Vlade’s three-finger salute

The Kings’ center is using the same sign language Serbs used to terrorize Muslims. And he’s OK with that.

The three-finger salute, shown here in a recent ad from The Sacramento Bee, stirs up bad memories for many Bosnian Muslims and Croats.

The three-finger salute, shown here in a recent ad from The Sacramento Bee, stirs up bad memories for many Bosnian Muslims and Croats.

It’s midway through the second quarter at Arco Arena, and the Sacramento Kings are well on their way to a nasty rout of Western Conference rivals the Dallas Mavericks.

Serbian shooting phenom Peja Stojakovic drains a three-pointer, just one of six he’ll have on the night. His countryman, Kings center Vlade Divac, is on the bench when the shot splashes through the net, and Divac congratulates his teammate by thrusting his arm in the air, with his thumb, index finger and middle finger extended. Throughout his years of NBA stardom, Divac has made this salute to celebrate big plays, whether those plays are his own or those of his teammates. It’s not always reserved for three-pointers; any clutch shot might evoke the gesture.

This image of an exultant salute is broadcast around the world. Hundreds of thousands of people see it, and to many, the meaning of the sign is obvious: Three fingers means three points, a cause for celebration.

But, by the time the image is bounced off several satellites to Divac’s native Yugoslavia and beyond, thousands of other people will read entirely different meanings into Vlade’s three-finger salute. Tens of thousands of Vlade’s Serbian countrymen who follow the Kings see the gesture as a declaration of unity and national pride.

Still others, Muslims and Croats in America and Europe, will read it as a symbol of hate, intimidation and terrorism—as recognizable and despicable to them as the strong-arm salute of the Nazis.

For 21-year-old Senka Filipovic, the gesture was a constant fixture of her childhood in Sarajevo during Yugoslavia’s brutal civil war. Filipovic often saw Serbian soldiers and citizens alike displaying the three-finger salute, like a gang sign to proclaim their own ethnic superiority and to harass and intimidate the “others”—Bosnian Muslims like Filipovic and her family.

The symbol is associated with the Serbian Orthodox Christian Church, and experts say it represents the Christian Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But, through decades of ethnic strife, the gesture took on a nationalist meaning. It is also associated with the “Three Cs,” from the nationalist slogan “Only Unity Will Save the Serb.” (In the Serbian language, the words “unity,” “save” and “Serb” all begin with the Cyrillic letter “c,” the equivalent of “s.”) It became used as a threatening weapon, an “in your face” gesture aimed at terrorizing non-Serbs.

After she immigrated to the United States and arrived in Sacramento, Filipovic noticed that Kings players Divac and Stojakovic were using the same three-finger salute on the basketball court. In these players’ celebrations, Filipovic was reminded of the horrors of the Yugoslavian civil war. Though the average Kings fan wouldn’t think twice about the gesture, “I think anybody who comes from that region understands what it means,” Filipovic said.

She said she saw horrible things during the war, as the Serbian army shelled Sarajevo from the hillsides and as snipers terrorized Bosnian citizens from the rooftops. “Things that are hard to describe,” she said, such as the time she walked into a city park that had recently been shelled, and she found a child’s sneaker. The sneaker still contained a foot.

But the most frightening experience of her life came as she and her family fled Sarajevo. It was on that trip that she feared the three-finger salute would be the last thing she saw before she died.

Her family was in one of the last bus convoys out of that besieged city in 1994, when Filipovic was only 11. Five buses were in the convoy. It was winter and bitterly cold. She remembers that the passengers were forbidden to stray more than a few feet from the buses during their brief rest stops because the roadsides were littered with land mines. She also remembers the embarrassment of trying to go to the bathroom in the frozen shadow of the bus.

As the bus rolled through Serb-controlled territory, Filipovic saw Serbian soldiers hunkered down in the ditches along the roadside. This was a dangerous passage, and the bus driver told the passengers not to look out the windows. “They told us to look straight ahead or look down, but don’t look to the side,” Filipovic said.

But the curious girl couldn’t help herself and snuck a sideways glance only to see a mass of Serbs approaching the bus, taunting and shouting obscenities. “There were men and women, children and very old people. They were shouting at us, telling us to get out of there,” she recalled. And many of them held their hands high in the air, in what she recognized as the three-finger salute.

