Justin Vela

Travels 2006-2009…Roadtrip to Gangster Land…March 2008…

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Igor and I make plans to travel to Novi Pazar, the largest town in Sandzak.

“Everybody thinks I’m crazy for wanting to spend my vacation in Sandzak,” he wrote while I was in Helsinki. “So if you don’t join, chances are that I’ll travel alone.”

Sandzak: Serbia’s impoverished southwestern region is lodged between Kosovo, Montenegro, and Bosnia and, as a geographical entity that extends into Montenegro, still retains the name given to districts of the Ottoman Empire.

I had visited Novi Pazar  the previous January while returning to Belgrade from northern Kosovo. “Welcome to fucking mini-Istanbul,” J said sarcastically.

But in Novi Pazar there was none of Istanbul’s glamour.

The city is a mess of mosques that hadn’t been refurbished in decades, cracked sidewalks, a river full of trash, and crumbling two hundred year old buildings with broken clay shingle roofs. Some of the women wear burkhas. Old men stand in the streets in leather jackets and berets , watching each other. Wahhabis, members of the extremist Muslim sect, walk around in ankle length pants and skull caps. As I wander at random, a caravan of cars raced through town with a man waving a green flag with the crescent moon of Islam out the window of the lead vehicle.

Igor also felt the tense energy in Novi Pazar when he spent a morning there a year before. There was something going on. But we didn’t know exactly what.
All we do know is that Sandzak had been a black market hub during the years Serbia spent under the UN embargo and had since graduated to a gangland style battle between two local muftis, Muamer Zukorlic and Adem Zilkic.

The two muftis competed for leadership of the majority muslim population and control of the region’s business interests, both legal and illegal. Recently, the conflict had become more heated. The muftis supporters had taken to clashing hand to hand with rocks and small arms in mosques, soccer stadiums, and cafes throughout Sandzak. There were near monthly reports of the mufti’s bodyguard engaging in gunfights and several people had been wounded or killed.

With the idea that we could do a story on local politics before the election, Igor and I set out for Sandzak.

As convinced as we are that a dramatic and largely unreported story awaited us, we are young men for the first time attempting a difficult reporting trip in country with one thousand years of history and some of the most brutal politics in the world.

Perhaps irresponsibly, our attention before leaving Belgrade is focused more on women and drinking in cafanas than on researching the story. Thus it comes with some surprise when we realize that the situation in Sandzak is far more complicated than we originally believed and that we will either have to mature as journalists or run, something that neither Igor or I wish to do in front of the other.

There is the hum of the motorcycle’s engine and the smell of wet grass, exhaust, and slight humidity.

Nothing is better for getting out on the road.

Igor accelerates to pass two trucks transporting metal parts. Coming from the opposite direction, around a bend, is a man driving a red tractor.

Igor gives the motorcycle more gas and we slip around the tractor, get in front of the trucks, and continue speeding down the road. This is central Serbia,Sumadija, in spring. The surrounding hills are green. Untilled farmland full of dark brown earth is all around. The broken back roads uncoil themselves south.

In Kraljevo, Darko laughs at our idea of a road trip, takes us to a club, and challenges us to succeed with the local women.

To our consternation, we are rebuffed each time. Everyone is surprised at our presence in a club in the middle of Serbia to the extent that one woman demands to see my passport.

She scrutinizes the pages as if they are fake.

“A guy from Belgrade, a guy from San Francisco,” she says. “You are in the wrong place.”

Though many of the younger people speak English and everyone wears Western clothes, people in the Serbian countryside are much more closed. “You are not in Belgrade,” Darko laughs. “People here are very much in their own circles.”

Needing some sort of achievement, the next day, in the town of Maglich, we climb a hill to the ruins of a medieval fortress.

“I need a snake stick,” Igor announces.

He grabs a stick, snaps off the branches and begins to dodge, hopping from side to side up the hill, hitting the ground with the stick to ward of snakes.

The hill is steep and we are hungover. Attempting to charge up the hill like invaders would have done hundreds of years ago is difficult.

“We’re going to kidnap the princess,” I encourage.

“I’m going to kidnap a bed,” Igor says.

Below, the train tracks run along the Ibar River.

“Does the train still run to Prishtina?”

“I don’t know. They had a problem down there,” Igor says.

At the top we walk around the ruins. Igor thinks that the fortress is older than the 13th century, but there is no information posted about it. The surrounding hills are spread thinly with grass and dark trees and are too steep for an army to climb. In the time when the fortress was in use, any foreign force would have had to travel in the gorge below the fortress, from which they could have easily been charged or fired upon, making the placement of the castle in a prime position.

At the monastery of Studenica, two busses filled with students unload. They tell me that all students in Serbia have to visit the monasteries as part of their school curriculum, but only seem mildly interested in it, preferring to sit on rocks near the entrance than look around.

Studenica was the first monastery built by the Nemanja family, the 12th century founders of the Serbian Kingdom and Serbian Orthodox Church. At the front of the church are the metal coffins of Stefan the First Crowned and Anastasia of Serbia. On Stefan’s coffin there are winged angels and a red velvet cover with crosses sewn into it. On Anastasia’s coffin there are depictions of Mary and inlaid rubies and jade. The lock is in the shape of an angel’s wings. The people who had founded the entire, still surviving Serbian nation may have been gone, but inside the monastery the inevitability of death did not spark panic. The old conquerors make death seem peaceful.

“Hey man, come over here,” Igor says.

There are two tables covered in burning candles.

“I’m not sure which table is which,” Igor says. “One is for people that are alive. The other is for people that are dead.”

At each of the tables I light a candle for myself.

“For me,” I think. “In life and in death.”

Read previous chapter.

Learn more about this book.


Written by Justin Vela

March 13, 2011 at 7:25 pm

Posted in Travels 2006-2009

Tagged with , , ,

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