On the “modern” experience of feeling isolated and imprisoned through the eyes of a citizen of an isolated country
Surrendered to self preservation,
From others who care for themselves.
From the song “Isolation” by Joy Division (1980)
I’ve been living in an isolated country for three decades now and the feeling of helplessness that surrounds today’s world is very familiar to me and my compatriots, indeed. Since the last decade of the 20th century, the world has enjoyed the emergence of grunge and drum and bass, alt rock, broken beats and dubstep, among other musical genres. Ex-Yugoslavia survived some different beats and breakups, several wars, political and economical instability, embargos and blockades from outside, changes of names and identities, transition of governments, massive unemployment and “brain drains” and a fair share of personal turmoil. My country of today’s North Macedonia lived all of it and more, and we as its citizens felt as prisoners, small, insignificant, fearful, deprived, isolated and powerless to change our state of being. Seems familiar?
School as a prison
I fled the city of Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina) in 1990 when the rain was still made of water instead of led and settled in the peaceful southern city of Skopje in Macedonia. Both cities were still a part of one state of Yugoslavia, and just a year later we were separate states on a course to nowhere. The former parts of Yugoslavia declared independence, and all hell broke loose. Former brothers turned against each other, families were separated, drinking rakija and traditional dances with holding each-other’s hands were exchanged for flying bullets and screams of agony.
In April 1992 my hometown of Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina) was under attack, and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. I didn’t know if my friends were alive or dead, later I found out that some of them left the country and had their fair share of the horrors of the fugitive life across Europe. The others remained, some of them fallen victims of the war, others its prisoners. They survived as they could, used books and furniture to heat their homes, or risked their lives when they got out to get food or water from the donations, there was shortage of oil, flour, gas, toilet paper… you name it. Seems familiar?
I was thinking often about them, but I couldn’t do anything to help them. When the warmongering beast awakens, there’s nothing anybody could do, really. In the meantime I had my own share of personal battles. I was in eighth grade in primary school and my best friend was attacked for being of a different nationality than the others. “What a load of bollocks!” any civilised person from the West would probably say, being right. But the mind of a person from the Balkans does not work that way. Here, a name or a surname, could cost you a life in those times, or maybe some broken teeth. While me and my best friend fled from the angry mob that wanted a piece of our dental insurance, we thought for ourselves: “We can flee today, but tomorrow we have to go to school again.” That’s the feeling of being trapped in your own skin, or environment, depending on the way you look at it, I suppose.
The prison is within our mind, but it can also be in our body
Well, let’s say that, in one way or another, my friend and I survived. Of course, it’s just another sad bullying story, we were the victims, all the others our tormentors, we cried, they cheered, we licked our wounds and life went on… Soon the school was coming to the sweet end in the form of the seemingly endless summer, and my friend and I were celebrating with our 50th arm-pushing contest. Maybe we were inspired by the 80s movie Over the Top of one of our childhood heroes Stallone, or maybe we were just boys, always competing, always measuring our strengths.
Let’s just say that I didn’t notice that in the meantime, counting from 1 to 50, my friend grew to be quite a large and strong young man, while I remained more-less the same. Just before realizing that, my arm snapped in half and I found myself in a hospital, confined to the surgical table, while the medical assistant was holding my nerve radialis, and the surgeon was bolting the two pieces of my humerus bone with a metal plate and fourteen screws. Yes, I woke up in the middle of the operation and was given another dose of anaesthesia, enough to kill a horse, or just to be sure that I wouldn’t wake up again, during the operation, of course.
The next thing I know is that my face was plastered from one to the other side of the table, but I couldn’t feel anything. I heard the voice of the medical nurse yelling “Wake up”, but the darkness, and numbness of my body was overwhelming and stronger than the reality, it almost felt more real and familiar. I was in a prison of my own body and it felt like forever. The voices were coming from the distant place of nothingness and timelessness, the same place where we all came from. And then the light, colours, feelings, smell of iodine and pain.
The prison of my body left, but soon after removing the seemingly another physical confinement, the cast, I realized that I couldn’t move my hand. The nerve was damaged during the operation, and my hand became the immovable object, heavier than a ton of bricks. Indeed, lifting a finger felt like that for a long time, the whole summer to be exact. While the others celebrated the end of a school year and the end of primary school education with the traditional tearing and throwing the books in the air I was confined to the rehabilitation medical centers with the elderly people who looked at me as someone to share their life stories and wisdoms to. I had no choice but to listen to them, it was my bad luck that I was raised to show respect to the elders.
