Here I was finally in Belgrade! Disembarking after a fifteen hour bus ride from Berlin, the touts swarmed around me offering taxis, and cheap accommodations. Beefy blokes strode by wearing red, blue, and white Serbia T-shirts, making a show of their patriotism in this city known for its every-day nationalist display and machismo. I had been to Belgrade a dozen times since 2003, a year after prime minister Zoran Đinđić was assassinated by fascist thugs, and felt I knew what made this city tick. The city was still poor and struggling along. A cafe and bar scene flourished – yet that was not entirely new either. New, however, were the refugees.
For the last year, Belgrade has been flooded with refugees, particularly down around by the bus and train stations, so that the crude encampments were one of the first impressions the visitor received after arriving in the city. Thousands of refugees fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan were travelling through Serbia on their way to EU and were waiting here in limbo in Belgrade for so-called “agents” – smugglers – to ferry them north through Hungary into Austria and Germany. With the refugee crisis worsening steadily along the Balkan route, around 2,000 refugees had been entering Serbia every day at the height of the influx.
More than a million people had crossed Serbia to EU countries. In first six months of 2015, an estimated 100,000 refugees crossed Serbia on the same path. And yet only a handful have requested asylum in Serbia, a country with its own economic woes (unemployment in Serbia stands at 25 percent) and history of immigration to the West (40,000 Serbian citizens emigrate every year).
Making my way through Park Luke Ćelovića to the center of Belgrade I passed pockets of refugees gathered together smoking cigarettes and conferring about the next stage of their journeys. Meals were being served and Médecins Sans Frontières was operating out of a truck parked in a corner of the park. But it seemed the authorities were now at the end of their tether, and measures were being taken to make the refugees feel distinctly uncomfortable and unwelcome. The park Luke Ćelovića and the adjoining Bristol park, had been plowed up and orange plastic fences erected to prevent refugees from sleeping there in the rough. At the same time patrols were cruising the parks and areas where refugees were gathering or sleeping, urging the refugees to embark on shuttle buses to the border.
There were refugees of all sorts – families, small children, single men, using every available space, roofed place, or park bench to settle down and enjoy a brief respite. In the absence of public toilets, refugees were being forced to use the rubble of damaged buildings or abandoned spaces to build improvised showers or toilets. This was Belgrade, September 2016.
The refugee influx from the Middle East was challenging the citizens of Belgrade. Not only was it putting strains on its already woefully inadequate infrastructure, but there was also the cultural dimension to consider. Belgrade is a fairly homogeneous city – if one discounts the large Roma minority – with most inhabitants Orthodox Christians and little experience of immigration from outside Europe. During the Balkan wars of the nineties Belgrade was also the headquarters of a rabidly xenophobic propaganda machine that vilified Muslims, Croats and Albanians, and nationalist graffiti on house fronts attests to still simmering feelings of hate and chauvinism towards other ex-Yugo ethnicities. So how were the Serbs of Belgrade coming to terms with these mostly Muslim refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan?
According to a 2011 census, there were 228,658 Muslims in Serbia (3.1% of total population, excluding Kosovo). The largest concentration of Muslims in Serbia can be found in the municipalities of Novi Pazar, Tutin and Sjenica in the Sandžak region in south Serbia, bordering Kosovo, Montenegro, and Bosnia. These Muslims are self-described Bosniaks, while Christian Serbs regard them as Muslim Serbs; renegades from the true faith. There are also Muslims from Albanian pockets in south Serbia, and Kosovo. In Belgrade itself there are estimated to be around 200,000 Muslims living in the city.
And yet Serbs have a complex about their Eastern influence and Muslim neighbors, which is from time to time instrumentalized and stoked up by politicians and the media. Theirs is the anxiety of a small, besieged nation afraid of disappearing. Many hold to conspiracy theories, maintaining that the West is bent on eliminating Serbia, and that the world hates Serbia, that not the Bosnian Serbs were the aggressors in the war between 1992 and 1995, but that the Muslims committed genocide against the Serbs.
