“If Yugoslavia was the laboratory of Communism, then Communism would breathe its last dying breath here in Belgrade. And to judge by what [Slobodan] Milosevic was turning into by early 1989, Communism would exit the world stage revealed for what it truly was: fascism, without fascism’s ability to make the trains run on time.” – Robert D. Kaplan
“You bombed my country.” These were the nearly first words I heard after clearing passport control on arrival in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, from a taxi driver who flagged me down inside the airport. “Fifteen countries bombed my country.”
I didn’t know what to say. Neither did my American friend and traveling companion “Sean LaFreniere”:http://seanlafreniere.blogspot.com/.
“Why are you here in Serbia?” the driver said.
“We’re tourists,” I lied. I didn’t want to say I was an American journalist on a trip through the former Yugoslavia with an end destination in Kosovo. Serbia’s last war of ethnic-cleansing was fought there, and it only ended when NATO, led by the United States, bombed Belgrade’s tyrant Slobodan Milosevic into submission. That was nine years ago, but just three months ago Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. A mob of Serbian nationalists answered by fire-bombing the American embassy. The U.S. responded by evacuating its non-essential employees.
“If people ask what two tourists are doing here,” the driver said, “where you are from, you say you’re from Holland.”
From a distance, the latest news out of Belgrade made the place look like a reactionary Middle East capital on a bad day, but this was still Europe. How dangerous could Serbia possibly be? Tensions are higher now than at any time since the 1999 war, but I wasn’t going to lie about where I’m from. Whatever ails the country right now, it hardly compares to Iraq.
Sean and I tossed our bags in the trunk of the taxi and collapsed into the back seat. It was midnight and there was no traffic. I figured the ride into town should cost around 20 dollars, and I expected the driver would rip us off and charge something like 40. We had no idea what the exchange rate was, so I just pulled out a wad of bills from an ATM. I knew better than that, but was too exhausted to care. We paid 4000 Serbian dinars, and only later found out that meant 80 dollars for a fifteen minute cab ride.
“I cannot go to America,” our driver said as he hurtled us at top speed down the freeway while driving half in and half out of his lane. “America will not give visa. America closed to us in Serbia.”
“Sorry,” I said. “It’s probably because of the war. Thank God that’s over.” Firebombing our embassy didn’t help either, but I wasn’t going to antagonize a man who almost certainly wasn’t one of the arsonists.
He was a Serb, but he looked like a Turk. Ethnicity in the Balkans, as in the Middle East, has nothing to do with biological characteristics. Expanding and contracting empires of both the East and the West have mixed up the gene pools everywhere in those regions. American-style racial categories make even less sense there than they do in the U.S. An Orthodox Christian in the former Yugoslavia who speaks Serbo-Croatian as a first language is a Serb no matter where his ancestors may have lived hundreds of years ago. That’s true whether he attends church or not. Religious belief as such is no more relevant to ethnicity in the Balkans than it is inside Israel. Dark-eyed or dark-skinned Slavs are even more common in Serbia than white-skinned or blue-eyed Arabs in North Africa and the Levant.
The view of New Belgrade from Old Belgrade
Most of the city’s hotels are in so-called New Belgrade. They are overpriced, far from the city center, and surrounded by communist-era monstrosity architecture. Downtown is better. It looks and feels like a proper European environment. So instead of staying in a five-star hotel in a communist-era neighborhood, we stayed in a communist-era hotel in a five-star neighborhood.
The Hotel Royal was established in 1886, but you wouldn’t know it from the look of the place. It couldn’t have been upgraded much, if at all, since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
My room in the Hotel Royal, formerly the Hotel Toplice
The red carpets were badly stained. Sean kept banging his head on the poorly affixed reading lamp next to his bed. Shower curtains were missing half their rings, and only stretched half-way across the tub in any case. An ankle-busting open drain threatened bare feet at all times. Beds were too hard, too short, and too narrow, yet still the stiff sheets barely fit. The screen on the TV was smaller than the one on my laptop, there was no cable or satellite, and there were only two volume control settings: too quiet to hear, or loud enough to disturb the neighbors even at noon. Towels were hardly more absorbent than rubber sheets. Everyone should stay in a hotel like this once in a while to gain a little appreciation for Motel 6.
