I must have been 11 or 12 when I hear about Belgrade for the first time. I was watching the news with my parents. I remember seeing images of jets flying over some city and the word “war”. It didn’t make much sense to me at the time, but I mostly remember being very scared of a war so close to us. Each time we crossed the border from Hungary to Romania to visit my family and we saw the sign for “Serbia”, my mom would get all nervous and tell my dad to make sure he wouldn’t get on the wrong road. Since then, Serbia and Belgrade have always been synonyms for war and destruction to me.
Now, 20 years after the war, I am walking through the streets of Belgrade for the first time. I see fast food restaurants, cafes, stores. The pedestrian zone is packed with people sightseeing, shopping, meeting up with friends or playing music. Meet the new, vibrant, hip and peaceful Belgrade. It is very much a city that is “now”, but it is also a city where you can still discover the many layers of its past.
But even if the war injuries are healing, you can still see the scars. One of the most fascinating ones I find inside Belgrade’s fortress.
Here, inside these massive walls the different layers of Belgrade’s violent history become most apparent. The walls of the fortress are thick, strong, its interior spacious. it was clearly built to defend the city and protect its citizens. It is ironic how many times it failed to do that. The fortress couldn’t protect Belgrade against the Ottomans, nor against the Austrian-Hungarian empire, nor against WWI, nor against the invasion of German troops in WWII, followed by more destruction by the allied forces, nor against a communist dictator, nor against the Balkan war I remember from my childhood. How many times did these people have to rebuild their city? How many times did they have to try to pick up their lives again after massive destruction? How many times has the hope for peace been destroyed?
Sure, all of Europe has been a battleground for hundreds of years. But maybe other countries have had more time to heal than Belgrade. It is the little things that make you wonder: As somebody sets off fireworks after sunset, I can see some older people being startled. Maybe they were just surprised, but I cannot help but think that maybe it reminds them of the sound of bombs and destruction. A destruction that is well documented by various exhibitions inside the fortress, as a way to not forget the past and to hopefully never repeat it again.
I can only hope that this city, strong and beautiful as its fortress will never go through past horrors again. And I can only admire the optimism and life-embracing attitude of the people of Belgrade. As I see children in the fortress climbing on top of the displayed war tanks as if they were toys on a playground, I think that maybe there really is some hope for a peaceful future.