World Book History #3: With Their Backs to the World

Serbia, Belgrade. Credit: Alex Blokstra

People who were born in the 1990s probably won’t remember the Balkans war. However, as the images of the horrendous conflict flooded evening news bulletins here in the UK at the time, they were difficult to ignore. Asne Seierstad is a Norwegian journalist whose 2005 book With Their Backs to the World: Portraits from Serbia is as authentic a depiction of the region post-war as there ever has been.

The book documents her time spent travelling around Serbia and the neighbouring states between 1999 and 2004. It follows and presents the lives of ordinary Serbs leading up to and following the fall of the dictator Slobodan Milosevic, and the chaos that continued to engulf the region afterwards.

The divisions in the Balkans run so deep and so historically that it’s impossible to get a complete guide to the situation from just one source. Seierstad doesn’t attempt this in With Their Backs to the World. Instead she engages the most honest journalistic trait possible – to present these people without judgement and delve into the true psyche of a nation in crisis.

Throughout the ‘90s and into the 00s, there was a real sense of ‘otherness’ towards the Balkan situation in Western and Northern Europe. As Seierstad writes in the forward of her book: ‘I read everything I could get my hands on… But I found little that really told me who they were, these people who – virtually overnight – found themselves cast as warmongers and butchers.’

Indeed, the situation in Serbia was bleak. But what Seierstad’s sensitive, humane approach does is show how a lot of these people are victims of their own circumstances. Take Michel, a man who poses as a lingerie salesman on a high street but actually participates in illegal (at the time) currency trading and selling gold, jewellery and cars on the black market. Or Bojana Letvic, the stoic journalist who sacrifices almost all pleasure in life in her attempts to topple Milosevic’s state-owned TV channel.

There are remarkable parallels between the mentality of Serbia in the early noughties and the increasingly fiery discussions about the European Union today. Firebrand rhetoric and dishonesty revolve around the same political viewpoints; the nationalism of the Brexit Party and the anger of the generally youthful left. In Britain, it feels like certain newspapers either side of the divide are as embroiled in their own vision as Milosevic’s TV channel.

Soldiers in Croatia during the Balkans war, 1991. Credit: Peter Denton

The book demonstrates the troublesome reality of tarring an entire nation with one brush. Most wings of the UK press stop short of this directly, but the implied hegemony of certain cultures is a growing issue in Britain and on the European mainland. The idea that people adhere to the same ways of life, opinions and march mechanically inline with one another is becoming ever more dangerous in political discourse.

Books like With Their Back to the World represent the way in which subjects like this should be presented. Journalism has never been completely unbiased, but books like Seierstad’s prove that it when it is, it can be just as powerful and important.

Get inside post-war Serbia yourself by picking up a copy here today.