We walked the streets of old Belgrade after midnight and searched for whatever cafes or bars were still open. Sean said at once the city reminded him of his trips to cities in Russia, though it’s a bit more prosperous and less sketchy.
Belgrade after midnight
The karaoke bar on a corner might not have been our first choice during the early evening, but it was one of the few places still open after midnight on a holiday weekend. We stepped inside. Beautiful and fashionably dressed young Serbian women and men sang songs in their native language with their arms around each other, empty shot glasses and crumpled packages of cigarettes before them on the tables. Except for the bartender whom we spoke to in English, no one in the establishment could tell we weren’t Serbs. The atmosphere in the bar was one of energetic and joyous camaraderie. I was happy to be there. Serbia didn’t feel remotely sinister, and I chuckled to myself as I remembered our taxi driver’s warning.
“I could live here,” Sean said. I was tempted to agree as I took a swallow of my locally brewed Serbian beer. Belgrade was my kind of place — intriguing and troubled, yet attractive, cultured, and fun.
Belgrade during the day
Then we found a Turkish-themed bar in a basement, and I reconsidered somewhat.
This place was quiet. Two young men brooded over beers in a corner, and two young women at the bar laughed at the bartender’s jokes. The other tables were empty. I was surprised to find an Istanbul-like establishment in a country so violently anti-Islamic, but old Turkish style is warm and sophisticated, and Serbs do have good taste.
“We should order some of their plum brandy,” Sean loudly said as we leaned against the bar.
“You mean slivovitz?” I said.
Everyone heard us, dropped their conversation in mid-sentence, and stared. Their looks weren’t hostile, exactly, but they weren’t friendly either.
“Can we get some slivovitz?” Sean said to the bartender.
“I’d also like a beer, please,” I said.
The Balkan Stare abated, and the bartender smiled. He seemed happy that we knew of their national drink and wanted to have some. The handful of Serbian patrons switched to talking about us instead of staring at us.
Not until we sat down with our drinks did I remember an obvious and very important fact for the first time since we landed. Americans are not only the ones who bombed Belgrade. American soldiers in Kosovo are currently occupying part of what Serbs insist is their country. Most of Yugoslavia dismembered itself, but from the Serbian point of view, Americans were instrumental in the dismemberment of Serbia, which is something else.
It was a strange twilight zone feeling, and it didn’t seem real. The only places I’ve seen American soldiers are in the U.S. and in Iraq. Europe is often thought of as a post-historical paradise, yet a place that looks like a banged-up version of Vienna if you squint at it hard enough in the dark got what was basically the Saddam Hussein treatment.
I sipped from my shot glass of slivovitz. It tasted of sweet plums and fire, but mostly of fire.
Sean is my oldest friend, and we’re accustomed to taking road trips together that our friends and family tend to think are ill-advised. Our most infamous was a trip I wrote about a few years ago that we took on a lark from Istanbul, diagonally across Anatolia in a rented car, “and into Iraq”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/001119.html. There’s no “beating” that, but we’ve wanted to road-trip across Yugoslavia together ever since Bosnia came apart at the seams. It is one of the most important, and historically violent, civilizational crossroads in the world.
The medieval Kingdom of Serbia lost its sovereignty to the Turks when Tsar Lazar’s army was defeated on the Field of Blackbirds, near the town of Kosovo Polje, in 1389. The tragic dissolution of Serbia, and it annexation by the world of Islam, was deeply traumatizing to the Serbian national psyche. The recent crimes of Slobodan Milosevic and his band of like-minded war criminals shouldn’t obscure that, even though they were not justified by it.
Serbia may be mostly Christian, but it’s no less Eastern than Turkey. (Christianity is itself a Middle Eastern religion by origin.) Serbia did not belong to the Western half of the Roman Empire with Rome as its capital. It belonged, instead, to the Eastern half of the empire whose capital is now Istanbul.
The Western and Eastern halves of the Roman Empire with their capitals in Rome and Constantinople-Istanbul
Most of the Balkan Peninsula was part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years. It did not belong to the West. It was the northern-most region of the political entity that included much of the Arab world, and it was anchored there for longer than the United States has existed as a country. The region of the South Slavs is European by geography and in some ways by culture, but for the last half-millennium much of it has been ruled by Easterners and Muslims more often than not. Belgrade belonged to the same political entity as Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem, Cairo, and Baghdad.
