After years of poverty and death, Serbs want their ordinary lives back

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The Independent Online

To wake up in Serbia yesterday was an uneasy feeling. It was all too easy to believe that the events of Thursday had been just a dream and that the nightmare of everyday life under Slobodan Milosevic would return if we opened our eyes. After more than a decade, we are not the people we were in the days before Milosevic. We call that time "our previous lives".

To wake up in Serbia yesterday was an uneasy feeling. It was all too easy to believe that the events of Thursday had been just a dream and that the nightmare of everyday life under Slobodan Milosevic would return if we opened our eyes. After more than a decade, we are not the people we were in the days before Milosevic. We call that time "our previous lives".

They were simple, peaceful times. People had jobs, travelled abroad without visas, furnished their modest flats and took holidays on the beautiful Croatian coast.

Now we have lost almost everything. Our homeland, which we proudly called Yugoslavia, has disappeared in ashes. Thousands of innocent people have died in wars that Milosevic tried to justify as defence of the "Serb national interest". Terrible crimes have been committed in the name of the Serbian people.

New, negative nationalist stereotypes have been created in Milosevic's paranoid image. We Serbs have become pariahs, excluded from the Europe we once belonged to. Milosevic's propaganda tried to make us proud of that.

Hundreds of thousands of Serbia's intelligentsia have fled in search of a better life since 1991. Now, there are so few friends still here, and so many e-mails arriving from all over the world. They come from people we grew up with, loved in our youth or walked our toddlers with back in the Eighties.

Of the large Zimonjic family, the handful of us in Belgrade are the only ones to remain in Yugoslavia. Some are abroad. Others died terrible deaths in the besieged Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, during the second war to bear Milosevic's bloody fingerprints.

After years of harsh international economic sanctions, hundreds of thousands of people here are jobless. Their $4.5bn in savings were simply confiscated by the state. I witnessed the humiliation of my high school teacher searching for food through rubbish bins for food scraps back in 1993. Then, inflation was at 300 per cent and pensions were worthless. Now, in the 21st century, Serbia still faces serious shortages of milk, sugar, oil and other basic foods. The queues outside food shops everywhere speak for themselves.

Yet a uniquely Serbian class of nouveau riche has emerged. People who, in earlier times, would have been regarded as criminals instead became "war heroes" or "businessmen", like the late Zeljko Raznatovic, better known as the paramilitary leader Arkan. Many other common thieves and thugs were presented as idols.

Having been patient for change for so many years under the mild communist regime of Tito, Serbs clung doggedly to the belief that things would somehow get better. We wanted Milosevic gone, but did not know how. In 1999, the Serbs became sitting ducks for Nato's bombers. For many, this was their final moment of awakening. They felt Milosevic had deliberately sacrificed their interests to maintain power.

Since the 24 September elections, it has been clear that Serbs want their ordinary lives back. But none of the people I met in the huge and jubilant crowd on Thursday night was under any illusion that their lives now will be a bed of roses.

Still, it is the word "normality" that is on everyone's lips. As one youngster told me: "We want to taste it. All we know is Milosevic, nothing else." Now they have the chance to experience it.

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