Vanja Bulic: Tom Sawyer from New Belgrade
Esteemed journalist, famous show host, author of the famous “Biseri” show, renown bestseller author and screenplay writer, Vanja Bulic is a name known to all generations. Belgrader since he was 5 years old, he broke through all the obstacles imposed on him by life.
You started from the sands of New Belgrade and reached the stars of the media sky.
I came to Belgrade in 1952. My father was in the military and that meant we moved around a lot. He is from Durmitor, while my mother is from Cetinje. My dad was assigned to Stip once, which is where they made me, but I was born in Kumanovo, where my parents made my sister who in turn was born in Skoplje. From there they sent us all to Vipavo, then to Sarajevo and all this within the first four years of my life.
In the end, in 1952 we came to New Belgrade which then was literally just an island in the sand with machines ejecting water and gravel from the Sava river. When we were kids, that was our main playground. We were like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Fin. We chased frogs and newts, fished...I remember we hopped from puddle to puddle, swim in the river and come out covered in leeches. We’d just brush them off and then charge onwards.
The pavillions and the heating plant were about 45 minutes away from each other. We went between them on a picnic to the end of the world. There we would have barbecues. We’d pick the willow branches and stab a sausage on them, roasting them on a fire like that – bliss.
You became a Belgrader through unfortunate circumstances.
That was when my father was taken to Goli otok and how, thanks to the most devastating thing that ever happened to my family, I became a Belgrader. After that, there were no more trips around Yugoslavia.
To everyone their own childhood is the best and they wouldn’t trade it for the world. It was ideal in my mind, other than that tragic event. In that age, you can’t imagine that things could ever be different. It wasn’t until later, when thinking back I realized the difference between me and those who grew up with both their parents and how different that was from the upbringing I had with my mother and sister.
The novel “Oko otoka” that I wrote couldn’t be published while my father was alive, because there was fear of speaking about Goli otok. It takes place entirely in New Belgrade. It’s about growing up of the children of military personnel and those taken to Goli otok and about how later they were recruited to work for State security. The biggest troublemakers later, turned out to be the children of military personnel. It was probably their psychologists who knew that children who grow up authoritatively under a strong influence of their parents, especially if they started down a criminal path somewhat earlier. Also, children of those sent to Goli otok would join the service to ‘wash’ away the sins of their parents.
What was New Belgrade of that time like?
It was Yugoslavia in miniature. We had children of military personnel, railway workers and police officers. It was like an enclave of people unused to the city environment. To us, Zemun was always the ‘main’ city. Up until I was halfway through high-school I don’t think I’d crossed the Sava river more than 20 times total. And that was mostly when it was time for the 1st of May parade. We’d bring stools and come early to get in line. We’d stand in front of the Moscow hotel and watch. All the while my father is in Goli otok and the same guy who sent him there is waving to me from his car and I – crazed with joy – waved back. It’s completely contradictory, but that’s the way it was.
On the other hand, to all those people – military personnel coming from smaller environments, Zemun looked tucked away and reminded them of their childhood more than Belgrade which was a noisy place.
We’d go to Belgrade on the weekends sometimes, or to the zoo and a walk around Kalemegdan. It would end by the Three national heroes, and that’s where we’d take our picture over and over.
In high school you developed a love for music.
I started a rock band called “Sidra” since I was 16. Five of us from the grade and later one more member from another class. This group alienated us a bit more from the center of the city, because you couldn’t just go to Dorcol and play there. The reason was simple. Rock band members were irresistible to girls and if a girl from Dorcol looked at you, you’d get beat up for being from New Belgrade. So we focused on New Belgrade and were the best band there.
The first article about us was published by Zoran Modli in Express. He came up with the title “Red booklets stronger than 220 volts”. It was very crowded in front of pavilion 34 where the hall in which we played was located and we were running late. We said we were sorry because we were in a political party meeting and he pulled out the title from that. He said to us “Shush down, at least this way people will find you ideologically palatable” :)
The period during the 60’s was incredible. In one skyscraper – I believe it was C21 – there were three rock bands rehearsing in the basement at the same time. Three stories were bases for music and everyone were musicians. Nobody really knew the first thing about music because everything was in its early days. All that mattered was to yell “oh yeah”, bob your head and sing “baby baby”.
Only later did I realize why rock was the greatest cultural movement of the 20th century. The words Mamas and Papas in the song California sleeps we once understood as a love ballad when in fact the lyrics were very poignant.
Rock’n’roll changed Belgrade quite a lot. If it influenced us in the military settlement so much, I can only imagine what it did to the city families in the heart of Belgrade.
When you say you were the most popular New Belgrade band. Were you able to make any good money?