The Turkish Ottoman Empire, which included Serbia as well as much of the Arab world
Serbia did not take part in the Renaissance, which spread from Italy to much of Europe, but not to Ottoman lands.
Italy during the Renaissance, when Serbia belonged to the Turks
Serbia was beyond the reach of Napoleon and his code, “which strongly influenced the rule of law”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Napoleonic_code.
Napoleon’s Empire did not penetrate the Balkans beyond the Dalmatian coast
Serbia likewise missed the Western European Enlightenment, subsumed as it was in the world of the East and Islam at the time.
The Ottoman Empire disintegrated at the end of World War I, but many of its unstable former pieces — from Israel and Cyprus to Lebanon and Iraq — are still at war with themselves and with each other. The unraveling of Yugoslavia has more in common with patterns of post-Ottoman crackup elsewhere than many people outside the region have stopped to consider.
The Kurds of Iraq, I discovered, provide “a useful and instructive foil for Arabs”:http://www.azure.org.il/magazine/magazine.asp?id=407. So do the Turks, Serbs, Bosnians, and Albanians in that strange region between the Middle East and Western Europe where civilizations overlap in bizarre and often counter-intuitive ways. The former Yugoslavia is not the Middle East, but it’s an eye-opening crossroads where East and West meet and bleed into each other like artifacts in a painting by Salvador Dali.
Sean and I met one of Belgrade’s most famous writers, Filip David, at a cafe downtown across the street from a small park. You may know him as the writer of the award-winning film Cabaret Balkan (or, The Powder Keg in its original Serbo-Croatian), a disturbing Altman-esque kaleidoscope of intertwined stories set in Belgrade on the eve of Yugoslavia’s violent unraveling.
He wanted to get one thing out of the way before Sean or I asked him anything.
“I must say that I opposed from the first moment the Milosevic regime,” he said, “from the beginning of the 1990s. I was in non-government groups and organizations that were opposed to Milosevic and the nationalistic policies of Serbian power.”
“Did you spend time in prison?” I said.
“No,” he said, “because Milosevic was very clever. He let dissidents stay free so he could always say to people outside Serbia, here is democracy. You could see these small groups, but they were without any real influence. But when he saw that it could be dangerous, he stopped the TV and radio stations. He stopped newspapers, and so on. I did lose my job, though. For 25 years I was the head of the drama department at TV Belgrade.”
TV Belgrade, at the time, was the only Serbian channel. It was Slobodan Milosevic’s very own Pravda. Now, though, Serbia has many channels. And even during the Communist era under Josip Broz (Marshall) Tito, Western newspapers and magazines were available.
“The political situation is not okay,” David said. “It has not changed from the time of Milosevic, you know.”
“Really?” I said. I was slightly surprised to hear this, and I’m not sure he’s right. Serbia’s election a few weeks ago produced a better result than either David or I expected when we met. Boris Tadic’s pro-European Democratic Party got less than 50 percent of the vote, but still garnered a bigger share than any of the individual nationalist parties. Serbian Nationalists outnumber internationalists overall, but they’re somewhat disorganized and they certainly are not starting wars anymore.
A Democratic Party billboard
“Milosevic is dead,” David said, “but his ideas and Serbian Nationalism is still very strong.”
That much at least is true. Serbia’s full-blown nationalist parties — the Radicals led by Vojislav eelj, currently in the dock in the Hague for war crimes and genocide — and Milosevic’s old Socialist party, are supported by roughly half the population. A smaller base of support for Vojislav Kostunica’s more moderate party, which is still nationalist and anti-European, place Serbia’s supporters of Westernization and liberalism in the minority.
Posters for the Serbian Radical Party, Tomislav Nikolic (left) and Vojislav eelj (right)
Radical Party leader Vojislav eelj before his imprisonment in The Hague
The Communist era’s Marshall Tito was awfully liberal as far as Marxist dictators go, but Serbia’s nationalists are more extreme than any others in Europe. “As Paul Berman put it”:http://www.boston.com/news/packages/iraq/globe_stories/041303_ideas.htm, “the best communism led to the worst post-communism.” The French National Front, led by Jean Marie Le Pen, may wax nostalgic for the extremist actors of yesteryear, but the head of the Radical Party is headed by present day war criminals who plotted and carried out genocide against both Muslims and Catholics.
