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With the Target on My Chest


When I am designing something, I think in pixels and colours can hurt me. The screaming pink that just appeared on my screen made me bend to the right side, just like when Ray Charles hits the D-minor. Toby came behind me without me hearing his steps.

“It started,” he said.

“What started,” I asked, thinking that some site I designed was just uploaded.

“The war”, he said, “NATO has just bombed Beograd.”

At such times, I’ve chosen not to be a member of any party. I went so far, actually, that I’ve thrown away my library card, let my drivers licence expire and stopped being a member of anything. The only ID I kept, symbolically, was my passport: I decided to be a citizen of the world.

I hit the CNN link on the right computer on my desk. “Special announcement: The War in Kosovo” was all over the screen. I cancelled a meeting and went home. Because my life has just changed. Because the freezer has just opened in my stomach. Because the bombs have started falling on my youth, on the streets where I grew up, where I first kissed a girl, where I met my wife, where I followed the coffin of my father, where my mother and my friends were still walking. I went home, because in times of horror I need isolation and I can’t stand people who behave normally, as if nothing was happening.

* * *

My mother’s voice on the phone sounded almost normal that afternoon.

“Mom, keep your nerves,” I said. “Take tranquillisers, drink vine, do whatever is needed to keep your nerves.” How do you teach your mother to stand the war, someone who has lived through the World War II?

“Son, remember?” she said. “Better grave then slave.” And with that we have finished our talk.

This sentence does not mean anything to anyone other than Serbs, but we grew up with it, learning about it in the first grades of primary schools. That was one of the slogans used in March 1941, when people in Beograd protested against pact which Yugoslav government of that time signed with Hitler. The government was overthrown and several days later Luftwaffe bombed Beograd.

The timing of this NATO attack was scary: protests in 1941 took place on March 21, and this war started on March 24. Luftwaffe was again in the air over Yugoslavia for the first time after fifty-eight years. Again it is the most powerful military alliance at the moment, as Hitler’s army was fifty eight years ago.

What my mother actually did with that sentence, was to call the code, the code buried deep inside. It was almost as if I had been programmed by hypnosis: her sentence woke an immense sense of pride, power and defiance. I am a Serb, and I am ten feet tall. Watch me rise.

* * *

After two weeks of bombing, my wife and I flew from Toronto to Berlin on a short research trip. Sitting one night in the room overlooking the bridge in Friedrichstraße in the eastern part of the city, I was listening to Radio Beograd on a small short wave radio. Patriotic songs were interspersed with short reports about bombing strikes. The announcers speak in the vocabulary of war. Every time they mention the NATO raids, they add a qualifier. Sometimes it’s ’criminal’, sometimes ’murderous.’ The music and the reporting are bad, but there’s a sense of urgency that makes me think this must be the best radio in the world tonight, just an endless list of factories and bridges and oil refineries hit. No commentaries, just cold facts and hot adjectives. It’s Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” on a third degree, and, like his radio play, this is fiction. Not because it’s fabricated, unfortunately it’s not, but it’s a removed, isolated structure with its inner rules that do not adhere to any standards we expect.

© Belgrade Academy of ArtAs the night was passing by in a small hotel in East Berlin, I was trying to imagine how it felt to live here twenty, thirty years ago, with a family on the other side of the Wall. Split realities, two halves of the brain. And I was slowly realising that I knew the feeling, because I was already caught in this new structure, and the only thing that was left to discover was whether I was a longing on the left or a desire on the right or a wall in-between.

I returned to Toronto to my half of the reality. East Berlin, West Berlin. East Beograd, West Toronto. I returned to the western model of media, in which the star reporter of CNN is married to the White House spokesman, in which the expensiveness of TV time makes analysis a luxury, where history is forbidden, and quick qualifications adjusted for a QI of about seventy take over. Reporters adhere to the principles of black and white, of bad and good, of Milosevic and NATO. The subtle shades do not exist, we never hear about how some brave Albanian have protected his Serbian neighbours from KLA terror and in return was hidden by his Serbian friends when Serbian paramilitaries came. And I know these people, both Serbs and Albanians who live there, I know their moral values: such things simply must be happening. No: everything is swiped under the pink carpet of Serbian nationalism and NATO’s righteousness, everything is so stupefyingly simple.

And that screaming pink of western media is killing me, the same way the bright red of Beograd media did before I moved to Canada.

