The first time we were told that we are different dates back to ’81. I remember I had a friend whose dad was a high-ranking official in the the MUP or SUP at the time. I came to take her notebook so I could copy homework or something, her name was Lela Pantelić and she told me, “Shush, something happened in Pristina.” “What is going on?” She said, “My dad has been away for a few days, they called him to work but I do not know what’s going on, something is happening.” And I just took that information, for in Gnjilane nothing happened in ‘81, nothing happened then.
This was in April. I know when it was, because the weather was nice and I came home and asked my father what was going on in Pristina. Until then I never went to Pristina, nor did I have any knowledge of Pristina. I only knew that it was the capital of the Socialist Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija, and that was all I knew. So after a while we found out that some kind of irredentist, chauvinist, or who knows what kind of demonstration, was happening in Pristina, and people started talking about it, something similar to ’68, they said.
Nataša Govedarica: What did your father say, do you remember how he explained what was happening?
Zoran Ristić: Well, I can hardly remember. I believe that he could have said, “This does not concern you, your duty is to study and the only business you have is to be yourself.” My dad wasn’t the only one with that kind of answer. I asked some other people whom I had met. We even asked teachers in our school what was going on in Kosovo. I remember that a few days later the former Television of Belgrade broadcast some story about it and we were all at home watching it, breathless. There was a piece of footage that I remember very well. It was a video of a man who was protesting while a member of the police approached him, and I remember that the cameraman recorded when the police officer removed a badge with a two-headed black eagle from the man’s coat. I remember this scene so clearly, as if it was yesterday that I watched it. I remember other and numerous shots of a bunch of people running while being chased by the police.
I was a kid then, I had no idea about what could be happening, why, what’s going on, what’s the problem. Having in mind that we were always fed the information that everything works well in Yugoslavia, that we all love each other, we work a lot, and that we should believe that there will never be a war, but in the same time we have to be prepared if war comes tomorrow. That’s what I also remember. This was the mantra that was broadcasted in our television every day: brotherhood and unity.
After the demonstrations in ’81, for the first time I doubted these stories. I was already, fourteen, fifteen years old, or something like that. These are some of my earliest memories. I remember that even in Gnjilane the divisions started to be noticed after ’81. These divisions were visible at every step. The streets were divided: Albanians walked on one side of the street, Serbs on the other. I’m talking again about Albanians who lived in the city, but I still do not divide people between those who live in the countryside and people who live, or want to live in the city. But really, in one of my first memories, there is a big difference between the urban population which was growing, growing and being educated in the city, and the population that came from the countryside and started to fill the cities during this period.
At the same time Gnjilane was still a major industrial center. As I was growing up in Gnjilane, various factories were opening up. Gnjilane was the largest industrial and commercial center, so to speak, in Kosovo. In Gnjilane there was the very well-known and very important tobacco industry, and the batteries factory. There was the textile industry in Gnjilane, a radiator factory. During the ‘80s, there were large farms that were cultivated, I remember that well.
Once, my dad came to Budriz, and in the neighboring village which had detached school department, where he worked, he had somehow found Californian blackberries, you know, and these were planted in large spaces in order to be collected, manufactured, and later sold, it was something you could have made a living of. My dad was enthusiastic. Then he took these Californian blackberries that don’t have thorns and moved them to his birthplace near Šilovo, and he planted them there in some sort of large farming areas.
So, in the ‘80s, I remember clearly, they did make some cherry plantations, so we as kids in high school, went to pick them and pack them and get them transported to those who processed them further or whatever. So Gnjilane as a city that was rapidly developing was like a magnet for people of various industry professions. People with different skills would come to find a job, to start a life, family, etc. These are also one of my first memories, so to speak, from high school.
Nataša Govedarica: You started talking about the moment when the division becomes visible.
Zoran Ristić: Yes, yes.
Nataša Govedarica: How did that look like to you, how did that influence your life?
Zoran Ristić: Well, here’s how it looks. I was a sophomore in high school, if you ask. During my youth, even when I was in seventh grade, I’ve been listening to some rock and roll groups, to heavy metal music. “Heavy metal, what is it?” I wondered. So, even as a kid I started going to these [newspapers] kiosks. A magazine called Jukebox had already been in circulation long before my time, and I got it from some older friends from the neighborhood. I was reading it a lot but only little did I understand what it was, I must admit. There were mostly articles about music, about rock and roll, various events in the music world, of course the technique of musicians. I wasn’t that much into that.
Then, Rock started to be published, you might remember that, also a magazine about music. On the one hand, half of the magazine – it was a little different from other retail formats – on the one hand, there were comics that I loved, and the other side of the magazine there were texts on rock and roll music. And so I started to listen to heavy metal music, somehow I’ve got the first vinyl of ACDC that started my obsession with heavy metal.