“What put Yugoslavia together was communism,” David said. “There was an ideological base, there were communist parties in Serbia, Croatia, everywhere. But after the fall of communism, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, they lost their ideological base. Milosevic was a real communist, but also a pragmatist. He knew what to do to keep his power. At first he was against nationalism.”
Former Communist Party Headquarters
“You mean after Tito?” I said.
“After the fall of the Berlin Wall,” he said. “But communists in Serbia had to fall also. So very soon Milosevic became a Serbian Nationalist. You must understand that Serbian Nationalism is also a totalitarian ideology.”
“So it’s not that hard to go from one totalitarianism to the other,” Sean said.
“He was not really a nationalist,” David said, “but he had to do this to keep his power. The problem with Serbs then was that Serbs controlled the Yugoslav Army. At that moment he went all over Yugoslavia and raised the issue of nationalism. He was sure that because the Serbs in the Yugoslav Army controlled everything, he could control Yugoslavia. And he then began to attack Croatia, Bosnia. The army was already there, everywhere were people opposed to his regime. That was the beginning of the end of Yugoslavia.”
The dénouement was a long one. The end of the end of Yugoslavia only came to pass three months ago when Kosovo declared its independence.
“I’m on the political committee of a small party,” David said, “the Liberal Democratic Party. In the opinion of some people, especially outside Serbia, this is the only party that’s based on the real situation. We say Kosovo has separated, it is now a new state, and we should have good relations with them.”
“You recognize this?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “100,000 Serbs still live there, so we have to have good relations with Albanians.” 90 percent of Kosovo’s people are ethnic Albanians. “But we’re only a minority here in Serbia. Maybe six, seven, or eight percent of people agree with this. The rhetoric here is very high in the media that Kosovo is Serbia. Of course they say they will defend it with diplomacy. We have no strength to fight for it. But who knows, they say. Maybe one day in the future.”
“The people in Kosovo,” David said, “the Albanians don’t want to live in Serbia. Before the Milosevic regime we had no connection to Kosovo. They had their own parallel institutions. They were already outside Serbia. I am sure that some of our politicians are happy that it has separated, but officially they speak differently.”
“You mean, privately they’re happy?” I said.
“Yes,” David said.
“They’ve removed the problem,” Sean said. “It’s been cut loose.”
“Kosovo was only part of Serbia after the First World War,” David said. “It was not forever even though they say it was forever.”
Many Serbian Nationalists are fixated on the battle near Kosovo Polje when Tsar Lasar’s forces were defeated by the Turks on the Field of Blackbirds in 1389. But Kosovo was mostly Albanian then, as it is now.
The city center is full of Communist architecture
“And when you have myths,” David continued, “they are based on emotions, not on facts. Hitler has in Mein Kampf one very important sentence. He said his National Socialist movement was not based on facts, but on emotions, and that no facts can destroy it. And if you base your power on emotion, people will stay there and it will be forever. I asked myself, how did things change in Nazi Germany? With a complete catastrophe. We haven’t had one. And I don’t want one because I live here.”
NATO’s bombing of Serbia and Montenegro in 1999 was a catastrophe of a sort, but of course it hardly compares to what happened to Germany and Japan in the 1940s.
“I can’t say, yes, that’s the solution,” David said. “But in some way you must begin from zero.”
A large number of Europeans, contrary to conventional wisdom, have been anti-American for most of America’s history. The problem, however, is confined, to an extent, to Western European elitists. Eastern Europe is different, as Donald Rumsfeld bluntly pointed out with his now infamous quip about New Europe and Old. Serbia, though, is different from both. Anti-Americanism runs much deeper there, and it’s partly based on recent and current grievances as well as the usual conspiracy theories and phantasmagoria. It is much more vicious than what you’ll find in the cafes of Paris.
An outdoor cafe in Belgrade in front of the Hotel Moscow
“What do most Serbs think of Americans now?” I asked Filip David.
“Very bad!” he said and laughed. “There is very messy propaganda, you know. Here there is no private opinion, only public opinion. During Milosevic they said for four years that there was no alternative to war. And after Dayton, the next day, they said that peace has no alternative. Everyone changed their mind overnight. The influence of the media is very very strong. And now they say Americans are our enemies.”
