Articles on the Kosovo Conflict



The Milosevic Generation

The New York Times

August 29, 1999

The young Serbs of Belgrade watched their leader lose in Croatia, in Bosnia and then in Kosovo. Now they're the ones who are lost.

In the cafe at Tennis Club Max, not far from where American cruise missiles shredded Slobodan Milosevic's house, a law student explained the secrets of being certifiably crazy in Serbia.

"My final diagnosis from the army, the one they stamped on my passport, says I am a paranoid depressive," he said proudly.

As Serbs with racquets thwacked away a humid Balkan afternoon on clay courts in front of our table, the law student told me how his finest moment of make-believe madness, what he called "my extraordinary performance," had helped him to escape the war in Kosovo.

Unlike Serbia's previous lost wars in the former Yugoslav republics of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia, which the law student saw coming months in advance, the Kosovo conflict broke out too quickly for him to make his usual preparations. In the past, he had left his shoulder-length hair unwashed for weeks. In a well-chosen uniform of rubber gardening boots, worn-out pants and ragged sweaters, he muttered obscenities, spoke of suicide and cried uncontrollably. The Yugoslav Army psychiatrists were impressed; on six separate occasions, they exempted him from service.

In the spring, when NATO began bombing and Yugoslav Army recruiters came sniffing after conscripts again, the law student had no time to grow a convincing head of nut-case hair. Working with his parents, the law student, who is 26 years old and not nearly crazy enough to allow his name to appear in this magazine, came up with Plan B.

His mother called for an ambulance from Lazar Lazarevic Psychiatric Hospital (where the chairman, insanely enough, is Milosevic's wife, Mirjana Markovic). She said her son was once again acting odd. Meanwhile, in his bedroom in the house where he still lives with his parents, the law student sprawled out on the floor beneath a window, and his father smashed it to pieces. While the family waited for the ambulance, both parents sprinkled shards of glass on their son's head. He was whisked off to the hospital, where -- refusing to speak to doctors or nurses -- he spent the Kosovo war taking antidepressant pills, hiding them under his tongue and spitting them out in the bathroom.

While the law student whispered his story to me, a prominent surgeon, from a Serbian family that has produced doctors for generations, sat down at the table next to us. He had come to Tennis Club Max to watch his 7-year-old daughter take lessons. The surgeon had time on his hands. Taking advantage of United Nations sanctions imposed during the Bosnian war, he put down his scalpel six years ago and became a gasoline smuggler. It was an excellent move. The Government pays doctors about $140 a month; gasoline smugglers with government connections make many thousands of dollars a month. The surgeon has made so much money that he no longer smuggles. He plays tennis instead.

A bit later in the afternoon, after the law student had left, Radovan (Rade) Markovic sat down in the same chair to wait for his regular doubles match. He arrived with 10 thick-necked, skinheaded young men carrying automatic weapons. They staked out the perimeter of the tennis club, whispered into radios, hid behind trees.

Markovic, a short, beefy man with a steel-gray crew cut, is the head of state security and a protege of Milosevic's wife (but no relation to her). Besides being the country's top spy master, Markovic commands state paramilitary forces that helped lead the campaign of murder, theft and house-burning in Kosovo that war crimes investigators say killed at least 11,000 Kosovar Albanians. American officials say he is likely to be indicted by the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague, but Markovic has not allowed this unpleasantness to rattle his tennis game. Throughout the three-month Kosovo war and on into this summer, he played at Tennis Club Max as much as weather permitted. The weather, however, has been rough.

All summer, the rain punished Belgrade. Thunderstorms rolled over the city night after night, flooding homes, washing away cars and ruining the clay courts at Tennis Club Max. The booming storms kept Serbs awake, making them feel as helpless and hunted as on those spring nights when American missiles were picking apart government buildings. By midsummer, with the storms still pounding the city, it was widely rumored that the American Government was orchestrating the rain.

I found Tennis Club Max through Helena Zdravkovic, whose father owns the place and plays doubles regularly with Markovic, the state security boss. Helena drives a Mercury Capri convertible with expired Florida plates, but the police let her get away with it. They seem to know whom her father plays tennis with. Belgrade is that kind of town.

Welcome to the capital of Serbia, where bureaucrats with bodyguards and blood on their hands have become private-club swells, where middle-class professionals have been forced to choose between penury or criminality, where feigned lunacy is a sane way to stay safe.

Four lost wars, international isolation and gangster economics have combined to make Belgrade especially cruel to the young people who have come of age during the 12-year reign of Milosevic. The city has descended into its own sad, slacker category among major European capitals. It's a metropolis where hard work, professional excellence and saving for the future are wastes of time.

