I have been asked this question many times, and today I feel like giving an anwser.
When I chose Serbia as my case study for my master thesis on collective memory from a political perspective, I had no connection whatsoever to Serbia or any other country of former Yugoslavia. i didn’t know a single serb, or croat, or albanian, I had never traveled to the region. I didn’t recognize the sound of the serbian/croatian/bosnian/montenegrin language, even less the different variants and accents.
I had decided that I wanted to take the risk of becoming a researcher and I needed a good project to get funding. Collective memory from a political perspective, that was what I wanted to work on. I needed a case-study, so I picked a map and decided it should be Serbia. Serbia and Spain seemed to me the most interesting cases, but I didn’t want to study Spain, because it was too close to my own country, Portugal, and I wanted to reduce any bias as much as possible. So Serbia became a natural choice.
The language was the only problem, but I took it as a challenge, because the other foreign languages that I already knew had been learned very early and with hardly any effort, and I thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to learn a new language departing from zero. (I still remember the first time I recognized the sound of the language on TV. It was when video showing the ‘skorpions’ killing innocent people in Srebrenica was released. The mother of one of them was giving an interview).
What I knew about Serbia and the conflicts in former Yugoslavia wasn’t much. That was also another reason that made Serbia appealing. I was aware of how controversial the theme was, and that I would have to be extremely careful and not to trust anyone blindly, but instead to check every information, every interpretation. I had realized that already when I was on the beginning of my degree in International Relations. It was in 1998-1999, and when the war in Kosovo started, my professor of International Relations decided to ask the students what was their opinion about the war. My teenage colleagues seemed to agree that Clinton was using Serbia to clean up his image because of the Monica Lewinski affair. Then I said that, if the serbs were opressing the albanians the way they were, then I was in favour of the war. My professor, who had made no comments on the Lewinski affair thesis, then said that this thing of international relations was not about good feelings but about interests. My colleages all laughed. That was when I started developing my aversion for theorists that handpick their cases so that it fits what they think reality is. That was also when I stopped reading Le Monde Diplomatique and developing my disgust for anti-imperialism rhetorics. This small episode in which both my colleagues and my professors proudly displayed both their ignorance and their lack of commitment to ethical values made me realize that when we defend positions that are based in ethical standards we must be very well prepared to resist the pressure of the horde of stupids who think they know best because they read Chomski and Project Censored. That too was a challenge worth taking.
I was lucky, I got a good supervisor, a grant and a serbian language teacher. Then an internship in an NGO in Belgrade.
I am still an outsider, but I don’t think that should be seen as a bad thing. Being myself from a country that does not get much attention from foreign shollars, I have always been curious to know how would I look into my country from the outside. Being totally alien to this region, I wanted to know the opposite: could I possibly try to look from an inside perspective, the same way I looked at domestic portuguese politics and history?
Two days ago, I presented a paper on extremist nationalist youth groups in Serbia in a conference in Belgrade. Then a young woman who had also presented a paper came to me and said: ‘it was as if you were not an outsider, it was as if you were from here’. That was the best complement I could have received.
Thanks to all the time that I have bee devoting to study and to travel through Serbia and also the other countries in the region, I hope to make my own small contribution to oppose the myth that nobody can understand Serbia but the locals. That was a myth fed by isolation. It is not true.
Studying Serbia also helped me understand quite a lot of things about many other issues, because Serbia and Former Yugoslavia are a micro-cosmos where problems that also exist elsewhere are condensed.
Now my emotional attachement to Serbia is very deep. This country both fascinates me and depresses me, thts is why I chose this photo to ilustrate this post. But the fact remains that, thanks to that random choice that I made some years ago, I find myself now a better person, and I have also managed to meet wounderful persons and sometimes have some nice moments because if doctors allowed themselves to get depressed with their pacients suffering, there would be no doctors.