Serbs' brave face fails to disguise the pain of war

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ON THE same day last week that the international trade embargo on the former Yugoslavia was tightened, a Serbian traffic policeman stood in the middle of the main highway from the Hungarian border to Belgrade, pointing his radar gun at the lone car trundling down the road.

Never mind that a severe shortage of petrol has forced most cars off Yugoslavia's roads. Never mind that even those who go to Hungary to buy cheese or sugar, or to fill their petrol tanks, drive home very slowly to save every precious drop of fuel. There he stood in the middle of the tarmac, rising out of the flat terrain of northern Serbia like a blue cowboy, radar gun at the ready.

When asked if there was much speeding these days, he said no, not much at all. Was there much traffic? Not much. Then why was he standing in the middle of the road pointing his radar gun? 'It is my job. What else would you have me do?'

The rump state of Yugoslavia is like that these days. If life during the madness of war is a struggle to maintain some semblance of normality, the Serbs are doing an amazingly good job. By the same token, if suffering during wartime is relative, surely the low end of the scale is in Belgrade, the capital of rump Yugoslavia and the Serbian state.

Looking across the Sava River towards old Belgrade, the drab grey skyline of the communist heyday punctuated by a few Eastern church spires, it is hard to believe that war is raging only 100 miles away. There are still luxury goods in Belgrade's shops, tropical fruits in its markets, and foreign currency on its streets. Yet scratch the surface and there are big problems.

Serbia's military adventurism in former Yugoslav republics, and the international trade embargo, are wreaking havoc. Businesses go belly-up everyday, production is falling like a lead balloon and thousands have no jobs. Government presses work overtime minting notes to try to keep up with triple-digit monthly inflation.

'Life is hard, yes. But the real costs of sanctions and this war are not economic, they are social and psychological . . . Sanctions are most hurting not our today but our tomorrow,' said Danko Djunic, a management consultant who heads the independent Institute of Economics. His wife, Pava, works at the Belgrade stock exchange. Two of their children are in the United States studying. Many of their friends, skilled men and women, have fled the country for a brighter future elsewhere.

Every day there are huge queues outside the Canadian embassy, one of the few countries that are accepting Serbs as immigrants. An independent Belgrade newspaper recently published lists of names of people who have left the country. It took up page after page. The professions of those who had fled, ranging from engineers to film directors and academics, made it clear that the country was losing its elite.

In their place come money- changers, black marketeers, men in military uniforms and Serb refugees from the fighting in Bosnia and Croatia, all bringing a fierce brand of nationalism and changing the mood of the city.

Among those who have come to prominence in the new Yugoslavia are members of a powerful criminal class. Tough-looking men in sharp double-breasted Italian suits drive new BMWs, have beautiful women draped on their arms, carry guns and monopolise the best restaurants. In many circles they are considered heroes, whose activities have helped the country to survive a year of sanctions. Some have even been elected to parliament.

'Imagine the United States during Prohibition, but without the FBI. And now go one step further. Imagine the United States during Prohibition without the FBI, but with Al Capone as a respected senator. Well, that is Yugoslavia today,' said Predrag Simic, the head of an independent political think-tank.

To understand how Yugoslavia reached this point, it is necessary to look at the Serbs themselves and how they view the world.

'You are American?' a solicitor asked when the dinner conversation shifted from architecture to current events in Yugoslavia. 'Well, then you must know Bill Clinton. Tell me, why can't he see that he is playing into German hands, that Germany has never stopped fighting World War Two? It has never given up its designs on the Balkans. It wants Serbia. It has always wanted Serbia, to swallow up. Can't America see that? That is why Germany supported the breakup of Yugoslavia and supported its old friends, the Croats. Don't you see? If America fights us, World War Two will be lost forever.'

His eyes were pleading. He believed what he was saying was correct. And yet this is not an untypical conversation with many intelligent people. They do not comprehend how the outside world, particularly such countries as the US and Britain, can view them as aggressors and war criminals. They present themselves as weak and victimised and misunderstood. They are not killing innocent Muslims and Croats, they will tell you. They are defending their threatened brethren, who are also being butchered.

'Our problem is that we don't like to think we are stupid and capable of stupid things. It always has to be something else or someone else. The truth is, I think, that we have allowed ourselves to be stupid,' said Bojna, an unemployed lawyer.

There are signs that war-weariness is setting in. Recent polls of have shown that almost 40 per cent of Serbs support peace, and almost two-thirds of young people would not fight for a Greater Serbia. 'Overall, people are disgusted - with the government, with the world, with the sanctions, with themselves,' Bojna said.

(Photograph omitted)