I had the opportunity to meet Stjepan Sučić through international Magic competition where he has had multiple opportunities to represent the Croatian Magic community on the World stage. It is very common for players to from neighboring nations to pool their resources for those tournaments. Not only testing together but also sharing a roof so it did not seem at all odd to me that Stjepan and his teammates were sharing a house with the Serbian team. Stjepan explained that what seemed commonplace to me was alarming to his friends and family back home. He agreed to write a little piece for us about how playing Magic has changed his view of the world.
Once again, Christmas is upon us, that time of the year when you celebrate and enjoy yourself in the company of your loved ones. One of the things we associate Christmas with most often is obviously the Christmas tree. Really, there is no Christmas without that specific scent in the house. As much as we love to have them around, their lifespan is quite short once they are cut down and we have to throw them away after a couple of weeks. There is a tradition in the Christian world to throw away the trees on the 7th of January, a day after Epiphany, which is not very odd, since that day is the day that more or less sums up the whole Christmas story — Three Wise Men did their thing and that’s it, the hype is over.
However, in my country, Croatia, things are a bit different. We throw away our trees on the 6th of January. Why? Well, if you don’t throw them away on the 6th, your neighbors might think you are Serbian. You see, Serbians are, unlike us, mostly Orthodox Catholics, so they celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January, which means that keeping your tree to that day might be a sign that you have some Serbian ancestry, or even worse, that you sympathize with those evil creatures that live just behind our eastern border.
This example is but a single one, there are hundreds of similar oddities that are the legacy of the Yugoslav Wars. It has been twenty years since Croatian War of Independence ended, but it seems that the animosity between Serbians and Croatians will not die out with the generation that fought in the war. That is exactly what troubles me the most — the willingness of the youth to pick up hate and prejudice from the old, without trying to rationalize the situation and think with their own heads. This affinity for blind hate towards minorities, especially Serbs is completely unfounded and unreasonable, but the young are gullible and easily influenced.
However, relations between Serbia and Croatia certainly tend to improve over the years since the war ended, but there is always something to stir up the embers whenever it seems we are getting friendly again. A recent situation that made a lot of mess in these parts was the Syrian refugees trying to pass through our countries. Our governments weren’t really prepared for that, and since the Hungarians closed their borders, we had a lot of people coming and going through both Serbia and Croatia. At one point, Croatia couldn’t take all the refugees that were coming, and our government decided to close the borders with Serbia. Then, our new president decided to send our army to the Serbian border to ‘control’ the flow of the refugees. Both of those ideas were terrible and deteriorated the relationship between our countries a lot.
On the other hand, Serbian government had some of their own moments of brilliance, like a joint military drill with Russian forces just off the Croatian border, among others. Certainly, such governmental muscle-flexing is unnerving to most of the citizens of both Countries, while some of the more radical ones are already calling for a new war between our nations.
I am certainly no expert on politics or even on Serbo-Croatian relations, even though I lived in Croatia my whole life. However, I do feel I am an expert on one subject — Magic: the Gathering. If you haven’t heard of this card game, look it up, it is a twenty-two year old game that gets hotter and hotter as time passes by. At this moment there are over twenty million players playing the game in the world, so there has to be something to it. I have been playing the game for over thirteen years, with some moderate success and decent finishes on a professional level. I have met and befriended people from all over the world playing this game, and it enriched my life in many ways.
How does this relate to the hate between Serbia and Croatia? Well, it is a long story that begins in 2008. In Memphis Tennessee.
In 2008, I won the Croatian National Championship of Magic: the Gathering. I was 20 years old at that time and not well-versed in the whole ‘world’ thing. That was the first big tournament I ever won and it qualified me for the World Championship taking place in Memphis, Tennessee. I had never travelled out of my country before, and had met very few foreigners in general, so this trip I decided to take was a really big thing for me. I had to look for sponsors to finance my trip there, since the plane ticket was far too expensive for me and what my family could afford. Thankfully, there were some good people who decided that it is worth paying some of my expenses if I promoted my country there. I did just that, proudly brandishing our colors and waving the Croatian flag with pride and joy at the event. That drew some attention; a few Americans who had Croatian ancestry approached me to wish me good luck and to talk a bit about Croatia.
