“It’s like apples,” he said. “You only need one or two bad ones to turn the rest bad. And that’s how it is with Muslims – maybe only 10% are fundamentalists, but they can turn the others.”
It was a difficult conversation, for diplomatic rather than linguistic reasons. He spoke excellent English, but the situation Niall and I found ourselves in meant it was somewhat difficult to disagree, even politely.
It was 2001, and we were roughly midway through our big post-university travels from Frankfurt to Cairo. Working our way down the Balkan coast we’d found ourselves in the Montenegrin town of Budva, a slightly charmless sprawl of concrete, not aided in its character by the time of year. It was October, I think, and the tourist season seemed long over.
We probably shouldn’t have been surprised, therefore, to find the campsite on the edge of Budva was closed. There were, however, three men at work building new metal gates for the driveway. We conveyed our situation to them using our rudimentary grasp of what we were now being careful to call Serbian (after three or so weeks of referring to essentially the same language as Croatian or Bosnian in those respective countries to the north). The metalworkers said the boss was away and the campsite was closed for the off-season, but we’d be welcome to camp a couple of nights anyway.
It wasn’t a luxurious stay. If the owner, who we never saw or met, wanted things shipshape for the next tourist season, he would need to do more than just build new metal gates. The grass, for a start, would need a good mow. It was knee-high in places, a lush home for thick clouds of insects. Getting in and out of the tent became something of a skill, as we learned to unzip it, dive in and close it up tightly again as quickly as we could before any bloodthirsty wildlife could swarm in.
And then there were the toilets. To be fair, they weren’t quite the worst toilets we’d encountered on the trip (a grimy stop on the overnight bus from Tirana to Pristina won that accolade, I think). But one of the toilets was broken such that when you flushed , it would flood the cubicle, the water rushing out along the floor almost as fast as you could run to the door. It could have been worse, of course: better to have the compulsion to dash out of the loo at top speed than into it.
But the metalworkers made for good company. I forget their names now. Only one of them, the younger of the three in perhaps his late twenties or early thirties, spoke English, excellently as I say, but all three were kind, friendly and chatty. They cooked for us one evening, frying some chicken in a fire on the ground using a converted blade from a plough. Or at least that was what I assumed the sort of kayaking action was meant to convey when I asked one of the non-English speakers who was on cooking duty what the improvised frying pan was. We asked what we could contribute, and I was dispatched to the nearest shop, freshly equipped with the Serbian word for “potatoes” (never since used and thus forgotten, I confess).
Over food, and through the medium of the only bilingual member of the team, we talked. The metalworkers explained that they lived in Vojvodina, a northern province of Serbia with a substantial ethnic Hungarian population. Work was hard to come by, however, and they spent a lot of time away from home, hence their current job here in Montenegro building a gate. Vojvodina wasn’t properly home, though. If I recall correctly they said they were from Krajina, a part of north-eastern Croatia that bordered Serbia and was mostly ethnically Serb. The name rang a bell from the news as one of the bloodiest battlegrounds in Croatia’s war of independence. Many Serbs had left, forcibly or otherwise.
So perhaps hostility to Muslims was to be expected for men from an ethnic group that had fought both them and Croats in the various wars that ripped Yugoslavia apart. Especially if they had moved away as a result of the conflict. They’d asked where we were going on the rest of our trip, and we explained that our next destinations would be Albania and Kosova. Somewhat surprised, they cautioned us that it would be dangerous, and the people were not to be trusted. I said I’d been to both countries before in 1999 on an aid convoy, and I’d found the people nothing short of hugely kind and hospitable. Still, they insisted, the countries were under the influence of Islam, a religion that led to violence and terrorism.
This was just a month or so after the September 11 attacks in the USA, and the dust of global politics was still to settle into what we now call the “war on terror”. I recall just a few days after the attacks, we spoke briefly to an old man in a bus station in either Croatia or Bosnia, I forget which. He introduced himself in his broken English as Mohammed, before for some reason feeling compelled to add with a jokey smile, “no terrorist!”. Already, assumptions were being both made and assumed to be made.
The vast majority of Muslims are entirely peaceful and opposed to fundamentalism, I reasoned with the metalworkers as we ate our chicken and potatoes. Probably right, replied the one who spoke English, but you only need one or two fundamentalists to change the others. He made his analogy about apples, and I can’t remember how the conversation progressed thereafter. Peacefully, certainly.
It would have been impolite, given the circumstances, to argue. And in any case, after having heard so much from Albanians, particularly in Kosova, about the terrible things that happened to them in the 1999 war there, it was perhaps only reasonable for me to hear a view from the other side.
I wonder what the metalworkers are up to these days, and particularly what they would make of the recent news that Ratko Mladić has been arrested. He was a military leader of the Bosnian Serbs during Bosnia’s chapter of Yugoslavia’s collapse, a comrade of Radovan Karadžić who he now joins as a detainee at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Scars take time to heal, as do prejudices, no matter how kind and friendly you are capable of being to two strangers from Scotland. So perhaps the metalworkers would, like some Serbs, still regard Mladić as a national hero. Or after all these years, like many other Serbs, they’d believe it’s time to move on from the crimes of the past to a more peaceful and cooperative Europe. Who knows.