A Belgrade Tradition: 70 Year Anniversary of the First Democratic Protests

On Friday afternoon I was in downtown Belgrade for a couple of business meetings. Aside from the unusually lovely weather in late November, it was a day like any other. I finished both meetings, packed my stuff and got on my cell to call a cab, with juste enought time to get home before my son got back from school. I got the same response from all three cab companies that I called: “We’re sorry but, as a gesture of support to the protests today, we won’t be working for the next hour.” Great. Thankfully, one of my business associates was there with his motorcycle and, knowing his faithful Yamaha steed would get us through almost any crowd or traffic jam, offered to give me a ride home.

Notice I didn’t even bother to ask exactly who was protesting or why. Prostests are so common in Belgrade that most of us tend to just try to ignore them unless they have something to do with the issues affecting our individual lives. Nevertheless, the information junkie that I am, I got home and ended up finding out that the students of the University of Belgrade were protesting new terms for fullfillment of requierments for certain financial aid for tuitions and so on. I wish them all the best in their efforts but I was a student a decade ago and my son is still in elementary school so I’m not really all that interested. Sorry. It did however remind me of a blog post I wrote and tucked away on my hard disk for future use. I thought I’d release it on the exact day that will mark 70 years since the first massive student protest in Belgrade but, with the current students planning on continuing their protest come Monday, this weekend seems like more appropriate timing. We’re taking that step back again now. The one I call retrograde. In fact, take a few steps back ’cause this picture isn’t just big. It’s huge. And you’re going to want to see it.

The year 1939 had been a tough one on all of Europe. In Serbia it was better known as the Bloody Year of 1939. It remained known as such even after World War II, which was just around the corner. What some don’t know and many fail to recall is that, before World War II came about, a vast portion of the Serbian high society, polititians and bourgeoise in Serbia and much of the region, actually liked the ideologies of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Yes, you read that right. Don’t forget that Hitler was Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1938. This vehement little creature with the funny moustache had an ideology that very much appealed to the higher classes and a killer rhetoric. Bluecollar workers and students saw it differently, of course. The Bloody Year of 1939 saw more than 800 protests throughout the Kingdom of  Yugoslavia.

Allow me to introduce you to a few of the characters in this particular story – the story of the first massive organized student and proleterian protests in Serbia. Miloš Matijević, better known as ‘Slim’ (Mrša) was a tall and lanky bluecollar type that had been born and raised on a small, impoverished farm. A hard worker, after years of unsuccessful farming, physical odd jobs and such, he ended up landing a decent gig in the textile industry in Belgrade. In the late 1920’s he became a member of the Communist Party and set his sights on creating better conditions for the working class. True, most of us still cringe at the word ‘communist’ now that we all know what happened post WW II. But all that ‘Slim’ Matijević and those similar to him knew was that it was time for a change and this ‘communism’ thing, equal shares and opportunity for all, seemd like a great idea.

Our next character became a member of the Communist Party in the mid 1930’s and was a Montenegrin born Serb, Radoje Dakić. He was an electro-mechanic working in one of the larger factories of the time in Belgrade and was often arrested for his revolutionary activities and served a sentence or two in prison. A third working class character in the story, but far from the average woman of her time, was Vukica Mitrović. Born in Budva Montenegro, she had attended elementary and secondary schools there before her family’s finacial troubles and move to Belgrade. She was unable to continue her education but soon found an administrative job in  the Belgrade textile industry and joined the Communist Party in 1933. Vukica was arrested in a huge police raid of the offices of the Communist Party in April of 1935 and tortured by the authorities in prison so she would give up certain information and colleagues. Vukica kept quiet and, although a trial was held, she was finally released due to lack of evidence. Her friends called her ‘Sneak’ (Šunja) for her ability to carry out underground revolutionary tasks quietly and efficiently.

Rifat Burdžević

Rifat Burdžević was a baby faced and strong voiced young man. He was born in a small town in Serbia where, after having been orphaned at the age of two, he was raised by family members and enrolled at the Law School of the University of Belgrade in 1933. Last, but certainly not least, there was Aleksandar ‘Leka’ Ranković. ‘Leka’ Ranković was born in Obrenovac and raised mostly by his mother as he had lost his father at a young age. Ranković is a story all on his own so suffice it to say he would later become one of the most significant characters in the Communist Party of the former SFR of Yugoslavia.

