THE SOUND AND THE FURY

Anyone who had a chance to first live blissfully in abundance and then touch bottom, experiencing at least some of the shit we went through, will surely remember it for the rest of their life because the formidable hurdles we were facing daily in 90s Serbia bordered surreal. Those who managed to keep their head above water were like skydivers who survived a 12,000ft (3660m) fall without their parachutes.

In order to explain the political climate in Serbia in the mid 90s, I need to go back in time. The late 80s witnessed squabbles between the Serb minority and the ethnic-Albanian majority in Serbia’s (ex-) southern province of Kosovo, considered ‘the Mecca and Medina of the Serb people.’ Many Serbs left never to return, while the remaining ones felt oppressed and abused by the Albanian leadership. The Kosovo issue dominated Serbian politics. Slobodan Milošević, a rising Socialist Party boss (SPS), became an overnight sensation, being ‘the first politician to break official party taboos about embracing nationalism. Jumping on the nationalist bandwagon and making himself the public champion of the beleaguered Serbs of Kosovo’ proved to be his ticket to absolute power. He said: ‘I will defend your rights.’ They cheered and nodded. He said: ‘I will restore prosperity.’ They cheered and nodded. He said: ‘I will protect you and defend Serbdom.’ They cheered and nodded. He said: ‘No one has the right to beat you.’ They cheered and nodded. Soon he was to become a hero of angry Serbs everywhere. Erratic time.

In 1990, Yugoslavia started following the model of political transition from a one-party system to a multi-party democratic one. The opposition openly rejected the communist and socialist regime and was strongly in favor of human rights, democracy and market economy. In June, it called for a street protest against SPS control over national media which ignored opposition altogether while glorifying Milošević’s ‘peace-loving’ initiatives. Over 70,000 peaceful protesters were dispersed. In the fall, mass protests were again organized in Belgrade, demanding a free and fair electoral campaign, the media coverage of opposition activities and the round table. Despite the charismatic leaders who were getting more and more popular and rallies across Serbia, the democratic opposition lost the battle (but not the war). Minimized time for opponents of the regime on TV (being denounced as Western stooges) and the absence of united opposition forces also contributed to the overwhelming victory of SPS in both Parliamentary and presidential elections.

In March ‘91, another street protest against President Milošević and his total control of the national media was organized in downtown Belgrade. Fury followed, the rally turning into a riot featuring vicious clashes between the protesters and the police and military, deployed in the streets to restore order. 100,000 citizens against tanks. Two people died and a few hundred were injured. Several prominent opposition officials were badly beaten and detained by the police and two media outlets considered unfriendly to the government banned. Civil fury grew high and the following day more people were in the streets. The government supporters responded by organizing a counter-protest. The rallies ended a few days later, after the opposition leaders had been released from police custody. Both the state TV director and the Minister of the Interior resigned. One victory at a time. Thanks to his fiery nationalist rhetoric, and total control of the national media, along with the JNA operations in Croatia (Yugoslav People’s Army), the popularity of President Milošević continued to grow. So did the fury of the conscious ‘few.’

march protests.PNG

Fast forward to mid 90s. Upon enrolling in the university and spending a wonderful summer with my longtime boyfriend and friends, partying, loitering and dreaming (4 months without school), I moved away from my parents in the fall of ‘95. The war just finished (crime didn’t, though). The sanctions weren’t lifted until the next year, which meant more power outages accompanied by the calming effects of candlelight. The post-war period was no less challenging. It was a time of scarcity and supporting two students financially was not easy. Students who pay for college fees themselves are extremely rare in Serbia. It is your job to study, pass exams and have fun, whereas it’s your parents’ duty to pay your bills. Things get tougher if you’re a big art lover who didn’t want to miss a single movie, festival, exhibition, concert or theater performance. Unfortunately, my sister and I were not among the lucky bastards whose tuition was covered by the state, but were fee-paying ones. Even though the fees were not that high (no loans, no debts), the price of printouts most definitely was. We didn’t have the convenience of the Internet back then, which would surely make things cheaper and our life easier. Books and textbooks, on the other hand, were either way too costly or hard to obtain so we’d spend hours in the library reading dozens of them so as to copy/paste a few useful pages, which required hard manual labor. Once the work was done, we wouldn’t stay there to study as we preferred the comfort of our home. The library atmosphere never grew on us. There’s nothing cozy, agreeable and intimate about it. Watching other people staring at their books, while you can’t concentrate yourself since you’re too busy checking out their backpacks, glasses, their hair and clothes, and being distracted by a fly buzz, is utterly depressing and unproductive in the long run. Our bodies are so not made to be sedentary. Besides, deafening silence for studying was never my thing. I needed noise, I needed the fridge, the kettle, the sounds of the street, our room overlooking a most peculiar neighbor. I needed our saggy cushions and old ugly sofa where I’d assume most unusual positions for studying you can think of (back down, legs up the wall, headphones on). I missed the radio, shared laughter and friends stopping by for a chat, a cup of coffee or our aunt’s hot tomato soup. I craved my common workplace distractions.

