The naked island: the dark side of the old country

Yesterday’s post focused on how some people might look back on the Communist era through rose-colored glasses, especially when faced with the dysfunction of the modern system. There is, of course, more to the story.

For ¬†most working people, the old Yugoslavia may have been somewhat comfortable, but for many it wasn’t. In fact, there was one place in particular that took¬†discomfort¬†to an extreme — the political prison camp known as “Goli otok”, which in English means “Naked Island”.

Goli Otok got its name because of its desolate terrain. Its brutal climate and remote location made it the perfect place for such a prison. The first group of prisoners, 1,200 people, arrived in 1949, and were literally thrown out of the boat because a proper dock had not yet been constructed.

“We don’t talk about that”

There are a few published accounts of time served on the island. One inmate said of his time in the camp, “What is there to fear about this camp? In camps in Germany, in Siberia, in Croatia — in those camps they killed the body. But in this one, they kill the man inside the man. That was the basic logic. I often hear how people say they had someone who had been on Goli Otok, but they don’t talk about it.”

I often hear how people say they had someone who had been on Goli Otok, but they don’t talk about it.

In general, prisoners sent to Goli Otok were suspected of colluding with Soviet forces or other entities deemed dangerous by the Yugoslav regime. Marshal Tito, the Yugoslav dictator, split with the Soviet Union in 1948, and did not participate in the Warsaw Pact treaty after that time. That meant that Yugoslavia, though it was still communist, was technically not behind the so-called Iron Curtain.

Tito was able to keep the country together for 35 years, but he did so with tools like Goli Otok in his back pocket. There was one political party, and dissenters were not treated kindly. The kind of multi-party system we experience today did not exist.

It is easy to idealize history, but an objective perspective will reveal good things and bad. If we can look at both, then it is possible to forge a better future for those that will come after us.

Communism from the southern slav perspective

If you’re American, you’ve been conditioned to think of communism as basically evil, no matter the context. Countless public speeches from Presidents and other public figures have cast communism as a terrible, repressive system that will inevitably succumb to the advancing tide of capitalism.

That’s how it looks to us, but how do things look to people who actually lived under communism? Do they in fact feel¬†liberated, now that their old system is defunct and they have the ability to take part in the open world market?

Enter the former Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia was a complex place. It was a “United States” of sorts, a country created of at least 7 other countries and territories, each with its own ethnic group, identity, and heritage. The country, in its early forms, came to exist as a result of a “Pan-slav” movement that took shape in the 18th and 19th centuries. After four centuries of Turkish occupation, then over a century of Austrian occupation, intellectuals and political elites believed that the best bet for independence was to form a collective entity that comprised all of the slavic peoples in southern Europe. By the end of the 1800s, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was born.

Along comes Communism.

The Communists in Yugoslavia were the ones who beat Hitler out in World War 2. After the war, they took over and set up their communist utopia. And the funny thing is, compared to today, it kind of looks like a utopia. 

Every worker has the right to: a dignified  job, an apartment near his work, a car, and a place in the countryside for rest. That was the Yugoslav dream. For decades, this dream appeared to be turning into reality. Healthcare was decent, and free. Everyone had a job. The workforce was decently well-educated.

Remember the Yugo?

An American ad for the Yugo in the 1980s.

Nationally, there was a sense of real pride. The country produced cars that were sold around the world. Entire cities were built. Vast urban planning projects were undertaken to support the population of 30+ million. Citizens were generally free; they could travel to visit other communist countries freely, but also to most Western countries.

Many places in Yugoslavia went from primitive agrarian societies to modern, bustling cities during the time of Communism. Then things changed. 

“Capitalism”.

Today, things are much different. Communist projects lie in ruins. Unemployment in many places hovers around 30% or higher. And in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the majority of young people say their highest aspiration in life is to simply leave their country, and live somewhere else.

After the wars that split up Yugoslavia, the new systems of trade and capitalism have not brought prosperity. People live in small apartments and have very little money. National systems are very weak. Politicians are corrupt. Infrastructure projects go incredibly slowly, or not at all. Foreign politicians come and promise assistance, but deliver very little.

To the modern Yugoslav looking back, the modern “system” is hardly a system at all.¬†It’s very hard to see the benefits of a free-market system that leaves most of the country unemployed — especially when compared to a time when everyone worked.

This complexity is something that we live with every day in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Just like most things, the actual situation here is complex. There is not a clear black-and-white answer, especially when it seems that the period of communism was a time of relative progress and prosperity, and the modern period is one of stagnation. As we labor to bring hope and opportunity to young people, we are slow to give too much quick advice, and we do our best to truly understand where people are coming from.

The most important day in my lifetime

In order to understand my world, you need to understand something about culture.

The place where I live is deeply divided. Not 20 years ago, the people here experienced a complex war, between 3 sides, which was stopped by the international community in 1995, and left the city divided. There are literally two halves of the city, each with its own utilities, government offices, and postal service.

