Chapter Twenty-one: My Life Without Me by Jasmina Tesanovic

21. Women Who Loot

October 5th, 2000, a historical day for Serbia. Where was I? The invisible? I was on BBC, CNN, local TV etc… All day, every hour, with the subtitle: citizens looting the Serbian parliament.

Yes, that was My life with me in it, alive and kicking. That day, when the Serbian people in the streets of Belgrade toppled Milosevic, I was in those streets together with a million people. The streets and squares in Belgrade were not big enough to support a popular revolution of that size. Knowing that too well, the people had to cling together in dense crowds, just as they clung when three Belgrade generations lived in a single small flat. Like people jammed into a rusty Belgrade tram. Like people huddled in a queue for oil, for pensions, for everything the war had denied us.

I stood glued to other people in front of the Serbian parliament, October 5th 2000, daring not to move or speak, because if I jostle or yell, the others will, and the vast million headed beast may get angry, and explode, or implode.

We all feared the beast we had become part of, the beast we had made after years of silence and suffering. This King Kong organism was slowly moving towards the center of government, and my position was slowly getting closer to the bolted doors of the politically gated clique that had looted our lives.

The first row of people approached the steps of the parliament, as in the Eisenstein film “Battleship Potemkin.” Individuals peeled from the million headed beast. As a bold and dashing political adventuress, I was safe in the second line

Then I realized that the first line no longer existed. There I stood, holding hands with my best friend, so as not to split and be shoved apart. We are meandering in front of the evil building, which falling under the attack of protesters turned rioters. Glass is shattered, furniture flung out out the windows, flags torn down and new flags hoisted, screams and tear gas…but the Bastille is falling…

Suddenly, flames and smoke…the police become firemen, revolutionaries become looters, journalists become historians… As we pick our way through the burned overturned cars and smoldering furniture, world media is filming us. Jasmina appears on the screen that night as a Belgrade scavenger and looter.

My father sees me on the TV: he is happy I am there. He does not care if I am the good guy or the bad guy, he cares for the winning side. I am winning there alright, he’d better stick to me, he thinks.

His nation is still burning, and I am saving what can be saved out of the flames. Forty years ago, his generation did the same thing to the predecessors of the communists. He was one of them; he always claims he never looted or killed anybody, and that he earned everything through civil service to the new government. I believed him. But I know that there were no borders between civil servants and the revolutionary Communists. Their system was set up to assure the total power of a party vanguard. And he was one of them, the rebels turned the privileged, who did their best to nail the casino wheel of history into place

Of course I was not a looter, the CNN camera makes all rebels into looters by definition. But my historical battle was that of yet another Balkan looting raid, against one’ s own parents and history. Not one Balkan war was ever won with clean hands. We all had to scavenge to clear the dirty backyards of our parents; every Balkan woman is a rubble woman. Today the revolutionaries, tomorrow the derelicts. A turbulent graveyard of other people’s empires and religions, where every firm foundation is a polyglot and multiethnic mass of rubble.

My mother died in time to preserve her illusions. She died eleven months before my revolution, and did not want any of my rhetoric. Her firm allegiance to her ideals, to her big utopian realm of social freedom, was never lost to her, and was warm in her heart until her last days. On her deathbed she offered us speeches of justice instead of departing kisses. She died with a light and free heart, asking for lemon cake. My mother was a looted soul.

Crossing through the gates, the invisible borderlines; Pier Pasolini wrote about prostitutes, going through the front-lines of war safe and happy, because as women, they were considered loot, trade-goods, by both sides. The camp-followers never bothered with causes or allegiances; for them it was just Rosa and Maria versus the armies of anonymous clients.

Whenever you trespass, and you escape apprehension and punishment, there, you are invisible.

Better sometimes to become visible, and face the punishment.

My daughter as a small child used to plead for attention:

- Please Mom , tell me it is all my fault and that I am guilty!

- It is all your fault, honey, and you are indeed guilty. But before you, it was me. And before me there was your grandma, and then before her Mom, great-grandma Zivana, and then her sick Mom with asthma in a wheelchair… and then I don’t remember those women anymore, but that is how it works.

Women, always doing something they should not have done. Grandma Zivka for example, dressed as a true lady, telling her husband she was meeting a lady friend for coffee, then sneaking to a military parade where she hoped to catch one glance of the awesome Tito.… The nowhere man, the self made leader, the self-named rebel who fooled his enemies with his parallel lives. Rumours flew that there were many Titos, all living and ruling under that name.

Well, my grandma Zivana didn’t read much… but oh, those big shining tanks that seemed never to have fired a shell. Those fine young men dressed so neatly in ironed uniforms. We women love uniforms, men say… but I think women like men in uniforms, as opposed to men in the raw. Just as women love women in cosmetics and gowns, as opposed to raw women, like themselves.

