Paracin, a small town in central Serbia, is an example of such an environment. Once a promising and progressive industrial center, where glassmakers, cloth makers and confectionery factories were working full steam, today it is the reverse of the former progress. Dilapidated facades, destroyed infrastructure, huge unemployment, which is evidenced by the fact that the listed factories either no longer exist or work with 10% of their former capacity – you can almost feel it in the air. All the visual symbols, dimmed lights, huge but deserted halls of the former giant and today of the Serbian Glass Factory (which, ironically, are missing a bunch of windows), abandoned shops in the center, gloomy faces and people lost in their thoughts – these are the scenes that make everyday life of the town.

Nevertheless, some new generations are growing up in it even today. Despite the listed disadvantages and difficult conditions that do not offer a bright perspective, these young people are trying to create some conditions, if for nothing else – at least for a carefree and cheerful youth. The subculture is strongly present, as in many other similar towns. Quite appropriately, many young people in these areas, defying the dominant trend, listen to rebellious music from some bygone era – punk, metal, rock’ n’ roll. Nevertheless, even with their energy that sometimes makes up for all the shortcomings, it is hard not to notice that the environment in which they grow up does not offer them adequate support. Since there is no work, even the former educational profiles in local vocational schools have become meaningless. Educating someone to work with glass in a factory that barely exists is nonsense and the reality of life in this city. Almost all of them have to go, if not anywhere else, even to study in Belgrade or abroad, in order to try to secure a better future for themselves. Unfortunately, many never return to the environment they came from because they know they have no perspective there.

Aleksandar is one of those who remained. He was very young when he got a job in a factory, right after finishing high school. Life choice was not easy for him. However, aware of the impossibility of surviving and building his future in his place of birth in any other way, he agreed to hard and painstaking work. He says that even that hard shift work in a factory next to hot glass melting furnaces is better compared to the life and hopelessness that most of his peers face. He adds that it is even better – to leave, which many of his friends have done. In the West, the work is not easier, but the human labour is more valued and has at least some perspective. Aleksandar does not really see that perspective in Paracin.

Denis is another young man who managed to rise above the dullness of his surroundings. Although he lived in very difficult conditions with his father at the time of writing this report, he was an excellent student and a favorite friend in the high school he attended at the time. From his small and cozy room of 15 square meters, which was both a bedroom and a kitchen and a living room for him and his father, he managed to grow into a quality man. At the time when he was a high school student, Denis often feared for his existence. The father who took care of him could not find a job. They lived on social assistance, which barely amounted to EUR 80 per month. Their electricity was turned off before winter because they did not have the means to pay for it. Later, Denis’s teachers and friends got involved in solidarity about the problem. During that winter when I met them, they didn’t even have enough funds for wood to burn their small Smederevac (type of furnace), which for them meant much more than a thing to cook on – it meant survival. Fortunately, the winter was mild, and help came again from Denis’ friends. Denis had modest dreams – to have a computer for studying and work, to have electricity and water in the house. At that time, after the end of the first decade of the 21st century, Denis did not even have a bathroom in his apartment, but used a toilet in the yard.

His father suffered the same fate when he was young, but even over half a century later, he was powerless to provide even slightly better conditions for his son. Life is a complex thing, and it is impossible to find only one person to blame for someone’s difficult fate. However, the environment in which Denis and Nebojsa lived did not provide them with the necessary support.

All these human stories and difficult fates, unfortunately, have a wider and more universal meaning. They can be copied almost in detail to the lives of thousands and thousands of people in similar towns throughout Serbia. All of them tell a sad story about a country that was left without the most valuable thing – hope for a better future, humanity and perspective. That is why it is not surprising that people, especially young people, are fleeing from these places. Most often, having a ticket in one direction, they go far in search of a better life, leaving their nests empty, sad and with no prospect of this natural course changing for the better anytime soon.

Data from the European Statistical Institute show that more than 4,000 people leave Serbia every month, and about 51,000 people leave Serbia every year, mostly young people. This process is one-way, because most of those who leave do not think about returning. The structure of those who leave is also very worrying – these are mostly educated (or at least those who chose education as a projected life path) people who would represent the future in every sense. By this act, Serbia is becoming increasingly old, with fewer and fewer experts in various fields, and a permanently disturbed mechanism of natural reproduction. Behind these sufficiently representative and striking statistical indicators, there are stories about specific people, a sense of hopelessness, forced choices, nostalgia and longing, and above all about the dysfunctionality of the system of a country lost in time and space.


Author’s note: Although this report was published with a significant time gap, this does not change its veracity or relevance in describing the current situation in the mentioned areas throughout Serbia. What’s more, the situation has gone from bad to worse in the last 10 years. This is evidenced by statistical data on migration and brain drain, media reports on failed transitions and tycoons putting the last nail in the coffins of long-dead factories, as well as testimonies of people who still find ways and strength to live here despite the fact that it sometimes borders on impossible. I hope that this time distance will somewhat preserve the integrity of the interlocutors who kindly opened the doors of their homes to me and because of whose generosity and trust I was able to at least begin this very important story about Serbia that is (dying) away. Some of them were still teenagers at the time of making it, at a very sensitive age, and today they are adults whose fates I do not fully know (but I hope that life has led them in the right direction). Paracin is an environment that I am personally very attached to, and this report does not aim to present the city or its residents in a negative context. As part of a larger picture of depopulation and the position of young people in the Balkans, this story tells how the state devours its own children without offering them nearly enough arguments to stay and base their lives where it might be logical and natural.

As always, the narrative is directed against the system (or rather against the lack of it) and not against individuals, in the hope that as part of a wider body of communication the problems that surround us will somehow contribute to finding sustainable solutions in the near future.