Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Postcard From Yugoslavia

By Jacqueline Marino

APRIL 6, 1998:  BELGRADE–They say this city has been destroyed 38 times in its long, tumultuous history. Some of the buildings, the older ones with scars of shelling, look as if they’ve withstood a number of these attacks. So do some of the people.

Belgraders are tough people who eat red meat with every meal and drink a plum brandy that scorches the throat like liquid fire. They are resilient, skeptical, and on edge. I have never seen so many chain-smokers.

It is late afternoon near a picturesque theatre and folk music drifts from a nearby kiosk. I sprint past the open market where ancient women in black shawls sell radishes and raw, unrefrigerated eggs, past the storefront with fresh horse sausage in the window, past the crumbling buildings painted in graffiti in multiple languages, to the dirty white Yugo with a “taxi” sign on its roof.

The rugged, old gentleman at the wheel doesn’t speak a lick of English, but turns as far as he can in his cramped driver’s seat and tries.

“Americanka?” he asks pleasantly. I nod.

“Ah, America grand. Strong,” he says. “Yugoslavia kaput!”

Kaput is right. The United States doesn’t even recognize Yugoslavia as a country anymore, not since many of its territories broke away in the early part of this decade. Still, the current government under Slobodan Milosevic, whose record in the U.S. court of public opinion lags behind only Saddam Hussein, champions Serb nationalism.

This focus endangers more than his own reputation in international circles, however. It has recently helped spark another conflict in the Muslim-dominated region of Kosovo, located near Albania in the southern part of the country. By all indications – namely the bloody police raid on Muslims there last month – Serbia will not give Kosovo its autonomy, not without a fight that many fear could escalate into the next Balkan war.

When I decided to accompany pediatric heart surgeon Dr. William Novick and his International Children’s Heart Foundation on a volunteer medical mission to Belgrade, one colleague remarked that it would be like traveling to Berlin just after World War II. Anti-American sentiment is high. The economy has been wrecked. And Serbs, many of whom do not seem to support Milosevic or his cause, are simply trying to make lives for themselves in an industrialized world that blames them for the worst European atrocities since the second World War.

Even for an outsider, it’s not hard to see the economy has deteriorated since the war. People here say this is because of economic sanctions imposed on the country by the U.S. and others throughout the last decade. The local currency, the dinar, is worth about one-sixth the U.S. dollar, one-ninth on the black market. Inflation and unemployment have risen. In this country where taxi drivers often earn more than doctors, people are eager to talk about their wages with foreigners.

One television cameraman says he hasn’t been paid for his full-time job since November and must pick up freelance work to pay the bills. The monthly incomes of a nurse, a hospital profusionist, and a well-known television reporter I met were the same – the equivalent of $150 per month.

Many Americans find the circumstances of the war, which began when Slovenia, Croatia, and other former regions started to break away from Yugoslavia in 1991 and raged until 1995, unnecessarily confusing. I have seen it explained best by former war correspondent Ed Vulliamy in his acclaimed book, Seasons in Hell: Understanding Bosnia’s War. He says it was the result of “historical quests of two great Balkan powers of aggrieved medieval origin, Serbia and Croatia, and the attempt to reestablish their ancient frontiers with modern weaponry in the chaos of post-Communist eastern Europe.”

Still, most of the world blames Serbia for the war, and for compelling reasons. At one point, the Serbian army besieged the multi-ethnic city of Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina, blowing up hospitals and playgrounds and sniping at people as they emerged from whatever shelter they could find to collect water and food. Their soldiers and lawless bands of nationalist thugs called Chetniks tried to “ethnically cleanse” Bosnia of Muslims, murdering at whim, setting up concentration camps and raping thousands of women in the process.

I’ve been in Belgrade five days and, despite the warmth and friendliness displayed by the people I’ve met, the war is a difficult topic to broach. People seem reluctant to say much on the record. They don’t hesitate, however, to point to anti-Serb bias in the media and to say common people in Serbia suffered too during the war and they are still suffering.

Dr. Alexander Cvetkovic, a young, good-looking pediatric pulmonologist at the Institute for Mother and Child Health Care, remembers well the hardships faced by the hospital when economic sanctions were imposed during the war. Most medicines, in particular, were hard to obtain.

“It was a very, very hard period,” says Cvetkovic, who now worries new economic sanctions will be imposed because of the Kosovo conflict. “I will remember it for the rest of my life. Sanctions are not the solution to the problem, because the people suffer. Many children died.”

The medical team I’ve been shadowing spends between 12 and 15 hours a day in the hospital and about one hour a night in the bar. So it’s not surprising that much of what I know about the public sentiment in Belgrade I’ve learned from doctors who usually speak English and taxi drivers who usually don’t.

One anesthesiologist lowers his voice and looks suspiciously around the room before he tells me he doesn’t care for Milosevic or his nationalist politics.

“I don’t want to worry about the bombing,” he says. “I just want to treat the children. I want to have a normal life.”

One thick-necked cab driver, who wears a long, skinny trail of hair down his back and frequently reveals a toothy grin missing an incisor, gripes about the economy loudly in Serbian. He scatters just enough English words throughout his rant for me to grasp the subject matter. He stares at me in awe and gratitude when I tip him 5 dinars for a 25-dinar taxi ride.

“Thank you!” he gushes. “Thank you! A big surprise! Thank you. People in my country, you know, [as he punches imaginary buttons on his open palm as if it was a calculator] nothing.”

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