Oh, the bliss of student life! Socializing, partying, and having fun day in day out, meeting new people all the time, pairing up with the best and the worst, the most generous and the most envious people you will ever meet, the best of the best sharing the same premises with the scum of the earth, daring to be different, finding your tribe, befriending a withdrawn Bosnian girl in the last row who lost her dad in war and had no idea where her mom and brother were, sharing food, dreams, books, passions, ideas, thoughts, showers and beds, dropping the mime, learning to ‘be yourself (everyone else was already taken’), living in a tight-knit community buzzing with life, sleepovers, inducing euphoria with all things available, Bowie’s Earthling 24/7, resetting perspectives, learning from and exchanging views with brilliant professors and assistant professors, putting up with mediocrity and an inferiority complex impossible to treat, student discounts, fare evasion, mom’s parcels with sour cabbage rolls, stuffed red peppers, money, and crepes with honey and walnuts sent regularly by bus, resorting to scratchcards when broke, winning (big enough to cover the costs), losing, taking part in every single radio game show in the city (answering questions about literature and film, being rewarded with the best prize ever: a book or a concert/theater ticket otherwise impossible to afford), mastering negotiation skills and sweet talk: talking our (read: my) way past bouncers every fricking time, cramped trains back home: using bribery, students and railroad officials in the same sentence, early English literature, an introduction into Canadian-Australian studies, Romanticism, American writers, contemporary literature, the (almost) Complete Works of Shakespeare, cooking your own food, having others cook for you, leading a life without a washing machine, giving up on the idea to kill the black mold, continuing to hope it won’t kill you (too soon), placing mouse traps around the house, thinking of the ways to outsmart a smart mouse, being outsmarted, enthusiasm, attending lectures worth attending, missing those worth missing, catching up, lacking motivation, a recommended daily intake of lecithin for focus, attention and concentration improvement, resorting to cleaning the house from top to bottom to let off steam, scrubbing the grout lines in the bathroom with a toothbrush because every nook and cranny needed to be clean (read: finding yet another excuse not to study for exams), workload, duties and obligations, procrastinating, locking ourselves in before exams without leaving the house for days (it was about time!), stress before a midterm, learning to cope with anxiety, meditation: relieving pain by changing your mind, making room for more happiness, reading and writing, listening and turning a deaf ear, passing and failing, facts to remember, facts to learn and forget, making your own decisions, flunking semesters on purpose to have more time for having a good time (infuriating teachers and pleasing yourself), standing by your choices, prioritizing, living your life, temptations, learning the hard way, dealing with emotional memories, being taught not to bottle up emotions (then forgetting), finding people keen for a talk anytime, joining a hiking club, going hiking, going swimming, first job, first salary spent on a ski trip and a bike, biking in and around the city with sis on a daily basis, getting in shape, sharing super sweet dessert combos afterwards to boost our energy levels (fuck getting in shape!), stage diving, lighters held up at concerts like fireflies in the dark (his hand around my sweaty waist), the addictive darkness of freezing movie theaters (a weekly/daily hotshot), a peaceful sense of intimacy, legs touching under the table, pulling the blanket over our heads, enjoying the silence interrupted by grunts, sighs, and groans, the noise of impetuous passion, climaxing, being present and fading to black, sinking into speechless oblivion, sharing an enthusiastic neighbor’s choice of music and boyfriends, investing in good earplugs, coffees and  Turkish delight under a linden tree, staying up all night, sleeping in the following day, a regular knock on our window, pressing the social ‘refresh’ button. Lifelong friends and memories. Feeling adult, feeling appreciated, feeling worthless, feeling like a piece of shit. Rebuilding self-esteem. Morning chats over coffee, late night dinners by the old wood burner, cigarette smoke filling the kitchen, and crackling fire on a cold damp evening. Don’t fall asleep. We need to keep the fire burning.

fire.PNG

It’s the fall of 1996. Days are noticeably shorter, while nights are getting colder and colder. Serbian local elections held in November are followed by allegations of widespread voter fraud. It seems very likely President Milošević will reject the accusations as preposterous. Again. However, students have something important to say this time.