Each dance was attended by at least 500 people. Just in high school there were dances twice a week and the entire school would attend. If the entrance fee was 100 dinars, you can imagine we’d get quite a bit of money out of it - just us five kids, three times a week. Since I had turned 16, my parents had no reason to give me any money, I would give them.
Half of our band, myself included, played volleyball. At the age of 22 when we were finishing schools, we realized that none of us saw a future in music, but volleyball was and would remain more important. Which is why I still work in that field today.
The most important thing is that all of us from the band remained friends to this day, and were even best men and godfathers for each other. We taught our children to play together, cooked ‘rakia’ together, celebrated together and our guitars were always with us.
Still the best part of our lives happened in the summers, when we would play during our school breaks, especially in the seaside. That’s how it happened that two times we represented Belgrade in the Gathering of Yugoslavian Youth in Pristina. It was an invaluable time in our lives, but today I have the insight to realize how much we were really being manipulated.
That trip to Pristina happened right after the student protests in ’68. They met us in Kosovo field and immediately took to the band rehearsal with the Bodeks, a band of Albanians. We hung out with them until the concert itself when we met the band Bozuri – Serbs. We returned to Belgrade with an Albanian song that we ended up performing many times afterward. My point is the extent to which we were drilled in the whole ‘brotherhood and unity’ idea, while the bands themselves had members who participated in the protests. I used all of that for my book “Oko otoka” where I spoke about how we had no idea who we were or what we were or why everything that happened after the 90s happened to us.
Under what accusation was your father sent to Goli otok?
I rehabilitated my father and later in my book, between the fourth and fifth edition, I briefly published on that rehabilitation. He was a pre-war member of SKOJ, fought in the war between 1941 and 1942, was a member of the political party and as major was in a lieutenant colonel position in the Military history Institute. He ended up in the wave of unfortunates who were sent to Goli otok when the Serbs and Montenegrians were cleared out to make room for Slovenian, Croatian, Muslim and other personnel. The military was organized using specific guidelines – there had to be a certain percentage of officers from every country’s military and the Montenegrians had 33 generals from the war, just like the Serbs.
My father was condemned under three accusations of which the last one was the most ludicrous one, which that on an unspecified date, in an unspecified location, he stated that such a time had come that an honest man can’t buy tobacco anywhere anymore, only criminals and racketeers. He got four and a half years for that.
For the first year he was incarcerated in Banjica, in the former camp. Once a week we would visit him and we couldn’t recognize him because of how much weight he’d lost. Now and then we were told we couldn’t see him that day because he was away on a work assignment. This meant they had beat him up and didn’t want us to see him in bruises. I remember when we saw him the first time, my sister started crying and shouting “That’s not my daddy”, he’d changed so much.
My mother and I visited him in Goli otok in 1956 and we didn’t recognize him once again. He’d just repeat ‘it’s alright’ to us over and over.
You felt the consequences throughout your life?
It followed me later, like all the children of those sent to Goli otok. It’s not that they wouldn’t let us work, but we’d never get the positions we deserved. I was always the head editor’s assistant and couldn’t get my first job until I was 32. For example, the newspaper Borba published a call for journalists which basically described me and all my qualities, but I wasn’t hired. I later found out that the newspaper worked for KPJ and how could the son of someone in Goli otok work there?
I wrote for the newspaper “New Belgrade” for 10 years and they kept saying they would hire me, but that never happened. Later, I started working for “Omladinske novine” who couldn’t care less. By then I was married and with a child. It was an amazing editorial board. Today, anyone who means anything in journalism came from youth publications where they used to be head editors. Out of let’s say six women in “Duga”, half of them came from youth publications and all who worked there today are writers or artists.
Today, television wins out against newspaper. Back in the 90’s electronics swooped in and began winning over against written journalism. If you wanted to win against that, you had to write in images. So that the person reading had the impression they were seeing the whole thing. And that was a good thing for all the literalists to discover themselves.
Did you feel the consequence of your father’s incarceration in Goli otok as a child as well?
Never directly. Sometimes mothers would call their children home when they played with you or you notice that families that visited you all the time almost never come to your home anymore.
On the other hand, I had a feeling that my teacher – Zdravka Jovanovic was her name – was always protecting me. I remember we were all enamored with her. By the end of the 80’s I ran into her in Hvar. I approached her and thanked her for protecting me, and she replied that she had no idea my father was in Goli otok. It was then that I realized that just her normal behavior to me stood out compared to how everyone else treated me, I imagine out of fear.
When my dad came back, it all went sort of back to normal, but a lot of what my family suffered left consequences. My mother lost her baby in her sixth month of pregnancy. She went to the hospital with a large belly and came back without it. I was five and a half years old and she stroked my nose and told me that “there was another little boy with the same little nose”. If it weren’t for any of that, I would’ve had a brother today, but...what can you do?
