Atlantic Abroad November 2000

Among the Ruins: Belgrade

Serbians look back in anger
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Central Belgrade

Sladjana stood in the darkness and looked out over the low stone wall and beyond the hillside that drops to rusty railroad tracks and the slow sweep of the Sava River. She pointed to the black skyscraper, there, across the river, near the Hyatt, which is next to the Intercontinental Hotel, in the part of town that is, in a way, full of comfort. There was not a single light on in the skyscraper. Sladjana told me to look at the top floors, which were even blacker than the rest. That, she said, was where the bombs fell.

And then Sladjana, a tall twenty-nine-year-old with an easy laugh, a woman who minds her own business and spends her days programming in Microsoft's C++ computer language, began to talk about the sounds of war.

"You should have heard them, three-ton, five-ton bombs," she said. "So loud!"

Sladjana told me how she and her friends—and hundreds she did not know—had gathered here, on the cracked pavement in the tired park on the promontory at the north end of the city. They had danced in the dark, defiantly, as the moving stars high, high up in the sky dropped the bombs that rocked that skyscraper, set it on fire, and turned out the lights.

Then Sladjana cupped her arms and hunched her shoulders, an imitation of herself cowering from a blast in the daylight of a Sunday morning. Most of the bombs, that springtime before last, fell during the night. But a few times, four or five, she said, they landed on Sunday morning. And that was when Sladjana, alone in the kitchen, shuddered over her coffee.

Sladjana is a friend of a friend whom I met for the first time on a clear, crisp evening five days after the revolution. After a tense entry at the airport—"you are going back to Vienna," the border guard threatened at first—I had my visa and was in the capital of the country that kicked out the man who led his people through a dark decade. I met Sladjana in a busy square near the towering statue of Knez Mihajlo on horseback, which is set upon a block covered in Cyrillic graffiti, including a black bumper sticker with that famous phrase even I understood: "He's finished!" The first thing Sladjana had said after shaking my hand was, "Come on, I'll show you where we watched the bombs fall." She did that, and then we turned, at half past ten, and headed through the park toward the city center.

We walked along a wide pedestrian street, also named for Knez Mihajlo, the prince who helped drive out the Turks centuries ago. Sladjana and I passed a Benetton store, Levi's, and Gianni Versace. I stopped at a red wooden kiosk and flipped through pirated CDs: Tom Jones, Jennifer Lopez, and a local horn band from the south. A man sold brown paper bags full of popcorn—fifteen cents for a small, thirty for a large—from a plastic booth built in the shape of a cartoon rabbit. I stopped for a moment next to a fountain and turned in a circle. Three young men gently slapped each other on the back in greeting. Two women passed, arm-in-arm, strolling.

Sladjana and I moved on and she told me that her parents had always made sure that she lived comfortably. She was able to study and enjoy time with her friends. She never had to travel to the wars and fire a rifle, or kill, or step over the dead. But she did have to listen to the leader's message: this country must fight; this country does not need anybody. For her, that message was the hardest part.

"We knew we didn't have to live alone. So why?" Sladjana said.

A few minutes later, while crossing a small square near the Parliament building where the leader lost his people, Sladjana stopped.

"This is where I was standing," she said. "I was crying from the tear gas."

She described the crush of the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd that drew tighter as the hours moved from one to two to three on that rainy afternoon less than a week before. She pointed to the far side of the wide boulevard in front of the Parliament. The men from the countryside came from that direction, she said.

We crossed the boulevard and a swath of dead grass. There was no one here in the shadows beneath the Parliament. I stepped over broken glass and looked through iron bars into the burned rooms. We climbed the steps, and read again that graffiti: GOTOV JE! This was where the crowd charged in, finding the doctored ballots, tossing portraits from the windows. Three dogs wandered up the steps, then down. We walked around the corner of the building and across the same lawn where the police had turned, heads ducked, eyes wide, shoulders lowered in a run of flight, not pursuit.

We headed down a side street. Leafy branches hung low. Small cars sat along the right curb. It could have been, in this light, Paris. We passed four policemen, dressed in blue jackets and blue pants, out walking the beat. The police had stopped a driver. They were asking questions.

Sladjana told me that during the winter months four years before she had stood alongside thousands of others in the big square, not far from Knez Mihajlo and his horse, thinking, "I am in a free country." Then the police, that time dressed in helmets and flack jackets and carrying sticks, charged across the square. She told me how she braced, bent, as the police rushed past.

Then Sladjana and I crossed that square, past the fountain and back among the kiosks and the popcorn in the rabbit. I bought a piece of pizza and Sladjana and I sat on a bench next to a concrete planter. Sladjana told me this is her favorite spot. She was happy and joked about the leader she hopes is gone for good.

Was he smart? Of course he must have been, Sladjana said, if he was able to control his people—his enemies and his allies—for all those years. But in the end, she reasoned, he was not smart enough. She talked of other dictators who have lasted longer.

She laughed and said, "Slobo is stupider than Saddam."

Dedinje, Residential Belgrade

I took the last bite of a flaky pastry filled with sharp, salty cheese, the last gulp from a cup of plain, fresh yogurt, and decided to go see where Slobo lives. When I decided this, I was sitting in a plastic chair at a plastic table on a plastic green carpet outside a bakery in a residential neighborhood further up the Sava River, a mile or so from the center of town. When I got to the street, I walked for ten minutes before I flagged a taxi, a black, four-door VW Rabbit. I settled into the backseat, which had that swaying, tipping quality of so many of the backseats in this place, and told the driver, named Dejan, also age twenty-nine, what I would like to do. Dejan had short black hair and wore a black shirt, black jeans, and black sunglasses. He spoke with a gentle voice and seemed happy when he told me he knew the way to the gated driveways and hidden houses.

