Starting Over Again in Croatia

The wars in former Yugoslavia led to an enormous displacement of people. Even before the war broke in Bosnia, nearly 300,000 refugees from that multi-confessional region flooded into Croatia. As the wars spread and the refugee flow increased, the Bosniaks – Bosnians from a Muslim background – usually treated Croatia as a transit point to a third country. Bosnian Croats, on the other hand, tended to settle in Croatia. According to the 2001 census, 450,000 Croatian residents were from Bosnia. Another 70,000 arrived between 2002 and 2009.

Kristina Micanovic was not yet a teenager when the war broke out. She was born in the Bosnian town of Brcko. She and her family became refugees in Croatia, travelling from one place to another until finally ending up in the walled city of Motovun, about 30 kilometers inland from the Adriatic coast.

“We were like second-class or even third-class citizens,” she told me in an interview in Motovun last August. “I remember when we moved from Vinkovci to Dalmatia, near Split. There were five of us children — I have three brothers and one sister. We came with my mother because my father was in Switzerland. We spent one year in that little village near Split. They broke the windshield of our car. Generally children avoided me and my brothers and sisters. They said, ‘They’re from Bosnia — we can’t make friends with them.’ I didn’t understand why. I really didn’t understand what was going on. We were living in this part of the world having a normal childhood. Then the war came, and we were trapped somewhere else. And people acted like we were some kind of losers. It was hard. It was strange. A year after we came here to Motovun, they slashed our tires.”

But they were lucky, Micanovic insists: “We lived through the war and the refugee process better than many. Some people were in the camps, and they really were harassed. Families were separated. And many people were killed. We didn’t have anything like that. Thank God. We were lucky. The family stuck together, and we didn’t have to go to the camps.”

Of her life in Brcko, she doesn’t remember a time of harmonious ethnic intermixing. “When I was at school in Brcko, the three nationalities were separate in the schools,” she told me. “We weren’t separated in the classes, but the Serbs were mingling with the Serbs and Muslims with Muslims. We didn’t have friendships with the others. So it’s all so sad. When I was talking about how people treated me when I came here, it was the same as we treated each other there. My parents also said, ‘Don’t make friends with them, they’re Muslims.’ It was the same thing, actually. And it’s sad because children are taught from the beginning to be separate because of the nation and religion. And this is the 21st century.”

Today, she and her husband run Atelier Art In Situ, a graphic design studio and store. When I visited Motovun last August, I was charmed by the designs displayed inside the shop. With her representations of Motovun, Micanovic nicely captures the corkscrew layout of the medieval city. Business is good, she told me. She would also like to sell her paintings, but she can’t for local licensing reasons. Also, it’s expensive to live and work in Croatia these days.

“We were in Finland this winter, and the prices in the grocery shops are the same,” she said. “It’s crazy – our salaries are so much less. I don’t know how people manage to live, particularly people with children. Well, there’s the grey economy. And we are also in the grey economy with the paintings. People who make the handmade jewelry and stuff, there’s no way they can do that legally. It’s like they’re selling drugs. I’m selling my jewelry or paintings — I’m not selling drugs. I’m not selling people or something. But I can’t do it legally. You have a bunch of people who are running the country and stealing, and that’s okay. But you can’t sell paintings. It’s crazy.”

 

The Interview

 

Tell me a little bit about where you were born and where you’ve grown up.

 

I was born in Bosnia in Brcko in 1982. I was finishing the third grade of primary school when the war started, and then we had to move to Croatia as refugees. My father didn’t want us to be in the refugee camps. He wanted us to be in private accommodations. At that time he was working in Switzerland, so we could afford to do that. We were moving a lot. First we came to Vinkovci, near Brcko but in Croatia. We spent a few months there at my uncle’s house. And then we moved to Dalmatia for one year. Then we ended up here in Motovun, and that was 1995 when I was 12. I started here in the sixth class of primary school. Then I went to Pula to finish high school and to Rijeka for college. So, where did I grow up? I don’t know. I guess here in Motovun. I lived here for 20 years, while I lived in Brcko for only nine years.

 

Do you remember what you were doing when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

 

No, no, I don’t remember at all. When did the Berlin Wall fall?

 

It fell in November 1989.

 

If it was 1989, I had to be in Brcko. I was seven years old, so fifth grade or something. I was a child. I didn’t have a clue what was going on in the world.

 

When the war broke out you went to Croatia. And do you remember as a child the kinds of attitudes people had towards you?

