said. “Bang, bang — dead.”

They hated the western media, which has largely portrayed the war in Yugoslavia as Serbian aggression, commanded by Belgrade. It was a lie in their minds, because the Krajina Serbs despised their fellow Serbs in Belgrade almost as much as they did Croatia. They were bitter, reckless men, most of whom had lost siblings, spouses, parents, or children in the war. They had nothing left to hang on to — except a sense of their own identity, their own mental map of borders and frontiers that nobody else acknowledged.

The Serbo-Croatian word krajina roughly translates as “ground between.” From the fourteenth century to the eve of World War I, it was the frontier between the Islamic Ottoman Empire and the Catholic Austro-Hungarian Empire: the front line of Europe’s longest-standing confrontation, beside which the cold war was a historical footnote. The Turks deliberately settled groups of Serbs — Orthodox Christians, neither Catholic nor Muslim — along this frontier, where they absorbed the full brunt of violence from both sides.

Skopje, Yugoslavia, 1991. Gypsies and geese.
Skopje, Yugoslavia, 1991. Gypsies and geese.

In the madman’s web of the Balkans, the Krajina Serbs were the ultimate edge-dwellers and had been for five hundred years.

What I remember most from the tense hours that followed my seizure, apart from the flannel-dry mouth and throat that fear brings, is a cassette tape, played over and over, of the same Michael Jackson album that the Pavnovic daughter asked me to send her. That, and an unending history lesson. Decade by decade, my captors escorted me through the tortured annals of the Krajina, from their betrayal — as they saw it — by the rest of Christendom during the Ottoman invasion to their betrayal by the pro-fascist Croats during Hitler’s occupation of Yugoslavia. In the interrogation room of the Tovarnik militia outpost, the only building still standing in the town, I found the same unfathomable, personal engagement with the distant past that obsessed Bozidar Pavnovic.

Michael Jackson droned on in the background.

Eventually, a detachment of Russian infantrymen and Jordanian paratroopers showed up with a Swedish Interpol officer investigating my disappearance. Someone found the policeman Zoran Markovic in Vukovar, and he radioed down a message to the effect that I had toured the Krajina with his official approval. Shortly after midnight, I was released.

All of us — the Serbian irregular commandant, his English-speaking staff officer, the Swede, the Jordanians and Russians, and I — saluted the day’s passage with a bottle of Croatian cognac. The commandant offered a second salute — to Magic Johnson, who had just led the U.S. basketball team to victory over the Croats in the Barcelona Olympics.

The nation-state, in its liberal and conservative guises alike, tried to pretend that tribal identity had been dispensed with — that “national character” could be a matter of invention and design. It tried to pretend that you could lock out the rest of Europe, the modern world.

But the tribal map is being reasserted, and the tribal soldiers are wearing Levi’s. They are moving away from the nation-state — backward toward the tribal dawn, and forward toward the twenty-first century, at once. “The first thing we will do when our country is recognized,” the Krajina Serbian commandant at Tovarnik had told me, “will be to apply for membership in the European Community.”

I asked why. “So we can then do the second thing — arrange the banking connections that will allow us to have satellite television,” he answered. His dream, the commandant said, was to be able to watch the National Basketball Association playoffs in a country of his own.

Frank Viviano reports on Europe for the San Francisco Chronicle. Photographs by Greek photographer Nikos Economopoulos, who won a 1992 Mother Jones International Photography Award.


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