War In The Balkans: The Vera Lynn of Belgrade woos crowds

Serbian Morale
Click to follow
The Independent Online
WHEN CECA began to sing, the crowd around me swayed with emotion. They cried. They danced with three fingers in the air, the Serb sign of eternal victory in tribute to the beautiful young woman on the podium.

Ceca's hair was long and brown and she flounced in her perfectly cut white trouser suit from one end of the stage to the other, her pearls flashing in the arc lamps. And round us in Republic Square, her husband's loyal "Tigers" - massive, beefy men with short-cropped hair dressed in dark blue uniforms - stood gazing impassively at the crowd. These Tigers, it need hardly be said, are Arkan's boys.

For Ceca, the 24-year-old pop-idol Svetlana Raznatovic, is the third wife of Zeljko Raznatovic, better known as Arkan and reintroduced to the British public on Sunday by George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, as "that obnoxious thug".

The football club owner indicted for war crimes in Bosnia was among the crowd of 5,000 around us - he never leaves his wife - but Ceca's presence was what the Serbs of Belgrade sought. When she raised the microphone to her lips, the crowd fell silent.

Znam za jedan Grad

Zove se Beograd... she crooned,

I know a town, its name is Belgrade.

I know a man who lives there,

But he is a cheat - he lies.

Then, as her voice dipped with emotion, Ceca ran her left hand back through her curls of brown hair and the crowd joined in the words of her chorus:

Once I kissed your lips and they tasted of poison,

I did it just once and you betrayed me...

This was too much for the crowd. They shouted their delight, punching their three fingered salute into the sky. Atop the bronze statue of old Prince Mihaelo Obranovic, a young man in blue denims set light to a German flag and let the orange, red and black banner float to the ground, cowled in flames. There were plenty of young men in the crowd to approve of such a gesture, perhaps the very same gentlemen who'd trashed their way through the French cultural centre and the Air France office just down the pedestrian precinct from the square.

Through the crowd went several women, handing outpieces of paper marked as targets, each with a question mark in the bullseye. They all wore them on their lapels. "Target?" it said at the bottom. Were they to be Nato's targets?

The terrible stories coming out of Kosovo had no place in this square - indeed, in Belgrade - yesterday. Atrocities against Albanians were more than incredible - they were unreal, mythical, part of the great Western plot that had driven the enraged young men to smash up the American Cultural Centre as well and smear its walls with swastikas.

No, this was a moment for Serb pride as Ceca, the mother of Arkan's latest two childrenand the manager of his football team - Arkan having a little problem with travelling abroad - began her second song. Her voice, magnified to impossible decibels, haunted the rooftops and flaking walls of Belgrade.

My friends have gone and I am here," she sang,

The North Star doesn't shine any more

And she used to be my companion.

It's St George's Day

And I'm not with the one I love.

There is nothing new, of course, about love songs in war. And if Ceca is to be Serbia's Vera Lynn, so be it.

But Serbia's forces' sweetheart is a heroine to the lads in blue who stood around us and paraded behind her on the stage, the very Tigers who made Arkan's name a byword for fear along the Drina Valley, the shock troops of "ethnic cleansing" in Slavonia in 1991 before moving on to Bosnia. Are they heading, then, for Kosovo as Mr Robertson claims? Not according to Arkan.

Chatting to Serb journalists in a Belgrade nightclub on Sunday night, he insisted that he would only take his Tigers down to fight the British if they crossed over from Macedonia. He said it with a smile - though not as broad a smile as Ceca gave us yesterday.

Children were hoisted onto fathers' shoulders to watch Serbia's most popular rock singer, while another young woman wandered the crowd with a poster claiming: "I am not Monica Lewinsky".

The strange mixture of joy, forgetfulness and fearful abnegation - for as usual only the Serbs are victims of this war - brought about some odd scenes. Take the little yellow car which drew out of the vegetable market a few minutes later with two cardboard anti-aircraft guns taped to the roof.

Or the young man who swooned on the Obranovic statue while holding Vojislav Seselj's black flag with its skull emblem. For Seselj's "White Eagles" were also represented yesterday, those whose claws proved every bit as cruel as Arkan's Tigers along the valley of the Drina. "In God we Trust, in King and Fatherland," it said below the skull. Mihailo Obranovic would have enjoyed that. When Milutin Garasanin annoyed him in the 1840s, Mihaelo was happy to see Milutin beheaded and his head impaled on a spike. These may be long-forgotten conflicts outside the Balkans; but not for the Serbs.

On the corner of the square, someone had stuck up an obituary notice on the wall although close inspection showed its political content.

Normally, the name of the deceased appears on a white sheet of paper with a cross at the top. On this particular document, the name was President Bill Clinton's and the symbol above his head was a swastika.

As usual, the Serbs were fighting their dark past, in conflict with Nazis, Turks, the West, anyone who dared betray them.

My friends have gone and I am such poison and so much betrayal... Ceca sang.

No wonder the Serbs in Republic Square loved her.