 

Yes, of course. We were like second-class or even third-class citizens. I remember when we moved from Vinkovci to Dalmatia, near Split. There were five of us children — I have three brothers and one sister. We came with my mother because my father was in Switzerland. We spent one year in that little village near Split. They broke the windshield of our car. Generally children avoided me and my brothers and sisters. They said, “They’re from Bosnia — we can’t make friends with them.”

I didn’t understand why. I really didn’t understand what was going on. We were living in this part of the world having a normal childhood. Then the war came, and we were trapped somewhere else. And people acted like we were some kind of losers. It was hard. It was strange.

A year after we came here to Motovun, they slashed our tires.

 

Did you know who did that?

 

No, no.

We were Catholic. My mother was very religious, and my father still is. I’m not anymore. But in those days we were practicing our religion and going to church every Sunday. I met a girl who was my age, and one day she told me, “Oh, I can’t play with you anymore, and I can’t be your friend because my mother told me that you are a Muslim.”

And I said, “How?! We were in church! You saw us! How does she think that we’re Muslims?”

“Oh, I don’t know, you’re from Bosnia, they are all Muslims…”

And that kind of stuck. At some point I was really embarrassed about my nationality. It is sad when you reach a point when you’re embarrassed about your nationality. Because of other people.

 

Were there particular words that they used to describe you in Croatia?

 

No, just Bosanka.

 

Bosanka. That’s a Bosnian woman?

 

Yes. But I don’t think that we had it so bad. We lived through the war and the refugee process better than many. Some people were in the camps, and they really were harassed. Families were separated. And many people were killed. We didn’t have anything like that. Thank God. We were lucky. The family stuck together, and we didn’t have to go to the camps.

 

Did you have family who either stayed behind in Bosnia?

 

My grandparents stayed there as long as they could. Everyone told them, “You have to leave, they will kill you, the Serbs will kill you, the Muslims will kill you.” And my grandfather said, “No, no, I can’t leave my house. This is the place where I was born.” But at some point he left Brcko with my grandmother, and they stayed in Croatia for a few years. When the war was over, they went back. My grandmother is dead, but my grandfather is there, and my two uncles are living there too. We still have a house. Our house wasn’t destroyed. We were there a few months ago.

 

What was it like to go back?

 

I first went back ten years ago. It was hard for me because it was the funeral for my mother. So it was a shock. I had to bury my mother when I was like 19 or 20. And I had to return to my house. I’m sorry, I hate to cry, but I think I feel so vulnerable, and I hate it. Everything was a small – the house, the garden — because I wasn’t a child anymore. I thought that I could talk about my mother after ten years, but it’s hard.

But now we went there last year, and this year it’s okay now to go there. I really like going now there. It is far away, though, like six or seven hours of driving.

 

Did you see any of your childhood friends when you were there?

 

No, I don’t know if I’d remember them. I think they’re all somewhere else maybe. I don’t know really. When I was at school in Brcko, the three nationalities were separate in the schools. We weren’t separated in the classes, but the Serbs were mingling with the Serbs and Muslims with Muslims. We didn’t have friendships with the others. So it’s all so sad. When I was talking about how people treated me when I came here, it was the same as we treated each other there. My parents also said, “Don’t make friends with them, they’re Muslims.” It was the same thing, actually. And it’s sad because children are taught from the beginning to be separate because of the nation and religion. And this is the 21st century.

 

That’s interesting because many people talk about how people in Bosnia lived together before the war, that things were not that bad, that there was a lot of intermarriage.

 

Yes, of course.

 

But you’re stressing the separation.

 

Yes, of course, there was separation. If someone from the family married a Muslim it was like “Oh my god! Ok, ok, he’s an okay guy, but…” It was like he had some kind of disease or something. If only he wasn’t that kind.

I remember when my sister — she’s three years older — went to high school in Buzet and she had a boyfriend who was Muslim. When my father found out about that, he was like, “Oh, no, no! You have to stop that! You can’t have a boyfriend who’s Muslim. What’s wrong with you?” And there was a horrible argument.

 

You said that you were embarrassed about your nationality. When did that change for you?

 

At the end of high school. I met some people who didn’t say, “Oh, my god, it’s a Muslim!” They were very cool about it, and I could say that this was really something that was part of me. And I decided not to be embarrassed about it. That’s when I changed. And I really feel happy about that now because I think the people from Bosnia are really very special. Probably everybody says that about their people, but Bosnians have a very nice spirit. Maybe that’s because of the big mixture and all the time spent under the Ottomans: Bosnians are very friendly. My husband was amazed when he went to Brcko. They treated him like he was a king. And you don’t get that when you go to Dalmatia or east of here. When you come as a guest, they’re just like, “Okay, hi.” Bosnians will feed you, they’ll give you drinks. But sometimes it’s still a little bit strange because they’ll start to act like slaves, you know! They want to be like servants, and that can be embarrassing.

