Atlantic Abroad November 2000

Among the Ruins: Montenegro

In postwar Kolasin, loyalties are divided between the Montenegrin crest and the Serbian cross
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(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one, Among the Ruins: Belgrade.)

Kolasin, Montenegro

I was sitting next to a man with roving eyes and a loud voice whom I call the director, because that's what he is, at the local radio station, and because that's what he acted like on a lazy morning in a café in a town set in a shallow bowl of a valley high in the mountains.

As the sun made sweat run down my sides, the director began talking to an old man standing on the street, a few feet from our table. The old man was smiling, which was odd, because the director was insulting him.

"He is the chain around the neck of the young people," the director said.

The director, who considers himself an independent, freethinking man, said the old man, with his old habits, had let Slobodan do his thinking for the past ten years.

"He is a friend of mine," the director said, talking to me, as though the old man, who was still next to our table, had left long ago. "But it is still very difficult to change things in his head."

Whatever was in the old man's head was making him smile above his red scarf and dig his hands into the pockets of his trench coat. The man removed one hand and showed me the tattered identification card that said he was born in 1924, which is to say that he worked under Tito and retired under Slobodan.

"I applied to go to Kosovo," the old man said. The old man did not get to go to Kosovo to fight the last war that Slobodan told his people to fight. But he was ready. "I prefer to die," the old man said.

The director then turned to a man whom I call the philosopher, because that is what he is, at a university, and in the café. The philosopher looked at the old man. "This is the conservative mind," the philosopher said, from behind his thick, short beard and dark sunglasses. "These people are pulling us backwards." The philosopher circled to another table and took a seat near the wall. He was quiet for several minutes. Then the philosopher said, prompted by no one, "Only time and the young will lead us toward self-awareness."

The director looked around for a new target in this café, one of a dozen cafés on the short main street of the town beneath the ski slopes. Here, far to the south of the capital with the revolution, the debates of this nation with the new leader carry on. The director motioned toward yet another man, who was wearing a brown tweed blazer.

This man was eager to tell me, as he is eager to tell anyone, about his fire truck, which is a kind of symbol of this town's biggest debate. The fireman in the tweed jacket had used the truck to put out fires in the town for years, during a period when the mayor was a man who, like the fireman, wanted Montenegro, the smaller of the two republics that Slobodan controlled, to be independent. But then a new mayor came to power. He was a man who liked Slobodan and the bigger republic of Serbia. So the fireman took his truck and put it in a shed and made sure that it was only driven by him, a man loyal to Montenegro, and not by a man who followed Slobodan.

"We must go to another café," the fireman told me. And so I rose and followed him, because here cafés are more than places where people take a drink. Here, in some of the cafés, people sit beneath tiny crests of the Republic of Montenegro and talk with people who think like them. In other cafés, different groups of people sit beneath the Serb cross. The fireman and I walked past one café, which, like all the cafés here, is very small. We stepped inside a room with stone tables and polished wood. I ordered my third espresso of the morning and listened as the fireman told me that his fire truck, not the one brought in by the mayor who likes Slobodan, is the town's better fire truck. His fire truck has heating in the cab. Then we set off to see this beauty, this symbol of defiance, cherished by the fireman who, when he smiles, has a face that seems to squeeze in upon itself.

We crossed the square to another, shorter row of wooden cafés. "The first two are ours," said the fireman. But not the third, the one with the empty porch and the sign that says "Café Slobo."

The fireman led me around the back of Café Slobo and down a narrow path to a muddy lot and an old shed. He drew a breath, then slid open a corrugated metal door and beamed at the truck built in 1976. The red paint was faded. The giant grill covering the engine looked a bit loose.

"The town should build a monument to this truck," the fireman said.

Before the election that brought down Slobodan, people thought this could be the kind of town, with its two fire trucks and its divided people, where Slobodan's next war would start. Special police forces loyal to Montenegro trained behind a fence at the end of a street in the center of town. Army soldiers loyal to Belgrade filled barracks nearby. The dispute was political, not ethnic. But people thought that would be enough for Slobodan to sacrifice his people to protect his power.

I left the fireman and cut back across the square to a side street where the people liked Slobodan. The director had told me that these people were not so happy since their leader fell. I stopped in front of a bar, where two men were leaning against a window. Then, as a mountain storm moved in, they began to talk.

"Slobodan will be back," said the first man, whom I call soldier one. Soldier one had a face that looked like it could take a punch.

"If he was a dictator, he wouldn't have allowed this to happen," said soldier two. "With this, he proves he's not a dictator."

They stopped to introduce a third man, whom I call soldier three, because, like his friends, he volunteered to leave the cafés and travel over the mountains to fight the war in Kosovo that the old man never saw. The soldiers told me that they are waiting for jobs to replace those they lost when the local aluminum factory couldn't pay them anymore.

Rain was falling steadily, and soldier three suggested we move inside to have a drink. We sat at a round table, and I ordered a beer. I thought of the philosopher and how, maybe, there is hope in what he said. I thought of Sladjana and the young students who led so many protests that helped bring down Slobodan. But then I listened to soldiers one and two and three talk about their war, and I knew that they, too, are the young people. And I was doubtful.

Soldier one: "Slobodan is right when he says that in ten years we will be living like Kurds. The only mistake Slobodan made was not finishing the war in one day."

Soldier two: "We'll go again, if needed. For Yugoslavia, we're giving our lives. We, and our children, are giving our lives."

Soldier three: "We don't know who Slobodan is, what he is. For him, personally, we would not have moved an inch."

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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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