Fury and frustration have been piling up for quite some time, seeking ways of breaking free. The long sound of silence gives the impression of ripeness. We are ready, willing and able to speak up. ‘The sound is the fury’; the fury is a change. ‘The grave hopeless sound of all voiceless misery under the sun’ is about to break away.

PRESCRIPTION POEMS (MY WAY)

And now, the end (of National Poetry Month) is near
And so I face the final curtain (OK, not that final)
My friend(s), I’ll say it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain

In the past month, I undertook a task of talking about the need to read poems regularly. I hope many of you who weren’t sure about your attitude to poetry and haven’t read much of it are catching up. Please note that it can seriously mess with your heart and brain and has an ability to alter moods, emotions and behaviors by changing your perceptions. If you notice signs of poetry cravings, and dependence, coupled with a loss of control over use, it means you have developed an addiction and (luckily) it’s probably too late to go back to the previous state. There’s no need to talk to your doctor or pharmacist though since this condition is permanent and with no known cure so far. As time goes by, you will find out that poetry overdose is one of the best things that has happened to you. The sooner you acknowledge you are chronically ill and start making the most of it, the better. I am an addict as well and you haven’t heard me complain, have you?

After talking about what poetry does to me and sharing some fabulous poets with you, I like to think I helped pass on a virus. I believe it has the power to open minds, and transform lives. It enables us to heal and grow. I wish that reading it became so second-nature to you that you forget to eat, and drink and that your heart skips a beat every time you do, like when we are in love. Mind you, if you get the urge to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night to read (or write) it, there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re just trapped in love. For good. Welcome to the club.

Now, I would love to draw your attention to a couple of poets I love: astonishing Diana at Holistic Wayfarer: poems Age and losing you and prolific Lize Bard at Haiku out of Africa (picking one was way too hard so you’ll have to read all. I promise you’ll get hooked momentarily).

Let me finish with awe-inspiring Adrian Mitchell who btw often performed on mainstream national stages. He sang, whispered and shouted his poems in every place imaginable in a persistent attempt to persuade us to love our lives, our minds and bodies and fight against tyranny, oppression and exploitation. Mitchell ‘shifted English poetry from correctness and formality towards inclusiveness and political passion,’ as was written in his obituary. Like Blake, he believed that everything human was holy, and liked to think of himself as an optimist despite overwhelming negativity around us. He celebrated life as passionately as he attacked those who crushed it. Today I give you a serious peace monger and an instinctive democrat and two encouraging poems of his:

 

TO ALL IN THE SO-CALLED DEFENCE INDUSTRY

Arms trade workers, here’s an early warning
You might wake up tomorrow morning
And find that this is the glorious day
When all your jobs will just melt away
Because the people of the world are going to make sure
There’ll be no more, no more, no more war
So now’s the time to switch your occupation
From dealing in death and desolation
Don’t hang around now you’ve been told
The international murder trade’s about to fold
You won’t have to maim, you won’t have to kill,
You can use your brain and use your skill.
Peace needs workers of all kinds-
Make artificial limbs instead of landmines.
Tricycles instead of tridents,
Violins instead of violence,
Lifeboats, hospitals, medicine, drains,
Food and toys and buses and trains-
Come on, there’s plenty of work to be done
If we’re going to make peace for everyone.


 

HUMAN BEINGS

look at your hands
your beautiful useful hands
you’re not an ape
you’re not a parrot
you’re not a slow loris
or a smart missile
you’re human

not british
not american
not israeli
not palestinian
you’re human

not catholic
not protestant
not muslim
not hindu
you’re human

we all start human
we end up human
human first
human last
we’re human
or we’re nothing

nothing but bombs
and poison gas
nothing but guns
and torturers
nothing but slaves
of Greed and War
if we’re not human

look at your body
with its amazing systems
of nerve-wires and blood canals
think about your mind
which can think about itself
and the whole universe
look at your face
which can freeze into horror
or melt into love
look at all that life
all that beauty
you’re human
they are human
we are human
let’s try to be human

dance!

