Letter from Belgrade
April 6, 1999
By Jasmina Tesanovic
March 26, 1999
I hope we all survive this war, the bombs: the Serbs, the Albanians, the bad and the good guys, those who took up the arms, those who deserted, refugees going around the Kosovo woods and Belgrade's refugees going around the streets with their children in arms, looking for nonexisting shelters, when the alarm for bombing sets off.
I hope that NATO pilots don't leave behind wives and children who I saw crying on CNN as their husbands were taking off for military targets in Serbia. I hope we all survive but not this world as it is.
. . . I went to the market in my neighborhood, it has livened up again, adapted to new conditions, new necessities: no bread from the state, but a lot of grain on the market, no information from the official TV, so small talk among frightened population of who is winning. Teenagers are betting on the corners: whose planes have been shot down, ours or theirs, who lies best, who hides best victims, who exposes best victories, or again victims. As if it were a football game of equals.
The city is silent and paralyzed, but still working, rubbish is taken away, we have water, we have electricity. But where are the people -- in houses, in beds, in shelters. I hear several personal stories of nervous breakdowns among my friends, male and female. Those who were in a nervous breakdown for the past year, since the war in Kosovo started, who were very few, now feel better: real danger is less frightening than fantasies of danger. I couldn't cope with the invisible war as I can cope with concrete needs: bread, water, medicines.
I think of the Albanians in Kosovo, of my friends and their fears, I think they must be worse off then us: fear springs up at that thought, it means that it is not the end yet.
Every evening I go with my friends and family to the big underground station in the neighborhood: I know people there already, of all ages and social types. They come with stools and small talk. We think of making an emergency plan: in all cases, we try to list the many possible developments of the situation. Hardly one can be good for us, common people who cannot believe anybody anymore, who have nothing but few dollars in our bags and a lot of bad experience. "At least we are not pathetic," I say, "and our children will not be spoiled." . . . I even say, "My daughter will be a rarity, a true Serbian raw beauty, ready to die for nothing: won't some cultures love that?" It will be so exciting for those who are afraid of lightning and thunder to see a thin teenager in jeans not afraid of bombs.
. . . I watch Jamie Shea from the NATO press conference, he is terribly precise, you hear him you hear it all, the reality that happens to us seems only a slight deviance from his course. But of course, it isn't that simple . . . I fight for my computer every day, every hour, everybody in my family wants my computer, the only one at home, for playing, for studying, for communicating.
We heard our friends from Kosovo, they don't want to speak on the phone, they are living already what will probably come to us in a few days: killings and looting of flats, houses, complete anarchy.
Today no bombs, I slept 16 hours, no alarm to wake me up. . . . A BBC journalist said Serbian people are big-hearted, they wouldn't have killed the pilot of the fallen plane, they would have given him homemade bread and brandy as they claim. But how come then NATO generals claim that Serbian are committing atrocities against Albanian civilians? I believe them both. . . .
My father used to dream of bombings long after the war was over, wake up during the night and take me out of my bed and carry me out to the basement: sleepwalking. I remember him doing it, I did it myself last night, to my daughter, a few times. I feel as if a sickness is getting out of my body, a long historical fever, a buried anxiety which I inherited being a Serb of Serbian father from Herzegovina . . .
Last night we spent in shelter, three grownups, five children and two dogs. Actually it is a private house with a good cellar next to a very decent deep underground station, the one where I spent the night Belgrade was first bombed, mostly inhabited by Gypsies and mothers with small children. Our group was a large family, a psychological family, we make a group on psychological not biological basis. Our group was based I think on fear to be hit by a NATO bomb or some local warrior. Yesterday a band of very primitive vandals was roaring through the city destroying windows and screaming at whoever they felt was different. But then police with shields scattered them: finally the police were doing what I expect them to do. In '97, during the demonstrations, those shielded policemen were on the other side from where I stood.
. . . We were expecting bombs in Belgrade downtown, CNN said so. Instead three American soldiers were captured by Yugoslav army, again CNN says so. It is a dirty dirty war, I say, frightened people in basements, bruised soldiers on TV without name, Albanian refugees crying in TV all the time saying all those things people should never have to say, especially not in TV. Human dignity is here at stake, of all of us, actors and onlookers. April 1st, the fool's day.
My parents are alone in their flat, they hardly hear the alarm, they watch official TV and every now and then phone me, saying, "Don't worry, it will be OK." And I feel better, the voice of my father calms me, as when I was a kid, he gives me security, I don't give that kind of security to my children. On the contrary, it is a choice not to: this world is not a safe place.