“They actually use the word enemies?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “You also have some kind of stereotypes. The first is that there is an international conspiracy against Serbia, and that behind that are Americans and Jews with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
“Oh, you’re kidding,” Sean said. He spent six months in Denmark while I was in Lebanon, and he never heard that kind of thing there.
“Really,” David said. “They say Jews control America.”
Sean couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity.
“And the second,” David said, “is that all independent journalists and non-government members are traitors who are paid by the West. These two stereotypes exist now, in this moment. I am against this, you know, because I am Jewish.”
“Is that a problem for you here?” I said.
“It’s an attack on international Jews,” he said, “not Jews here, because, you know, in Serbia there are only 2,000 Jews. A lot of people who attack Jews and are anti-Semites, they have never seen in their lives any Jews. In this moment, we have over 100 anti-Semitic books. A lot of them are reprinted books that were written during the Nazi occupation of Serbia during the Second World War. They are trying to explain how it’s possible that Serbia lost all its wars. They are saying that it’s an international conspiracy. And people believe it. You know, the bombing of Belgrade. It’s true that in the American administration you have lots of Jews. But they are Americans, they act like Americans, not like Jews. I think so.”
“And the honest truth,” Sean said, “is there aren’t that many.”
“Most are Christians,” I said.
“Henry Kissinger,” David said. “Hal Holbrook, Wesley Clark.”
“Wesley Clark isn’t Jewish,” I said. “He’s Christian.”
“He’s not a Jew,” Sean said.
General Wesley Clark was NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander of Europe when the U.S. went to war against Yugoslavia — which was really just a war against Serbia since what was left of Yugoslavia at the time might be better described as the Serbian Empire. (Yugoslavia was derisively described by many of its citizens as Serboslavia even long before the rise of Milosevic.) It wouldn’t be reasonable to expect many Serbs to admire Wesley Clark, but accusing him of being a Jew seemed a bit much.
“Yes,” David said, “but he was born a Jew and adopted by some family. It’s not important whether it’s true or not. People here say someone is a Jew when they don’t like him.”
I decided to fact-check this just in case I was wrong. And “according to Wikipedia”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wesley_Clark, Wesley Clark has a Jewish great-grandfather. That doesn’t make him Jewish according to Jewish law, but it does make him Jewish according to Hitler’s definition and, apparently, according to the Serbian definition as well. When General Clark ran for president in the Democratic primary in 2004, the American media let this factoid languish in relative obscurity because hardly anyone in the United States would find it interesting or relevant.
I assumed it was nonsense because Belgrade’s propaganda industry has been manufacturing lies about its enemies for a long time. Republican Senator Bob Dole was widely accused in Serbia of being secretly an Albanian Muslim, for instance. Kosovo’s current prime minister Hashim Thaci, who really is a bit sketchy, was recently and absurdly accused of harvesting and selling Serb body parts. When you throw The Protocols of the Elders of Zion into the mix, it’s a good idea to fact-check what you hear — which is frankly good advice in the Balkans in general, not just in Serbia.
“Everybody tries to make their identification with Palestine or with Jews to explain what happens here in Serbia,” David said. “People very often can’t understand what happens here. We who live here can’t always understand. During Tito’s regime there wasn’t any kind of anti-Semitism. Tito had good relations with Israel. But with the rise of nationalism everywhere we have the rise of anti-Semitism everywhere. In Slovenia they have maybe 50 Jews, but they have problems with anti-Semitism when there are problems with the economy.”
“So basically,” Sean said, “anti-Semitism is used here, right now, in the exact same way it was used in Nazi Germany.”
“That’s the problem,” David said.
“What do Serbs think of Israel?” I said.
“It’s mixed,” he said. “Sometimes they praise Israel and say we too must defend ourselves with arms. But other times they say We are like Palestinians, and that Israel is an extension of the United States.”
“So sometimes Serbs identify with Palestinians,” I said. That comes across just from walking around. I saw three Serbs wearing Palestinian keffiyehs downtown just that morning. At the same time, Serbia is the most violently anti-Islamic country in Europe.
