Amid the chaos of war, Belgrade barely rattled

Critic's death a symbol of opposition decline

April 15, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Air raid sirens wailed and birds sang yesterday as 2,000 mourners gathered by the small chapel in the lush cemetery to wait for Slavko Curuvija's coffin to pass by.

Newspaper publisher and fervent critic of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, Curuvija was gunned down Sunday -- Orthodox Easter -- as he returned home from lunch. Some mourners claimed that Curuvija was the victim of a political killing.

Police say they are still looking for suspects.

As the mourners stood silently in the warm spring sun, they prepared to bury a friend and, perhaps, a piece of themselves, for they appeared to represent the dwindling remnants of opposition to Milosevic's rule.

"He was a brave man, braver than those who shot him in the back like cowards and braver than those who bombed him from the air," Ljiljana Smajlovic said of her former boss.

NATO's war against Yugoslavia has produced few casualties in Belgrade. Yet the killing of a publisher seems to be a sign that the war is rippling through this capital in ways few could have predicted when the first bombs dropped three weeks ago.

This doesn't look like a city under siege, yet things have changed in the cultural and political center of Yugoslavia.

Milosevic is on the rise, and the opposition is on the run.

There may be weariness over nightly air raids and uncertainty over the future course of the struggle to retain Serbia's province of Kosovo, yet the war has caused the public to rally around its leader.

People who marched 88 straight days against Milosevic in the heady, pro-democracy demonstrations during the winter of 1996-1997 are now backing the Yugoslav president.

What little opposition there was has been extinguished, with the university shut, political opponents under wraps, and independent media virtually shut.

Yet the public appears to be absorbing the bombing with a sense of humor and outrage.

On the main bridge leading into Belgrade's downtown, one hand-scrawled billboard seems to sum up the mood. It reads, in English: "NATO F--- You."

Others wear the now ubiquitous target buttons, which feature a bull's eye.

There's also a button celebrating the shooting down of a U.S. stealth fighter. The slogan reads: "Sorry, we didn't know it was invisible."

Hawkers do a brisk trade in "Belgrade by Night" postcards, which feature familiar city scenes with bombs flashing in the background.

Rock concerts and strolls

Meanwhile, thousands of teens, some wearing American baseball caps with logos for the Chicago Bulls and New York Rangers, gather for a daily rock concert in a main square. They wave Yugoslav flags and dance as a henna-haired lead singer screeches lyrics; the thump of the music can be heard a half-mile away.

Then, they head to cafes for cups of coffee, or they join their families on their daily strolls along cobblestone streets.

Even though their country is at war, local residents refuse to shed daily habits. Kids play in parks. Those with jobs go to work. And it seems as if everyone strolls, although a few hours earlier than the customary post-dinner amble.

By darkness, most hunker down and wait for bombing, as air raid sirens pierce the evening calm.

Physically, this does not look like a city under siege. Electricity works, water flows and buses run. There may be gasoline rationing, but cars remain on the roads. The shops are filled with meat, bread and milk, and there is still a demand for leather coats and summer dresses at one of the city's swanky malls.

What really has the locals worked up is a cigarette shortage that has sent prices spiraling to as much as 60 cents a cigarette for genuine Marlboros.

While NATO targets military and key industrial sites, most of the buildings remain untouched. There are a few exceptions, such as the Interior Ministry, reduced to charred concrete, twisted metal and blown-out windows. Efforts to hide the destruction with yards of plastic sheeting have failed.

Other buildings have also been damaged by locals who vented their rage at the West. These remain visible for all to see.

Bashed desks, burned chairs and broken glass lie on the floor of the American Center, a cultural gathering point in the main shopping precinct. Someone placed a sign above the mess: "Rest in Peace."

The British Council office was reduced to shards of glass and Nazi swastikas.

At the ruined Air France office, someone wrote on a wall, "Hitler -- Klinton."

Hard to generalize

Yet for the pockets of destruction and the wave of patriotism in Belgrade, it's hard to make many rash generalizations about how the war is going in Serbia and Kosovo.

Outside Belgrade, miles and miles of gorgeous countryside in the Serbian heartland remain untouched by war. Farmers turn the dirt by hand and with shovels, preparing for the spring planting. Streets lie empty in town after town, as gasoline appears to be in short supply in rural areas.

But in the city, people still come out during the day. And the talk is of the war and its aftermath.

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