About Balkan Witness                        Contact Balkan Witness



Articles on the Kosovo Conflict



(From a trilogy on the former Yugoslavia in Vermeer in Bosnia, by Lawrence Weschler, 2004)

By the time the Belgrade students, bottled up behind police cordons on the forty-ninth day of their protests, had taken to lecturing their helmeted interlocutors, over bullhorns, on the finer nuances of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, you just knew that "The Situation," as everyone had taken to calling it, had to be coming to some sort of head.

Of course, in Belgrade these past many years, there have been situations and there have been situations. To begin with, there was the situation of a fractious country, survivor of a horrendous siege of internecine bloodletting during the last World War, which had never really come to terms with any of the particulars of that bloodletting since its Maximum Leader (the leading partisan general emerging from that war) chose instead to smother all nationalist intimations in a treacly communist ideology of "Brotherhood and Unity" – a strategy that worked well enough, perhaps, while he was alive but clearly failed to survive his passing. (As regards the legacy of Josip Broz Tito, there are those in Belgrade today who credit him with having forestalled the eventual disaster for as long as he did. There are others who instead put the blame for that disaster squarely on his autocratic shoulders, arguing that his refusal to allow the blossoming of independent liberalizing tendencies of any sort – tendencies which often took the form of mild nationalist and regionalist heresies, which he in turn regularly and mercilessly purged – meant that the only political figures still left standing after his death tended to be cynical, mediocre, opportunistic types who then indeed proceeded to tear the country apart in an orgy of calculated self-interest. And then there are others who, in the words of Aleksa Djilas, an independent political analyst and himself the son of one of the greatest of the purged dissidents, point out that "the single most important thing to say about Tito at this point, in the winter of 1996, is that he's been dead for over sixteen years and at a certain point people have to start taking responsibility for what's happening on themselves.")


There was the situation, about ten years ago, of a part of that country, the Serbian lands that claim Belgrade itself as their capital, whose people suddenly and quite improbably fell under the spell of a midlevel Communist apparatchik who, sensing the fading of that once reigning ideology in the face of a looming economic crisis, instead recast himself as the fervent and almost messianic Savior of his people, to rapturously adoring response, which in turn had the effect of stampeding all the other peoples in the region into their own nationalistic seizures and the entire dissolving country into another horrendous war. There was the evolving situation of the Serbs across that war – at first blazingly triumphant but soon manifestly overextended, simultaneously sapped by international sanctions and homegrown gangster profiteers, most notably successful among the latter being the Savior himself, who now suddenly shed his warlord trappings and recast himself as a man of peace (in the process abandoning hundreds of thousands of his once adoring followers in the outlying Serbian districts to rout and ruin and a future as pathetically forlorn refugees).


By the middle of last year, the situation of Serbia was well-nigh dire – its economy cratered, its towns swollen with those aimless refugees, its industrial base virtually paralyzed – and yet the situation of the Savior himself, Slobodan Milosevic, seemed eerily unaffected by the calamities all about him. As the Tribune of Dayton, he'd managed to mesmerize the rest of the world's leaders – including Bill Clinton in the midst of his own reelection campaign – almost all of whom seemed willing to buy into his self-characterization as The Indispensable Man. Internally, he continued to hold sway over a remarkably lean dictatorial system: as long as he continued to exercise absolute control over the security forces (in particular the police) and the national media (especially state television), he didn't really much care what anybody else said or did or thought. (Visitors to Belgrade six months ago, for example, were astonished to see prominent posters advertising showing of the new film version of Richard III, in which Ian McKellen reinterprets the hunchbacked villain as a modern fascist dictator. It was as if Milosevic were reveling in the comparison, virtually taunting his subjects: "Yeah-yeah – so, what are you going to do about it?") Even the pervasive economic devastation seemed to work in his favor, rendering his subjects, surly and disaffected though they might be, too frantically preoccupied with the requirements of their own immediate survival (and the fear that they might jeopardize whatever tiny portion they still retained) to consider any serious political engagement.


Milosevic's horizon was not entirely clear: there was the fact, for instance, that he was going to be constitutionally barred from seeking a third term as Serbia's president in November 1997. But such impediments hardly seemed insurmountable: the elections could be forestalled; the constitution revised; office descriptions jimmied and rejiggered. And in the meantime, he could count on the likelihood that his opposition – whose continuously hapless fractiousness had all along constituted a virtual bulwark of his own regime – would fail once again to mount any significant challenge in the upcoming two rounds of parliamentary and local elections, scheduled for early November.


Instead, however, things began going oddly. The opposition, improbably, did manage to unite behind three leaders (Vesna Pesic of the minuscule cosmopolitan Civic Alliance party; the romantic nationalist Vuk Draskovic of the Serb Renewal Movement; and the slick young Western-style politician Zoran Djindjic, head of the free market-liberal Democratic Party) who up till then had been at each other's throat, but now, suddenly, joined forces under the rubric Zajedno ("Together"), variously shredding their own respective parties in the process (factions of each of which recoiled ill revulsion), but somehow managing to stick together throughout the electoral campaign, right through the runoffs on Sunday, November 17.


Notwithstanding the virtually complete news blackout bedeviling the Zajedno coalition's final campaign, they emerged from that Sunday night's tallies the upset winners, by decisive margins, in fourteen of the country's sixteen biggest cities, notably including Belgrade and the Socialist Party's onetime stronghold of Nis (the country's second-largest city). Or so anyway things appeared until State Television mysteriously suspended its reports – and the various local electoral committees (all dominated by the ruling coalition) began spewing all sorts of patently bogus claims about alleged voting irregularities as a rationale for upending the manifest results.


By Wednesday, Zajedno was crying foul, accusing the regime of having "stolen" the election (a peculiar locution in Serbo-Croat – "ukrasti," the word for "stealing” in lieu of the more traditional "prevara," or "cheating" – but one which proved highly effective since it seemed to line up with people's barely suppressed rage over all the other sorts of thefts and stealings and depredations to which the authorities and their minions had routinely been subjecting people for years). Improvising wildly, the three Zajedno leaders converged on the Parliament building, where they announced an occupation strike, or a hunger strike, or something – it wasn't entirely clear. No less taken by surprise, Milosevic likewise began improvising, evicting the Zajedno leaders from the Parliament, for starters, allegedly on grounds that the entire building had to be temporarily closed for fumigation!


Meanwhile, down the street, to everyone's surprise, the students at the University of Belgrade had occupied their faculties in protest over electoral developments. This was the generation, after all, that had grown up most completely exposed to Milosevic's saturation propaganda campaigns – they'd known nothing else – where had they come up with the notion that things might ever be any different? ("I know, I know,” one of their professors subsequently replied when I asked him the question. "That's the miracle:”) Terrified that their party overlords might take umbrage at this breach of ideological rigor, the university administrators likewise evicted the students from the premises.


These two evictions – from the Parliament and now from the university as well – were to have terrible unintended consequences for the regime.