This is the Milosevic generation. Unemployed or stuck in jobs that usually pay less than $100 a month, young Serbs between the ages of 18 and 30 typically live with their parents, spend nearly all their money on night life, postpone marriage, avoid parenthood and put off plans for the future -- except to get out of the country. Estimates of the number of university-trained young people who have fled the city since 1990 range from 100,000 to 300,000. That's a catastrophic drain of talent and skills from a nation where in 1991 just 622,000 people in a population of 10 million had more than a high-school education. This summer even the option of running away has run out. The war in Kosovo forced most Western countries to close their embassies in Belgrade, making obtaining visas far more difficult.

"Delayed gratification is what the whole civilized world is based on, but in Belgrade, it makes no sense," says Svetlana Logar-Djuric, a prominent psychologist at the University of Belgrade and the mother of an 18-year-old son. She has spent several years researching, among other things, the lives of Belgrade's smart set -- those whose professional parents had, as late at the mid-1980's, constituted the only well-paid, widely traveled middle class in the Communist bloc.

"For young people here, it makes sense to be depressed," she says. "Many go to bed at 4 o'clock in the morning and sleep all day. They don't see a point in growing up to become responsible adults. The city teaches them to be helpless."

Her own son, Jovan, scolds her for having wasted her time working long hours to earn a Ph.D. He has a point. Her university job pays approximately $100 a month, and the money always arrives several months late.

"If you are a criminal, you are, like, cool," Jovan said one afternoon as we sat with his mother and four of his high-school friends in their Belgrade apartment so choked with cigarette smoke that it was difficult to see across the cramped living room. (Jovan and his friends were all chain-smokers.) "You can't blame anyone for being a criminal. I have respect for those who have the will to do what they want. Life in the fast lane -- how can that not be attractive?" His friends' heads bobbed in agreement.

Burglary, for instance, is one of the few promising career paths for savvy young Serbs. Home is where the money is -- about $2.5 billion, according to the Yugoslav Association of Banks. In the Milosevic era, it's much less risky to hide money in a mattress than to deposit it in a bank. The regime has seized the hard-currency savings accounts of most private depositors -- about $4.1 billion in the last decade. The regime also tacitly encourages the young to consider careers in car theft. The streets of Belgrade are filled with gleaming late-model cars that have no license plates. They are driven by mean-looking young men and are often ignored by the police. For the past two years, the Government has offered a monthlong amnesty to car thieves, allowing them to register any car, even one that is obviously hot, in order to raise money from licensing fees. Many of the vehicles have been swiped by gangsters and paramilitary thugs from other republics in the former Yugoslavia, as well as from Western Europe.

As much as Jovan and his friends were mesmerized by life in Belgrade's fast lane, they saw dark motives behind the West's bombing of their city. They told me that the reasons for the war were: American fear of a united Europe, the desire of the military-industrial complex to use up its old bombs and multinational corporate hunger for Serbia's mineral wealth. As for war crimes, Jovan and his friends told me to get real.

"It was war," Jovan said. "As much as Serbs did something bad, so did the Albanians."

Besides the streets flooded by unrelenting rains, the conspiracy theories, the stolen cars and the 20-somethings who were morbidly depressed, Belgrade was drowning in denial.

Some of it was merely the posturing of a defeated demagogue, as state-controlled television insisted in late June that Serbia had won the war. At a time when about 35,000 NATO troops had occupied Kosovo and when Kosovar Albanians, bent on revenge, were harassing, ripping off and murdering Kosovar Serbs, Milosevic's minions were announcing what every sentient Serb knew to be a lie. "Our country's territorial integrity and sovereignty have been defended," Momir Bulatovic, the Yugoslav Prime Minister, said in parliament. ** More fundamental and more pernicious was the denial that bubbled up in conversation this summer with well-educated young people in Belgrade. Almost without exception, they could not bring themselves to admit that atrocities had been committed in their name. Even as war-crimes investigators were digging up mass graves in Kosovo, they refused to concede what was obvious to the rest of the world: Serb forces had committed crimes against humanity on a scale and with an organized savagery that was grossly disproportionate to the threat posed by ethnic Albanians.

The people of Belgrade, about a fifth of Serbia's 10 million people and 40 percent of its college-educated population, were far less upset at the bestial way in which the war was fought than by the fact that Milosevic had compounded their poverty and isolation by losing it. ** I first started coming to Belgrade as a reporter in 1990, as Yugoslavia was beginning to come apart. On the first day I set foot in the country, I had the dubious privilege of spending several hours sitting next to Milosevic, listening to a windy lecture about wronged Serbian greatness, unable to get a question in edgewise and trying not to stare at his exceptionally big ears. He struck me then not as a nationalist zealot, but as an opportunist, scrambling to save himself from the fate of other Communist thugs from across the former East bloc. In 1989, most of them had been tossed out of office, jailed or, in the case of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his Stalinist and much-hated wife, Elena, lined up against a wall and machine-gunned to death. Milosevic, incidentally, also has a Stalinist, much-hated wife.