I am affected by this divided reality every day.¬†I live inside of it, and it governs¬†my daily routine. But no matter how long I live here, no matter how well I speak the local language, no matter how well I know the city, I will always be a foreigner. I will never be a¬†member of the culture here — not in the same way that locals are.

This aspect of my life here has taught me a great lesson about how I ought to think about my involvement in the country of my birth. This, I believe, is how I was always supposed to look at my own culture and society. Consider these words of Scripture:

9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; 10 for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. 12 Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation.

13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, 14 or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. 15 For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. 16 Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. 17 Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.

1 Peter 2:9-17

The point is that, regardless of where I was born, I am now to look at myself as primarily a member of the people of God. This membership is of utmost importance, such that I make it more important, in my own mind, than even my earthly citizenship in the country of my birth.

Just as my present city is divided, the country of my birth is divided, deeply. There are northerners, southerners, liberals, moderates, Democrats, Libertarians, and everything in between. But citizenship in the Kingdom of God enables me — it requires¬†me —¬†to look at those divisions as a member of another culture.

I see the divisions, I am affected by them, and I have my opinions about the sides. But no matter how much I am affected, no matter how well I try to speak the “language” of that debate, I know that I cannot involve my heart in the debate in the same way that most do. For them, this is ultimate — there is nothing transcending this cultural war.

 

But for me, if the words of 1 Peter are of any significance, then I know that this conflict is surpassed¬†by one much more important, ending in the realization of the longing of the redeemed hearts of God’s people, the redemption of all things. No matter how many times someone says,”this is the most important day in our lifetime,” — I know that a day much more consequential is coming, whose memory will never fade.

God speed the day.

Going to the doctor is a waste of time: Thoughts on a post-socialist medical system

Me and the kids having fun in Budapest. I think my daughter had recovered from strep by this time.
Me and the kids having fun in Budapest. I think my daughter had recovered from strep by this time.

To understand my life over the past 3 years, you’ve got to understand a little bit about bacteria.

And not just any bacteria. I’m specifically thinking about the bacteria called Group A beta-hemolytic Streptococcus, the bacteria that causes the dreaded type of pharyngitis that Americans normally refer to as simply Strep throat.¬†

Strep usually comes on quickly, but I’ve had all different flavors. The very first time I had it, I was unable to leave my¬†bed for four consecutive days,¬†and each day I believed¬†that tomorrow would surely be better. Other times, I’ve had it without realizing it (which many¬†would say is not possible). I’ve had it with and without a fever. I’ve recovered with and without antibiotics (again, very strange).

Now, I’m no doctor (let’s get that out of the way). But when it comes to a couple of¬†things in the medical world — strep being one of them — experience has taught me a lot. I believe I know what I am talking abaout. Almost always, strep is one of those things that will necessitate a visit to the doctor and a course of antibiotics — it’s not one of those things you can mistake for a common cold.

My current battle in the war with strep began about a month ago, before my family made the trek to Budapest for the birth of our third child (another story entirely).  I went to a private clinic, where the doctor saw me for about 10 minutes, gave me a prescription for an antibiotic, and a bill for $50. After I bought the medicine, I had spent $65.

While in Budapest, I passed the dreaded illness to my daughter. We took her to the doctor, and she got better quickly, but not before giving the dreaded step throat back to me. This time, circumstances did not allow me to go to the doctor immediately. But today, after several days of discomfort, I decided enough was enough. I had to try to go see someone and get the antibiotics I needed. However, this time I decided I would use the public medical system here in Mostar.

I started by looking up the local clinic online and calling them. There were about 50 phone numbers listed on the website. I called the number for the main nurse for Family Medicine. No answer. OK, I thought, I’ll try another number. Front Desk looked like a good alternative. No answer. Doctor’s office #1. No answer. Front Dest #2. No answer. No answer. No answer.

After going through about 6 of the numbers listed under Family Medicine, I decided to just call the Emergency Room dispatcher. Someone answered right away.

“Hello?”

“Hi. This is not an emergency; I just don’t know who to call. I am a foreign citizen and I need to see a doctor. Is today a holiday?”

“No.”

“I just called every number for Family Medicine and nobody answered.”

“Yes, well it’s break time. From 10 to 10:30 they don’t answer their phones.”

“Oh. I have a throat infection and I need to see a doctor. Which office¬†should I go to?”

“Let me ask… I just asked the doctor, and he said you can go wherever you want.”

“Really? But I just have a throat infection.”

“If you just come to the main clinic, whichever office, someone will see you.”

This is how most of my dealings with public offices go. I have learned to call first. It doesn’t really make things better, but it makes me feel like I’ve at least done my homework. So I headed over to the main clinic. I found the office for Family Medicine, explained who I was, and took a seat, and waited. And waited.