For now, in separate, distinct, but parallel manifestations, the Zajedno followers and the students took to the streets in earnest. The students tended to gather around noon each day in Plato Square, in the pedestrian mall outside the Faculty of Philosophy, listen to speakers and music, and then head out on marches around town. Zajedno's followers, for their part, would gather around three in the nearby Plaza of the Republic under the equestrian statue of King Mihalo (the Serbian monarch during whose mid-nineteenth-century reign the Turks finally surrendered their centuries-long control over the Serbian lands) and then head off toward the Parliament building, the State Television complex (which they liberally pelted with eggs) and then back toward the Democratic Party headquarters on Terazije (literally, "the balancing scales") Street, from whose fifth-story window ledge the coalition's leaders would address the assembled throng. (Vuk Draskovic was given to climbing out on the ledge itself, theatrically, heart-stoppingly, one hand clutching the microphone, the other scrunched up against the balcony outcropping above, like some big hoary caryatid. )


The marches generally began with ten or twenty thousand participants but picked up tens of thousands more as they went along. Citizens who initially might have hesitated before hazarding attendance at an actual rally were swept along in the antic rush. The marchers in turn were cheered along by other citizens leaning out from their balcony windows (one in particular, an old lady who regularly took to waving a vast Serbian flag from her overhanging balcony, was dubbed "Grandma Olga,” and today her buoyant image features mascotlike atop one of the most popular new year's calendars). State Television covered the events hardly at all, and when it deigned to do so, buried coverage late in its 7:30 newscast, featuring images taken on the scraggly edge of the crowd and narration that claimed that the marchers were limited to a few hundred spoilsports and the occasional "accidental passerby." Such coverage only served to inflame the mass of Belgraders, further adding to their rage over the electoral shenanigans. Within days, thousands were walking around sporting buttons pegging themselves as yet another "Accidental Passerby." ("Accidental, maybe,” commented one citizen, "but this city sure is accident-prone.”) Placards taunted the authorities with increasing verve and imagination Everyone's favorite was the sign carried by two striking young blondes "Even blondes get it!" Everyone's second favorite was the one carried the next day by a decidedly more schlumpy, middle-aged gentleman: "Ever dentists get it!"


The rallies vied with each other for sheer noise. At first, the crowds jangled; little bells (the Civic Alliance's liberty-bell-like symbol was now doubling as the danger of an alarm clock, the subtext being "Time's up!"). A student handball referee claims credit for having been the first to blow a whistle, though soon small entrepreneurial fortunes were being made supplying the throng with cheap, multicolored plastic mouthpieces and more elaborate soccer-match horns and banging clangers of all sorts. Whenever someone at the microphone would mention the name Milosevic, the crowd would lash itself into a frenzy of madcap vituperation – louder louder, and louder still – for minutes and, presently, half hours at a time The proceedings were broadcast throughout the city over the weak signal of the town’s one independent station, Radio B-92 (early on, Milosevic's minions tried to shut the station down, but soon relented under fierce international pressure), and neighborhoods throughout town would join in with their own noise-levels.


This tendency was formalized within a few weeks when it was decreed from the podium at the foot of King Mihalo's horse that the entire town should endeavor to drown out the noxious bleatings of the State Television's evening newscast, and indeed, night after night thereafter from 7:30 to 8:00 all Belgrade seemed to let loose full-throttle (who knows what an uninformed casual tourist would have made of the eruption). In the outlying districts, I'm told, where the fear of neighbor-informants was still more pronounced, the first night you might only have heard the muffled tapping of a few casserole lids from behind closed shutters, the second maybe a few more, but by the third night, the entire district would have come heedlessly alive with the lusty bashing of pots and pans and all manner of improvised contraptions (my favorite being a tuba yoked to a vacuum cleaner). Radio B-92 monitored the relative decibel achievements of the different city blocks through round-robin phone-ins, and the winners were heartily praised at the next day's rallies. The State Television covered not a hint of any of it.


Surely, Milosevic must have been thinking, this couldn't go on forever; surely the marchers were going to tire and he could just passively filibuster his way, as it were, out of the crisis. The advantage of presiding over an entirely flattened economy was that nobody could really shut it down, and it was unlikely that all the disruptions (there were similar uprisings in Nis and many of the other large cities) were having that noticeable an effect on the already prostrate GNP. (Furthermore, the working class was less likely to come surging out of the factories in support of the marchers if the vast majority of them had already been sacked for economic reasons and the few who remained cowered in fear of losing what little livelihoods remained.) As infuriating as State Television's derisive obliviousness may have been to the marchers themselves, it did constitute the image the vast majority of the rest of the country was continuing to receive of the Belgrade events (which is to say hardly any at all). Winter was coming on: nothing here that a good snowstorm wasn't going to be able to stopper. Except that a good snowstorm came roaring through and the crowds, if anything, only increased in giddy delight at the muffled winter wonderland. Tens and often hundreds of thousands continued to demonstrate literally on a daily basis. Milosevic was said to be surrounded by hard-liners – notably including his wife – who were demanding some sort of more concerted response, which was probably the origin of the idea for the regime's big Belgrade counterrally on December 24.


The rally, dubbed "For Serbia" and as massively touted by the state media as the other demonstrations were ignored, was scheduled for the very time and place on Terazije Street ("the Scales,” indeed) where those other demonstrations daily converged – a circumstance virtually precision-engineered to heighten tensions. That morning, busloads of Milosevic's supporters – or rather, of workers given the day off and ordered to attend – converged from all over the country. State Television that night crowed over a throng of nearly half a million; more jaundiced observers put the figure at closer to one hundred thousand and pointed out that in any case the opposition managed to post twice as many participants for their near-simultaneous counter-counterrally. The two crowds jostled one against the other – one almost pities the guests from the provinces who'd arrived, assured that they were coming to rout a paltry fascist rabble. The buses were roundly booed, various fistfights erupted on both sides, as well as several quite serious incidents in which beefy plainclothes thugs boiled out from amid the regime's demonstrators and severely beat randomly passing protesters (by evening, over fifty individuals required hospitalization, including one man shot in the head)


Meanwhile, over on Terazije Street, Milosevic himself ascended to the podium – his first address before a public crowd in Belgrade since 1989 (uncomfortable before crowds and never particularly charismatic, he much preferred to wield power behind the scenes – till recently quite expertly – and to hobnob with the Holbrookes of the world). With growing passion, he lashed into his opponents, decrying "a fifth column" acting in cahoots with "foreign power mongers” rising to a crescendo with his sputtering proclamation that "Citizens have the right not to be at the mercy of. . . of. . . of. . “ – he seemed at a momentary loss – "of walkers!" (Predictably, within days, the city had blossomed over with buttons proudly identifying their wearers as yet another "Walker.”)


To a considerable extent, the "For Serbia" rally backfired miserably for the regime: that night buses fanned back out throughout the country, filled with previously blinkered provincial Serbs who'd seen for themselves the true dimensions of The Situation in Belgrade and would now be broadcasting that intelligence among family and friends. More to the point, they'd witnessed the degree to which State Television was skewing its evening newscasts. One woman from Pozarevac, Milosevic's own hometown,  about a hundred kilometers to the east of Belgrade, had been utterly shocked by what she'd encountered upon arriving in the capital. Approached by roving interviewers for State Television and asked for her evaluation of the evening newscasts, she'd replied, "Shameful, unbelievably bad. They're all liars!" But the greatest shock of all awaited her when she saw her comments broadcast over that evening's newscast in answer to the supposed question, "What do you think of the government's opponents?" A hard lesson which she now proceeded to convey to all of her neighbors back in Pozarevac.


On the other hand, the regime was able to take advantage of the violence (much of it, admittedly, self-generated) as the basis for a ban on all further marches through the city: demonstrations were hereafter to be confined to the Plaza of the Republic and the adjacent pedestrian malls abutting the university. Busloads of grim, helmeted police arrived to enforce the prohibition with ranked cordons wherever these might prove necessary.