These are the five main characters that, though they would have been nothing without the thousands they had following them at the time, organized and carried out an unlikely but successful mass protest. It was early December of 1939 and the workers, the students, the people – were fed up with low wage hard work, lack of bread, milk, other essentials and the lack of interest from the government in all these matters. A protest was organized, mostly by the five young people you have just been introduced to in the above paragraphs. The protest was scheduled for December 5th, 1939 and a permit for such a gathering was requested from the authorities. The permit was denied and warnings issued to the organizers, students and several trade unions. The next day, the organizers rescheduled the protest for December 10th and applied for a permit again. The second permit was also denied and warnings once again issued. The organizers, students and workers had no other choice but to use guerilla tactics. The protest went undergound for the next couple of days. The organizers made sure that the word got out to the authorities that the protest was planned for December 15th, each time giving them a different location. The students and workers had leaders among them that knew that the protest would in fact take place on the evening of December 14th and their task was to gather as many protesters as possible in the sidestreets around the one designated area – Slavija Square.

I imagine it was a cold and gray afternoon. It must have already been dark as the protest leaders and group leaders went from house to house gathering their fellow protesters. Police and guard had heard a rumor that the protest would happen a day early, but units were now hopelessly scattered around several locations in the city and any other information was scarce. The day had been pretty much like any other but as 7 pm approached, it was an empty and eerie sight. Those who were present say that the usually busy Slavija Square was deadly quiet and without a soul in sight except for a few policemen.  Slavija was. The streets around Slavija weren’t. They were absolutely packed with protesters.

Slavija Square, Belgrade, early 20th century.

At 7 pm, Leka, Vukica, Rifat, Radoje and Miloš came out to the center of Slavija Square. Rifat, the young and fiery law student was usually their spokesman and a great one at that. As he yelled out “Down with bloody war! Down with high prices! Down with terror!…” the protesters began to flood the Square. By God, it must have been an awesome sight. Police began regrouping, beating and arresting protesters. Many were injured and many killed. But it was too late. This began days of the most massive protests this region had ever seen. Protests began in other cities of the region and they changed the future and marked history. Mission accomplished.  When will the world learn that the fate of a nation lies on the shoulders of its children, its workers and its intellectuals?

The above is another amazing part of history that has simply been forgotten by most. So much so that as soon as the new democratic government came to power, a few years ago, the street where it all began was renamed from 14th December street to Cara Nikolaja II street. Not that anyone really noticed because most didn’t know why it carried the previous name in the first place. I wonder if the current government remembers how they themselves came to power in October of 2000. I wonder if they realize that, communist or democratic, they had a common goal. I wonder if they realize that they did the exact same thing 60 years later. December 14th marks the 70 year anniversary of the first massive democratic protests in Belgrade. I’ll be having myself a glass of wine around 7 pm and toasting anyone and everyone who took part in it. I hope you’ll join me.

Welcome to the Free Balkans: Croatian Damir Fintić May Be First Blogger in Europe to Be Jailed for Third Party Comments

“So what does this have to do with Belgrade and Serbia?” some of you may be asking. After the breakup of the former SR of Yugoslavia, what do Croatia and Serbia have to do with each other? Well, we speak the same language*, are in the same geographic region, innevitabley connected economically, both countries are leaning toward qualification for EU membership, we share many musical, cinematographic and cultural inetrests… Other than that, not much, I suppose. The fact is, after the mess that were the 90’s in the former Yugoslavia, generated mostly by decades of (for no real reason) unsolved internal problems and certain major figures in all countries of the former Yugoslavia, the people in this region have been connected through cultural similarities. Today, that bond seems to be growing and strengthening yet again and, although we all have our differences, our countries seem to be going through much of the same and our governements seem to be making similar mistakes in most areas.

Last year, Damir Fintić, a journalist and blogger from Vukovar and a Croatian, or rather European, citizen was sentenced by the justice system of the Republic of Croatia to either pay a fine in the amount of some 33,000 Euros in damages or serve 20 days in prison (Croatian Times Oct. 8th) for something that was writen on his privately owned and run website, Vukovarac.net. Something Mr. Fintić did not even write himself, but was posted in a comment on his blog by an anonymous visitor that he, as a moderator of his website, approved the posting of. Mr. Fintić’s income was frozen in the meantime and he has been unable to pay the fine and has refused the finances others have gathered and offered to donate for payment of this fine. (more details in PoliticsOnline article Oct. 7th) To him, generating an open forum on what could easily be construed as a public and even political matter in his democratic nation, is a matter of principle.

