The Book: The White City II…January 2008…
Voter turnout in the first round of the election is sixty percent, high for Serbia.
Yet it is the Radical nationalists who win.
On the twenty-fourth floor of a building that was bombed by NATO and than rebuilt, the Democrats hold a press conference and say that they will win in the second round of the election which will be Tadic vs. Nikolic, without Prime Minister Kostunica’s candidate able to split the vote.
The victory party is over by the time I reach the Radical Party headquarters. Spread across the tables are left over pieces of pork on plastic plates.
On election nights, the Radical Party serves journalists pork to remind them that when the Ottoman Empire overtook Serbia six hundred years ago they took everything they could from the Serbs.**This is not exactly true. Serbs were allowed a large degree of autonomy under the Ottomans.
Except for pigs.
As Muslims, the Ottomans did not eat pigs.
On the wall there are pictures of Vojislav Seslj. The leader of the Radical Party, Seselj is on trail in the Hague for war crimes.
One poster calls the Hague Tribunal “Tyranny.”
The brother of Radovan Karadzic, one of the most wanted men in the world for war crimes committed in Bosnia, comes up.**Radovan Karadzic was captured in Belgrade in July 2008.
“Nikolic has my support,” Luka Karadzic says.
When we leave I ask an Italian journalist how he can give a voice to people like Karadzic.
“Listen,” he says. “I think it is our job to talk to people like that. You can talk to people like Tadic and still be comfortable. They’ll tell you something appropriate. The Radicals are here and a force. So we must talk to them in order to report their motivations. Radicalism and fundamentalism always exist and are not so far away.”
Ivana is from the town of Pec**Albanians call the town Peja in Kosovo.
She is a small old wrinkled woman with short grey hair. She and her thirty-two year old son sleep in bunk beds in an old army barracks outside of Belgrade.
The barracks are drafty and dim. This is where the Serbian government has housed the Serb refugees who fled Kosovo as the Albanians, seeking revenge for the devastation of the war, attacked churches and houses, killing Serbian civilian before NATO forces took control of Kosovo.
Many Kosovo Serb refugees had relatives they were able to live with until beginning new lives in Serbia.
Others, such as Ivana, were not able to do that.
I am photographing. A British writer I am working with, Dominic Swire, is asking questions from the doorway. The room is so small that we cannot all fit inside. It is piled high with the pots, pans, clothes, and blankets that Ivana brought when she fled Kosovo.
I do not hear Dominic’s questions or Ivana’s answers. Through the lens I see Ivana as sick and poor. Serbian politicians constantly talk of Kosovo Serbs as “heros.” Yet this is the way they are treated.
Their misery is used to inspire voters.
Ivana is coughing as she speaks. She is sixty-eight years old. She says the government recently stopping paying for her medicines. She holds up the bowl where she keeps her pills. With no income she cannot afford the pills without the government’s help.
She continuously coughs.
The room is small.
She coughs all over me.
Dominic has no more questions.
J sees Serbia as a monster.
I feels he cannot make a life here.
M can live in Serbia to photograph it, but everything annoys him.
“Fucking Serbia,” they all say.
In the town of Arandjelovac, I visit Nevenka and Marija. They take me to a hilltop restaurant near the site where the Serbian general Karageorgevic began the first uprising against the Ottoman in 1804.
The restaurant is modeled on an 18th century farmhouse and for lunch we eat wheat mash, kymek (a cross between butter and cheese), and slices of meat with warm red wine. The two women go over their frustrations with Serbia, deriding politicians and then Serbian men in general, saying they are only good for “getting women a chair.”
Nevenka says however, “I am a fighter. I want to stay in Serbia.”
If there is “economic growth and Serbia does not start another war” Nevenka thinks that Arandjelovac can be a “good town” within five years.
In the past the town was known for its large spas and hiking and hunting on nearby Buraqa Mountain. The town is a peaceful place and close enough to Belgrade that day-trippers can visit the spas and hike Buraqa and return home at night.
Nevenka, who works for a local museum and Marija, a preschool teacher, say that Arandjelovac had actually been doing well, but the town had been forgotten during the wars when people in Serbia did not have the money to vacation. The beauty of Arandjelovac, along with so much else that is good in Serbia, has been forgotten.
They show me the park in the center of town.
Marija says, “We would stand here in high school and drink beer. Someone would have a guitar. A boy would come up and ask if you wanted to walk with him. The shadows around the auditorium were best.”
Now the city does not have enough money to maintain the park. The auditorium is a mess of trash and broken windows. Statues are covered in graffiti. Though in their mid-thirties, Nevenka and Marija both live at home with their parents.
“Housing is expensive in Serbia while things like cigarettes and alcohol are less expensive,” Marija says.
“We are all alcoholics here,” Nevenka says. “It’s fucking Serbia.”
They are adamant, however. Five years for Arandjelovac to begin to improve. They are sure of it.