I’M AFRAID OF THE WORLD

 ‘What is your youth doing while you’re sleeping? – It’s awake, lurking. And when it loses patience, it wakes you up.’

On Mar 28 1999, shortly after the bombing of Yugoslavia started, the world had its mouth full of us because ‘the Serbs did the impossible and shot down an F-117 Nighthawk, deadly not only because of its extreme maneuverability but also its ability to be invisible to radar. It was the only time such a plane had ever been destroyed’ (source: War History Online) and was the pride of American aviation. On the same day, a rock concert was held at noon in downtown Belgrade although the siren indicating the cessation of danger hadn’t gone off. 30,000 people gathered to express their disapproval of the war and show they were choosing life over death, many with a transparent in their hands: No Ryan will be saved. Sorry, we didn’t know it was invisible. Clinton, do you happen to have an F-118? We are no Indians. NATO made a mess, will you please kiss my ass? Columbus, you curious mother fucker. Only your brains are invisible. I’m not Monica, America is. Hillary, don’t be Eva Braun. I swap the F-117 for a pack of cigarettes. Monica was good, but Tony (Blair) is better. The U.S.A.: The United Serb Association. Clinton, you should’ve taken that left turn at Albuquerque. Mission Impossible. Dream Team: YU Air Forces. If only we had known about the rubber (Bill’s parents). I’m not a mushroom to grow in the basement. Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing…

In a couple of days, the world will start protesting against the US-NATO bombing campaign, with tens of thousands of people in the streets of Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and India. There are over 15,000 protesters in Vienna, 20,000 in Rome, Genoa, Turin and Milan, we hear of incidents in Athens and Skopje, Macedonia…Most Britons, according to a survey of public opinion, accuse Tony Blaire of hypocrisy and attack on sovereignty. The Italian Parliament, with a majority of 380 votes, makes a plea for the cessation of air strikes. It means so much to know we’re not alone.

The siren went off again during the night. My sister and I jumped out of our beds and ran into our parents’ room, mom screaming frantically: ‘C’mon, the siren, the siren!’ She put on her pants hurriedly but took them off in a few after we’d decided not to go to the shelter. I wasn’t able to return to sleep, wishing it was my youth that kept waking me up. Later that day, sis and I went out to do some grocery shopping but to our surprise (or not) there was no more canned food on the shelves, nor candles for that matter, so we went back home with a bottle of yogurt, which was the only thing we found. We’re doing our best to make ourselves busy but somehow always end up wandering aimlessly around the house. Mom opens a window wide, letting the pleasant smell of spring walk in and spread unpretentiously across the living room. I catch sight of the bright yellow cornelian cherry flowers bent over the edge of the TV screen. The TV’s out after the transmitter was hit. We heard on the radio that a couple of NATO planes were shot down, an American pilot caught, another one on the run.

We have only three TV channels, always playing the same WWII movies, with our guys outsmarting the Germans. Dad comes from work. He’ll be home the following four days. A new (war) work schedule. He says the roads are congested, people leaving the cities and fleeing to villages. Phone lines are dead. We can’t get through to granny, aunt and uncle who live in a near-by town and when we do, once in a blue moon, we’re either breaking up or getting cut off. They are doing the same, sitting and waiting. Mom is bringing us food again although we don’t feel like eating. She tries to sound composed. The two of us try not to show we’re scared. We try to lead a life behind bars imposed on us. I can hear my own fear mocking me.