FEASTING ON POETRY

There are many ways to celebrate National Poetry Month. I have been doing it by spreading awareness of the importance and beauty of poetry in order to make more people read it. Hopefully, those who have just embarked on this journey will become mesmerized to that extent that they’ll need the daily intake (several servings for best results) as is the case with us serious poetry fans. Mind you, the number of portions and portion size may gradually increase since poetry is highly addictive. However, there’s no room for panic as several studies have shown that although increasing portion size boosts energy levels, there is NO causal relationship whatsoever between it and obesity, let alone a fatal outcome, which makes the whole process absolutely enjoyable and stress-free.

Once again, I would like to introduce you to another admirable poet whose use of imagery is impeccable and skill second to none: extraordinary Jane and her poems Walking with the Eagle , The silence in the woods and Images.

Up next, a challenge. You who had a chance to get to know me better know I don’t do award-related challenges any more, but since this one is different (and fun) and as I was nominated by my dear friends, people I’m irrevocably in love with and inspirational bloggers Alyssa (MS journey) and Susan and Wulf (poetry), I couldn’t say no. Let me remind you I’m a party breaker so I’m doing it on my own terms. You will get one quote only and I would be thrilled if you could add your favorite one in the comment section (everybody’s nominated). Mine is LOOSE LEAF POEM by brilliant Adrian Mitchell, which is something that resonates with me and can well serve as a quote:

My brain socialist
My heart anarchist
My eyes pacifist
My blood revolutionary

In the preface to his first volume, Poems (1964), he wrote: ‘Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.’ Let’s not ignore poetry and read poems that do not ignore us. Today I give you a man who held a torch in darkening times and a poem very dear to my heart:

 

THE CASTAWAYS OR VOTE FOR CALIBAN

A Pacific Ocean —
A blue demi-globe.
Islands like punctuation marks.
A cruising airliner;
Passengers unwrapping pats of butter.
A hurricane arises,
Tosses the plane into the sea.
Five of them, flung onto an island beach,
Survived.

Tom the reporter.
Susan the botanist.
Jim the high jump champion.
Bill the carpenter.
Mary the eccentric widow.

Tom the reporter sniffed out a stream of drinkable water.
Susan the botanist identified the banana tree.
Jim the high-jump champion jumped up and down and gave them each a bunch.
Bill the carpenter knocked up a table for their banana supper.
Mary the eccentric widow buried the banana skins, but only after they had asked her twice.

They all gathered sticks and lit a fire.
There was an incredible sunset.
Next morning they held a committee meeting.
Tom, Susan, Jim and Bill
Voted to make the best of things.
Mary, the eccentric widow, abstained.

Tom the reporter killed several dozen wild pigs.
Tanned their skins into parchment
And printed the Island News with the ink of squids.
Susan the botanist developed the new strains of banana
Which tasted of chocolate, beefsteak, peanut butter,
Chicken and boot polish.

Jim the high jump champion organized organized games
Which he always won easily.
Bill the carpenter constructed a wooden water wheel
And converted the water’s energy into electricity
Using iron ore from the hills, he constructed lamppost.
They all worried about Mary, the eccentric widow,
Her lack of confidence and her-
But there wasn’t time to coddle her.

The volcano erupted, but they dug a trench
And diverted the lava into the sea
Where it found a spectacular pier
They were attacked by the pirates but defeated them
With bamboo bazookas firing
Sea-urchins packed with home-made nitro-glycerin.

They gave the cannibals a dose of their own medicine
And survived an earthquake thanks to their skill in jumping.
Tom had been a court reporter
So he became a magistrate and solved disputes
Susan the Botanist established
A University which also served as a museum.
Jim the high-jump champion
Was put in charge of law enforcement-
Jumped on them when they were bad.
Bill the carpenter built himself a church,
Preached there every Sunday.

But Mary the eccentric widow…
Each evening she wandered down the island’s main street,
Past the Stock Exchange, the Houses of Parliament,
The prison and the arsenal.
Past the Prospero Souvenir Shop,
Past the Robert Louis Stevenson Movie Studios, past the Daniel Defoe Motel
She nervously wandered and sat on the end of the pier of lava,
Breathing heavily,
As if at a loss,
As if at a lover,
She opened her eyes wide
To the usual incredible sunset.

