VIENNA – At 11 am on Saturday, cafes catering to the city’s large former-Yugoslav population are mainly empty, with rain and unseasonably cold weather forcing many to drink their morning coffee at home.
Two days earlier, after 16 years on the run, Bosnian-Serb general Ratko Mladic had been arrested by Serbian intelligence in Lazarevo village, some 60 miles from Belgrade. As then-Commander of the main staff of the Bosnian Serb Army (VRS), Mladic is charged with genocide and crimes against Bosnian Croats and Muslims (Bosniaks). Among other charges, he is accused of the murder of close to 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995.
At Cafe Melon in Vienna’s 16th district, where the last night’s party is just winding down, people are not willing to talk about the arrest. “We don’t talk politics here. People from everywhere – Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia – come here,” the bartender says. “Besides, we haven’t slept at all.”
A few days later on a second visit to Melon, this time in the afternoon, a few people are standing around the bar, having already had some drinks. This, perhaps, helps move the conversation along.
23-year-old David R. from Belgrade, Serbia says he feels that Austrians associate him and others from his country with “people like Mladic and [Slobodan] Milosevic,” which affects his life here. “I cannot prosper in my career,” says David, who is a musician.
His friend Miroljub G., 26, from Serbia’s Vojvodina region, is vehement about his support for the arrest of this “very bad man” who acted at a “very bad time,” although he is not sure whether he shares David’s belief that such associations have an effect on his everyday existence.
An article in Vienna’s daily Wiener Zeitung says that the response of the Serbian population — including Bosnian Serbs — can be described as surprised, exuberantly happy, sad — “in other words completely mixed.” They quote Serbs who consider Mladic a defender of his people, and others, who feel released from being “hostages of this man” and who now hope for Brussels’ support in helping Serbia move toward a future as a member of the European Union.
Dino Sose, the editor of BUM Magazin, which caters to nearly half a million first and second-generation ex-Yugoslavs in Austria, says the mixed reaction is to be expected within the Bosnian community, made up primarily of ethnic Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks.
“It is certain that in Vienna there is a large number of those who support the arrest as well as those who consider this an ‘act of betrayal.’ But the diaspora is tired of the 90’s and of the current, difficult political situation in the Balkans,” says Sose.
Members of the ex-Yugoslav immigrant community have, at times, feared a loss of their identity, which can lead to an intensification of nationalistic tendencies, says Sose. But there also exists a diasporic identity where those who speak one of the languages formerly called Serbo-Croatian – Serbian, Bosnian or Croatian – becomes “nas” or “ours.”
While Mladic’s arrest may lead to a temporary cooling of relations between different former-Yugoslav ethnicities in Vienna, Sose believes people will soon return to their everyday, diasporic lives, and “togetherness” facilitated by the use of the same language and shared musical tastes. Sose refers to the popular turbofolk genre that is favored among large numbers of ex-Yugoslavs in Vienna, but shunned by Melon’s patrons, who prefer the sounds of ex-Yu rock.
He adds that the arrest is a big step forward when it comes to healing the wounds of the 1990s and having the Balkan peoples face their war past.
Nijaz T., 45, from Sarajevo agrees while drinking coffee at Talisman, another one of the “multi-culti” bars he says are rare in Vienna (patrons of “Melon” and “Talisman” say these hangouts are unique as they attract people from all over former Yugoslavia. Other establishments, they say, are frequented primarily by people of the same ethnic group).
Nijaz, who is a Bosnian Muslim, has been living in Vienna since 1988. During the war in Bosnia, he had managed to bring his father out of the besieged Sarajevo. His father has since returned.
“We must sit down and clear up things that happened to us. It is time that people in Bosnia realize they have to live together,” says Nijaz .
Mladic’s arrest could bring those people who have lost their loved-ones closer to healing, he says, although he is reluctant to speak on their behalf.
In the U.S., the Congress of North American Bosniaks (CNAB) had welcomed the news of Mladic’s arrest on behalf of Bosniaks in the United States and Canada, in hope that the trial of both Mladic and another Serb leader already in The Hague – Radovan Karadzic – would “give some peace to the families of those who were killed and whose lives have been destroyed.” But CNAB said the arrest should not be used for “political gain” by Serbian and Bosnian Serb politicians, “to obtain concessions from the international community, particularly the European Union.”
At Melon, the crowd grows as new people join the conversation that starts taking on more jovial tones. The bartender Jusuf L., brings a couple of beers and some coffee. “Simply, there are those who are for him [Mladic] and those who are not for him,” says Jusuf, a Bosnian Muslim who married a Serbian woman during the war. Although they are divorced today, they have a son together.
His reaction to Mladic’s arrest is simple. “Justice,” he says.