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.

PRESCRIPTION POEMS (MY WAY)

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

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

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

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

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

 

TO ALL IN THE SO-CALLED DEFENCE INDUSTRY

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


 

HUMAN BEINGS

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

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

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

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

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

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

dance!

FEASTING ON POETRY

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

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

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

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

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

 

THE CASTAWAYS OR VOTE FOR CALIBAN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POETRY MATTERS

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

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

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

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

 

A TOURIST GUIDE TO ENGLAND

Welcome to England!
England is a happy country.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike will fail.

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

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

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

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

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.

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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?

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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.