I had many reasons for going to Belgrade this cold December -- friends, relatives, a trip to Kosovo and to find a hospital with most urgent needs for an American humanitarian group wanting to help children after a decade of embargo plus seventy-eight days of bombings this spring. I had a selfish reason too -- to avoid an American White Christmas in the US and all the obscene sales and hysteria on the streets, buy on TV, in the papers, in our minds, and to start the new century in a country where I was born.
I will skip over the journey which is very long since due to US sanctions you can't fly directly to Belgrade. Getting there, I was luckier this time than in July when from my window in Belgrade I saw destroyed buildings and the building I was in was in bad shape, and walking out every day you saw more horrors, a beautiful art deco government of Serbia amongst them. Another, across the street, a pride of modern architecture looked awful, gutted in a special way as if Martians had attacked it; hundreds of windows with pieces of glass like lace produced and eerie sound, a music of its own in the wind. I remember a child, a boy around five waiting for the bus with his mother kept looking at those windows then said to me and everybody I guess, 'NATO.' I asked him, 'Who is NATO?" He used a child word to describe it which in Serbian means a monster. He repeated that several times. That was in July. I don't know why I have remembered him and think of him more than other people. Maybe what we remember tells something about us.
It was cold this December, snow, rain, ice preventing many things, travels outside or inside Belgrade and there was a never-ending shortage of gas. Cab drivers talked about it all the time, like I can't take you, see, I have just enough gas to go home now. Still, there was electricity every day in my apartment and heat if you think that NATO tried to destroy both this spring. It was amazing how they worked hard in Yugoslavia and kept fixing things, even during the bombing they kept repairing what the bombs had destroyed the day before. How they kept moving their newborn babies from place to place, women in labor giving birth with sirens, with the sound of exploding bombs very close, next door. An image, a photo of a wounded mother and her wounded son, just born, haunts me. Both bruised. I remember my own fear giving birth to my son even though there were no sirens in the air nor the bombs. Will that baby remember the aggression, the world as a horrible place when they tried to kill him, will he think it was safer not to be born? NATO destroyed a hospital in Belgrade and in other towns as well, old age homes, schools, post offices, kids' camps. So, I can't complain now, this December. What's one day without heat. The heat did stop around eight or nine in the evening but it didn't matter that much since I went to bed with two sweaters and my hat and socks. There was heat every morning as people got up and went to work.
I observed -- there were no homeless people sleeping in the streets, subways or under bridges as you drive to Kennedy airport, there were no people starving although many are poor and it's no wonder with more than a million refugees from Bosnia, from Croatia and now from Kosovo and this in a country under embargo. Something was always found for them, in small towns like the one I came from, in schools, recreational centers, gyms or with friends like the people next street over who had two Serbian families from Kosovo sleeping all over their small apartment. These were ordinary people, no different from many people in the States who suddenly had no jobs, their kids had lost their friends and schools and they had to flee leaving everything behind. Who did it? NATO and the KLA, they say, who else. They are not the only ones.
There are virtually no Romi left in Kosovo, nor Slavic Muslims, nor Jews. Albanians loyal to Yugoslavia have fled too although there are still pockets of Serbs left in K. Mitrovica and a few villages where they live in ghettoes now, without easy access to food or health care. And they are invisible to the world, and every attempt is made that they remain that way. We were unable to visit those villages, a bus of journalists, some from Yugoslavia, some from other countries in the Balkans because NATO wouldn't permit. They did in the beginning, not after they heard about our travel plans.
Their refusal was too transparent for everyone -- they said they couldn't guarantee our safety. It was obvious to every journalist this December that this was a joke -- they didn't want the world to know about the Serbs inside ghettoes nor their whereabouts since other journalists, those who get permission to travel wouldn't even know where to look for these people. Can you imagine an all powerful NATO - tanks, planes, money, technology, name it, coming to protect and liberate the Balkans for freedom and democracy what else, all that power and strength that bombed civilians and everything people need to live, these macho guys with fancy guns unable to help just a bus of journalists. Actually there were twenty-four of us. It was so absurd you wanted to laugh. Some did. NATO was only good, and efficient so far, in helping the exodus from Kosovo. It did nothing in preventing murders, destruction of homes and churches, while they, those brave boys, just stood and watched. There are pictures of them watching the arson this summer, we don't see any pictures now. It's not supposed to exist.