 

When did you think about becoming an artist?

 

I was drawing all my life. When I was a child, I knew I was going to be an artist. There was an art high school here in Croatia, so that was my first choice. If I didn’t make it into that school, I would have gone to the gymnasium and that kind of stuff. But I didn’t have a problem getting in. So, then I did art high school and then art in college. My husband and I are actually both trained to be art teachers, but we haven’t spent a single hour in school. Well, he’s spent 20 days. It’s hard to find a job here in the schools because these old professors are still working into their eighties.

Art is just not appreciated here. In the little villages around the country, the janitors are teaching art. They just tell the kids, “draw something.”

 

What about parents: do they want their children to have private art sessions?

 

Not so much. Croatians are more into sport.

 

So you went to the art institute in Rijeka. And what was that like? You were there probably in…?

 

2003. That was the first year. And we finished 2009. Four years and then two years for the final diploma.

 

Do you have to write a dissertation?

 

Yes, you actually do that in your last year.

 

What was your dissertation about?

 

My dissertation was about site-specific art. Art that is made just for a specific place.

 

In what part of the world? In this part of the world, or generally?

 

Generally.

 

Like Robert Smithson’s spiral jetty?

 

Yes, something like that. At first, I wasn’t going to do site-specific art, but we went to an exhibition in Rijeka, and there was an Italian who made a work called “From Sunrise to Sundial.” He’d been in Sarajevo monitoring the situation after Dayton and the relationships between people after the war. He created this light on the main TV tower. The tower was ruined, but he projected a light between dusk and sunrise.

And I was like, “This is an exhibition, what’s going on here?” And I read his art statement about it, and I was fascinated. I think he was living in Sarajevo for two years to see the situation. That’s when I was starting to be more interested in site-specific art.

 

Did you do that kind of art as well, for your portfolio?

 

No, actually my husband and I both do printmaking. The school was very traditional. We didn’t have video art. But we were lucky. In the third or fourth year, there was a young professor who finished college in Rijeka, went to Italy, then moved to Iowa for five years. She was living there and working in college. She came back from Iowa with new ideas. That was very good for us because except for her we were with old professors, doing traditional things like we were in the 17th century. She was very refreshing.

 

Have you been to the new Museum of Modern Art in Zagreb?

 

I’m embarrassed to say no.

 

Oh, you have to go! It’s an incredible museum. Nobody’s there, nobody goes there.

 

I guess we are like that.

 

I was so shocked. It’s one of the better museums of contemporary art. In Belgrade right now things are so dispersed. In Ljubljana, it’s a rather small collection, but a good one. In Sarajevo, everybody donated contemporary art for a museum of contemporary art in Sarajevo, but they hadn’t opened it, so it was in a warehouse actually located in one of the Olympics halls. You go in there by invitation, and it was incredible art, but it wasn’t available to the public. So the one in Zagreb is the best collection in the region. And there was no one there, I was the only one, except for these kids skateboarding outside. So when you graduated after six years, did you think you would do something like this, or did you think you would teach in school, or what did you think?

 

Actually, I never wanted to go to that college. I had this messed up situation at the end of high school. My mother got sick with cancer. I always wanted to go into art restoration. That was my first love, actually. In that same period I totally lost interest in everything, especially school. After high school I took off two years when I was doing nothing. I was just trying to recover from the sickness and death of my mother. And then I heard about that college in Rijeka and was like, “Okay, I will go there. I don’t care about being a professor. I just want to finish something and get it over with.” It was a very stupid decision, I know. I still regret that. I still regret not going into the field of restoration.

But then I never would have met my husband. And actually, everything turned out fine now. We’re not working in schools, and I think that’s okay. We’ve been talking with friends who are working in schools, and they can’t stand the children. And they look ten years older than we do! So we’re quite happy with what we are doing. It’s not some kind of big art or intellectual work, but we are satisfied. We are not active in the sense of going to exhibitions.

 

Whenever people wear your shirts, your art is on exhibition.

 

When we first started, the idea was that we needed to do some commercial thing just to live, just to pay the rent and stuff.

 

How did you get the idea to do graphic art on t-shirts, and bags, and pillows?

