"Slobo + Franjo" read the giant heart on a wall in Subotica. Slobodan Milosevic loves Franjo Tudjman. The two nationalists need each other. The graffiti was the first public sign I saw of the Serbian peace movement - but not the last.
Our passage through customs in the new Yugoslavia had been unexpectedly easy. "I know you!" the customs agent exclaimed when he saw Joel, remembering him from his two weeks at the peace camp in Subotica.
We proceeded from the train station to city hall, where we met with Zoltan Toth, assistant to the mayor. The Subotica city hall was unexpectedly beautiful. Every room and hall had its walls and ceiling covered with Hungarian folk designs.
Zoltan Toth had just returned from a conference in Spain. People from all of the countries of former Yugoslavia were there, as were people from other countries. The conference discussed Spain's transition to democracy and allowed people from city governments to exchange ideas. Zoltan, for example, had found interesting a sister city arrangement in which retired language teachers go to a sister city to interpret. On a less serious note, several people attending the conference discussed the problem of the name of the Republic of Macedonia, and came up with the suggestion that the country be renamed to the Republic of Coca Cola.
Our business with Zoltan consisted of two items. First, we were there to request his help in getting a Croatian girl out of Serbia. She had papers, so there should be no problem, but he agreed to help in case anything came up. Second, we were bearing a message from the Osijek peace group, which was hoping to establish communication between Slavonian refugees and their former neighbors. Zoltan's answer was the same as the one we heard from Miklos: such communication isn't possible at this time. Perhaps later we could proceed as the way opens.
The conversation turned to a more general discussion of the situation in former Yugoslavia. We mentioned the very peaceful attitude we had encountered from some of the people in Osijek, despite the devastation the city has known. Zoltan agreed, "There has always been a sense of kinship between the people of Baranja and the people of Vojvodina. Because the people in these areas have known what it is for many groups to live together in peace, they retain this knowledge in spite of the war."
He told us a story of the war (evidently a new folk tale which is making the rounds, for we later spoke with a man in Macedonia who had heard the same story). A Serbian soldier came upon a Croatian soldier who carried a knife with a row of notches. He killed the Croatian soldier with his own knife and started a new row of notches. But one day, a Croatian will kill him and start a third row of notches.
We left the city hall and went to speak with Vedrun, a peace activist in Subotica. Vedrun said, "It is very hard to be a peace activist, since the situation is polarized. On the one hand, there are a lot of people who have suffered so much. They have lost their homes, they have lost their relatives, land, property, and so on. Some of them feel a bitterness, feel angry. And there are extremists who are volunteers of bad will . . . On the other side, there are people who would like to say stop all that. It is necessary to provide peace. Peace is not only the goal, peace is the way."
Peace activists face many difficulties. They lose their jobs, have problems with their neighbors, and are accused of being traitors. They are afraid they may be risking their lives, because soldiers are returning from the front with many weapons, and some have war-related mental illnesses and are unpredictable. In addition, they face problems keeping their operations going in the face of a collapsed economy and an international boycott.
"Peace groups need paper, pencils, paper for fax machines, and all these material things as support, and especially they need real, genuine help from their friends in the West . . . to support an independent media . . . and all the people who are ready to create genuine democratic values . . . It is not easy to explain why peace is so needed and why violence is always unuseful. And that simply by violence nobody can benefit. For example, in Serbia there are now 40,000 people handicapped because of the war . . . Peace activists need to be helped to publish their newsletters . . . We don't need special lectures, we need paper and pencils. And maybe help to cover our phone bills . . . to give us a chance, to inform foreign media and foreign activists that there are peace activists here, that we are doing the best we can, and that we will do more if someone will help us."
After meeting with Vedrun, we rejoined Zoltan at an outdoor cafe near the center of town. As we sipped our mineral water and chatted, we could hear the voice of Art Garfunkle in the background, singing "Don't know much about history." The topic of conversation: would Bush intervene before the election?
Jason arrived to bring out the Croatian girl. Jason is a young Englishman, 21, who dropped out of school at 16 and went to work as a security guard. Not long ago, he quit his job and set out to travel across Europe, working in various countries as he went. Passing through Zagreb on the way to Prague, he became involved with the refugee project, and so with this attempt.
Roberto's sister, a teenager, had been living with a Serbian uncle in the new Yugoslavia; Roberto is a peace activist in Zagreb. Many families have been separated like this by the war. Sometimes, when the troops came to a city like Vukovar, some of the family would flee in one direction while the rest fled in the other direction. Roberto wanted to get his sister away from this uncle and into Croatia.
When Zoltan had to return to his office, Joel took Jason and me on a tour of Subotica. Subotica is in Vojvodina, a very ethnically mixed region. Hungarians, Serbs, and Croatians all live together in Vojvodina. Reflecting this ethnic diversity, many signs in this city appear in both Hungarian and Serbian. Like its city hall, Subotica is beautiful. I was particularly struck by the absence of cars; the streets of the city were all pedestrian.
As we were walking, Joel saw the independent businessman he had dealt with earlier. We had looked for him as we were leaving the city hall, as he usually operates there every day, but had not seen him there. Now he led us over to a park bench. He was a short man in a green suit. He named his price, and counted out the money to me, occasionally glancing over his shoulder, then took my $20 bills. The price: 360 dinars to the dollar. The official rate is 200 dinars to the dollar. In Zagreb, the black market pays only a little more than the official rate, and it is not that worthwhile to go black market. Here, the official rate is completely out of touch with reality.