A RESPONSE POEM

I’m very sensitive to the injustices in the world and big guys bullying small ones. Some girls find it extra hot, but not this one. She needs to speak her mind although many wouldn’t like what she has to say. Oh well, she couldn’t care less because she has never liked going with the flow.


 

DINNER FOR THREE

best friends dining breakfast leftovers
British black pudding
American baked beans, bacon and fried eggs from
countryside farms
dipping French toast into the yolk
food gets stuck in the back of their throats
a tedious repetition of ménage à trois

spinning the globe with their mouths full of
half-chewed food and cursing
dangerous countries glaring at them
a question rising like a tidal wave
where to eat out (this time)
who to fuck afterwards
somewhere far off, someone exotic
yes, we like exotic
checking out the list of the top global threats
up next
S…S…S…Serbia, no, been there
S…S…Siberia…nope, S… Syria, why the hell not
we’re mad enough

mad about the super modern research center in Damascus
and well-equipped storage facilities west of Homs
researching and storing something
an offensive to retaliate against
the suspected mass production of fog and
begin a sustained effort to make
them stop using everything banned, breathing including

today’s targets are pita bread
sprinkled with sesame seeds, spicy
chickpea salad, garlic
and lemon hummus, falafels
with fresh coriander leaves
kebab served with Aleppo pepper and
cookies filled with dates and pistachios
Big Daddy makes it abundantly clear all must go
we eat first, and discuss later

dinner goes like a bomb
can’t think on a full stomach
the world is looking at the satellite images of before and after
something turned into nothing
who wants to fuck with us now

 

A POEM A DAY

We are still celebrating National Poetry Month in the States, and, as I promised my dear friend and an exceptional poet Susan, I’m taking a break from all my writing and current preoccupations in April so as to share some wonderfully provocative verses with you.

Of course, the intention behind action is what matters, and mine/ours is to inspire more people to read poetry more often, if not all the time. The more the better, that is if you want to look after your well-being. You see, I believe that poetry is among the healthiest foods for our heart and brain that can improve blood flow to both if consumed on a regular basis. Believe it or not, reading poems may help lower your blood pressure, keep your blood sugar levels steady and your skin glowing. Hm? Yes, yes, and so much more. It enhances your memory loss and focus, and boosts your immune system. Altogether, poetry is that magic pill which keeps the mind in tip-top shape, nourishes the soul and enables us to attain inner peace. Remember, a poem a day keeps the doctor away.

I would like to contribute to Poetry Month by drawing further attention to some bloggers I love who are equally good at poetry and prose: captivating Lou Rasmus and his Oranges and Metaphors and talented Michael P. Powers at Sketches from Berlin and his poem A Dryness Hollering Out for Death, as well as perceptive Paul at Visions of Paul with his Shame.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like us to go on reading Adrian Mitchell (1932 – 2008), who was first and foremost a ‘responsible poet,’ concerned with social and political issues of the day, which set him apart from his more tight-lipped contemporaries. Today, I give you two challenging poems of his which altered the conscience of English poetry:

 

SONG ABOUT MARY

Mary sat on a long brown bench
Reading Woman’s Own and She.
Then a slimy-haired nit with stripes on his collar
Said:“What’s the baby’s name to be?”

She looked across to Marks and Spencers
Through the dirty window pane,
“I think I’ll call him Jesus Christ,
It’s time he came again.”

The clerk he banged his ledger
And he called the Cruelty Man
Saying:“This bird thinks she’s the mother of Christ,
Do what you bleeding well can.”

They took Mary down to the country
And fed her on country air,
And they put the baby in a Christian home
And he’s much happier there.

For if Jesus came to Britain
He would turn its dizzy head.
They’d nail him up on a telegraph pole
Or he’d raise the poor from the dead.

So if you have a little baby
Make sure it’s a legitimate child,
Bind down his limbs with insurance and a mortgage
And he’ll grow up meek and mild.
Meek and mild.., meek and mild.., meek and mild.


