In my little Serbian hometown, streets are mostly named after poets and Second World War heroes. The street where I lived and where my parents still live was named after the Laković brothers, Arsen and Stevan, two young communists who had lived and died not far from our house. As my grandmother used to tell us, Arsen and Stevan were shot by the Nazis, in their house, in front of their mother. Such were the stories we grew up with. There were many similar and different ones in a small library which was also in our street and also named after the heroic boys. I first saw their faces when, at six years old and all alone, I went to the library to get my membership card.
The Laković boys were the first to greet me. Their photos were on the shelf by the door. Arsen, the older one, was the cuter. The librarian was really surprised when I said I could already read, in both Cyrillic and Latin script, and I don’t think she quite believed me, but she let me choose a book. It was a picture book called Frog’s Getting Married, and it was about a frog who was getting married. Bouncy, instructive stuff. The marriage of Frogaro. I only chose it because the title in Serbian was alliterative and amused me immensely. I still whisper it sometimes very late at night to make myself laugh.
I took it home, sat at the kitchen table where my older brother was doing his dreaded maths homework, read the frog’s story in a few minutes and immediately got up to take it back. My brother shouted behind me that I was supposed to keep the book for a few days if I wanted to be a proper member of the library. The librarian pretty much repeated his words. I don’t know how she had ended up working there. She was uninterested in books and not good with kids, but over the years I grew quite fond of her and fell in love for ever with libraries.
On voting day, most people dressed in their Sunday best and cast their votes in the large hall of the library. I hid in the room with books, having brought my dad some doughnuts.
This one was my place of worship, with Arsen and Stevan guarding the entrance, and the Paul Street Boys and Bastian Balthazar Bux waiting inside. (They taught us at school that the first place the Nazis bombed in Belgrade was the National Library.) I was in love with a Hungarian boy who lived right across the road from us, and who later moved.
Summers were endless. I loved Yugoslavia and pop songs in English, hated school and string beans, watched Indiana Jones and Survival, learned poems about brotherhood and unity, held my fist up to my temple as a sign of greeting, read books and looked at boys. Then my breasts started growing, I got my first period and, as if all that wasn’t terrifying enough, witnessed the beginning of bloodshed and the rise of a tyrant.
I unfolded one of the papers and saw a big swastika drawn next to Slobodan Milošević’s name. Someone had obviously already recognized a fascist.
It was the very start of the nineties and our little library was still a library, only now it also served as a polling station, since the people of Serbia were about to choose their president in the first multi-party elections in decades. As an ‘upstanding citizen’ and a prominent member of the workers’ union, my dad was chosen to be on the local electoral commission. On voting day, most people dressed in their Sunday best and cast their votes in the large hall of the library. I hid in the room with books, having brought my dad some doughnuts. Nobody minded that I was there but wasn’t supposed to be; there were no supervisors, no control.Voters showed their IDs, took their ballot papers with candidates’ names written in both Cyrillic and Latin script, hid behind screens made of cardboard, circled their fate, my fate, then emerged again, looking serious, said goodbye to the commission and went outside to talk to their neighbours. It all seemed boring and important.
Later, in the evening, I even helped the commission members with the counting. We sat in the room with the books, and by the look on my dad’s face I knew he was probably thinking about football and the game he had missed. There was a woman there who would, from time to time, angrily tear up certain ballot papers. I remember feeling disturbed and a little amused by that.With books and Arsen and Stevan watching me, I unfolded one of the papers and saw a big swastika drawn next to Slobodan Milošević’s name. Someone had obviously already recognized a fascist. Shocked by that symbol, I held the paper up to show my dad, but the angry lady grabbed it from my hands, glanced at it and tore it up.
Milošević, a banker who had worked in the US, won those elections, of course, and then led us all into a decade of violence, poverty and shame. I later wondered why people had trusted him and how, after years and years of celebrating anti-fascism, they couldn’t recognize their enemy, though disguised as a fervent patriot. The country was already in debt, as we later found out, but the economic situation back then wasn’t that bad, so it was probably because in the Yugoslavian communist system being a nationalist was taboo. That sort of repression eventually exploded into extreme nationalism and the opportunistic new leader used it very well. By the time most people came to their senses, though some never did, it was too late. The president was clutching at the power, using all means necessary to hold on to it, and we were living the unthinkable. The air stank of hate talk; people stopped laughing, fathers and brothers died in the wars, our country was isolated, the black market flourished, criminals celebrated. I don’t remember what we ate. We must have eaten, but I don’t remember how my parents got that food. The inflation was record-breaking and the shops empty. Still, I remember there were ads for slimming products everywhere.
