The Skupstina on fire
But as we stood there en masse hearing speeches (which I did
not understand), singing the same old songs, changing the same old chants (Pobeda!'
(victory); 'Hajmo, hajde, svi u napad!' (we go, you go, all into attack) 'Idemo
Dedinje!' (Let's go to Dedinje (where Milosevic lives)) I started getting a bit
depressed. this seemed to be the same old stuff that would fail as it did
in '96-'97. In fact, after a couple of hours or so, I started moving
(with some difficulty) through the crowd toward the center of town to phone
Zivana that I was coming home rather than staying the night. But after I'd
got fifty yards of so, the crowd made a crowd noise and I looked back to see a
cloud of white smoke rise up front the top of the broad stone steps to the
Skupstina. Then came the frilly trajectory of tear gas grenades being
fired into the crowd. This was getting interesting. Instead of doing
the sensible think and keep going, I turned against the fleeing mass of those
closest until I came to the first whiff of tear gas. That didn't seem so
bad, so I kept going right into a faceful of the stuff causing the usual
streaming eyes, streaming nose, coughing, choking, spitting out excess saliva
and the urge to both vomit and sit down to catch a breath of fresh air.
But the worst of this passed, and I turned back toward the Skupstina ran into a
real cloud of tear gas. Again I fled with the mob--mostly young men (like
myself) as far as the ornamental pool that divides the street. There I
dipped my handkerchief in the pool and put it over nose and mouth.
By this time, the attention of some of the fleeing was directed to a small street joining the broad one, at the bottom of which was a line of more militia with rifles, clubs and clear plastic shields. Of course we (some of us more slowly than others) headed down that direction only to retreat before a cloud of tear gas. But the demonstrators regrouped and charged again--collecting fence posts, traffic signs, half bricks and rocks as they went. I picked up a rock about the size of a large lemon, but have no idea what I was going to do with it. As it turned out, the militia decided to call it a day. At the bottom of the street they had abandoned, someone set fire to what looked like a couple of army trucks behind the Skupstina and others broke a shop window to extract a Serbian flag. People came out of the blocks of flats to offer water to the tear-gas affected.
The fun being over there, I headed back to the Skupstina to find the great mass of people still there like a standing army and others hurling rocks at the windows. Then a gasoline bomb started a fire on a balcony, and another flew through a window. A cheer went up from the steps, and part of the crowd--which was turning into a small mob--had broken into the Skupstina main doors. In a few minutes, they appeared at windows waving Serbian and Yugoslav flags, and papers, documents and other light objects started cascading from above. Soon there was a steady line of people threading through the crowd into the building and coming out with anything portable--chairs, small tables, parts of computers, books, ashtrays, coat racks, even yellow plastic waste baskets. People were breaking chairs up to make clubs in case of counterattack by the Army,
This was something I quite feared myself until I realized that the Army would have to slaughter much of the vast crowd. As it was, the only soldier (as opposed to militia man) I saw was a bearded man who was with the demonstrators. I fought my way up to the entrance with a wet handkerchief over my mouth and nose and went into the first floor of the Skupstina, which was thoroughly trashed. There was something about the smoky interior that did not encourage me to go further.
Instead, I came out and went to the other wing of the building where papers and small objects were raining down and several tall window frames were on first. While some people were setting fires, others were putting them out. There was a chance to enter the building at the ground level via a narrow metal winding staircase, but I decided to give it a miss.
Back in front people were still streaming out with loot. One guy had two crystal wine glasses. He reluctantly surrendered one to another demonstrator, and the two drank a toast in orange soda. Others were swigging from rakija bottles, but there was no general drunkenness. The people were drunk enough with euphoria. Among the crowd were a number of young men wearing uniforms and equipment --gas masks, batons, plastic helmets and shields--confiscated from the militia. One brandished the prize of a shotgun that fired gas grenades.
Though all of this, it was clear that neither side had come prepared for battle. Although I saw one man with a hunting rifle, most demonstrators were armed with nothing more deadly than poster sticks, though they acquired more hefty weapons as the day went on. The militia were far too few to deal with even a portion of the crowd in the front of the Skupstina and had pitifully little back-up. After they were disarmed, it is said, militia members were protected from the wrath of the crowd by other demonstrators though 30 were reported hurt. The only deaths of demonstrators I heard about were a middle-aged man from a heart attack and a girl from outside of Belgrade who fell off a truck.