Still, if things hadn’t happened that way, I wouldn’t have been the way I am today – I’d just be your regular General’s kid.
How do you recall your school days?
I started junior school in 1954 in the “American barracks”, as they were known. Living there were people from Crna trava who built the Student city, the skeleton of hotel Yugoslavia and started building the Federal Executive Council. I remember the rough floor, the large furnace and the toilet with torn newspapers impaled on a nail. Back then one school was built after another, all of which I skipped and went to Zikica Jovanovic Spanac school. Later this school became the 9th Belgrade high school which I went to. It was a really strict school. We had a principal who would stand at the entrance and watch for us rockers who slicked our hair back. He’d just take a pen and use it to pull our hair out, implying we should have it cut.
I had a Serb-Croatian language professor, Mioljka Mijovic is her name, who asked us to go to the theatre once a week and then later tell her about what we saw. We’d go by bus and return on foot, so it was about an hour and a half of laughter and joking around. The entire generation who studied with her kept the habit of going to the theatre regularly, which is the only time I ever wear a jacket. Theatre is our closest encounter with someone from the art world and I am truly grateful to my professor for that.
I also remember the graduation celebration that we had in the Aviation Home in Zemun. After that, before dawn, we walked to the cities. For the first time in suits, we wore the Beatles jackets with lined buttons. We were walking by the House of princess Ljubica and stopped to rest a bit, leaning on the fence. The fence was freshly painted and we all ruined our jackets. That’s how god told us that suits aren’t for us.
You missed the student protests which happened later due to some circumstances?
At that time I was studying medicine. That evening, my band was playing in the terrace of the Workers’ University, right next to the Student city. That night the main crowds broke out because they wouldn’t let the students into the “Summer song”. They climbed up, came to us and threw down our speakers shouting “Boo the Red bourgeoisie!” And us poor sods barely scraped up enough to buy everything – what bourgeoisie? I shaved at home getting ready to go to the student protests, already got my badge on and everything, when I heard my neighbor Kosa yell “Dusane, don’t let him – they came with machine guns”! So my dad locks me in the bathroom and that’s how I spent the protest.
You ended up not finishing medical school?
I realized that both for the future patient and myself, it was the best. Namely, when I was taking my pre-military lessons with professor Aleksandar Markovic who was a surgeon and was working in the 2nd surgery when he was on call. You come in at 7:30AM and wait until the afternoon waiting for him to get to testing you. In that time you see a lot of things that bring home the decision if this is something you can do or not. I remember smelling something that was hands down a barbecue smell. A second later four workers run in panicked with their colleague who burned his arm away when an oil barrel caught fire. That’s when I said to myself that medicine won’t see me again after that fall. I wanted to be a pediatrician and I couldn’t imagine having to see and take care of a child injured that way.
Since I had started writing, I decided then to enlist in the Political sciences college. However I was working and I had money from my band. The moment you enter the grind and start hanging around the editorial office, college isn’t happening.
Throughout your life you changed your address in Belgrade but New Belgrade always held a special place in your heart and you wanted to go back to it, but...
I couldn’t go back to New Belgrade because my wife comes from a different world and when we go to New Belgrade, she has no idea where she is. Meanwhile, when I go to her northside and see those narrow little streets, I’m also completely lost.
The beauty of New Belgrade is that people there are used to going to the river and grew to love it. It’s a special relationship. Up until my 27th year of age I used to hang out fishing with my godfather near hotel Yugoslavia. There were all sorts of fish, the kind that had people travel 50-70km to fish. The water itself was much cleaner. In 3-4AM he’d pick me up, whistle under my window loaded with fishing rods. We’d just go and enjoy ourselves until 9AM. However, since he died I never went fishing again.
On the other hand, if I went looking for an apartment, I just made sure it always had a view of New Belgrade. I remember our apartment in General Zdanova street, the terrace looked out directly to New Belgrade across two slightly ajar buildings. I’d go out there in the evening to look out and enjoy.
When you started as a journalist, what did that path look like?
I started writing by composing poems in acrostics and went to a literature club during high school, but as a secret because only girls went to that club and I didn’t want to get teased. My first poem was Vera, then I made it to Ilinka. Those seven verses were impossible to compose, so I gave up.
When I was 17 years old, I went to work actions with my bandmates. These were fun times – for 30 days we’d play in front of the barracks every day and after I got back all six of us were accepted into the Party. My dad thought I was a police associate.
My first texts came out in just single copies. This was in the wall-pinned newspaper during work actions. The first piece of my writing published was a poem in the magazine 4th of July that had a youth page.
