Christmas preparations are not a merry business in war-torn Yugoslavia. Former Blast forward and Major Soccer League All-Star Stan Stamenkovic can attest to that.
"It is very hard for me to explain to you," said Stamenkovic, reached by phone at his home in Uzice, Yugoslavia. "My English, after being away from United States for four years, is not very good, but I will try to explain how things are."
The Yugoslavian civil war has been going on for more than a year. But it began officially last June, when Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence from the Yugoslav federation of six ethnically divided republics.
Stamenkovic, 35, who is Serbian, says the fighting is now only 50 miles from his home, but that many things are still normal in his city.
Business is good at his restaurant and bar and at his wife's Italian shoe store, though problems could arise if trouble develops in importing shoes from Italy.
"The schools still operate and there is food and people go on," Stamenkovic said. "But many of my friends are fighting in this war. Many have volunteered to fight and I am thinking I too will volunteer. I am ready to fight. My good friends have gone over there -- just 50 miles northwest. I am ready to go. I will go for my country, my kids and my family. I will fight for Serbia."
Words like those are not comforting to Stamenkovic's wife Vera, nor to his children, 12-year-old daughter Jovana and 9-year-old son Nebojsa.
"I am in fifth grade," said Jovana. "My teachers do not talk to us much about the war. They do not think we need to know everything. But my friends and I talk about it when the teachers are not there. I watch television news and they show people being killed, not with guns, but with knives and spoons. I ask my dad always, why do we have to go to war? And he always says for Serbia."
Stamenkovic, who promised to bring Baltimore a championship and delivered in 1983, played his last season here in 1986-87. He said he would like the people here to understand what is going on in his country. He said he fears 90 percent of the news heard in the United States "is lies."
Indeed, when Stamenkovic hears that news reports here portray the Yugoslav army, which is primarily Serbian, as being an aggressive force displacing Croatians and destroying cities, he is disturbed.
"Serbia has never gone against anyone in the world," said Stamenkovic. "Go all the way back to World War I, always we have had to defend ourselves. For too, too many years, we never go to fight to win something. Always we are on the defensive. Now, we are fighting the Croatians, because they are fighting us, trying to destroy our country. Trying to destroy Yugoslavia."
He says he believes France, the United States and Germany are all against Serbia. He says the Serbs living in Croatia are fearful for their lives.
Christmas in Yugoslavia is not our traditional Dec. 25, but Jan. 7. Stamenkovic said they have not yet begun to make their Christmas plans, but he said his son has already started to remind him of the coming date.
"We will have Christmas, but it will not be the same, because so many of our friends are gone to the war," Stamenkovic said. "Christmas is not happy this year. We are killing our country and it is killing my heart.
"But for the children, Christmas is Christmas. You should see Nebojsa. He is growing and playing soccer very well -- but it is his right foot that is very good instead of his left like me. It is good you know. My son is American and Serbian and he has a strong right foot."
His daughter Jovana was born in Yugoslavia before Stamenkovic came to the United States in 1981, and he says proudly she is a very good student. When he needs an English translator, he has only to ask his daughter.
Jovana, who continues to study English in school, remembers America and Baltimore with much love. When asked if she had seen Santa Claus, she said no, but that she would be ready when she did. "I will tell him my wish is to come back to America," she said. "I do not remember everything. We have been gone for four years. But I remember that I like America very much and I like the way Americans speak English." She said she will also ask Santa to help find an end to war.
"I hope we have peace soon," she said.
"We are afraid," Stan Stamenkovic said. "Not just my family, but everybody. We are a country that needs a little help."