* * *

I was born in Kragujevac [Kra-goo-ye-vatz], an industrial city in the heart of Serbia proper, in an area called Sumadija [Shoo-’ma-dee-ya]. As a kid, I would hear from time to time from older people how they say that Sumadija is special: Kragujevac was a capital of Serbia when Turks had gone, here the first high school and theatre were founded, and the people from this area were known as excellent soldiers in several wars, including the first and the second world war. But for many reasons, I have never subscribed to that.

I was still standing at the same place, same sand bottom, but the river was flowing around me and it simply brought the flag into my hands.

The official line of education in school was that we were all a part of Yugoslavia. Children do not necessarily choose official line, they go for glory, for possible models. There was not much pride at that time in being a Serb, but it was great to be a Yugoslav. Every now and then the state TV would show the late president Tito shaking hands with the world leaders, and we have heard that he was respected both in the West and in the countries of the Eastern block.

Later, when I was in my late teens, I started liking being a Serb, but I still was very far from being a nationalist. At that age, one doesn’t go for glory, but for a personality, and everything that can make one’s personality more complex and more interesting is adoptable. Therefore, on an equal level, I was proud of being a Serb, and of having all four first albums of Led Zeppelin.

My twenties were filled with travelling through Europe and I started liking Amsterdam more than Sumadija.

At the time when Milosevic came to power, I was never further from being a Serb nationalist. Immediately after Milosevic started exposing his nationalist politics, I published an article ridiculing him, and I lost my job shortly after. That was coup de grâce: I was a Yugoslav citizen, it was my homeland and the Serbian or any other nationalism was my enemy.

Serbia entering nineties was, surprisingly, a place of many choices: political parties were popping up like mushrooms after the rain, several different TV stations were opened, many new media outlets. Yes, it’s true: the multiparty political system was introduced at the time of Milosevic. So, on the surface, one could choose and join a political body that would closely represent one’s political views. But the deeper truth was much, much simpler than that: there were, actually, only two choices — to be a nationalist or to be something else. Having always an incredible talent for media manipulation, Milosevic started his rule throwing a yesterday’s taboo into political arena: the issue of nationalism. In Tito’s time, all ex-Yugoslav nations were forced to abandon their national pride in the name of one, brighter goal: the federation of Yugoslav republics, the peace at home, brotherhood and unity. But, as it usually goes, forbidden things become precious, and so by playing on the national card in Serbia, Milosevic opened the door to an orgy of national pathos. Other political parties simply had to follow and proclaim their stand on the issue of Serbian nationalism. So, quickly, the whole political scene aligned in just two columns: nationalist and non-nationalist.

At such times, I’ve chosen not to be a member of any party. I went so far, actually, that I’ve thrown away my library card, let my drivers licence expire and stopped being a member of anything. The only ID I kept, symbolically, was my passport: I decided to be a citizen of the world.

* * *

In March 1991, two months before the war, we had demonstrations in Beograd in which approximately 200,000 people took part. The protests turned violent, and in the evening the army tanks were on the streets. Milosevic was on the edge of being overthrown. What did the West do? Nothing.

I suspect that mutual funds traded badly at the time, so everyone was worried about that.

In 1993 — the same thing. I still remember the taste of the teargas in my throat. It was new, different from the one in 1991, imported from Germany, I’ve been told later. West? Silent. Internal affair. It was March. Sarajevo siege could have been stopped at that time.

In 1997, I’ve found myself out on the bitter cold, protesting again, this time on the streets of Toronto. More than a thousand Canadian Serbs raised their voice in support of democracy in Serbia, after Milosevic tried to steal a clear opposition victory on the elections for the local government. With no media around, it felt lonely.

And now, in 1999, I have been spending my evenings on University Avenue, in front of the U.S. consulate, together with a crowd of usually about a thousand, mostly Serbs, this time protesting against the West countries for doing way too much. A flag in my hand, rage in my hart, target on my chest.

The courage is not in being a member of the herd, but to move opposite to the crowd, wherever it goes.
If not me, who? If not now, when?

A flag? Yes, the first Serbian flag I ever bought, and here, in Toronto. I have never, ever had any national symbol in my home, no flag, no badge, no country dear enough to spill its colours over my walls. So, what happened, cosmopolitan boy?

What happened to me was — I was still standing at the same place, same sand bottom, but the river was flowing around me and it simply brought the flag into my hands.

