On airstrike anniversary, Serb memories selective

A film about the effect of NATO strikes on Belgrade's working class is the most popular ticket in town. There's little mention of Kosovo.

ONE year after NATO began its bombing campaign against Yugoslavia over spiralling violence against Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, Serbia appears terrified that the alliance will take similar action again.

A destitute, elderly peasant woman waiting for spaghetti and bread at a Belgrade Red Cross soup kitchen is desperately worried. "Will NATO bomb? Will there be another war?" she frets.

Even the middle class is affected by memories of the airstrikes. "On Friday - the bombing's anniversary - I will definitely look up into the sky," says journalist Biljana Vasic, who works for the nongovernment magazine Vreme.

Resentment burns in the eyes of many here, even those who do not necessarily support Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. "Tony Blair!" exclaims a taxi driver, holding up his hands in disgust. "[British Prime Minister] Tony Blair and [Foreign Minister] Robin Cook are as crazy as Slobodan Milosevic." US Secretary of State Madeline Albright is also a target of popular hatred. Some pro-government propaganda posters seek to link her with the opposition.

The struggle and poverty of many is evident along the capital's longest road, Bulevar Revolucije, as it winds past the federal Parliament to the center of town. Decrepit trams, crammed with passengers, ply the rutted thoroughfare. Black-market money dealers, with a wary eye out for police, exchange the local currency - the dinar - at 21 to the popular German mark; the official rate is 6.

Pensioners living on as little as 320 dinars a month (about $26) try to buy basic necessities. But many have not received their pensions from the government for several months.

On the side of the crumbling pavement, a host of stalls have sprung up. Workers whose state jobs have collapsed are selling alarm clocks, batteries, pens, notebooks, socks, T-shirts - anything that will earn them enough to get by.

The biggest draw along the boulevard is a cinema showing "Sky Hook" - a film about the NATO bombings. Ten out of the capital's 30 cinemas are screening the film, which tells the tale of a bunch of fractious young Serbs who decide to rebuild a neighborhood basketball court after NATO missiles reduce it to rubble.

In the end they succeed in clearing the court and playing together, when another NATO strike reduces their effort to ruins and kills their star player. The working-class men from the high-rise apartments of New Belgrade complain about "10 years" of trials - code for the decade of wars brought by Milosevic's nationalist "Greater Serbia" policies in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo.

But the film shows Serbs as victims of an attack they are helpless to stop. No one raises the issue of Kosovo. The only reference to the strife-torn province lies in a single radio news broadcast.

Late on Saturday night, as crowds pour out of the theaters, the boulevard is busy and, despite economic hardship and continued United Nations sanctions, Belgrade is buzzing. Serbs love to party, especially the young.

At the Mondo nightclub, a girl in a microscopic miniskirt sways to the beat. Ten minutes away by cab, kids in jeans and American-style bomber jackets line up for a rave party sponsored by US cigarette-maker Lucky Strike, down by the Sava River. There's not a seat free in the Jazz Club overlooking Student Square, where hundreds of antigovernment protesters demonstrated last year.

Sleek black BMWs and spruce new Peugots mingle on the roads with noisy Yugos and Trabis dating back to Communist times. There's always gas to be had on the black market, part of a massive gray economy that has thrived during the past decade.

For those who can afford them, computers have seeped into the country as well. Access to the Internet through local online provider InfoSky is now so competitive that many can only reach the "information superhighway" late at night.

Belgrade, with its faade of normality, is a bastion that Mr. Milosevic must hold, and he has always protected the capital from the worst hardships. Perhaps that is why it now appears so buoyant.

Few of its men are ever mobilized. Kosovar Serbs who fled the province after the NATO-led peacekeeping force entered last June were blocked from flooding the capital. The city's intellectuals and academics travel easily abroad. It remains a creative, cultural city, despite sanctions and political isolation.

At the end of Bulevar Revolucije sits the seat of Milosevic's government - the federal Parliament. Its entrance is flanked by two famous stone statues.

Each sculpture shows a man struggling with a horse. One is pushing the beast, the other pulling against him, illustrating a Serbian saying that it is hard for a politician to get into the chamber, but it is even harder to get him out.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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