The Diary: Taming of the Shrew amid the tempest

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The Independent Online
The end is where I should start. Although, with Milosevic you can never be sure this is really an end. But let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that he has no alternative but to be serious this time ....

On Wednesday evening people came out on to the streets of Belgrade, as well as of other Serbian cities, to celebrate. They had two good reasons to do that, and they were almost equally important. First, our national team managed to win a decisive game at the World Handball Championship in Egypt. That may not sound like much, but it was vitally important because we were playing Croatia. The Croats of course are at the top of a long list of Serbia's mortal enemies, thanks to a relentless campaign of monstrous media propaganda that has been going on now for 10 years. There was a lot of shooting in the streets: people fired guns, some of them heavy calibre, from balconies and windows. It's an enduring local custom. It's what we do when we are happy, or victorious. Sometimes people are killed, but no one was on this occasion.

Then, just a couple of hours later, there was a new explosion of joy. The state-controlled national TV, or what's left of it, interrupted the regular programme with a breaking news story: at Kumanovo airbase our officials had signed "a contract with the international community concerning some technical and military cooperation". This was the most inventive euphemism I have ever heard. What happened at Kumanovo was capitulation, surrender, but the propaganda masters made it sound so innocent and neutral. How else could they hope to present in the days to come one of the nation's greatest defeats as another in the long series of victories of our beloved leader?

All the same, people came out to the streets to celebrate. It was in keeping with our long tradition of national denial. For more than 600 years we have celebrated the defeat of the Serb army by the Turks in Kosovo. That happened in 1389. The celebrations on Wednesday night were as much a sign of relief as of anything else, but I still have a feeling that we have laid the foundation of another glorious tradition: celebrating the defeat in Kosovo of 1999.

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THE RELIEF on Wednesday was palpable. It is by no means the most desirable thing in the world to suffer Nato air strikes for 77 consecutive days and, worse, nights. We discovered for the first time in our lives what is it like to be hostages. A graffito appeared on a Belgrade wall in the early days of the war, summarising the desperate situation of ordinary, innocent civilians: "In the sky Nato, on the ground Milosevic!" We hostages were stuck in the middle. It was horrifying. One night I saw a fleet of Tomahawks flying just above my head, on their way to hit the Ministry of Interior Affairs. Just as horrifying was the sheer lack of perspective. Most of us were quite aware of the terrible situation of the Kosovo civilians, but what could we have done about it? Openly protest against it? We did that, of course, risking a lot along the way, but it was completely useless. We got no help from the West. All the West can do by way of help, it seems, is to drop bombs.

All of us, however, had a unique chance to experience the true face of a modern war. I will try, as hard as I can, to delete the spring of AD1999 from my memory. To forget about fear, anger, frustration, despair, ruins, dead bodies, lack of electricity, water, food, gasoline, lack of perspective, lack of hope. But some episodes - good and bad - will stubbornly refuse to be erased.

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THE CHINESE embassy is just across the street from where I live. Even if I were writing this in my native language, I would not have the words to describe the experience of that alleged accidental bombing. All our windows and doors to the balcony facing the street were blasted out, together with their frames. It was incredible luck that nobody was injured, although we all - myself, my wife Mia and our twin boys of 18 - found ourselves on the floor, amid overturned furniture and broken glass. It took us a couple of days of strong sedatives to recover, but I am sure some invisible scars will remain permanently. Now, I start quite involuntarily even at the sound of a distant door slam...

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ON A heavy and overcast Friday afternoon not long ago the National Theatre gave an open-air performance of The Taming of the Shrew. I went with Mia; admission was free. In the middle of the third act the rain began. Soon it was pouring down, a real summer tempest. But nobody left. The actors carried on, their make-up running, their costumes soaked. It was hard to see through the rain, and hard to hear through the thunder claps. And then, quite suddenly, as if the whole spectacle were not irrational enough, the air-raid sirens sounded. A moment of deep silence from the audience, and from the actors. The actors continued. There was a strong, almost explosive applause from the rest of us. Eros had triumphed over Thanatos; Life had defeated Death; laughter had overcome tears. We were all completely wet, and getting cold. The bombs could have started falling on us at any moment, but we didn't care. I experienced one of the most precious moments of sheer happiness in my whole life. I knew then we were on the winning side. They - Milosevic, Nato, KLA and the rest of them - can physically eliminate us all, but they are not able even to scratch our spirit.

As it happened, the bombs did not strike that afternoon, but they came at night and knocked out the city's electricity supply for three days. No lighting, no hot water, no refrigerators. Imagine it. But now it is over, it seems; now it is over after two and a half months of bombing, after at least 5,000 casualties, both military and civilian, after a country, already deep in all kind of troubles, was additionally and mercilessly turned to ruins. But at least we beat Croatia - 30:23.

Zoran Zivkovic is a writer and translator living in Belgrade.

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