"But Slobodan is in China," Dejan told me. "He went there a couple of days ago."

That, anyway, was the latest rumor in the city where Slobodan is so often just a rumor. For years, the people had seen him on television, which he controlled, giving a statement that could have been filmed in any room. The people looked at his coat and tie and wondered whether it was the same coat and tie he had worn for the last statement, or all the statements. During the bombing, the people tried to guess where he was hiding: in a bunker near the border; in one of his many houses; in a military building not so far from that statue of Knez Mihajlo.

Dejan has lived his whole life in the capital. He has been driving his VW taxi for the past four years, and he knows all the streets, even those that have no sign and seem more like pathways on the edge of town. Dejan told me he had seen Slobodan one time, passing in a speeding motorcade.

The VW groaned as Dejan turned uphill, past a tight corner with a house made of glass and concrete, a house that would, if a house could, puff its chest out at the dirty city stretching to the north. This used to be the home of Arkan, the man with the babyface who made money organizing, among other things, killers, including some of the professional fighters who did the dirty work in the wars that Slobodan waged against the neighbors. Arkan was shot in the head last winter in that comfortable Intercontinental Hotel. This did not surprise Dejan so much, except that, given how close the shooters got, Arkan was shot by people he knew, people he could have been greeting as friends. Before Arkan had been shot he was a celebrity here. A television show had featured Arkan, his folk-singing wife, Ceca, and their month-old baby, who wore a tuxedo for the occasion. Dejan accelerated up the hill, past the house, which is now the house of Arkan's widow. As we passed, three men stood on the sidewalk outside the front door. One was talking on a mobile phone.

We sped along a four-lane street called the Boulevard of Peace. The boulevard had cracked pavement and unswept gutters. The houses, some owned by Slobodan's bankers, lawyers, and generals, were shut behind high fences. Dejan stopped the VW at a wide bend. I got out and walked toward two stone towers and an iron gate. Behind the gate a lone soldier, young, perhaps twenty, stood with an automatic rifle hanging from his right shoulder. Behind the soldier a driveway ran beneath tall trees to a set of steps that led to a house hidden in more trees. There was also a bigger house, behind the first, that I could not see at all from the Boulevard of Peace. This was the White Palace, where Tito lived, and later Slobodan. The lawn around the White Palace was covered with fallen leaves. Two crows chased each other, dipping into the leaves, then taking flight. I asked the soldier if it was always calm here. "Quite," he said.

Dejan was anxious, so I got in the car. We drove back along the Boulevard of Peace, then turned left onto Uzicka Street. At a corner, two policemen sat in an idling car. On the sidewalk to the right, in front of a high stone wall, two soldiers stood at attention and stared as we passed.

Dejan made a U-turn, and we passed again in front of the soldiers. I leaned down to catch a view of the tile roof of a house. There were five satellite dishes near the top. Just below them was a hole the size of a soccer goal. In a few days, I would hear that Slobodan had been there since the revolution. He was talking on the phone with his old allies, trying to keep some of the power behind his high walls. I asked Dejan to slow down, but he drove away quickly. He told me about the pressure he felt, trying to make a living as a taxi driver. The two-hour tour he gave me would earn him barely five dollars. Then he must pay for his gasoline, which carries the price tag of gasoline that has been smuggled across the border. Dejan didn't talk about the reason for that hole the size of a soccer goal in the roof on Uzicka Street. I didn't ask Dejan if he had fought, or killed.

Several days later, I would sit in a café with a local novelist who has thin, white hair that curls behind his ears, and I would ask him why nobody here talks about the fact that it was not Slobodan, after all, who fired the guns that killed. The novelist, named Filip, had spent ten years trying to convince others to get rid of Slobodan. He told me the people here are not ready to talk about the wars and the killing. He said he hopes they will be ready soon.

Dejan wanted to show me one more street that was a five-minute drive from the house with the hole in the roof. This last street was only a few hundred yards long. On the left side, behind another high wall, there was an old stone house with an open yard. Dejan said he had heard that Slobodan and his family sometimes stayed there. But Dejan was more interested in the house across the street. It was modern, with gray metallic siding and giant plates of glass. There was a guard tower by the driveway. I could see through the thick bars of the fence. A flower garden was in bloom. The sidewalk leading to the front door was swept. It was the only yard I had seen that was really clean. Dejan didn't know who lived in this house. He said he thought the person was a friend, or at least a partner, of Slobodan's.

I got out of the car and wandered the street. An old woman wearing a sagging sweat suit, pink socks, and Docksiders walked past. She was carrying a plastic shopping bag and smoking a cigarette. She looked at me and stopped. Wisps of gray hair hung in front of her face. I said nothing, but she started talking. Her voice, bitter and out of control, carried beyond me. She said she was born on the land where the modern house now sits. The woman said she had lived in this neighborhood for more than sixty years. Her cigarette shook, set between the bony fingers that she pointed across the street, at the clean yard and the house with all the glass. "I am the one who was born here," she said, "and this bastard came and kicked me out."

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two, Among the Ruins: Montenegro.)

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Tom Haines is a journalist and an assistant professor of English at the University of New Hampshire.

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