 

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN

I was run over by the truth one day.
Ever since the accident I’ve walked this way
So stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

Heard the alarm clock screaming with pain,
Couldn’t find myself so I went back to sleep again
So fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

Every time I shut my eyes all I see is flames.
Made a marble phone book and I carved out all the names
So coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

I smell something burning, hope it’s just my brains.
They’re only dropping peppermints and daisy-chains
So stuff my nose with garlic
Coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

Where were you at the time of the crime?
Down by the Cenotaph drinking slime
So chain my tongue with whiskey
Stuff my nose with garlic
Coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

You put your bombers in, you put your conscience out,
You take the human being and you twist it all about
So scrub my skin with women
Chain my tongue with whiskey
Stuff my nose with garlic
Coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

POETRY MATTERS

Our lovely Susan recently reminded us that April is National Poetry Month in the States, inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996. This month, I’m joining this unique celebration of poetry in hopes of inspiring more people to read and celebrate it throughout the year.

BTW, Susan’s outstanding poem Letches was shortlisted for IS&T Pick of the Month, so I’ll kindly ask you to read it and show how wonderfully supportive of one another we are by voting here until April 15.

Now, I would like to contribute to Poetry Month by drawing attention to some bloggers/poets I love besides Susan herself and magnificent Wulf she mentioned who are a must for serious poetry fans. If you love poetry or don’t but are open to new experiences, please check out these guys: Wilde Taylor at thereckoning and her poem Marrow, Silent Hour by Basilike Pappa, How Demons Get their Wings, highwaybloggery by David Redpath, The Happiness Report, A.G. Diedericks and his poem An Existential Exposé and Moonlit Pieces by Eli Kyoko and her Panic. Make sure you check out Morality Park too where you can find all five, and so much more.

I generally love poets who make me think and tackle controversial topics and social injustices, also using humor as a powerful weapon against oppressive forces. Ted Hughes described one of my favorite poets Adrian Mitchell (1932 – 2008) as “a voice as welcome as Lear’s fool… Humor that can stick deep and stay funny.” Today, I give you a statesman of literary protest and his thought-provoking:

 

A TOURIST GUIDE TO ENGLAND

Welcome to England!
England is a happy country.

Here is a happy English businessman.
Hating is money, he spends it all
On bibles for Cambodia
And charity to preserve
The Indian Cobra from extinction.

I’m sorry you can’t see our happy coal-miners.
Listen hard and you can hear them
Singing Welsh hymns far underground.
Oh. The singing seems to have stopped.

No, that is not Saint Francis of Assisi.
That is a happy English policeman.
Here is a happy black man.
No, it is not illegal to be black. Not yet.

Here are the slums.
They are preserved as a tourist attraction.
Here is a happy slum-dweller.
Hello, slum-dweller!
No, his answer is impossible to translate.

Here are some happy English schoolchildren.
See John. See Susan. See Mike.
They are studying for their examinations.
Study, children, study!
John will get his O-Levels
And a O-Level job and an O-Level house and a O-Level wife.

Susan will get her A-Levels
And a A-Level job and a A-Level house and a A-Level husband.

Mike will fail.

Here are some happy English soldiers.
They are going to make the Irish happy.
No, please understand.
We understand the Irish
Because we’ve been sending soldiers to Ireland
For hundreds and hundreds of years.

First we tried to educate them
With religion, famine and swords.
But the Irish were slow to learn.
Then we tried to educate them
With reason, poverty and unemployment.

They became silent, sullen, violent.
So now we are trying to educate them
With truncheons, gas, ribber bullets,
Steel bullets, internment and torture.

We are trying to teach the Irish
To be as happy as us.
So please understand us
And if your country
Should be forced to educate
Another country in the same way,
Or your own citizens in the same way –
We will try to understand you.

YEARS OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY

The 1990s were the time of an unstable political situation in Serbia, heavy economic and political sanctions enforced by the international community, hyperinflation, a large decline in production and employment, a public health crisis, a huge impoverishment of the population, and an influx of over 850,000 forced migrants (refugees and internally displaced persons), which inevitably put a strain on people’s nerves. It was difficult to say no to negativity that sucked many a man dry so the fact that quite a few lost their raison d’etre came as no surprise. A total of 300,000 young educated people emigrated from Serbia during the first two war years, whereas as many as 16,620 took their own life in the war-torn 90s, with the highest number of suicides occurring at the time of the culmination of the crisis connected to the disintegration of Yugoslavia (1991-1993) (source: ResearchGate).