“But it’s also not so simple,” he said, “because Palestinians are Arabs. And they don’t like Arabs because Arabs are Muslims. That’s why I say there is so much confusion here about political life, cultural life, and economic life. You can be very surprised by what people say here, and the next day they will say the exact opposite.”
Not everyone in Serbia hates Americans, though.
“I supported Americans from the first moment here,” David said. “I mean, you can criticize Bush or some aspects of his politics, but without the United States we couldn’t have resolved any of the problems in the former Yugoslavia. Because European countries have no strength. When the United States came, all the problems were resolved. It stopped. It stopped the fight. Yes, the United States is some kind of policeman, but you must have some kind of policeman in the world who is ready to stop, to intervene. We had that kind of situation in the Second World War, too. When Americans came, it was finished.”
“But we’re very conflicted about it,” Sean said. “We don’t want to be the world’s policeman, but we keep having to do it.”
“It would be very dangerous for the entire world if there was complete isolation of America,” David said. “If Americans said they were no longer interested in Europe, it would be a catastrophe here.”
“You think?” Sean said.
“Yes,” David said, “because Europe can’t stop anything.”
“Is there any talk that if you joined the EU that the economy would take off?” Sean said.
“Yes,” David said, “but these are facts. These are facts. People in the Democratic Party are saying so, but others are saying they would rather us be very poor and have our dignity.”
“That’s very much like the Arabs,” I said.
“Yes,” David said. “In some ways.”
“I don’t mean to be offensive when I say that,” I said.
Serbia likes to show off its military hardware in public. “They’re just like Russians,” Sean said and laughed when he saw this. “And Arabs,” I said.
“If you have no facts, you play on dignity,” David said.
“But you know what?” Sean said. “Cash buys a lot of dignity.”
“Without cash you have no dignity,” David said. “Yes, that’s normal. You know, when we were under sanctions we had so much inflation. You can’t imagine. If I didn’t send a letter to my friends in the morning, in the afternoon it cost in the millions. It was the highest inflation in the world during Milosevic. In shops you couldn’t buy anything. They were completely empty. But because we are an agricultural country, we could eat. Pensions were less than one deutschmark per month. Less than one. Money completely lost its value. If I had my pockets full of money, I couldn’t even buy cigarettes. Nothing. You can’t imagine that kind of situation. It’s like living in some absurd galaxy.”
Neither Sean nor I had been to Belgrade before, and Filip David offered to take us on a bit of a walking tour. We set out from our downtown cafe and walked toward Belgrade TV, David’s old employer before Milosevic fired him and before the headquarters was bombed by the Americans.
Sean LaFreniere (left) and Filip David (right) in front of Serbia’s Parliament
David showed us the Serbian parliament building, orthodox churches, the old Marx and Engels square from the communist days, and other various landmarks. I saw virtually no evidence that Belgrade had ever been bombed. Serbs suffered much more in Croatia, where they were ethnically-cleansed from the Krajina region in one of the most under-reported atrocities of the war.
“During the bombing here,” Sean said, “how bad was it?”
“I have very contradictory feelings,” David said. “On one side, I knew, I was sure, that Milosevic wouldn’t resign without bombing. The resignation of Milosevic was a result of the bombing. On the other side, I was with my family here, my boy, my girl, you know, and they were afraid. My son lived 100 meters from Belgrade TV, which was bombed, and I lived 200 meters, and I begged him to stay with me because we knew it would be bombed that night. He said no, that he passed all these buildings that were bombed and he saw that the Americans were very precise.”
“But it’s still dangerous,” I said.
“Sometimes they bombed the wrong thing,” he said, “but here in Belgrade they were very precise. It was not the kind of bombing as in the Second World War where they were bombing everything.”
“We will never do that again,” Sean said.
“You could see,” David said, “you could predict, they said what they were going to hit before they hit it. But it became very dangerous because they bombed all the official buildings and then they didn’t know what to do next if Milosevic wouldn’t resign. But Milosevic stopped at the right time.”
The bombed-out Belgrade TV station building wasn’t far from our starting point. It stood out as one of the few remaining demolished buildings from the air campaign. It seems to be left as a showpiece. It’s hard to say, though, if this building was left in its condition to wave the bloody shirt against Americans or against the Milosevic regime.
