In Belgrade, jokes amid the bombing

Humor: Under NATO's constant onslaught, Serbs in Belgrade find the heart to joke about their ordeal

War In Yugoslavia

May 23, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- How do most Serbs feel when they wake up in the morning?


What do you call the new look of taping windows to prevent glass shards from flying during NATO bombing raids?

Windows 99.

What do Belgrade residents do before crossing the street?

They look left, right and up.

The Serbs may be losing their factories, refineries and bridges, but they haven't yet lost their sense of humor as NATO's war against Yugoslavia grinds toward a third month.

Pungent and profane, witty and wicked, jokes and punch lines are still being minted by a war-weary population that appears to revel in gallows humor.

Whether in bomb shelters or cafes, offices or homes, the one-liners are flying around town like the NATO jets that cruise overhead.

Sense of helplessness

Some of the humor reveals a sense of helplessness in a country that is taking on the combined might of NATO.

Few here have illusions that Yugoslavia will ultimately defeat NATO on the battlefield. The jokes reveal a realistic spirit that has a dash of spunk.

Like the one about the guy watching television at home one night.

Once, twice, three times there is a knock on the door. Finally, the guy gets out of his easy chair, opens the front door, and finds a Tomahawk cruise missile, flustered and out of breath, pleading: "Where is Batajnica airport?"

"What else can we do but make jokes? It's just a normal way of defending ourselves," says Jan Azansky, a sidewalk vendor who sells an array of buttons and postcards tied to the war.

Azansky's button collection includes such slogans as "Kill Private Ryan," "Mickey Mouse is a rat," and "Serbia Unplugged" -- the last a reference to NATO's ability to black out the country.

The top-selling postcard pictures the world wrapped in barbed wire with the slogan: "NATO is only here to give you a big warm hug."

Another shows a bearded Serb twirling a basketball in one hand with a string of bullets across his chest and the ominous words: "European Nightmare."

One of the first postcards to hit the streets after the bombing started March 24 is still a steady seller.

"Sorry, we didn't know it was invisible," reads the catchword that was created in the war's opening days, after the Yugoslav military downed one of America's supposedly invisible stealth fighters.

"We have a dark sense of humor," Azansky says.

Humor smoothes the way

Through most of the post-World War II period, people here have been using humor as an antidote to whatever political life tosses up.

From communism to Yugoslavia's disintegration, from Tito's rule to the reign of Slobodan Milosevic, humorists tread a thin line when it comes to making fun of the state and its leaders.

Around here, where freedom of speech is never taken for granted, even a situation comedy involving a family of four can be interpreted as a dangerous political insult, since Milosevic has a famous wife and two children.

An advertising executive and impersonator named Dragoljub Ljubicic is renowned for impersonating prominent political figures in a comedy troupe called "Radio Index Theater." He can instantly switch voices and expressions, from the low rumble of Milosevic to the high pitch of Tito.

A decade after Tito's death, Ljubicic dressed in the kind of ostentatious military garb once favored by the old dictator and traveled around town to gauge public reaction for a film. People actually spoke to him as if he were Tito, and the impersonator was mobbed by a crowd at a railroad station.

Ljubicic says political humor is "like food out of a refrigerator: It can't last for a long time."

But the war is providing him with some good fresh material.

`People here are pretty tough'

"We were trying to create a new kind of environment," he says. "When you're put in some bad position, you'll find a way to survive or die. People here are pretty tough."

Ljubicic is trying to poke some fun by churning out joke songs that make light of everyone from President Clinton to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. He even tried to find a place in a song for NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana, a fairly humorless-looking fellow.

"He was not amusing," Ljubicic says. "He was dumped."

Still, the best humor seems to be coming from the streets.

One often-told joke involves a man from the northern city of Novi Sad who happens to be in the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro at the outbreak of the war.

As Novi Sad's bridges get knocked out and the country is bombarded by NATO planes, many of which fly in from an air base in Aviano, Italy, the man finally asks a local resident how he can return home.

The local thinks for a moment and says, "Take the boat from Bar in Montenegro to Bari in Italy, hop a train and head to Aviano. There's a shuttle every 15 minutes to Yugoslavia."

And lately there's this one:

Who will be the next president of Serbia?

Bill Clinton: He united the Serbs, closed the factories that didn't work and got all the ethnic Albanians kicked out of Kosovo.

Pub Date: 5/23/99

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