 

It was in our last year of college. We were in Rijeka, and when the summer started we went to this house in Dalmatia. My husband was working in the kitchen, like a chef, and I was working in a souvenir gallery, earning money for the next year. The last year, we decided that we didn’t want to do that anymore because he was sick of the kitchen, and I was sick of that gallery stuff. We asked a local man if he could lend us this big old ship that was just standing around to use as a shop. It wouldn’t move anywhere, but it was a nice place. And he said, “It’s yours for nothing, just take it.” So we spent that summer making the t-shirts and selling them on the boat. It was a super summer. We met a bunch of new people. We didn’t make any money, but it was so fun, so much better than working in the cafe.

At the time my sister was living with her friend and doing jewelry — and her friend was sewing bags and cushions. My sister said, “My friend was wondering about your drawings.” Because in high school I was making drawings of Motovun. And she was wondering if I could draw something for her on her t-shirts and her bags. I was like, “Okay, why not?” Then I was really drawing on the t-shirts, not printing: one by one. And she really liked that. But she said, “I need more! I need more! Why don’t you do printing? It will be much faster.”

And that’s how we started. There was a silk screen master living in Motovun, and he taught us the first lessons. In college we studied graphic design, but we didn’t even see the silk print. He showed my husband the few steps of how to do it. My husband’s very good at making things. So he’s doing his own screens, and he made this machine.

He said, “The machine is like 2000 Euros, we can’t afford that. I can make that!”

And that’s a big advantage: to be able to make this stuff on your own. Without that you can never start a business in Croatia because it costs too much money. It’s why we were able to start with very little money and make all this up ourselves.

IMAG1597-1

 

 

So when you set up the business here, do you get any support from the town? Is the town excited?

 

No. They said, “Pay this bill, pay that bill.”

 

Is there a Chamber of Commerce here that could help?

 

There is, but they also just hand you a bill! When you don’t know legally what you have to do, you go and ask them, and they say, “Why don’t you go directly to the inspection office?” But it’s obligatory to pay this Chamber of Commerce money. And because of the law, we can’t sell our paintings. Because we only have a license to print on fabric.

The only category we could fit in was “fabric printing.” We have to pay a tax, and we have to pay medical, and we have to pay pension. And we’re in the same category as other self-employed people, like lawyers.

In that inspections office, because these people know the situation is tough, they told us, “Okay, if you have some paintings then just put out the paintings and put up a sign that says “This is an exhibit, it’s not for sale.”

 

If people are interested, they can contact you.

 

A guy from Germany came in and asked, “Are you selling this painting?” And we’re like “yes.” And that’s it. He didn’t understand the sign. It’s in Croatian.

 

So your best season, of course, is the summer. But do you remain open all year anyway?

 

Not the whole year, but from the start of March, and just during the weekends in March, until Easter comes. Then every day from Easter until the end of November. It’s a good season. It’s a lot better than in Dalmatia. In Dalmatia you have only a two-month season because of the sea. They’re so dependent on the sea. When the weather’s not good, there are no tourists. And here people don’t come for the sea. They come for the wine and the hills. So we have much longer season than they do.

[Someone appears in the shop]

He won’t buy anything. It’s actually very easy to judge. You’re not supposed to judge, but you can easily see if they are interested or not. Sometimes you can make mistakes, but mostly not. We like to leave them alone. We’re not like, “Oh, can I help you?” and then walk around with them.

 

So did it take a year or two before you could turn a profit? Or did you turn a profit almost immediately because your investment was fairly low?

 

The first year we came here from Dalmatia, which was three years ago, we were staying at my father’s place. It was really crowded, and we were in a little room. So we didn’t have to pay rent for living, just the rent on this place. But last year we saw that business was going well and we could make enough money to take our own flat. So we moved just across the street. And we’re doing well now. We pay this rent and that rent. It’s a pity to see all that money coming and going just for the rent and the bills. I really like to have a place on our own, just to be ours, but it’s very hard. This is the main street, the only place you can work. You can’t work anywhere else in Motovun because there are no people passing by.

 

I saw a house for sale on this street.

 

It’s expensive. I think it’s 150,000 Euros.

 

How does that compare, say, to Zagreb or Rijeka?

 

Maybe in Rijeka you can find something cheaper. Motovun acquired a good status with people from France, Germany, all over the world, so people are buying houses around here. Someone told me that the actor Anthony Hopkins bought a house near Groznjan, which is like 50 kilometers from here. So it’s easy now to buy houses here. That’s why I think the prices are a little bit expensive.

 

I knew that it was popular to buy houses on the coast…

 

This is like the new France. Because it’s similar to France, and it’s not so expensive.

 

Ten years from now, where do you think you’ll be, and what do you think you’ll be doing?