Today is the Catholic holy Friday . . . The son of my friend phoned last night from the battlefield: he could hardly speak, he said he was somewhere not saying where and that he was OK but that some of his friends were not so. The age limit for the volunteers who want to join the war has moved to 75 for men. What about women, no age limit, often they are even more loud in their patriotism?
I watch the sea of refugees orchestrated from both sides on the borders with Yugoslavia, Macedonia, Albania. It reminds me very much of the scene I saw in '95, when Serbs from Krajina were pouring into Serbia for days and days, without resistance, thoughts, ideas, of what and why has happened. I had a feeling it was orchestrated -- everything except for the pain and the actors themselves, they were natural.
It is morning, a beautiful sunny morning, I am crying . . . last night center Belgrade was bombed with appalling precision, yes the military targets, but only 20 meters from one of the biggest maternity hospitals in the Balkans, the one where I was born and years later gave birth. The destroyed building was Ministry of Interior: some of my friends remember being interrogated there.
I am relieved, happy with NATO precision, it was even raining, but I feel visible, exposed to those young responsible pilots who carry their cargo wondering will they make it to hit the military building without doing wrong to a newborn baby. They were all in shelters, the babies, the mothers, and I am crying, relieved, all this matter of life and death reminds me of a delivery, of my delivery, of being brave and crying at the same time.
Again a night in shelter. Another two bridges have been struck down towards Hungary and the railroad towards Montenegro is destroyed on the Bosnian territory by SFOR troops. Facts which make me claustrophobic, the wire is finally visible around our cage in the zoo: [Here are] wild bad Serbs from 13th century, some disguised in jeans, most speaking the language (English), but still different, aliens.
This NATO strategy is completely in line with local nationalists who said "when the maternity hospital suffered the concussions from bombs nearby our babies didn't even cry, because they are Serb babies . . . " Well, I am not a baby, but I cried yesterday like crazy, hearing the song "Tamo daleko" ("There far away is Serbia"). It is a beautiful sad song from World War I, when Serbian soldiers went to Thessaloniki, Greece, to fight, and only few came back.
My grandfather was one of them. . . . When I was a kid he used to sing me that song, when I grew up I sang that song abroad when asked to sing a Serbian song. It is the only Serbian song I know how to sing and make people cry: yesterday thousands of people sang it on the Square of Republic during the daily concert. But I couldn't sing it anymore, this is not my song anymore, this is not my Serbia anymore, not the one that my grandfather fought for. Far, far away is my Serbia, I am now in my own country in cage and in exile.
The most terrible thing in a way is that after all, nothing really happens: in the morning we are alive, we have food, we have electricity, we have even luxury articles like whiskey. But in a way, we were there, where it all happened, once again not us but to somebody else. As in false executions we survive our own death every night.
I entered a pharmacy, it was full, fuller than ever, but you couldn't get aspirins or tranquilizers, and everybody was asking for those. The supplies were out.
Another detail: sweet-shops are full, people are buying sweets like crazy -- emotional distress, lack of love. . . .
Today is the anniversary of the bombing of Belgrade in 1941 by Hitler. However the major damage to Belgrade was made at the end of the war by bombing of the allies, the so-called liberation or Britain bombs. I know everybody today here will use this parallel to feel better or worse, whatever. . . .
I was sitting on the terrace this morning, the sun was bathing me with great love, I was dreaming of the sea and clear sky of which we spoke last night waiting for air raids on the terrace, while the planes were flying over our heads. And the planes came again. But they didn't bomb Belgrade last night: again other places, other victims. I feel so guilty, more than ever this morning for this Other. My friends and enemies from all over the world ask me, do you realize how terrible it is in Kosovo? I do, I really do, and I feel guilty that we feel bad here without having the horror they do. But our war, for the past 10-50 years has always been this kind of invisible horror, we have still a long way to run to the catharsis, to be free from our bad conscience, wrong myths, inertia...
I feel we are being cut away from the rest of the world, more bridges down, more friends and enemies pointing out to us here how bad we are, more crazy people here making careers on screaming how we are heavenly people. And the people? In cellars or just in beds waiting for nothing.
I dreamed last night of bombs falling in my cellar, in my bed and afterwards feeling relieved and free. I should stop writing, I hate my dreams, thoughts and words. But it is a vice.
Shortly before midnight: We are under raids, we hear boom boom all the time. I am hoping, I am trembling, but my family is okay. And let's hope we all survive -- but really, all.