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…

View original post 2,399 more words

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.

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.

WELCOME TO ABSURDISTAN

No hypnosis is required this time. I still have a pulsating feeling of a heartbeat in my head at the very thought of the good old 90s in Serbia. It all started a little earlier though, late President Tito being undoubtedly responsible for many successes and failures of socialist Yugoslavia. Some bad choices he made led to the prolongation of the crisis that appeared in the 80s, along with the appearance of radical ideologies, ultimately resulting in war.

The 90s tested our survival skills day in day out. People must have wondered at some point how much more a human could take, how much more of humiliation, mental and/or physical starvation, deprivation, destruction, impoverishment, helplessness and the damaging lack of happiness. Demanding time. Children were robbed of their childhood, adults and elderly of their dignity. We were all robbed of our lives. It was as if someone had turned off the light, and left us groping in the dark. The world didn’t give half a fuck. Nor did God for that matter. After all we went through, I am sure he either doesn’t exist or is an indifferent asshole. Actually, he’s a phony, just another superstar who demands all of our attention, otherwise he wouldn’t exist. Still, in times of crisis, people often resort to the supreme being and we were no exception. Everybody suddenly turned so religious like you wouldn’t believe and started going to church on a regular basis. However, there came a time when quite a few realized God had failed to appear on time nor would he meet them at the after-party to at least apologize and that they were left to their own devices.

An extreme environment contains conditions that are hard to survive for most known life forms. We’re prone to thinking that most people would die if for example left in the desert. However, the will to go on, despite the odds, is an important concept when attempting to comprehend why we do what we do to keep our head above water for as long as we can. Still, I can’t help but wonder how the heck we pulled through, how on earth our parents coped with difficulties and stress, and how in the world we found a meaning in overwhelming meaninglessness. We are often told, loud and clear, what to do in an emergency. Recommended survival essentials for a short-length wilderness situation includes a lighter, matches, a flashlight with extra batteries, a multi-tool, a fixed-blade knife, a hatchet, a whistle, a blanket, extra warm clothing and a map of location. But, nobody has to date come up with a good First Aid Kit in times of war. Nobody could have prepared us for the brutal bloodshed fueled by ethnic and religious antagonisms and disappearance of the country we were about to witness, along with everything we had believed in. Nobody could have advised us how to avoid the hell you were about to live in as a consequence of war. The thing is, we made do and since we couldn’t make the crisis with all its absurdities disappear, what we mostly did was try to make our lives more bearable.

Not sure what to include on your war survival gear list?

For starters, remarkable resourcefulness and flexibility to handle change. Secondly, creativity and good humor. Next, steadiness, sobriety and courage. Then, you want to be sure you have enough perseverance and determination (there’s no giving up no matter what). Finally, having redundancy is also a wise approach. So, the more inventiveness, adaptability, endurance, nerve, and sarcasm, the better. You might lose self-esteem and dignity along the way, but as long as you can laugh at it all (sooner or later), you’re good. You know what they say, you can find bargains if you have the patience to sift through the rubbish.

As the world was crashing down around us, my pals and I were trying to lead a relatively normal teen life. Our parents didn’t like us watching TV which broadcast the war live, preferring we listened to a sweet sound of ignorance. But, we knew. We used to sing anti-war songs all the time and one of the best ways to vent out the frustrations, sadness, and anger was picking a dark enough street where we would yell at the top of our lungs till the lights started turning on. (Being an adult makes it too damn hard to blow off steam every time you feel like it. Where’s a good Lola when we need one?)

We had a need, a need for speed. We were growing up and wanted it all: smoking, loud music, house parties, no adult supervision, guitar nights, dark school yards, sleeping under the stars, upstairs rooms, day trips, sleepovers. Bukowski, Fear of Flying and Joyce’s Letters to Nora (‘Tired of lying under a man one night you tore off your chemise violently and began to ride me up and down. Perhaps the horn I had was not big enough for you for I remember that you bent down to my face and murmured tenderly: Fuck up, love! Fuck up love’). Friends with benefits, gatecrashing, dance floors, hitchhiking, music TVs, panhandling for money (just for laughs…and coffee), alcohol consumption, gigs, excessive drinking, drunken driving (not me, Scout’s honor), clearing up the next day, avoiding responsibility, skipping school with peers/ boy-girl-friends, craving more freedom and independence, craving love. A bittersweet symphony. The worst and best time ever.

