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Remembering Yugoslavia – basketball, war, and a nation divided

October 15, 2010
by budgettravelsac

The devastation of the war in Croatia

It’s been nearly twenty years since the conflict in Yugoslavia began.  I mourned like it just happened yesterday.

In Germany and Eastern Europe, communism was falling apart and this gave rise to ethnic and regional pride within Yugoslavia.  Nowhere was this felt more than in Croatia.  A united Yugoslavia was falling apart based on the pressure by Croatia (and Slovenia) to declare their independence.

The Dream Team of Europe – Yugoslavia national basketball team

Meanwhile, Yugoslavia celebrated one of the greatest basketball teams on earth even challenging the likes of the USA’s Dream Team.  Vlade Divac, Drazen Petrovic, Toni Kukoc, and Dino Radja were the stars of that team.  Yet the leaders were the two roommates – Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic.  Vlade was Serbian and Drazen was Croatian.  For years, this didn’t matter.

After celebrating their World championship in 1990, a Croatian man came onto the floor with the Croatian flag.  Vlade took it out of his hands because he wanted to celebrate Yugoslavia.  As the conflict arose between Croatia and Yugoslavia, Vlade, the Serbian, became a villain.  And his friendship with Drazen was never the same.

I watched a documentary called “Once Brothers” which was a story about the friendship between Vlade and Drazen which was halted by war.  The two had made it to the NBA and were on their way to being stars.  The war cost them their friendship.  In 1993, a car accident cost Drazen his life.

While watching the documentary, I saw scenes of the fighting and bloodshed.  I understood the hate between the Serbs and the Croats and how it tore families, villages, and ethnic groups apart.  Neighbors were killing neighbors and no one was immune from attacks and killings.  Kids lost their parents in the fighting and many children lost limbs and their lives.  While Vlade, Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja, and Drazen were playing basketball, the lives of their friends and family were threatened every day.

A journey through Croatia and Slovenia

The war was devastating.  For anyone under 40, it’s the worst conflict the West has seen since World War II.  Out of this war came people and terms that everyone became familiar with – ethnic cleansing, Slobodan Milosevic, and NATO.   Yet many people outside of Yugoslavia never really understood this conflict.  And many people have never seen the tragic footage and the absolute worst of humanity that this war brought about.

I don’t remember much about the war.  It started when I was in high school and continued for most of my years in college.  I didn’t understand how deadly and violent it was.

Hard to believe the war started in Plitvice

A few years ago, I got the chance to visit Croatia and Slovenia – the first two nations to declare their independence from Yugoslavia.  While the trip consisted of beautiful places like Lake Bled and Plitvice National Park, I learned a little about the dark side of their history.  The first shots of the war were fired at Plitvice.  And on a drive through the countryside in Croatia, I saw shelled out homes, collapsed in the rubble while homes next door still stood – well kept and occupied.  The homes turned to rubble were those of Serbs who had been driven out or worse – killed.

Broken and mourning for Yugoslavia

As I watched the documentary, I could feel the pain and watched in horror at what I saw.  It wasn’t just the footage of the war itself.  Watching the lives of best friends ripped apart told the tragic story of war for those who survived.  Croatians Drazen Petrovic, Toni Kukoc, and Dino Radja were no longer friends with Vlade.  Friends and family even threatened them to not speak to the Serbian at all.  Vlade didn’t understand because he wasn’t Croatian and it wasn’t his family being bombed and fighting to survive every day.

In 1993, Drazen was driving to Germany with his girlfriend to meet up with his Croatian teammates for basketball.  He never made it.  A car accident took his life and with it, any chance for Vlade and Drazen to ever reconcile.  Vlade got those opportunities with Toni and Dino.  While it took time, the friendship was restored.

The documentary closed with Vlade visiting Croatia for the first time in over 20 years since his Yugoslavian team won the European championship in Zagreb.  He met with Drazen’s mother and brother and they shared their thoughts, regrets, and memories of better days.

