Travels 2006-2009…Riots in Belgrade…February 2008….
The day I arrived back in Serbia, there were demonstrations in North Mitrovica. One hundred and thirty people were injured and a UN police officer from Ukraine killed. There has been daily protests at the bridge, at 12:44PM, to remind the world of UN resolution 1244 that Serbs feel has been ignored.
Across Kosovo, Serb members of the police force have been deserting and a UN courthouse in North Mitrovica taken over. After a few days UN police storm the courthouse and the occupants are expelled. At the same time, the Serbian gold medal-winner for swimming, Milorad Cavic, is banned from further European swimming championships after wearing a T-shirt that says, “Kosovo is Serbia” after breaking the European record for butterfly swimming.
In their cafes, the Serbs growl. Their demonstration after Kosovo declared independence, “Kosovo is Ours,” made the top of international headlines for the breakaway group that attacked the US embassy, smashing store windows, and overturning cars throughout Belgrade. Over a hundred people were injured, the burned body of a twenty-one year old Serb named Zoran Vujovac who had fled the returning Albanians with his family from Prishtina in 1999 was found inside the embassy. Over 3,000 people attended his funeral.
Schools were closed for the demonstration and public transportation to Belgrade was free. It was dangerous to be on the streets and not involved in the demonstrations. Most people stayed inside. Journalists who got too close to the rioters were attacked. Igor photographed the burning of the US embassy from the rooftop of a nearby building. M photographed a McDonalds being smashed from the window of an office bathroom.
A video called “Belgrade for Sneakers” was put on Youtube. In the video two women run through downtown Belgrade taking what clothes and shoes they want from stores with smashed windows and broken doors. One of the women uses a stolen sneaker to smooth her hair. On the bottom of the video they are quoted as saying, “We came to Belgrade to defend Kosovo. We started looting when they all did.”
The message broadcast to the world was that democracy in Serbia is about stealing shoes and attacking embassies. The media coverage tied the embassy burning, looting, and general destruction back to the genocides in Bosnia and Kosovo. The Serbs are again portrayed as savages.
Little mention was made that the overall number of demonstrators were far less than expected. Only about 200,000 out of an expected 500,000 to one million. Most people lit candles in Sveti Sava and went home. It was only a very small group, completely reckless or guided by one of the competing forces inside Serbia, that had smashed the windows of their own country’s capital and attacked the foreign embassies.
The police unit that had abandoned the US embassy and failed to return until after it has been set alight had either done so as an act of protest or had been ordered away, but there was no proof that anyone higher than a local police commander had allowed the embassy to burn.
In one downtown Belgrade restaurant, a man comes up and takes me by the shoulder.
“My feeling is that your government took Kosovo from us. That is all,” he says.
He nods his head decisively and walks off.
While Serbs reiterate the traditional reasons for Kosovo being important to them, that it is the birthplace of their culture and home of their most important monasteries, the loss of the territory was also wrapped up in deeper feelings of embarrassment and insignificance in comparison to other nations. They remember themselves as a great nation. With Kosovo taken from them, they are again forced to see their weakness.