On the first day of April, a bridge in Novi Sad, the capital of Serbia’s northern province of Vojvodina, was destroyed by NATO projectiles. Citizens of Belgrade, fearing the same destiny, made a live bridge, holding hands and pictures of targets on a bridge across the Danube, along with its architect. It’s been two days since we slept at home, mostly snoozing in the hall as there are no windows here. I was roused by the rumbling of the planes after midnight. Oddly, I didn’t feel anything. No pounding heart. No restless legs. Nothing but sheer indifference. Fear doesn’t dwell here anymore. I don’t want to be afraid. I fell asleep like a baby, who, after having a bellyful, felt there was not one reason to cry. I wake up to the news that downtown Belgrade was struck, cruising missiles hitting the Yugoslav Ministry of Defense building next to the obstetrics and gynecology clinics and psychiatric hospital.

brige, target.PNG

In the meantime, another family with two small children joined our one-room shelter without a toilet, which makes a total of 24 of us, packed in like sardines. Everyone’s tense, listening to the radio and waiting for new lies and misinformation. I can’t stand these people any more. I look through them as I look through this moment, uttering a few lazy words only when asked, politely and reluctantly. I mainly just nod or shake my head, avoiding excessive wh-questions.  I prefer looking around, staring at the crumbly walls or soft ceiling that might fall down any second. I’m watching our lives crack and break down like poor quality plaster, friable between our fingers. I can’t breathe. I can’t….I have to go out to catch some fresh air. There are no street lights and stars in the night look like airplanes, the moon snarling at me. Detonations are coming from all possible directions, the evening sky turning purple every time it hits. I’m losing the ground beneath my feet. I’m so tired. Tired of sleeping during the day and staying up late at night, tired of running nervously down my street with eyes high above, I’m tired of putting the pillow over my head to block the sound of the planes, I’m tired of waking up to the familiar noise of explosions, crawling in bed with my clothes on, and being angry all the time, I’m sick and tired of eating in haste, I hate swallowing before chewing, gulping my food down in one bite, and stuffing my face with it like a squirrel, not knowing when I’ll eat again. I hate this life.

The following days saw lots of civilians dead: 11 killed after a village in Kosovo was hit by three missiles, 3 workers killed in the oil refinery in a city near Belgrade, which ignited 80,000 tons (88,185 metric tons) of oil into flames, the concentration of carcinogens over the city rising 10,500 times higher than local laws allowed. 1 person killed after airstrikes hit power plants in Belgrade. The outskirts of the city where my granny, uncle and aunt live, 25m (40km) away, hit with 11 bombs in broad daylight, killing 2 civilians and injuring 15. Last night, I heard our ground based anti-air systems, missiles and guns, trying to shoot down the incoming cruise missiles. I didn’t feel my smell, I didn’t hear my voice. I didn’t see my thoughts. I don’t want to see. 12 civilians killed in a southern mining town, 35 houses and 125 apartments destroyed, with no military target in the vicinity according to a Serbian newspaper. I want to remember better days, carefree and distant. I don’t want to be a part of the world dreaming of death. I need to wake up to a new day and a new night.

‘You’ve admired their efficiency, their comfort, their values, their hygiene, their might and their will. You hate the geography mistake that didn’t allow you to be a part of another world that isn’t chronically in love with conflicts and misery.’ Now you despise the very world you thought so highly of. You loathe it and are afraid of it. You prefer your world, however flawed. A world which seems incapable of peace.

SLEEPWALKING THE MINEFIELD

I bet you liked the seesaw when you were a kid. Remember the pleasure of riding up and down, up and down, but only enjoying it if your friend on the other side was of similar size and weight? Well, the seesaw in relationships between Albanian and Serb communities has never been much fun because one party always had the upper hand at one time or another. Pent-up emotions and inter-ethnic tensions have been a reality in Serbia’s (ex-) southern province of Kosovo for as long as I can remember.

Kosovo.PNG

Fast backward. The late 1960s witnessed first protests by the Albanians who felt downtrodden as Islam had been repressed and the government, security forces, and industrial employment largely dominated by Serbs and Montenegrins. After a demand that Kosovo be made a republic, it gained major autonomy by the mid 70s, that is ‘its own administration, assembly, and judiciary, along with the membership in the collective presidency and the Yugoslav parliament’ and recognition of a Muslim Yugoslav nationality in Yugoslavia. As a result, ‘there was a massive overhaul of Kosovo’s nomenclature and police that shifted from being Serb-dominated to ethnic Albanian-dominated,’ which now meant harassing and firing Serbs big time. Our parents slept tight, sleepwalking without waking up.