The Serbian leader dodged this bullet by hiding behind nationalism and exploiting his republic's fear of foreign domination. The splintering of Yugoslavia in the early 1990's, which left about two million Serbs outside of Serbia, gave Milosevic an excuse for using violence to change borders and protect his people. Then a swaggering nationalist regime in Croatia bullied Serbs and handed him an even better rationale for war. When there were no facts to justify Serbian paranoia, Milosevic used state television to manufacture them. He showcased a grisly procession of mutilated corpses. They were introduced to viewers as the bodies of innocent Serbs slaughtered by Croats or Bosnian Muslims or Kosovar Albanians. It worked. After the evening news, calls often flooded into spouse-abuse hot lines in Belgrade, as wives screamed that their husbands were beating them up.

Milosevic used nationalism as a kind of Orwellian Victory Gin. It intoxicated the masses and blurred their vision as everyone around Milosevic -- his son, his ministers and his paramilitary henchmen -- got rich off smuggling and war profiteering.

The final pillar of Milosevic's nationalism was murder -- of civilians whose sole crime was not being Serbian. I stayed in Sarajevo during the worst of the Serbian siege of the Bosnian capital. It was a barbaric exercise in which Serbs in the surrounding hills used artillery and sniper fire to randomly murder tens of thousands of people, most of them unarmed civilians. I remember being bounced out of bed by shells that struck apartment buildings near the pension where I was trying to sleep. The silence after an explosion was often broken by the screams of people discovering that their children or their parents had been blown to pieces. I visited these shattered apartments and once, after leaving, found a bit of human flesh sticking gumlike to my shoe.

But it never occurred to me in the early part of this decade that the Serbs of Belgrade were collectively responsible for these and other horrors perpetrated by the Milosevic regime. Far from it, Belgrade was for me an intellectual and cultural oasis in the ruins of Yugoslavia.

Tito's brand of Communism had allowed Belgrade's middle class to become far more affluent and Westernized -- from foreign travel and foreign investment, from a hybrid economy that mixed socialism with private enterprise, from a flood of foreign movies, books and music -- than residents of any other capital in Eastern Europe.

Until the war in Bosnia began in 1992, Belgrade had been the destination city in the East bloc for young Poles, Czechs and Hungarians seeking to be cool. It teemed with outspoken politicians, well-informed journalists and insightful academics -- not to mention beautiful women, smart nightclubs and excellent restaurants.

Milosevic was a curiously tolerant dictator. As long as he controlled television, he allowed the intelligentsia to fuss and fume against his regime in their low-circulation magazines.

That tolerance dried up after mass demonstrations in the winter of 1996-97 nearly brought down his regime. Milosevic imposed Draconian laws that all but silenced criticism. During the Kosovo war, one of the few journalists who continued to denounce the regime was shot dead in the streets of Belgrade.

Atrocities in Kosovo this year have blackened the name of Serbia as never before. Outside the country, the very word "Serb" took on the sinister resonance of "Nazi." Even if they were not the ones doing the fighting, an argument grew that Serbian civilians should be held morally responsible for crimes committed in their name.

In Belgrade this summer, though, people didn't feel responsible. Nor did they tolerate politicians who suggested that they were. At the huge opposition rally last week in Belgrade, as during earlier rallies outside the capital this summer, speakers who said that Serbia had been "shamed" in the eyes of the world were careful to blame Milosevic and a few maniacs in his regime -- and to distance the people of Serbia from any accountability for the conduct of the war.

I had asked Helena Zdravkovic, who is 21 and speaks perfect American-accented English, to take me around Belgrade. Having spent her teen-age years hanging out at Tennis Club Max, she was familiar with the life styles of the rich and criminal. She went to an elite public high school in Belgrade, and many of her closest friends were the children of middle-class professional parents who in the past 10 years have slid into poverty. She was both a player in the city's social scene and a skeptic, having studied journalism for the past two academic years at Florida International University, in Miami, and the American University in Paris. She plans to attend Emerson College, in Boston, next year.

Helena also happened to be blond, attractive and fitted out in fetching summer dresses, which does not hurt in Belgrade. Her father, Dejan Zdravkovic, opened Tennis Club Max nine years ago after retiring at the age of 40. He had made what he told me was a substantial amount of money in Italy selling machine tools to governments around the world. Most of the equipment was for making cannons and artillery pieces.