In 1997 the Serbian Patriatch Pavle signed a “Declaration against the Genocide of the Serbian People”, which defined the Serbs not only as self-defenders but also as defenders of Europe: “Since the early Middle Ages, the Serbs, together with their rulers and church dignitaries fighting the Turks, have been the last rampart in the defense of Europe from the Turkish invasion and the penetration of Islam.”
At the height of the Ottoman period there were 273 mosques in Belgrade. Most of them were destroyed – not by the Serbs, it must be said, but by the Austrian army led by Eugene of Savoy (1663-1736), who razed Belgrade in 1717.
Only a couple of structures dating from the Ottoman period survive in Belgrade today, a city which despite its great age going back to the Celts and Avars, retains few structures of antiquity, owing to the fact that the city was razed some forty times.
One of them is Damad Ali Pasha`s Turbe, an octagonal mausoleum located on Belgrade fortress. Housing the body of the grand vizier Damad Ali Pasha, who was wounded in a battle with the Austrians at Petrovaradin fortress in 1717 and died soon afterwards. Another is the turbe of Sheik Mustafa located near the Studenski Park, in Visnjiceva street, It was built in 1784 in the center of a tekke (Sufi lodge) that once existed here. The tekke is long gone, but the turbe still stands. Sheikh Mustafa was a dervish who was buried in this turbe.
“We have these two turbes and both are still remaining and looked after by the Serbs because those two pashas were really beloved by the Serbs,” says Milan Đurić, a Belgrade ethnologist and musician. “Because they were nice to the Serbs. One of them was called ‘Serbian mother’. Because he gave us rights…the relationships between the Serbs and Turks has had its ups and downs, like everything. Those turbes are relics of the good times.”
As far as mosques go, from the 270 some mosques which once graced the Belgrade skyline, only one mosque exists to this day, and that is the Bajrakli džamija, situated in the oldest part of Belgrade, to this day known by the Turkish name “Dortjol”.
The Bajrakli mosque is located in Gospodar Jevremova Street and got its name from the flag (Turkish, bayrak) that signaled the call to prayer to other mosques. As the endowment of Sultan Suleiman II, it was built between 1660 and 1688 out of the endowment of Hajji-Ali, a cloth merchant. It is a single-spaced building with dome and minaret. During its history it has been demolished or its function changed a number of times. During the occupation of Serbia by the Austrians in the 18th century, it was converted into a Roman Catholic church, but after the Ottomans retook Belgrade, it was returned to its original function. Hussein-bey, assistant of Turkish chief commander Ali-pasha, renewed the building in 1741, and, for some time after, it was called Hussein-bey’s mosque or Hussein-chehaya’s mosque. At the end of the 18th century it was named Bajrakli-mosque. Today it is the only active Muslim place of worship in Belgrade.
The interior of the mosque is very modest. The walls are without plaster, with shallow moldings, stylized floral and geometrical motifs and calligraphic inscriptions of verses from the Koran, the names of the caliphs, as well as Allah’s magnificent properties and names written in Arabic letters on carved wooden panels. At the entrance to the mosque there is an arched arcade porch with three small domes. There is a fountain for ritual ablution in the courtyard, as well as a medresa with a library.
Today the mosque serves 2,000 Muslims – Bosnians, Muslim Serbs from the Sandžak, Albanians, Macedonians, and lately Muslim refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Many refugees came here to the Bayrakli mosque to find help, food, clothes, shoes and medicaments.
It was here in the courtyard of the Bajrakli mosque that I get in a conversation with Muedib, a tall Bosniak, who heads the administration of the mosque.
I ask Muedib if the mosque issued the ezan – the call to prayer – from the minaret. Muedib says that it did not – out of fear.
In March 2004 the anti-Muslim mood came to a head after news spread that Albanians in Kosovo were destroying Orthodox churches – following news (spurious, as it turned out, that Serbs had drowned a couple of Albanian youths) – angry Serb mobs set fire to the mosque and adjoining medresa and library, with 7,000 books. The then chief of Belgrade police Milan Obradović was sacked in the aftermath of the incident, but he accused the Interior Minister Dragan Jočić of giving him “a direct order not to us use force against protesters”.