The turning point in the relationship between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo occurred in March 1981 when Albanian students organized protests seeking that Kosovo become a republic within Yugoslavia. The University of Priština, in Kosovo’s capital of Priština, was the starting point of the protests. Kosovo’s cultural isolation within Yugoslavia and its endemic poverty resulted in the province having the highest ratio of illiterates in the country. What’s more, university education was no guarantee of getting a job and the prospects of a promising future remained bleak. Unemployment grew and so did nationalist sentiment. The demands of the Albanian students were both nationalist and egalitarianist. They wanted a different kind of socialism than the Yugoslav one, marked by semi-confederalism and workers’ self-management. However, the unrest was brutally suppressed by the police and army, with many protesters arrested and killed, which was followed by a period of political repression. As many as 226 people were put on trial, including students, convicted of ‘separatism’ and sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. Many Albanians, including deans, were fired, our parents stuck between illusion and denial. Politically speaking, the demand that Kosovo become the seventh republic of Yugoslavia was unacceptable to Serbia and Macedonia that saw a ‘Greater Albania’ in the making, encompassing parts of Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo itself.

Repression was present on both sides in 1981. Some 4,000 Serbs were reported to have moved from the province to central Serbia after the riots that resulted in several Serb deaths and the desecration of Serbian Orthodox architecture and graveyards. In short, the demonstrations in Kosovo were the beginning of a deep crisis in Yugoslavia that led to its dissolution a decade later. The government’s response to the protests sure changed the political discourse in the country in a way that significantly impaired its ability to sustain itself in the future. By the 1980s, the Kosovo Albanians constituted a majority in Kosovo and ethnic tensions continued with frequent violent outbreaks against Yugoslav state authorities. During the 1970s and 1980s, thousands of Serbs and Montenegrins left Kosovo, largely due to unfavorable economic conditions, and ethnic discrimination by the Kosovo Albanian government and population. ’57,000 Serbs have left Kosovo in the last decade,’ wrote the New York Times in 1982. According to Noam Chomsky (source: A Review of NATO’s War over Kosovo), “after the death of Tito, nationalist forces undertook to create an ‘ethnically clean Albanian republic,’ taking over Serb lands, attacking churches, and engaging in ‘protracted violence’ to attain the goal of an ‘ethnically pure’ Albanian region, with ‘almost weekly incidents of rape, arson, pillage and industrial sabotage, most seemingly designed to drive Kosovo’s remaining indigenous Slavs out of the province.” At the same time, an atmosphere that Serbs were the only jeopardized ones was being created in the rest of Serbia. We were panned out, snoring.

My generation was growing up and didn’t know or understand much of what was going on there in the 80s. We were sleepwalking through the Kosovo crisis, at least those who didn’t know anybody affected by it. We were busy putting out fires at home, looking for four-leaf clovers, and chasing the rainbow, busy blowing out candles on birthday cakes, busy being footloose, busy jumping rope, playing with marbles, building a house of cards and sandcastles, throwing snowballs at each other and eggs and sticky coal tar pitch on passers-by from the terrace, busy flying kites, riding bikes, roller skating, discovering and exploring caves, busy climbing cherry trees, writing to pen pals, sledding, organizing tennis tournaments, putting stars on top of Christmas trees, collecting napkins, badges, shells and memories. The whole country was busy leading its life, sleeping like a baby and dreaming. Nobody heard or wanted to hear the nightmares of those deprived of sleep.