Years of wars in neighboring Croatia and Bosnia, with Serbia actively participating in them, affected our everyday lives enormously. A CIA assessment on the sanctions filed in 1993 noted that ‘Serbs have become accustomed to periodical shortages, long lines in stores, cold homes in the winter and restrictions on electricity.’ Like we had a choice. That’s true, we got so used to deficiencies in everything that we no longer found anything strange. We were practically best friends, the crisis and us. It became our shadow, following us everywhere we went.

The fun part began when the UN Security Council, declaring the Yugoslav conflict ‘a threat to international peace and security,’ imposed tough economic sanctions on Serbia and Montenegro in June ‘92 ‘in hopes of halting the carnage in Bosnia-Herzegovina’ (13-0 vote, with Zimbabwe and China abstaining. Thanks guys, much appreciated). In 1994, The New York Times reported that suicide rates had increased by 22% since sanctions were first implemented. The embargo lasted for two and a half years and had a huge impact on the economy, poverty reaching its peak in ‘93, with, according to Wikipedia, ‘39% of the population living on less than $2 per day.’ This is a sure proof why we can’t always trust Wiki. Guys, I think you got mixed up here. At one point, my dad, once earning 2000 DM (Deutschmark), was making 2 DM PER MONTH (per day would be considered living in abundance). My mom was even more successful, some 1-1.5 DM. BTW, both were medical doctors. In addition to our wallets getting thinner, diplomatic missions were reduced, and foreign assets frozen ($214 million in the U.S. alone), but, frankly, an average citizen didn’t give a rat’s ass about the latter two. We were more frustrated by the fact that our teams weren’t allowed to participate in sporting events. Sport and politics, best friends, huh?

Then, there was the suspension of air traffic (even though most people had no money for bare necessities, let alone travel) and ‘a ban on trade of all but humanitarian supplies.’ How very thoughtful! Even medicinal supplies in hospitals experienced shortages in antibiotics, vaccines, and anti-cancer drugs. ‘In Nov 1994, 87 patients died in Belgrade’s Institute of Mental Health, which had no heating, food, and medicine.’ We could neither import nor export goods. The bottom line is, the crisis took its toll on our everyday diet. You know how it looked like in reality? You go to buy a chocolate but alas! There’s nada. Zilch. Supermarket racks became empty over night, no chocolate, no bananas, no nothing. Wishful thinking. We dreamed of chocolate sundaes (with a cherry on top) and banana splits we had been devouring a couple of yeas before. Meat had also become a rare commodity on the table and I can tell you one thing, being a carnivore in Serbia back then was pretty painful. In addition, we had to deal with massive food shortages on a daily basis. ‘Many basic, locally produced foods became unavailable as food retailers severely limited their stock to save it from depreciation caused by hyperinflation.’ The fridges and tummies were empty. I remember waiting in long lines, senior citizens fighting, desperate parents and bewildered children. Waiting was bad enough, but ending up empty-handed was a killer. Coffee became a rare commodity (sob sob). There was a limited stock even of basic foods, such as sugar, flour, bread, cooking oil, and milk, which were rather hard to obtain. The allowed daily quantity was one loaf of bread or bottle of milk per person. Now, I want you to picture an extended family with lots of mouths to feed. Just so you know, Serbs LOVE bread. This really came as a slap in the face. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. But, when it gives you peanuts, you can’t even make peanut butter, can you? Desperate time calls for desperate measures so our moms resorted to unconventionality and originality in times of crisis, that is making something out of nothing or hardly anything. Flour, baking soda, sugar, water, oil, and marmalade (or grated apples). Stir and bake. This was the infamous embargo cake and positive thinking for that matter.

