Serbs face cold realities of peace

For Belgrade citizens, hopes for future are clouded by hardship

June 07, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Summer is coming but people here are already thinking of winter.

They're trying to figure out how to save money for the months ahead, how to find firewood they are sure they will need, and how to prepare mentally for the hard times to come.

NATO's war against Yugoslavia has not officially ended, but Belgrade's citizens are starting to plan their futures while trying to come to grips with defeat.

Even as military chiefs sought yesterday to hammer out an agreement on the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo, Serbian citizens tried to regain normality in their lives.

They know that better days may be far off in a country in which more than 70 percent of the workers have no jobs, and where factories, bridges and power plants lie in ruins. Without ample electricity, homes will likely grow very cold this winter.

But for the first time in a long time, people tried to put aside events and the stresses of war, and sought to enjoy a normal Sunday of church-going, cafe-sitting, biking and strolling.

"We feel relief, but of course we know that everything is not finished yet," said Ljubisa Zivadinovic, 45, who was walking by the Danube River with his wife, Meliza, and 10-year-old son Sasha.

They took in the sun and the sights. Restaurant boats bobbed on the water. On the shore stood the remains of the Hotel Jugoslavia, among the scars of war that dot this city.

"It's very nice walking here, without sirens or bombs," Zivadinovic said.

"We've had a real defeat, but what could we have done against the most powerful military in the world?" he added. "And now, we really don't know what will happen. There will be no paychecks and maybe no power."

Nearby, Zeljko Novakovic, 28, and his wife, Marina, 23, walked hand in hand, enjoying the freedom of a warm, leisurely day.

"Everything is easy now, even breathing," Zeljko Novakovic said. "But everything is not normal. The most important thing is that the war has to stop."

Marina Novakovic said she hopes that the West will provide aid, even though world leaders have said that Yugoslavia will not be reconstructed so long as President Slobodan Milosevic remains in power.

"There will be hungry people in this country, especially in the countryside, where the factories are destroyed and there are no jobs," she said. "The world can't leave us to die of hunger and cold."

`Beginning of the end'

Boban Sindjelac, 39, agreed that the West should help, but doubted that the aid would come.

"I'm feeling very tired, especially psychologically," he said. "Every time when I hear a door slam, I'm afraid. And sometimes, my kids start crying. But I think we're at the beginning of the end. It will be harder in the future, though. We were defeated from the beginning, we just didn't want to admit it."

A man biking along the river stopped and talked of what has happened to his country.

"This is a defeat, a big one," said Darko Dujic, a 40-year-old computer programmer. "It's a defeat of the politics of the past few years.

"I will try not to be in this country in the winter," he said. "I feel sad. If things stay as they are, this country will make no progress."

He has little faith in international aid, and has a plan of how to avoid being in Belgrade this winter.

"What do I expect from the United States and European Union? A visa," he said.

Pensions and firewood

Djordje Pantelic, 60, and his wife, Goca, 55, will stay put in their home in a lovely Belgrade neighborhood that was rocked by bombing throughout the conflict. He's figuring out where he can get firewood to stoke a kitchen stove. She wonders how they can get along financially with the state months behind in paying pensions.

"It's very hard to predict how difficult things will be," Djordje Pantelic said. "Lots of things have happened that we couldn't have dreamed about."

Sleeping through a night without air raid sirens or bombs was a delight to Goca Pantelic.

"It was healthy," she said. "People here have been nervous."

As much as people want to look past the war, they can't help but recall the worst moments of the conflict and look ahead to an uncertain future.

The Serbian province of Kosovo, once a four-hour drive from Belgrade, will effectively be further away with the bridges gone. But that doesn't mask the reality of NATO troops patrolling Serbian soil.

"You're not the boss in your own house," Djordje Pantelic said, describing the impending occupation. "And you're still watching the sky and wonder if you'll get bombed."

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