I listened to it for about ten years and I acted and dressed that way. You know, I’d scribble my shirts, I’d tore one sleeve, the other was there, in its place, wearing a denim jacket was required as an important part of the image, and in the classroom, well, not exactly in the classroom, but in the school where I went, I saw a girl who was identical to me, with long curly hair, a casual, grungy style like an Oxford student, also wearing a denim jacket, denim trousers, her name was Floriana. I fell in love with her. And after a while I realized that this love, as much as we were just falling in love, I knew that things between us couldn’t work for several reasons. Even one of my Albanian friends once approached me and said, “Zoran…[be careful]”. I didn’t go out with her, there was only a sort of mutual flirting. In the Albanian class she was what I was in mine. And I was the same as her but in the Serbian class, so there was, let’s say, some mutual innocent flirtation when we were exchanging glances, we were in the second year of high school then, sixteen years of age. Afterwards I learned that she was missing, I don’t know what happened to her and I never heard anything about her, nor do I know anything about her today. But the fact remains that falling in love with a member of the other side or even looking at the opposite side was not recommended.
This was one of the ways to realize what’s going on, if you ask me, it was one of those things when you could see that the division began, the division between Serbs and Albanians. And for me this was shocking, we were raised in the same way, we were listening to the same music, reading the same books, going to the same movies, hanging out, talking about the same problems and suddenly it all stopped. We somehow split. I cannot say when exactly, but I can say that after ’81 I learned many things, heaps of information came to me when I realized that we’re not living in the same story anymore, although we live in the same city, we breathe the same air, go up and down the same streets, and despite the fact that we didn’t speak the same language, we used to communicate really well.
Nataša Govedarica: This is interesting for me, how did that division look like, who learned whose language?
Zoran Ristić: Albanians learned Serbian in most cases, and mostly all of our communication was in Serbian. A small number of Serbs wanted or did not want or could not learn Albanian. Honestly, Albanian for us Serbs was a little tight, tight, it is a difficult language even though you live with a person, say, a neighbor who speaks that language, it is still very difficult to learn. We learned Albanian in primary and secondary school and who wanted could learn at least basic phrases, basic communication patterns. But you know very well that in former Yugoslavia the official language in the army and the police and in all institutions was Serbo-Croatian. So I do not know what to tell you.
For example, I learned Macedonian because I listened to Radio Skopje. Radio Skopje was one of the biggest radio stations in my region. Every night and every day my radio was tuned to Radio Skopje. Shortly after we got a radio signal, I think, maybe it already existed, I don’t know but somebody told me about Radio Niš. I found Radio Niš frequency and Radio Niš had some good programs with music that interested me and I listened to Radio Niš, but I also listened to other stations. Only in the ‘80s or something, I started listening to Radio Pristina. Because Radio Pristina, if I recall correctly, had music shows playing folk music, Albanian folk music or Serbian folk music. Honestly, I was not interested in that, I did not listen to that kind of music, so that’s it.
Nataša Govedarica: But you still learned a bit of Albanian?
Zoran Ristić: Yeah, well, I grew up in the streets of Gnjilane, my next-door neighbors were Albanians with whom I hung out, with whom I played football and of course the first contact with the Albanian language was in school, but regardless of the school, a parallel education was happening in the streets. You had to socialize with Sami or Avli who was your next door neighbor, with whom sometimes you ate a piece of pie or cake and cheese and then played football, you heard the first curse words, you were there to fell the atmosphere of their house. So even today I speak Albanian, actually, I speak “Indian Albanian” because I understand more than I can speak, because I was born in this area and of course I was watching and listening to the music from the area, watching television and hanging out with people who spoke the language, so I learned at least something.
But I have something else to say, it just came to my mind. I had a friend with whom I graduated from high school who also lived in Gnjilane and as we were classmates in fifth, fourth grade, we started to learn the basics of Albanian as a compulsory subject in fifth grade, I remember that his father came to school and said publicly that his son would not learn Albanian. For me, that was … now what, we all have to learn it, so why wouldn’t he learn it? Why wouldn’t he come to class? I think we had the Albanian language class twice a week, and maybe one of the problems why the vast majority of children did not want to learn Albanian was because the professors of Albanian hadn’t tried harder to teach them the language. Later it became an optional class, although earlier it was required. In my case it was a required class, I had to learn it, it was mandatory. Education in elementary school was mandatory.
But, you see, now that you ask me, I remembered that I had a professor of Latin in high school, an Albanian man, who taught me Latin and from whom I have learned so much about languages in general, not just about Latin, and I still think he is credited for a good part of my knowledge about Christianity and all that is related to Latin and Latin civilization and Roman civilization and history, you would not believe it. Otherwise, this man graduated in Romance languages and culture in the Vatican or Rome. I have not seen him for 30 years after graduating from high school, and I’d love to see that guy again. He was such a nice, great gentleman who as a young man had studied here. I was in a kind of scientific field of study and we needed to learn Latin. And since no one knew it at the time, there were no teachers available, so he was teaching in Serbian. It’s one of the things that would be good to mention. I still remember him as a good and diligent professor to whom I owe a lot for my education and so on…
Nataša Govedarica: When you finished high school, what did you do next?