As Damir Fintić has not been able to pay the fine himself and is due to report to prison to serve the 20 day sentence instead by October 27th of this year. He will be the first European to be incarcerated for comments on a website or blog. His stay in prison will be paid for by the taxpayers of Croatia, in more ways than one. Both the Croatian Bloggers’ Organization and Croatian journalists have spoken up against this judiciary desicion, stating that it is in violation of basic human and civillian rights and the constitutional principles of the freedom of expression. (blogpost in Spanish)

I find the news of Mr. Fintić’s imminent incarceration infinitely disturbing not only as a blogger living in the region, but much more as a citizen of Europe and the free world. I was raised in the European Union and was taught that speaking one’s mind was a distinguished and honorable character trait if it was done with well researched arguments and a relative respect for the subject and person or persons one was speaking of. Personally, I don’t see how Mr. Fintić violated any of those basic principles of open rhetoric nor do I see how he could assume full responsibility for a comment made by a third party on his blog. The notions of progress and civilization seem to lose more of their meaning every day in the entire world and, lately, in this region especially. In fact, it’s just getting altogether ridiculous. When will logic and decency conquer petty arguments and law suits? Do we, as citizens of a modern, communicative. civilized world really need to come full circle for common sense to prevail?

*Croatian and Serbian dialects differ about as much British English and American English

Operation Halyard: Using History to Build Bridges Between Nations

Many things have been said of the Serbs as a nation throughout history. Of all these things, at least three most certainly stand to be true: we are stubborn, we don’t respond well to authority and we are always quick on our feet. If there’s a loophole, we’ll find it. And if there isn’t, we’ll make one. The greatest example of these characteristics is also the least known. Let me take you back to the summer of 1944, a pivotal year in the history of the world and one that saw over 500 airmen of the Allied forces kept alive and safe by the illiterate peasants of a mountain village in Serbia…

Somewhere around Gornji Milanovac and Pranjani during WWII

It’s late August of 1944 in Nazi occupied Serbia and the peasants have already sacrificed much of their already meager crop, setting time aside to build a hidden, improvised airstrip near the village of Pranjani on a mountain with an elevation of almost 500 meters. It was a heavy, humid summer with temperatures ranging from the low twenties to the mid thirties (Celsius) and the regular onset of thunderstorms didn’t help in their efforts. In other parts of the world, the Allies were preparing the biggest rescue mission ever. Yes, ever. Why haven’t you heard of it? Because it was planned and executed that well.

Over the years of the Nazi occupation throughout Europe, many airmen were downed during bombing, Intelligence and even rescue missions. Over 500 of them fell somewhere over central Serbia and survived. They practiced escape and evasion techniques until they reached either members of the courageous and friendly village populations or any of the resisting local troops. In cooperation with Allied forces, those same locals and troops organized an amazing feat: Operation Halyard. Operation Halyard was a massive Allied airlift operation behind enemy lines, the largest in history in fact. It was lead by General Draža Mihajlović and members of the American Office of Strategic Services and carried out by the General’s Chetnik guerillas and the Allied forces.

Statue of General Mihajlović in Illinois

Statue of General Mihajlović in Illinois

General Mihajlović kept his headquarters in the Gornji Milanovac and Pranjani region because, while he knew his men had good knowledge of and could conquer the rough mountain terrain, the Nazi troops couldn’t begin to fathom survival in this sort of foreign terrain. Both his troops and the downed airmen, mostly US Air Force, would be as safe as they could be here. This didn’t make Operation Halyard any easier however. The plan was to fly huge C-47 cargo planes and land them smack-dab in the middle of enemy territory during the most massive war the world had ever seen. They would then need time to load the airmen on board and fly out safely again, all from an improvised airstrip on the peak of a rugged mountain. The odds they too would be shot down were huge and the results – simply amazing. The cargo planes and those following came in and got out without any major glitches. The Operation was carried out between the months of August and December of 1944 and over 500 souls were home, safe and sound, for the new year that would bring so much change.

