Anyone who had a chance to first live blissfully in abundance and then touch bottom, experiencing at least some of the shit we went through, will surely remember it for the rest of their life because the formidable hurdles we were facing daily in 90s Serbia bordered surreal. Those who managed to keep their head above water were like skydivers who survived a 12,000ft (3660m) fall without their parachutes.
In order to explain the political climate in Serbia in the mid 90s, I need to go back in time. The late 80s witnessed squabbles between the Serb minority and the ethnic-Albanian majority in Serbia’s (ex-) southern province of Kosovo, considered ‘the Mecca and Medina of the Serb people.’ Many Serbs left never to return, while the remaining ones felt oppressed and abused by the Albanian leadership. The Kosovo issue dominated Serbian politics. Slobodan Milošević, a rising Socialist Party boss (SPS), became an overnight sensation, being ‘the first politician to break official party taboos about embracing nationalism. Jumping on the nationalist bandwagon and making himself the public champion of the beleaguered Serbs of Kosovo’ proved to be his ticket to absolute power. He said: ‘I will defend your rights.’ They cheered and nodded. He said: ‘I will restore prosperity.’ They cheered and nodded. He said: ‘I will protect you and defend Serbdom.’ They cheered and nodded. He said: ‘No one has the right to beat you.’ They cheered and nodded. Soon he was to become a hero of angry Serbs everywhere. Erratic time.
In 1990, Yugoslavia started following the model of political transition from a one-party system to a multi-party democratic one. The opposition openly rejected the communist and socialist regime and was strongly in favor of human rights, democracy and market economy. In June, it called for a street protest against SPS control over national media which ignored opposition altogether while glorifying Milošević’s ‘peace-loving’ initiatives. Over 70,000 peaceful protesters were dispersed. In the fall, mass protests were again organized in Belgrade, demanding a free and fair electoral campaign, the media coverage of opposition activities and the round table. Despite the charismatic leaders who were getting more and more popular and rallies across Serbia, the democratic opposition lost the battle (but not the war). Minimized time for opponents of the regime on TV (being denounced as Western stooges) and the absence of united opposition forces also contributed to the overwhelming victory of SPS in both Parliamentary and presidential elections.
In March ‘91, another street protest against President Milošević and his total control of the national media was organized in downtown Belgrade. Fury followed, the rally turning into a riot featuring vicious clashes between the protesters and the police and military, deployed in the streets to restore order. 100,000 citizens against tanks. Two people died and a few hundred were injured. Several prominent opposition officials were badly beaten and detained by the police and two media outlets considered unfriendly to the government banned. Civil fury grew high and the following day more people were in the streets. The government supporters responded by organizing a counter-protest. The rallies ended a few days later, after the opposition leaders had been released from police custody. Both the state TV director and the Minister of the Interior resigned. One victory at a time. Thanks to his fiery nationalist rhetoric, and total control of the national media, along with the JNA operations in Croatia (Yugoslav People’s Army), the popularity of President Milošević continued to grow. So did the fury of the conscious ‘few.’
Fast forward to mid 90s. Upon enrolling in the university and spending a wonderful summer with my longtime boyfriend and friends, partying, loitering and dreaming (4 months without school), I moved away from my parents in the fall of ‘95. The war just finished (crime didn’t, though). The sanctions weren’t lifted until the next year, which meant more power outages accompanied by the calming effects of candlelight. The post-war period was no less challenging. It was a time of scarcity and supporting two students financially was not easy. Students who pay for college fees themselves are extremely rare in Serbia. It is your job to study, pass exams and have fun, whereas it’s your parents’ duty to pay your bills. Things get tougher if you’re a big art lover who didn’t want to miss a single movie, festival, exhibition, concert or theater performance. Unfortunately, my sister and I were not among the lucky bastards whose tuition was covered by the state, but were fee-paying ones. Even though the fees were not that high (no loans, no debts), the price of printouts most definitely was. We didn’t have the convenience of the Internet back then, which would surely make things cheaper and our life easier. Books and textbooks, on the other hand, were either way too costly or hard to obtain so we’d spend hours in the library reading dozens of them so as to copy/paste a few useful pages, which required hard manual labor. Once the work was done, we wouldn’t stay there to study as we preferred the comfort of our home. The library atmosphere never grew on us. There’s nothing cozy, agreeable and intimate about it. Watching other people staring at their books, while you can’t concentrate yourself since you’re too busy checking out their backpacks, glasses, their hair and clothes, and being distracted by a fly buzz, is utterly depressing and unproductive in the long run. Our bodies are so not made to be sedentary. Besides, deafening silence for studying was never my thing. I needed noise, I needed the fridge, the kettle, the sounds of the street, our room overlooking a most peculiar neighbor. I needed our saggy cushions and old ugly sofa where I’d assume most unusual positions for studying you can think of (back down, legs up the wall, headphones on). I missed the radio, shared laughter and friends stopping by for a chat, a cup of coffee or our aunt’s hot tomato soup. I craved my common workplace distractions.