Soon it became clear that there would be no comeback by Government forces. The opposition had clearly--and easily--won the day, at least in the heart of Belgrade. Though some of the crowd looked less than happy and shook their heads at pronouncements by opposition leaders, I heard not a word in favor of Milosevic.
The looting continued despite efforts of the opposition to discourage it and the setting of fires. There was at least one personal rejection of the looting ethos when a grizzled old man seized a red-plush desk chair from a looter coming down the stairs and angrily denounced him. The boy left without the chair. In front of the conquered Skupstina, the mood was euphoric. Kostunica, the new president apparent, made a speech as did a priest and a soldier. There was much more singing and chanting including 'Idemo na Dedinje,' but no serious move was made in that direction. Kostinica urged them to stay and hold what they had won. Besides, Milosevic was said to be in his bunker in Bor in eastern Serbia near the Rumanian border.
I tried to find a public phone to tell Zivana that I was still alive but none was available. On the way back to Skupstina I stopped at Kasina--my favorite mini-brewery cafe--for a beer, and there was a crash and a cheer as a nearby shop was broken into. The looting was spreading to the center of town, and the targets were general. It occurred to me the next morning that I did not see a single policeman in Belgrade that day or night. Clearly they had abdicated their responsibility, and nobody took their place.
The State TV station on fire
At 7:40 p.m., the fire department finally arrived and
encouraged us to leave the Skupstina steps (I was at the very top enjoying the
spectacular view of protestors as far as the eye could see) with a light
sprinkling of water. I decided--after a long day--to walk to Zivana's
cousins' flat for a bit of rest and perhaps something to eat. At the flat
I saw television coverage of the demo and subsequent action and learned what had
sparked it all. Apparently at the very front of the demonstrators a man
wearing a cardboard hat was photographing the militia. I don't know that
inspired it, but suddenly one of them clubbed him over the head, and the fight
was on. It did not last long. Several TV stations were off the air,
but a number provided coverage. I learned that the State television
station was also on fire...
After a bit of a rest (and roast chicken and beer provided by Cousin, a new Yugoslav from Macedionia), I walked back to the Skupstina. By then the fire department had sealed the building and the scene in front of it had turned into a rave as (mostly) young people danced to techno music from loudspeakers. Others brandished unidentifiable bits of loot, clashing them together overhead like swords. A few cars crowded with cheering passengers inside and out crawled through the crowd.
By 10:30, I'd had enough and walked through the exultant streets back to my borrowed bed to gratefully go to sleep. When I awoke, Cousin Nada was weeping over the damage to the Skupstina. As I walked back to the center, the mess and carnage increased as I got closer to the Skupstina. The scene around it was like a battlefield. Someone was making a street to a small crowd in the park. In the center, trafikas (small, free-standing concessions) and shops were looted at random and loot--shoes, cosmetics, sportswear--was strewn widely, especially in an underpass. The looters had clearly taken advantage of the euphoria and lack of authority. The shop near Kasina that I had seen broken into was so trashed that you could not tell what it had sold. In the underpass, dazed shop assistants tried to bring some order to ravaged shops. I bought most of the daily newspapers and caught the bus to Novi Sad and my car.
This was a truly great experience, and I was glad that there had been so little injuries and loss of human life. But I was saddened by the vandalizing of the Skupstina. The vandals and looters seemed to forget that it was their property they were destroying and stealing and that the slim resources of this country will have to be used to repair and replace. And the purely commercial looting under cover of jubilation over the presumed fall of Milosevic was also saddening. Everybody is waiting to see Milosevic has any comeback. Despite the invalidation of the election by the Constitutional Court, Kostunica is considered widely to be the de facto new President of Yugoslavia.
Myself, I hope this victory of the people--not just the opposition--will not tainted by intrusion by America and the Western Powers or by any idea of giving Milosevic (if an when he is in hand) to the kangaroo court at The Hague. This would negate a great deal of the triumph we feel. Yugoslavia must be part of Europe but it need not be a New World Order colony. This is a victory of the Yugoslav people no matter how much the United States has tried to horn in on it with its money and unneeded advice for the opposition. We shall not forget their bombs or their rhetoric or the civilians they callously killed, the infrastructure they destroyed, the lives they blighted and the part of Yugoslavia (Kosovo) they stole and currently occupy in order to 'punish Milosevic.' The future is fraught with as much danger as the past.