We rode off on the bus with Jason and Josip. Another passenger's tape deck was playing Serbian music. Josip talked to us about the effect of the sanctions. When he goes for breakfast at his school, he cannot get the number of eggs he used to get, or the same number of lumps of sugar - there is a new limit. Beyond the immediate effect of the sanctions, he wonders how, with things as they are, he can plan for the future, "I have talked it over with my girl friend. We do not know how we can plan to start a family." The sanctions are indeed having an effect, at least on ordinary people. Gas is rationed, and black market prices can go as high as 5 marks a liter. Paper is scarce. Broken windows in Beograd wait to be repaired.
We were met at the train station by an American peace activist, and brought to the apartment where we would be staying with him. An apartment belonging to a well-to-do Beograd family, it was up seven flights of stairs and was filled with books in several languages. After bringing our things up to the apartment, we set out to find a place to eat. On a street corner, we saw a peace poster: Za sto slepi - Why are you so blind? Peace posters are common in Beograd. I later saw a graffiti of the Serbian four C's right beside two peace posters. Another common item in the streets of Beograd: little posters put up by families to announce the death of a member of the family. This custom is also practiced in Zagreb. The only difference: the posters in Beograd are in the Cyrilic alphabet, while the ones in Zagreb are in the Roman alphabet.
We found a restaurant several blocks away. As we went in, we saw that the walls were covered with Serbian nationalist symbols (the sign of the four C's) and portraits, presumably of Serbian national heros. The symbols were made of iron. It was an uncomfortable moment. But, as Joel said later, it is no different from a restaurant in the US which is filled with American flags. Like the display of an American flag, display of the four C's can show support for militarist policies of the government - or it can show simple patriotism. Since Joel's Serbian is limited and mine is nonexistent, we selected our meal by looking for an item on the menu with the word, "chicken." The meal arrived: chicken livers. Accompanying it was some quite good bread and a very hot salad (Serbian food is spicier than Croatian food).
Later we visited a Serbian icon shop. This shop also sold stickers with the four C's. Among the icons of saints, Serbian and others, were books: liturgical books and books about WWII. As we looked through the icons, a song was playing in the background, "See you later, alligator. In a while, crocodile."
The Beograd peace center is a small office with two rooms and a kitchen. The walls, like those of the Zagreb peace center, are covered with posters from many countries. I noticed a Quaker poster entitled "The Two Mules: A fable for the nations," a German poster, "Chances for Peace? Work against the war in the disintegrating multi-ethnic state of Yugoslavia," a Greek poster about opposition to nationalism and war, and a poster about a peace tour through Europe. In Serbian, one poster announced, "Nemogute?! Dosta!" - "Impossible?! Enough!" It was the same as a poster I saw earlier in the Zagreb peace center. One the wall was a poem in Serbian, "Elegy for Vukovar." The poem begins "Do not rejoice, soldier, over the fall of Vukovar," and speaks of "the horrible music of tanks," and "no freedom for anyone."
The activists here sometimes face of harassment, and yet despite, this, opposition to the war is vocal in Beograd. As Zorista said, "We are afraid too, but we do not give up. We have received threats. Someone tore a picture in half and sent it to us, saying, this is what we will do to you." Zorista spoke firmly of her opposition to all wars, "There has never been a war followed by birds, flowers, democracy."
At one point, in the Beograd peace center, the conversation turned to which are the most beautiful cities of former Yugoslavia. We spoke of the beauty of Subotica, of Ljubljana. Until someone said, "Sarajevo." And another said, "Was."
In the evening, we attended a meeting of peace activists. This meeting was at the student center. Outside the student center, there was a brisk trade in records, tapes, and CDs, and the song "Stairway to Heaven" played. On the outside wall were paintings of giraffes and a leopard. Inside, students were drinking. We went upstairs to a room where about twenty people were meeting. They were of all ages. One, we learned, was the head of the Republican party. Joel told me that some of the older women fought with the Partisans. About half the people were women. The meeting was in Serbian, but a young man sat beside us and interpreted for us.
A speaker was saying, "We need a new strategy. We have been urging our government to make peace. Now our government [that is, Panic's Yugoslavian federal government] has declared that it is ready to make peace. Sese [the man who attempted to oust Panic] has been defeated. The war in Bosnia has become a free-for-all. No one has control." What should the peace movement do under these changed circumstances?
Discussion continued about the various things the peace movement has to consider in planning its strategy. Then discussion turned to proposed actions. Some European peace groups were considering an unarmed march into Sarajevo. There were several proposals: one from Italy, one from Germany, and one from Great Britain. People could come from all over Europe, and perhaps also from America. Plans were made for attending a conference in Verona, at which representatives from peace groups throughout former Yugoslavia would meet to discuss strategy. Arrangements were made for an English language volunteer to help the center in Beograd. The meeting closed at 21:45, and we rushed off to catch our train.
On the train from Beograd to Skopje, we shared a cabin with a young Serb returning to his village. His brother was on the front line at Vukovar. He was very angry with Milosevic, "Milosevic is fighting this war for the US or for Europe. He is not fighting for Serbia. 95% of the Serbians do not want this war. I like the Bosnians. I always think the Bosnians are the best people."
His sorrow and confusion over the war were echoed by another young person of a different background whom we met on the bus back from Greece. The woman in front of us, returning to Beograd after visiting her Greek boy friend in Thessaloniki, was born in Sarajevo. Daughter of a Serbian father and a Bosnian Muslim mother, she said of herself, "I do not know what I am. I am a Yugoslav. My country does not exist any more."