With his visits to Kosovo, Serbian President Milošević will ‘upset the delicate balance that Tito so carefully sought.’ The incapacity to control Albanian separatist unrest in the province will prove detrimental in the long run, ending in a massacre on both sides, and the mass desertion of Kosovo. Under Tito, Kosovars had had a considerable measure of self-rule until 1989 when Milošević, who gained political power by pledging to discontinue the repression, responded brutally by abolishing Kosovo’s autonomy and establishing direct Serbian rule. ‘With his rise to power, the Albanians started boycotting state institutions and ignoring the laws of the Republic of Serbia, culminating in the creation of the Republic of Kosova, a self-declared proto-state in 1992, which received diplomatic recognition from neighboring Albania. Kosovo Albanians organized a separatist movement, creating what Chomsky calls ‘a parallel civil society,’ that is a number of parallel structures in education, medical care, and taxation (source: Crisis in the Balkans). Needless to say, they had all the encouragement from Western governments they needed. The ultimate goal of such civil disobedience was achieving the independence of Kosovo. It’s as if we had been sleeping all along and suddenly woken to find ourselves among a jaw-dropping horror film.

Like Serbia, I had always been a sound sleeper and used to fall asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. Sleepless nights and restlessness set in when I moved away from my parents and swallowing sleeping pills became customary when reality knocked on the door. I used to be a sleepwalker and the memories of this phase, which lasted throughout my childhood and ended at some point in high school, are pretty vivid. When it comes to sleep talking, my recollections are mostly non-existent. Those who had a chance to peek at the workings of my brain in the middle of the night reacted differently. My mom had an awful time with me sleepwalking, often glancing into my sister’s and my room to check everything was alright. She used to picture me falling down the stairs, unknowingly hurting myself or leaving the house, though not always through the front door. Although I had the habit of saying I was going for a walk, luckily for everybody, I didn’t hallucinate of being Batman and kicking ass. I never did anything terribly wrong while walking in my sleep, but, now that I think of it, it might have been a solid defense if I had. Anyway, my mom was worried shitless, my dad mostly slept through the night and sis got a kick out of chatting with me and asking me questions. Interestingly, when I mumbled something nonsensically, I wouldn’t remember anything the following day. When you talk gibberish like that, rarely anyone in your proximity is able to make out what you’re saying so there’s no worry about accidentally revealing any dark secret while you snooze. But then, on and off, I’d talk in coherent sentences, answering questions, and actually having a dialogue. Most of the time, I’d just sit up, babble for a few seconds and then go back to sleep when told to. Sometimes, I’d wander around the house for a bit, open and close doors and closets or rearrange things before being walked back to bed. I recall waking everyone up in a hotel room in Slovenia, after colliding with the closet. I was scared, confused and disoriented as I couldn’t find the door, thinking we were at home. No wonder everything seemed uncomfortably unfamiliar.

Serbia, in union with Montenegro as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia as of 1992, was groping in the dark, trying to maintain its political control over the province. With the formation of the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), ‘an ethnic Albanian paramilitary organization,’ receiving large funds from Albanian Diaspora, and including many foreign volunteers from West Europe and ethnic Albanians from the U.S., a great number of the Kosovo Albanians became radicalized. Needless to say, the States informally backed the guerrilla KLA in order to destabilize Milošević. In 1997, the organization acquired a large amount of arms through weapons smuggling from Albania, following a rebellion which saw large numbers of weapons looted from the country’s police and army posts.’ The Serbian police and Yugoslav army response was brutal. In ‘97, international sanctions were once again imposed on FR Yugoslavia, this time because of the persecution of Kosovo’s Albanians by Yugoslav security forces. The whole nation had been sleepless and restless after years of crisis.