bread.PNG

There’s more. In October 1993, in an attempt to conserve energy, the government began cutting off the heat and electricity. You would eat cooked meal not when you wanted to or when hungry, but when the stove was fully operational. Lucky were those who had good old wood burners which were real life savers at the time. Cold apartments, cold hospitals, cold schools, cold fingers and cold toes. Coldness made our bones ache and it sometimes took ages to warm up from being frozen (how long do you think it takes for the chicken to thaw out?) One of the best ways to raise temperature was partying in unfinished houses, half-completed attics or unheated basements and spooning with your significant other or whoever appeared to be nearby. At school, we’d bundle up in tons of layers when the bad weather set in. We rarely took off our hats, scarves, gloves and jackets inside, which was an excellent excuse for skipping classes and avoiding assignments more regularly. Studying by candle light was unproductive, and a complete and utter waste of time, since we we would always end up playing with candle wax or smooching under a blanket, that is the lucky ones who had a cuddling buddy during cold, snowy winters.

The import of cigarettes came to a halt too. Needless to say, everybody was smoking, young and old, though some didn’t find it so agreeable. It’s called going with the flow. In the absence of the real thing, we started smoking grass. By that I don’t mean weed, but dry grass, hay. True story (cross my heart and hope to die). Desperate time calls for…Remember?! In addition, international sanctions included oil and gas restrictions (would you kindly go fuck yourselves) and at one point people looked like they wanted to give up on everything when gasoline stations stopped providing fuel. Episodes of compulsive hair pulling were noticed as a way of soothing or to focus on a different type of pain, since no driving is not an option in Serbia. The citizens then turned to regular exercise – walking, running, cycling – thinking to themselves: ‘Well, as long as we profit by the crap we didn’t cause, then it’s not that bad, right?’ hoping that daily workouts might slash their risk of developing serious illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer and strokes. A 55-year-old man was reported to have been seen on his (that is my) bike (dad, you’re stealing again), on his regular commute cycling tours (37miles/ 60km a day). Way to go dad, that’s the way to stay fit. Happy 81st birthday!

Wait up, we’re not done yet. A total of 10 million people were injured after a roller-coaster had derailed and crashed on our currency at the Serbian and Montenegrin theme park, causing a massive monetary tsunami. One eyewitness said: ‘I saw lots of people trapped upside down on the ride, stuck. It’s like a horror movie.’ However, the amusement park was not closed. Life went on. The hyperinflation of the Yugoslav dinar felt like being thrown backwards by the blast, with the dinar recording a monthly inflation rate of 313 million% in January ’94 and reaching a crescendo when it came to a staggering 5,578,000,000,000,000,000% (let me help you with the pronunciation: 5 quintrillion, 578 quadrillion). This makes our baby ‘the second-highest and second-longest hyperinflation in world history, 4 orders of magnitude higher than the Weimar hyperinflation, but well below Hungary’s record’ (source: CATO Institute). Basically, the state budget needed money and turned to the National Bank that supplied it with cash, used to finance the salaries in the state administration and the army, as well as to cover all military expenses. The money was, however, worthless since there was no production behind it. The inflation was so out of control that the price of supermarket products (when available) would increase twice every 34 hours. The salary was received in billions of dinars, and for one say 5 billion dinar salary, you could buy bread, cigarettes, and oil, that is only bread the next day. In ‘93, a loaf of bread cost 4 billion dinars, and a bottle of milk 9.5 billion. Head-scratching, right?

money.PNG

Let me give you a visual. My mom has her mind set on making the embargo cake. She gives me her whole salary to buy her baking powder, but there are so many banknotes that I need a plastic bag. Unless I hurry up, our cake will be eaten up by the high inflation, instead of us. I dash into the store, feeling the quick pant of my bosom. The cashier shrugs her shoulders. I’m afraid you’re too late. The prices have already gone up. I’m staring at the transparent bag filled with millions of dinars. The irony of fate: I’m a fucking multimillionaire stranded on a desert island in the middle of nowhere who can’t buy herself some happiness. Is all hope lost? No, I can still afford a box of matches. The Little Match Girl leaves the store, laughing off the thought life’s a bitch. Today’s special: nothing brûlée.

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY

Bojana, are you ready to go on? Alright.

I want you to focus again and try to remember everything, even things you forgot, wanted to forget and think you don’t remember. You limbs are getting heavy…heavier. It feels as if your hands and fingers were made of lead…You are sinking into perfect relaxation. I’ll count backwards now. 10, 9, 8…Inhale. Exhale.7….deeper still…6…let it all go now…5. Still drifting down…4, 3, 2…You feel this heavy relaxation in all parts of your body…deep and misty…Allow yourself to relax. Open your mind and your heart. Unburden…1.

