On the one and only hill in the southern Serbian city of Leskovac lived 18-year-old Milica and her family. Between late March and early June of 1999, Milica and her father would sit on their roof, watching the bombs fall around them.
“It became something like a live show,” Milica said. To her, and the rest of Leskovac, death was too close and ever present. At some point, the terror turned to numbness. The possibility of being in the wrong place at the wrong time became a normal part of life.
Under the hill, in the “workers’ neighborhood” of Leskovac, lived Dragan, an 18 year-old boy. Around the fifth day of the bombing, his father opened all his homemade wine and welcomed his son to have whatever he wanted. This might be the last chance they had to drink them, he said. With his father and his friends, Dragan would drink and celebrate and live his life, like there was no tomorrow.
Thousands of miles away sat Andja, a Macedonian Serb who moved from northern Serbia to Chicago in 1976. “I’m a strong person,” Andja said, but when the war started she “did not sleep for nights. I remember it like it was today.” She watched on TV as her homeland was obliterated.
Serbia is a nation as old as the 9th century. It has gone through innumerable changes throughout the ages, from kingdoms, to socialist governments, to dictatorships. Every revolution and every war brought the Serbian people hardships, filling their stories with both unlimited compassion and ungodly violence. In Chicago, Serbian immigrants form an integral part of the city: from Milica, the Columbia student in love with fashion, to Andja, the hardest working sandwich chef in all of Lincoln Park, from Jelena, the kind old landlord who won’t raise rent, to Dragan, the ambitious DePaul business major. Each of them represents a strength and power to persevere, and they carry with them stories of social transitions and hardships that transfix our imagination. By retelling their stories, we preserve history, and we honor the ability to stay human in a world full of chaos.
For Andja, Serbia during her childhood in the 1960s was anything but chaotic. In fact, Serbia wasn’t independent at this time but actually part of a bigger republic called Yugoslavia.
Josip Broz Tito, a Yugoslavian military leader, became the dictator of several Balkan countries during WW2, bringing all these countries together to form the Socialist State of Yugoslavia. While Tito had absolutely no tolerance for disobedience, his ideals were utopian. He wanted to create a national identity that would transcend the historically ingrained ethnic conflicts of the region. For Andja’s childhood, and even Dragan’s and Milica’s early childhood, this seemed to have worked.
Andja describes her time in this country as one completely free of ethnic tensions, and that people seemed happily united. Before their teenage years, Dragan and Milica remember hearing this same idea — whether they were Bosnian, Serbian, or Croatian, they were all one people.
However, after Tito died, political and economic hardships began to tear the country apart. The rhetoric of unity was replaced with the rhetoric of nationalism, leading to the Yugoslav wars and the ultimate disintegration of Yugoslavia.
Following political and economic crisis in the 1980s, Yugoslavia broke up into six independent countries shown in the map of the Southern European region above.
Andja’s parents, having lived in Serbia 30 years before this breakdown, saw it coming. Andja’s parents had experienced the ethnic tensions between Albanians and Macedonians firsthand while growing up in Macedonia during the Second World War. According to Andja, her parents understood their utopia couldn’t last. They had experienced the darker side of this region, and knew it might come back.
In 1976, Andja left, carrying one suitcase, filled with nothing but her school books. In them were stories about a blissful and united land known as Yugoslavia — a country that only exists in history books.
In 1980, four years after Andja left Yugoslavia, Dragan and Milica were born. Tito will die less than a year later, and with him the last remnants of one of the most grand experiments in Balkan politics. Dragan and Milica grew up experiencing the disintegration of their country, and the nationalistic fervor for separate independent states, whether for Slovenia, Croatia, or Kosovo.
However, there is more to Milica and Dragan’s stories than just nationalistic wars. For them, a personal war between themselves and their culture began the moment they were born. For Milica, it was being born a woman, and for Dragan, it was being born as two ethnicities, with two opposing families. Instead of conforming, both would form their own beliefs surrounding equality and justice. They would speak up against the injustices they saw, even it meant being marginalized. The battle for their own self respect and values in Serbia would be fought almost entirely on their own.