I was 20, and my sleep had been broken by my ‘night shifts,’ that is burning the midnight oil before exams. My favorite sleep talking story occurred around this time. My sister namely woke me up in the middle of the night during one of my monologues and I began to scream since I thought she was a wolf. Go figure. When I realized she wasn’t, I flopped back down and returned to sleep as if nothing had happened. I must have dreamed of being chased by wolves. In case you’re wondering, I sleep-pissed in bed once only while at university (you heard me right!) apparently while dreaming of taking a leak. They said my eyes were commonly open, or half open, whether I was sleepwalking or sleep talking, and my glassy ‘look right through you’ appearance must have seemed as if I had been haunted by a spooky ghost. Had my family made a video with a shaky cam (with me as the actress in a leading role) and added some special effects, post-production modifications and creepy music to it, we might have had a decent trailer for a genuinely disturbing horror film. No advancement in technology and quality though could have helped make a scarier movie than the one we were about to watch.

MORALITY PARK

I bet you liked the seesaw when you were a kid. Remember the pleasure of riding up and down, up and down, but only enjoying it if your friend on the other side was of similar size and weight? Well, the seesaw in relationships between Albanian and Serb communities has never been much fun because one party always had the upper hand at one time or another. Pent-up emotions and inter-ethnic tensions have been a reality in Serbia’s (ex-) southern province of Kosovo for as long as I can remember.

Kosovo pic.PNG

Fast backward. The late 1960s witnessed first protests by the Albanians who felt downtrodden as Islam had been repressed and the government, security forces, and industrial employment largely dominated by Serbs and Montenegrins. After a demand that Kosovo be made a republic, it gained major autonomy by the mid 70s, that is ‘its own administration, assembly, and judiciary, along with…

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NOISE IN FASHION

Exhausted by the war, sanctions, and criminality seeping into every pore of society, Serbia was unstoppably sinking into deeper crisis. Furthermore, every attempt to criticize communism and authoritarian national leaders was choked off, which would leave deep scars in public opinion visible to date.

In Nov 1996, demonstrations began in the third largest city in Serbia where I studied in response to electoral fraud attempted by the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) of President Milošević after the local elections. Although the majority of the seats in the Parliament were initially given to the pro-European opposition coalition, a revised count gave the control of the city once again to SPS. The underdeveloped south, traditionally supportive of the Socialists, voted for a change, which expressed widespread public dissatisfaction with incumbent politicians and the government’s economic and social policy. Upon witnessing Milošević’s attempt to outflank the opposition, university students and opposition parties organized a separate series of peaceful protests. An opposition leader’s statement: ‘This (Belgrade) is our city. It is a beautiful city. Let’s walk a little through it, showed no undertone of aggression or revenge, but rather of possession and self-confidence.’ Serbia didn’t need to be conquered because it already belonged to its citizens, but rather reclaimed since it was invaded and controlled by the Milošević’s regime. The protest was therefore perceived as an action of ‘reappropriating the city.’ Serbia finally realized that ‘life does not get better by chance, it gets better by change’ and if you had lived in a system which didn’t embrace differing opinions, encourage debate, and would do whatever it took to stay in power, you’d know we had a long way to go before claiming what was ours all along.

Winter was knocking on the door, the mercury was dropping, and the nights seemed endless. We had a small electric heater in the room, my sister and I, as well as a wood burner in the kitchen but the fire would go out when we were out or at night, the house would turn chilly and we were all frozen again. Needless to say, we took a bath only when there was fire, which wasn’t every day. One of the ways of shaking off the winter blues, besides snuggling up with your significant other, was putting on 3-4 extreme cold weather clothing, fur gloves, a warm hat and a scarf and joining protesters.

