“Why do you need food anyways? How many Ramadans do you think you’ll have?”
“We will carry out a massacre, slaughter the Albanians, murder the wahabis, anyone resisting gets impaled on a stake”
These are not quotes from movie torture scenes or fringe racist rallies, but rather lyrics translated from popular folk songs in Serbia. Such lyrics are not what people, especially those in the United States, normally think of when it comes to pop hits. These barbaric lyrics are an unfortunate reflection of the recent past. The brutal Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s not only created the countries of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Slovenia, but also led to a rise in the popularity of war music called turbo folk. All three combatant groups had their own versions of turbo folk songs, but it remains most prominent in Serbia. In order to fully understand the lyrics of these songs and their popularity, it is important to recognize the history of the Balkans and implications for present day relations. The roots of the Yugoslav Wars lie in stark divisions between the different ethnic groups that made up the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia.
Diversity of the Balkans
During its existence from 1918 to 1991, Yugoslavia had a population that consisted of several different ethnic groups, with the largest three of these being the Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks. Other groups include Slovenes and Albanians. These groups are collectively known as South Slavs (excluding Albanians) and have common ancestry.
However, the history of European empires gave each of these groups a distinct identity. In the 11th century, European Christendom was split into two, with the West being Roman Catholic, and the East being Orthodox. The most powerful empire in the West, the Holy Roman Empire, and the most powerful in the East, the Byzantine Empire, dominated European affairs and held vast lands. These two empires bordered each other in the Balkans and thus the Southern Slavs were split up. Those in the west, under Hapsburg control, were Catholic, while those in the east, under Byzantine rule, adopted Eastern Orthodoxy. Croats and Serbs formed as distinct ethnic groups as a result. Bosnia, falling in between Croatia and Serbia, occupied a unique space. Located in the middle of the Balkans, it was relatively hard to access and as such a distinct Bosnian Church was formed in place of outside influence. Bosnian Christianity was less devout and when the Ottoman Empire took over in 1453, most Bosnians converted to Islam.
Under Ottoman rule, there was significant incentive to convert to Islam as Muslims avoided paying a poll tax, had a more privileged place in society, and also were allowed to hold higher positions in government. Three different ethnic groups were created, all stemming from a common ancestry as well as language. Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian are major languages spoken by the different groups of Southern Slavs today, and they all share a common ancestor called Serbo-Croatian. Because of this, all three languages are mutually understandable, but there are also some key differences. Each language is infused with local dialects and words, and the writing scripts of each represents the history of imperial rule. Croatian and Bosnian both use the Latin Script (Catholic influence), while Serbian uses the Cyrillic Alphabet (used by the Eastern Orthodox Church). Today, Croatians are Catholic, Serbians are Orthodox, and the Bosniaks are Muslims. However, these groups do not fall perfectly into their respective ethno states today, especially in Bosnia, where there are significant populations of Croats and Serbs.
Differences between the Southern Slavs were created as a result of imperial influence combined with the nationalistic sentiments that spread throughout Europe in the late 19th century. In a region with so many different ethnic groups, this became a powder keg for instability. It was the bullet of a Serb nationalist that started WWI, and in WWII, tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies were murdered by the Nazi allied fascist Ustashe regime of Croatia, which took inspiration from Nazi ideology of racial superiority.
After WWII, such nationalistic sentiments were suppressed by the communist regime of Josep Broz Tito. Tito preached a message of the common Yugoslav identity where the different ethnic groups coexisted peacefully, famously stating “No one questioned ‘who is a Serb, who is a Croat, who is a Muslim’ we were all one people, that's how it was back then, and I still think it is that way today.”
However, even under the common flag of Yugoslavia, the ethnic division and hatred remained, slowly simmering until it eventually boiled over.
The Breakup of Yugoslavia
It has been almost 30 years since the end of the brutal Balkans War that tore apart the once powerful nation of Yugoslavia. During this conflict, the largest in Europe since World War II, neighbors were pitted against neighbors based on ethnicity and religion. After Tito’s death in 1980, the glue that held the different peoples of Yugoslavia started to fall apart, as Tito’s successors proved incapable of stemming the ethnonationalism that was starting to reemerge. Many ethnicities, including the Slovenes, Croats, and Bosniaks, became determined to secede from the Serb-dominated Yugoslav government in Belgrade.
In 1990, Slovenia broke away to become an independent republic, with Croatia and Bosnia soon following suit. Slovenia’s independence was relatively bloodless, but Croatia and Bosnia were unable to peacefully split from Yugoslavia. In the ensuing war, over 100,000 people died and ethnic cleansing was committed by all sides, most notably the Bosnian Serbs, which consisted primarily of members of the Yugoslav Army (JNA). The firepower possessed by the JNA allowed for them to occupy vast swaths of Bosnian territory and put their capital of Sarajevo under siege. The UN tried and failed to stop the bloodshed, with UN peacekeepers routinely being held hostage by Bosnia Serb forces. This UN failure culminated with the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, where Dutch Peacekeepers were unable to stop Bosnian Serb forces from massacring 7,200 Bosniak men and boys. It was only under the threat of NATO intervention that the Bosnian Serbs agreed to a ceasefire, signing the Dayton Accords in December 1995. US and NATO troops soon moved in to preserve and observe the tense peace. The Serbians also occupied the autonomous region of Kosovo, populated by a majority ethnic Albanian population, and committed ethnic cleansing, forcing Albanians to move and replacing them with Serb settlers. Again, this was only ended by US and NATO intervention.