He came home to Belgrade and opened the club in the exclusive residential diplomats' neighborhood of Dedinje. He did it, he told me, because he wanted to spend more time with his wife and two children and play lots of tennis with his friends. The club has just 35 members, many of them businessmen who have grown rich under the United Nations sanctions imposed this decade on the Milosevic regime.

"Sanctions are paradise," Dejan said as we sat beneath "Just Do It!" sun umbrellas in the cafe of his club. "Normally, you import and you pay duties and then taxes. But under sanctions, if you know the right people, you pay no duties and no taxes, and you have the excuse of charging more. Sanctions are what cemented Milosevic's power."

Dejan, who drives a bright red Porsche with four-digit license plates that signal to police his connections to the regime, said repeatedly that he hates what Milosevic has done to Serbia. But he told me that he is a pragmatist.

"Tell me who surrenders money and power voluntarily?" he asked. "I'll tell you. Nobody."

Although Dejan and his wife, Ivana, play tennis, do business and socialize with well-connected people in the regime, they are nervous about the future. They are sending both their children to college in the United States. Ivana, a former professional translator who operates a travel agency exclusively for tennis club members, prefers that the children stay on in the States after college. Their son, Pedja, 19, won a four-year tennis scholarship to the University of Hartford and starts there in the fall.

Helena plans to return after college; she doesn't want to live anywhere but Belgrade. Her boyfriend, a tennis coach and concert clarinetist, is here. So are her friends and the comfortable accouterments of her upper-middle-class life. On a hot July morning, Helena treated me to one of those accouterments -- an apartment-turned-boutique in central Belgrade that admits only customers known to the owner. The shop, which has no name, sells designer clothing and fashion accessories shoplifted from Italy and smuggled into Serbia.

The owner, a Montenegrin with a shaved head, gold chains and leather vest, kissed Helena (and glared at me) before we climbed the stairs to his third-floor boutique. He is a regular at Tennis Club Max, where he comes with the latest issues of Vogue and Marie Claire to sit with well-heeled women. They point to clothes that tickle their fancy. His men in Italy then try to steal them. During the owner's brief conversation with Helena, he told her that one of his men in Italy had "fallen," meaning that he was arrested trying to break into a warehouse full of merchandise.

There were video cameras on the stairs leading up to the shop and a monitor inside that gave clerks a chance to scrutinize visitors before letting them enter. Helena, of course, was more than welcome. The place was piled high with panties and sunglasses, handbags and evening gowns. I saw pink-and-gray stiletto-heeled Versace shoes in the living room, Fendi white leather skirts in one bedroom and a handsome charcoal-gray Kenzo business suit in the second bedroom. Most of the clothes bore stickers from the stores where they had been stolen. The prices were about one-third retail. Helena was not impressed.

"It is nothing like it was last year," she said. "I mean I could find really nice clothes for myself and I am really picky."

The shopkeeper explained to Helena that the springtime war in Kosovo had constricted his supply line for summer fashion. But with the war over, he was expecting new shipments.

Then we were off in Helena's convertible, her 6-month-old, purebred English bulldog, Boobi, drooling in the back seat, for a look at what American cruise missiles have done to Belgrade. Like ice-pick punctures in the neck, the chilling quality of the strikes was not their size but their placement. We stopped at an intersection in the heart of the city. At each corner of the intersection, but only at each corner, there were ruins. The Serbian Government center, the foreign ministry and two defense ministry buildings had been reduced to rubble or were fire-gutted shells. The precision of the destruction suggested a war with an invisible, all-seeing enemy and of a city helpless to protect itself.

Eerily, all around the destruction, traffic flowed, shops were open and apartments were being lived in. Except for long lines for rationed gasoline, the surface of everyday life in Belgrade seemed remarkably placid. The summer's rain and heat had produced bumper crops, and fresh vegetables and meat were plentiful. But the surface was deceptive. The war in Kosovo had plunged the Serbian economy into free fall, incomes were collapsing and the United Nations World Food Program was warning of massive wintertime shortages of food, electricity and fuel.

We were invited to a late lunch in the private restaurant of a friend of Helena's father, a former gangster turned prominent businessman. We met in his office at a gleaming car dealership in the city center and were served espresso by a team of leggy, young female attendants whose skirts were short and T-shirts tight. Besides automobiles, the businessman imports blue jeans, designer sportswear, gasoline and engine lubricants. He told me, rather vaguely and under the condition that I not use his name, that he enjoys profitable connections with the Milosevic Government. But as a precaution against Milosevic's possible ouster, he said, his wife and children live in Athens.

