From the very beginning Communist Yugoslavia was doomed to die young. Like the first Yugoslavia, which survived only 12 years, the infant state inherited a host of genetic flaws that were destined to tear it apart only 46 years after it was born. But for a few years, during the life of Josip Broz, better known as Tito, the factional, ethnic, and religious divisions that would ultimately destroy it were suppressed and the second Yugoslavia seemed destined to succeed.
When we visited the country in 1981, the year after Tito's death, Belgrade, with its broad streets, green parks and crowds of well-dressed, busy people seemed as prosperous and optimistic as any other European city. But the malaise continued to fester beneath the surface and a few years after Tito's death the old animosities resurfaced and the country began to unravel. The complex web of grievances and ambitions that fuelled the break up of Yugoslavia defies rational analysis. Suffice to say that its citizens were drawn into some of the bloodiest, most brutal, conflicts in the annals of civil war. And in the end the country of Yugoslavia was replaced by five independent states that are still struggling to reconcile their differences.
We flew into Belgrade from Athens and were met at the airport by my Canadian friend and colleague Tonia who had invited us to join her on a tour of her homeland. From the airport she took us to her Mother's apartment in the old part of town. The modest flat has a small balcony that looks out on a quiet tree-lined street, reminiscent of Vancouver's West End as it was 20 years before. Tonia's Mom, who speaks very little English, treated us like visiting royalty, showing us first to our room and then to dinner. The roasted suckling pig, complete with apple and surrounded by veggies and salad, had been ordered in our honour, and there was plenty of sljivovica, a potent plum brandy that burns all the way down and takes your mind off the calories and cholesterol.
During the four days we spent in Belgrade, Tonia took great pride in showing us around her city. From the ancient Kalemegdan Citadel at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, to its modern buildings and eight-lane downtown streets, Belgrade in 1981 was a vibrant and prosperous city. The Citadel, razed and rebuilt at least 40 times since the first fortifications were built by the Celts, was then a tranquil park and thriving tourist attraction. The older buildings, those that had survived the ravages of WW2, still bore the scars of war - masonry walls lashed by shrapnel and neat rows of pits left by machinegun fire - but these were things of the past which had begun to fade just as the war itself had begun to fade from the memory of the people.