In the ensuing years, a tenuous peace has held, but the ethnic hatred and division still remains. Racism is rife, and Croats, Bosniaks, and Serbs rarely fraternize outside of their respective groups. The country of Bosnia and Herzegovina is split into two parts, one being the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (with a Bosniak Muslim majority) and other being the Republika Srpska (run by Bosnian Serbs). Even in schools, children of different ethnic groups attend classes in different buildings, learning a different history curriculum, especially regarding the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. Analysts say the Dayton Accords merely paused the ethnic violence, and it could easily be sparked again. The intense nationalism and ethnic hatred of the Yugoslav Wars can still be seen in popular music, especially in Serbia.
Turbo Folk and the Legacy of War in Serbia
While many in the West view the Serbs as responsible for most of the destruction and atrocities of the Yugoslav Wars, Serbians see themselves as victims and scapegoats. Instead, they accuse the West and NATO of unfairly ignoring the crimes committed against Serbs by other ethnic groups, as well as committing aggressive actions against Serbia. They see Serbian actions during the war as merely trying to protect their nation against outside aggression. To reconcile their own nation into the right of history, many Serbs portray their soldiers as heroic and brave fighters, and their politicians as courageous, standing up against the mighty West. Such portrayals might not be fully accurate, but they represent a form of national validation. This attitude is echoed in the music of the era.
Many of the most popular and famous Serbian songs are nationalistic in nature and about the war, including “Oj Alija Alijo” and “Kosovo Je Srbija.' The music videos accompanying these songs are filled with Serbian troops giving the three finger nationalist Serbian salute, doing the Sign of the Cross, and engaging in training and/or combat. As such, Serbian troops are defenders of the faith and of their people. Popular musicians and groups such as Roki Vulovic and Ultra Klan Terorista (Ultra Terrorist Clan) openly praise the Serbian war effort and even promote ethnic violence and militarism.
Serb leaders who are labeled by the West as war criminals, such as former president Slobodan Milosevic and General Ratko Mladic, are lauded as heroes by many Serbians. In a nationalistic sense, they see these figures as acting in the best interests of the Serb nation, looking to reclaim lands that rightfully belonged to the Serb people, and they were unfairly persecuted by the West. It is important to note that not all Serbians are supporters or even apologists of the war or its leaders, but still a significant portion of the population revere the actions of figures such as Milosevic and Mladic.
One popular song used to mock the West’s war crimes prosecution of Serbs is “My Dad is a War Criminal.” Set to a traditional and peaceful Serbian tune, lyrics include “you can try condemning him, but no one has the balls to take him to court,” taking pride in the label given by many to Serbia. In a way, this attempts to unite all Serbs under a nationalistic banner, painting the ethnic conflict as being “us vs. them.” The nationalism spewed here is used to rewrite history.
Perhaps the most famous of these turbo folk war songs is the “Serbia Strong” song, or “Karadžić, Lead Your Serbs” in the original title. The title refers to Radovan Karadžić, a Bosnian Serb military officer who in 2016 was convicted of genocide against Bosnian Muslims. The lyrics of this song proclaim that “the entire Serbian land is attacked,” and labels Croats as “fascists” (reference to the Ustasha regime of WWII) and Bosniaks as “Turks,” warning both groups to “be afraid” of the Serb fighters. In the music video, the song is being played by two camouflage clad soldiers, both of whom were later convicted of war crimes. This song is also known by “Remove Kebab” (Islamophobic reference to genocide against Bosniaks) and “God is a Serb.” It was widely circulated on the internet as a meme over the past decade, especially among the far right. The 2019 Christchurch Mosque shooter played “Serbia Strong” before he committed the murder of 49 Muslims. The violence and hatred perpetuated by these songs are clearly not confined to the Balkans.
The future of the Balkans and Turbo Folk
Perhaps the most concerning aspect of this turbo folk war music is its continued popularity in Serbia. Wartime leaders and soldiers, as well as the nationalistic sentiments, remain extremely popular, perpetuating pervasive divisions and hatred. More than anything else, this music and its popularity represents the continued instability in the Balkans and the long road to permanent peace. Racial reconciliation will be essential to the region, but as of the present, it is only an illusion. Still, there is hope, as the conflict of the 1990s is moving farther into the past and a new generation comes of age in the Balkans, one that is increasingly rejecting the hatred of the past and the leaders. With this generation of youth, perhaps the turbulent turbo folk of the wartime Balkans may also be left in the past.
Cover image: A boy at a grave during the 2006 funeral of genocide victims in Srebrenica. Photo by Emir Kotromanić, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.