After a little while, the nurse asked me if I’d like to just go to the Emergency Room. “But it’s not an emergency,” I replied. “But there you won’t have to wait.” Suspicious, I decided to just stay, rather than explain my case to yet another group of nurses and sit in another waiting area.

Then the doctor saw me. She looked at my throat, listened to my story, felt my lymph nodes, et cetera. Then she gave me a piece of paper.

“Here’s something you can take for your throat. You’ll have to go to the lab for a throat culture before I can prescribe any antibiotics.”

“But doesn’t that take a couple of days?”

“If you go now, you can make it by 12. They work from 8 to 12. If they do it today, it should be done by… Thursday.”

“But…”

“Your throat isn’t really that swollen. I can’t prescribe anything unless a culture shows you have bacteria.”

So I begrudgingly went out to the laboratory, located by the hospital, across town (it’s a small town). I popped my head in the door and explained my case.

“It would be better if you came back tomorrow in the morning.”

“Why?”

“Have you eaten or drank anything today?”

“But all I need is a throat culture.”

“But you need to not eat anything before you do the culture.”

“What does that have to do with a throat culture? I’ve done this many times, and I’ve never had to fast for the culture.”

“OK, just come in.”

They ended up doing the culture for me. They were fairly nice, but only because I was insistent at the beginning.

“Come back Thursday from 12 to 3 to get your results,” they said.

This is the kind of thing that 5 years ago would have eaten up 2 or even 3 days. I have been through this before, before I was fluent in the local language, when I would go to the wrong clinic, arrive just after closing or break time, misunderstand the doctor, go to the wrong lab, etc. After 5 years, I managed to get that down to 2 hours.

I can say that the process is not actually much different from what it would be in the U.S. The main difference is that the doctor or nurse in the U.S. will do a culture on you at their office, and then send it to a lab themselves. Many doctors in the U.S. (and here) will prescribe something to you immediately, though, forgoing the 2 days it takes to grow bacteria in the lab, based on their opinion of the symptoms you are exhibiting. It is a guess, but a very educated guess.

The main difference I can see between the former-Yugoslavian system and the U.S. system is in the thought given to the comfort and overall experience of the patient. The patient experience in the U.S. is¬†rather nice; in developing countries in Eastern Europe, any other experience would be preferable to go to the doctor. Facilities are old and dingy, and personnel are not overly nice. Rules and¬†customs — such as the habit of an entire office taking a break at 10:00am — do not seem to make sense, and while personnel will even acknowledge that they seem nonsensical, no attempt is made to improve.

However, there are good people in the system, and very few people are mean or intentionally¬†unhelpful. It just so happened that my visit to the doctor today might have been a waste of time. As it stands now, I feel much better — better enough that I can assume the illness will not reappear in the morning. So what¬†incentive is there for me to go back to the lab for the results of my test? None.

You Just Do You: A Follow-up to “There is None Good But God”

just-do-it

Some of the social media comments on my last post were interesting. After a day or so of time to reflect on it, I believe there are probably a few more things I could say on the topic of how Christians ought to approach our culture.

I’m sure this will be an ongoing conversation, which is good for the blog format. Blogs are meant to be constantly added to, and so I’m glad to have found a few things about which I can keep the conversation going.

Do What Only You Can Do.

This may sound trite, but it is worth saying: in life, you ought to find out what it is that you can do better than anyone else, and then do that thing over, and over again. This is the alternative to simply looking for a job, or languishing in any stage of life waiting for someone else to tell you what to do. Rather than looking for someone else to give you direction, or tell you what you’d be good at, it is better to find something you are passionate about and find a way to advance that cause in any way you can.

You might be saying, “What does this have to do with socialism, conservatism, and all that stuff you wrote about the other day?”

Don’t Let Other People Tell You What to Think.

The point is, in the discussion about which viewpoint to take and which causes to back, socialism, conservatism, liberalism, and all the other -isms out there should really be irrelevant to the Christian. They really ought to be irrelevant to anyone who wants to have a positive influence on the world, but I know personally about the Christian perspective, so I write about that.

For us, we’ve already got a message that grounds us, and it’s found in the pages of the best selling, most widely read, most well preserved book that has ever been written. That message ought to precede any other message we ascribe to. It ought to be the one that determines what we say to a world that needs healing and redemption.

Focus on What Matters.

The problem that I see, over and over again, is that we keep on shouting about how things are too liberal, or they seem too much like socialism, or communism, or Keynesianism, or consumerism, or globalization, or whatever other ideology we wish to oppose. Really, those things ought not to be part of our thought process at all. What we ought to think about is, What are we called to do in this world, and how can we best do that thing. And how can we do it again, and again, and again?   

What difference does it make if following a message of redemption and healing takes us down a path that some feel is conservative or liberal? What we ought to care most about is whether it takes us down the path toward redemption and healing.

Go think about that thing and get back to me. That is all.