When I stepped off the bus at the Osijek bus station, Igor was waiting with his hand outstretched. “Danielle?” he asked, eyeing my backpack stuffed with everything I would need for the next three months. He appeared to be in his late twenties, with thinning blond hair and soft blue eyes. His shoulders slumped forward and his body was pear shaped with a perfectly round belly that hung just slightly over his orange shorts.
I threw my backpack into the trunk of his red hatch back and we began the thirty minute drive to Beli Manastir. The air was heavy and thick like molasses and I could feel the sweat begin to trickle down my spine. A small fan was clinging to his dashboard, rattling, but not spinning, as we drove along the potholed street.
“Do you know about this area?” he asked in his perfect English. I shook my head, embarrassed that I would arrive in a place I knew nothing about.
“First, you must be careful. There are still unexploded land mines,” he said, pointing to a large sign with skull and crossbones painted in red and several words in Croatian. “But they are all well marked.” He laughed, a sort of full bellied laugh that made me want to share his joke.
He began to explain the turmoil that had plagued the region since the early 90s. He told me that before the war, the region was occupied primarily by Croats. But during the war, he said, Serbs began kicking their neighbors out of their homes if they were not Serbian. People handed over their houses and their land, or fled in fear. According to Igor, the fight was mostly about land and to what ethnicity it belonged to. Croatia had just declared itself an autonomous nation in 1991, separating it from the former Yugoslavia.
“You know it used to be part of Yugoslavia?” He asked, glancing at me and this time I knew, but Yugoslavia seemed like such a foreign entity, the last domino in America’s Cold War. And even though I knew it had been a country, a communist country, and its history was eclectic and dangerous and brooding, it was just a word to me.
After Croatia separated from Yugoslavia, the Serbs in this region began to rebel, he claimed. They armed themselves with weapons that Milosevic had given them. They wanted a Serbian nation and they wanted the region to be a part of that nation. He explained that Beli Manastir is only a half hour from the Serbian border and the land there is very fertile. It was nicknamed the Bread Belt of Eastern Europe with two major rivers running through the area, the Drava and the Danube. The Serbs knew this land would be very beneficial to their new nation, Igor continued.
“They began to impose fear in our hearts and we were not ready for war, we did not want a war. So it was easy to make us comply. It was sad, but we are mostly farmers, not soldiers.” Igor began laughing again. “I hope I do not give you bad picture of my country,” he said.
Out the window we passed what was once a home, the stucco was pockmarked with bullet holes and where one wall was missing I could see the wood from the roof slanting inwards like an inverted volcano. And at the summit was a gaping hole where a bomb had smashed into the family living room.
But the Croats did fight back and eventually they regained control of this area.
Igor continued, his voice soft and even, as if he had practiced this speech many times before. “Now, we are practicing peaceful reintegration, bringing Croats back to their homes, and Serbs and Muslims, the way it used to be. There are still tensions, but mostly it has been successful…for the ones who actually returned. The Center for Peace, the company I work for, has been very active in this process and we have been trying to get more people to return to their homes and when they do, we help them try to settle back into their lives. It is very difficult for people to forgive and most do not talk about the past.”
I glanced at Igor. His profile was rounded almost indistinct, no sharp edges, no jutting corners, just soft lines blending together. He continued smiling even as he spoke, as if by smiling he could make our topic less dreadful.
“In the middle of all this,” he continued, “were the Roma. I think you call them Gypsies, no?” I had heard that term and associated it with tribes of nomads with covered wagons and flowing dresses and witchcraft and séances. I nodded. “Well, during the war, the Roma were displaced persons. No one wanted them, so they were shuffled from country to country. But here we are trying to reintegrate them into society. This is what you will be doing. You will be working with Roma children.”
I was surprised. I had volunteered to teach English to Croatian children. This was the first I had heard about integration or about Roma for that matter. I kept my mouth shut and pretended I had known this all along.
Igor was leaning forward, his chest resting on the steering wheel and his eyes scanning the road in front of us. “I always miss the turn,” he explained. His blinker was on, steadily keeping rhythm, blinka, blinka, blinka…and we were crawling along at an excruciatingly slow pace as the traffic piled up behind us. I heard two honks and a steady stream of cars began to pass us. “Aha,” Igor said as we began to turn right. I looked around and wasn’t sure how he could have missed it. The road we had been on was a straight, flat two lane highway with sunflower fields shielding either side like river banks and we turned onto the first road we encountered after the strikingly large sign stating Dobro Dosli Beli Manastir (Welcome to Beli Manastir).