Miroslav Ilić is a native of Žepče with an unusual life story. He was born in Žepče, he studied in Mostar, then in Zagreb where he graduated, found a job and spent some 11 years there. Then he ended thinking of himself as “a man without an address”, and unhappy with where he was. He thought that as the lead role in his life, he didn’t deserve to be unhappy or feel that way, so he quit, packed his bags and went on to search for his happiness.

He returned home, to Žepče, and now lives here since 2012. Happy. After returning, he also had a private business for some time but didn’t find his place there. What brought me to him is his current post of the director of the Žepče Culture House.

I first asked him what made him happy here.

Miroslav Ilić:

What’s it about? Let’s say, I’m in Žepče, a small town of Žepče, it’s interestingly that everybody knows each other. Now, let’s say you come to a café with 10 tables, it can be one or two tables with people you don’t know. Otherwise, you greet each other or you know each other from sight and you nod your head. But everybody knows everybody.

Further, people in smaller environments are much warmer. These are my experiences. I guess in a small town, everybody knows everybody. Žepče is a small place. It has a population of about 30,000, and the town has about 7 to 8,000 and literally everyone knows each other.

Also, for a young man who graduated from college, who’s in a way looking for some good time, a big city offers a lot of possibilities – you can watch sports games, go to concerts, every night there’s something happening somewhere. In small towns, that’s not the case. However, at one point, a man makes a decision. I’m now over some things, I’m thinking about how to build a future somewhere. And my character and some kind of my understanding of life are totally different from creating some future of mine, a name for myself in a city of a million people. It’s just that you find yourselves in it or not, it suits some, but not others.

And now, interestingly, when I came to Zagreb, in my first and my eleventh year there I spoke with this same accent. I’ve no problem with that. However, there were people from BiH who after six months would pick up their accent. I was never ashamed of my origin but I moreover stressed it – I’m born in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I’m proud of that. I longed for Bosnia and Herzegovina. During my days or nights as a student, I’d sit in a student dorm and listen to traditional sevdalinka songs and long for my country.

How long have you been the director?

Less than three years.

What does the Culture House in Žepče include?

The Žepče Culture House is made up, or formed, built on three and a whole.

The first is culture in the true and full sense of the word – organising all or the majority of cultural events that take place in Žepče. Some things are traditional and we organise it for the first, second, third, fifth, seventeenth time etc.

The second is the Radio Žepče. The Radio Žepče is our local media, the only public media in the area. We have 5 employees, we have our production program from 7am to 5 pm, and we have a 24-hour programme.

The third is a small cable television. We have about 1,700 to 1,800 cable television customers who, I assure you, are the biggest source of income as we finance ourselves as the Culture House. Since about one quarter of our revenues is provided by the Žepče Municipality, and three quarters with our own revenues. The biggest share in our revenue comes from cable television.

And let’s say that half is, you know I said three and a half units – we are working on organising and establishing a production studio. And we hope that we will be able to create, record some songs, issue some CDs, etc. in near future within a few months.

All the things we are proud of – events that last for years

There are several things that we take particular pride in here in Žepče, and which we’ve been organising for many years.

This year we organised Radio Festival of the Radio Žepče for the ninth time. We have one system how to get finalists. This year, in the ninth edition of the Radio Festival, we had participants from 17 municipalities such as Žepče – meaning, Žepče and 16 other municipalities in the North from Odžak, Prnjavor, Teslić, Doboj, to our neighbouring municipalities in the Zenica Doboj Canton, and South from Kupres, Livno, Prozor, Ilijaš, Olovo, Vareš, Breza, etc. The system is such that we have radio shows, from every town one radio show and that’s how we get one finalist from each town. And the final evening of the Radio Festival takes place in Žepče, where 17 children from elementary schools from each of these towns came and sang in Žepče.

One thing I’d like to stress as something we are very proud of in Žepče is our traditional cultural event that is held once a year. It’s the most complex event, and we call it the Žepče Summer. This Žepče Summer was organised this summer for the 17th time. It is almost a collection of smaller cultural events, so we had five events this year over several days that it lasts. The interesting thing is that we have the oldest post-war festival, the 17th time we held it this year, we call it the International Rock Festival Žepče. Our headliner was Mostar-based band Zoster.

What I’d like to stress as a part of the Žepče Summer, the art colony of Žepče was held for the second time. Until last year there was never an art colony in ​Žepče. Last year we came up with the idea and in cooperation with the Civic Association Centre for Social Development Žepče, we’ve organised this art colony we named after our suddenly deceased, famous artist known to everyone in Žepče, Ismet Čahtarević. We’ve named the art colony after him and hope that it’d become traditional in the future as well.

Another thing we do is the Music Festival “From Summer to Autumn”. This is in fact a festival of children’s songs where we announce the contest, children write texts, send these, then we make songs and these songs are performed for the first time at our festival, which will be held again this year in late September.

Also on October 14, we mark the Day of the Žepče Municipality; we have quite a cultural programme marking the Day of the Žepče Municipality.

And perhaps for the end of these traditional events we hold, we have an event held for five years consecutively, and it’s called the Holiday Magic. In short, it’s a fair of handicrafts made in Žepče that we hold between December 18 and 23, before Christmas and New Year. That’s yet another thing we are proud of. And every year, for the 12th year in row we’re the only ones with official New Year’s Eve celebration in the Zenica-Doboj Canton.

There’s a trend of young people leaving Bosnia and Herzegovina. In your opinion, what can be done to keep young people here? I assume that Žepče has a problem just like any other place?

Yes, just as other places in BiH. However, I don’t know how to put it – what’s happiness? For some, happiness is to go to Frankfurt, to live day by day and earn 1 500 Euros. For me, happiness is to earn anything, even if it is 500 BAM, but my soul is at peace. I’d seen, heard and lived somewhere abroad. In my view, that’s just bare survival.

Unfortunately, it’s become fashionable to go somewhere. Here’s just one example of this argument. He’s a school teacher, has a nice job, he’s got a decent, normal salary, a steady job. She is a hairdresser and they are parents of one or two children. And there is no future here for them. They don’t see prosperity, they see nothing, so they pack up and go to Germany. They think they’ll be better off there. Here they left their house they’d built and leave their steady jobs.

Okay, maybe happiness is out there. I don’t think so. Perhaps one of the culprits for such drain is that’s something fashionable.

Furthermore, people are not ready, in my opinion, not ready to admit their mistake. I know so many of them – they went there, didn’t manage spectacularly but thinking how am I to go back now?

I don’t know, my life situation and my case is totally abstract compared to what we’re talking about now – with me coming back and not even considering anything else. Now by chance, some haters will say “Okay, but you have a good job”. Yes, but I did not fall from the sky.

I don’t know, I’m strongly against leaving. I came back and I believe that the grass is green even in this country as it is, and it can only be greener. So fine, some things are not fixed. But in some other country that we go to in future, there’re some other things that are not fixed. Maybe some are, but some are not. So it’s not perfect anywhere but I’ll always welcome and somehow recommend staying. Maybe to find joy in smaller things, I’m here in my own place, I have my home, an apartment, my people I socialise with. Such atmosphere is nowhere to be found. Those who think that the door is wide open somewhere, I think they are terribly wrong.