Dragan was raised half Montenegrin and half Serbian. He would go back and forth between each family, sometimes welcomed in as one of their own and sometimes looked down upon for factors out of his control. Without trying, he was already different.
Most of his life, therefore, would be defined as being an outsider. Early in his life he became known as the “smart, inquisitive” one throughout his neighborhood, which automatically set him apart in a socialist society that valued conformity. His desire to question everything would only strengthen over time.
With his unrelenting curiosity came the ability to form his own values, independent of the conservative society around him, and he wasn’t afraid to tell his country what he thought.
In high school, he would approach conservative Serbians and ask, “What if your son was gay?” Even today, homosexuality is heavily marginalized in Serbia. So back then, with the rise of nationalism and conservatism, it was a radical act of defiance that someone would go around town challenging people’s beliefs like that. Most of those he approached did not hesitate to respond violently, but Dragan didn’t care. If you ask him how he had the confidence and the courage to stand up by himself, he’ll simply tell you he was born with it.
Throughout his time in school, all the way to college, Dragan stood up against tradition, conservatism, and authority. He was met with the same response everywhere: stop asking questions.
However, in 2000, the beginning of Dragan’s college years, a national event gave him a newfound hope for Serbia. Milosevic, the Serbian dictator strongly responsible for the rise of Serbian nationalism and the utter economic devastation of the country, lost the national election.
“There was a lot of positive spirit in the air,” Dragan said. But not for long. “Right before the end of my [time in] college they killed the prime minister of the country. I finally decided that I would leave the country and never come back.”
Dragan left college one credit short of earning his degree in music, traveling to the United States in 2003 for the first time, eventually settling in Chicago. Believing he had won a green card lottery, he came back to Leskovac in 2004 to retrieve the card, but some odd technical issues left him stranded in Leskovac, without any type of visa to get back the U.S.
“Life pretty much sucked. I was surrounded by all these people that expected very little out of life,” Dragan said.
However, it was during this time that Dragan would have the courage to approach his childhood crush and future wife, Milica.
For Dragan and Milica, both outspoken and alone, there could not have been a better time for them to meet.
Dragan had always had a crush on Milica growing up, but from a distance. He never had the confidence to actually approach her. Now trapped in Leskovic, after experiencing America, he had nothing to lose. So when Milica, happened to come out with Dragan and a mutual friend one night, Dragan was far from the shy boy he was 10 years prior. “The outcome of going out that night,” Dragan says, “ is that Milica is my wife.”
“When I met Dragan, he was like fresh air for me,” Milica said. Finally to have a partner where you’re treated equally, where you’re not just a sexual object, you’re not just a pretty girl.”
Like Dragan, Milica’s fight for equality started the moment she was born. Because of Serbia’s traditionally patriarchal society, her family, particularly her father, wanted a boy. Milica was raised with this knowledge. The family and the society she was born into didn’t value her as an equal, but an inherent disappointment.
Milica knew there had to be something better. She remembers in fifth grade watching the music video “We are the World”, by Michael Jackson, and realizing that “obviously there are people that are addressing [problems in the world] and I want to be part of them. I have an issue, and I became obsessed with the idea that I need to leave the country, because this is very, very wrong.”
Her process of self discovery led her to France in her college years, where she experienced a comparatively egalitarian and free society. She was forever changed. Milica returned to Serbia knowing for certain there was more than Leskovac, and that she didn’t have to be stuck there anymore. Her drive for self discovery could not be slowed.
In 2004, after coming back home from France, she began dating Dragan. Both were determined to get out of Leskovac.
In Chicago, On Valentine’s Day, 2014, after a long series of visa struggles and periods of long separation, Milica and Dragan became husband and wife. They survived the bombing of their country, escaped a childhood of inequality and a society where they were told to be quiet.
On Sunnyside Ave, thousands of miles away from the little Serbian city of Leskovac, Dragan and Milica live together in a Chicago apartment. Both are going to school, Dragan for business, Milica for fashion. Their apartment has a wonderful view of a soccer field below, and one might wonder if this view is anything like the view from the one hill in Leskovac.
Illustration courtesy of Nick Anderson, Miami University