As Vlade visited the grave of Drazen and placed a photo of the two embraced in a hug, I cried.  I cried for a Croatian basketball player who lost his life far too early and was a national hero in a time his country needed him the most.  I mourned for a friendship that was lost and never restored because war and death made it a victim.  I cried for the children and families torn apart by war and the devastation for which I finally began to understand.  And I cried for Croatia, Serbia, Yugoslavia, and for all the Slavic people.

For a brief moment of time, I was one of them and I hurt.  While I can’t heal the past, I can mourn the loss of friendship and life and the horrible side of humanity.  As I remember Yugoslavia and all the countries they have now become, I only hope and pray that we never see a war like that again.

Check out part of the documentary “Once Brothers” with Vlade Divac.  In this video, see footage from the war and reaction from the basketball players.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. October 15, 2010 12:56 pm

    Really touching and thoughtful post, Jeremy. We have long marveled over photos of places like Plitvice (but have yet to visit) not knowing much about the history.

    I think it is incumbent upon as, as world travelers, to go deeper than the photo op’s. So much of the joy of discovering something is understanding it’s history. Your blog post will make our future trip to the area more meaningful.


    • October 15, 2010 1:34 pm

      It is a fascinating area to visit. I love Croatia and Slovenia. However, many people go for the beaches and even to see places like Plitvice. However, not many people may be aware of the tragedies that took place.

      As a high school/college kid, I didn’t understand this war but after visiting there and seeing this documentary, I understand the tragedy a little more.

      Enjoy your trip. It’s a fascinating place to visit! Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia – all great places to visit and good people as well.

  2. Helena Jurin permalink
    October 16, 2010 5:27 am

    The worst part of telling any story, especially a supposedly reporter style story, is not having all the facts.

    Rule number 1 : Do not attempt to analyze anything so serious as a war in a few sentimential, half researched sentences.
    If you do not have the facts, don’t express them as true.
    You may express them as your view of the situation, your emotional feelings.
    But not facts.
    People might take you seriously.

    In WW2, Goebbles had a great PR tactic. If you said a lie enough times it would become the truth.
    I, who have lived through the war in former Yugoslavia, am sick and tired of people talking about it in half-truths.
    It leeds to bitterness.
    If you don’t know enough about what you are talking about, skip it. For the sake of all those killed. homeless, etc. on all sides.

    • October 16, 2010 8:45 am

      The information I shared was one perspective of the war based on the documentary I watched. Of course there are many perspectives on this. When there is a war of this magnitude, all sides suffer and make mistakes. My sympathies for what happened go out to all the people of Yugoslavia. I have a great deal of respect and compassion for all the Slavic people and my opinions on this story were an attempt to share my compassion on all that happened.

      I do not believe any information that I presented to be incorrect. However, the purpose was not to tell a factual event of the war but a more human side that touched me.

      If there is any problem with the information I shared, please feel free to share your own perspective. If you disagree with the “facts” that are presented, your issue is with the documentary not me. Surely you can agree with my sentiments that the war was a tragedy for everyone involved. My post is an attempt to touch upon the human tragedy and emotion and not a factual retelling of it.

  3. October 16, 2010 12:17 pm

    that 30 for 30 show is getting AMAZING reviews back home. And I can see why. Such an interesting and heartfelt story. Thanks for the post.

    • October 17, 2010 12:38 am

      I’ve watched a couple of the 30 for 30 episodes and this one was my favorite.

  4. October 17, 2010 6:25 am

    Hi Jeremy, I haven’t seen the documentary but found the book of the BBC series the Death of Yugoslavia really good at trying to explain exactly why and how the country fell apart. The semi-factual film No Man’s Land is well worth watching too. About a serb, muslim and croat trapped together in a bunker with a deadly mine and the western media’s manipulation of the scenario.
    I really would like to explore the Balkans soon and this emotive post only makes me want to more.

    • October 17, 2010 11:41 am

      I may have to check those films out. The area and the history is fascinating. There are a lot of great places to visit but I think there are still some hard feelings on both sides (my opinion). It’s a complicated history and war and the damage done may take years to full repair.

  5. Darryl permalink
    October 29, 2010 6:41 pm

    I also watched the documentary of Vlade and was equally moved with emotions. So sad. I could also feel tears in my eyes. I hated to see them lose the chance to reconcile.

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