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Serbia … the simple enjoyments of life – a can of meat, a bit of vodka …


It was during my army service in the Yugoslav People’s Army, just before the wars of the 1990s. With my best army friend, a Croat (let’s call him Ivo), I shared poetry — T. S. Elliott, Rilke . . . He shared with me the love for Marina, I introduced him to Duineser Elegien and Sonette an Orpheus. We were looking for the poetic in the drab routines of army life. Now when I reflect, we were able to find it — the moments of real humaneness, of warmth… the simple enjoyments of life — a can of meat, a bit of vodka, smuggled into the barracks . . . The stress was constant, as we were part of an elite unit — day and night ready to depart to combat. “I do not want to die,” whispered another friend, a Torbes (Macedonian Muslim). That would happen years later. Only years later, with the destruction of Yugoslavia, thanks to local oligarchs, the so-called western powers (who did not need Yugoslavia as a buffer zone to the Warsaw Pact any longer), major corporations (who preferred the fragmentation of a large, independent country into colonially dependent quazi-states) and the IMF (who imposed an impossible debt structure on Yugoslavia), our friendship became impossible.

Only a year later, war broke out. I lived in Belgrade, Ivo in Zagreb. The day the fighting began in Croatia, I called Ivo. He was distraught and I assured him of our friendship. No artificially manufactured inter-ethnic struggle should have impact on our friendship. Yes, manufactured, because in the Balkans the history of neighborly respect is at least as long as the history of conflict, contrary to the stereotype constantly re-created in the West. During the war, I was hiding for about two years from the military police, changing addresses. I did not want to fight in a war I felt was wrong. I did not want to face Ivo as an enemy soldier. However, as a member of the political opposition to the Milosevic regime, I would be among the first to be drafted. I managed to avoid the draft and later emigrated with my family. I never heard from Ivo again.

Just before the war broke out, I was one of the founding members of the Democratic Forum, the first opposition to Milosevic’s regime in Serbia (and in fact, one of the first organized political opposition parties in eastern Europe). That was way before CNN knew who Milosevic was and certainly before they learned to (mis)pronounce his name. We were naive at that time. We believed in a benevolent western world, that would surely support our just struggle. When hundreds of thousands of people marched for weeks, blocking the streets of Belgrade, we were absolutely sure that support was just around the corner. But the expected help did not come. At that time, Milosevic was considered by the US administration as the key player in the Balkans. No matter what, he would be kept in power. Sounds familiar? The engineered regime change (one of the first of that kind) happened later, when Milosevic stopped playing the role he was expected to. When NATO bombed Serbia for three consecutive months, neither CNN nor CBC ever mentioned the brave people who had defied the regime for years.

The change finally came, but the result is not what we dreamed. All countries in the region are now little more than colonies. The wars that left so much bitterness could have been avoided. “Reconciliation” would now be unnecessary. But, the wars did have a purpose: new weapons could be tested. It will be interesting to see the long-range effect of depleted uranium on the local population; new missiles had to be manufactured, spurning the economies of the US, Britain and other NATO countries; with the destruction of local industry and infrastructure, local economies have become ready to sell out to western corporations; local culture is being replaced by globalized culture. The solution eyed by all countries in the region is based on a neo-liberal agenda.

— Bojan Petrovic is from Vancouver, Canada

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