The inability to bring the regime down in a civilized way as a rule led to rallies in Serbia. A politically pregnant time: ‘the politicized insertion of human bodies into public space,’ tens of thousands of people attending protests daily, an outpouring of energy, an adrenaline rush, excitement in the streets, enthusiasm spreading like wild fire, a country craving change, people being outspoken in their opposition of injustice, uncompromisingly forthright with their opinions, and blunt in their criticism. Expressing dissatisfaction with the regime by means of noise. A must-have fashion accessory for fall/winter 1996/1997: wearing a subversive badge and a whistle (the most common noisemaker) AT ALL TIMES. The piercing sound of whistles and horns day in day out, whistles on posters, stickers, postcards and around our necks as a sign of identification, blowing a whistle and ‘filling the air with noise,’ streets and houses fraught with afternoon and evening noise, ‘a noise invasion into regime-controlled space’, making meaningful noise, noise with a difference, noise culminating between 7.30 and 8 PM during evening news on state TV, an enormous outburst of noise made by hundreds of thousands of citizens intended to muffle the sound of lies and misinformation spread by the regime-controlled media, protecting oneself from toxic energy bullshit, coming up with healthy ways to vent and express disapproval, showing signs of rather peculiar behavior: noise produced by unlikely instruments such as pots, pans, cutlery, and bells, banging garbage containers, cars honking horns, freedom to express yourself insistently, speaking your mind by means of noise. Awards given to the noisiest streets. Protesters waved at by old people from their windows, flashlights blinked from balconies, houselights blinked from people’s homes, the sound of trumpets, protests led by noisy drummers, and accompanied by shouting, singing, and dancing, chanting slogans and waving banners, marchers showered with confetti and balloons by supporters, hundreds of Serbian banknotes from the days of hyperinflation rained down on protesters, music systems on squares and in protest marches aimed at ‘reclaiming control over cities,’ ‘redefining space through noise.’ ‘People carry all kinds of flags, the main idea being to have any kind of a flag: the Serbian national flag, political party flags, car racing flags, flags from other countries, the gay pride rainbow flag, the American Civil War flag, the pirate (skull and crossbones) flag, and scarves tied to sticks.’ Waving flags from the windows and balconies as the march passes by. Smiles, chats and laughter. A friendly atmosphere. The determination to alter and control the situation, seizing the initiative, walking the streets as ‘a political act,’ bold civil disobedience. SPS strongholds collapsing like a house of cards, a country undergoing change.

The regime refused to change the tune, and continued to ignore demonstrations in its media, portraying the participants as ‘outlaws and provocateurs by the state.’ An attempt of protest organizers to keep the citizens on the sidewalks to avoid violence turned futile, the act of defiantly walking the streets being crucial to rallies. The further course of action: traffic disturbance, blocking main streets, hour-long congestion, cities brought to a standstill for hours on end. ‘A protest on wheels:’ parking your car in the middle of busy streets, pretending it broke down, thus allowing marchers to walk the streets without being accused of disrupting the traffic. Controlling the movement of the city. Territorialisation: ‘changing the urban landscape by inscribing deviant political meanings into it, testing the limits of the regime, city maps acquiring a whole set of modified meanings by displacing or transcending the existing ones.’ Banners and slogans dominating protests, graffiti with reference to pop culture, music, film, philosophy, and sports. Surreal humor (Our Leaders Are Deaf, Our Leaders Are Blind, But We Care, Snoopy Against the Red Baron, We’ll Walk Till You Walk Away, Time to Wake Up From the Winter Sleep, Did You Come Here to Protest or Stare at the Banner?). Parents marching with their kids. Babies ‘marching ‘(the ‘I’m Being Manipulated by my Fascist Parents’ sign on a stroller). Postcards of mass demonstrations with the slogan ‘Greetings from Belgrade/Serbia.’ Creative time.

At one point student protesters asserted their claim over university buildings. We locked ourselves in, staying there for days (who mentioned sleeping?!), befriending those that resonated with us, passing the time with awful sandwiches, good coffee and terrific people, missing exams (the future of the country was at stake), learning an important life lesson, among others that Serbia always had a soft spot for a mediocrity of successful careerists and yes-men. Kissasses who namely went on taking their exams as if nothing was going on were ‘rewarded’ in the end, some of them getting a job as assistant professors. ‘O brave new world, that has such people in’t!’