Tell me what’s going on.

 

It’s Sunday afternoon, May 4, 1980 and we’re enjoying our weekend. The TV screen goes black for a few seconds. A statement is read live on national TV:

Comrade Tito has died. His great heart stopped beating at 3:05 PM.’

I’m 3. ‘Mom, why are you crying? Mom, don’t be sad. Is it me? Did I do something wrong?’ I’m too little to understand, too little to remember. Scenes of mass crying in the streets and during the live broadcast of a soccer match. The whole country is mourning Tito’s demise, expressing numbed disbelief and promising to remain loyal to his policy. He is buried in Belgrade, Serbia, in the House of Flowers a few days later, in the presence of 209 delegations from 127 countries, 700,000 people and a direct television broadcast of the funeral procession in 58 states. Tito’s funeral is noted as the most attended presidential funeral in the history of mankind to that time. To date, 17.5 million people have visited the Mausoleum.

Tito’s regime outlives him by as many as 10 years. An average Yugoslav lives in blissful ignorance throughout the 80s, that is the one who has a job. Life is comfortable. My family travels a lot: France, Italy, Spain, Bulgaria, Greece, Egypt. Little do we know that in a few years from now everything will fall apart. No one sees an economic collapse and civil unrest on the horizon. Nobody could have predicted such a downfall, really.

The mid 80s are challenging time for a country poising precariously between economic welfare and social catastrophe. Yugoslavia is falling into heavy IMF debt due to the large number of loans taken out by the regime. Another concern is the unemployment rate, severely aggravating in the second half of the decade.  Self-management ultimately drops the ball by the end of the 80s because of its bureaucratic degeneration and authoritarian political structure, where the seemingly autonomous working class has always played second fiddle to strong leaders, accepting their decisions uncritically. Basically, CEOs have been responsible to higher CEOs, instead of workers’ councils, and have as a rule had strong political ties. Knowing that the party has been god of all gods there, I’m sure you get the picture. What is more, after Tito’s death, political elites promote the idea of republican or ethnic working classes, as opposed to the united Yugoslav working class advocated by the late president. In other words, republics and autonomous provinces favorize their own working class by for example giving their workers inordinate wage increases, which creates even a bigger gap between the more developed and underdeveloped republics. The regional inequalities result in an economic crisis which further leads to a deterioration of the living standard. Let me put it into perspective for you. The scope of work is decreasing, companies are becoming insolvent, low wages, unsteady paychecks, lower wages, minimum wages, no paychecks AT ALL, millions are behind on bills, workers’ motivation is non-existent, work discipline zero, efficiency fictional. The outcome: the end of the movie for self-management. It was nice while it lasted. Two thumbs up for workers’ councils that survived for 40 years. Wow. Honestly. No kidding. I guess it would have been too much to ask…

However, there’s another problem. Besides the financial crisis, there’s also the crisis of system legitimacy after Tito’s death, with the long-simmering revival of nationalism coming to a boil by the end of the 80s. The introduction of self-management and decentralization was meant to encourage the liberalization and democratization of the mutual space. However, market competition turned the companies and republics into competitors, which then made republics’ party oligarchies act first as the guardians of republic interests and then the nationalist ones in the 80s.

With Tito’s death, Yugoslavia’s 6 constituent republics gain more autonomy, with a rotating presidency. The main issues troubling the elites in the post-Tito era turn primarily into a Serbian-Slovenian debate, marked by a growing divergence in the ‘national question.’ Confusing time. Before long, the fragile union he held together starts to unravel. The forces of nationalism he kept under control are unleashed, culminating in a brutal three-sided civil war hard to imagine in 20th century Europe. The outbreak of nationalism is followed by the awakening of patriarchal values, as is often the case. Sure there are civil initiatives, organizations and groups in all republics warning of the rapid militarization of society, nationalist mobilization and consequences they might have. Unfortunately, none of these anti-war movements is strong enough to prevent or stop the war. The end result: over 100,000 people killed (and God knows how many missing), 2 million driven from their homes, and Yugoslavia disintegrated.

