Dear Readers, today is Sunday and Sunday’s in Serbia are usually very relaxed days. Too much for my taste, so I want to use this occasion to share some impressions with you. Our workshop now lasts for more than 2 weeks and that days have been very dense in terms of content. We have been introduced to the City of Pozarevac by few individuals and local active people, and have been well received here. After the first week, where we met local industrials, politicians, activists, people from various local cultural or social intitiatives, I face difficulties to find a way to relate with our workshop subject. What is somehow a burning subject here, is the disappearance of the middle class, so I walk around between castles and barracks. If you press the gallery in this post, you will find few images, from the seminar, from the first steps around the town, from our close encounter with the International Roma Union of Serbia, but also images from our visit to a local illegal settlement, inhabited IDP’s (inner displaced people) from Kosovo.
My initial motivation, to participate in that Workshop “the Return of the Gastarbajter” was to have a broader overview of that phenomena, that is also part of my own story. My parents were migrants from Yugoslavia, and I was born and raised in Austria. People in Serbia, often claim that the reasons for migration were always only economical, and that only non-educated, almost illiterate people moved towards Western Europe and further. In my case, my parents had an decent education, and they managed to somehow focus to live, where they are, and not to build castles for a imagined future, for an uncertain return to the places, where they moved from.
Here we have here loads of houses, I call them castles, built by the gastarbajters, that seem more a monument of their absence, than to serve for living. People started moving from this region, called Branicevski Okrug, from the 70ties, and their main destinations, were Austria, Germany and France. In the reagion Branicevo live about 250.000 people, and they believe that 70.000 live in Austria. Another peak of the migration was also during the violent disintegration of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRJ), and during that time, that phenomena of building huge representational houses appeared. During the period of the hyperinflation, were people in Serbia used to work for an average loan of 10 DM (german marks, 5 Euros today), for the Gastarbajter, earning money abroad, it was quite easy to build huge houses. They believed that one day, after 20 and more years working abroad, that they will return with their families and live in that huge houses. Also, under socialist law it was impossible to invest in a kind of business, as business was part of the public affairs, and in a society which functions under a communist premise, private property in a public field was impossible. Than happened, that a kind of competition between, or about status symbols started, so everyone tried to build a house, which is bigger than the neighbors one. Although my fellow Serbs, believe that they are special with that attitude, I used to say that greediness is international.
You can for sure imagine, that building such huge houses, during a period, where people worked for almost nothing, in an hard struggle to survive, feed a lot of hate, between that different layers of societies. On one side, almost everyone in Serbia, survived or survives due to that money, sent back by people from abroad, but still resentments were fed, somehow understandable if you have to cue for hours for bread, flour, oil and sugar, while others are building palaces. On the other side, gastarbajter complained that they had to pay high bribes for the legalization of their buildings, and that they are only seen and recognized as the one who bring or have to bring expensive presents and money, when they return once a year from abroad, usually in very fancy new and big cars. A very complex situation.
To add, or to illustrate our complex situation, you will detect, that I switch sometimes from I to we, and from we to I, as I want to provide you with a subjective perspective, but as there are more people in our workshop, some of my sentences match also common perspectives… so an additional complexity was provided by the Open Forum, during the Seminar, which was open for the local community to present their perspectives on the phenomena around Gastarbajter. Their impact on the local culture, economical situation, political situation etc… This was very well attended, and the local Roma Association, the International Roma Union of Serbia responded most to our invite. Many Roma people have been or are Gastarbajters, and the phenomena of the big representative houses is widespread between them. Also the Association IRU Srbija is run by a guy, who was himself Guestworker in Austria, till he lost his residency permit, due to an change of law. That what he percieved as being kicked out from Austria, was also his initial point and entrance to the field of Activism. IRU has now around 70 members. They have an office and they organize different programs, like they remove old furniture from different household, mainly inhabited by old people, who don’t need them anymore, or can’t effort to pay these items being removed, and IRU redistributes that different stuff, to the needs of different people.
Thanks to IRU, some of us also came in close contact to people living in shanties, and tragically one baby died today in such a temporary shanty, of meningitis. Reality intrudes in a tough way. In a way, if you try to focus on migration, you can’t ignore that fact, that many people here live in such conditions, and that by disappearance of the middle-class, solidarity faded away. Next Sunday there will be the opening of our show, or the presentation of our interdisciplinary artistic workshop. It will happen in public space, so all of you near, are invited to come.