Isn’t it that we only appreciate normal things in life when we don’t have them anymore? Well, when you lose your control over your dominant arm, and study to write with the opposite arm just to pass the highschool entrance exam, you look at things from a different perspective. Just as today – a simple walk in nature, a hug with a close friend, or a relaxed moment in a supermarket shopping for the family’s needs, seems like a distant and a long forgotten dream. When the things we take for granted are taken away from us, we begin to appreciate them and remember how it was like when we had them. The sad thing is that when we get them back we forget to be appreciative and go back to the old ways of wanting more, just as I forgot how happy I was to lift a finger and to be able to hold a pen. That’s our nature.
Homeland as a prison
A prison could be built of flesh or of beliefs, but your own country can be a big and impenetrable prison, also. And in the year of 1992 my country was closed from all sides, imprisoned in its own beliefs that she has a right to the name of the country of Alexander the Great. It was a pity that the world didn’t share our own beliefs.
As a token of our good will to be a part of the EU, the world and the progressive thinking we opposed the Yugoslav (Serbian) tendencies towards war. So we closed our borders towards our northern neighbour and the main export channel for our products. That devastated our economy since we have already been blocked on the south, towards Greece. Why? Let me tell you a little something about history – it’s a bitch, alright. Greece thought that we didn’t have any right to use the name Macedonia, although ancient Macedonia was also part of our territory, but ok. We were the b-side of the argument, small, weak and poor. The winners write the history, and we were destined to be losers.
What about the West and the East? Well, our version of the West is Albania, a country that was struggling itself, a former communist state. And they had it rough, allright. Our former socialist state of Yugoslavia was a theme park compared to Albania. We had all the personal freedoms, listened to western music and watched American movies. I mentioned Stallone, but he was only one of many of our childhood heroes like Schwarzenegger, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme and others. Our east neighbour Bulgaria was also a poor communist state, but their only interest in our country was if it was a part of theirs.
All of them, so-called eastern bloc countries, including Romania, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary were considered as poor countries by the standard of Yugoslavia. If you exclude the political prisoners, the nationalization and appropriation of the personal belongings of the wealthy citizens, the average yugoslav bloke had free education and health care, functioning social support for the less fortunate and great housing policies for the workers. Yugoslavia was practically a free market socialist state and it’s GDP growth from 1950s to 1980s was often greater than most capitalist market economies of Western Europe and the US.
But since the 90s and the breakup of Yugoslavia, and the creation of the smaller national states, it has been a whole nother story. My country of Macedonia was particularly closed. Serbia and Croatia were at war, but they had friends, Russia and the EU or US. We, on the other hand, had no friends and no relations or a means to export or import goods from anywhere and in the middle of the process of transition from socialist to democratic government. It was an experience from hell. The once full markets were empty, no bread, milk, meat, flour. Since oil and the gas came from Greece, it never came, or if you waited for several days in the gas station, maybe you could fill a tank. It was a time when criminals ruled our sovereign country and smuggled cigarettes, coffee, sugar, oil, electronics, chemicals and even arms. All of those things were more worth than gold. Macedonian tobacco, famous in the world for more than a century, was given to the big players for literal pennies. They packaged it and sold it back to us via contraband for ten times fold.
Politicians or crime bosses had their bellies full and jiggling in laughter like a merry old Santa Claus. The ordinary people were desperate and hungry, their savings blocked by the state and the banks, left without a job or a choice in life, hungry, frightened and without perspective. In those circumstances my mother was sitting in the kitchen and talking to her friend, a medical person, about the processes of conserving food and water.
“If you open a bottle, the water is microbiologically clean for a week. Of course, tap water is full of chemicals and is safe for maybe a month if stored properly,” she was talking as if reciting a verse from a prepper’s book. My mother wrote all down and made a list: water, flour, oil, canned food… and kept a reserve of everything through the ‘90s.
Inflation was 450 percent, GDP was minus 7.5 percent, the unemployment rate was 30 percent and if you had the luck to be employed it was for a wage of $100. If by any chance you had foreign capital, banks took it from you. People were living like prisoners in their own country. Many people fled the prison, but not everyone had the chance.
A prison of the war
In those times of economic instability the fear of the shadow of the war approaching and covering our sunny southern state was always present. In 1991 ex-Yugoslavia separated and we gained independence, in 1992 the terrible war in Bosnia started, in 1999 it moved nearer, to Kosovo, and finally in 2001 it came to our country. It was a hell of a decade, and I was in the best years of my life, thirteen to twenty-three.