That was very fun, and I enjoyed meeting all these American people, but, at one point I was approached by four obviously European guys. They didn’t look like much, but as soon as they addressed me, my alarms went off. They spoke Serbian! It was a simple greeting and a question, but with no experience dealing with Serbs before that, I had no idea what could I expect. I replied very carefully, trying to be politically correct not to offend them in any way. I was too cautious with how I phrased my sentences and what I spoke about. They seemed to be very amused by my reserved attitude and decided to make a lot of lighthearted fun of myself, themselves and both of our nations until I relaxed enough to join in on the fun.
In years after, we ran into each other in various places and events accompanied with other guys from our countries and became great friends. With so many people in both of our Magic: The Gathering communities being and becoming friends, we started organizing events closer to our borders so we can have fun and play together. Novi Sad in Serbia and Osijek in Croatia hosted numerous Serbian-Croatian Magic events in the last seven years; some of them are even annual events, like a Halloween tournament in Osijek.
With tournaments in both Serbia and Croatia attracting players from both countries and with both of our communities consisting of almost exclusively nice, friendly people we more or less became a single community over the years. Trading, deckbuilding and metagaming goes over the border very often, but we also enjoy some non-magic related activities together, like sports, vacations or even relationships — which is still quite a taboo here. It is very common for parents to vigorously oppose relationships ‘over the border’, so it is often needed to keep such things secret. It is similar with just having friends from other country, but the opposition is less intense. Telling younger people that I have a lot of Serbian friends is very often met with disbelief, teasing and/or suspicion. But that is pretty mild compared to how older people react. Curses and hate are the usual response whenever Serbia or Serbs are mentioned, and those who broke the chains of prejudice are few and far in between. My own parents, both high school professors with very liberal standpoints were against me going to tournaments in Serbia at first, but when I persisted, they got used to me frequenting our eastern neighbors, but never completely relaxed. It is very hard to explain to people that the past should stay in the past and that we are a new generation who should build our mutual future off a clean slate without prejudice and hate.
This leads me to the latest conjoined effort Serbian and Croatian Magic community took part in: The World Magic Cup. The World Magic Cup is the pretty much like football/soccer World Cup where each country is represented with their respective four-player team battling to become the World Champions. Since both Croatians and Serbians are very proud people, we take great pleasure in cheering for our national teams in every and any sport. It is even greater pride and privilege to represent our nations in a big event like the World Magic Cup. This year’s World Magic Cup was held in Barcelona and I had the honor of being the team Captain. I took my role seriously and decided to prepare well for the tournament. The first thing I did when I found out who my teammates were was to call the captain of the Serbian national team and proposed to him that we work together. He accepted wholeheartedly, and when we presented our plan to both of our teams, they were positively thrilled. We rented an apartment for all eight of us near Camp Nou and started preparing online together as much as time permitted. When I told my father about our plan and arrangements his response was expected: “Are you sure about this? How well do you know those Serbian guys?” I explained that most of them are my long time friends, that I actually know them better than I know my own team, and even though he was somewhat relieved, I knew he is still far from convinced.
Obviously, that week in Barcelona was amazing, our mutual preparations placed the Serbian team in the Top 16, and while we weren’t lucky enough to post a decent finish, our Serbian friends took us out for a dinner to lift our spirits.
On our last day in Barcelona someone started a conversation about our political relations and how there is a lot of bad blood even now. Someone then said: “Imagine if our whole nations were like our Magic the Gathering communities. We wouldn’t even need the border!” Everyone laughed, but inside, I actually felt sad. Why weren’t we all like that? I feel like people never gave each other a chance. We are all bombarded by war stories about horrible atrocities that come with every war and it is hard not to create some stereotypes and misconceptions about Serbian people, but if we just gave our neighbors a chance, we would see we are all the same, no matter the nationality or religion. We all laugh at the same jokes, have similar problems and enjoy the same things. Together, we would be able to get both of our countries back on their feet. In past couple of years, our Magic communities certainly showed that when we work together, amazing things can be achieved!