In the weeks before we met, the opposition movement in Belgrade had been holding demonstrations around Serbia, demanding that Milosevic resign. The businessman said he did not approve, not because of any affection for Milosevic, but because it would probably be bad for profits. According to him and according to American Government officials, opposition parties in Serbia often demand kickbacks and bribes from businessmen, just like the ruling Socialist Party that Milosevic controls.

"I think it is more expensive to deal with opposition politicians than with the Socialists," the businessman told me. "The new parties are very hungry for bribes. I am afraid that any political change may be worse."

The businessman got his start in Belgrade's gangster economy in the early 1990's, using money acquired from several years of working in Germany as a thief, according to a longtime friend. Asked how someone gets ahead in Milosevic's world, the businessman, with a straight face, said, "Everybody who is smart, who is willing to spend 16-hour days in the office like I do, can work and do well."

Being smart and hard-working have nothing to do with getting rich in Serbia, says Robert S. Gelbard, who until this summer was the United States special envoy to the Balkans. Gelbard, who spent the past two and a half years watching the Milosevic regime, estimates that only a few thousand people have profited from the crony capitalism of what he calls "Serbia Inc."

"This is a kleptocracy," he says. "People who are senior members of the party structure or of the Government have been sucking the country dry, although the terrain has become pretty arid."

A few of the kleptocrats are notoriously well connected to the regime. Milosevic's only son, Marko, made a fortune smuggling gasoline and cigarettes. The paramilitary warlord, Zeljko Raznatovic, better known as Arkan and indicted in 1997 for war crimes in Croatia and Bosnia, amassed a fortune of his own in gasoline smuggling and money laundering in the early 1990's before turning to politics, marrying Serbia's hottest pop star in a ceremony broadcast on state- run television and buying a Belgrade soccer team. (Apparently nervous about the future in Belgrade, Arkan sounded out officials in Belgium about moving there; he was told that he would be arrested.)

Private businessmen have also made fortunes by paying off the regime to secure import licenses that give them monopolies inside Serbia on consumer goods. The real players in Serbia Inc., though, are Government ministers who typically regulate and award contracts to firms that they also control. Dejan Kovacevic, for example, is the Serbian minister of construction, as well as chairman of Mastrogradnje, a major construction company that wins large government contracts from his own ministry.

The Serb businessman who attributed his wealth to intelligence and hard work took Helena and me to lunch at his private restaurant, which he bought this summer and where the only diners are his friends and business associates. With a Puccini opera playing softly in the background, we were served caviar pasta and an elegant pinot noir in the restored dining room of a 19th-century town house. The conversation turned, as did nearly every conversation I had this summer with Serbs in Belgrade, to Kosovo.

Describing the Kosovar Albanians as "the most criminal people in the world," the businessman said Americans should have known what the Serbian reaction would be to the NATO bombing.

"When you put your bombs on Belgrade, we had to make ethnic cleansing in Kosovo," he said. "This is normal. Everybody in Serbia knows it, even little children."

The downwardly mobile in Belgrade do not mind being quoted by name. Helena took me one evening to meet her friend Darko Susnjar, who grew up in Belgrade's upper middle class, but who has since been skidding into the ranks of the working poor. He worked this summer as a ticket taker on a private bus, making about $5.50 for a 12-hour day.

With a ring in his left ear, day-old stubble and long brown hair tied in a ponytail, Susnjar, 26, bears a passing resemblance to a young version of the comedian George Carlin.

We met at a pizza place beside the Danube River in Zemun, a suburb of newish but dismal apartment buildings. Darko was late because thieves, for the third time in a month, had tried to steal his 1983 Opel Cadet. The car's door and trunk locks had all been broken, and he had just learned that it would cost $125 to fix them. That was about a month's pay.

"My car is 16 years old and falling apart. I can't understand the mentality of people who want to steal that kind of junk," he said.

Darko was depressed, and not just about the car. An only child, he lives with his parents and admits to being a desultory student at the University of Belgrade. Like many students there, he sees no point in graduating. He studies ethnology, a field that he acknowledges is a waste of time, given the circumstances in Serbia.

"If someone had told me 10 years ago that I would be working on a bus, I would have had to fight him," Darko said, after a beer.

He grew up expecting more. His parents were supervisors at two major hotels in Belgrade, he said, making a combined salary of more than $70,000 a year until the early 1990's. Foreign investors have since pulled out of the Intercontinental Hotel, where his mother worked. His father worked at the Hotel Yugoslavia, which on May 7 was hit by three American cruise missiles. The Americans were apparently trying to take out the hotel's casino, which was partly owned by Arkan, but missed by a few feet and gutted a wing of rooms in the hotel.