I was pissed, although that's not the right word for it, I can't think of anything in English to describe the feeling, Kosovo is part of my country as much as New Jersey or Vermont is to someone from New York, Kosovo is where a cousin of mine died young, fighting Fascism, tortured by both local and outside fascists in '43. Kosovo is my country, not NATO's but I had better admit it -- a reality principle -- they are the new occupiers, after all it was not easy to get a travel pass from the fascists in 1943. There is no difference now. The US- led NATO base is the largest military base in Europe (and they have them all over the Balkans), it sets its own rules and a former president of a well-known organization 'Doctors without borders,' Bernard Kouchner is now running his own NATO show. He has formed a government (who is he to do this) in which only one ethnic group- Albanians sympathetic to the KLA and NATO are allowed to participate. That's called democracy, I suppose. He has even kicked out Greek doctors from his former Doctors Without Borders because he suspects them to be sympathetic to the Serbs. NATO has virtually established a form of fascist government where everything political, military and economic, is in their hands. Now they even have NATO television which is to broadcast all over the Balkans. The KLA is presently a useful ally, after all their top general was US trained, but this won't continue for too long. The principle is use and dump, use and dump, just like everywhere else. Many Albanians have seen the light. A rape and murder of a child by an American soldier this January might open their eyes even more. In Macedonia there are constant fights between people and NATO soldiers over their abuse -- drinking, shouting, mistreating and sexually harassing local women. It will get worse, the Macedonians think.
The rape and murder of an Albanian child by a US soldier, reported in The New York Times this January made me think about a long piece by Tamara Rakovich called 'NATO Bordellos in Pristina' that appeared on August 11, 1999 in the paper "Glas." She talks about a woman she had interviewed inside the building of the Red Cross in Belgrade and the woman refugee describes how men and women were separated then women, both Albanian and the Serbs led to a house outside Pristina. She saw half-naked women of both ethnic groups crying, she doesn't know what nationality the NATO soldiers were except that they spoke English. It's a long and detailed piece. She escaped -- she told the soldier that she had AIDS. There were three more articles in the same paper on the same subject. I can't say this is true or not, I did not interview that woman. All I know is this -- an army of occupation -- power, arrogance, thousands of men -- has never done any good to a country they invade.
Unable to go to Kosovo, I settled living my daily life in Belgrade. As always I am amazed by the amount of information, different papers and different views. If you know how to read the language, you can get the truth by reading two papers. And these papers are less provincial than in the States, reading them you knew what's happening in the entire world. I was amazed by the number of cultural events, many free -- lectures, poetry readings, concerts, plays performed in unusual settings and a style that was brand new, daring, it stayed in your head, it was not a sitcom. All this in a country that was bombed six months ago. There were new health clinics I observed for the adults and children suffering from the bombing traumas. I knew a child who had stopped speaking for months during the bombing but now he was doing fine. A friend of mine, a writer who was very calm during the aggression was having a delayed reaction in December -- she couldn't fall asleep until early morning when it was safe to fall asleep in June, when the second siren signaled the end of the nightly raids. Still, looking at people and talking to them, I thought that they had managed better than people would have if only one bomb had dropped on New York City, or just one siren in the air -- because they're communal, they were and are helping each other, everybody was a victim and a target, it was all in the open, they were singing and dancing together in the squares and the bridges as the bombs fell around them. I remember that this spring they sounded much calmer than us in the States. It helps that it's not a repressive culture, you talk, you laugh, you cry openly. With others. And you get better with others too. We only had each other, on the phone with an indifferent population around us laughing, playing with their dogs in the sunlight this terrible spring while we didn't sleep at all, every bomb, every destroyed bridge a direct hit against our bodies and I vomited daily the first two weeks powerless to stop the orgy, unable to reach people. In my town the phones were dead after the post office was bombed. The phone lines are repaired now.
Americans have asked me often, 'Do they hate us'? No. As Americans who were there this summer could see -- American books are translated and reviewed, American plays are performed and they have always had a love of jazz. People in Belgrade were not nasty to them. On the contrary. They can separate between the US government and the American people. It's fair to say that the International Action Center, an organization committed to peace all over the world, had something to do with it. They organized demonstrations, marches all over the USA and people in Belgrade were able to hear and see all this until the television station was bombed and with it many people.
This December, as the Millennium approached, it felt safe in Belgrade, like living in a large friendly house full of relatives and friends, if something didn't work you just knocked on the door. I often saw my friends the same way, just knock on the door then the mad joy, how they loved to be surprised. If you're too sick to go to a hospital a doctor will come and see you. A flu epidemic was on. On TV they talked about it, what to take and what not, which pharmacies will be open during New Year's. On TV images of bridges being rebuilt. Interviews with people moving into their rebuilt homes.
In five months they have rebuilt so much, some difficult bridges over deep ravines, railroads, apartments. Workers did three shifts. It had the feel of some other era, building and re-building after the second war.
As the New Year approached, there were attempts to decorate the city with a few lights. These small attempts were so modest, reminding you of a poor rural school or a poor family that tried, didn't want to give up. It was never garish or cheap, just something orphan about it. Something tender, you wanted to cry. Don't waste electricity, they announced daily on TV. Even those fir trees at the outside markets were small. Most people didn't buy them. It seemed wasteful to buy something you will soon throw away. They tried to get a present, no matter how small, for a child.