 

Oh, I really don’t know. Maybe this. I wouldn’t be surprised if we are still here, maybe with a family? Now we only have cats. We got married last year. We have cats – and we feed the street cats. But maybe in the future we’ll have some children. I don’t know. It’s hard to plan. This is a nice life here, but we don’t have friends with whom we can talk about books and art. I have my family, but that’s a different kind of world. All our friends are in Zagreb, or in Italy, or in Pula….

 

Has life changed for you at all when Croatia joined the European Union?

 

We don’t have Russians anymore. They cancelled visa-free travel for Russians. Now all Russians need visas, so the Russians don’t want to come here. We used to have lots of Russians here in the summer. They drink a lot, and they buy.

 

So the Russians aren’t coming, and are there more people from Italy?

 

No. The Italian people used to be the best customers five years ago. And now they are not spending. And there are no Austrians because there was a flood two months ago. So they decided to stay home and save the things that were ruined. They really spent a lot too. They’re nice people. Very cultural, and they have money. I mean, that sounds very materialistic, but they do.

 

Have you noticed any improvement in the Croatian economy in the last year? People have told me that things are starting to improve a little bit, so I was wondering if you’d noticed that as well.

 

There’s a new government, and some new laws. But it’s still expensive for us to live. No new enterprises are opening up. There’s no new entrepreneurship. Really, there is no program to encourage that kind of thing. It’s all very bad in that sense. We were in Finland this winter, and the prices in the grocery shops are the same. It’s crazy – our salaries are so much less. I don’t know how people manage to live, particularly people with children. Well, there’s the grey economy. And we are also in the grey economy with the paintings. People who make the handmade jewelry and stuff, there’s no way they can do that legally. It’s like they’re selling drugs. I’m selling my jewelry or paintings, I’m not selling drugs. I’m not selling people or something. But I can’t do it legally. You have a bunch of people who are running the country and stealing, and that’s okay. But you can’t sell paintings. It’s crazy.

 

Do you think it was a good decision for Croatia to join the EU?

 

Because of things like this, it is. I believe it will put an end to this kind of behavior, this corruption. It will enable the economy to really work, in a bureaucratic sense. Things will get better, I believe. Also, because of the EU, we had to adjust many laws that were bad, and we had to we had to get rid of a lot of people accused of corruption. That would never have happened without the pressure from the European Union. Not to even mention the war crimes: such things would never be settled without the pressure from the European Union. That’s why it’s important.

 

Do you think that there’s been an honest conversation here in Croatia about what happened during the war?

 

I don’t know. There are always different points of view of the war — our war. And there are lots of patriots, a lot of people who are pro-Croatia who were dying and killing. But I don’t know the whole truth of what happened — with Tudjman and politics and Bosnia — what really, really happened. We had the idea to be independent. But I don’t know if it was worth it. I don’t know what happened behind the scenes. Because we are an older generation, we didn’t study that in school. But for the children now, I don’t know if it is true what they’re teaching in the history books.

The people are still full of anger. And the saddest thing is that the children of the people who were in the war, they have children who are now teenagers. And they hate Serbs and Muslims, and they weren’t even born when the war was going on. They’re like, “My father was in the war, and I’m going to hate all of the…’ And it’s so sad for young children to grow up hating something they didn’t even see.

If you are on some kind of neutral side, and you say, “There was crime here, but there was a crime on our side, too,” they will call you a Communist from Serbia. They will put a label on you: you are pro-Serb or Communist or a lover of ex-Yugoslavia. It’s hard to explain to the older generation. My father also. He’s a nice guy. But when he met our friend, who is Serbian, my father was like, “Is he a Serb or something?”

It’s sad because people from Serbia still ask us, “So is it okay to come here on the holiday? Will the people wreck our car?” It’s 20 years later! And with sport? When Serbia and Croatia play each other in football, oh my god, it’s another war. Dead people, people in the hospital.

 

When the Gotovina acquittal happened, was there any response here?

 

Here in Istria, no, nothing. Because in Istria, they didn’t feel the war, they weren’t engaged. But oh, man, watching TV: all the citizens in Croatia were celebrating! Especially in Dalmatia.

To be a patriot in this country is not just “I love my country.” it’s more: “We were right in the war.” You can’t say that we were also the people who were killing in the war, oh my god, you can’t say that. There’s so much energy invested in that. And there’s no energy in people making things better, building things. It’s only “We were right in the war. We weren’t the aggressors. The Serbs were the aggressors.”

 

Motovun, August 3, 2013

 


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