The regime's opponents, however, were not without recourses of their own, many of them increasingly inspired. A small posse of guerrilla oppositionists, for instance, broke out of their confines early the next day, armed only with buckets, mops, bleach bottles, and aerosol canisters, with which they proceeded to ostentatiously "disinfect" the corner of Terazije Street from which Milosevic had delivered his address. Other students proceeded to parade single file in front of the police cordons, in glum circles, like the prisoners they claimed that they considered themselves to have become. One afternoon, a crowd massed on one side of a bridge and the police ranks massed on the other in a grim standoff until a lone dog proceeded to lope out from among the crowd onto the bridge and toward the police, at which point the throng burst into a euphoric chant of "Dog! Dog! Dog!"


Such theatrics couldn't mask the fact, however, that the opposition had been robbed of a highly effective tactic – its swarming presence on the streets of the capital – and that with time, thus marginalized, its campaign might well begin to flag. Its tacticians struggled to fashion a series of effective responses. One evening in early January, the Zajedno leaders, speaking again from their equestrian perch, urged their followers to drive into the town center the next day and then, at an agreed-upon time, for everyone to encounter all manner of engine trouble. The plan worked like a charm: all of central Belgrade became a vast sea of honking, disabled cars, hoods up and emergency lights blinking, between which, tens of thousands of demonstrators managed to file out once again as before. Zajedno's tacticians liked that stunt so much they announced a reprise for a few days later (Vuk Draskovic, addressing the evening crowd, spoke of the cooperation between his "infantry" and his "motorized divisions"). This time, however, the police cordoned off the entire central district – not letting any traffic in or out of town – at which point the leaders merely deemed the police to have been appropriated as part of their demonstration since, together, they'd all managed to bring the city to the standstill that had been the main idea all along.


The morning of the Serbian Orthodox Christmas (celebrated on January 6) saw the latest installment in what was fast becoming a veritable charm offensive aimed at the police themselves. The three leaders, bottled up once again in the square surrounded by police cordons, announced their intention to move from the horse's hooves right up to the police lines themselves, but only so as to greet the men individually and extend them Christmas wishes. The whole crowd surged along behind, in a merry mood. Vlaskovic, with his long black hair and flowing beard, looking for all the world like some gilded Orthodox icon, moved down the ranks, blessing the policemen with his microphone. The next day he used the microphone to address them more directly. "I am addressing you,” he declaimed from the top of a jeep that had been moved right up to the edge of the cordon. "We don't want anything from you except that you obey and honor the law. Think about the man whose illegal orders you are now serving to implement. Nobody's candle lasts forever. When this is all over, you have to be able to look your son and father in the eye. If I were you, I would come over to our side. You should join with us, join with our nation's history as it is marching forward. Right now you are only guarding the past.”


The policemen gazed forward, impassively. It was hard to tell what they were thinking. This, after all, was Milosevic's archenemy, the man against whose sinuous enticements they'd been most fiercely warned during their indoctrinations. Such reserve tended to melt, on the other hand, when the police – many of them themselves just young kids – were confronted by the students. Perhaps taking cognizance of this fact, the students announced their next gambit. As of the next day, they would march out of the square and into Terazije Street, right up to the police lines. There they would stop and wait it out, as long as it took, all day and all night and all the next day if necessary, until the police relented and let them resume their daily marches. And in the meantime, so as not to waste everyone's time, they'd launch their Police University.


And so it began the next morning: the reading over a bullhorn, for starters, of the entry on "Morality" from a junior encyclopedia. "After all,” it was explained, "these are just beginners, we've got to take it slow and easy." From there on to Plato and Aristotle, classes on Serbian history and literature, and so on. The police were aligned in a sort of U-shaped plug, the base of the U facing the throng of students and the legs extending back up either side of the avenue, allowing pedestrian traffic along the sidewalks but preventing anyone's drifting into the center of the road. Clumps of students kept extending their way up the sidewalks, forcing the police to stretch their lines and thereby liberating individual policemen for "intensive private tutorials." By midday, the police were having a hard time keeping a straight face, by midafternoon they weren't even trying. Every few hours the current unit would be marched out ("Class dismissed,” the cry went up from the crowd, "Recess!") and a new unit marched in. ("It's better that way,” someone commented. "Don't you find that after a few hours the learning curve really begins to drop off?") Class resumed: a reading from Walt Whitman, of all things. Students from the medical faculty detailed the pernicious consequences for spinal alignment of the continuous wearing of bulletproof vests. Followed by more Whitman, and more of the Nicomachean Ethics.


Observing the scene, Milos Vasic, a crusty, wizened independent journalist and longtime student of the police (in fact, himself a former policeman) noted how "Cops are calculating and self-interested, they're figuring – what? – ‘I’m twenty-eight, with four years of police training behind me and however many years before I can retire with my pension – do I want to blow it all defending this guy?' Already Milosevic can no longer rely on his Belgrade boys. He keeps on having to bus in guys from outlying districts. But then they too get contaminated. They say the shelf life for a good, regime-loyal cop these days is no more than a week."


Well past midnight and the students were showing no sign of letting up: a good ten thousand of them still crowded toward the base of the U, having a rollicking good party, fraternizing joshingly with the boyish cops. (An old man in his pajamas leaned out forlornly from his fifth-story balcony overlooking the raucous scene: Who does somebody have to call to put an end to this kind of racket?)


Four police commanders in the center of the road consulted nervously, edgily eyeing the manifestly deteriorating discipline all around them. And The Situation lurched that much closer to a climax.


It was all quite marvelous and rousing and daft. A veritable carnival, as velvet as velvet could be.


And yet … This wasn't Prague, after all, this was Belgrade, where ten and nine and eight years earlier, as the dictator Milosevic had been in the process of consolidating his power, throngs just as lusty and passionate and virtually unanimous had exulted in his bloodcurdling bacchanalias of nationalist renewal, thereby helping to precipitate their country into some of the most horrendous episodes of ethnic carnage in the modern era. Where had all these people been during the decimation of Vukovar, the shelling of Dubrovnik, the siege of Sarajevo, or the massacres at Srebrenica? This was a city with blood on its hands, and it was by no means obvious what the attitude of the people massing in their new throngs was to all that blood, or if, indeed, they had any such attitude at all. Yes, they were demonstrating against Milosevic's theft of an election, but why exactly had they voted against him at all? To the extent that the legacy of the war had factored in their decisions, were they voting against him for having joined the war in the first place, or rather for having abandoned it halfway through? Were they enraged about having fought the war, or about having lost it? The signals were decidedly mixed – what was one to make of that sea of arms raised in the traditional Serbian three-fingered salute? On-scene reporting tended to refract in all sorts of directions (Chris Hedges in his coverage for the New York Times in particular seemed to highlight some of the more disturbingly recidivist nationalistic undertones at the rallies, even among the students). This was perhaps why all around the world, many of those who'd once so enthusiastically opened their hearts to the marchers in Prague were still tending to hold back, hopeful but decidedly wary, as they observed the unfolding developments in Belgrade.


I know I was, observing developments during November and into December from my office in New York. Both hopeful and wary, I recalled a visit I'd made to Serbia just the previous summer as part of an ongoing project regarding the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, and in particular I recalled a conversation I'd had, sitting in a Belgrade cafe with an oppositionist journalist, of whom there were at the time still dismayingly few. She in turn had been recalling her own experience of the late eighties and early nineties there in Yugoslavia. For some reason, she said – and she couldn't really explain why – she hadn't at the time succumbed to Milosevic's raging propaganda campaign. In fact, she elaborated, she'd kept herself almost studiously oblivious to the swelling surge of nationalist hysteria sweeping over her fellow countrymen, there in the Serbian capital – the growing rallies, the thronged marches, the midnight masses of lusty, near-messianic patriotism. "It was all so stupid, so beneath contempt," she said, "this transparent gambit of Milosevic's to cast himself as some kind of Savior of the Serbs, when of course he'd never been the slightest kind of nationalist before. And the response he managed to evoke was mystifying, to be sure, but it too was just too stupid to spend time thinking about. Surely it would pass, and in the meantime I felt justified in ignoring it." She paused. "Then, one night,” she recalled, "I was watching the evening news, and they had footage out of Zagreb, the Croatian capital – a huge nationalist rally there, a shouting throng chanting these bloodcurdling Croatian patriotic slogans – and I remember thinking, all at once, "Oh my god, we're driving them crazy!" And suddenly I saw it all clearly, how it wasn't just going to pass, and all the horrors that were going to come. And that have."