Zoran Ristić: Well, everything was set up for you when you graduated from high school. For all the guys who finished high school at the age of eighteen, what they did next was joining the Yugoslav People’s Army. That was the path for every guy who wanted to become a man and be initiated to manhood. He had to go to the YPA and to serve in the army even if he was limp and blind and crippled and hunchbacked, God forbid, he had to go the army. Because in our [community], I believe in other Yugoslav communities as well, it was a kind of imperative, it was a must, “Oh, you have not served in the army, what’s wrong with you? You must have some serious problem.”
The farewells celebrating the start of a man’s service in the army started in ‘85. I remember the end of July and beginning of August, Gnjilane quivered in farewells to the army, the so-called Yugoslav People’s Army. My peers served everywhere, from Slovenia to Macedonia, and I expected to serve somewhere similar. Anyway, I was very skinny then. I did not play sports and I was a yet unformed man. I got a call, I think it was August 2nd, I recall that very well, I opened a note that said, “Military Post: Pančevo.” I closed it, put it back in the blue envelope, returned home, we had a farewell party before I departed, it was binge drinking until dawn.
I remember they put me on a bus to Belgrade and in the morning I caught a bus to Pančevo and found myself in the military barracks of Pančevo on August 4, back in ‘85. They put me in some sort of Recce-Sabotage troop, and it was some kind of elite unit that held their training there. And my meetings with important people from former Yugoslavia began then. There I met Bosnians, Slovenes, Croats, Macedonians, Muslims from Bosnia, Croats from Bosnia. And what is perhaps most important for me, seeing all those TV shows that we watched, from Splitski, Velo Misto, and Mali Misto, to Slovenian shows such as A šćuke nič pa nič , we devoured these TV shows, watched them constantly, not to mention some Croatian TV series, the Bosnian show Leather…, During this, I totally forgot that there were so many different dialects and understood that we were very close because of television.
There were 120 young soldiers in my unit, I remember this, we went through training together and there I started the first true friendships, important friendship in my life. When you come to this kind of a place, somebody leaves you there and you meet people who come from different socio-economic, and religious and linguistic backgrounds. That’s where you start to understand who you are, what you are, to which group you belong, why you belong to them, and not to someone else, and ultimately, you come up with conclusions about all the things we went through in several countries in which I lived, just as you did.
Nataša Govedarica: And after that, you were back in Kosovo or where?
Zoran Ristić: Yes, I forgot to mention that l tried to enroll in the Faculty of Medicine in Pristina after high school, but I was not accepted. Yes, it might be an interesting topic. Something became noticeable back then in ‘85. In the spring, when I began to prepare the entrance examination for university, [I realized] that the state was starting to fall apart. This was obvious when you come to the counter with very good success and honors to apply for the school that you choose, and you realize that some of your friends from school are holding their parents’ hands in front of you, while parents are waiting to register them in the desired school. However, they don’t stand on line like everyone else, they walk, and their children follow them. I expressed myself a bit literally here, although there were many cases where some kids were really brought by hand to enroll in the University. You could see parents entering offices, talking with people, laughing, and negotiating. I saw that during my studies as well, but now it does not matter.
In some way, I wanted to fulfill my wish and the wish of my parents and I tried to enroll in Medicine, Dentistry and Veterinary. I tried Veterinary in Belgrade, Dentistry and Medicine in Pristina. I was not accepted in any of these three schools, although I think I’d be a good and hardworking student…. and then I came back home and told my dad, “Dad, it’s not working, I will go my way, goodbye.” What happened? When I took my documents from the Medical Faculty in Pristina, I ran to the Faculty of Philosophy in Pristina and applied for the entrance exam and after a few days I took the entrance exam, I passed and I enrolled in Literature. I took my student ID, returned home and joined the army. I spent 13 and a half months in the army, and after serving in the army I returned to Pristina and began studying Yugoslav Literature and Serbo-Croatian language. That was the name of the program.
But I want to tell an interesting story from the army. Maybe it will be interesting to you. In the army, I met Albanians from other cities who served with me. Among other things there was a guy my age who finished school somewhere in Kosovo and his name was Afrim Konjufca, I remember this very well. He did not know a word of Serbian. And then the captain, I think his surname was Tomić, said, “Zoran, you will stay with Afrim, you will sleep in bunk beds, but you should be with him during training and try to make him understand at least a little of the Serbian language.” I said, “Sure, why not.” For six or seven months during training I socialized with Afrim and as much as I could, I tried to say something in Albanian and translate it in Serbian. Of course, I remember Afrim because of this story. He was a great character, we hung out a lot, talked and joked together, but also did everything our superiors asked us to do.