I just held on to my principles. But that’s not how politics work, because in politics the same person celebrated for signing the Dayton peace accord can be proclaimed for war criminal later. Not decades later, only three and a half years later. And, since the western media was quick to equal any opposition to NATO to a support for Milosevic, here I was: an anti-nationalist with a Serbian flag, and Milosevic’s political enemy, an émigré at that, marked as a Milosevic’s supporter. This is not an isolated situation: out of every ten Serbs in Canada, at least seven are in the same canyon. We were simply thrown into this dangerous whirl of madness that does strange things to you: you read the news with attention of a surgeon and dissect them the same way. Every public name you ever knew becomes important, you expect them to say something, to be against the war — not because it was your homeland under the metal shower, but because you can’t understand how an intellectual can support the war.

The snow falls not to cover the hill, but to reveal each animal’s footsteps — an old Serbian saying. And the traces that appeared with the beginning of this war were quite amazing. Madeleine Albright addressing Serbian people in Serbian language, explaining to them why they had to be bombed. The woman who, as a Jewish child, immigrated to Serbia and was offered food, shelter and friendship, together with whole her family. Václav Havel, Czech president, supporting bombing. The playwright whose family, during his stay in prison under communist regime, was supported by Serbian writers and actors. Günter Grass, promoting his new book, voted for bombing. The writer whose “The Tin Drum” and “Dog Years” dealt with the age of nazism, this time “recognised” the Third Reich in a country of ten million people, defending itself against the most powerful army in the world. Bernard-Henri Lévy, a French philosophy prima donna, “bravely” took NATO’s side. The man who wrote “The Eulogy of Intellectuals”, and then did everything possible afterwards to spit on his own book. Louise Arbour, so hungry for fame, announced that the Hague court was looking into NATO actions against Yugoslav civilians. Only two weeks later the same woman really indicted — but Milosevic. At the same time, Washington promised US $28 million, as help for further investigations. What a strange timing! Rushdie, desperately trying to keep the lights on him after the withdrawal of fatwa and eager to promote his new book, joined the horde of NATO supporters. The same writer who had the courage to say that fatwa was the “hottest literary story of the century”, thanking this way to all those who supported him during the years in hiding.

On the other side, Noam Chomski, Edward Said, Harold Pinter, Peter Handke, Daniel Schiffer, Régis Debray, all wrote passionate warnings against this war. So much braver since they swam against both media and the public opinion. But, somehow, I take it as only normal: the bearer of a torch is not afraid of the fire, and these people have been carrying the eternal flame of freedom for quite some time now.

Oh, what a snow, what a marvellous snow!

* * *

Do you wanna be a Serb now?What is this war doing to all of us? Bringing out the worst in Serbs, in Albanians, in NATO countries. Serbian president Milosevic in the last few months before the war and during the first month of bombing has cracked down on independent media, closing it, banning it, and a publisher of a leading opposition daily was even executed in the broad daylight in the centre of Beograd by anonymous thugs. The public was offered instead a solid dose of a centralised reporting. What NATO has done was bombing of the state-run TV, killing ten civilians, destroying the TV and radio transmitters all over Serbia, cutting off the air both official and independent media and offering to Serbs a solid dose of Radio Free Europe and cave propaganda on leaflets thrown from the skies. Albanian refugees had launched the news that the Yugoslav army has captured some of their sons, keeping them in secret places to serve as a source of blood for wounded Yugoslav soldiers, while Yugoslav officials claimed that the Albanians were fleeing country fearing of NATO’s savagery and that there was no expelling people from their homes. Of course, both sides were lying. Both Madeleine Albright and Bill Clinton have repeatedly said that this was a war against Milosevic, not Serbs, and the picture recently shot in Kraljevo, in the south of Serbia, shows two boys holding remains of a NATO bomb on which it is written “Do you still wanna be a Serb now!!”

Seeing that picture, my first response was: “More than ever!” But then, I realised that’s exactly what the primitive authors of the primitive inscription wanted me to do: become a professional Serb, jump into the drawer, be blinded and brain-washed as they were. No, my enemies, no, my brothers, it won’t work. Because the courage is not in being a member of the herd, but to move opposite to the crowd, wherever it goes. If not me, who? If not now, when?

[First published in THIS Magazine under the title Becoming a Serb.]
© 1999 Dragan Todorovic. All rights reserved.
? 2003-2016 Dragan Todorovic. All rights reserved.