Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

The War Comes Home

You’d have to be insane not to go crazy in Belgrade today: the hip urban capital is now a ghost-town, with only phantom rallies for Milosevic and incredible war mongering on the airwaves. Above it all, the sirens wail.
By Petar Lukovic

The wailing sirens are just announcing a new air strike. Radio Belgrade is broadcasting patriotic songs. There is news of yet another rally in support of Slobodan Milosevic… We are up for another night of heaving shelling and complete insanity, blackouts and general darkness without a trace of light in this mad tunnel.


Only a few days ago, Belgrade was the last foothold of urban Serbia, the centre of techno-happenings, art performances, current world cinema premieres. We know that Shakespeare is in love, and we have all the top 40 hits. There are hundreds of different restaurants, clubs and bars.


Young people hang out at Internet cafes and surf world news, latest music and porn. Throughout the time of socialist Yugoslavia, it was known as the most liberal city, with a whiff of fresh air amid the general stagnation. During the past decade, it somehow managed to remain in peace despite the years of war in neighbouring Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. And it survived the terrible period of shortages and poverty, sanctions and the highest inflation rate in the world. Springtime in Belgrade is good.


Now, at least, it feels war directly, and the shock is huge for its two million inhabitants. The streets are empty (petrol is very scarce), people are rushing to air raid shelters, and a state of war has been proclaimed. And constantly, eerily, and terrifyingly, the wailing of those sirens.


Some people strive to retain an air of normality. They go to work regardless of the fact that schools, the university, post offices and banks are closed. Most of the shops have switched to shorter working hours, most private stores are locked, and in the evenings on the ghostly deserted streets, there are no cars nor taxis. The city transport is operating on a minimum capacity: commuting to work and back has turned into a day-long adventure.


An ominous, unreal silence has surrounded Belgrade with the first wave of NATO bombings: according to a March 10 poll in Nin magazine, 78 per cent of the population did not believe there would be air strikes. The same poll showed that most people believe that, if there were, Serbia could count on retaliation by Russia and China. And fully 70 per cent of the people said they would be willing to go and fight in Kosovo.


Today when the bombings are a reality, the regime needs no polls. After a several days of this unfortunate, politically undefined bombing, support on the Yugoslav president is stronger than at any moment in the last few years. While in 1996 hundreds of thousands of Belgraders walked the city streets for months in protest against Milosevic, today there is not a single voice that would dare oppose the politics which have led us into war.


A day before the NATO air strikes began, Radio B92--the only truly independent radio station in Belgrade through which serious political information could be obtained--was shut down. In Novi Sad, a few days later, Radio 021, another radio station which the authorities did not trust, was also banned.


In the meantime, since the attack on Yugoslavia was launched, up to ten TV channels have taken up broadcasting the state television, RTS's first channel. Only two Belgrade TV stations have continued to broadcast their own programming -- Studio B, which is associated with the party of the federal deputy prime minister, and BK, which is owned by Bogoljub Karic, a Serbian business tycoon and a close friend of Milosevic.


RTS is infamous for its role as a nationalistic stronghold and literal combat weapon over the years for Milosevic's wars. But seizing the opportunity to stir up national feelings through simply unbearable displays of patriotism, it has now surpassed everything humanly conceivable.


There is absolutely no news on the Kosovo drama. Nothing about what is actually happening in the famous province Serbia supposedly cares so much about. There is no concrete information on what the NATO bombs hit and destroyed. There is not even any news about decisions of the Serbian and Yugoslav governments.


All this is broadcast is bare, hardcore propaganda celebrating "the firm, dignified politics of Slobodan Milosevic". And the most vicious language against the "fascist aggressors" of the West. The US president now has a range of new titles: "Killer Clinton," "Satanic Clinton," "Scumbag Clinton," "Worm Clinton," "Mental case and sexual deviant Clinton," and best of all, "Adolph Clinton, the biggest criminal in the history of the world."


With nothing but patriotic songs, old war films, meaningless news and the incredible war-mongering language, it's a real Catch-22 with the media here: you'd have to be a crazy person if watching it doesn't make you go mad.


After a number of significant daily newspapers (Nasa Borba, Dnevni Telegraf, "NT Plus) were banished from Belgrade or abolished completely by means of the notorious new Information Law, the bombing has destroyed the very last opportunity for survival of the independent media. Only government-controlled publications are issued on regular basis, Politika, Vecernje Novosti, Politika Ekspres, while others, Danas, Blic, Glas Javnosti, strive to come out in slim digest issues of only a few pages with current war news.


In this atmosphere of legalised repression, the fear has been amplified by the fact that, with the proclamation of a state of war, all potential misdeeds can be subject to courts martial. Same with conscription. The mobilisation has not yet reached its maximum level, but a great number of young people are in hiding, spending nights away from home, trying to avoid a knock on the door to fulfil their "military obligations". Yet the state media constantly provides updates on the "huge number of volunteers" joining the army to "defend the homeland".


The city authorities have removed foreign films from cinemas. In the few venues which are still running, only old Yugoslav films are being shown. It has been announced that theatres will hold free performances with "patriotic" plays. This creates some complications, since one of the great themes is the World War II struggle against the Nazis, in which the partisans were allied with Britain and the US. But the primary lesson is supposed to be that the Yugoslavs can take on anyone-and survive.


Diplomatic relations with the USA, Germany, France and Great Britain have been cut short: a preposterous anti-American, anti-French, anti-English and anti-German vocabulary is in use; the politicians from these countries are referred to as "murderers", "criminals", "mutants", "fools" and "enemies". In Belgrade, the windows of the American Cultural Centre, the British Council and the German Goethe Institute have all been broken. The monument erected as a sign of gratitude to France, for its support to Serbia during World War I, was yesterday covered with a black flag.


Life in Belgrade is getting even more complicated due to possible shortages of cooking oil, flour and sugar: panic-stricken citizens are buying great quantities of bread, one of Serbia's most important products. The exchange rate for the German mark, the favourite currency in Serbia, has risen drastically in the past few days, from, with the rate for 1 DM rising from around 8 dinar to more than 12.


At the same time, black market money dealers who used to hang around city streets without fear for years have disappeared overnight. Petrol has become, in the words of Serbian Prime Minister Mirko Marjanovic, "more valuable than gold". Almost 12,000 Belgrade taxi drivers have been out of work for days, and the streets of this normally busy capital are still.


Life in Belgrade is thus becoming increasingly throttled. Some people have talked about a kind of wartime solidarity with friends and neighbours amid the adversity. But if you are like me and tend to express your opinions, about the regime, the media and the general insanity of Serbia, its impossible to get through the day, much less even a cab ride, without a furious row and your nerves end up completely shot. This is a particularly problem now that cigarettes are no longer available.


Luckily, the telephone lines are, in general working, and Internet links continue. This makes the war even more unreal: one can communicate with America, a country with which we have broken off diplomatic relations, but it is very difficult to phone up a friend some 100 kilometres south of Belgrade. Not to mention Kosovo, about which we know absolutely nothing.


Petar Lukovic is a Belgrade based columnist for Feral Tribune in Zagreb and editor of XZ, a cultural magazine, produced in Belgrade for the entire former Yugoslavia.


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