I was recalling that conversation, as I say, in part hopefully, because it seemed justifiable to hope that if the Serbs in Belgrade were indeed now in the process of driving themselves sane, just maybe such a process could once again prove catalytic, helping return a measure of sanity to the entire region. (After all, Croatia's tin-pot dictator, Franjo Tudjman, was known to be in the process of dying of cancer. Who knew how things would tend thereafter in Zagreb – though couldn't a reversion to sanity in Belgrade be expected to contribute to similar tendencies there?)


(On the other hand, however, was a reversion to sanity in fact what was going in Belgrade? On the more wary side, I recalled the sheer extent of the "brain damage,” as I'd taken to calling it at the time, that I'd encountered during those Serbian travels six months ago.


For instance, there was the money changer I'd met up with outside a cafe in Pozarevac, Milosevic's old hometown – a strapping, burly fellow with a few days' growth of beard. What did he make of the country's situation? "Well,” he began, "what do you expect with a country that's being ruled by a woman?" – a reference, of course, to Milosevic's wife, Mira, who's all along been considerably more despised than he is. I invited the fellow inside for a drink, where it turned out that he was a Serb from Kosovo, the ancestral Serb lands whose ethnic Albanians (who now made up 90 percent of the population) had provided the original occasion for Milosevic's lurch toward hypernationalism back in 1987 (he'd claimed that the Albanians there were persecuting the remaining Serbs). What did the moneychanger think of those Albanians? "Oh, you know," he said, "unlike a lot of people up here, I was living with them on a day-to-day basis; they were my neighbors and my friends. They're an honorable people. They weren't hurting anybody." And what had he thought of Milosevic's coming to the Kosovo capital Pristina in April 1987 and promising the local Serbs that he wouldn’t allow anyone to beat them? That was great. That was great!" Or of the president’s return visit, later that year, for the Serbian nationalist celebration of the six hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo? "Wonderful, wonderful. I was there. It made me proud." He went on to describe how, fired up with all that pride, he'd volunteered for the army and had therefore been able to take part in, as he put it, "the liberation of Vukovar" – the decisive battle of the first Serbo-Croat phase of the war in which the picturesque town along the Croat-Slavonian side of the Danube River was quite literally leveled. In fact, he'd fought in all sorts of battles – he regaled me with tales – and what really pissed him off these days was the way "that coward Milosevic" had taken all that blood, the blood of Serbian martyrs, and just thrown it all away, abandoning the Krajina and Eastern Slavonia and the graves of all his comrades. Who, I asked him, did he intend to support in the upcoming elections? Without batting an eye, "Milosevic,” he replied.


One hesitates to make vast general statements about the mentality of an entire people, but this conversation was entirely typical of the kind I had with dozens of other Serbs as well. (There has, perhaps, been a kind of homogenizing of the Serbian mind, so to speak, under the pressure of the past decade of war and the forty years preceding that of Communist indoctrination, particularly under the pressure of State Television. As one despairing dissident told me, "People around here carry television sets between their shoulder blades in the place of heads.") Tendrils of rationality seem to float in the ether: you'll get thirty seconds of pristine reason, followed by a ten-second free fall through the abyss, followed by another twenty-five seconds of complete common sense. (Was this exploded remnant what a mind looked like after a war, I sometimes found myself wondering, or was it the kind of mind that lent itself to a war project in the first place?)


To put things another way, using a computing metaphor, it was as if there were certain crucial flaws in the Serbian operating system. For instance, the notion that you couldn't believe both A and B, if B had elements in it that were contrary to A. If at first you believed A and then B came along, you'd either have to reject B on the basis of A or else change your mind about A – at any rate, you'd have to make up your mind. This simple notion of the incompatibility of opposites – a fundament of standard logic – didn't seem to perturb many Serbs. (They could simultaneously feel that their neighbors were affording them no threat and exult at a visiting demagogue's promise that he wasn't going to let those neighbors "beat you anymore.") Nor did they seem unduly bound by its corollary, the notion of consequences, the sense that if you in fact come to believe X, this may have implications for how you then have to behave in the world. (They saw no problem in roundly despising a leader and simultaneously planning to vote for him.)


In fairness, there was a certain almost Pavlovian logic behind this turn of mind: it wasn't hard to see where it came from. For decades, state propaganda had blithely spewed forth all manner of contradictory positions simultaneously – most recently the notion that this man of war had in fact been a man of peace all along (a notion with which many of the world's 'leaders had for that matter been all too willing to play along). As far as this question of consequences went, when in the last fifty years had anything any Serbian subject thought politically had any bearing on what he was then allowed, let alone enabled, to do?


This general turn of mind proved all the more disconcerting when the mind in question was invited to turn to the specific question of the recent war. Six months ago, Belgrade was in the high summertime of Milosevic's peace offensive. "We fought and we lost,” as the film director Srdan Dragojevic parsed the matter, "and now they're doing everything possible to convince us that we didn't fight and we didn't lose." And Belgraders generally seemed all too eager to go along with the conceit.


In the late 1980s, most Belgraders had been caught up in Milosevic's crusade toward a Greater Serbia – the exalted fantasy, that is, of "All Serbs in One Nation,” with its attendant requirement of drastic territorial revisions, bloodily achieved if necessary, such that any non-Serbs in outlying districts that included Serbs would either have to leave (voluntarily or by force) or else subject themselves to the Greater Serbian hegemony. At first, the ambition seemed not altogether implausible (after all, the Serbs had inherited the bulk of the equipment from the former Yugoslav Army), but by the beginning of last year, all Milosevic had ended up delivering was the perverse obverse of that original dream: virtually all Serbs were now living in one state, but that was only because those in the outlying areas (with the possibly temporary exception of certain swaths of Bosnia) had been utterly routed and forced back into the narrow confines of the original motherland as abject refugees – a debacle of truly world-historical proportions. Serbs had been living in the Krajina and Eastern Slavonia for centuries – neither the Balkan Wars, early in the century, nor either of the subsequent World Wars had managed to dislodge them – but not anymore. And yet, far from being welcomed or even minimally succored in their receiving motherland, these refugees seemed to be even more despised than the far-off Croats or Muslims, those ostensible blood-enemies of yore – in part, perhaps, because they so vividly incarnated both the war and the fiasco everybody else was attempting so fervently to forget.


