NY Times
Life in Serbia defies explanation

January 19, 2000


ALEKSINAC, Yugoslavia (AP) -- If anyone in Serbia should hate the United States, it ought to be Zagorka Marinkovic.

Her house was obliterated when U.S. bombers blasted her neighborhood during last year's NATO 78-day bombing campaign. The family across the street died, along with 14 other people. Only the rubble left a lasting impression.

"Hate Americans? Oh no!" she says, leaning forward to kiss her U.S. visitor. "It takes two to tango, you know. You can't have a fight without two or three."

Welcome to Serbia, where real life defies expectations -- and often explanation.

After all, this is an authoritarian state where opposition newspapers denounce the government, where an accused war criminal appears as a television talk show guest, where a hotel celebrated Orthodox New Year's with a salute to the Depression-era 1930s and where twinkling red Christmas lights decorated the Socialist Party headquarters, which was blasted during the NATO bombing campaign.

Examples abound of this virtual reality, the dichotomy of a country that keeps running even though no one is really sure how. Oil is embargoed, yet traffic jams the cities. Businesses don't pay their workers, but people swarm cafes.

Fifty percent of the workforce is unemployed, but rush hour lasts all day long. A combative press manages to publish despite government harassment.

"Normal life is beyond comprehension for us," said author Slavoljub Djukic. "One can adapt to suffering as well as peace. It's like an imposed reality."

It wasn't even considered unusual this week when opposition politicians flatly accused President Slobodan Milosevic's government of gunning down the paramilitary leader Zeljko Raznatovic, known as "Arkan."

Nor was Arkan, shot in the head while at the swank Intercontinental Hotel, vilified for his past. Though his alleged underworld connections and war crimes indictment were well known, many in Serbia coughed up a good word on his behalf, praising Arkan's choice to take up arms in wars in Bosnia and Croatia.

His fighting unit, the Tigers, earned plaudits for being well-trained.

"He was famous for personally leading his own men even into the most dangerous military operations," the independent daily Blic said. "Extreme discipline and obedience by members of the Tigers fascinated even Arkan's biggest enemies."

The wars accompanying the breakup of Yugoslavia have marked Serbia, a largely rural region the size of Maine. Scarred by a decade of international sanctions imposed because of Milosevic's warmongering, the official economy is in virtual collapse. The black market, however, flourishes.

A recession forces pensioners to stand in line at dawn to buy subsidized milk. Tens of thousands of laborers visit soup kitchens. Former professionals sell their old shoes in street markets.

The opposition mayor of Nis, Zoran Zivkovic, estimated that as many as 70 percent of the population lives near or at the poverty line. The average family in his city survives on about $28 a month.

Those struggling to make ends meet don't have to look far to see it can be worse: The region has been flooded by as many as 1 million Serb refugees from Bosnia, Croatia and most recently, Kosovo.

Struggling with the influx, the government has lodged Serb refugees in places like the Sicevo Gorge, a former holiday resort nestled against a hillside just outside of Nis, the country's third largest city.

Water leaks through the cracked walls of the resort's cabins. A single toilet is shared by dozens.

Elmije Novabrda, a cleaning lady from Kosovo, lives in one cabin with her husband and six children. Cradling her six-week old baby, she numbly tried to explain how her life had fallen apart.

"My children were so healthy. They had cheeks like apples. Now they are always sick," she said. "Now we have nothing."

People struggling with daily survival are too exhausted to worry about the future, much less efforts to oust Milosevic, opposition leaders say.

"Aside from those who actually lost family in the bombing, many have forgotten the war," Zivkovic said. "They have other problems."

The country has made modest efforts to rebuild, including the construction work in Aleksinac, 125 miles south of the capital, Belgrade. Milosevic himself cut the ribbon at the grand opening there of a rebuilt apartment building, painted in "Miami Vice"-like hues of peach and green.

He also visited Mrs. Marinkovic's block, though she didn't speak to him directly. The government has given her help to rebuild and, given the circumstances, she says she feels blessed.

"God saved us," she said. "We were lucky."




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