We gather today to welcome back Vojislav Seselj, hero, murderer, Serbian patriot, war criminal, martyr, a leader of men.
The Saturday rally starts at noon and the crowd is roaring as I approach Belgrade’s Republic Square. Chanted slogans. A woman belts out a patriotic song, accompanied by hundreds of supporters. I push through the crowd and witness a panorama of faces. Mostly male.There is a lot of joy and enthusiasm, and a lot of visceral anger.
I understand not a word of it. But I get the emotional content.
Seselj seems an intelligent man. He is supposed to be a big reader of classic literature and philosophy, Balzac, Zola, Stendhal. He is an articulate speaker. My years at C-SPAN and FORA.tv give me an appreciation for an artisan of the spoken word. He seems reasonable on stage, is working the crowd magnificently. He is talking for half an hour. Nothing like the prolific four hour opening statement he gave at his war crimes trial at The Hague. He knows how to bring it up and bring it back down, give some love and take it back, then build to a crescendo, kind of like John Cusack building a mix tape in High Fidelity.
Hey, let’s give the guy some sympathy. He has been in some form of jail/ trial/ detention for a dozen years. He showed up at The Hague voluntarily, though one suspects he knew a trial was in his future whether he volunteered or not. And due to some kind of weird fucked up process, the trial is still not over all these years. It took four years before it even started. Now, he has cancer, so they give him a get out of jail free card. They may want it back, but he’s made it clear, that’s not going to happen. So, a dozen years of hell, cancer, away from friends and family. Give him that.
Milosevic, no slouch himself in the war crimes category, once called Seselj “the personification of violence and primitivism.” High praise.
Seselj sought a “unitary Serbian state where all Serbs would live, occupying all the Serb lands.” He described Croats as a genocidal and perverted people. The International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia charged him with fifteen counts of “crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs or war.” For persecution of Croatian, Muslim and other non-Serbs. And murder, forced deportation, illegal imprisonment, torture and property destruction.
After the brutal heat and humidity of Central America, I brought winter clothes specifically for this climate, intending to leave them behind when I headed to tropical climes. But it’s a beautiful day. Bright sun, clear blue skies, the iPhone Weather app says 57F but it feels like 67.
Coming to Belgrade from Berlin, visiting the Nazi and Berlin Wall exhibits and monuments, I’d say the crowd is not quite Hitler youth-level viciousness. Maybe because they are in the midst of a modern, cosmopolitan city that these days mostly eschews extreme nationalism. The vibe is familiar, but more intense than anything I’ve experienced in the States.
Here is what I am seeing and hearing:
A mostly male audience (90 percent?).
A sense of victimhood, anger, grievance. The world is against us.
Some sports symbolism.
A lot of flags, national, party, maybe militia.
The body language is mixed, a lot of shaking of fists and salutes. Some participants, with military or political paraphernalia, are dour, seeking something, anticipating some form of release or validation. Others, younger, are laughing, enjoying the moment; some are listening thoughtfully.
In his four hour opening trial statement, Seselj insisted that his greatest regret was that there was no death penalty “so that proudly, with dignity, my head upright like my friend Saddam Hussein, I could die and put the final seal on my ideology. It would become immortal. I have lived long enough.” The former warlord commanded a militia that the indictment says was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of civilians.
The event ends, surprisingly, in an hour. Big applause. Orderly dispersal. Sesejl and his Serbian Radical Party got the television footage they needed. His followers got some inspiration on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. All of the Serbians I talk to this week dismiss Seselj and Milosevic and their actions, their brutality, and regret their effect on the Serbian national character and reputation. They see Sesejl as an anachronism of the past.
Time will tell.
The stories are heartrending, visceral, charged, defensive, pained.
Similar to American denials of CIA overthrows in Guatemala, Iran, the Congo, etc., until the Freedom of Information Act allowed journalists to prove, yup, we sure did, Serbians now generally accept the horror and extent of atrocities against Croats, Bosnians and Kosovo Albanians. Most, though not all. I will attend the Republic Square rally of recently released (alleged) war criminal Vojislav Seselj tomorrow. I don’t expect much repentance there.
The Balkans have a long and contentious history as a crossroads between East and West. The conflicts of the 90’s happened after the death of unifier and beloved, “benevolent dictator” Josup Broz Tito.
