NYT - One man's nightmare in Serbia: Life with virtually nothing left


December 28, 1999

LESKOVAC, Serbia -- For Vlada, a unit commander for the Yugoslav Army during the Kosovo war, the months since have been a wretched period of guilt, poverty, doubt and repression, stemming from his participation in anti-government demonstrations in this conservative, wary town.

He thinks he is slightly mad; he thinks everyone else in Leskovac is, too, ground down by Serbia's long isolation, its wrecked economy, the war and the long reign of the seemingly immovable Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, whom he reviles.

Vlada still dreams of what he saw in Kosovo, of the long lines of expelled Albanians, of the dying and the dead, but less often. Now his dreams are of anxiety and loss.

"I have big problems with myself," he said, smoking a cheap Drina cigarette in his small house. "I'm nervous from morning until night, and I want to have a fight or an argument with someone all the time.

"There's no money here, no cash, no cooking oil, no sugar, no fresh milk. We look like Romania at the end of the 80's. No one smiles on the street. Everyone looks sad, and people are dressed badly. The best job belongs to the guy who fixes shoes. It's miserable. No one has problems of $1,000 or $2,000, but of 20 cents, $2 or $20. We've become a cheap people, separated from one another, without morality or scruples or fellow feeling."

He described a friend who said he could find him cooking oil. "So I gave him 100 dinars for eight bottles of oil," he said, mentioning an amount equal to about $5.50. "And two weeks later, there is nothing. And he will never come, and our friendship falls apart over 100 dinars. Because he couldn't ask me for a loan -- no one can afford to give loans any more."

In early July, after Serbian troops and policemen were forced to withdraw from Kosovo by 78 days of NATO airstrikes, Vlada took part in the anti-government demonstrations here in Leskovac, his home in deep southern Serbia and a traditional stronghold of Mr. Milosevic's Socialist Party.

The demonstrations, led by army reservists seeking delayed combat pay, shook the government. But the Belgrade-based democratic opposition did not capitalize on the spontaneous unrest, and the demonstrations here, too, have since dwindled away.

But Vlada, whose bitter accounts of the war were detailed in The New York Times in July, has been marked for special attention by the government, as have other protesters. As the demonstrations collapsed and Mr. Milosevic himself came to visit the town in October, Vlada has been harassed in a pattern that demonstrates the skill of this authoritarian government and the deep hold the Socialists -- the former Communists -- still have on the structures of power.

"The repression here is not physical but psychological," he said. "It's as if every activist of the ruling structure has been ordered in the next 24 hours to frighten two people who are against the regime."

Local members of the Socialist Party sought out every person who had been in the demonstrations here, which were filmed by the police, and also sought out their friends.

"The police go to my friends," Vlada said, and ask: 'Why him? Why did he do it? Why does he need this?' "

Vlada, who feels exposed enough in Leskovac and asked that his last name not be used, makes leather goods. He has little money and wants to continue his education in economics to finish a degree. He made an application that was denied, he said, "and I got back the answer, 'We can't help because he was in the demonstrations.' "

The message was delivered to his cousin by two members of the Socialist Party, who questioned the cousin about Vlada. The content of the message, Vlada said, was: "Well, they can help me, but they're very disappointed in me. And they expected the cousin to pass on the message and talk to me, which of course he did."

All this watching, a long tradition from the authoritarian party, is more effective than prison and cheaper, Vlada said, especially in small towns, when everyone knows everyone else. "If they arrested people, they'd need more jails and have to feed them at least once a day," he said sardonically.

The reason he met a reporter in his home, he said, was that last summer, after meeting in a cafe, he was asked questions about the encounter by people he knew.

"They asked: 'Who were those people? What did you talk about?' " he said. "It didn't matter that no one approached us at the time. The party has a wonderful infrastructure here. It's like a kind of secret service that works in cells and circles."

When Mr. Milosevic came to Leskovac on Oct. 11, the town was full of police and security guards, and everybody who worked for a state company was told to attend the rally or risk losing their jobs.

"If there were 20,000 people there, there were 5,000 security men, all of them edgy," Vlada said. "It was easier to lose your life that day as a Serb in Leskovac than as a Serb today in Kosovo. The world thinks every Serb is guilty for everything, but for the last six years, Milosevic can't walk freely through the streets. Every third person would kill him in cold blood, and the rest wouldn't care. Eighty percent of people wait for him to die; it's the only way we can get out of this magic vicious circle."

