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Catching Pilots, Losing Your Mind

Belgrade's bunker mentality is contagious, and you can catch it above as well as below ground. Ask the local spy.

There are two ways to lose your mind in Belgrade. One is to seek refuge in an air raid shelter. At least half of Belgrade now spends the hours of bombing in bunkers. The other is to watch television.

At least this is what a little-known writer friend thinks. A few years ago he wrote a book critical of the regime. Now he fears that because of the book, the regime is about to knock on his door. He is convinced that his flat is bugged.

As a result, over the dinner he prepared for a handful of like-minded friends, everybody whispers. Thus, imperceptibly, together with his guests, he too has acquired the bunker mentality which afflicts more and more of Belgrade's population. These days, everyone in Belgrade carries their own bunkers in their head.

Ever since the bombing campaign started, two families with four children have lived together in the air raid shelter at the bottom of their building in the city centre, only occasionally running up to their flats to fetch something. They use Styrofoam for beds, prepare coffee underground, and leave the television permanently switched on.

Mika is a plumber, Slobodan a salesman. During the day, their children, who have not attended school since the bombing started, paint slogans on pieces of cardboard that they then take to the open-air concerts that are daily events in central Belgrade. The placards read: "Serbia", "Down with NATO", "Clinton-Hitler". While making the placards, they sing along with the patriotic songs emanating from the television.

Their mothers, both housewives, spend their time on the phone which they have installed in the basement. They call their relatives in the countryside and discuss how together they can "catch pilots".

Catching pilots has become a national sport. Every day state television (and there is no other) claims that some ten NATO planes are shot down over this or that village. So the two women share suggestions as to the appropriate punishment for the captured pilots. One reports approvingly that a pilot caught near the village of Mladenovac was beaten to death with shovels. The other disagrees with this approach. When caught, she says, the pilots should be tied to Belgrade's bridges.

In addition to pilots, spies crop up regularly in conversation. Both these women have heard that a car with a Belgian licence plate was spotted near the city's police station. Loyal citizens reported this to the police, who immediately arrested the spies. Their mission, it emerged, was to place homing beacons in blocks of flats.

The fathers have a different routine. During the day, when there is no bombing, they sleep in the bunker. At night, when air-raid sirens echo across the city, they climb to the roof of their block of flats to observe.

With the confidence of experts, they explain to each other where the air defences are located and the types of radar that the Yugoslav Army possesses. They place bets on how many NATO planes will be shot down that night. They haven't given up hope that at least one pilot will land on the roof on their building . . .

Indeed, betting has become a popular pastime in Belgrade cafes these days. Drinkers, who boycott Coca-Cola since it is a symbol of everything American, compile lists of potential targets for NATO's war planes, and place bets on whether it will be the military headquarters, the main police station in 29 November Street, or some bridge anywhere in Serbia. Bridges have recently been a safe bet.

More than ever, television shapes the warped reality. The language is always along the lines of "NATO's criminal machinery", "the criminals from the Black House", "the monstrous American armada", "the criminal missiles of the world's neo-Nazis", "the world's killers and executioners gathered round the hardened murderer Clinton". Occasionally, other issues feature: the planting of sunflower seeds is under way, the distribution of diesel fuel for the spring harvest is proceeding without problems. In other words, everything is under control.

Miki Vujovic, director of TV Palma, a commercial station famous for pornography and pop videos, has refined his television presenting skills in tune with the war. He addresses the public each night, dressed in black, lying back in his armchair. Twirling a pen in his fingers, he explains, enthusiastically, that Serbs possess a noble gene that predisposes them to martyrdom. He suggests that this gene should be removed once and for all and concludes his monologue with a message to foreign troops: Just come, you will not return.

Between the television bombing and the real thing, other news passes most people by. This is the case, for example, with the proposal of Justice Minister Dragoljub Jankovic that conditions for detention be changed as a result of the war, as well as conditions for the protection of private mail and property.

Capital punishment is outlawed by the Yugoslav constitution, yet Jankovic proposed that it be reintroduced. Some ten days ago, the Serbian President, Milan Milutinovic, decreed, among other things, that the Ministry of the Interior pass "a measure for sending all persons who represent a danger for the security of the Republic to a certain place."

It is impossible to predict who the Ministry will deem "dangerous", much less where that "certain place" might be. But one lonely Belgrader may live to regret his bravado. Mocking the regime, he has scribbled on a wall: "I am the spy in the neighbourhood."

Gordana Igric is an independent journalist from Belgrade.

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