There were, of course, exceptions to this general frenzy of obliviousness – for instance, Dragojevic's wrenching film treatment of the Bosnian War, Pretty Village, Pretty Flame, which was enjoying a popular run during the weeks I was there. (Trolley cars, entirely covered over with painted smoke and flames to advertise the film, floated eerily about the town.) But even these proved distinctly problematic. Dragojevic's film, for instance, adopted a vividly cynical, catch-22-like posture toward war in general, and though it didn't shy away from suggesting a few Serb-spawned atrocities around the edges of the action, it tended to characterize the war as principally one of mass psychosis – everybody (Serb and Muslim alike) going equivalently crazy – and presently devolved, during the last half of the film, into the story of a hapless band of Serbian irregulars holed up in a dead-end tunnel, pathetically pinned down under a witheringly merciless siege. Though allegedly based on an actual historical incident, this was, to put it mildly, an odd way of encapsulating the Bosnian conflict as a whole, though, even more oddly, it was one to which the Bosnian Serbs themselves often seemed to subscribe. (On countless occasions during my travels through the Republika Srpska last summer, I had Serbian veterans of the siege of Sarajevo – from snipers through government ministers – insisting to me that they had been the ones under attack, or, as one official assured me, that they'd never been the first to fire, only ever doing so when forced to by rampaging Sarajevans coming boiling out of their valley fastnesses, inexplicably hell-bent on breaching their lines. "What siege?" the Bosnian Serb vice president had demanded of me adamantly one afternoon in his grungy Pale office. "We were the ones who were surrounded. They had us surrounded three hundred and sixty degrees!")


When it came to the question of moral responsibility for the war, Serbs had, as my crusty cop-reporter pal Vasic liked to put it, "a blind spot the size of Bosnia-Herzegovina." Or, as I sometimes came to feel, reverting to my computer analogy, a definite bug in the software. Belgraders didn't want to talk about it at all (what, after all, did any of those barbarian controversies among the "Mountain Serbs" have to do with them?), but if you persisted, it could get to be as if you'd barely finished typing in, say, the word Srebrenica, when the screen would spontaneously pox over in a veritable blizzard of frantic rationalizations. "0h, yeah, but what about. . . ?" What about Cambodia (how come nobody paid any attention to that? Why is it always only the Serbs who get picked on?). What about Vietnam (how come no American presidents ever got hauled to The Hague?). What about the NATO bombing runs on our guys (wasn't that a war crime?). What about the twenty Serb villagers massacred in the environs of Srebrenica in 1992? And what about the Ustasha massacres in 1944? And what about the Turk treachery at the battle of Kosovo in 1389? What about the ten thousand Krajina Serbs who completely disappeared during Operation Storm last year? – a total fabrication but an eminently convenient one, since It so neatly seemed to balance out the eight thousand Muslims still unaccounted for, and presumed dead, in the wake of Srebrenica. And anyway, how come everybody so easily credits that eight thousand figure, simply because it puts Serbs in a bad light? Has anybody actually seen the eight thousand bodies? And how do you know they didn't simply go around executing themselves, Just to make the Serbs look bad? (After all, Muslims are famous for that sort of thing.) And anyway, what about the German-Vatican conspiracy against the Serbs? What about the famous Trilateral Commission/Council on Foreign Relations plot?


The information minister in Pale tried that last one out on me. So, I'd asked him as our conversation was winding to a close, seriously, why did all this happen? "You should know," he replied, a Cheshire-cat grin spreading across his face. How so? He proceeded to detail for me elaborate minutes from secret meetings back in the seventies and early eighties in which high-level officials at the Trilateral Commission and the Council had conspired to bring about the dissolution of Yugoslavia and its conversion into a base for American ground forces – precisely the outcome that had in the meantime come to pass: QED. I responded that things were probably much worse than he could possibly imagine, that more likely, during the seventies and eighties, nobody in the United States had been giving the slightest thought to the fate of Yugoslavia – that it was the last thing on anybody's mind. He looked at me pityingly. "Oh yeah,” he said, preparing to launch his ultimate salvo. "How come is it, then, that this war ended the minute you guys decided it should end?" But it only ended, I pointed out, because "us guys" had finally bombed you. His Cheshire grin resumed: "Precisely,” he said. "How come you didn't do it sooner? You knew that we were destroying ourselves. You wanted us to destroy ourselves."


Another time, during a break in the proceedings in the Tribunal's anteroom in The Hague, a Bosnian Serb reporter took me aside and sagely explicated how the one thing I needed to understand was how the primary engine of the past hundred and fifty years of European history was a German-Jewish conspiracy to do in the Serbian nation. A German-Jewish conspiracy? I repeated – I wasn't quite sure I'd heard correctly. He nodded, Okay, I responded tentatively, but where did that put the Holocaust? "Makes you wonder, doesn't it?" came my interlocutor's all-knowing reply.


The evening I went to see Dragojevic's film, I struck up a conversation with the woman the next seat over and we subsequently went out for coffee. She'd clearly been deeply affected by the film. She told me a bit of her life history – she was thirty years old, a kindergarten teacher; she'd been visiting her brothers in the United States during the late eighties when, overcome with homesickness, she'd made what she described as the mistake of her life, returning to Belgrade just as the country fell apart; she hated Milosevic but was otherwise somewhat confused politically. She was a good person. (I've often thought somebody should write a book about the Serbs: When Bad Ideas Happen to Good People.) I took my time – it takes a while, talking with Belgraders, especially if you're an American, before you can establish your credentials, that you're not some knee-jerk Serb-hater, but I thought I'd done so – and after an hour or so, I hazarded out upon the topic of Srebrenica. "So a couple dozen Muslims were killed,” she shot back defensively. "Why does everybody keep beating us over the head with that?" I suggested it was more than a couple dozen. "Okay, so a couple hundred – it was wartime, what do you expect?" No, I persisted, it was more like several thousand. She hesitated: how did I know? where was the evidence? I explained that I'd been at some of the mass gravesites and I'd heard eyewitness testimony from survivors. I described how men were taken off buses by the hundreds, their arms bound behind their backs, paraded to ditches and machine-gunned in cold blood for hour after hour after hour. She was silent for a few moments – authentically shaken, it seemed. Not that she was hearing this for the first time, I don't think, but maybe that she was being forced for the first time truly to listen and to take it in.


She sighed and steadied herself. "Well,” she replied at length, "I knew someone in, Croatia, a Serbian girl working in a restaurant, and one day these bandits came barging into the place, lined the staff up along a wall, selected one boy at random, killed him, and then told all the others that if they ever so much as breathed a word about it, they'd come back and kill them, too.”


I waited for the rest of the story but it gradually became clear that that was it – there was no more. By my expression it must have been evident that I was failing to fully grasp the moral equivalence between the two episodes.


"The point is,” the woman elucidated, "the boy at the restaurant – they stabbed him."


I still wasn't getting it.


"They stabbed him! Can you imagine? Stabbed. I mean, the people in Srebrenica, okay, so there were more of them, but at least there they were machine-gunned, so they all died instantly, mercifully. And each individual can only die once. But try to imagine the agony of that poor Serb boy who was stabbed like that for no reason."


Like I say: Brain damage.


"You never hear of a Serb just dying in battle," as my gruff cop-reporter pal Vasic likes to say. "They're always being 'butchered' or 'slaughtered' or 'massacred.' "


And indeed, Serbian culture is pickled in the brine of the epic, the heroic, the mythomaniac – the endless cycle of mindless atrocity and atrocious retribution. I had found myself thinking, during my few weeks last summer when I was traveling around the country, that what the people of the Balkans generally, and the Serbs in particular, really needed was a transition from the epic to the tragic, from the Homeric to the Sophoclean: Oedipus, the evidence of his own tortuously tangled complicities staring him full in the face the entire time, and yet he just can't see, he can't see, he can't see, until finally, in a great purging moment of cathartic revelation, the scales fall from his eyes and he does see. He sees, he acknowledges, and somehow he goes on. Or Euripides (who even managed to write a play from the point of view of the Trojan women!): how in his Bacchae, Agave comes staggering home from her Dionysian revels, exultant, triumphant, brandishing in her arms the bloody lion's head she'd earlier managed (in her ecstatic delirium) to tear free with her own bare hands, only gradually (under the gentle prodding of her horrified father) coming to realize ("I do not understand this question – and yet I am somehow becoming in my full senses, changed from my previous state of mind") that this is no lion's head wrenched clean from its roots but rather that of Pentheus, her own beloved son.