Darko and his family live near that hotel, and he happened to be out that Friday night in May getting a hamburger at a fast-food kiosk. He paid for his burger a few minutes before midnight, just as the missiles ruined his father's livelihood.

"I stood there for a minute and watched the hotel burn," Darko said. "What to do? I walked home and ate my hamburger. Now, from day to day, we sink lower. You ask yourself, How much more?" He said his parents now live on a sort of severance pay that totals about $45 a month.

"Until this country went to hell, my mother and father and I had really great lives," he said. "They took me all over the world. We lived like normal people in Europe. We went to the sea. We went skiing. We had normal new clothes and normal new cars, not junk like now. We used to fly to Rome to go shopping. My father once called me long-distance from CBGB in New York, where he was on a business trip, just to say that he was in the place where the Ramones got their start. These are the reasons why I can't picture myself as a ticket taker on a bus."

Darko has a plan to escape. It depresses him, but still it's a plan. He calls it the "Green Card" option, a reference to the 1990 movie in which Gerard Depardieu marries Andie MacDowell to win legal residency in the United States. Darko's Andie MacDowell will be his girlfriend's sister, who lives in Lucerne, Switzerland.

"She doesn't like it, but she will do it," he told me.

I asked Darko about politics, mentioning that I had been attending opposition rallies and heard a couple of speakers who dared to mention Serbian atrocities in Kosovo.

Darko, who listened to Radio Free Europe throughout the war, had also heard about atrocities. He did not argue that they were justified by Albanian treachery. He simply did not care to talk about the subject. To avoid thinking about war and to salve depression brought on by the summer of endless rain, Darko said he was reading 19th-century novels and listening to sunny Cuban music.

"Politics here is a kind of sickness, and I'm not interested," he said. "Democratic change will take many years. In the meantime, the Serbs will hibernate, like bears. At this time, Thanatos is much stronger than Eros. It is dark here now. That is our reality."

The morning after we drank beer with Darko, thugs attacked young people from the opposition Democratic Party who were asking residents in the suburb of New Belgrade to sign a petition calling for Milosevic's resignation. Three opposition party workers were injured, and one was hospitalized with head and internal injures. As usual in Belgrade, no arrests were made. The incident was not reported on state television.

While the opposition activists were getting their heads kicked in, Helena and I were just two blocks away in a newly built shopping center that was leaking in the summer rain. Shoe-shop clerks took advantage of a clear morning to set hundreds of pairs of soaked sneakers out on a sidewalk to dry in the sun. We went to a bar in the shopping center to have coffee with a young woman who, until that morning, had worked as a news writer at a television station in Belgrade.

BK Television is a private station owned by the five Karic brothers, among the richest businessmen in Serbia. The station has sleek broadcast studios, attractive anchorpeople and a jazzy news format. But it slavishly toes the Government line. When it mildly challenged the regime in 1997, Milosevic threatened to take away the station's broadcast license.

Ivana Konstantinovic, 22, a diminutive woman with large brown eyes, has worked for BK Television for nearly three years. Mostly, she repackaged news from state-controlled television, trying to make it into a more zippy product. She cut out words like "hegemony" and "international organs." But still, as she conceded over coffee and nearly pack of cigarettes, her final product was usually distorted and misleading.

"We tried to tell the truth, but it was a matter of luck whether we succeeded," said Ivana, also a student at the University of Belgrade studying international relations. "Sometimes, by being clever, we could tell things the Government didn't want known. During the rallies against Milosevic in 1996, we were not allowed to say how large the crowds were. So we said buses were having trouble getting through the city."

In the wake of the Kosovo war, state television this summer demonized Serbian opposition leaders, often calling them traitors and spies in the pay of the C.I.A. Ivana dutifully rewrote these accusations, although she said she did not believe them. She could mention opposition rallies only after they had been denounced by Government officials.

Ivana wants to get out of Serbia with her boyfriend, Bojan Dragicevic, a technician at BK Television. Her three best friends have already fled to Botswana, France and Holland. That was before the war in Kosovo and before the visa situation tightened. She now lives at home with her parents, both of whom are engineers. One designs plastic bags, the other works in a tractor factory. Ivana gets paid about $110 a month, which is roughly a tenth of what she would have been paid for the same job a decade ago.

"In this situation," she said, "that is quite good money for me."

On the morning we spoke, Ivana had been promoted. She had started a new job as an early- morning on-air personality, reading traffic reports and community-service bulletins.

"I was very depressed writing lies," she said, "Now on the morning program, at least, I can honestly look into the camera and say: 'There is no electricity this morning."'