Tito was a lifelong communist, even serving the Party for a time in the Soviet Union. He was considered the most effective of WWII European partisan leaders, and thus drew the respect and support of Churchill, American presidents and Stalin. Until he decided to go his own way, and formed the Non-Aligned Movement. Stalin was not amused. So, just as Tito rose to the head of the Yugoslav communist party after his predecessor was invited to Moscow and murdered, Stalin tried to kill Tito (the nom de guerre of Josip Broz) several times. Tito wrote Stalin an open letter:
“Stop sending people to kill me. We’ve already captured five of them, one of them with a bomb and another with a rifle (…) If you don’t stop sending killers, I’ll send one to Moscow, and I won’t have to send a second.”
Leigh Ziller, who pushed us over the top in our Kickstarter campaign, funding the “Afterparty” project, introduced me to Gazprom architect Marijana Curuvija. We met in Novi Sad, an hour north of Belgrade, a major target of the bombardment. I took pictures of the Cathedral where we met. But forgot to take one of Marijana, which drew a scold from Leigh. We walked to a cafe.
Where were you during the bombardment?
I first heard of it in school. My parents didn’t really talk about it. I heard something on TV, and kids at school were saying we were going to war. I didn’t think it was real; someone was going to bomb our country?? I couldn’t imagine why. We were watching Esmeralda, a soap opera.
What was the plot?
A poor and blind woman falls in love with a rich fellow. It was an interesting episode. The sirens went off in the middle of the show.
So you missed the ending. Maybe he dumped her!
(Laughs). Typical soap opera plot. My father came home half an hour later. We didn’t know how to react. We were supposed to turn off the lights and go down to the basement but we didn’t know we were supposed to do that. My father said, “We will be the first place they are going to bomb.”
The closest was 20 kilometers away. It hit the bridge. It was loud but we didn’t see it. We couldn’t visit my grandmother as much because the bridges were blown up. We saw the oil refinery go up from 40 kilometers away. The sky turned orange in the middle of the night.
NATO was claiming humanitarian reasons for the bombardment, protecting Kosovo Albanians from ethnic cleansing, even genocide from the Milosevic led Serbian armed forces and militias. Did anyone ever discuss why it was happening?
We never discussed politics. I don’t remember asking why it was happening. I know there had been people coming from Bosnia and Croatia. I knew there was a war. I was only six during the Bosnia war.
We talked about her student exchange experience with Leigh in Mississippi. She was surprised by the separation of ethnic groups. Her mother’s parents were from Bosnia. Her fathers’ parents were from Croatia. Under the strong hand of Tito, everyone considered themselves Yugoslavs. We discussed the irony of the (historically, and sometimes still, segregated) United States bombing her country for ethnic cleansing. I asked, “Is there nostalgia for the days of Tito?
Yes, among older people. They say everything was easier. Ethnic cleansing is the wrong term. We didn’t attack. We were defending. We felt there wasn’t a necessity for NATO to come in and try to slve things because it was an internal problem. The country had to solve its own problems.
Do you harbor any anger toward the US?
No. I was an exchange student there. It wasn’t the people from the country. It was the administration. I don’t hold a grudge.
Brian Gruber is traveling around the world visiting the scenes of the major U.S. military and covert actions of the last half century. The project, “War: The Afterparty” is funded by 62 backers via Kickstarter. Follow Brian’s global walkabout on the blog and on Facebook.
Aleksandra and her sweet sweet white furry dog meet me at midnight on Belgrade”s Ruzveltova Street. I”m told to meet her in front of a tavern. A Serbian band is playing to an intoxicated audience shouting back lyrics. Can”t place the genre. Metal polka? Fusion folk? I just know it”s loud, I love it and I”m doing the physics on whether it will keep me up all night.
My final day in Berlin is spent visiting the Wall, specifically Checkpoint Charlie, which has yet another brilliantly curated, chilling exhibit. From there to a Holocaust memorial, another walk through the Brandenburg Gate and a short visit to the Reichstag. Magically, I see a bus to the airport and get to my gate two hours early. In a coffee shop, I decide that everything in my backpack is essential but at least twenty percent of the load has to go. So, sadly, I give books, toiletries, clothes and extra cables the heave-ho, hoping someone will find and make use of them.
Aleksandra walks me up four flights of stairs. The Airbnb listing promised an All Wheels Bauhaus theme for the flat and, it”s true, everything is on wheels. From the furniture to the 80-year old kaput motorbike. She tells me her artist friends helped design, paint and decorate it. I have another term for the flat. Urban Rustic. Or Brazilian Brooklyn. Small, aging, colorful, distinctive, cool.