In the last year of the turbulent decade, or the first of the new millennium, Block Rockin Beats came to our country, and people started killing each other. Albanians wanted rights, Macedonians said, “maybe, but not with guns”, and as it happens in the Balkans, guns talked instead of words. The war already started in some other cities, but my city of Skopje was still safe. My mother was afraid that the military would take me to the front. I was a student of psychology then and didn’t believe that they needed anyone to talk to them about Freud, they needed warriors. But still, I was under stress that in any moment someone would knock on my door and take me away. When the bell rang we all jumped as shot from behind. One night I was awakened by explosions and rumblings and my heart nearly jumped out from my chest. As I was trying to locate myself in the darkness I realized that it was just thundering.
Soon after that, the thunder and rattles came to our city. There were real battles, not more than 10 miles from my house, helicopters, plains, mortar explosions, Kalashnikovs, and the sounds of war previously heard only in movies, were accompanying me in my study of Charcot, Helmholtz, Wundt, Piaget, Pavlov, Skinner and other pioneers of psychology. It was a real test of motivation and persistence of reason over emotion.
Being in your own country, in your own apartment, but still feeling like you are a prisoner of some big prison is very strange. If you didn’t hear the shootings for a brief morning when the sun bathed the trees and birds sang their spring song you stood in your window in wonder how nature doesn’t seem to care about our worries and just carries on. Maybe just for a moment, when the birds would fly in a flock, frightened by the sound of an explosion, you’ll maybe rejoice “We got you!”
Every spring, for ten years, we waited for that moment to come. We knew that someday we would be awakened not only by the sun, but also by the sounds of the war. And when it came, we were frightened like that flock of the birds on the tree in front of my house. But we couldn’t fly away to some other tree, instead we stayed in our city and in our homes and hoped that the war would end soon. It’s when the feeling of prison and isolation was in it’s peak. You trust no one and fear everyone. Even your best neighbor tomorrow could turn his back on you and shoot you. It has happened before, you know. When the war in Bosnia started the nearest neighbours that sometimes in their lives argued about something stupid, now had a licence to kill, and they used it. Everybody is a potential threat and if you want to live, you should be carefull. Trust no one, care for yourself. Does it seem familiar?
An epilogue – world as a prison
Well, the war ended in the summer of 2001 and it seemed like better times were coming. In the coming years there were several other instabilities and on-off shootings, but overall we were going in the right direction. Albanians got their deserved rights and we became a more democratic state.
In the following two decades we didn’t recover economically, and our neighbours didn’t support us. Hell, we didn’t even have a name for our state, since Macedonia wasn’t internationally recognised, or our people, language or religion. In the mind of the world we were an invented construct, non-existent entity and that sure had its toll on us. We struggled to be a part of the EU for decades and didn’t succeed, there was always an excuse that we didn’t fit with the big boys, although we did everything they asked from us.
Many people fled this big prison of a country, most of them fine, smart people. What was left of the was not the best. Some thugs, rough people that could survive and thrive in difficult situations. Let’s just say that I’m not one of those people and it’s quite difficult for me to be a fully developed human being in the circumstances where the higher intellectual needs are thought of as not important, even looked down on. The former schoolyard bullies that tormented my friend and me became rich and powerful and the country was imprisoned by such characters. Former proud communist party members that informed on their friends became free market and venture capitalist that ruled the unprotected majority.
In the year 2020 the three decades of our imprisonment ended, I was ready to accept that my adolescence and youth went in vain, but that my middle years would hopefully be better. My country got a new name – North Macedonia and the EU and the world was willing to recognize us as a part of it, even our most vicious enemy, our southern neighbor, that rejoiced in our struggle in the decades we were struggling. We were prepared for something big, for the greater future we dreamed of for three decades, to be able to travel and work abroad without waiting for visas, being humiliated from other states officials like we are lesser of a human beings, being able to work and earn something more in life. Many of our citizens felt it wasn’t right to change our name, but they were fed up of pure survival and wanted to live a full, happy and fulfilled life.
And just then, in the beginning of 2020, the world got isolated. It was as our bad luck passed on to the whole world. Now we were all living in fear, distrust, economic downfall and isolation, and there’s nowhere to run from the prison of reality. Does it seem familiar? Sure it does, now the whole world is like one big prison. But fear not, the human race is a tough customer, it survives, it adapts, just like nature, it’s a part of it. It will prevail, and build something better. It is a matter of time.