For young women in Belgrade, career choices tend to lie somewhere on a continuum between honest-impoverishing and criminal-lucrative. In the dispiriting middle lies the temp work done by "sponsor girls" -- middle-class high-school girls who tart themselves up and trade their bodies to gangsters in return for designer clothes, cell phones and fancy dinners.

The European, a Belgrade magazine banned by the regime at the beginning of the year, described a sponsor girl as "a symbol of the absolute commercialization of sexuality, the newest manifestation of the subjugation of women. She is the target of malicious gossip and the dark subject of her fellow teen-agers' dreams, the reason for her parents' distress."

I had dinner with two buxom, bejeweled and elaborately made-up young women, one of whom used to date Helena's brother. We met around midnight in the Fortress, an elegant new outdoor restaurant built amid Roman and medieval ruins on a hilltop at the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers. It's an expensive place where gangsters gather late at night to show off new cars, gold chains and teen-age babes in designer duds. The heavy night air smelled of grilled beef and American cigarettes and French perfume. Serbian rock music washed across the terrace from a nightclub next door.

The young women agreed to meet me only to discuss the phenomenon of sponsor girls, not to talk about themselves. But after about a half-hour of conversation, they both began to slip in and out of the first person while explaining the costs and benefits of hanging out with older men with guns, shaved heads and deep pockets.

"If you are with a guy who makes his living that way, you can be the center of attention," said Olja Karleusa, 18, who was dressed in a powder-blue satin jacket over a tight tank top. Her dyed blond hair was teased Tina Turner style and her milky white lipstick matched her nails.

"Gangsters are a normal element of life," Olja said. "The girls don't think they are doing anything wrong. The possibility of earning money is very small. Everyone here does illegal stuff, so it seems so normal."

Her friend, Milena Markovic, 19, who wore glitter makeup on her cheeks and whose breasts were bursting out of a low-cut T-shirt that said "Power Girl," told me that every high-school girl in Belgrade is tempted by the life gangsters can offer.

"It feeds your ego if you are with a guy like that," she said.

Helena had told me that Olja's boyfriend is a Belgrade criminal whose best friend was shot this summer in a cafe. Olja did not want to talk about it. She and Milena did want to talk about the short shelf life and poor marital prospects of a sponsor girl after she turns 24.

"The guys go from one girl to another and there is a very small chance of him falling in love," said Olja. "There are so many girls that he can always find another younger one."

"The guys are aware of the situation and that they have all the power," added Milena.

"They realize what scum the girls are and they use them," Olja said.

The more they talked, the angrier they became and the more "they" became "we."

"We are furious because without a gangster friend, you can't really enjoy Belgrade," said Olja. "Girls have no possibility to do what they want with their lives unless they are from rich families."

Both the girls had graduated from high school and said they were planning on enrolling this fall in the law faculty at the University of Belgrade. It didn't make sense to become a lawyer in a country without laws, they said, but they didn't know what else to do.

I asked them about Kosovo, about the bodies of Albanians that were being dug up there from mass graves and if they were aware that outside Serbia, many people had the impression that Serbian forces had committed genocide.

It was as if I had belched or insulted their makeup. The conversation paused awkwardly. Both girls seemed offended.

"I don't know what happened in Kosovo," Olja said, dismissively. "I didn't hear that we did any more atrocities than what the Albanians did to us."

They wanted to talk about the weather. Both Olja and Milena said the summer's thunderstorms reminded them of the spring months when Americans bombed Belgrade. They said they'd been having trouble sleeping and that they'd heard the Americans were causing the rainstorms.

I said I did not think that was very likely. They left for another nightclub.

It was about 1 a.m. but the restaurant was still crowded. Sullen men were knocking back whiskey and being adored by young women who looked like Olja and Milena. A friend of Helena's spotted us and invited us for a drink. He was eager to talk about Kosovo. In fact, Vukoje Dobric, a Serb who was born and raised in Kosovo, found it difficult to talk of anything else. He chain-smoked cigarettes and drank beer after beer, and his left leg twitched incessantly. A medical student, he looked much older than his 20 years. His nerves seemed shot.

Vukoje lives in a Belgrade apartment next door to what used to be the headquarters of the Federal Interior Ministry. The massive building was demolished this spring by American cruise- missile strikes. They came at night, as Vukoje, just a few yards from the blazing building, lay terrified in his bed.

His parents fled their home in the Kosovo town of Klina two weeks after Milosevic signed the June peace deal that pulled Serbian forces out and let NATO in. They left behind two houses, two pharmacies, several cars and more than 40 acres of land that had been in the family since the mid-19th century. On the night I talked to Vukoje, his parents and four other relatives were sleeping in the two-bedroom Belgrade apartment he had been sharing with his sister.

