Mention Novi Sad to individuals of Serbian origins and they are likely to tell you three things pretty much all at once: (1) one of the most beautiful regions of Serbia; (2) the cultural heart and soul of Serbia; and (3) the city where, between March 24 and June 9, 1999, NATO ran thirty-one bombing sorties, destroying all communications, electricity, and transport ion in the city.
The stated purpose of NATO bombing was to compel an end to Serbian military operations seeking to maintain control over Kosovo, whose local majority Albanian population wished for independence from Serbia. Sorting through the mess of attacks and counterattacks, accusations and counter-accusations, while not fruitless, does not yield the kinds of clear answers we want; the kinds of answers, that is to say, that might prevent such a conflict in the future. Which is why I want to hold off on drawing any conclusions just yet.
Instead, I want to focus on the first two things Serbs told us when we visited Fruška Gora, Sremski Karlovci, Novi Sad and the surrounding region this past weekend.
With the Danube wending its way through this mountainous region, there is no question about its natural beauty or why, when Orthodox monks seeking solitude chose sites for their dozen or more monasteries, they overwhelmingly preferred this region over any others. Indeed, Kirsten, the boys and I felt cheated visiting only five. Set in secluded forests, housed in ancient sixteenth and seventeenth century buildings, these communities are priceless.
Sremski Karlovci was until recently the spiritual center of the Serbian Orthodox Church. And, as several websites explain to visitors, this, combined with its beauty, makes Fruška Gora the spiritual center of the Serbian Nation, but, therefore, also the heart of Serbian nationalism. This intimate relationship between spirituality and nationality, between spirituality and nationalism, may explain why, when national revolutions spread across Europe in 1848 and 1849, Novi Sad and Sremski Karlovci provided the base from which nationalist revolutionaries launched their resistance against what they perceived as Hungarian domination. And so simultaneously both the modern Serb nation and the modern Serbian Orthodox Church were born (a point hotly contested by our guide). In any case, it was in 1848 following its successful revolution against Hungary that Karlovci’s Orthodox Metropolitan was raised to Patriarch and when simultaneously Karlovci was declared the capital of the Vojvodina, a northern region of greater Serbia that includes Belgrade.
At least administratively this would all change after World War I, when Belgrade become the capital of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. In 1920, the Patriciate of Karlovci and Belgrade merged to form one Patriciate; and the official seat of political and religious power in Serbia migrated to Belgrade. But, ask anyone, including a close friend of ours in Belgrade: the heart and soul of Serbia still lives in Sremski Karlovci.
But what does this mean exactly?
Let me first say that, since we were visiting so many monasteries, Kirsten was wearing her collar during our visits, a symbol that she was representing our corner of the Church — the Worldwide Anglican Communion — in our visits to this other corner. And let me also say that our welcome in all of these communities was warm and courteous. Yet, one particular community, Monastery Velika, was more than warm and courteous. It was enthusiastic. The brother showered us with CDs of music, photos, and a book, in English, titled Nemanja’s Heritage: Divine Liturgy, written by Mile Medić (1933- ), and published in 2010 by the Monastery.
It was only when we got home to Tuzla, Sunday night, that Kirsten began to skim through the book. This is how it begins: “A people that doesn’t have its country cannot be called the people. People is the country, my dear child. The people is not a flock of birds, nor a herd that moves from north to south, and then lands on the soil to peck or just stop by on a pasture and drink water” (5). “And remember, my child, the blood. Blood also makes the people. Blood is eternal. The blood of a newborn is one thousand years old. . . . My children, by my blood and my spirit, let it not be hatred of a foreign blood let alone of a brother. Blood of man is holy and it runs in us from one spring. It is given from God and our forefather Adam. Do not shed any blood, no matter the tribe or the people. But my child, defend your blood fiercely, for the blood of your ancestors is in it. Do not let anyone shed our blood because it is Serbian. Bring peace where there is war and wage war to bring peace. Offer love where there is love, but defend Serbian blood with blood” (8-9). “Graves, my child, graves and bones make the people” (10). “Country and the people are not the same. People is older than anything. . . . One people can be in many countries, and one country can have more peoples. And now, hear me, my child, hear me well. One people, one country, that was my plan and it remained, and I give it to you as an Oath to all from now and forever. Serbs don’t have their country but they spread in other foreign countries. Slavs pushed the land with their magnitude from north to south seas” (21).
Nemanja is of course Stefan Nemanja, the 12th century founder of the Serbian state and church. But it is how he founded both state and church that interests me. Originally he was baptized Catholic. Yet, after the defeat of his kinsmen, Nemanja’s family returned to their traditional lands in Rascia where Nemanja was rebaptized into the Eastern Church. When he reached adulthood, he was awarded the princeship of several regions, but not Rascia, which was given to his brother. However, in 1166 and 1168 Nemanja rebelled against his brother and deposed him. And when the Byzantine Emperor threw together a multi-ethnic and multi-religious force of Turks, Franks, and Greeks to defeat Nemanja, Nemanja instead defeated them. Tragically his brother was drowned in the river Sitnica during the conflict. Thus did Nemanja assume the title Grand Župan of all Serbia. Following his death Nemanja was sainted by the Serb Orthodox Church. But among his best-known legacies was his ongoing war against Bogomil heresy, a synchronistic religious practice widespread throughout the Balkans, including the region that is now Bosnia and Herzegovina.
But it was Nemanja’s defeat of the Turks — or rather the multi-ethnic, multi-religious armies that included Turks — that came up repeatedly in our tour of the monasteries. This and, of course, the defeat of the Ottoman’s, an event joyfully reenacted in church pageants every year.
After our visits to the monasteries, Kirsten and I talked with our sons about nationalism. They pointed out how the United States was also guilty of committing terrible atrocities around the world; like, for example, the NATO bombing of Novi Sad. Yes, we admitted. The genocide against native north Americans was a terrible legacy as was the enslavement and murder of hundreds of millions of Africans in route to the Americas and after their arrival. But we do not celebrate these atrocities.
Nor do we believe that they are somehow a fixed feature of our blood.
As to the larger question — why did NATO run thirty-one sorties over Novi Sad — I have only partial answers. Novi Sad supplied essential fuel and ordinance to Milosevic’s forces in Kosovo; Novi Sad was home to valuable supply routes; Novi Sad continued to broadcast disinformation to the surrounding towns and villages.
But I suspect this is only part (and by no means the most important part) of the answer. I suspect that the better part of the answer is buried in the belief, the conviction, held implicitly by everyone we meet, that Novi Sad, Fruška Gora, and Sremski Karlovci are the heart and soul of the nation.