Filipovic’s bus wasn’t stopped that day, though such convoys often were preyed upon by Serbian militiamen, said professor Michael Sells, who teaches at Haverford College in Connecticut. “It must have been a very frightening moment for her,” said Sells, whose book The Bridge Betrayed details the campaign of ethnic cleansing against Bosnian Muslims. “Often, they would flash the symbol as they stopped the buses and committed terrible atrocities.”

Filipovic and her family finally got out of the country under the protection of an international rescue organization. She arrived in the small farming community of Galt, just south of Sacramento, in the spring of 1994 and started school, though she spoke no English and knew very little about her new country. But she was overwhelmed by the support and friendliness of the community, her fellow students and the school’s staff. “People were so nice to me,” she said.

A Serbian Chetnick sodier gives the three-finger salute.

She poured herself into her studies (she is now majoring in international relations at California State University at Sacramento) and sports. When her family moved to Sacramento, she played point guard for the CK McClatchy High School girls’ basketball team. Filipovic, who’s barely 5 feet tall, laughed when asked how the team performed. “We were a really small team,” she said. “Basically, we were just a bunch of point guards out there.”

She has put many of her bad days in Sarajevo behind her, but when she saw an advertisement in The Sacramento Bee sports section, promoting an upcoming basketball camp hosted by Divac, she was transported back to that freezing day on a bus somewhere in the Bosnian forest. In the picture, which appears to have been taken some years ago when Divac played for the Yugoslavian national basketball team, the 7-foot-tall center has both arms upraised in the three-finger salute.

“It’s like somebody kicked me in the stomach,” Filipovic said.

Divac long has enjoyed a reputation as a humanitarian and a champion for human rights and tolerance. When asked about the photo, in the Kings’ locker room after a win over the Memphis Grizzlies, he initially played down the significance of the gesture.

“Yeah, it means three points,” said Divac, who then explained that “Europeans count with different fingers than Americans.”

When pressed, Divac said he occasionally used the gesture off the court. “When I see my countrymen,” he said. “Sort of as a greeting.” But he said that the symbol had nothing to do with intolerance or ethnic hatred.

“I know the soldiers did it, but that’s not what it means to me,” Divac explained. “I know what’s in my heart. I don’t hate anybody, and I respect everybody.”

Divac acknowledged that in the past, the success of the Yugoslavian national team has been marred by controversy when victorious Serbian players flashed the symbol. And Divac’s use of the symbol hasn’t gone unnoticed in the United States. He said the Kings’ organization has “gotten a lot of mail” about the gesture.

When asked whether the complaints about the three-finger salute made him think twice about flashing it, Divac said they absolutely didn’t. “I can’t live my life trying to please everybody,” he said. “People need to get over it.”

Filipovic thinks Divac ought to be more sensitive, especially given that his image is broadcast all over the world.

“Everybody has a right to express their love for their country. But what this represents is offensive to thousands of people who see it. It brings back horrible memories to all of us who went through that war,” she said.

Sells, the author and professor, said that though the salute clearly is a heavily loaded symbol, it’s not so easy to say that Divac is wrong for using it. “It is a genuinely complex issue,” said Sells. On the one hand, to Divac the three-finger salute may be nothing more than a “rah rah” symbol, simply a way of saying, “Go team,” and a way to acknowledge countrymen like Stojakovic to Serbian viewers abroad. “Clearly, here are people that have an affinity toward one another and are using some in-group language. It is a symbol of brotherly association,” Sells said.

The symbol also has a clear history of being used to intimidate the enemies of Serbia. During war-crimes trials, Sells said, some Bosnians claimed that they had two fingers amputated so that their hands would permanently display the three-finger salute.

“If I was a Bosnian Muslim like [Filipovic], I would certainly deplore it and would be extremely offended,” said Sells, who is of Serbian descent himself.

The Serbians are not the only people to employ symbols offensive to other groups. For example, to many in the region, the checkered flag of Croatia evokes memories of the Ustasha arm of the Nazi party that was active in Croatia during World War II. For a comparison more familiar to Americans, the issue is not unlike the display of the Confederate flag. It’s hard to pin down exactly what it means, but the symbol clearly is offensive to a lot of people.

And whether or not Divac means to offend, his on-court sign language surely will cause people like Filipovic to wince and change the channel. She is a lifelong basketball fan who finds herself conflicted about rooting for the home team.

“I think it’s amazing what they have done. They’ve turned this team around to be contenders for a championship,” she said. “But I can’t cheer when I see something like that. It’s just not fun anymore.”