The Croats and Slovenes, always reserved about Yugoslav unity, decide to secede. The latter try to avoid warfare, suggesting a plan for a loosely united country, based on the Swiss model of independent yet confederated cantons. The proposal is however turned down by other parties wanting full autonomy. Slovenia is the first Yugoslav republic to hold multi-party elections in the spring of 1990, which comes as no surprise. It is the most western-oriented, prosperous and ethnically homogeneous. Tensions are growing. The future of the country is at stake. We are cool…or just pretending. I’m an 8th grader about to take the grammar school entrance exam in Serbian (easy peasy) and math (ouch). My parents are panic-stricken and worried about my future. She’ll never make it. She sucks. Yeah, I know. But I’m cool (for real, not pretending). I rarely study.

Croatia is next to request more autonomy. First armed incidents begin, with open hostilities escalating in the majority-Serb populated areas in March/April 1991. Practice questions and tests, exam registration information, FAQs, tips, prep books, workbooks, study guides…not for me though, for my sister. She’s ready (read: if she’s ready, I’m ready too). I walk into the big room full of students and teachers, cool as ice. A kick-ass cheater, Tito’s school. Slovenia declares independence on June 25, 1991. Belgrade sends the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) to take control of its borders with Italy and Austria. Fighting breaks out on June 27, which will last 10 days. A total of 47 JNA soldiers are killed, aged between 18 and 22 from all the ethnic groups of Yugoslavia. The whole nation is shocked. I pass the exam with honors by applying the infamous partner (sister)-cheating method, that is copying down the answers sissy wrote on a ruler, and disposing of the evidence without getting caught. I’m shocked. I knew I’d pass but never thought my test scores would show such brilliant performance. I’m 14 and happy. I’ve got a crush on an out-of-towner. In September, the Republic of Macedonia gains its independence from Yugoslavia. My freshman year in high school may officially begin.

As violence erupts in Slovenia and Croatia, predominately Muslim Bosnia and Herzegovina (43% of the population) is ominously quiet until the fall of ‘91, when President Izetbegović starts to pursue independence. Bosnian Serbs (31%) oppose, creating their own ‘state’ and enjoying military support of Serbian President Milošević and JNA. The stage for a bloody secession is set. On the first school day, I sit down at a random empty desk in the third row by the window, where I remain till the end of high school. By the time I become a senior, it’ll be full of scribbles, hard to decipher by anyone but me.

The methods used by Croatian President Tuđman are extreme, invoking the spirit of the fascist and ultra-nationalist past. Its more than half-million Serb residents see the writing on the wall and begin to rise up, declaring independence from Croatia. JNA, now dominated by Serbs, sweeps in to put down the Croat rebellion and keep the nation together. The standoff lasts from 1991 to 1995, throughout my high school, and is full of scribbles, hard to decipher by anyone to date, let alone me. The now well-equipped Croatian army retakes the Serb-occupied areas in two offensives, retaliating for earlier ethnic cleansing by doing pretty much the same: torturing and murdering people, and destroying their homes. Scenes of warplanes opening fire on refugees. An eye for an eye. Most of remaining 300,000 Croatian Serbs, many of whom have been killed, are forced into Serbia. Up to now, few have returned. Croatia immediately establishes the borders that exist today.

In spring 1992, the Serb take control of a strip of Muslim-majority towns, also invading numerous mixed-ethnicity towns and villages, executing, and arresting thousands of Bosniaks and Croats (17% of the population), many of whom are taken to concentration or rape camps, while the remaining ones are forced to leave their homes. Bosnia, with its gruesome attacks and unthinkable atrocities, is torn apart, along with many families forced to choose sides. Absurd time. I now live in the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, created from the two remaining federal republics of Yugoslavia after its breakup in ‘92. Cut-off phone lines between post-Yugoslav republics become an everyday reality. The best is yet to come. In the beginning, Bosniaks and Croats fight together against Serbs but, once tensions increase, the former allies engage in open conflict. There’s the so-called Croat–Bosniak war, or ‘war within a war,’ part of the larger Bosnian war, lasting from Oct 1992 to Feb 1994. Bellum omnium contra omnes (the war of all against all). Violent time.