Belgrade TV, bombed by Americans in 1999
“We predicted it would be bombed because it was a massive propaganda mission,” David said. “And I was very sorry because 16 people who were innocent in that building were killed.”
“People chose to stay in it?” Sean said.
“No,” David said. “It was not by choice. The conclusion was that if people were killed, we would have an argument against the West. The man who was the general director at that moment is in prison because of it, because he gave orders to put people there.”
A memorial to the dead is placed across the street from the vertical rubble. All sixteen names are engraved in the stone. Above the list of names is written one simple question: Why?
But the truth is, everybody knows why. Civilians killed by Americans make for great propaganda. Journalists like Robert Fisk predictably complied and blamed NATO. It didn’t matter at the time that Americans hit the building at 2:00 in the morning when no one should have been in there. It occurred to few that Serbian authorities might want to cynically parade the corpses of their own innocents in front of the cameras, though an old Middle East hand like Fisk should have known it was at least possible.
General Manager Dragoljub Milanovic was handed a ten year prison sentence in 2002 for forcing these sixteen employees to remain behind and get killed.
“He knew it would be bombed,” David said. “That’s how this government thought.”
There’s a lot of that going around. “I’ve seen it in Lebanon, too”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/001361.html.
“Hezbollah thinks that way,” I said.
“Yes,” David said. “In some ways.”
It’s tempting to think that Serbia has changed, especially now that Milosevic is dead and the pro-European Democratic Party won more votes than the Radicals in the recent election.
“What do people here think of Milosevic now?” I said.
“He isn’t so popular now because he lost all the wars,” he said, “not because of his politics. He didn’t fulfill what he promised. But all these parties now say what he said about Kosovo, about the United States, about Russia. The rhetoric didn’t change. But he lost, and he lost the support of the people because of it…We are afraid of the Radicals because we know what they did. They were in a coalition with Milosevic, you know. They did awful things. Their rhetoric is still war rhetoric.”
“I was very critical of Milosevic,” Radical Party leader Tomislav Nikolic “said just a few weeks ago”:http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5iArhY3fcJ4FyWN5YQbhAIx-oUfQAD90GD7780. “He had stopped short all Serbian actions, which benefited our enemies. I would have done many things differently. I would have gone all the way.”
How Nikolic would have gone further than Milosevic, whose ethnic-cleansing campaign turned 90 percent of Kosovar Albanians into refugees, isn’t clear. There wasn’t much more that could have been done short of defeating the United States and NATO in battle, or killing the Albanians outright so they could never go home.
The Radicals aren’t gearing up for yet a fifth Serbian war. They can’t. Nikolic is trying to rhetorically out-Slobo Slobo as a way to make up for his own party’s impotence on the Kosovo question. A huge chunk of Serbia’s population hasn’t moderated their views an iota. “After 11 September 2001 the world seemed to forget about the Balkans,” Asne Seierstad writes in her excellent book With Their Backs to the World: Portraits from Serbia. “The reporters who used to cover the region left for other, bloodier parts of the world, but all the while Serbia stayed on its crooked course.” Only their behavior has mellowed, but in the end that is what matters most.
“I feel like we’re safe here,” I said to David. “Is that true?”
“Yes,” he said. “Generally. But sometimes you will have somebody say they don’t like you if they hear you speak English.”
I’d seen some looks of surprise and the occasional uncomfortable stare, but no one had been verbally rude to either Sean or me yet.
“Our taxi driver from the airport told us not to say we’re Americans,” Sean said, “but to say we’re from Holland.”
“That seems paranoid,” I said.
“Maybe that was his impression,” David said. “Or maybe he didn’t want to say directly that he doesn’t like Americans, but in that indirect way he said you are not welcome here. You may meet some people who say, fine, you’re Americans, and others who say they hate Americans. But you could say you support the Radicals, that you came here to support eelj and Milosevic.”
Sean and I laughed.
“What if we say we support Kosovo?” I said.
“That would be dangerous,” David said.
To be continued…
Coming up: a visit to war-shattered Bosnia, a road trip to Kosovo, Albanians who rescued Jews from the Nazis, activists for the eviction of the United Nations, American soldiers hailed as liberators by Kosovo’s Albanians and as protectors by Kosovo’s Serbs, Israelis who live among Muslims, and victims of the Bin Ladens of the Balkans.
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