Days came and went. Many things happened like that, some funny, some joyful, like a sudden reunion as friends I had not seen for years suddenly recognized me on the street, but to meet a middle-aged American man in Belgrade seemed almost exotic and in December. He had through a series of accidents wandered into a poetry reading even though he didn't understand a single word but since my poem was the only one in English and in Serbian he waited until the end to meet me. He was a nice man, a real pacifist and he had his own complicated reason to be there. In addition to his personal story, he was having his teeth fixed at the same time because he couldn't afford it on his pension (was he from upstate New York or was it Vermont) while in Belgrade dentists are very good he told me and due to the state of economy they were very cheap. It occurred to me how stupid, I had not thought of this before. You can always trust an American to tell you about a bargain, the best deal.
Weddings took place with gypsy music and dancing and I went to a few even though I knew no one at the restaurant facing the market. There you can do it, sort of drop in and nobody minded, it's supposed to bring good luck to have a stranger appear. They were always big, informal with this mood for which there is no word in English. It's bigger than joy.
In general it was calm, almost hushed. People on the streets waited for buses without complaining. They were neither defeated nor gloomy, just an acceptance their parents or grandparents had during other wars, think survival, think potatoes, beans, warm shoes. And five months after the bombing they appeared calmer than people on the streets of New York, more centered and balanced, as if no energy could be wasted on anything superficial. Their calm affected me too. Slept well and long. A glass of wine made me drunk. My high blood pressure was gone. I began dreaming again, the first time since the first bomb fell on Yugoslavia March 24th. Even if all the reasons I had gone there for had failed it made me happy that I was dreaming now and I dreamt of waterfalls and clear mountain rivers of my childhood. It occurred to me I should live there if I want to live for a long time.
My American friends have often asked me the same question, what was the worst I have seen... If you go by the quantity of suffering the Kosovo refugees were painful to talk with, many had lost everything, some were refugees for the second time, from Krajina cleansed with US help to this sad state now. The sight of wounded and maimed in the hospitals was never easy for me but I am better at it than the first time. Yet if I think of something intolerable, of extreme grief, I remember, I see her, the woman I sat next to on a bus. I don't remember her name nor the town she is from. She was holding a large photo of a handsome young man in her lap, she kept gently patting the photo repeating like a chant, my baby, mother's treasure. Her only son, she said, killed by the bombs. There was nothing I could do or say, frozen in my seat by so much pain. She was a simple woman, maybe a worker or a peasant, her hands had done a lot of work, I remember her hands more than her face, more than her silent tears that she wiped with her sleeve, her hands caressed the picture the way you caress a child's hair before they fall asleep, she didn't see me at all, she saw no one, she was not on the bus, she was with her baby, her hands were unbearable to watch.
December 25th came and went. I noticed the date, that's all. In the papers it said that bombers and terrorists were getting ready to strike in the USA, according to the FBI. They, the FBI, were getting ready for this big thing or was it a dress rehearsal for something else? I felt safe in Belgrade knowing nothing will happen here of that sort, after all the country was just bombed.
I could complain about the weather which prevented many trips to other towns but who can argue with nature and winter storms. Didn't go to my home town in the mountains because it was snowed in. We talked on the phone. Didn't go to Kosovo because of the NATO occupation. I could complain and did that people didn't clean the snow in front of their buildings and it became ice and ice was dangerous for everyone but then who can blame them for anything after what they have been through. The biggest practical problem in the beginning were my American boots, expensive and waterproof they told me in New York in a store on the Upper West side. It was a lie. After two days my feet were cold and wet and it was hard to look for others in the middle of deep snow and slush. I only had that pair, I worried about getting ill. Eventually I found them, for eight dollars on the Boulevard of Revolution, next to a bakery, not far from the street of Ivana Milutinovica if anyone is interested. They were like children's boots, green, bulky, and warm.
I didn't see all the hospitals I had intended. I have been to many before, this is one area I know well. Even though they have great doctors and plenty of care in Yugoslavia, the embargo has killed more people these years than the NATO bombs. Hospitals need spare parts for treatments and diagnostic procedures but how can you get them if the bank accounts are frozen and those companies that sold the equipment and who have been paid to service and fix -- are refusing to. It must be, what else, that they too belong to NATO or are afraid of punishment. This should be another essay, another time, hospitals deserve more than a paragraph.
New Year's eve I was to go to a concert in the square where they sang and screamed this spring but it didn't turn out that way. I was in bed with a high fever, asleep until I heard shouts of kids outside the windows and knew the Millennium had arrived. Awakened, remembering in an instant an old superstition that you are supposed to make a wish, I did -- good health, peace and an end to occupation. Then fell asleep again. Three days later, still sick, I waited with a friend until dawn for a van that would take me across another country to my plane.
Nadja Tesich is a writer, filmmaker, and former professor of film at Brooklyn College.