Oh, the bliss of student life! Socializing, partying, and having fun day in day out, meeting new people all the time, pairing up with the best and the worst, the most generous and the most envious people you will ever meet, the best of the best sharing the same premises with the scum of the earth, daring to be different, finding your tribe, befriending a withdrawn Bosnian girl in the last row who lost her dad in war and had no idea where her mom and brother were, sharing food, dreams, books, passions, ideas, thoughts, showers and beds, dropping the mime, learning to ‘be yourself (everyone else was already taken’), living in a tight-knit community buzzing with life, sleepovers, inducing euphoria with all things available, Bowie’s Earthling 24/7, resetting perspectives, learning from and exchanging views with brilliant professors and assistant professors, putting up with mediocrity and an inferiority complex impossible to treat, student discounts, fare evasion, mom’s parcels with sour cabbage rolls, stuffed red peppers, money, and crepes with honey and walnuts sent regularly by bus, resorting to scratchcards when broke, winning (big enough to cover the costs), losing, taking part in every single radio game show in the city (answering questions about literature and film, being rewarded with the best prize ever: a book or a concert/theater ticket otherwise impossible to afford), mastering negotiation skills and sweet talk: talking our (read: my) way past bouncers every fricking time, cramped trains back home: using bribery, students and railroad officials in the same sentence, early English literature, an introduction into Canadian-Australian studies, Romanticism, American writers, contemporary literature, the (almost) Complete Works of Shakespeare, cooking your own food, having others cook for you, leading a life without a washing machine, giving up on the idea to kill the black mold, continuing to hope it won’t kill you (too soon), placing mouse traps around the house, thinking of the ways to outsmart a smart mouse, being outsmarted, enthusiasm, attending lectures worth attending, missing those worth missing, catching up, lacking motivation, a recommended daily intake of lecithin for focus, attention and concentration improvement, resorting to cleaning the house from top to bottom to let off steam, scrubbing the grout lines in the bathroom with a toothbrush because every nook and cranny needed to be clean (read: finding yet another excuse not to study for exams), workload, duties and obligations, procrastinating, locking ourselves in before exams without leaving the house for days (it was about time!), stress before a midterm, learning to cope with anxiety, meditation: relieving pain by changing your mind, making room for more happiness, reading and writing, listening and turning a deaf ear, passing and failing, facts to remember, facts to learn and forget, making your own decisions, flunking semesters on purpose to have more time for having a good time (infuriating teachers and pleasing yourself), standing by your choices, prioritizing, living your life, temptations, learning the hard way, dealing with emotional memories, being taught not to bottle up emotions (then forgetting), finding people keen for a talk anytime, joining a hiking club, going hiking, going swimming, first job, first salary spent on a ski trip and a bike, biking in and around the city with sis on a daily basis, getting in shape, sharing super sweet dessert combos afterwards to boost our energy levels (fuck getting in shape!), stage diving, lighters held up at concerts like fireflies in the dark (his hand around my sweaty waist), the addictive darkness of freezing movie theaters (a weekly/daily hotshot), a peaceful sense of intimacy, legs touching under the table, pulling the blanket over our heads, enjoying the silence interrupted by grunts, sighs, and groans, the noise of impetuous passion, climaxing, being present and fading to black, sinking into speechless oblivion, sharing an enthusiastic neighbor’s choice of music and boyfriends, investing in good earplugs, regular coffees under a linden tree, staying up all night, sleeping in the following day, a regular knock on our window, pressing the social ‘refresh’ button. Lifelong friends and memories. Feeling adult, feeling appreciated, feeling worthless, feeling like a piece of shit. Rebuilding self-esteem. Morning chats over coffee, late night dinners by the old wood burner, cigarette smoke filling the kitchen, and crackling fire on a cold damp evening. Don’t fall asleep. We need to keep the fire burning.
It’s the fall of 1996. Days are noticeably shorter, while nights are getting colder and colder. Serbian local elections held in November are followed by allegations of widespread voter fraud. It seems very likely President Milošević will reject the accusations as preposterous. Again. However, students have something important to say this time.
Fury and frustration have been piling up for quite some time, seeking ways of breaking free. The long sound of silence gives the impression of ripeness. We are ready, willing and able to speak up. ‘The sound is the fury’; the fury is a change. ‘The grave hopeless sound of all voiceless misery under the sun’ is about to break away.