That was the sort of great purging cathartic realization and self recognition that seemed so desperately called for and yet so endlessly fugitive last summer in Belgrade.


Could it be, I found myself wondering, as I sat there before my TV set in New York these past several weeks, transfixed before the newscasts emanating out of Belgrade, that at last it was beginning to occur?


Anyone headed for Belgrade these days seeking evidence of an authentic cathartic transformation is bound to be disappointed – though he may be asking the wrong questions.


And, indeed, initially I, too, was somewhat disappointed. The joy in the streets, such lively inventiveness, the verve of long dormant political engagement – of course, all that was wonderfully engaging. But there was a hollow in the center – the roar of everything that was going on left conspicuously unsaid. (I was reminded of Sartre's critique of Freud's notion of the unconscious in Being and Nothingness, composed in the immediate aftermath of World War II – how repressed material, far from being salted away and hidden from consciousness, as Freud posited, surely must have to persist at its very forefront: being virtually all the mind can think about, though of course in the mode of strenuously laboring to avoid even accidentally happening to think of it.) One of the most common placard slogans in Republic Square – the exultant "Belgrade Is the World!" – might at first have seemed an innocuous riff on the "Whole World Is Watching" of Chicago 1968 or the universalist "We Are the World." But there was at the same time something strainingly solipsistic about it. Well, no, actually – you found yourself wanting to say – Sarajevo and Vukovar and Srebrenica and Dubrovnik and Kosovo, for starters, are also the World: what about them? For they were hardly ever mentioned – either from the podium or in the throng.


In their stead came the lusty, full-throated denunciations of Milosevic and Mira – the half-hour catcall deliriums. There was, as ever in the crowds of Belgrade, this note of righteously plaintive grievance, of all the terrible things that had been done to them, the Serbs, while they'd just been innocently minding thelr own business, whether It be by the Turks or the Croats or the Germans or the Americans or – as now – by Slobodan and his evil wife. Of course, such concentrated vilification was yet another way of occluding any inklings of one's own possible co-responsibility. ("It will all be scapegoated onto them,” my gruff pal Vasic predicted, "which at one level, of course, is unfair and even self-delusional, though, at another – what the hell, the bastards have it coming!") "Milosevic to The Hague!" a boozy fellow in a tattered trenchcoat boomed forth quite unexpectedly one evening in the Plaza – "Slobo to the Tribunal!" My companion that evening immediately recognized the fellow as an outdoor CD vendor who a few years ago could just as regularly be heard hawking the most bloodcurdlingly virulent anti-Croat cassettes with equally self-satisfied gusto.


Of course, not everyone in Serbia was equally co-responsible for the dismal hypernationalist hysteria that swept over the country in the late eighties. Although it's common nowadays to assume that this was some countryside or lumpen virus that mysteriously overtook the urban elites, in fact what actually transpired was quite the reverse. Many, if not most, of the Belgrade academic and cultural elite (including the president of the Serbian Academy, the novelist Dobrica Cosic, and such colleagues of his as the internationally best-selling novelist Milorad Pavic of Dictionary of the Khazars fame and the poet Matija Beckovic) featured among the most fervent incubators of the original Greater Serbia project. As Aleksa Djilas likes to characterize the situation of the country's less exalted subjects during that period, "It would be as if you went to some quack homeopath and he told you you had to amputate your perfectly healthy right arm – of course, you wouldn't do it. But if you went to a top-notch M.D. and he said the same thing, and then to another specialist and he agreed, and then to every other expert in the town and virtually all of them concurred, sooner or later you'd probably submit to the operation." And the point is that many of those same experts are now prominent among the backers of the current uprising as well – addressing rallies, currying favor with the students – in part, no doubt, to launder their prior reputations; but in part, as well, to try and repackage their as-yet-unrepented original ideological project.


I myself paid a call on the students one day – that is, on a group of their leaders gathered together for one of their famous brainstorming sessions. Nebojsa Popov, the old oppositionist sociology professor who'd earlier described the sudden upwelling in this generation as nothing short of a "miracle" ("How – from where? – could they ever have gotten it into their heads,” he marveled, "first of all that elections in Yugoslavia were ever anything to be taken seriously, or secondly, having decided to take them so, that they’d ever be in a position to do anything about them?"), went on to offer a surmise. Perhaps, he suggested, part of the answer lay in the fact that the two principal weapons with which Milosevic lorded it over the rest of the population – fear and shame – had no purchase on these kids: they had the heedless fearlessness of youth everywhere in the world but, more to the point, having been barely pubescent at the time of some of the worst hysteria, they had nothing to feel personally ashamed of.


With this characterization in mind, I allowed myself to imagine that I might encounter some clearer thinking about the past among these students, and at first I was indeed quite heartened. The students voiced particular dismay over the way they'd been characterized in some of Chris Hedges's reporting in the Times (they'd clearly been tracking the clippings) as a band of (their characterization of his characterization) mad-dog Serbian nationalist cryptofascists. And indeed, far to the contrary, they presented themselves as conscientious and levelheaded, simultaneously aware of the immense stakes involved in the struggle upon which they'd embarked and yet unwilling to take themselves overly seriously – an altogether winning combination.


Encouraged, I decided to hazard the Srebrenica question; however, that instantaneously provoked the bug in the software: Which Srebrenica – 1995, 1992, 1941? Why not Pol Pot? What about NATO's bombing runs? Every American president since Franklin Roosevelt? And anyway, what about Srebrenica? From what one of the kids understood, there’d never been any eight thousand massacred – this had been proven – there’d only been fifteen hundred Muslim soldiers who'd tried to fight their way out of the siege and ended up getting killed in the ensuing battle. (Everyone else nodded in assent.) And so forth.


The kids rejected the notion of collective guilt absolutely – only individuals could be held liable for crimes, whereas the Serb people as a whole had absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Sure, there had been a few war criminals and these deserved to be tried – but by national courts, and not by that farce in The Hague, which clearly had it in for the Serbian people as a whole. (This last formulation was one I came upon repeatedly, and it was especially ironic, since both Judge Richard Goldstone, the original chief prosecutor in The Hague, and his successor Louise Arbour have repeatedly proclaimed that one of the main rationales behind their entire exercise is the desperate need to establish individual criminal liability for heinous war crimes precisely as a way of breaking the terrible cycle in which otherwise unassigned guilt gets attributed to the entire group, thereby serving as an excuse for subsequent retaliatory rounds of interethnic violence. This is a message which manifestly has not gotten through. Indicted war criminals – and those who fear that they may yet one day be indicted as such – whether in Serbia, the Republika Srpska, or Croatia, have been almost entirely successful in convincing their countrymen that the Tribunal's animus is directed toward all the people as a whole rather than any specific individuals, so that vigilant defiance becomes almost a patriotic imperative.) "You see,” one of the more circumspect students now interjected, "we are afraid of the humiliation of our people. The humiliation of a nation is a terrible thing."


