Yugoslavs holding on grimly to hope

War-weary people are `like rats in a maze,' with nowhere to turn

By Olivia Ward
Toronto Star European Bureau - Oct. 23, 1999

BELGRADE - Jelena, the arthritic flower-seller is back on the steps of the National Theatre, spreading her brightly coloured dried posies to lure the passersby.

It's a reassuring sign, a glimpse of normality, a fleeting hope that everything is just as it was.

``Sometimes it seems as though the war never really happened,'' a friend says to me as we walk through the familiar streets of Belgrade together for the first time since I left at the point of a gun last spring.

``But then,'' she adds, ``we remember the conditions we live under. And we can never forget for a moment.''

The conditions are not immediately obvious, I realized, pushing my way through the crazily weaving traffic, the hundreds of strollers and shoppers, the stray dogs and loiterers outside the cafés.

Belgrade is not Grozny, flattened and desolate, its crumbling ruins a pedestrian peril. It is not Pristina, with out-of-control looters and killers in the smashed streets.

In Belgrade's gray downtown core, the faces of the buildings tell little about the nights of anguish residents faced when NATO missiles streaked through the darkened skies.

`People are just aimless, stunned in a way. They don't have any hope for the future because the economy has completely collapsed. They can't look to the West for salvation, because it helped to ruin them.'
- A Belgrade writer

But the faces of the people tell their own stories. Bleak, withdrawn into themselves, wary. Wondering how they would get through the morning, the week, and the rest of their lives.

The bombs, which were meant to smash Serbia's morale during three months of war over Kosovo, never succeeded as they were intended to. Instead they worked in slow motion.

``People are just aimless, stunned in a way,'' says my Belgrade friend, a writer. ``They don't have any hope for the future because the economy has completely collapsed. They can't look to the West for salvation, because it helped to ruin them. They're like rats in a maze.''

It was a horrible full circle from the first days I entered Belgrade, three years ago, when optimism was on its highest bounce.

Artists worked frenetically, outdoing each other in satire, in anti-establishment skits, films, paintings.

Daily demonstrations were a form of performance art, a national outpouring of creativity rocket-fuelled by hope.

The cafés were buzzing hives of political debate. People who had never met linked arms and blasted shrill notes on the ubiquitous whistles that said ``time's up'' to President Slobodan Milosevic.

But the leaders who turned out every day at the head of the crowds, hoarse from shouting into the microphone, frozen and footsore from hours of marching through icy slush, betrayed them.

In the jaws of victory, they snatched defeat. The protest movement that had promised a rebirth for Yugoslavia, died a sorry death in the ego-duel of its generals.

Ironically, the West buried it.

The NATO bombing gave new stamina to the regime it had hoped to destroy. It made the West the enemy, no longer the refuge. It made the word ``democracy'' a traitor's code.

``Yes, the demonstrations are back on the streets,'' says Slobodan, a Democratic Party supporter. ``But we can't kid ourselves that it's the same. People aren't expecting anything anymore.''

Some are expecting the worst.

During the past two weeks fear and violence have infiltrated the opposition as it struggles to regroup.

Vuk Draskovic, the most popular of the leaders, barely escaped alive from a collision with a truck that veered into the path of his car, killing his brother-in-law and some of his bodyguards.

Zoran Djindjic, another high-profile party leader, was the target of a chilling verbal assault by Milosevic's wife and political partner Mirjana Markovic, who labelled him a NATO spy.

Opposition members who came together this week, for the first time in three years, to agree on a mutual demand for swift and free elections - issued yesterday by some 40 city and municipal assemblies where the opposition is in the majority, according to independent radio B2-92 - say that they expect the threats to increase as they woo their supporters back to the streets.

`Yes, the demonstrations are back on the streets. But we can't kid ourselves that it's the same. People aren't expecting anything anymore.'
- Slobodan, Democratic Party supporter

But the supporters will be more difficult to win over now. Weary, broke, jobless and demoralized, they have fewer reserves of energy to devote to any political cause.

Violent attacks on demonstrators by police and accusations of attempted assassination by politicians have unsettled them.

New regulations that allow police to knock on people's doors demanding to check their identification documents have brought fear into their homes.

``It's like the last days of something,'' says my friend with a shiver, as we round the corner next to the theatre. ``But what?''

The question hangs in the chilly air.

On the steps of the theatre, Jelena bends painfully to retrieve her unsold flowers, packing each small bouquet carefully in strips of newspaper. In case someone would buy.

In case, tomorrow, there would be something to buy flowers for.