The real deal: Chetnik guerillas and Allied officers on the Pranjani airstrip, 1944.

The real deal: Chetnik guerillas and Allied officers on the Pranjani airstrip, 1944.

Today, testimonials of some of these survivors tell us of the warm hospitality they were afforded by those who didn’t even speak their language. A common goal against repression, occupation and worldwide mass murder made all barriers disappear – they were welcomed and cared for as one welcomes and cares for family.

In an Open Letter to US troops in the former Yugoslavia from over 500 MlAs saved by the Serbian people during World War II, Richard L. Felman, Major USAF (Ret) recalls: “While we were there, those of us who were wounded were given whatever medical supplies they had even at the deprivation of their own troops. If there was one piece of bread in the house, or one egg, it went to the American airmen while the Serb went hungry. If there was one bed or one blanket, it went to us while the Serb slept on the bare ground. No risk of sacrifice was too great to insure our safety and well being. One experience which is forever seared in my memory is the time a village with 200 women and children was burned to the ground by the Germans because the Serbs would not tell them where they were hiding us. To this day, I can smell the terrible stench of their burning flesh. One does not forget such things.”

Major Richard L. Felman on the Pranjani airstrip upon his return to Serbia in 1995

Major Richard L. Felman on the Pranjani airstrip upon his return to Serbia in 1995

Major Felman, who passed away in 1999, shortly after writing the above quoted letter, dedicated much of his life to tell the world of his lifesaving experience. Due to his great efforts, perhaps above and beyond the call of personal and moral duty, US President Harry S. Truman posthumously awarded General Draža Mihajlović with the US Legion of Merit award for his contribution to the Allied victory during World War II. This too was kept under wraps for political reasons, so as not to offend the then communist government of the former SFR of Yugoslavia, and General Mihajlović’s daughter, Gordana, finally accepted the award on her father’s behalf in 2005.

In 2007, Gregory A. Freeman wrote a very descriptive and compelling account of what is arguably still the greatest airlift rescue mission in history in his book  The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II. On August 15th of this year, Air Force Attache’ for the U.S. embassy in Serbia Lt. Col. John Cappello, soldiers of the U.S. military’s 1194th Engineer Company, and U.S. Marine Corps Security Guards from the U.S. Embassy attended the 65th anniversary of the Halyard Mission in Pranjani to pay tribute to the Serbs “who saved the lives of over 500 U.S. Airmen and Allies during World War II”. Daniel Sunter, the executive director of the Euro-Atlantic Initiative said, “We’re trying to build bridges between Serbia and the United States using history.” Yet, Operation Halyard was an event that bridged and forever intertwined several nations and hundreds of lives.

Review of The Forgotten 500 by Aleksandra Rebić

Review of "The Forgotten 500" by Aleksandra Rebić

My question is: Are we willing to wait another 65 years to learn of the great feats that are happening today? My answer is, plain and simple, loud and clear – NO. Please, remember to read the fineprint on the pages of History. It will make all the difference when you sign your contract with Time. To all those involved in the success of Operation Halyard – I personally salute you all for a mission well executed and a lesson learned. Thank you.

Serbia’s Image: Great PR Got Us Here, Great PR Should Get Us Out

Ok, so the title of this post is a little controversial and could even be misleading from a certain perspective. This is a personal blog so I get to do that (within reason) every once in a while. Got your attention didn’t it? And there is much truth to the statement. It should read: “Decades of bad politics and a few years of someone else’s great PR got us here, good politics and great PR from us should get us out”. I have mentioned time and again that I try to keep this blog away from politics but, let’s face it, separating Serbia from politics entirely is impossible. I’d have better luck solving the Israeli-Palestinian crisis single-handedly.

So, what exactly do I mean by the above statement? Just what it says. As the break up of what was the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia began in the early 90’s, one of the best public relations campaigns ever was being launched. As a matter of fact, it is considered the most successful campaign in the history of any U.S. PR firm by most PR and advertising experts. Diana Johnstone summarizes the feat well in her 2002 book Fool’s Crusade (Creating a Public Opinion): “On 7 July 1991… a major unilateral step was taken in the most decisive of all wars in Yugoslavia: the public relations war. On 12 August 1991, the Croatian government hired the American public relations firm Ruder Finn Global Public Affairs to ‘develop and carry out strategies and tactics for communication with members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate as well as with officials of the U.S. government including the State Department, the National Security Council and other relevant agencies and departments of the U.S. government as well as with American and international news media’.”

