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The Past Puts a Chill Into Belgrade’s Day After

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Velimir Curgus Kazimir, a writer and journalist, is the author of seven books. He lives in Belgrade. Ljilja Nikolic translated the article from Serbian

Is he really finished? The question lingers in the air. I recall scenes from horror movies, especially John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” in which a seemingly dead body rises again and again. I’ve become superstitious and dare not say “he’s finished” aloud for fear that something may go wrong.

This is probably the result of many years of expecting, hoping and daydreaming that Slobodan Milosevic would finally disappear. I remember street protests during the winter of 1996-97. We were all so convinced that he was finished then that we could not have felt more defeated and disillusioned when his opposition simply disintegrated. It was as if our hope had grown so large that it canceled itself out.

What about now? Do I really believe the former Yugoslav president is finished? I notice an absence of exaltation and an overwhelming weariness in people. An old lady confides in me: “I am so tired, as if I’ve just finished spring cleaning.”

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These days, especially since Oct. 5, when protesters seized parliament and state television buildings in Belgrade, this feeling seems characteristic of people who spent the past 10 years opposing Milosevic’s regime. But the situation is entirely different for those in their 20s. They rejoice in the victory wholeheartedly.

As I pushed through the crowd in the city center on Oct. 5, past the parliament building and the state TV building on fire, I remembered friends and companions no longer with us. It hit me like a strong blow, expelling the air from my chest. My mother did not live to see the downfall of Milosevic. She died two years ago, and I know she lived for that day. Many other friends did not live to see it, either: Jelena Santic, a ballet dancer and champion of human rights; Aleksandar Kron, a philosopher; Stevan Pesic, a writer; Paja Cirovic, the director of the independent paper Svetlost--my old telephone book has turned into a record of disappearances. The price of the change certainly was not high on Oct. 5, but it is enormous if we include all that happened since Milosevic’s accession to power in 1988.

Still, one cannot but laugh at hearing the urban legends born on D-day. A young friend of mine was among the first to storm parliament, and he headed straight for the cafeteria to collect souvenirs. The place was filled with smoke and people. He found his way to the bar, trying to dig up six matching cups and saucers. People on the other side of the bar started “ordering” at once: “Two cups of coffee, medium strong”; “Coffee, no sugar, for me.”

The federal parliament in Belgrade had turned into a Serbian Berlin Wall, and many wanted to take a “piece.” Those who lament that today are hypocrites. So many things have been destroyed and ruined in this country, and so many lives wrecked, that it is senseless to expect the people to respect an institution that had been no symbol of democracy and civilized life for 50 or so years.

Before parliament was stormed, I made a wide circle around it. I saw people rushing to the center from all directions. Particularly touching was a group coming along Prince Milos Street. They came from the poor, industrial suburbs of Belgrade, their clothes dark-colored. Foreigners who stay in Belgrade’s centrally located hotels do not see the depths of despair and poverty at the city’s periphery. For them, Belgrade is an interesting, diverse and modern European city radiating an appealing kind of energy.

Next, I went to King Alexander Boulevard, where columns of people kept surging into Belgrade from the neighboring cities of Pancevo, Vrsac and Zrenjanin. I sat in the garden of a well-known restaurant, Madera. There, I watched men from Cacak, about 200 kilometers south of Belgrade, riding heavy machinery. They had come well-prepared: They had a truckload of stones, batons, bulletproof vests, concealed weapons and, naturally, roast pigs. They said they had come to “get the job done,” and we all knew what that meant.

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A young couple with a 3-year-old girl sat at my table. They had come from Gornji Milanovac, driving their own car, with the Cacak convoy. The woman, with her cell phone, left the crowd in the cafe and went to a park nearby. I heard her shout, “Grandpa, there’s a million of us here!” Her husband explained that the grandfather had broken his leg and had to remain in his village.

Generally, mobile phones didn’t operate, partly because of overload and partly sabotage. But that was no longer important. Everyone seemed to have a secret arrangement to communicate with friends and family, to find shelter. As if chaos and disorganization, which Serbs have always been notorious for, converged to form resoluteness and efficiency.

Essentially, the Milosevic regime was so worm-eaten that any organized effort to topple it could have been successful. One could especially see it in the eyes of bewildered policemen.

Naturally, the day after Milosevic’s fall was the most difficult one. We felt we were in an interregnum of sorts. The military leadership had not spoken up yet. We heard various rumors about Milosevic and his family. People feared that he would make a last stand and use his special paramilitary units. Long before the regime fell apart, I was haunted by the fear of how those who came through the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, where they carried out secret, criminal missions, would react. Many of them settled in Belgrade, including Gen. Ratko Mladic. Each one of these knights of evil is surrounded by his own guards.

For the first time, I bought all the daily papers. In Politika, which was the Milosevic family’s favorite, the world was turned upside down. Vojislav Kostunica, the new Yugoslav president, and the Democratic Opposition of Serbia were heroes, and Milosevic, his family and party friends, villains and cowards. The situation was the same with state TV. Where were the professionalism and sense of proportion of these “turncoats”?

They were lost long ago in the horrible purges and persecutions of the past 10 years. Thousands of professional people left the country. The texture of society changed not only through force and persecution but also through the prevailing poverty and ruin of the middle class. It will take a long time for things to start functioning with any degree of normalcy again.

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This should be preserved, remembered, I keep telling myself. This is history! The feeling of history is rather odd, not at all pathetic or heroic, but rather like stage fright. The heroes are generally ordinary, inconspicuous men whose role ended before anyone understood it. We can only have the vaguest of ideas about what was happening away from our eyes. Clearly, there was a plan, an organization, an inside conspiracy. The rot crept inside without revealing any signs of disintegration.

Perhaps I am a bit afraid of normal life. As if everything that has happened over the past 10 years is going to tumble down on my head. You lose so many years fighting for a normal and decent life and then suddenly become aware that the loss is irremediable. How many things haven’t I done in my small, limited life? How many books have I left unwritten? Is it possible to exchange the days and months filled with trepidation and helplessness for serenity and inner satisfaction? How can a person live with those he knows are vicious and cruel without feeling an urge to cry out for revenge? It is not a happy prospect.

I will probably keep coming back to these questions as long as I live. But, under the circumstances, perhaps personal happiness is an unnecessary luxury. I will have to pay for the evil deeds of those who will never experience guilt themselves. *

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