So dear old Zivana would stand well behind in the front row, jumping to peek over the shoulders of the taller guys and girls before her, with her handbag banging them. Until they lost patience, and so did she, and she elbow her way to the front of the crowd and once…

Just once she even crossed the great parade to the center of the road, where she could see the vehicles better, by crouching on her knees and her forearms, under the tires and treads. She emerged scratched and dirty, but with her dainty handkerchief and a little perfume, she restored herself. Zivana’s transgressions were those of a woman who never fought for political rights. Instead, she just performed them.

War criminals shopped in my favorite shops in the nineties , they strolled my favorite streets, their children went to school with mine, in Belgrade. How does that feel? Terrible in the beginning: then you learn to avoid them, to ignore them, to beware of them. You never get fully used to it, however, never ever. I didn’t speak to some of my neighbors, because I recognized their faces, menacing us from TV. Or from the indictments.

Dragan Dabic, alias Radovan Karadzic, the politician, the poet, the warlord, the quack, accused of genocide among other crimes lived among us in Belgrade for years, under cover as a local alternative-medicine guru, the architect of massacre turned crooked healer, deceiving people.

Milosevic is gone now, dead in prison in The Hague before the verdict was reached. But in 2008 Dr. Karadzic, warrior psychotherapist turned hippie quack, has been arrested on a Belgrade bus. This Transition to Nowhere, from Radovan Karadzic to David Dabic, is quite a tale to tell. I am working on a story about that.

We enter this squatter joint in the outskirts of new Belgrade, my American journalist friend, and I, his translator and guide. It is an illegal small construction amidst many squalid skyscrapers. These Communist housing projects, people call the dorms. All sorts of people live in there, anonymously, contentedly even. A place where you can get truly and permanently lost, like in a Mexican desert.

A bar-room of barely few square meters, two and half tables. A bartender with a sulky angry face. A bar owner with a pregnant wife and red aggressive eyes. A couple of customers with bottles in one hand and cigarettes in another. Of all ages, in all sorts of clothes. What brought them together was a visible aggressive misery.

I have my own share of that aggressive misery, only mine is invisible. That is the key to my absence from my life.

One of these angry boozers had only one tooth. The other could not hold his head upright. The third is quivering with some serious bodily disorder. He was the war veteran among them, the hero who fought on the wrong side. Meaning, the side of his own ethnicity. He lost his heritage, his nation, his pride and his own body, and now he is in this illegal speakeasy, singing about his losses. Serbian people celebrate their losses more frequently than their victories. Lamentation is a national talent.

My American journalist friend and I are both intruders here: we are not here to lament, but to get a story out of them. They do want their own story to be published, and their views supported. They don’t much care about the objective truth, but they care a great deal about revenge and fame. They are the scum of the earth. You can tell that at a glance. Another glance tells you that they will never understand, admit, or know that.

We sit with them and they talk, sing, scream, threaten, and rejoice.

Although I must find words, I cannot find words for what is going on there in that abnormal place. No normal person spends their time the way that they do… Or like I do.

That’ s the painful part about this. I cannot describe this world that made me invisible, but I know it all too well. That arrogant tone, that “we are the best” attitude that hides the fear and misery of a people crushed by poverty and rising in rebellion, for centuries. The war criminals of my day, of my wars, were the hajduk heroes of yesterday, of my ancestor’s wars. These indomitable fighters were the good guys, the bloody and Homeric role models in the epic poetry, the folk songs, the history, the literature of a simple, rugged mountain people. That s at least what they claim!

Their single greatest trait is a keen and deeply spiteful sense of justice, and in our modern times, those same people, with those same hands, took up rapid-fire assault rifles and liquidated eight thousand Moslem civilians. The work of Srebrenica took three days. That is why Radovan Karadzic is a war criminal in custody, as well as a visionary poet who considers himself the avant-garde of Western civilization.

Eight thousand men and boys — they had all been Yugoslav citizens, our friends, our neighbors, our countrymen, our comrades — were shot as helpless captives, because they were not Serbs, the best people in the world. I cannot believe that, and yet I can, I must. It is part of my being, that criminality that speaks the language of my father, the purest serbian dialect , as the linguists claim.

We are no longer the same people. We Balkan people have our generations, like anyone else. We change our ideologies, with particular ease. This is a different time. Srebrenica belongs to a different world. I should not identify with them so thoroughly: the victims, the killers.

- Wow, this material is great, says the American journalist.

- I know, I say, but I am trembling. I can feel the air curdling as they drag us into their magnetic field.

A local journalist from a nationalist Serbian tabloid comes in, and joins us at our table. He listens attentively to our basic questions about Dragan “David” Dabic. A transvestite guru who posed as an American émigré, a surrealist New Age façade with a topknot, thick glasses, and a thicket of beard, in which Radovan Karadzic, the world’s most-wanted war criminal, schemed to hide himself. This creature came to this very spot, hiding himself among the lost, rejoicing with them about their victories and losses in their lost homelands of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Where genocide disguised itself as heroic enterprise.

