The Slums of Serbia: An Accidental Walk Through Deponija, Belgrade

by Thom Brown

While taking a stroll to Belgrade Fortress, our “On the Edges of Europe columnist suddenly finds himself in the midst of Deponija, an infamous slum in the Serbian capital.

The midday sun bounced off the well-swept sidewalk and through the large glass windows, illuminating an array of discount items within. It was nothing special–a Decathlon, a Lidl, that sort of thing; it was like any other mall in Europe. Fellow shoppers were quiet, polite, and well-dressed. It felt safe and ordinary.

After acquiring some snacks and a backpack, the plan was to slowly work my way toward Belgrade Fortress, passing through as many streets as possible to get a better sense of the city and its inhabitants. I first went to the Danube River, hoping for a waterside walkway, but factories and fences continually cut me off. I trudged up the main road, growing increasingly weary of the hideous racket of traffic. My muscles felt tense and uneasy until an overwhelming impulse pulled me to a sidestreet on the right, where surely there would be a quieter way through.

The road dropped down and snaked around a corner, where the street was sheltered from the traffic. To my left stood two houses that looked unlike any others I’d seen. They seemed to have been bundled together using flat, square slabs of wood and corrugated tin, combining into a patchwork blanket with gaps where the pieces didn’t quite fit. I assumed it was just an old abandoned shelter, certainly not a place where anyone would live.

Through the gaps in the fence, a small child appeared, then another, and another. They chased a deflated soccer ball in the space between the home and the decaying metal fence. Next door, a man and woman sat on white plastic chairs. I briefly made eye contact with the man, looked back at the kids, then looked straight ahead and continued walking. It struck me as a strange way to live when just around the corner were modern brick-and-mortar homes. Nonetheless, I continued down the road, which took a sharp turn to the left.

The sidewalk faded away, and I found myself on the side of a stretch of road called ​​Vuka Vrčevića. It had a chain link fence to the left, while the right side held the sort of churned-up mud you’d find on the final day of a sold-out music festival. A loud truck approached from behind. Ahead, a man walked towards me. He had dusty brown skin, greasy black hair combed down to his eyebrows, unwashed clothes, and the anger in his eyes of a man who just put way too much money on the wrong horse. As we passed each other, he shouted something in disgust in a language I couldn’t identify. Although he looked at the truck, it felt like the words were meant for me.

Further down the road, piles of trash around the chain link fence grew larger, something I hadn’t noticed elsewhere in Belgrade. I began to feel uneasy, potentially unsafe. At a road crossing, a man’s bulbous belly slumped out of his shirt. He wore a gold chain around his neck. For some reason, I pictured him to be a gang leader, perhaps brandishing a pistol in the pocket of his sweatpants.

As I crossed the road where he stood, unconcerned by the looming threat of traffic, a sudden surge of dread shot through my soul. My stomach tightened and flipped upside down. Moisture evaporated from my mouth and somehow emerged on my palms. I was intensely aware of my freshly laundered white t-shirt and new sunglasses that singled me out as an outsider. Was the fear unwarranted? Probably. But when faced with an unknown, the body’s natural instinct is to assume the worst.

The man barely glanced at me. He was the last human for a while. The deeper I went, the clearer the reality of this place became: it was a shanty town, a favela, a slum. Mountains and valleys of trash lined both sides of the road. A black dog, skinny and uncared for, dug his snout into the litter, desperately searching for a morsel of food. More living containers appeared, mostly made of mud or wooden pallets. They were pieced together using scraps of material that most would throw straight in the dumpster. Doors were made from plastic bags, and windows were almost non-existent. There must have been people inside the containers. I imagined them huddled in the darkness to escape the heat, light only trickling in through the gaps in the panels.

A little boy, aged six or seven, squatted alone on one of the trash piles, throwing hard bits of plastic at the pile and watching them bounce away. It reminded me of how I’d sit on a pebble beach and do the same with rocks, enjoying how they pinged and satisfyingly splashed into the water. This kid wasn’t relaxing on a beach, though; he was trapped in an isolated slum, surrounded by filthy puddles that served as well-used toilets. My fear mostly faded at this point. After all, no one had threatened me or even really acknowledged my presence. They were just living their lives, trying to get by.

This, I later found out, was Deponija, an illegal settlement on the banks of the Danube River beneath the Pančevo Bridge. Deponija is the Serbian word for landfill, which, while an apt description, also says something about the attitudes towards the people who live there. They’re mostly Romani people, the victims and descendants of victims who faced expulsion during the Kosovo War in 1999. Many had taken refuge elsewhere in Europe but were deported once more to Serbia, where they continued searching for a home.

I’ve encountered Romani people before. I’ve seen how some are innocent victims of discrimination while others are nuisances in their communities. I’ve explored mud hut villages in rural Ghana and the pueblos jóvenes of Peru. However, in my ignorance, I didn’t know slums this large and deprived still existed on the European continent.

“They choose to live like that,” one local resident told me. “They come illegally over the borders without papers. The government just lets them live like that because they don’t accept the way of life imposed by the government.”

Some argued they were victims of deportation. Others claimed they were clinging to a nomadic lifestyle dating back thousands of years.

“On a couple of occasions, they’ve even got free new flats, but they made a mess there too,” another local person told me, “Most of them resist letting their children go to school. They have a system within a system. It’s not good for them, but they hang onto it. Organized crime and child trafficking keep them in that life.”

A traveler myself, I’ve got a soft spot for nomads searching ceaselessly for a place to call home. However, ​​Deponija is Belgrade’s largest and most impoverished slum. It has no running water or sewage system. Its population is cut off from public services, and the only way to get electricity is to risk prison and death by stealing cables. It seems a bridge too far to say that anyone truly chooses this way of life.

The slum was built in an industrial zone, surrounded by a mix of functioning and abandoned factories. Not too far along the river, I reached an area where the old industrial buildings had been repurposed into Belgrade’s trendiest bars. As I approached a cluster of concrete silos, each one rising 28 meters into the sky, two young women in sparkly dresses shone against the gray, brutalist wasteland. I followed them through a gap in the silos, emerging onto a packed-out patch of concrete. Muscular men lay shirtless in deckchairs, ice-cold bottled beer in their hands. A DJ pumped loud dance music in front of the silos, which on this side had giant, vibrant murals that breathed life into an otherwise desolate area.

In usual circumstances, a bar like this would spark my excitement, encouraging me to grab a drink and start mingling. But when I closed my eyes, the image of that little boy playing in the trash was all I saw. I looked around at the beautiful people in their finest threads and couldn’t help but think they knew nothing of what kind of lives were being lived just a few footsteps down the Danube. They were, fittingly enough, siloed from this harsh reality. 

My body felt weak with the realization that I couldn’t begin to understand the problem of Serbia’s Romani population, let alone have any hope of fixing it. I felt the guilt and shame of being smashed over the head with the poverty that seeps into every corner of this planet. As tourists, are we supporting local economies or entrenching inequalities? I didn’t know, but it consumed my thoughts for the rest of the trip.

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