To a certain extent dismayed by conversations such as these, I'd gravitate back to the afternoon rallies and feel newly encouraged. For bracketing this question of the past for a moment, what was happening right now in the Plaza and on the streets along the police cordons was deeply impressive: the resolute good humor, the striking commitment (endlessly reasserted) to nonviolence, the sense of purpose and (I suddenly realized) of consequence. It was as if the "operating system" part of the "brain damage" were magically beginning to correct itself right there before one's eyes: these people were thinking consequentially (if one came to feel X, this meant one would have to do Y, and in order to do so effectively, one would have to sort out one's feelings about A, B, and C in a logically coherent manner) – they were making up their minds.


In addition, as Aleksa Djilas pointed out, "Whatever one's misgivings, one has to acknowledge these events for the breakthrough they are. It's been incredibly rare in Serbian history that people have demonstrated like this on behalf of democracy. There have, of course, been nationalist demonstrations and monarchist demonstrations and, in 1968, left-wing radical manifestations which lent themselves to manipulation by Tito as a way of repressing party liberals. But here people are on the street, day after day, on behalf of a single focused demand: they want the results of an election honored. This is new, surprising, almost unaccountable – a profoundly hopeful development."


"They want to like themselves,” the sociologist Popov commented. We were talking about the almost giddy tenor of some of the assertions rising up, especially from the students at their podium: how Belgrade was becoming "the World University for Nonviolent Protest" (people from Sofia to Seoul were aping their tactics); and so forth. "They need something to be proud of,” Popov went on, "and all that is to the good. You have to realize the sort of nationalist fog we've been living through the past several years – the bogus, hysterical pride. But if people begin to like themselves as defenders, say, of the right to vote, once they begin to see themselves as defenders of individual human rights on behalf of themselves, ,this will launch a new sort of discourse and they may begin to see the relevance of those rights as they pertain to others as well. In fact, it's already happening. For me, the single most impressive thing so far happened the other day when Vuk [Draskovic] was at the podium and he suddenly called for a moment of silence on behalf of an Albanian recently killed in police custody in Kosovo. I cringed as he issued the call – tens of thousands of people spread out there in the Plaza: I was just waiting for the inevitable whistles and catcalls. But no: not a sound. It was deeply moving: you see, people want to be better than they are."


Was repeatedly told by longtime oppositionists how my hankering for instant clarity about the past was unfair and premature. These were agonizingly difficult truths that were going to have to be fleshed out and absorbed. The kind of pride people were beginning to feel was a precondition – necessary though not in itself sufficient – for future self-questioning. The outright contempt people were now expressing for State Television as they watched their own activities so hideously misrepresented over the evening news broadcasts – with time, this might yield retrospective insights as well. (Why did they believe what they believed about the past? Where, after all, had they gotten their information in the first place?) For that matter, once the state's virtual monopoly on the media was at last effectively upended, all sorts of fresh information could be expected to pour in (much of the Serbian fog simply consisted in the lack of availability of hard facts). The Tribunal itself might prove immensely important. Latinka Perovic, a longtime oppositionist historian and one of the few unequivocal advocates on the Tribunal's behalf whom I encountered in Belgrade, noted that "The careful, meticulous establishment of individual criminal guilt may constitute the first step in initiating a process whereby people will be able to engage in reflections on wider moral responsibility." When people come to understand that they are not being held personally liable for what happened in, say, Srebrenica – nor should they be (that those who should be are being held to account) – then they may be able to drop the defenses that currently keep them from considering their more generalized culpability.


But it's going to be a long-term process, I was repeatedly assured. It's not something that can be shouted from the podium. "Catharsis will be individual, capillary, not global,” the sociologist Popov predicted. Another longtime oppositionist suggested an analogy to psychotherapy: "These are truths you can't thrust on people – they have to come to them themselves, one at a time, and in their own good time." People often invoked the analogy of Germany, where the process of de-Nazification had taken over a generation.


All of which was fine, as far as it went. The trouble was that the Serbs might not have the luxury of a generation to come to their senses about the immediate past. For all the analogies I kept hearing to the situation in Germany after World War II, it seemed to me far more likely that Serbs in the years ahead – assuming they're able to rid themselves of Milosevic and his cohorts one way or another – will be facing a situation far more like Germany's after World War I: a fragile, inexperienced, rickety democracy; an utterly devastated economy and a decimated, once-proud middle class; all sorts of resentful, unemployed war veterans milling around convinced (like my money-changer friend in Pozarevac) that they were stabbed in the back, that the victory they'd achieved in battle was squandered at some far-off peace conference.


In fact, as some have been noting nervously, they've already got a potential Hitler in their midst. All the exhilaration over Zajedno's performance in the local elections has tended to cloud over the fact that the Serbian Radical Movement ofVojislav Seselj (pronounced "Scheshel"), one of the most notoriously ruthless of the paramilitary commanders, scored only one hundred thousand total fewer votes. Seselj himself was elected mayor of the Belgrade suburb of Zemun, where his impact has been immediate: he is quite literally making the buses run on time; he is at his desk fifteen hours a day and has let it be known that he expects similar devotion to duty from all the other municipal employees (bureaucratic applications that used to require weeks to course through city hall's sclerotic arteries are now being processed in a matter of minutes). He has also let it be known, in all seriousness, that he considers the solution to the Kosovo problem to be the enforced inoculation of the majority Albanian population with the AIDS virus.


Considering this, an authentic coming to terms with the actual history of the past several years in Serbia may be a matter of some urgency.


In the end, it looked as though it was Aristotle with his Nicomachean Ethics that finally did the trick. Overwhelmed with knowledge, the police broke ranks at 1:30 in the morning, surrendering the streets to the students once again. As the rapturous throng came surging past my hotel window a few minutes later, I was reminded of lines from Seamus Heaney's wonderful poem "The Cure at Troy,” itself a meditation on the transition out of the epic:


History says, Don't hope

On this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime,

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.


Within a few days, Milosevic's regime seemed to give in, announcing that it would be abiding by the municipal election results after all. Seemed, of course, turned out to be the operative word, for in no time the government was backtracking, or at any rate having difficulty getting its subordinates to enact the alleged concessions. (Many incumbent local chieftains were simply refusing to cede power.) Even in those towns where the oppositionists were in fact taking over city hall (Belgrade and Nis still notably not yet among them), they were discovering the insubstantiality of their reputed new powers: Milosevic had managed to hoard most functions at the national level (even including control over the local traffic police), and in those instances where local oppositionists tried to enforce the few prerogatives they did have (such as control over local television stations), the Old Guard was refusing to be dislodged, and the local authorities pointedly lacked the police muscle to enforce their edicts. Meanwhile, Milosevic – a master at this sort of short-term tactical jockeying – was slashing the share of state revenues allocated to municipalities while transferring ever more onerous responsibilities (for everything from education to road maintenance) to the suddenly strangulated local governments. Clearly, he was still hoping to stare everybody out. .


So the demonstrations continued, day after day after day. The oppositionist leaders enchanted the crowds in Republic Square with the news that they'd "broken every sort of Guinness Record for this sort of uprising." The Velvet Czechs had had to hold out for only thirty-eight days whereas Belgraders had already put in twice that. Who knew how much longer this could last? Nerves were beginning to fray and things could still turn ugly at any moment – as in either Tiananmen or Bucharest. But the point was that as yet they hadn't. Not for nothing had the crowds in Republic Square adopted Vangelis's inspirational theme from "Chariots of Fire" as the anthem with which they launched each new rally. They seemed to know that, no matter what, they were going to be in this struggle for the long haul. *


My last evening in Belgrade I attended an astonishing, free-form modern dance performance of Shakespeare's Macbeth, of all things, choreographed by and starring one of the country's foremost theatrical figures, Sonja Vukicevic, in the harrowing role of Lady Macbeth. I say, "of all things," but it quickly became evident that this was the perfect play for this moment. No one in the audience needed a playbill to recognize that what was really being alluded to was the tale of Slobodan and Mira, their surging lunge for power, and its inevitable, terrifying, blood-drenched denouement. That was the easy part, but Vukicevic was up to something far more sophisticated as well. For she'd made the first third of the piece, the exposition of the initial relationship between Macbeth (played by Slobodan Bestic) and his wife incredibly erotic and engrossing, drawing the audience in, inviting it to remember how thrilling and vivifying and involving that initial lunge for power and territory and glory had been for all of them, and thereby implicating them in all the horrors that were to follow. This, it seemed to me, in a stylized, theatrical context, was precisely the sort of cathartic confrontation with their past that Serbs in general needed to be moving toward.