Smart cookies, if you ask me. Given the opportunity, I would’ve done no less. The politicians on all sides of this particular Balkan conflict had all been educated, in one way or another, in Tito’s Yugoslavia – a country that relied on public relations and propaganda like no other in the world. Tito’s Yugoslavia had not only managed to keep decent relations with both sides of the Iron Curtain, but was the only socialist country in the world to receive financial aid from both the U.S. and British governments, while holding on to the U.S.S.R.’s cooperation and promise of military and other aid. That took some quick thinking and smooth talking. In other words, it took some expert public relations know-how. Which is exactly why I find it so surprising that the Serbian leaders of the 90’s failed so greatly in the media war of their time. True, it was the first media war of this magnitude and perhaps importance but they had the expertise on hand and the funds to react immediately. They didn’t. Modern telecommunications and media were growing and developing like never before in the 1990’s. Anyone who had anything invested in the public opinion needed to move and learn fast. As has been the case with Serbia throughout history, a delayed and blazé reaction was the problem.  Too little, too late.

Once again, we are entering an era in which media and communication tools are developing at light speed. Yes, folks, this is just the tip of the iceberg and we are only beginning to find ways to use the technology we already have while new technology is being developed as we speak. We can’t even begin to imagine how the next generation will be using what we develop today. Will they even have to leave their home to go to work, or study or shop? What will their needs and wants as consumers be? How will they receive their daily dose of information? Will there be any need for print newspaper or physical retail spaces?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but living in Serbia, a country that has always been dedicated to being in step with the latest fashion, technology and trends (but not always able to afford it), I can tell you that we are moving into a completely new world. I can see the trends developing right here, especially in Serbia’s rural areas where modern tools of communication are all that the younger generations have to rely on for new trends, information or ordering and purchasing what they otherwise would not have available to them. From my layman’s perspective, I see the world a decade from now in a modern state of feudalism. I see consumers here and worldwide being divided and identified by their interests, by the websites they visit, socialize on, and do business with instead of by nationality, age groups or professional circumstances. Word-of-mouth was always and continues to be the most successful road to the formation of public opinion. Now there are just new, faster, perhaps better ways of using that.

I’m glad to see Serbia taking that step forward these days. Today I passed by a bus belonging to Belgrade’s public transportation system that was adorned from head to tyre in a well designed advertisement for one of Serbia’s most successful websites. This particular website doesn’t even sell anything other than a huge amount of advertising space and paid content and still they’re investing in one of the simplest and most efficient forms of advertising to “get the word out”. Many businesses in Serbia still don’t understand that one must invest money in order to make money. As a typical Serbian consumer and citizen, I’m hoping good PR will help in that area as well.  Screw the military. The questions on my mind, as a single working mother who plans on a future in this country for herself and her child, are:  will we be able to handle another major media war and will we be able to have a sustainable economy with viable modern businesses in the future?

Yesterday, in opening the first International Conference of the Public Relations Association of Serbia, aptly named Creating Image and Managing Reputation, Serbia’s Minister for Environment and Spatial Planning, Oliver Dulić said: “Serbia has lost its good image and the key problem is how to fix it.” Needless to say, the 90’s are over so no need to put a spin on those days anymore and I believe we have plenty to work with in a more positive light today. But there is work to be done. Glad to see the boys and girls of Serbia’s PR world are on board and working on current and future trends. I’m just hoping we can get the local consumers and the world on board too.

Autumn in Belgrade: So Much To Do, So Little Time

So much has been happening in this not-too-big, not-so-small city in South Eastern Europe that it’s been difficult to focus on just one thing. The days are getting shorter, the workdays longer and the news headlines more bleak. The summer of 2009 is over, done and gone. Here’s a short recap of its last days:

