Belgrade: Youth and Resistance

Belgrade: Youth and Resistance

At the risk of being called a spy, or worse, a journalist, I set out, entry visa in hand, to cross the Serbian border. As I traveled by car service to the border, my companions consisted of another American, a fast-talking Serb who had lived out the war in Connecticut, and a terrified old Serb woman, who was sure the two Americans in the back seat were here either to send coded messages to the Pentagon ordering another round of bombing or to steal her jewelry. Which was worse she was not entirely certain.

My true mission was less covert than my fellow travelers imagined. My hope was to meet and talk with people in Serbia, in order to learn about grassroots opposition to Slobodan Milosevic. This is not what I told the heavily armed border guard when he threatened to turn “the two American journalists” back. Our quick-thinking new friend from Connecticut smilingly told the guard that the Americans were here to tour the majestic Serbian monasteries, of which they had heard so much. “Yes, yes,” we chimed in, “we are very interested in studying the church.” The guard let us pass without even glancing into our bags. Once in Serbia, the young man turned around and looked us in the eye: “All right, I helped get you in, I know you journalists, now promise you won’t write anything bad about my country.”

Belgrade gives all the appearance of a lively city. People crowd the streets selling black market goods off the hoods of their cars and stay out drinking in open air cafés late into the night. Yet if you ask them, they will tell you that the city is not what it once was—an international capital filled with smiling tourists who came to admire and spend freely. Still, it is deeply alive even as it struggles under the economic weight of sanctions and the psychological weight of last year’s bombing by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Thriving on the energy of the city, a new movement called Otpor has launched a formidable campaign against the Milosevic regime.

My first introduction to Otpor was through Branko Ilic, one of its founding members. Before going to Belgrade, I met Branko on the island of Broc at a small nongovernmental organization (NGO) conference. Even with the enticing blue waters and dramatic, rocky hills, he was uncomfortable lying on the beach and spoke constantly about returning to Serbia where he could get back to work. Work consists of organizing demonstrations, street actions, endless strategy meetings, and petitioning the opposition parties for support. At the beach he wore a black T-shirt with the slogan in Cyrillic: “Otpor will live.” In Serbia, wearing such a shirt would have meant his immediate arrest.

Branko and I arranged to meet again in Belgrade. He gave me two cell phone numbers, an e-mail address, and a business card sporting a pop art graphic of the Otpor symbol, a raised, clenched fist. Otpor literally translated means resistance; and Branko Ilic is a typi...


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