Finally, my service in the army ended, and I knew that Afrim also enrolled in University, I think it was the Faculty of Agriculture in Pristina, and I thought, “After the army we will probably meet in Pristina.” And that’s what happened. We met again in November or December, I knew this because the weather was very cold. I was out and after I ate some pie, I was on my way home, when I ran into Afrim. “Ku je, Afrim? How are you, hey, what are you doing?” And he says, “Do you have time for a drink?” I did have time and we were off for a drink. He says, “Zoran, I want to tell you something. I just wanted to tell you that I knew Serbian all along and pretended not to know it because I did not want to be harassed and forced to do things I did not want to do in the army.” This was a surprise for me, a pleasant surprise, I mean. The man simply wanted that while serving the army, and speaking of which, we served in Pančevo, a very tough military post with a lot of hard work, and I just, I understood why he wanted to disguise that fact … if he did not know Serbian, he would not understand the commands, which were then in Serbo-Croatian. So that is one of the stories that remain in my memory from the army, but of course there is bunch of other stories as well.
Nataša Govedarica: How did your student days look like in Pristina?
Zoran Ristić: It was hard. I was supposed to live in the dormitory. I tried to get a room in ’86-87 and ‘88. It was almost two years since my studies began and I wanted to live in the dormitory, but that’s another story. After returning from the army, and from the moment I arrived in Pristina, I had already figured out that nothing’s right there, that something’s going on and for a thousand times I asked myself who is crazy here, who is kidding whom here, I do not know. I had thousands of questions. If I start to think about those things, I can say so much more about it, much more.
I lived in a rented room. Back then, we didn’t have many housing options. The dormitory was too small to accommodate all interested students at the University of Pristina. I think statistics is difficult, but if we now reviewed the statistics of students studying at the University of Pristina, it was certainly a huge figure. Now, town small as Pristina could accommodate only dozens of kids from different groups, different departments, and offer them some kind of decent living conditions. But there were no conditions there, no conditions. So you were doomed to your own pocket, so to speak, you had to find your own place that you would pay for regularly and everything else that goes with it and of course you had to attend classes regularly, be present during lectures and perform all other duties that are imposed by the University.
Quickly I got tired of Pristina, Pristina became too small for me. I remember it cold, gray, dirty, unlit, full of mud and dust. And when the winds of autumn and winter started to blow, then the town became overpopulated with stray dogs. These are some of my impressions from this period in Pristina, and I quickly got tired of Pristina, because it was all pretending. Life in Pristina was boring, a bunch of police on the streets, I forgot to say that. In fact, the same sort of atmosphere as it is today. I do not see much difference after these 25 years that I know about these things.
A tension was always being kept alive here, we constantly lived in the anxiety that something would happen, that someone would do something bad. And in order to maintain at least an appearance of peace, the illusion of peace or the appearance of peace, there is always the police, there are still some people in uniforms, there are always some people looking like good angels who oversee you, so you do not jump over the edge of the code that someone else wrote for you. Someone has set out everything: you’ve got to walk on the promenade from eight to nine and then go home because at nine or ten the police curfew starts. And it took a long time, it lasted too long. For me … I no longer know how to describe it, for me this was like some game of madness that we all got used to, the common game of idiocy that has being oppressing me for fifty years.
All my life I had this problem regarding, should I do or should I not do something that would have far-reaching consequences. I don’t believe I felt relaxed in my hometown even for ten minutes of my life, except maybe during the first phase of my childhood, when I was a small kid. But starting with the ‘70s, when divisions started – we are us, and they are them – it was terrible. Today I’m constantly complaining about my generation and the generations that came after mine, and the generations that are yet to come… We had tons of energy, strength, love, hope for better things in life, and we spent all that on something that does not make sense, something not human – on tension, divisions, struggle, fears …
In Kosovo, fear is one of the most common feelings among people, fear of everything, of poverty, of war, of conflict, of excesses, both small and big, so I do not know … somehow the whole story … I have been talking for too long, so I … I find the whole story very hard when I realize that I could have used all those days for something more meaningful. It is hard for me when I remember that I was as a professor at some point and in the school where I worked I watched the children with deep regret and listened to how and where they spent their time. And I tried to keep telling them to turn to some nicer things, to begin to build some things that they would leave behind, that when they’re gone, when we’re gone, no one could say, “Well, they squandered their life in divisions, they dedicated their lives to ruin each other in wars. They ruined their lives with fear, their own fears and with the fears others’, of insecurity, being afraid of everything.”
 Federal Ministry of Interior/Local Office of the Ministry of Interior.
 Locality in Vojvodina, a North-Eastern region of Serbia.