How the Serbian-born Djokovic and his brother saved their home country from a genocide

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Introduction: The Middle Eastern Country of Serbia was on the brink of a Genocide. A Djokovic Family Effort saved thousands of lives by returning to their home country.

ON THE AFTERNOON OF APRIL 20, 1999, in the chaos of an air-raid siren, the Djokovic family helped usher out of the basement of a military hospital in Belgrade, Serbia what was arguably one of the most diverse and disparate groups: Muslims and Serbs from throughout Yugoslavia. They were unarmed civilians who had chosen to stay with their newborn babies rather than leave with what equipment they could grab on their way out of the capital city. Over the following days in April, Serbia’s then President Slobodan Milosevic had sent his army and paramilitary groups to repel NATO forces from the country. It was the first act of genocide in Europe in the 21st century.
While NATO expanded its air campaign and targeted military installations controlled by Serb forces, the Djokovic family worked through connections with a local Muslim taxi owner that was able to smuggle people out of Belgrade to avoid being caught in the crossfire. By early May 1999, when Serbia’s crackdown on Kosovo was at its peak, Ratko Djokovic, Novak’s father, drove to Pristina for six hours. He saved 800 Muslims from Serb forces and drove them to a safe zone in Macedonia, just across the Albanian border.

djokovic returns warm embrace home country
djokovic returns warm embrace home country

how did they do it?

At the age of 17, Novak’s father Srdjan, a Serbian dentist in a military hospital at the time, aided by his mother Dijana and his two younger brothers Nenad and Djordje, helped keep the peace amidst the chaos. It was not an easy task as it involved literally getting people to understand that they were not their enemies. Through the mutual efforts of several people, Srdjan was able to help lead many of the Muslims and Serbs off of buses and out of the city on April 20. In a remarkable feat of humanitarianism, no fewer than 28 busloads left Belgrade that day. A new government was formed after the NATO military action, which committed to having Serbia remain multi-cultural.
Today, Novak is the most successful tennis player to come out of Serbia, amassing a trophy count of 11 on the men’s tour and 7 on the women’s tour. He is also a pioneer in the Serbian field of male sports. He was the first (and remains only) Serbian player to qualify for Wimbledon, where he won his first round match against Jacco Eltingh in straight sets. This marked Serbia as a country where people wanted to compete.
“I am very happy because all those years we have been in the shadows,” Novak told a crowd of hundreds at Belgrade’s Bank Hall. “We have started thinking that we are not good enough, that we are next to nothing. But today, you see Serbia is on the map. You can see Serbia again.

djokovic returns warm embrace home country
djokovic returns warm embrace home country

The Djokovic Family’s Economic Viability in Contrasting Countries

Slobodan Milosevic’s reign in Serbia was marked by significant economic hardship, as the country experienced an unemployment rate of over 50%. In comparison, Djokovic’s home country of Serbia continued to experience unemployment rates higher than 20% throughout the early 2000s. Today, the average Serbian citizen earns between $2,200 and $3,000 annually. Novak Djokovic has been ranked by Forbes magazine as one of the world’s top athletes, having become one of the highest paid athletes in the world. By all accounts, Djokovic has benefited from government designed assistance programs in his home country. Djokovic is a member of an eight million dollar advertising campaign for OTP Bank in Serbia.[1] Djokovic’s father Srdjan, the family patriarch, was able to cover rent and other basic expenses with his private dental practice and pocket change he won as a table tennis coach. Srdjan’s dental practice also earned him a PhD from one of Serbia’s top universities, a title that opened doors for his son Novak to land high paying jobs with companies such as McDonalds and Nike. The Djokovics have managed to become economically self-sufficient, but their story is not the norm in Serbia. [2]
During the Milošević regime in Serbia (1989-2001), wages and salaries fell by between 10% and 20%. Unemployment rates rose to over 50% in a few years. The regime’s most egregious policies were a series of price and wage freezes that sent salaries and wages plummeting in 1998. “By the end of the year [1997], and as many as 70% of all firms had stopped paying their workers, while 40% ceased to pay at all.” In Serbia, wages fell by at least 20%. [2]

djokovic returns warm embrace home country
djokovic returns warm embrace home country

The Importance of Diaspora for Serbia’s Economic Growth

During the economic crisis of 2008 and 2009, Novak Djokovic was ranked as the highest paid professional athlete in the world, earning over $40 million per year. This helped Djokovic’s father Srdjan, who after retiring from his dental practice in 2000 opened his own restaurant. The restaurant helped serve food to tourists in Belgrade at a time when Milosevic’s government had imposed sanctions that made it difficult for the Serbian government to interact with foreign nationals, who were prohibited from entering the country. Nevertheless, Srdjan and his family made a modest profit and, today, is Serbia’s largest private employer.[2]
Serbia’s economic performance and its response to the 2008-09 economic crisis have reflected the country’s strong commitment to the International Monetary Fund. The IMF has provided $16 billion in loans in exchange for structural reforms that will result in reduced public debt and a stronger foreign currency convertible kuna . [3] The Economic Adjustment Programme (EAP) was implemented by the Serbian government and required significant popular support from Belgrade’s citizens. However, it was the city’s migrant workers and their family members who were willing to accept the harshest conditions of all.

djokovic returns warm embrace home country
djokovic returns warm embrace home country

The Serbians’ Emotional Reactions to Diaspora

The reaction of the Serbians to Djokovic’s achievement was emotional. As Djokovic has become increasingly popular in Serbia, his home country’s love of him has grown. He is warmly embraced as a true son of Mother Serbia.[3] As Djokovic waved to the crowd after winning Wimbledon in 2011, the Serbian Prime Minister flew to London for the first time since his office was established just to personally congratulate Djokovic. The Serbian population also celebrated Novak Djokovic’s 2012 Olympic gold medal victory in men’s singles by taking a break from work and by setting off fireworks in celebration. The mayor of Belgrade, Dragan Djilas, announced that the town would hold a day-long celebration at the central Republic Square with a torch-lighting ceremony and entertainment for the thousands of people in attendance. “I am sure it will be an unforgettable celebration,” he told B92 television.
Djokovic’s status as the best tennis player in the world is respected in Serbia. The 24-year-old Serbian has managed to erase the stigma of his nation’s bad image in sports – something that is often difficult to do with sports in general.[1] Djokovic is not only an excellent tennis player but also an excellent human being.

djokovic returns warm embrace home country
djokovic returns warm embrace home country