A lack of government and police control on all levels, had a huge increase in crime rate. Also, nearby wars in Croatia and Bosnia didn’t help. Underground market of arms became flooded with military armament and ammunition. That caused a drop in prices – I was told that you could buy a hand grenade for 10-20 DEM, automatic riffle (Serbian version of Kalashnikov) for 150 DEM, pistols depending on a caliber between 30 and 80 DEM. One bullet was about 1 DEM. I guess even more dangerous weapon was available because there were few murder attempts with mobile rocket launchers and RPGs.
Weapon was followed by drugs. I was reading in newspapers that, while cocaine was still a privilege for the rich, marijuana and heroin were never as cheap. And, which is worse, it was available everywhere. I will never forget when I’ve seen a young couple, no more than 16, he was so doped that he could hardly walk, while she was having a crisis, shaking and still holding injection with syringe on it… And it was 2 p.m. in a very center of Belgrade, near one of the theatres.
Criminals appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Shaved heads, muscly, with sweaters tucked in sweatpants, often armed, in expensive cars and half naked girls around them, they meant trouble. I knew half a dozen of guys from my neighbourhood who were in some sort of crime – drug dealing, robberies (in Serbia and abroad), shoplifting, extortion… They were not people you would like to mess with. Many of them were killed. In one year only, five of them were killed in the area where I lived. Some of them in a broad daylight. All of them from automatic weapon. One night I returned home late from a party and found the entrance to my building demolished by hand grenade. On a Serbian New Year’s Eve (January 14, 1994, after Julian calendar) I was going home just before midnight when fire from all kind of guns and riffles started. I could see tracing bullets flying over the sky, I could even hear them buzzing. From a building next to mine, someone fired 5 magazines from Kalashnikov, one after another. Back then, celebration sometimes meant life threatening situations.
Then, everything became more cruel. An entire family was murdered (including a dog) in their apartment just because someone thought they have a lot of money stashed there. People who did it were caught few years later, after they committed few more similar murders. An retired army NCO, who just returned from Croatia (when regular army retreated), had seen one night someone taking off windshield from his car. He took a sniper rifle and killed thief on spot. He ended up in jail of course, but this just shows what were even ordinary people being ready for. In this case, PTSD was probably involved (more about it in next chapter) but we didn’t know anything about it.
But more often, criminals were killing each other. There were several clans operating in Belgrade and they were in war with each other. In time, one clan raised above them all, and took over all (or almost all) major “businesses” in Serbia, but mostly drugs. They became very strong and survived even change in political establishment in 2001 (after Slobodan Milosevic was removed from power). And they assassinated our prime minister in 2003. After that, most of them were either killed or are serving life sentences.
But crime was not a sign of criminals, only. People, desperate for money and means for life, did all kind of things illegal. Some doctors didn’t want to operate or even give treatments if they weren’t payed in cash. Teachers were giving good marks for money, professors in some universities were selling diplomas or even passing a tests. Getting a permit for building a house or even extending it, required transferring of certain amount of foreign currency to some official. We called it “under the table”. And police was not what it used to be. One of the longest streets on Belgrade, Boulevard of King Alexander became one of the biggest open markets in a city. People were selling smuggled goods on cardboard boxes or directly from parked cars. One day, while I was going home from work, I have seen a police officer approaching a woman who was selling a variety of Milka chocolates on a cardboard box. Police officer looked at her and without a word put his finger on a 400g (one pound) pack of chocolate and waited a moment. She looked at him and eventually said that he could take it, with resignation shrug on her shoulders. He just grabbed it and put it under his uniform jacket and left. A lot of my friends who were caught violating traffic laws, gave some money to policemen and in return they were never fined. Luckily, not all of them were corrupted, I knew few policemen who were fair and honest, trying to do their job surrounded by crocodiles and vultures…
Back then, if you were smart and wanted to live, you must have been very careful. Sometimes, even stepping on someone’s toes in crowded bus could end up with you looking down the muzzle of a gun. Or being stabbed… It happened often.
