Hope on the Balkans Kosov@ Crisis
Life in Belgrade: abundance only on TV
About ten days ago reporters of the local Belgrade television station, while recording the beginning of the school year asked a little girl in the street what had the first school day been like. "I didn't go", she answered, "I had nothing to wear on my feet, and it was rather cold. I'll go today. I got tennis shoes. These, see. Granny bought them for me. Mom and dad have no money..."
The beginning of school year pleased only the authorities and the minister in charge of Serbian education, Jovo Todorovic. For a good reason. The strike of teachers who have not received three salaries, nor lunch money, nor vacation allowances, was a failure. Teachers and professors were accused of introducing politics into schools, of cooperation with the aggressor, of belonging religious sects, of dealing with narcotics and who knows what else. In all the schools of Serbia, except those which do not have a public address system or in which form-masters ignored the order of the Ministry, no less than three letters of the minister were read - each addressed to a different age group. After welcoming and wishing them a happy new school year "in Serbia among the meadows and plum-trees" (signed by "your uncle minister"), the first-graders listened to the national anthem. The other two letters reminded older elementary school pupils and secondary school students of the NATO bombing. In everything that has happened to us, the authors of the letter saw "smouldering and flaring up of the conflict between the old and the new world order, the East and the West, the law of force and the power of law, modern and classical weapons, cold-blooded mass murderers and dignified defenders of the homeland..." Instead of being embraced and greeted after interruption of five months, the children traumatised by bombing and poverty were welcomed by letters which in this space at least by their content, vocabulary and intonation, have not been seen since the end of the Second World War.
The greater the poverty, the less sense there is in the letters. A teacher from Nis went even a step further: she ordered her ten-year old pupils to watch TV daily news on state television for a week and note in their diaries what they liked the best. This type of TV pressure can hardly be endured by the elderly, least of all the children. Indeed on TV there is everything to be found that does not exist in life. The demolished country is being rebuilt, the economy is flourishing, and it would have been even better if it were not for the traitors, mercenaries and collabators of NATO (read: the opposition). Barefoot children and poverty-stricken parents are not mentioned, nor refugees from Kosovo and police barricades which are preventing them from reaching Belhgrade.
And the capital of FRY is living its exceptionally murky days this autumn. Except for foreign currency dealers, underwear exhibitted for sale on cardboard boxes along with poison for destroying bugs and rats, toilet paper and other gadgets, fire-wood is rolling down pavements which the Belgraders are hurriedly buying for the forthcoming winter which they will spend without electric power. Chimneys are the privilege of Belgraders in the old part of the city. More than 300 thousand New Belgraders in whose apartments there are no chimneys rely on Russian gas. The braver ones are making holes in the windows of their kitchens for the smoke to go out from the most popular heating device in modern Serbia - the "Smederevac" cooking stove which burns fire wood. Who cares that the neighbours on top floors will not be able to breathe.
Although winter is still far away, in some parts of Belgrade there is no electric power every second day. Queueing for basic foodstuffs such as sugar and oil has already become customary. For ten days already milk can be purchased only if you get up very early in the morning and queue before the stores open and "enjoy" in pensioners' tittle-tattle about the new world order, evil Americans, genocidal Shiptars (ethnic Albanians).... Fortunately, even they do not dare publicly support Milosevic any more. The increase of the price of thirty odd per cent of the price of 4 dinars (about 30 pfennigs) approved by the government is far from seven dinars per litre demanded by the manufacturers...
Prices of gasoline and oil have recently gone up, but in Serbia this means nothing: there is no fuel at gas-stations, but there certainly is in plastic bottles by the road sold by middlemen. The coupons the state has prescribed for purchasing fuel (20 litres per vehicle) are still valid. It does not matter that there is no fuel, and illegal vendors care only for cash. They, naturally, sell gas, "enriched" by all kinds of things, water included, at a higher price. The smugglers' trick to boil plastic 1.5 litre bottles in order to reduce their volume belongs among innocent ones. Privileged fuel importers have ways of transferring the oil and gasoline to the "black" market, and to the question who, in what way and to what extent is involved in these deals, not even a Serbian Eliot Ness would be able to answer. In any case, there is no fuel at gas-stations and probably there will be none in the foreseeable future. The destiny of those dependent on state price control is shared by pharmacists, but chronic patients suffer the most. After they had completely stopped going to doctors during the war, nowadays they are faced with shortage of drugs which their life literally depends on. For instance, nitroglycerine has only recently been imported from Russia for persons with heart failure, and there is a shortage of drugs for persons suffering from asthma, kidney problems and other chronic diseases. Domestic pharmaceutical industries do not deliver enough "basic" drugs because manufacturing is not worth the trouble because of the prices which have not changed for years, but also because of the price of raw-materials. A pensioner claims that he enters state owned pharmacies only because he is used to it, but he buys drugs he needs only in privately-owned pharmacies or orders them from abroad and pays in foreign currency for them.
The skill of surviving is also measured by the ability to get a bed in one of the hospitals when need arises in which you literally have to buy everything from surgery thread to cotton, alcohol. Who has no money might as well die, although during his entire life the state has reduced his salary for the amount of the contribution for social and health insurance.
The beginning of the school year has put the story about city transportation into the focus again in two-million Belgrade. Buses, scarce because of fuel shortage, are literally bursting under the stampedo of the crowd of people who want to be transported. The buses that belong to the city transportation company which were falling apart and technically were out of order even before the war, are especially in bad shape. There are also privately-owned buses circling around the city which were once used for tourist journeys. In their wish to make a quick profit, it is necessary to buy tickets in them - contrary to the state ones - and they speed around Belgrade as a travelling circus. Some of them still have green palms, yellow sun and blue sea painted on them to irritate impoverished Belgraders who have not gone on vacation for years.
The number of beggars and cripples who are begging in the streets in army uniforms is increasing. They are the living monument of the wars in which Serbia has not participated in the past ten years. The bill of war policy of the regime is being paid even by those who have managed to save their lives during all the past years. A lot of people are walking the streets, idle and jobless, since factories are at a standstill. Those who happen to work, on the average receive the equivalent of eighty German marks a month. Irregularly.
The New Belgrade flee market has become the meeting-place of people with university diplomas who are trying to survive by trading smuggled goods. Among them, like among Belgraders who pay a visit to people's kitchens every day for a free meal, there are economists, engineers, army officers, retired judges... "I wish to say that it has become clear after the end of the war, or rather bombing, that industrial production has increased and this will inevitably reflect on the rise of the living standard of the citizens", declared Ivica Dacic, spokesman of the ruling Socialist Party of Serbia in his latest statement. He said this and did not even blush.
(Alternativna Informativna Mreza /Alternative Information Network in former Yugoslavia)
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