After the performance I said as much to Borka Pavicevic, the dramaturge and chief doyen of this performance space, the Center for Cultural Decontamination, that, as it turned out, had been hosting evenings like this one throughout the darkest days of the hysteria.


I tried out my theory about the transition from the Homeric to the Sophoclean, suggesting somewhat facetiously that maybe the Aristotle the kids really needed to be reading, rather than the Ethics, was the Poetics, with its careful elucidation of the themes of recognition and catharsis.


Mrs. Pavicevic smiled but then replied, "The thing is, before you could have Sophocles you had to have the polis – the possibility, that is, of face-to-face relations between equals. Democracy has to precede catharsis, not the other way around."



* As indeed they proved to be. Astonishingly, Milosevic, the master political escape artist, managed to wrest himself out of even this hopeless morass. Within no time he had the Zajedno victors bickering among themselves, and come the end of 1997 he still bestrode the citadels of power – or, anyway, what passed for power in Belgrade as he somehow continued to do at the end of 1998 and even the end of 1999. Finally, in September 2000, he tried to steal one election too many, and the Serbs rose up once again, this time finally managing to dislodge their tyrant in a relatively peaceful coup that brought the election's actual victor, a "moderate nationalist" constitutional lawyer named Vojislav Kostunica to power in a prickly alliance with that young and considerably more dynamic Zajedno firebrand, the Westernizing technocrat Zoran Djindjic. Out of power and more or less confined to his villa, Milosevic continued to stir up trouble until June 2001, when, having had enough, Djindjic succeeded in engineering the deposed tyrant's arrest and transfer to The Hague, where Milosevic was finally forced to face the Tribunal's charges against him, representing himself in what rapidly devolved into a marathon all its own. In apparent revenge, Djindjic was himself assassinated in March 2003, and though his political heirs initially responded, at long last, with a vigorous crackdown on the organized ganglord criminals who'd come to dominate what passed for Serb economic life during the Milosevic era, their campaign appeared to peter out in the months that followed, and by year’s end Belgrade appeared, once more, to be socked in a miasmic drift, with the hypernationalist SeseI’s party achieving the most votes in a fresh round of parliamentary elections.






It may just be too late to envision any sort of true ethnic reintegration for Bosnia. That's the reluctant conclusion toward which the Belgrade based political analyst Aleksa Djilas – son of the great dissident Milovan Djilas, and himself an inveterate nonnationalist – has recently found himself tending. "I mean,” he suggested hesitantly, "it's a little like a situation where a beautiful woman is walking down the street and a madman dashes up to her and slashes her face with a razor, exultantly screaming, 'Ha ha, Ha ha, you'll never be beautiful again!' Sometime later, the woman goes to a plastic surgeon, and the doctor examines her carefully, tenderly, before sighing, 'Alas, alas, you'll never be beautiful again: It's the same sentence but with two radically different connotations – the difference between advocacy and diagnosis." He was quiet for a few moments, then added, "And, alas, alas, maybe Bosnia never will be beautiful again."


Maybe. And maybe even worse. For if the Bosnian Serbs, in their continuing thrall to their gangster nationalist warlords, continue obdurately refusing to cooperate in any meaningful way in the peaceful reintegration of the country, at some point NATO may really give up in exasperation and abandon them to their fate.


Then, in all likelihood, the war will resume, and it could be a very short war. The (predominantly Muslim) Federation Army has been steadily building itself up, and the Serbs can no longer rely on the monopoly of heavy weaponry, upon which they based their spectacular early successes in the last war. In fact, the Bosnian Serb Army is completely demoralized and gutted of effective leadership. The Muslims will be fighting to return to the idealized fantasies of their former homes, while the Serbs will only be defending the wretched wasteland that their leaders have made of their current ones. Their leaders, meanwhile, will very likely have skipped town, their wealth securely socked away in Cypriot bank accounts, their Belgrade villas handsomely outfitted – just as the Serb leaders did in the Croatian Krajina and in western Herzegovina before the outbreak of the final Bosnian-Croat offensive in 1995. The war, then, will be short and brutal, with perhaps a million Bosnian Serbs being forced from the lands their ancestors inhabited for centuries, and relegated to a life of abject desolation as refugees among the Serbs of Belgrade, who will have at last achieved the dark realization of the dream that Milosevic originally sold them on ten years ago: all Serbs in one state, indeed. The metropolitan Serbs will despise these new refugees (just as they despise the current crop) as the persistent mirror of their own onetime folly, and they will make the refugees know it. And that will be that. Except that, of course, it won't be. Those desolate shantytowns will doubtless incubate the next batch of history's aggrieved Serbs, avid for revenge and just itching for the next fascist crusade to come along.


Or, then again, maybe not. There's a field alongside the road between Tuzla and Brcko, near the place where the highway crosses over from the Muslim-Croat Federation into the Republika Srpska. It was once the site of. pitched battles, salted with trenches and mines, and, in fact, it marks the place where the war came to an end on the eve of that last mammoth confrontation. Once the Americans arrived, they cleared the minefields and established a frontier checkpoint, and, little by little, merchants from either side of the divide started coming to trade. Nowadays, by eight or so in the morning the place is swarming, with tens of thousands of merchants and customers trading everything from cassette tapes and batteries and detergents and vegetables to stoves and cars and cattle – everything, they like to say, from pins to locomotives.


There are claptrap bars and outdoor cafes, and at one of those cafes, one afternoon, I happened upon a group of about eight merchants, relaxing after a busy day, ribbing and cracking wise and laughing up a storm. Two of the guys were Serbs, another was a Croat; there were two Muslims, a Montenegrin, and even a Hungarian, from the Vojvodina. I asked if any of them had fought in the war. "Oh, sure,” one of the Serbs said, laughing. "In fact, I was stationed right up there,” He turned, indicating the hills behind him. "And you were firing at me over there,” one of the Muslims chimed in, pointing in the other direction and laughing just as hard. "A pathetic shot!" A waitress brought a round of drinks, and everybody toasted everything. I asked whether it felt strange for them to be gathered together like this after so much killing. The other Serb fixed me with his eyes. "Look,” he said, "the thing you have to understand is that for eight hundred years around these parts, going all the way back to the Middle Ages. . ." Oh no, I felt myself deflating. Here it all comes again: the Battle of Kosovo, the massacres during the Second World War, the endless endlessness of it all. "For eight hundred years,” he repeated, "people around here have lived with each other in peace. Catholics, Muslims, Orthodox, Jews. In peace. No one anywhere else has been able to pull such a thing off. Sure, every once in a while some crooked politicians come along and muck everything up, but eventually they leave, and we're all still here. And people here know how to get along.”


See also "Beyond victimhood?" by Lawrence Weschler, The New Yorker, April 12, 1999

Articles Index

Balkan Witness Home Page





Contact Balkan Witness

Report broken links