Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Postcard From Yugoslavia

By Jacqueline Marino

APRIL 13, 1998:  BELGRADE – At 11 a.m., the Belgrade sun has already turned the inside of Vesna’s car into an inferno. She lights a long brown cigarette and presses down on the accelerator. We zoom away from New Belgrade’s colorless, graffiti-covered high rises for the pricier real estate at the top of a steep hill.

We are going to Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic’s house.

The last time she and her husband drove by, they were stopped by one of his henchmen.

“Why are you on this street?” Vesna recalls the officer asking. She told him they were simply admiring the beautiful houses.

“Any particular house?” the interrogation continued. “Do you know who lives here?” She lies and says no. The officer told them not to drive slowly past there again.

At the top of the street there’s a sign prohibiting photography and scores of police officers nearby. In front of Milosevic’s house, which isn’t visible from the street because of a high wall, two of them stand guard with rifles slung over their shoulders.

Vesna drives by very quickly.

She does not support the current government, nor does she think Milosevic is the devil incarnate. She calls the international media coverage about the recent Balkan war mere “propaganda.”

Later, she shows me a book written by Phillip Knightley called The First Casualty. It begins with a quote that the first casualty in any war is truth.

For instance, the picture of the very skinny man, she says, that was taken at one of the so-called concentration camps run by the Serbs. She says she saw on Serbian television that the man was photographed on the outside of the barbed wire. Photographers had gone behind the wire themselves to make it look as if he was a captive.

The Sava River in Belgrade Photo by Jacqueline Marino

Vesna is an educated member of the upper class and has come to her conclusions about Western media bias after much thought and research. But non-elites have not arrived at such conclusions the same way. They’ve been stirred by nationalist passion, the government-tainted Yugoslav press, and other such detractors from the truth.

Some people I spoke to seemed intentionally ignorant, as if they spent too much time worrying about how their families were going to get by to obsess over politics. Except for the barons of the flourishing underground economy, including Milosevic’s twentysomething, jet-setting son Marko, most people are having a harder time of it. Since the war, unemployment has increased and inflation has raged.

Earlier this year, The New York Times also made this connection: It’s no coincidence that public television stations began broadcasting porn films at about the same time graphic footage from the war hit the airwaves. What else could distract people from images of hard-core bloodshed than hard-core sex?

Liquor and beer are sold on the street at all hours. People drive at dangerous speeds on streets and highways, ignoring speed limits. Police officers are easily bought. Belgraders either live or co-exist in a largely unregulated world of sex, criminal activity, and downspiraling poverty.

In April 1995, a few months before the Dayton peace accords brought a cease-fire to the fighting, a large memorial was dedicated on the Sava River bank to those massacred in nearby concentration camps during the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia 50 years ago. Change the names of the victims on the inscription and the crimes sound hauntingly familiar.

It says genocide was committed by the Nazis against 100,000 Serbs, Jews, and gypsies at four nearby camps and by the Croats, who were allied with the Germans, and Hungarian occupying forces. Murdered victims from those camps “were brought to Belgrade by waves of the Sava and Danube [rivers].”

Serbs consider themselves the world’s victims, downtrodden throughout history by the Turks, the Germans, the Croats, and now by the Albanian Muslim majority in Kosovo. But to everyone but themselves, it is a role they can no longer play with any degree of believability. Victims do not ethnically cleanse or use violence to end peaceful demonstrations. Victims are never so well-armed.

Staff writer Jacqueline Marino visited Belgrade for a story which will appear in the June issue of Memphis magazine.

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