Protests were the strongest in the capital, assembling up to 200,000 people daily and very quickly spread over most big cities in Serbia. On  Orthodox New Year’s Eve (Jan 13), over half a million people gathered on the central square (almost half of its population), with several bands playing and video messages of support from Vanessa Redgrave, Emir Kusturica and The Prodigy. Jamming phone lines: making telephone calls to state institutions to make government’s work impossible. Throwing rotten eggs on the building of the Supreme Court, and wearing cardboard glasses resembling eggs. Marches normally followed a regular route, passing by key buildings symbolizing the state, but would alter it every now and then so that the protest message could reach more people. At first, only traffic police were present during protest marches, being for the most part pretty approachable, willing to speak to protesters and have their pictures taken. With time, it became much tenser in Belgrade which witnessed a series of aggressive police interventions. By the end of ‘96, the downtown pedestrian zone would be surrounded by thousands of members of riot police, organized, trained and more than well equipped to confront crowds. Riot police were to become a tool of political repression, using traffic disturbance as a pretext for not only violent suppression of civil disobedience but also prevention of bringing down the regime.

On Dec 24, the government coalition organized a large counter-protest in downtown Belgrade. Milošević addressed the crowd. They chanted: ‘We love you,’ to which he replied: ‘I love you too.’ Schizophrenic time. The opposition protest (300,000 people) and counter-protest (40,000) face to face, both scheduled in the same place at the same time (how very thoughtful of you, Mr. President). The latter consisted mostly of peasants and workers from rural areas who were provided with free transportation and instructed to carry SPS banners. How voluntary their participation was is unclear; there were reports that workers were put on buses after their night shifts, without knowing that daily protest marches against Milošević were taking place. 20,000 police militia in the streets. The result: massive riots during which a young opposition protester was beaten to death by a group of SPS supporters, while another one was shot in the head (survived), after which the government banned all street protests in Belgrade. A silent funeral march in honor of the murdered teacher. On Feb 2–3, 1997 riot police clashed with protesters on a bridge, firing water cannons at them even though the outside temperature was almost 14°F (-10 °C). Dozens ended up in the ER.

counter protests.PNG

 

https://videopress.com/embed/Xaapju5o?hd=0&autoPlay=0&permalink=0&loop=0

(Translation from Serbian: COUNTER-PROTEST: WINTER 1996 – MILLIONS AGAINST ONE – ONE WINS – ONE IN A MILLION – ONE LOSES)

Perseverance. Coming up with new nonviolent protest methods: staging a sit-down protest when pressed harder by police cordons. An all-night student vigil joined by an Orthodox priest. Finding ways to outsmart the police, playing the ‘traffic light’ game: waiting for the signal to turn green and ‘occupying’ the crosswalk. Marching in circles in pedestrian zones or in front of police cordons. The collective dog walking day: bringing dogs to the protest, in response to the state-controlled media claim that protesters were mere passers-by walking their dogs. Posing in front of police cordons (the more theatrical, the better). Entertaining the police: reading them the most beautiful love poetry and Dostoevsky out loud, chatting with them, giving them flowers and candy, kissing them on the cheek, and drawing lipstick hearts on their shields. Painters standing in front of police cordons with mirrors turned towards them. Wearing your own work uniform: white medical coats, stethoscopes, surgical masks, fire-fighters’ outfits, chimney sweepers in black. Wearing graduation gowns to match the police riot gear. The daily Miss Protest, and the most handsome policeman of the day contest. Converting rage to laughter; ‘channeling angst, anguish and anger at the state into humor and celebration, creating a culture of resistance that the police and government could not break.’ A carnival atmosphere in the streets on a daily basis.

