Sullen Belgrade maps out its losses

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The Independent Online


An indignant and fascinated little crowd gathers at the bottom of Terazije Street, in the heart of Belgrade. The source of interest: a new map, which was originally published with triumphal intentions. "Thank God I'm a Serb," says the proud inscription. Now, the map is a bitter memorial to defeat.

It was intended to show the extent of Serb conquests in recent years. Yellow shows "territory under the control of Serb forces". Given what has happened in the past four years, much of the map is printed in yellow. There is just a forlorn little strip of green down the middle, for the "territories of Muslim-Croat Federation".

But then came the humiliation. Pink-striped amendments have been drawn on to the map, marking areas that Croats and Bosnian-government forces have seized Serbs recently. Suddenly there is little reason for Serbs to rejoice.

It seems odd that people gather to study the map so intently. Surely Serbs must know exactly what they have lost? In reality the official media have been reticent. The Bosnia deal reached in New York last week is proclaimed a triumph for the policies of President Slobodan Milosevic. The loss of territories where Serbs have lived for generations and the expulsion of 200,000 refugees are ignored. Thus the maps on Terazije Street provide the first opportunity for many to examine the grim new reality in detail.

"All of this was pure Serb," says one man (with a gesture taking in areas where Bosnian Muslims were in the majority until "ethnic cleansers" killed them or drove them out of their homes). "And now look. We've lost everything. It's genocide, pure genocide."

That indignation is typical.Every Serb can give you a lecture about what Serbs suffered 50 or 500 years ago. People talk, too, about Serbian suffering of recent months. But the Serbian crimes of the past few years do not exist in most people's minds. One depressing reason why the outspoken Serbian opposition Vreme magazine can still be published is that it has such a small readership. Few Serbs want to read uncomfortable truths.

There are, of course, Serbs who do not seek to use the vile experiences of history as a justification for unleashing new nightmares. But such heartening free spirits are an endangered minority - as rare as sympathisers of Andrei Sakharov in Brezhnev's Soviet Union or genuine haters of Nazism in Germany in 1945.

The Serbs' perception of themselves as eternal victims is another reason why last week's New York deal has been greeted with little enthusiasm on the streets of Belgrade. The official media emphasised the deal means Mir [peace] in our time, Mir on the horizon, Mir by Christmas, Mir because of the wise Serbian leader.

But many ordinary Serbs remain cautious. They believe, in any case, that the Western powers are the true warmongers.

"The war will be over when the Americans want it to be over - not a moment earlier," was one typical comment as Richard Holbrooke, the US peace envoy, arrived in Belgrade last weekend.

The nationalist opposition blames Mr Milosevic for allowing the Serb-majority Krajina to fall easily into Croat hands. "That wasn't a military victory [by the Croats]. It was a gift [from the Serbian leadership]" runs a popular argument. But Serbs, more exhausted than enraged, do not seem ready to pour on to the streets to protest. A nationalist opposition demonstration - in other words, those who regard Mr Milosevic as a sell-out - persuaded 10,000 people on to the streets, but the protests stopped there.

In one respect at least, there is a new half-optimism. Many believe that the New York deal could lead to the lifting of sanctions, which is all that many people care about. If sanctions are lifted, then solidarity with brother Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia could soon be forgotten, and Mr Milosevic's popularity could soar once more.

For the moment, however, Serbia remains a country of sullen resentment. Savo, one of the men gathered around the map-seller on Terazije, argues that Serbs are deeply misunderstood, because of a mixture of foreign ignorance and malice. But he acknowledges, too, that the information flow in Serbia is not all that it might be. "What do we know? We have no information. We know nothing." Why not? Savo shrugs. "That's just how it is."