"My parents just sit in the apartment all day long," Vukoje told me. "They don't do anything. I am afraid they are going to go crazy. I blame the Americans for not protecting the Serbs from the Albanians. I blame Milosevic for losing in Kosovo. I blame my parents for not selling out and leaving sooner. They left everything we own behind."

Before I could ask about the Serbian war crimes, Vukoje acknowledged that Serbs had done "a lot of bad things."

"You have maniacs and war is like that," he said. "But someday the Americans are going to discover who the Serbs are and who the Albanians are. The Albanians want to take over. They will live 50 in a house."

Vukoje said Serbs will wait until NATO loses interest and take Kosovo back by force. It did not matter to him that Albanians outnumber Serbs in Kosovo by more than 9 to 1.

"I know that what is mine is mine, whether I live to see it or not," he said. "No one can take it away from me. The Turks took our land for 500 years, and we took it back."

The next day I visited Vukoje's apartment and spoke to his father, Rados, who is a pharmacist. As recently as last year, Rados said, he could have sold his houses and land to Albanian buyers for about a half million dollars. He held on until June, when, panicked by what returning Albanian refugees might do to his family, he gave his keys to an Albanian neighbor and fled.

"I had a new Mitsubishi Pajero and I told my neighbor he could keep it, if he protected my house," said Rados, who did not know if his property had been protected or burned.

I asked him about the future. He looked at his medical-student son and shook his head in disgust.

"I don't see any future for him," Rados said. "I made him study to be a doctor. But when I see that a doctor in Belgrade makes 250 German marks a month [about $140] and does not get paid on time, I don't know what to tell him."

Rados said he had always expected war in Kosovo. His father had been shot by Albanians in 1945. He bought an apartment in Belgrade 15 years ago as a precaution -- a place away from Albanians who he suspected might one day kidnap his son and rape his daughter.

I asked Rados if he felt the Serbs had done anything wrong in Kosovo and mentioned the mass graves being dug up by war-crimes investigators.

"I am not a politician, how should I know?" he said. "NATO bombing was the biggest crime. No one wants to be our friend. We have been betrayed by everyone."

Rados was proud that he had refused to sell his land in Kosovo. Like his son, he believed Serbs would one day fight to get it back. If he did not get the land back before he died, well, there were more important things than death: "Something inside told me I would be guilty and sinful toward the graves of my ancestors if I sold."

At Tennis Club Max on the afternoon before I left Belgrade, Helena and I spent an afternoon with her next-door neighbor, a 19-year-old who seemed to know precisely what Serbia needed before it could embrace democracy.

Vlada Pejovic, who has a long, sad face and large brown eyes, graduated this summer as the valedictorian of the Nikola Tesla High School for Engineering. Since he was 15, he has been tutoring high-school seniors (including Helena) on how to take the S.A.T. so they can get into an American college.

"People here think all the world is against us," Vlada told me. "But I don't think the world has interest in us. There is a mass hypnosis here. The Government wants to stay in power so it suffocates free thought."

Before democracy can gain a foothold, Vlada said, the first thing Serbs have to do is be honest with themselves and come to grips with what happened in Kosovo, as well as in Bosnia and Croatia.

"Until that happens, they are going to blame the world, rather than their own leaders," he said.

Vlada, though, had no idea who would teach Serbs the truth. He was planning to travel to Budapest to take the college boards. During the bombing of Belgrade, he had made up his mind. He was getting out.

The night before coming into Belgrade, I had dinner with Milka Tadic, a prominent Yugoslav journalist. During an evening in which she grew increasingly combative and angry, she warned me not to be taken in by Serbs who claim that they do not know about the atrocities committed in their name in Kosovo.

"The silence in Belgrade about what went on makes me really sick," she said. Tadic is the managing editor of Monitor, a weekly political magazine published in Montenegro.

"Serbs don't want to know, but most of them know," she went on. "They have satellite dishes and short-wave radios. They know, but they don't care. All they care about is themselves. For them, Albanians are not really human beings. The Serbs believe they are the chosen people. It is racism. I hate to say it, but it is like what the Germans did."

As our dinner ended, Tadic told me a jarring story about the huge winter demonstrations that nearly toppled Milosevic two years ago. She remembered a chant -- "Go to Kosovo! Go to Kosovo!" - that University of Belgrade students shouted when the police confronted them with clubs.

Tadic said the students objected to police brutality only because it inconvenienced them. "These are the nice young liberals of Belgrade," she said.

I argued with Milka that night. I said it was unfair to tar an entire people for the depravity of their leaders. But after a month in Belgrade, after listening to intelligent and cultured people dismiss the savagery in Kosovo as "no worse than what they did to us," I came to share Milka's rage.

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