The Serbian government’s capture of Ratko Mladic might seem like a PR boost for their national image, but for Serbs living in NYC, it can feel like just one more blow in a character battle lost long ago.
“I’ll kill them all!” one woman says, in Serbian then in English, leaning over to pinch my cheeks. “It’s a joke, sweetheart. I’m joking with you.” The grounds of St. Sava’s Serbian Orthodox Cathedral are as deserted as any other church on a Thursday morning, but one by one, the handful of Serbs hanging around reluctantly share their thoughts in the parking lot.
“What will be changed?” asks one man, who says he believes Mladic is innocent, but will still be indicted. “Once they put a sign on you that says guilty…that’s the end,” he says. Pointing to the next man he tells me “He is from Bosnia. He will say something.” This turns out not to be the case; he did live in Sarajevo, but doesn’t want to talk. No one should say what happened in Bosnia unless they were there, says the man. Neither will speak on the record.
One man asks how it’s possible there was a massacre in the town of Srebrenica if a town of “5,000 people” is now a sprawling city “like here, New York.” Another tells me Serb forces had been condemned for bravely clearing the town of Saudi terrorists who had set up camp in the houses there a month before the killing started in June, 1995. Both men are tired of having this conversation with strangers, of being on the defensive.
Ivana Janev, 24, tells me people she meets can’t tell Serbia from Siberia or Syria, let alone accuse her of complicity with her nation’s violent past. The closest thing she’s experienced to discrimination is her boyfriend, a Bosnian Muslim, calling her out on being Serbian when they fight. “This is only just to make me mad,” Janev says, smiling. “There are people that think Mladic is a national hero, but I only know people who think he is guilty and he must be tried for his crimes.”
On a break from hostessing at a midtown italian restaurant, Janev says her father, a dentist, was excited to tell her the news of Mladic’s arrest this morning. “My friends and I are happy. Because of him we have problems as a country,” says Janev, here from Niš, Serbia for a few months on a student visa. NATO dropped cluster bombs on Niš in 1999 as part of the Kosovo War, but Janev was not directly affected.
More than 15 years after the Bosnian War, the arrests of war criminals now have little meaning for Janev. She says her government could have caught Mladic years ago if they’d wanted. ”They’re old. They lived their life with money and all these things. Did whatever they wanted,” says Janev, frustrated.
As one of a younger generation of Serbs, Janev didn’t grow up being blamed for wartime atrocities. As a young woman, she has other concerns. Her visa expires in October, and when she goes home she won’t be able to afford moving out of her parents’ house. “It’s a bad economy. People can’t find work, and payments are very very small,” she says.