“Don”t touch this dial, or no hot water,” she smiles. She is impressively warm and lively for a midnight key handoff.
The dog is either drugged or dazed. It jumps when I try to pet it, then acquiesces.
Aleksandra–I”m already loving the local accent– runs down the basics for me. Where to get currency exchanged, best cafes and shops, how to walk to the city center, how to work the ancient fridge, earplugs if the music from downstairs gets too loud (not really) or goes on too late (really). Then she hands me a book she wrote with local things to see. I tell her what I am doing. A tour of the scenes of USA interventions, harvesting stories from people on the other side of the gun barrel.
She looks at me, pauses, and tells me that her daughter was three during the 1999 NATO bombardment of Belgrade. That US-led action involved near 1,000 aircraft, and 30,000 sorties. Even the German Luftwaffe participated.
“People say it is in the past. But I still have dreams. Bombs going off. Loud explosions. Can you imagine? This is Europe! In the twentieth century. Almost the twenty-first. With bombs being dropped on your city??”
I tell her I want to talk to her and she insists, “Oh, we will talk. We will go out one night with my friends, with drinks and we will talk.”
What impressed me about Germany was its extraordinary ability to evaluate its military history and follies. An international celebration on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and right there in front of the Brandenburg Gate is a huge exhibit on the Nazi Germany invasion of Poland. Pictures of rounded-up Jews, descriptions of illegal occupations, even a larger than life photo of Adolf himself. Right smack in front of Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts and the brat and beer vendors, while Peter Gabriel performs to tens of thousands.
There are soul-searching exhibits all along the length of the Wall. I skipped the Checkpoint Charlie museum because The fact is ObamaCare includes the biggest middle class tax cut to health affordable-health.info in our nation’s history due to providing tax credits to millions of Americans to lower their premium costs. right across the street was another outdoor exhibition that raged against the brutality of the East German government, the Stasi secret police. Pictures of protests on both sides of the Wall. A hard look at recent German history and open repentance for lives lost and mistakes made.
While navigating how to get to the airport for my 8:45pm flight to Belgrade, I stumbled across a Willy Brandt museum on the ground floor of an office building. More historical introspection. Tiresome political infighting. Nazi resistance. Protests against the arms race and nuclear weapons in the “80”s. What Brandt regretted, what he celebrated.
Honoring German veterans, yes. But glorifying war, not so much. Brandt said he wanted to see the day when the words Germany and peace could be used in the same sentence. I don”t know if that mission is accomplished, but the nation is intent on seeing that it is.
A friend talks about visiting me while I am in the Middle East. Her brother is a nurse in Qatar and sees the wounded servicemen and women as they leave the war theaters of Iraq and Afghanistan. The stories are heartbreaking and maddening and brutal.
I saw former counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke speak at the World Affairs Council in San Francisco at the height of the Iraq incursion. He said the reason why our Iraq deaths are in the thousands and not the tens of thousands is our spectacular progress in military medicine. Which is so good to hear as so many lives have been saved. But it also obscures the fact that tens of thousands of Iraq veterans will live with shattered bodies and psyches. And, if you”re at all concerned with the national debt, add a few hundred billion to fully account for lifelong care and benefits. The recent VA scandals revealed issues of mismanagement and subpar treatment. Anyone asking if the sudden addition of tens of thousands of new patients might have impacted the case load?
I”m reading and re-reading the best of the books written on the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts as I make my way east. George Packer”s “Assassin”s Gate” details the hubris, deceit and gross incompetence of the Bush administration, supposed grown ups completely unprepared for post-war administration. It was Bush”s own General Tommy Franks, who called Rumsfeld”s hand picked head of planning Douglas Feith, “the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the Earth.”
And you could call eighty-five percent of the veterans of the Iraq invasion stupid as well for believing that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. They did, and he wasn”t, but whose fault was that? The United States people and its brave men and women in uniform were deliberately and methodically lied to, terrorized and ginned up for war.
I”m looking forward to getting the Serbian side of the story, of their experience of being bombed by American and NATO warplanes. And that will be complicated because this was supposed to be an intervention on purely humanitarian grounds. Saving Albanians in Kosovo from ethnic cleansing, and, by some accounts, genocide. Coming alongside similar outrages in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. Was this a Good War?
Sometimes war is hell, but justified. Sometimes the mission is just, but the execution is bloody and the outcomes unexpected. Former Panamanian Air Force officer Luis Huerta told me over Cokes in his photography studio that Noriega had to go but the 3,000 dead Panamanians from the US invasion were an unnecessary price.