When I was 20 years old, they selected the best work action participants of that year and invited them to Djerdap. Tito was there and a friend handed him a flower bouquet and we all got a picture of him. When I returned to Belgrade, I went to New Belgrade newspaper and told them all about it, and they asked me to write a story on it.
And that’s how I wrote it all by hand. My neighbor typed it out for me on her typewriter when lo and behold – six typed pages. I turn that in with Tito’s picture and they published the image on the full page and under it six lines from my story. :)
However, the editor recognized that I could write, invited me and that’s how I started writing for that newspaper, and in the meantime I started writing casually for other smaller newspaper such as Student and 4th of July. During that period I worked in all positions, from a courier to a technical editor and I learned the trade well.
When I went to serve in the military at 27, I became a soldier journalist. From there I showered the newspaper with texts about the military because the editorials couldn’t get that kind of information from the outside and I was allowed to do it, in order to promote the military.
When I was out, I was invited by Borba to write for the “Our armed forces” page. They issued a call for basically me, and...they hired a woman from the Agricultural university.
Still, four years later, fate smiled upon you?
Milomir Kragovic ran into me in the street. He was later the publishing editor of Borba” and the head editor of “Osmica” and he asked me “What are you doing these days? I remember you sent us good texts from the military back in the day”. I told him I was writing for Novi Beograd and he invited me to drop by his editorial office the next morning. And that’s how it happened. Grujica Spasic was the head editor and he had me write a story about the most heroic event of the year – a guy from Dorcol who saved his entire neighborhood by preventing some butane gas barrels from blowing up. I wrote the story and turned it in at 1PM. Tomorrow morning Grujica called me, beside himself with joy: “Man, you write amazingly well, would you work for us?” I said of course. I sent my resume and a problem arose – hey could only hire people up to 27 years of age and I was already 32.
So the situation wasn’t promising?
Not at first. However, because of me and Branka Krailovic they changed that rule and hired us.
After that, I was on a roll. It happened sometimes that three of my stories would be published by three different newspapers in one day. Wherever I went I brought in stories and reports for more newspapers. That’s what I loved and what I was good at.
At 35, I got the call to go to “Prosvetni pregled” and I accepted for pragmatic reasons. Namely, they published a month and a half in the winter and two and a half months in the summer. I enjoyed eight years with them and from there wrote for every newspaper under the sun. Nobody was sure where I was really employed. :) I’d go to Zlatibor and from there send interviews to different newspapers.
I was then replaced as a head editor out of pure jealousy – they didn’t have another reason to give me. Which was when I went to Duga.
After that, you transitioned to TV.
I started on OK channel somewhere in 98 and then on Channel 3 I did “Biseri” and “Zam”, which was the first privately hosted show. TV show hosts back then were more popular than ever. Before that, I never worked as a show host, but they always told me I’d be good at it. I brought in actors, singers and various other celebrities.
You went through several TV houses, but the show “Biseri” was what left a lasting mark on your career.
The most important thing for me there was to learn why someone went down a certain path in life. I think that’s precisely why Biseri got so much attention from the audience. Someone can watch it and realize that the guests we have on are people just like them and that what happened to them can happen to anyone. Recognizing yourself in others was the essence of Biseri.
You have had both male and female guests. Who in general were better conversation partners and which guest stayed in your memory?
Women. Once a woman opens up, that’s it. If a man comes on who is, for example, a drug addict, he will do everything he can to present himself like some hot-shot. When a woman confesses to being a drug addict or a prostitute, she’s tainted. That’s why, when women come on as guests they tell us everything honestly and openly.
I’ll always remember a story from a woman who was incarcerated in Gnjilani camp. Later I was called on to present it as evidence in Hague. I was choking up during the show, while I listened to her talk. The story was that horrible. She showed us pictures of herself when she got out with torn out hair and broken arms, after being gang-raped while tied to a radiator. She escaped by jumping out of the window and landing right in front of a black man who was a member of the KFOR. He just gestured for her to move on, and she crawled to the road where an Albanian was passing by in his car. He picked her up and drove her as far as he dared, which was just a kilometer away. That’s how she saved herself.
The movie “Lepa sela lepo gore” was based on your text. Can we ever expect one of your novels to have live adaptations? What are your plans for the future?
Well, there are two problems there. First, movies are an expensive ‘toy’ to play with and second, my friend Dragan Bjelogrlic doesn’t have the time to read my novels.
I am working at TV Koreni, a station aimed at Serbs and Albanians abroad. There, I host interviews and civil conversations about Kosovo. I enjoy that very much.
I am also working on a new book about a double homicide on a fashion show and I plan to go to Zlatibor as often as I can. :)
I also hope can start the show “Biseri na kvadrat” where I’d bring in guests from 20 years ago and have them talk about what happened to them in the meantime.
Honestly, when it comes to work, I’ve never felt better than I do now.