The Belgrade GLBT Pride Parade was cancelled at the last minute, Serbian athletes are back on track and achieving success, the EU is considering Serbian candidacy for entering the EU by the end of 2009 (not likely, believe you me), the Belgrade Zoo welcomed two more white Kruger lion cubs into the world (if that don’t make you feel warm and fuzzy all over, I don’t know what will), Serbia’s air carrier JAT’s mechanics had a long overdue hissy fit due to which flights were grounded untill yesterday, the Serbian government has decided to cut some 14 thousand jobs in the public sector to meet requirements for another IMF loan it has so eagerly been awaiting (They need the loan to create a better living standard and more jobs for Serbs… Huh? Wait. I’m confused…), and there’s no way I can wrap this up without mentioning Brice Taton, the 28 year old French Toulouse fan who was viciously beaten by football hooligans in Belgrade on September 17th and lost his life to those injuries just days later. The latter came as a huge shock to Belgrade as this is a city where one rarely hears of anyone getting mugged much less brutally beaten. Belgrade and France mourn Brice still but I’m afraid that, come this time next year, his name will be forgotten along with so many others.

Brice Taton

Brice Taton

Such is life in Belgrade. We learn to take the bad, find what good we can in it, and go about our daily business. The year has been pretty good to us so far, taking into consideration the state of the global economy, and the weather is still holding up. Another one of those mild Indian summers is just barely hanging on and I feel we’re just days away from a full fledged Belgrade Autumn. Although a typical Belgrade autumn can be tempermental and unpredictable, with rain, sunshine and even a bit of snow here and there, most Belgraders will tell you this is their favorite time of the year. Perhaps because this is when Belgrade shows its true colors, in all shades, light and dark.

October is the begining of the theatrical, concert and party seasons in Belgrade. Sure, we have the summer festivals and concerts all year round but, to be honest, we wait for all the tourists to leave to get the really good stuff out.  Within the next month and a half, Belgrade will play host to ZZ Top, Cesária Évora, Diana Krall, Tom Jones, Eros Ramazzoti, Simple Minds, Josipa Lisac, its very own Riblja Čorba, and that’s not counting those due to perform at the 24th Belgrade Jazz Festival beginning October 24th. That’s still not even the half of it. If your musical tastes are a tad more eclectic, don’t forget to check out what’s in store at the several venues of Belgrade’s SKC (Students’ Cultural Center). If you lean more toward the classical, then it’s the Kolarac Foundation Hall (home to the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra) you’ll be looking for.

Theatres in Belgrade are a whole story that deserve a post of their own and I promise to get around to that soon. Also, this is when many Belgrade nightclubs reopen after a long summer’s rest. My personal favorite is Bitef Art Cafe where I’ll, once again, be a regular on Tuesdays and the occassional Saturday. In the meantime, I’m hoping we can put some of the recent bad news and vibes behind us, while remembering the people and lessons involved. Welcome to an incomparable and unparalleled Belgrade Autumn. Enjoy!

Smoking in Serbia: “Protection Instead of Prohibition”

This past Tuesday evening I dropped by the “Protection Instead of Prohibition” initiative party at Cantina de Frida on the new Belgrade side of town. Although Germany seems to top the ‘highest number of smokers in Europe’ list, Serbia can’t be far behind. The Ottomans were notorious for their smoking habits and a large part of Serbia was under Ottoman rule for over 500 years so it all does make sense. Belgrade is also famous for its social and night life.However, in keeping pace with the rest of Europe, the Serbian government has been passing laws on banning smoking in recent years. The latest one, banning smoking in cafes, restaurants and other similar venues is currently being discussed, critisized and revised by many. The organized initiative “Protection Instead of Prohibition” is looking to find a compromise that will leave both smokers and non-smokers happy and able to enjoy each others company in public places.

Frida atmosfera

Several prominent figures in Serbia have again stepped up for a democratic and fair decision in the matter and have shown their support for the initiative. These include the Serbian Society of Literary Authors and several actors, musicians, an other public figures. Among those showing their support at the party, was one of Serbia’s favorite actors, Mima Karadžić, who was bright and sociable, cigar in hand, once again confirming his reputation of being a man’s man.

Mima Karadžić

Mima Karadžić

I also ran into another Serbian actor and one of my professors from the Academy of the Arts, Ivan Bekjarev, a non-smoker but ready and able to support any fair initiative or cause.