war of all against all.PNG

My generation is coming of age, watching the war live in neighboring Croatia and Bosnia, with its unspeakable cruelties, monstrosities, sieges, shelling, mass murders, mass rapes, mass graves, attacks and counter-attacks, led by regular and paramilitary armies, with thousands of soldiers and civilians killed, displaced and disappeared on all three sides. The world loathes it, the world is disgusted, the world is watching in discomfort, the world condemns it. The world is sending over ‘the Smurfs’ (UN Protection Force). They have the best seats in the theater, sitting in the first row. They are watching. The world pays no mind.

We’re boisterous, feisty and tough, my friends and I, or just play tough. We don’t suck up to upperclassmen. We’re no underdogs. We’re the intolerant and contemptuous ones. There are no cuties to crush on either so we might as well hate their guts. Eventually, we decide to pursue a middle way. We’re sort of on speaking terms, but I can’t say we’re friends either. Befriending refugees with a suitcase full of memories. We hate rules and being told what to do. We hate things that are compulsory. We defy authority. The principal’s a jerk. Teachers too (with a couple of exceptions). Many look down on us, so how can we look up to them?! We are smartasses with superior intellect, perception and wit, beating them so easily that it hurts.

don't listen to your teachers.PNG

No one gets suspended or expelled. It’s not that kind of school. There’s nothing much they can do, which annoys the hell out of them. We’re unbearable. When a teacher starts asking too many questions, we sneak off for a quick grope in one of the empty classrooms on the 3rd floor. Experimental time sharing. The remains of soldiers are shipped like parcels back home on a daily basis. When we’re bored or restless, we play hooky. We hate kissasses. Currying favor with teachers is a big no-no, inconsistency, reluctance and fear being punished in not so subtle ways. Truancy is always intentional, though unjustified, and unauthorized. So, we show up every now and then, which in our world means attending school but not going to class that often. Skipping. Yes, we stay away from school without explanation (or with a lousy one), we are absent without permission, we shirk work, and evade duty. I study only the things I’m interested it, in which case I’m enthusiastic, pro-active, resourceful, detailed, alert, studious, meticulous and nerdy. I dodge the stuff I find utterly unappealing and pointless for that matter, in which case I’m idle, lazy, sluggish, passive and neglectful. I’m pretty good at it. Packed orphanages and shabby refugee centers wherever you turn. I don’t move in a girl pack only nor do I need at least two besties with me at all times when entering the school, going to the bathroom, or walking to class. We attend funerals, walk behind coffins and listen to funeral speeches, saying a last goodbye to those killed in war, ‘too young to reason and too grown up to dream.’ I shave my head, and have different-colored socks on, along with my grandpa’s funky ties which I love cutting off. I wear a Sex Pistols sweatshirt/T-shirt, cuffed pants or worn out jeans with frayed edges and big holes at the knee and black boots that I never ever take off.

Ethnic hatred grows as various incidents fuel the powerful propaganda machines on all three sides. We’re told who to love, and who to hate. We live in a black and white world in which we’re the good guys fighting the bad ones, that is evil incarnate. Our religion is better than theirs. ‘Our flag is the embodiment of history,’ and OUR leaders the epitome of courage, determination, commitment, principle and vigor. By contrast, THEY are the personification of omnimalevolence: their politicians, their soldiers, their citizens, their males and females, their children, their dogs. Confusing time. 18-year-olds are drafted into the army in the middle of the night and transported to war zones like cattle in trucks to fight for ‘our cause.’ On our way to school and back, my girlfriends and I touch each other’s breasts and send them kisses, waving hello and goodbye, and we can’t help but wonder if that’s the first and last time we’ve seen them. Mixed feelings of desire, lust, sadness, rage, fear and impotence.

 

We’ll call it a day now, alright? In a few moments, I will awaken you. This time much quicker than the last one….more relaxed. I’ll count from 1 to 5. At the count of 5, you will open your eyes. You’re relaxed…1, 2…You’ll feel wonderfully refreshed when you wake up…3, 4…so relaxed, so calm…whole day…5.

How are you feeling?

Like shit.