A culture and political discovery of the Balkans

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For the 17th year in a row, Norwegian students are having a spring excursion to Serbia to learn first-hand about past conflicts in the region, but also its culture and religion.

“Serbia is different but still not all that different from Norway.” So said one of out of 31 Norwegian students of international relations and history who came with their professors Brita Gulli and Stig Bjorshol of the The University College of Southeast Norway (USN). 

The visit came at an interesting time when Serbia was electing new president. Therefore, students had a chance to follow the election process and protests on the streets, but also meet and talk with their counterparts at the Belgrade’s University.

Besides these recent events, a lot of Balkan history has been packed in their one-week visit to Serbia and then Bosnia — from Serbian uprising in the beginning of the 19th century to Gavrilo Princip and Nikola Tesla.

This programme started back in 2000 when Brita and Stig decided to swap their Middle East tours with the Balkans. “It was starting getting tense in the Middle East and the Balkans was at the end of the conflict in 2000 and then we thought it would be interesting to see how the country develops and put the conflict as part of our curriculum,” said Stig. So they continued bringing Norwegian students to Serbia at least once a year with assistance of Dragan Markovic of the Norwegian association in Serbia. The tour always includes Serbia, plus one more country in the region.

According to Brita, the conflict is not present in the mind of these Norwegian students, most of them being in their 20s. “In the first years of this programme (in early 2000), the students have had experienced the conflict through the media, while these students today are somehow distant to it… feelings are not so strong,” said Brita, adding that when Dragan Markovic had asked the students a question, one of them replied: “I wasn’t even born then” and then everybody started laughing.

Coming every year, Brita says she can notice big changes in the Serbian development. “In the first couple of years we had to bring the cash with us and we were coming by bus from Budapest as there was no flights. Also, Belgrade on a surface is becoming more fashionable in a way.” Even her favourite restaurant in Skadarlija has been renovated and got a modern look. But she admits that back in early 2000s it felt more optimistic than now.

The visit to Sarajevo and Srebrenica memorial where over 7,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed in 1995 by Bosnian Serb forces was also an important part of the trip. One student said: “I cannot believe that this has happened just a bit over 20 years ago”.

On a brighter side, evenings were reserved for good food and drinks they all enjoyed. “It’s really always nice to be back in Serbia,” Brita added. Students seem to share her opinion and some are planning to come back soon. Last year, the excursion got 9 out of 10 points in evaluations so we hope this good result will come for this year’s trip, as well.