Back then, people were lucky not to starve to death thanks to food obtained from rural households. In addition, our moms and grandmas were constantly making home-made bread. In times of crisis, people learn to be resourceful to survive. The 1990s in the Republic of Serbia provided favorable grounds for a great number of illegal businesses or activities conducted in the so-called gray economic area. The smuggling of wardrobe, cosmetics and canned food from neighboring Romania and Bulgaria was flourishing. I remember some strange soaps, and toothpastes we used and awful canned fish we ate all the time. Gasoline purchased from across the border was obtained in plastic bottles or 2.5/5GL (10/20L) containers in the streets. Although there was no legal import of cigarettes during the embargo, a market of low-quality and fake cigarettes, alcohol, and various street drugs took its place. Of course, smugglers and dealers made a big profit. The sanctions also affected industry greatly with numerous companies recording tremendous losses, which resulted in mass layoffs. Who didn’t dare to smuggle or wouldn’t buy smuggled goods could not survive, so the violation of the law became justified.

One of the features of the time was a specific way of conducting cash exchange operations. Black market currency trading was prevalent, cash being mainly exchanged by street dealers who handled large amounts of money. Basically, they would purchase foreign currency in banks at the official exchange rate and then sell it at a significantly higher one, thereby earning large sums of money. Citizens were not only content for obtaining more money but, more importantly, preventing it from losing value because of being transferred into foreign currency on time, mostly Deutschmark (DM). In 1993, the German mark was worth a thousand billion dinars on the black market and practically became the only means of payment.

The U.N. embargo on the import of weapons was applied to all opposing sides in the war. However, this did not represent much of a problem since the civil war in Yugoslavia drew an extensive network of arms depots already in the country. According to a State Department official, the Yugoslav military was probably the best armed in Europe, aside from the Soviet Red Army. Before the fighting erupted, our arms industry had produced most of the Yugoslav military’s weapons and was also one of the top world’s arms exporters. Furthermore, the conflict proved a magnet for the world’s shadowy arms dealers, with a weapons flow difficult to trace (source: The New York Times). Needless to say, organized crime in Serbia grew enormously during the collapse of Yugoslavia when local criminals plying their trade in Western Europe returned home to take advantage of the chaos.

Stability, certainty and comfort seemed to have belonged to the past, while archetypal heroes – honest, hard-working and noble people – were seldom held in high regard. The never-ending war, financial and existential crises were accompanied by the crisis of morality and values, creating new heroes to be imitated and looked up to, along with new ethics and rules of conduct. Not rarely, the meaning of life was radically redefined and a new reason for existing found. Before long, antiheroes, embodied in crackheads, loafers and lowlifes, became new role models for the young. The reality their parents were facing was harsh and the choice between being an outsider or joining the new elite and its values seemed an easy one for some.

Plenty of felons took part in wars, joining paramilitary forces. Both big shots and small time crooks earned a reputation as scavengers, feeding on people’s material possessions and confiscating everything left behind by those who had to leave their homes in Bosnia and Croatia. In spite of this, the members of the criminal underworld were frequently perceived as tough and uncompromising people, ready to get to grips with a terrifying reality. I’ve read an amazing research paper called ‘Social Context and the Rise of Antiheroes’ in which a sociologist and a criminologist with expertise in social psychology ‘analyze the development of social heroes, as well as the substance, functions and dichotomies of heroism’ in Serbia in the 90s. In their opinion, in times of crisis, people often turn to biologically powerful individuals who are believed to be able to survive in difficult times. It is to be expected, they explain, that we then do not admire poets but warriors who are able to defeat the enemy, be it internal or external ones (the neighboring peoples). In the absence of a legal state and rule of law, tribal perceptions of justice were reanimated. The overwhelming feeling of disappointment and powerlessness pushed people towards the mythical and imagined, romanticizing criminals and turning the negative hero into a constructive social one. Their anti-heroism was thus perceived as a lack of respect for the given reality, and ‘a rebellion against the deficiencies of the existing system.’ They were ‘our’ protectors from ‘the others,’ fighters against evil and social injustice, defenders of raison d’état, and patriots ‘bleeding for the common good. Rebels with a cause.’

