Belgrade's youth grow up quickly in midst of attacks

Teens know little of relative good life once found in capital

War In Yugoslavia

April 16, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- School's out, so Milan Kubali and his friends are killing time down at the daily rock-and-rail concert against NATO.

They're kicking a tiny ball, bopping to the music and watching the girls pass by.

"These are very dramatic times," says Kubali, an 18-year-old with bleach-blond hair, baggy pants and a stud earring. "During the day, we're all having fun. And during the night, we're all waiting for the bombing."

With their country at war and their futures at stake, Belgrade's teens and young adults are growing up in a hurry.

Instead of playing video war games, they're seeing the real thing, live, in the skies over Belgrade.

And these teens who guzzle Coca-Cola, listen to Britney Spears and watch "Lethal Weapon 4" are coming to terms with a battle against a U.S.-led coalition.

"We like your music," Kubali says. "We just don't like your bombs."

So, they party until they drop, congregating in a main city square for a dose of pop and politics designed to raise spirits and boost patriotism. Besides, there seems to be little else to do, with schools closed, night-life curtailed and everyone seemingly focused on one subject -- the war.

These teens are part of a generation that has known little of the relative good life that once existed in Belgrade. There was a time when Yugoslavia was the most outward of communist nations, when its citizens traveled abroad and decent goods were available to them at reasonable prices.

They have seen their country plunged into a series of wars, with lives lost, land relinquished and Yugoslavia reduced to a rump state burdened by a broken economy.

"I don't like wars," says 18-year-old Urosh Ilich. "War makes people unhappy. My main wish is to go to America and skateboard."

Branko Mrdjenovich, 17, says he would like to set Americans straight about his country.

"Americans don't know where we live or how we live," he says. "But we're normal, just like they are. We have our own bands, our own style, our own images. We listen to the same music, we see the same movies. This is a normal society."

But some of those just a few years older have a different, more considered view of their country as it is today.

"We are expecting worse and worse," says Olga, a 27-year-old economics student who fears giving her last name. "Our minds are more open compared to those born after us. We know what we're missing. Economically we are going to be destroyed for a long, long time."

Lune, a 23-year-old who declines to give his last name, survived the earlier Balkan wars of this decade. A Serb who once lived in multiethnic Sarajevo, he is a refugee with no job prospects and no future in Belgrade.

"We live in misery," he says. "I want to go to Canada, but I can't get a visa. Destiny is cruel."

So, he is stuck in Yugoslavia, facing an aerial war.

"In Sarajevo, at least you could see the Serb army, the Muslim army," he says. "We knew where the front lines were. But bombs are falling everywhere, night after night."

Dragana Cuk, 30, and Jelena Vranjesevic, 29, are child psychologists who look back fondly on the good times of their youth, when they traveled, studied and dreamed of bright futures.

"I remember driving a car without thinking if you could find gas," Cuk says.

"I remember going on vacations, twice a year," Vranjesevic says.

Now, there is the daily struggle of living with so much uncertainty.

Will there be bread in the stores? Will there be paychecks? And will the borders remain open?

"You can't plan anything," Vranjesevic says.

Even their jobs have been in limbo since the war's start. Cuk works at a public health clinic, but sees fewer patients because people are afraid to travel. Vranjesevic teaches at Belgrade University, which is closed except for examinations.

"I'm just afraid," Vranjesevic says. "You can't say when this war will end or how it will end."

"We don't know what the consequences will be," Cuk says.

The women who once marched for democracy in the winter of 1996 and 1997 now support Milosevic and Yugoslavia in the battle against NATO. They may be patriots, but they are also realists, trying to see both sides of the argument over the future of Serbia's province of Kosovo, where Serbs are outnumbered 9-to-1 by ethnic Albanians.

But in the end, they're sticking with their country.

"I'm thinking about my life, the life of my friends, the threat of mobilization," Vranjesevic says. "Most of all, I'm thinking of the hypocrisy of the Western countries. I don't trust them when they say they are trying to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. They provoked one."

Now, the women just want the war to end.

"Why can't America behave like in Vietnam?" Vranjesevic says. "Proclaim victory and leave."

Pub Date: 4/16/99

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