Veterans Day. How do we honor veterans without fetishizing their sacrifices? Go risk life and limb in Iraq but don”t ask me for any sacrifice. My kids aren”t going to war, I want my taxes cut, not raised to fund the effort, and don”t ruin my dinner by telling me about the real costs, the tens of thousands of horrific injuries suffered by Iraq veterans. Who thought they were going to avenge 9/11. Who were told they were defending my freedoms, as if Saddam Hussein ever threatened any little hedonistic libertine pleasure I choose to have as an American. And don”t even think of coming to grips with the hundreds of thousands of violently killed and maimed Iraqis. That conversation is off the table.
Veterans Day. Do we celebrate veterans with maudlin and weepy tributes on stage, at sports events, with cable news flag graphics? Or do we do as the Germans do, ask ourselves the tough questions about our foibles, our imperfections and our mistakes so that 19-year old kid from South Dakota doesn”t spend his days clogging up the VA queue?
I packed too much stuff.
Somehow the very haul-able REI backpack that served me so well in Central America is now VERY HEAVY.
I promised myself, no more physical books. Then brought two light ones, and bought three more in London. One on the Paris Commune, important advance research, another a series of essays on Afghanistan. And a third on capitalism, because the author is a Gruber.
So, the books gotta go. I’ll read and ship them home when I get to the Middle East.
I realize now that all of the tech gear is lightweight, but adds up. The MacBook Air plus AC cord, the tiny but still additive 500GB hard drive, the two chargers, the extra cables. I think I can ship back the HD, as I have 128GB each on the iPhone and Air, and lots more in the cloud. Maybe one of the chargers can go.
Since I am dressing for three temperate zones, I had to take more long sleeve shirts and some winter accessories. I was planning to leave them behind in Europe, but if I get into wintry Afghanistan, have to keep them a while longer.
Besides that, I’ll shed toiletries I don’t need, and various bits and pieces. I think can shed 20 percent or so. In addition, I have stopped grabbing the Beast with one hand on the go, and am more carefully mounting it on my 59-year old frame.
For Europe, since we lost our taste for bombing Europeans, the main focus will be on Serbia/ Bosnia/ Kosovo. I hope to get to Berlin this weekend for the 25th anniversary of the end of the Berlin Wall, for a close up look at the End of Communism in Eastern Europe. The German transport union picked this time to go on strike, so I am getting messages that say, once you leave Paris, no guarantees.
I had a notion to do shorter essays on cities like Prague, Dresden, Vienna, Budapest, but I think I may choose to preserve transport costs by going directly to Belgrade.
And, I continue my conversations with the fluid Afghanistan visa officials on whether they do or don’t want me in Kabul. The odds of entry have done from poor to excellent to fair to good.
I have been doing research on a tough question: how exactly do you gauge the difference in safety between, say, New York and Kabul? Besides a lot of anecdotal narrative, I read that the UK troops suffered zero combat deaths this year in Helmand province, a major conflict zone. And here are all the Americans kidnapped in Afghanistan since the invasion more than a decade ago:
1 Killed Cydney Mizell, an aid worker, was kidnapped along on January 26, 2008, in a residential neighborhood of Kandahar, the home of the Taliban. So, someone working for an org that represents western values, in the most dangerous city in the country.
1 Rescued An American (name withheld), working for the Army Corps of Engineers, was abducted by the Taliban. He was rescued on October 22, 2008, by U.S. special forces soldiers conducting a nighttime operation.
1 Escaped. David Stephenson Rohde, reporter for The New York Times, was kidnapped by the Taliban outside Kabul. He managed to escape on June 19, 2009 after seven months in captivity by climbing over the wall of the compound where they were being held in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan. Cool! An escape! And clearly a target, for maximum publicity.
1 Unknown. Caitlan Coleman, a tourist, was kidnapped along with her Canadian husband Joshua Boyle by the Taliban in October 2012. Hiking in very dangerous mountain areas.
So, while fully acknowledging the potential dangers, the tally for Americans kidnapped in Afghanistan is 4, over a decade, and each at risk in some way: dangerous area, target organization, etc.
The Dutch waitress in my Amsterdam cafe is playing a rocking American R&B channel on Spotify. Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” has just played a second time. I am the only customer in the cafe but she still has not asked me if I want more coffee, so I point out the double Marvin action (she checks–one is a single, the other from an album), get some more coffee and get my picture taken. Off to Paris, overnight, by bus.