crime.PNG

During their ‘heroism’ in Bosnia and Croatia, mobsters continued with intense criminal activities in Serbia, buying real estate, coffee shops, nightclubs, restaurants, etc. from the money they ‘earned.’ I don’t think they questioned anything; they just followed their instincts that were obviously telling them to steal and kill so as to indulge in all worldly pleasures at disposal. What frustrated decent people most was the fact that lawbreakers were given the status and reputation of national heroes. They understood the importance of the media very early, having a great deal of journalists on their side to glorify them; therefore, each had a carefully built image. Our ears were filled with their commitment to sport, attractiveness, discipline, dedication to family, Orthodox Christianity and tradition; we listened about invulnerable, unstoppable, unbeatable and uncatchable guys to whom cunning came as second nature. Of course, we shouldn’t underestimate the intention of the state to divert people’s attention from the real problems. Stories of gruesome crimes were replaced by odes to successful businessmen and ‘savers of the people.’ The national television spoke the language of soap operas day in day out. At the same time, they were ‘a prodigious and attractive consumer model that at the time of general scarcity had the image of success and dictated trends.’ A portrayal of bad taste at its best.

Needless to say, nationalism was extensively used by the political elite in Serbia in order to justify the widespread conflict and maintain absolute power. Furthermore, the political and state leaders utilized the chaos in the national economy for the ruthless theft, ripping the state-owned enterprises to shreds. ‘The beginning of privatization practically represented the legalized form of illegal enrichment of the privileged managerial lobby and the political and economic elite.’ Economic inequality was already visible in the second half of the 80s, while the gap between the rich and the poor skyrocketed to extreme levels in the early 90s. Both vieux and nouveau riche used financial hanky-panky and illegal distribution of humanitarian aid, military, and military medical supplies, opening offshore bank accounts in tax havens. Many ‘reputable’ business people became filthy rich upon stepping out of state-owned enterprises and founding their own companies, along with entering politics which additionally secured their position, and guaranteed the continued pursuit of personal interests.

With crime booming, lots of illegal weapons were in the streets, brought from the war by organized crime groups, involved in gunfights, robberies, aggravated assaults, kidnappings and liquidations. 90s Serbia witnessed thousands of brutal killings, with culprits and controversial businessmen dropping like flies. On top of it, numerous government officials were assassinated. Journalists too, despite the fact that some were under police surveillance at the time. Everybody who dared to unmask a connection between organized crime and the authorities, or expose corruption in judiciary and law enforcement was proclaimed a national traitor, not rarely suffering abduction, threat, torture and/or assassination. None of these murders were ever resolved, nor were the perpetrators captured. Once ‘the safest city in Europe,’ Belgrade became a city with the most unsolved murder, fraud and embezzlement cases.

People were desperate and needed to believe in something, which made them an easy target for innumerable scumbags and cheaters that appeared in the 90s, and spread like an epidemic. Namely, psychics, mediums and fortune tellers were constantly occupying the media, robbing people of their money and dignity. Unbelievable supernatural powers they were thought to possess were demonstrated using various cards, pendulums, beans or crystal balls. The majority of citizens were making ends meet. They were hopeless, frustrated, vulnerable and susceptible to deception and the promise of a future full of hope too tempting. While the Serbian economy was dying away, and the existing banks experiencing widespread closing, an assurance that better days lay ahead was embodied in two energetic middle-aged individuals, and directors of private banks, founded in ‘91/’92. They offered a stupendous return for money: 15% on a 30-day deposit of foreign currency such as German marks or US dollars, 280% on a 6-month deposit of Serbian dinars. One such bank was at one point offering 160% interest rate per month. Serbia was thrown into a savings frenzy.

A sad realization that banks were set up by opportunistic criminals supported by the state and President Milošević himself came too late. People were losing it. We can’t blame them. It’s easy to be smart now on a full stomach. The government needed to fund the foreign trade deficit and that’s why such crooks were invented. Some citizens invested as much as 100,000DM; however, when bankruptcy was announced, they had to say goodbye to their money. Many a man who fell for the fraudulent banks were left homeless. Billions of German marks were coaxed out of the people’s mattresses in less than 2 years. The state started returning the debt to the deceived in 2002, the process lasting until 2016. Only a small sum of money was found after the bankruptcy. It was never determined where the rest of the money ended up.

In 1994, almost 40% of the population in Serbia were below the poverty line. The unrestricted printing of money was stopped that year but the consequences of the disastrous economic policy were visible many years afterwards. The Dayton Peace Agreement, reached in November that year by the presidents of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, helped bring the war to an end. I graduated from high school the following year. I was 18 and full of hope.