by Sofija Stefanovic (originally presented on SBS True Stories)

Forward: Sofija Stefanovic was born in the former Yugoslavia. Before the recent civil war, she would have called herself just ‘Yugoslavian’. Born in a country that no longer exists, Sofija arrives in Australia as a child who has escaped a civil war. She now identifies as Serbian, because she chooses to live in the present, but there are still some challenges for a person whose childhood happened in a place that no longer exists.

Her home country Yugoslavia is divided, but as she discovers late one night on a Melbourne tram, ex-Yugos are still united in many other ways.  

Click the red arrow (top left) to hear Sofija tell her story on this podcast episode:

Here is the transcript of the podcast episode for those who choose to read instead of listen.

I was born in Yugoslavia, a country that no longer exists. It was made up of six republics: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. When I was a child, Yugoslavia stood on the brink of civil war, and Australia offered professional visas to computer-nerds like my dad.

There was no internet back then, so my parents found out about the country from brochures at the Australian embassy. I remember them, hunched over the dining table, looking at pictures of Uluru and Mt Gambier. Is this what Australia will be like?

In 1988, when I was five, we packed up our apartment and moved from Belgrade, Serbia to Melbourne, Victoria. I remember my mum complaining to relatives over the phone, “The sky here is huge, like it could swallow you up.” And at night, she said, it was like someone had thrown a stone up there, shattering everything, so all the stars were in the wrong place.

Being new is hard. Lucky for us, there was the diaspora, Yugoslavians who had come before, waiting for newbies just like us.

“When you meet someone, you should say ha-vaya,” our new friends told us. “It’s an Australian greeting.” It took my parents a while to work out that “ha-vaya” was actually “how are you”. A phrase mangled by the Australian accent – how’ah’ya – and then further twisted by English-as-a-SecondLanguage ears.

It was the diaspora that taught us new concepts when we arrived: “Drizzle is a type of rain”, they explained, “Huntsmen are spiders, and though they are huge, they don’t hunt men”, “There’s a hole in the ozone layer directly above us”.

Our closest friends were a Croatian family, who had come to Melbourne years before the war. The kids were the same age as my sister and me.

The daughter coaxed me out of my shyness. In front of her, I didn’t mind making mistakes in English. She was uninhibited, she liked farting and the Ninja Turtles, and I became a performer, testing out material in English and making her roll around on the floor, laughing like a maniac.

I grew up like other ex-Yugo kids in Melbourne: we didn’t speak English at home and our parents were always upset. Every night, we watched SBS world news. My parents put it on full-blast, and if we made a noise during it, we were screamed at. How many dead in Vukovar? How how many dead in Mostar? The sounds of gunfire turned up, and my parents crying, arguing.

Aussies didn’t know much about our war – there seemed to be so many sides, so many religions, so much messiness. “Serbian?” they’d say, “You’re the bad guys, right?”

Sometimes, my parents would explain: we’re against Slobodan Milosevic and the nationalists – that’s why we left. We have Croatian, and Bosnian friends, and we all speak the same language. We’re all new here and we’re horrified by Vegemite, and the way you Aussies walk around barefoot. But that’s a long explanation, and sometimes, it’s just easier to say, “Yeah, we’re the bad guys.”

When I was fifteen, I got a job at the Montenegrin doctor’s office. Almost all the patients were ex-Yugos. One time, Novak Djokovic the tennis player was on the waiting room TV. He’d just won a tournament, and someone mistakenly introduced him as Croatian, instead of Serbian. He corrected the speaker and then said, “I don’t mind you calling me Croat. Serbs and Croats, it’s almost the same.”

“Bravo Nole!” people in the waiting room said, remembering the Yugoslavia before the war, where we were all brothers and sisters. This attitude, we call it Yugo-nostalgia. Yugo-nostalgics remember the pre-war years, blotting out the bad bits.

When Marshall Tito was in charge of Yugoslavia and were parades featuring Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, everyone dancing. “Brotherhood and unity” was the country’s motto, and mixed marriages were celebrated. Those were the days before everything fell apart and we were scattered across the world, to Austria, America, Australia.

Young people in my community go to Yugo-nostalgia clubs in Frankston and Preston and listen to Yugo-rock from the 80s, even if they weren’t around when the songs were first released. Those of us who didn’t live in the Yugoslavian dream that the older people speak about, we still dream about it. It lives in our imagination.

Don’t get me wrong. There are people who hate each other. People with nationalist tattoos, who brawl at sporting events. But that’s not what usually happens when ex-Yugos meet. At least not in my experience.

Recently, I was tipsy on a Melbourne tram. There was a group of music students from the VCA, their instruments neatly zipped up in cases. With them was an older guy, about my age – maybe thirty. He had crazy big hair and I thought I saw the remnants of makeup on his eyes. Maybe he was a bit high, or drunk.

He was hanging out with the young musicians and talking to them in a familiar accent: “That’s not real music, music you read from sheets. Real music comes from within, you know? From the soul!” the young men listened politely, and I was reminded of the hundreds of old Yugoslavian songs, best sung when you’re drunk and smashing glasses, songs about heartbreak and desire.

He slumped next to me, and we continued the tram ride towards St Kilda. I suspected him as being “one of ours” – what we ex-Yugos call each other, from his features, his accent, his attitude. Maybe he thought the same
about me, because he asked me where I’m from.

“Serbia,” I said.

He switched from English, and said, “I’m from Bosnia!” I knew if I broke into song now, something from Bijelo Dugme or Azra, he’d know it, and we could sing all the way home. We spoke in our language.

“Which city are you from?” he asked, and I told him, Belgrade. It turned out, we were the same age.

I guessed he’d come to Australia later than me.

“I’m from Srebrenica.” He said.

The word felt like a punch. My heart rose into my throat.

Because Srebrenica, if you don’t know, is a small town in Bosnia, where there was a massacre of over 8000 Muslim men and teenage boys in 1995.

I did some quick maths in my head and realized that this guy was thirteen at the time. That’s why he’s alive – they killed boys just a little bit older than that.

If he had an older brother. Or a dad.

I was thirteen then too, in Melbourne, listening to my parents howl as those images came up on screen. The massacre was perpetrated by my people, the Serbs.

He could have screamed at me, or turned away and let me dissolve into the floor, like I wanted to.

I don’t know what the other people on the tram thought as they watched our foreign-language exchange, but what they now saw was the drunk guy hugging me, and me falling into his hug, the two of us holding each other tightly.

He called me his sister.

And though we were strangers, we weren’t strangers.

The war wasn’t our idea.

The decisions were made by people bigger than us.

We sat leaning against each other, neither of us sober, our eyes filled with tears about something that happened a long time ago.

We sat in solidarity in some mutant version of “brotherhood and unity” – the kind that can resurface on a Melbourne tram, with the memory of a massacre.

And here, on the other side of earth, you see people like us hanging around Dandenong market, watching soccer, going to clubs, our foreign accents fading away, our Vegemite-palates developing.

He told me his girlfriend was expecting a baby. I wondered if his baby would learn the songs that hold us together, would it be haunted by the things that haunt us?

We are recent immigrants from a nasty war. Some of the memories we carry, shiny or bloody, are our own. Some are our parents’, our grandparents’. Like Atlas carries the globe, we carry it with us, a place some of us have never seen, a place that doesn’t exist anymore. And sometimes you feel the past, in a tram, or buzzing through the outer suburbs of Melbourne, stuck in our heads like an old song.