I started grammar school. Mine was named after a local poet. Arsen and Stevan had attended, and I later worked there as an English teacher. The majority of people seemed to be against Milošević, but saying so could have got you in a lot of trouble. I grew into a painfully shy, skinny girl who listened to The Doors and rarely spoke in class. That’s probably why I so vividly remember saying certain things then. Like answering my Serbian teacher’s question about Antigone; angrily and arrogantly calling her tyrant a coward. The teacher stopped me before I compared him to ours. You learn at school, you learn. If you pay attention.
The bombs fell for days and days. For the first time in my life my passion for the English language abated. I kept hearing in English that I deserved to be punished.
When I turned eighteen and gained my right to vote, I was already filled to the brim with anger: for the people who still voted for a fascist, for those who were too scared to speak up, for those who made me feel so ashamed.
The little library was no longer a library; the photos of Arsen and Stevan were gone, as were the books. But it was still our polling station. I remember little about the first time I voted. I know I voted against Milošević, but not who I voted for nor how exactly it felt. I remember that I went
with my mother and she tells me that I was very nervous, but I know that must have been because I already suffered from a severe anxiety disorder, and also because there was a chance of bumping into this Serbian-Hungarian guy I was in love with, who had also turned eighteen that year and lived near by.
Those were municipal elections and Milošević, lost them. However, in his arrogance and lust for power, he refused to acknowledge his defeat. That sparked mass protest in every town in his country, especially in the capital, especially among students. The protesters walked the streets in the bitter cold for months, shouting, demanding, making noise, but all they got were hits and kicks from the police and then, eventually, a lex specialis, a special law that lying tyrants pull out from their sleeve after they have cheated at an election. I remember how the best, funniest and most tragic slogans and graffiti appeared at that time. My favourite is still ‘It’s springtime and I live in Serbia’. That guy I was in love with, my neighbour, now lives in The Hague and works for the Tribunal.
The next year,I started studying English at university,moved to a bigger town and became even more of an insecure mess. I listened to Pulp and Moloko and Haustor, wrote, kept silent during lectures, translated, kept silent about how difficult it was for my parents, read and kept silent about how everything hurt. Though it must have been quite obvious.
As I look back now, I feel like my youth was stolen both by politicians and by anxiety. They’re both masterful thieves of time.
The president cheated at yet another election. Only some kept silent about it now, but it didn’t help. The media were strictly controlled, punished, directed. There were still protests, people were still being beaten, but you even get used to that. Then, to wake us up, the first air-raid siren howled and all the countries of NATO descended on our mighty homeland.
The bombs fell for days and days, destroying bridges and factories and lives. Foreign TV stations got better ratings. The president himself mostly kept silent and my brother got drafted. For the first time in my life my passion for the English language abated. I kept hearing in English that I deserved to be punished. The NATO officials, journalists and foreign TV viewers used it to say that all Serbs needed to be punished – me, my friends, my family. I kept listening. I had never before heard the term ‘collateral damage’.
After three months of bombs, when the politicians had finally made their deals and tested most of their weapons, our president capitulated and I got my brother back. Only he wasn’t the same.
It seemed, on the other hand, that Milošević was never stronger than in the months following the bombing. We were exhausted. The whole world seemed to be against us and he kept his grip tight. I remember my favourite professor at the university quoting one of the English Romantic poets and saying that ‘all tyranny must end one day, no matter how unbelievable that sounds right now.’ And I remember how we all laughed bitterly.
But then, thanks to some law of physics I cannot name, or the whole Freudian Eros–Thanatos thing, or possibly some financial help from the West, an unexpected thing happened, unexpected for my then self at least. A group of students decided to correct the mistakes they had made during the previous mass protests and formed a youth movement named Otpor – the Serbian word for resistance. Their methods of opposing the autocrat were mostly through the use of humour: witty slogans, written in both Cyrillic and Latin script, the unstoppable desire truly to live, non-violent calls for change, concerts, smiles. Their enthusiasm and jovial disobedience spread through the nation like wildfire. Such hope, such unity, was wonderful to experience.