I ask Muedib if it was difficult being a Muslim in Belgrade.
“In the one hand, yes. In second hand, no,” says Muedib. “It’s okay. It’s peaceful environment. Belgrade is multi-religious and multi-nationality city. It is capital of Serbia, and the citizens are so peaceful. Now it’s okay. But you see, we have a policeman 24 hours.”
“Five hundred people come to the mosque for Friday prayers,” says Muedib. “Mosque is full. And we have one mescid on the fourth floor. Now we have a lot of believers from Bosnia, Serbia, Arab countries, Turkish man, Kosovo, Macedonian.”
According to Muedib the Islamic community has been distributing food and clothing to refugees sleeping in Belgrade’s parks.
“Some people came here when it was raining,” says Muedib. “I can’t tell the exact number, but there were not many people here. They came when it was cold and rainy, for warmth and shelter.”
While in Sarajevo two years ago I had spoken to a Bosnian imam who had told me of cases of Serbs – usually staunchly Orthodox Christian – who had become Muslim. And I ask Muedib if he knows of such cases in Belgrade.
“Yes, we have,” he says. “But it’s not every day, every month. But we have, maybe two, three, four times in one year persons who converted from Orthodox faith to Islam. But that situation is very difficult because that guy who converted to Islam is not good Orthodox believer. He is maybe atheist or agnostic. And that is when he find some answers in Islam. And converted to Islam. That is it.”
Inside the Bakrakli mosque I got to talking to Fahim and Awlia, two Afghani refugees who had an amazing footsore journey behind them, having walked from Turkey, through Bulgaria to Serbia and were now sleeping in a parking lot off of Park Luke Ćelovića. They liked the Serbs, I was surprised to hear, found them friendly and welcoming – in contrast to the Bulgarians, who hassled them, hurled racist abuse at them and spat at them. Sure there were Serbs who stood up and changed seats when the refugees sat down next to them on the trams, but they were still better than the Bulgarians, and the Hungarians.
The one – Fahim – was a boxer with iron biceps, and a hafiz, who had committed the entire Koran to memory. He had family in Afghanistan, including a son, who was being trained to be a hafiz like his father. Fahim’s father had supplied Fahim with two thousand euro which he was going to give to an “agent” to bring him across Hungary into Germany, which was his ultimate destination.
His traveling partner, Awlia had already attempted a foray through Hungary with another group, and had been halted by police, who had sicked their German shepherds on them. Awlia showed me his perforated jeans, ripped by the dogs. His friends were still in the hospital recuperating from their wounds.
After aksham prayers, I walked up over the top of Belgrade with Fahim and Awlia, past the packed cafes on Knez Mihailova, where we made jokes about the fun-loving Serbs, who, despite dire economic straights and lacking work continued to live it up in the bars and cafes of Belgrade.
We walked down past Belgrade market to Park Luke Ćelovića, so that Fahim and Awlia could show me where they lived. I asked them what they would do when the cold set in and they still hadn’t made it to Germany, and Fahim said they hoped to be gone by that time.
And so, after exchanging addresses, the two took me down to the park to show me where they slept. The cops had dug up the grass and fenced it off to keep the refugees from sleeping there. The Serb police urged them to move on to Hungary.
“Make dua for us,” said Fahim upon parting ways. “Pray for us”.
It surprised me to learn from the Afghani refugees about the Serbs’ hospitality towards the refugees in Belgrade. But then again, maybe it shouldn’t have.
“You know, Serbia is one of the countries with the largest number of refugees in the world,” says Milan Đurić. “Most of those refugees are Serbs and Gypsies from the other republics of Yugoslavia. So I think they will at least feel kind of sympathetic towards them. Because the Serbs remember how it was to be a refugee. I think that maybe that’s why it’s not so negative.”
(This article ran first in The Islamic Monthly, http://theislamicmonthly.com/refugees-white-city/)