Karadzic the psychaitrist and poet was the ideologue of ethnic cleansing. His ambition was to transform Herzegovina into a purely Serbian territory, without its Muslims, without its Croats, purified, like a bad poet’s fanatical effort to purify a language.

My father, the Herzegovinian engineer, could not believe that such a crime was possible. It was beyond his practical imagination. When I told him what was happening in the areas seized by Karadzic, my father said:

- In the second world war, we always took care of our Muslims! We protected them from the Nazis and Croats and Italian fascists. We lived together happily, respecting each other.

- That’s not true any more Dad. The UN was supposed to protect them, but the Serbian militias broke in and killed all the Muslims, they killed thousands of them in Srebrenica.

He started at me blankly, in disbelief. Then he phoned his family in Herzegovina, to ask them if what his daughter said was true.

- Well, yes, my cousin said candidly, that’ s true, but don’t tell anybody.

What a joke, I thought, they were trying to hide eight thousand bodies from themselves, for the sake of my father? In point of fact they did their best, they dismembered the corpses and hid them in different locations, even trucking them into Serbia proper, even close to Belgrade.

My father pretended not to believe it — to disbelieve them, and me. He stayed aloof from politics, bewildered by the fall of Yugoslavia. He had outlived his nation, but could no longer follow events. Nobody could, really, except those who were wreaking the havoc. They, too, had their bodyguard of lies, a psychic war of denied realities.

The American journalist is forced to wear a cap with Serbian nationalist symbols. He doesn’t mind that, because he is getting a very good story. I am getting much more than that. I am getting more than I want.

My father was a Yugoslav from Herzegovina, and my father is dead. This is my moral and political inheritance. It is painful and familiar. Yet I am not one of them, I just know them. I know how dangerous they can get.

During the nineties, as war and crime demolished Yugoslavia, I lived in a certain street in Belgrade. When I moved, it was a raffish street of gypsies and the dispossessed. Soon enough, however, it gentrified into a the street for the nouveau riche, of privateers, profiteers and war criminals.

From my window, I witnessed a murder, a so called jealousy killing. A gangster blew the head off a rival who was with his ex-girlfriend. That kind of murder happens any time anywhere, but this one happened under my apartment window, in a fancy car where the high maintenance gangster-moll sat, smoking.

Her first beau purged her second one, likely because he feared the same thing happening to him. These underground killings became commonplace in those years, as terrible and normal as a war can get. We didn’t have bombs in our yards, those bombs were flying from our yards, but we had legalized crime on our thresholds. Money was power, and power was warfare. Warfare was robbery. Warfare was profit.

All other values died out in within months, after the war rhetoric and the warlords took over my city. All money became war money, tainted in blood. I wrote about war crimes and wars, obsessively, having forgotten all my other topics. I was even bored by those topics. Women, literature, memory, poetry, fantasy; no longer had any relevance to my squalid everyday life.

- We are done with our interview, I say. We must go.

- No way, says the owner of the bar, you must buy us a drink and we must all drink it together.

- Sure I will, says the American journalist, I will happily buy you a drink, sir, but we ourselves cannot drink any more.

- No way, I will not drink drinks bought with dirty American money, says the owner suddenly enraged.

The guy without teeth screams, completely drunk:

- I am offering a drink for everybody, I, I , I…

- We don’t drink, thank you…

We are trying to reach the door. The small room is getting bigger, almost impossible to snatch the door knob and see the way out.

The other guys stand up between us and the door. The journalist is cool, he has been to other dangerous places in the world. Me too, but this is my dangerous place. The story of my life, my father comes from those places.

- We must go, I repeat firmly.

- You cannot go without drinking the drink I am offering you, screams the toothless man.

- No drinks for the American bastard, screams the owner.

I look around myself with adrenalin. Sweat is breaking out of my skin.

I bang my fist on the table. I am the only woman in the room.

- Shame on you, you men! I scream. I am a Herzegovinian woman and alone in the company of you men, so called men of honor who cannot behave like true men! You are embarrassing and offending me! I cannot sit around with men and get drunk. I am a woman of honor, Herzegovinian honor.

It worked. It got straight into their Herzegovinian male chauvinist bones and the red eyed owner, angrily waved his hand towards me

- Go, he said with held back rage, go…

In this mess of war crimes and misery, I recalled my grandmother, the huge Lile woman of honor and tobacco. This is how she would have dealt with the situation. This was her life I was now acting out. She saved my bacon, she saved my honor, she saved my story. She was back here in my body as if I never left that primitive harsh land of stone .

The journalist says:

- Come on Mina, let’s have a nice dinner somewhere far away.

Written by

one of the better-known Bruce Sterlings

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