Everywhere we could see their, our, borrowed symbol – the clenched fist. It was sprayed on to buildings, passed around on stickers, badges, scarfs, hats, it was raised in the air during daily protest walks. They were brave, well organized, cautious and took good care of their members. It wasn’t long before the government called them terrorists. The state-sponsored TV stations called them a lot worse. However, they managed to unite the opposition parties into a coalition.
The presidential election was scheduled for September 2000 and the campaigns that ensued were more than interesting. Milošević stuck to his proven methods of a few visits to factories, some bombastic speeches, subventions and celebration of traditional Serbian values and the glorious past, while Otpor and the opposition parties managed to combine the old and the much-needed new. As their presidential candidate they chose a man who was not well known, but who was ‘very well educated’ and could also be called ‘a man of the people’.
One of our best-known playwrights came up with a story for the voters that there was a line in an old Serbian prophecy book about a man who will save Serbia and whose last name will resemble the name of the village he was born in. Of course, that matched perfectly the whole story concerning the opposition candidate and no one even bothered to check the book. Everyone needed to believe that the saviour had arrived. And, anyway, some Serbs seem always to need to believe that their leader is some sort of deity.
The excitement immediately before the elections was both galvanizing and frightening. Everyone seemed to want to cast their vote. This time there were more supervisors present at polling stations, the atmosphere was both solemn and frivolous, and people wore their Sunday best once more. The results showed that Milošević lost. He, however, refused to admit defeat. Reports were coming of our ballot papers being transported to recycling factories, turned into toilet paper, of cheating, of corruption and threats. Soon the whole country was paralysed by strikes and protests.
On 5 October people from all over the country descended on the capital. It was a much less violent revolution than anyone had expected. The army and the police officials refused to attack their own people – for the first time. Milošević appeared on television, looking all proud and angry, and accepted the will of the people, speaking to us as if we were impudent children. And then he was gone, he was really gone, it seemed. What followed, after the celebrations and without the Enemy, was a sort of chaos. The country was penniless and pillaged and traumatized. The opposition’s perfect candidate turned out to be, in a way, almost as bad as Milošević and was soon gone. The new democratic government didn’t manage to deal properly with the problems left as a legacy to all of us. They plunged us further into debt, and made our water American and our oil Russian. Life became more peaceful, but it was still very hard, very disheartening. As I look back now, I feel like my youth was stolen both by politicians and by anxiety. They’re both masterful thieves of time.
The elections are now quite different to those I remember as a child. They are strictly controlled. There are UV lamps that are used to check your index finger for the electoral stain. There are see-through ballot boxes.And there are no young girls bringing doughnuts to their dads who are in the election commission. I still vote in the former library and some small sadness pinches my soul every time I enter it. At the elections held two years ago just over half the voters turned up and the majority of them voted for the man who was once on Milošević’s side, as his information minister, and who is now a moderate nationalist, apparently, and wants us to join the EU. He introduced severe austerity measures and allowed the process of privatization to continue with full force. The same man also won in the snap election held this year. Although an autocrat, he’s the perfect servant to everyone, except his people. His best buddy now is Tony Blair, the same man who once, reportedly, said that Serbian kids should be forbidden from reading Serbian epic poetry.
This has become the land of the old. So many young people have left, and those who stayed are apathetic and disappointed. A large number of them say they do not see the point of voting since, with a divided opposition and among so many candidates, there seems to be no one to vote for. Only against. The greed, corruption and inequality are overwhelming, which, ironically enough, finally makes me feel a part of this world.
I now live in a house on the corner of a street named after a poet and a street named after an anti-fascist hero. Unfortunately, I will probably have to sell it since I can no longer pay the mortgage. Debt bondage is not as sexy as it may sound.
I’ve got to know my anxiety disorder very well, for my mind is a tyrant.
For the first time in my life I’ve gained some weight and I am no longer skinny. I have finally discovered the full power of curves.
There is no guy I am in love with.
I work as a teacher. I still translate, I still write.
And I sometimes wonder what sort of person I would be if my country didn’t go through such difficult times, and if that first time people had voted for someone else to lead us. Would I be less cynical and dramatic, more optimistic and carefree? Would I still wince every time someone in a foreign country asked me where I was from? Would I always be worried that there won’t be enough food? And would I still care so much for books and music and seek beauty everywhere, as if my life depended on it?