I don’t know how we, my brother and I, managed to go through those times without being attacked or injured. Part of it was probably our inner sense for trouble that was warning us when something was in stake. I could say for myself that I escaped from some troubles by just being sober, cool headed and self confident in potentially dangerous situations. And I know that my martial arts training helped that, too.
this is a scene from a Danish movie “I Kina Spiser De Hunde”; there was a criminal gang from Balkan involved in a story and, even though they are all actors, this is how they really looked like during 90s 🙂
I swear, you could walk for hours without seeing a single person smiling. Sometimes, it would be days before you yourself find a reason to smile. Happiness disappeared from our lives. Newspapers were full of bad news, war and poverty. Strangely, bad news were always sold well, from journalist’s point of view. People, being under pressure from their own troubles wanted to read about someone else’s misfortune. Their problems then probably felt easier and they could say ‘well, it could be worse’. You know what I mean.
These days sometimes I hear people talking about someone else having problems with boss on work or with other person who can influence their existence. And often I hear something like ‘no way I could accept that, I have my dignity’. I just laugh on that. Those people doesn’t know what a reality might do to person’s mind and will. One of my friends told me back then that he has met his high school teacher one day. Digging in a garbage can and taking a piece of bread from it. My friend was so shocked, their eyes met and they recognized each other. His teacher muttered something, put that piece of bread in a bag and turned away. I’ve seen grocery shop owners demanding from their underpayed workers to work longer hours without being payed; tiny girls 18 years old or younger, working illegally in same shops and carrying sacks heavier than they are. Strong will is melting like a butter on a hot pan when you don’t have a choice. Homo homini lupust est, seen too many times.
All the troubles we as a nation were suffering brought on surface the bottom of society – criminals became celebrities, easy money and the ways to get it became the highlight of many, people of low moral became role models of young people. If I was ever trying to imagine a better way of destruction of society, I wouldn’t be able to think of all that struck us. We were having several TV stations and on all of them you could see “turbo folk” (a weird and stupid version of folk music that doesn’t even deserve to be called “folk”) TV shows, senseless political discussions, prophets who were looking at cards or stars (one of them was rolling a big golden ring on his finger, claiming he can predict future) telling us when and how life is going to be better. Newspapers were not anything better. As a nation, we have been exposed to a mass brain washing – Serbia is always right!, Serbian people are the best people on world!, The rest of the world hates us, they envy us and they want to destroy us! – it was screaming through all media while only minority of people really had the opportunity to travel abroad and see the life outside our country. Also, under UN sanctions, many countries introduced visas for us (with conditions so hard to fulfill that it became futile to even try) and we could forget about travelling. Except for people who had families abroad or were working for few companies who still had some business connections in Europe or else in the world.
All of the characteristic signs of Belgrade whom I knew since my childhood, disappeared or has gone ‘under cover’ – rock, blues, alternative and classical music scene almost ceased to exist. They were pushed away from mainstream media to languish in few small clubs. One of my friends, jazz drummer, told me that he started playing turbo folk music in weddings. That money was his only income, otherwise he would starve. As a comparison: it would be like if you would ask a university professor to write articles about celebrities for some yellow press.
Many returned from war torn areas in Croatia and Bosnia – as refugees or soldiers. Many of them under impression of what they have seen there, the worse of civil war. You could see them walking in uniforms, sometimes armed. Sometimes drunk. We didn’t know much about PTSD – it was something we were listening about, something that affected American Vietnam War veterans. But this time we were having our own veterans. I couldn’t find any official data about suicide rates – I doubt anyone had enough money or will to conduct that kind of research – but people talked.
To finish this chapter I will try to summarize: destruction in society was so severe that even now, after about two decades consequences could be still seen. I doubt we will ever recover. It will never be as it was before and something new, heavily marked by the events from 90s, will continue to exist. It is better now but will never be as good as it was before. Probably not in my lifetime.
It was not all that bad. There were shiny examples that gave back the hope that troubles will not last forever. In a worse days of crisis, our sportsmen – basketball, volleyball and water polo players – got quite a few medals on European and world championships. In Olympic games in Atlanta in 1996 basketball team lost in finals from the USA team and won silver medal (not to mention few gold medals from European Championships). Volleyball team got bronze and Aleksandra Ivosev won two medals in shooting.
Slowly, a new generation of young people grew up, stronger and more prepared for troubles than we, who were born earlier, ever will be. People who didn’t have anything, decided to fight for their future and make their lives better. I am not happy with the pace things are changing in Serbia but every now and then I am glad to be denied. We learned one big lesson: no matter how bad situation is and how severe circumstances are, they can never last forever.
Recently I have read a status on a Facebook page of one of my friends: “Person is defined by patience when it has nothing and by behavior when it has everything”. What can be more true than that?