Leskovac is a center for Yugoslavia's Third Army, which controls southern Serbia and, before the war, Kosovo. When its main commanders, Nebojsa Pavkovic and Vladimir Lazarevic, come here to local headquarters, which is in a park, the whole town is blocked, with military policemen in bulletproof vests standing guard, rifles fixed with bayonets.

"They protect these beloved generals from the people who love them," Vlada said acidly. The park itself has been closed to normal civilians for months now. "So in the center of this town you have armed military police, and it's another shame."

But it is the poverty and hopelessness of his life and that of his friends, their lack of perspective in a deepening winter, that depresses Vlada the most.

Here in Leskovac, even those who work are making the equivalent of only 30 to 50 German marks a month, or $16 to $27. With no fresh milk, a liter package of preserved milk costs a mark a day. "To get your kids milk now takes your whole salary," he said.

To have your appendix out, he said, you need to give 100 marks to the surgeon -- two months' salary -- and bring your own food to the hospital.

"This is horrible now," he said. "Everyone has their own fear, that someone will arrest you or kill you, and your death will mean nothing to anyone around you. People are afraid the electricity will be cut off in the winter because they owe money for it, or it will be cut off because of shortages, like today, for four hours. Everyone is afraid something in the house will break, because there is no money to fix it, let alone replace it.

"And people become crueler and less thoughtful to one another. I think I'm a cultured person, and now I start screaming about prices in the shops. It doesn't matter that the salesman isn't responsible. When I buy toothpaste, I need 20 minutes to compare the sizes and the prices, and in the end I buy something, but it shocks me, and I come home nervous. And I put the toothpaste on the table, and I tell my wife how much it costs."

Even those who work for the government are in trouble. A friend spent two months working hard to rebuild a bombed railway bridge at Grdelica, where NATO rockets hit a passenger train. For 60 days of work, the man received 500 dinars, or $27.

But when the politicians came to reopen the bridge, in a blaze of publicity, they decorated the manager of the company for his services to the nation and provided a lavish spread of meat and drink.

The workers protested and said they would prefer the cash. But the manager said: "Don't worry, no one will ever pay for this food and drink. Maybe someone else will get a medal."

Vlada insists that he did not knowingly kill anyone in Kosovo, though he saw terrible and disturbing events, with "ethnic cleansing," killings and mental and moral breakdowns. "I'm satisfied with the way I acted, and if called to fight to defend the country I would go again," Vlada said. "But I hate the whole world for giving me this opportunity."

The war was unnecessary, he said. It was "made by empires and pride." And now, he said, the mess in Kosovo lets Mr. Milosevic defend the war and accuse the opposition of being traitors for dealing with the leaders of the same countries that bombed Serbia. "The visit of the opposition leaders to Washington and to Madeleine Albright was covered here as if they were going to ask for a new bombing campaign, and a lot of people believe this," he said.

Zoran Djindjic, the leader of the Democratic Party, who is contemplating resigning for his failure to oust Mr. Milosevic, is treated like the government's main enemy. "People who hate Milosevic buy this propaganda," Vlada said. "They would be happy if Milosevic dies, but first they want to kill Djindjic."

Vlada says Kosovo sometimes bursts through into his dreams. He and his men spent 60 days without clean water or electricity, sleeping on the floor of abandoned Albanian houses in the hills between Gnjilane and Kacanik, fighting the Kosovo Liberation Army and hiding from NATO bombs.

"Lately, I dream of the house we were in last," he said. "A few days ago I had a real nightmare. There is the house, and the owner of the house changes. Sometimes it's a Serb, sometimes it's an Albanian."

"There are a lot of people standing around, and I know that the dead have come back to live in their houses," he said, his voice suddenly cracking, "and I don't want them to think badly about me."

He stopped to compose himself, lighting another Drina. "But my problems now are sugar and cooking oil and toothpaste," he said. "This town is a twilight zone, like your worst dreams, when you're dreaming and sweating. When you have something and you lose it in a dream, and it recedes farther and farther away, and you can't catch it.

"That's our life today. We'll probably live worse than this, and this is horrible. We never think it can get worse, but it does."


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