Ivan Bekjarev

Ivan Bekjarev

I’d like to point out that, although I am a smoker, I agree with banning smoking in certain places and/or events. Those would include hospital zones, school zones, and government institutions and similar buildings. The list would, however, exclude cafes, clubs, bars, restaurants and other venues for social interaction. It wouldn’t be fair to smoke out the non-smokers among us, yet it would be just as unfair to deem smokers personae non gratae at social events. Wise are the words of “Protection Instead of Prohibition” – areas designated for smokers or smoking and non-smoking sections would be the right middle ground to go for.

Bend 1

The matter of a smoking ban isn’t so much about one’s rights as it is, plain and simple, about the practical effect it has on the economy.When smoking was banned in cafes, bars and restaurants in New York City in 2003, these businesses saw huge losses immediately. The results weren’t too different in the Netherlands when the same ban was passed last year and, having little choice, many have resorted to opening smokeeasy cafes throughout the country, finding they are better off paying the occassional fine when caught than losing customers. Germany has passed several smoking bans over the last few years, but either provides for the possibility of obtaining permission for smoking sections or, in some regions, simply does not implement the bans. France has also passed an entire set of laws, yet entirely excluded cafes, restaurants and similar venues from these bans. Considering that both anti-smoking laws and smoking itself are nothing new, we should look to the prior experiences of other countries and the current statistics realted to smoking in Serbia for guidance. With both a global and a local economic crisis still in bloom, bans and restrictions, when we are prepared to dish out a few bucks for the pleasure of spending a night on the town with friends, are the last thing we need.

Serbian vampires: They Don’t Sparkle. They Glow.

I only got a couple of hours of sleep and woke up at an ungodly hour, again. I went out to get breakfast around 6 AM and had another one of those “God, I love this town,” moments as I stepped out into the already vivid streets on this chilly morning. Within 15 minutes, I was back at my desktop, Turkish style morning coffee in hand, reading through my personalized Google news and Google reader. As the sun came up over the city that truly never sleeps, I ran into this blog post about an early 20th century blood sucking boogie man in Belgrade. Or rather, a vampire.

Curious as I am and with nothing better to do this early in the morning, I go on a little Google powered vampire hunt. Turns out Count Vlad himself may have left a few decendants in this region. First I need to explain that Serbs are quite a superstitious nation. Really superstitious. People here have spent centuries concocting ideas that could raise the dreadlocks on a Jamaican voodoo priest’s head. This is the only place on Earth where you can actually be killed by a draft if you sit too close to an open window in mid July.  And you wouldn’t take hours or days to develop some illness and then croak. No, you’ll drop dead right then and there, any Serbian woman over 60 will tell you that.  So I’m wondering why I haven’t heard of all the vampires that seem to be occupying the region. Not only that, but why am i only now finding out that linguists have accepted that the very word “vampire” comes from the old Serbian “бампир” or “лампир” even though there are some three other possible etymological explanations?

In Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia & Heryegovina and other countries in the region, the definition of what a vampire was seemed to differ from the generally accepted one throughout the world. Sometime at the beginning of the 20th century, Harry de Windt included an entire section in his book “Through Savage Europe” and extensive explanations as to the superstitions and strange beliefs of people in this region. He writes:

“In Herzegovina a vampire is said to be the soul of a dead man, which leaves his grave at night-time to suck the blood of its living victim. I was told quite seriously that when one of these monsters was exhumed near Belgrade it showed every sign of life, and was sleeping and breathing as peacefully as the man had done before his death, a century before ! This occurred thirty years ago, and according to custom the corpse was decapitated, and a stake driven through the body, which was then burnt – the grave being purified with water and vinegar.”

People here believed that these were lost souls who came back after death. They also believed that this breed of blood sucking walking dead needed to return to the grave every now and then to rest and avoided sunlight because of their appearance. However, if more than 30 years passed and they were not disposed of in the manner described by de Windt, they no longer needed to return to the grave and took on an appearance identical to other living human beings, able to walk in open daylight and often marrying the living and producing offspring.

Picture by Kate3078 @ deviantart.com

Picture by Kate3078 @ deviantart.com

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of vampires. I love a good vampire as much as I love the other blood sucking, living dead humanoids that walk this not so green Earth. I’m just saying that the superfluous superstitions of this region may have gone a little too far a long while ago. Then again, the existence of a particular breed of undead indigenous to this region would explain all the pale faces and the action going on in Belgrade every night. And, no – we don’t sparkle in the sunlight. We glow in the dark.