National Unity: Utter Exhaustion

Serbia is destroyed and its people are on the edge. By day Belgrade retains a semblance of normalcy. But at dusk the air-raid sirens wail, and reality sets in.

National Unity: Utter Exhaustion

Serbia is destroyed and its people are on the edge. By day Belgrade retains a semblance of normalcy. But at dusk the air-raid sirens wail, and reality sets in.

Thursday, 10 November, 2005

Suddenly the story is of discontent, with rallies in several cities in Serbia and increasing strains with Montenegro. But the reality is that people in Yugoslavia have been unhappy for a long time.

After only two months of bombing, memories of what used to be called "normal life" have long faded. People are edgy and tense, and no one is an optimist. There is fear, the sharp mannerisms of the sleepless, the struggle against depression, a daily fight for survival. After more than 200 air raid sirens, even those with the strongest nerves in Serbia are exhausted.

By day, Belgrade still looks like a metropolis at peace. Traffic, though greatly reduced, continues to flow somehow (car owners are entitled to 20 litres of petrol a month). Cafes are full of people. Shops are well supplied with domestic and foreign goods, though store owners report that the sale of goods from NATO countries has fallen sharply. Even the cinemas are open, from ten in the morning to six in the evening.

Then, with dusk, reality sets in: emptiness, darkness and fear. There are no lights in the streets, restaurants and cafes are closed, buses pass only once an hour. And people withdraw to their homes, waiting for the air-raid siren, usually around 9:10 PM.

In an instant, it is clear once again that Serbia is at war. The bombing starts, terrible tectonic explosions shake buildings and windows, thick black smoke billows from various parts of the city, fires and reflections light the horizon.

The advance clips for George Lucas's latest Star Wars feature film seem like nothing compared with the battles raging in the sky over Belgrade every evening: anti-aircraft tracers streak overhead, the sound of missiles rips through the night, and deafening explosions shatter any temporary, unreal night peace. Indeed, when it comes, many hours after midnight and enveloped in total darkness, silence itself seems ominous.

And in bleary-eyed morning, the reminders are everywhere: Kneza Milosa street, once one of the most beautiful streets in Belgrade and home to the US, Canadian, German, Polish, Romanian and Croatian embassies, looks like Dresden in 1945. The torn and crumbled buildings of the chiefs-of-staff, the Serbian and federal Ministries of Interior, the government of Serbia--all piles of concrete and steel, like Cubist motifs of an early Picasso.

The scene is similar in other parts of the city too: the Dragisa Misovic hospital destroyed, petrol reservoirs burnt, petrol stations hit, several civilian quarters razed, most army barracks simply gone. Bricks, shattered glass, ruined apartment blocks, curtains waving in the wind--it is a broad tableau of the proportions of destruction, and beyond reconstruction.

The truth is that all aspects of life have been effected. Primary and secondary schools have been closed since the first day of the bombing, and like a frozen clock, students will finish with the grades they had marked up on March 24. Some of the university faculties are working; some are completely closed. The Education Ministry has promised that there will be no entrance exams for university students and secondary school pupils: all those who wish to may enroll--once the war is over.

Students from outside the capital cannot attend class, because most of the bridges and many of the roads have been destroyed or badly damaged. Trips that used to take two hours now follow intricate detours and may last 10 hours. From Belgrade, it is nearly impossible to get to Montenegro, and much easier to telephone Boston than Pristina.

The overriding feeling is one of uselessness. It is almost impossible to work, much less get paid for it. According to official figures, more than half a million people have had to stop working--unofficially, the number may be twice as high. But few people actually go to a job. The "economy" effectively no longer exists. People are without money, and a monthly salary of 50 German Marks seems a dream. Pensions are being paid with a four month delay, and many people get by bartering goods, such as cooking oil, rice, sugar, bananas and macaroni--all valued items in short supply. The price of cigarettes has doubled: a carton that used to sell for 10 German Marks before the war is now being offered for 20.

With little to do, anxieties fester. NATO attacks on civilian targets have caused many people to spend every night in air-raid shelters. No one has any idea what will happen when all of this is over. Meantime, the regime propaganda remains as fierce as ever--referring to NATO as drugged-out, canine, murderous criminals, fascists and Nazis. The aim is to maintain the illusion that for Kosovo it is worth sacrificing everything: the factories, the bridges, the roads, the people. Such feelings of paranoia leave people immune to news of peace initiatives and other proposals--nothing seems possible anymore.

This suicidal policy has failed to generate a popular backlash, because there is no chance for one. The few oases of freedom and pluralism--Radio B-92, the Soros Foundation, a handful of magazines and other publications--disappeared with NATO's first bombs. Whatever is published now is subject to heavy daily censorship. There is no reporting on events within Kosovo. Our news simply repeats over and over again that we are winning a moral victory, that NATO is defeated, that we refuse to accept foreign troops, and that Kosovo will forever stay in Serbia. "The media are on the patriotic course," Vojislav Seselj, Serbia's deputy prime minister, boasts.

Most opposition parties have fallen into line behind the regime, or been silenced. War laws have been passed revoking the right to a fair trial and allowing discretionary detentions, the seizing of apartments and other property, even the reading of private mail.

Zoran Djindjic, leader of the Democratic Party, has been attacked by the regime media as a "traitor". "Spontaneous" demonstrations against him and his colleagues have been staged in front of his party's headquarters in Belgrade, and he has been directly threatened. Stories in the press have predicted that he will end up on the "garbage dump of history"--a Serbian euphanism for the morgue. No wonder Seselj can also proclaim: "For the first time, we have national unity."

The regime propaganda is based on a very simple premise: whoever is against Slobodan Milosevic is a supporter of NATO and the enemies of Serbia. In this way, dissent becomes morally impossible: one is either for or against. Again, Seselj has led the charge against the families and young soldiers in Krusevac and other towns who have protested over the continuation of the fighting in Kosovo.

As a result, even if some kind of deal over Kosovo is made, Milosevic has achieved his main aim: unlimited power. So what if soldiers have been deserting, that there are many casualties, and that NATO attacks in Kosovo are unrelenting and taking a heavy toll. Radio Television Serbia keeps telling us that we are defending the planet from the New World Order and that Serbia is winning.

The author is a senior columnist and editor in Belgrade, whose name has been withheld.

Serbia, Kosovo
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