The aesthetics of the protests included not only visual and textual elements such as images, symbols, graffiti, clothes, art, humor and slogans, but also performative ones. In one of them, Belgrade students, restricted to pedestrian areas and surrounded by the police, walked in a circle with their hands on their heads, which simulated a prison yard walk and symbolically denoted being imprisoned in their own city. After they had been accused of being destructive, they built a brick wall in front of the Parliament Building, showing they could be very constructive. On one occasion, they covered the headquarters of the national broadcasting company with toilet paper. On another, a ‘parade of the blind’ walked around its building with their hands covering their eyes. In addition, two large satirical puppets were created to march the streets of Belgrade. One depicted Milošević’s wife in feudal armor, the other Milošević in a prison uniform. As mascots, they personifying everything students were fighting against. They ‘became the only embodied antagonists, thus concretizing the strategy of the struggle,’ though the main goal was ‘an abstract idea of democracy and an individual understanding of freedom.’ Its creator, an art student, was badly beaten by the police. Students also organized a decontamination action: showing up with detergent and cleaning the location where the Milošević regime organized the counter-protest, along with the building where the state committee met and turned down their demand to oust the dean, reconfirming his appointment instead.

It is said that winners are not afraid of losing. But losers are. Milošević behaved like a communist dictator and the influence of his wife Mirjana Marković (eye roll), who headed her own party, was enormous. She was radicalizing his ideology and was, according to the opposition, an echo of Ceaușescu’s wife Elena. They lost touch with reality, both of them. They believed they were invincible and that it was all ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.’ Luckily, opposition and students were rather persistent. This development was important because it was certain to endanger favorable results for the Socialists in the Republican elections the following year.

Richard Holbrooke commented on the issue in his memoirs, recalling that the Americans were not able to support the protests due to the transitional period to the Clinton II Administration: A remarkable challenge to Milošević unfolded in the street of Belgrade, led by three politicians who banded together in a movement called Zajedno, or the Together Movement. For weeks, hundreds of thousands of (Belgrade) citizens braved subfreezing weather to call for democracy. But Washington missed a chance to affect events.’

The civil protest lasted a total of 88 days, with hundreds of thousands of citizens in 50 cities in Serbia seeking respect for the electoral will of the people. The demonstrators eventually succeed in redressing the election fraud. Forced by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Milošević’s government finally accepted the results of the local elections. He signed the ‘lex specialis’ which accepted the opposition victory and instated local government in several cities, interestingly without acknowledging any wrongdoing. Student demand for replacing the University management was also met, with the pro-Milošević dean resigning. The daily police presence in Belgrade is reported to have cost a million Deutschmarks a day. The Serbian economy continued to sink despite the lifting of sanctions in Oct ‘96 . The long period of protests and unrest further deepened the crisis. According to a survey, only 20% of the population was employed at the time. The majority was either unemployed, forced onto unpaid furloughs or working in the black market.

The organizers of the student protest maintained independence from the opposition coalition until the end. Without cell phones and social networks, students organized themselves, raising their voice against injustice and fraud. Besides protest actions, they were often engaged in seminars and forums on political topics related to democracy and social change. The 1996-1997 student protest in Serbia was a victory of the youth over the forces of darkness for ‘in a dark time, the eye begins to see.’ It lasted 117 days, which makes it the longest and most massive student revolt in the history of Europe to date. And I was a part of it.

https://videopress.com/embed/UJv7uWtH?hd=0&autoPlay=0&permalink=0&loop=0

MORALITY PARK

Exhausted by the war, sanctions, and criminality seeping into every pore of society, Serbia was unstoppably sinking into deeper crisis. Furthermore, every attempt to criticize communism and authoritarian national leaders was choked off, which would leave deep scars in public opinion visible to date.

In Nov 1996, demonstrations began in the third largest city in Serbia where I studied in response to electoral fraud attempted by the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) of President Milošević after the local elections. Although the majority of the seats in the Parliament were initially given to the pro-European opposition coalition, a revised count gave the control of the city once again to SPS. The underdeveloped south, traditionally supportive of the Socialists, voted for a change, which expressed widespread public dissatisfaction with incumbent politicians and the government’s economic and social policy. Upon witnessing Milošević’s attempt to outflank the opposition, university students and opposition…

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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.’

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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.

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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.