In the train from Belgrade to Nish in the compartment I was with a retired architect, a woman in her late 60s. Her daughter had started work in some agency in Sofia and later married there. It was the 21st of december and she told me she usually travels around this time or even closer to Christmas and the train gets quite empty. I felt myself as travelling to the Christmas holidays. We were one of the last ones to be still outside in the cold and the fallen snow, everyone had already disappeared in their warm and celebrational family homes.
We felt like we are hurrying to ours after an extra christmas duty at work, like the town's toy-makers, finishing the last toys for those late fathers.
She had travelled alot before and it was interesting how, as an archtect, she compared cities not by the usual criteria of tourists, but by her specialist senses. For me Prague was unappealing, too grand and touristy, for her it was Golden Prague of the buildings.
Here I will give you our conversation about the war, I guess it will be most interesting for you.
Years back there was this very nice minibus service. The driver will collect the passengers from their houses in Beograd and straight to Sofia. There he will take you to the address that you want. Very nice but it disappeared a few years back. I am making this trip every year to see my daughter for Christmas. After that they come to me in Beograd for New Year. Eh, with train is so much slower, and all these smugglers...
I remember during the bombings I was the only passenger, alone in the car with the driver. We were just outside Nis when the air alarm was given! The driver pulled off (the roads in those times were empty too), he was completely stunned "What do we do now??? Stay here or drive away?"
We saw the planes in sky.
- You saw the planes!?
Yes, yes, we saw them flying over us. You couldnt see the bombs and those, how do they call them?...
But they were making very high piercing noise and then we`d see the huge flameball in the city. We were just above the city and would see everything! I urged the driver to keep going, keep driving. Can you imagine - you dont know what to do in such situation.
Some time after the war I met him again on the same trip and he greeted me "You were so brave then! I was like a stunned rabbit!" I replied I was dead-scared too! Just his fright was to stay on place, and my fright was to run, he-he-he!
- I guess the best thing to do is to leave the bus and run away in the field? I remember on TV they bombed some bus with albanians.
I think was on a bridge that they were bombing...
It is horrible not to see the enemy! I remember three bombings of Beograd. First by the germans in 1941, then in 1943 by the americans - I was a child then - about 10 years old, and now again. We used to run to the bomb shelters when the planes are coming. But now it is not only planes! With those guided... you just hear them ..."the projectiles", yes, i think this is the name they used on TV, and you cannot do anything. You just sit at home, dont go to the streets, and pray it is not your house but someone elses.
So they tell us we are at war. But where is the enemy? You cant see it! Somewhere in Italy, in the sea. You know, it is very unpleasant not to be able to see your enemy, you have an enemy but you cannot reach it and cannot see it, you cannot hurt it. What kind of war is that?!
But the americans had so much information! I live in ... (some quarter in Beograd). It is on the slope of a hill and right across is a big oil depot. I was waiting for the night they will drop a bomb on it but they didnt. Later I was told it was emptied before the war. So they knew everything very well. Then, I know one guy who used to work in the refinery of Beograd. He told me in that complex there is one very dangerous chemical, that if they bomb it, not Serbia but the whole peninsula will be gone - very poisonous chemical! So they started burning it a few weeks before the war in the plant`s furnaces. And he told me, it was some weeks after the war started when they were putting already the last lot in the furnaces. The dangerous job is finished and he said to his colleagues "I go out to have a cigarette". And then the rockets came and blasted away the whole plant!
So they waited until the last lot and then bombed. The guy survived because he went out for a cigarette - he had only injuries on both his legs. The other guys from his shift were all gone. So they had very good information of what was in that plant! And exactly when that chemical was to be burnt off!
In Nish boarded, with alot of heavy breathing, jostling of boxes and large bags and gentle shouts to each other and in general to the happy world, a man and a wife, about 50 or 60. Very energetic, wide and talkative, soon we knew everything about them. Some minutes before the train was scheduled to set off, the man's battle with himself, which was surfacing in a repeating motif "hey, woman, I am too thirsty, I cant stay like that, I will go out to drink", finally was decided and he hurried out of the compartment. Despite all her vigourous shouts after him she didnt make the impression of being too worried. When he escaped out of her range, restlessly drinking from the water fountain outside, she redirected her outpour to us, without decreasing the decibels: "Ah, let him stay here, let him miss the train to see what he's going to do! I cannot care about this man anymore! He is like a child! Look at him, please! Thinks only of his thirst! Now the train will set off and he will have to run after it! The fool!"
Within five minutes of the journey and of our conversation, they stated "Ah, we are gypsies, we are not ashamed to say this straight! But do not think something, we are honest people, working people! We have put up three houses, one ours, one for each son and daughter-in-law! The smallest son is not married yet. I have worked in construction for 30 years, first here in the villages, then I was long time in Beograd. When the crisis started we went to Russia, I was in one town behind Ural, while my woman was selling newspapers in Moscow!"
"We are now going to visit one of the sons, and we bring some peppers and onions and others and from the pig. We bought a good size of land for a garden now that my man is retired, and we grow everything. We pull everything out of the earth ourselves! It is heavy work! It makes you sweat alot, but it is good work, it keeps you healthy and going! Look how fat I am!" The granma architect responded in spirit "Indeed good work and good food, makes you enjoy life well and makes you strong and wide! I bet you are a marvellous cook!" The husband: "Yes, yes, she is a magnificent cook, she cooks all day! One licks the plate after her food! And you are right, being fat is good when it comes not from laziness, look at me, he-he-he!"
When the conductor came it turned out they have no tickets. They were late for the train, etc. Surprisingly, he wanted them to pay the official higher price (it is like a penalty) instead of taking for himself the normal price without issuing a ticket. The two were quite agitated "Boss, how could we pay this!? We are pensioners after all!" After some minutes of argument he moved on to next compartment. "How could he want to sell the tickets so expensive!? What have we done!? Please, man, go after him and see what you can do!" "Ay-ay-ay, why is he like that!? Maybe I should follow him and try again? But, no I cant do that!" "Please, go after him, take some money for a coffee and catch him by the end of the vagon! Surely, you will understand each other?" "Yes, yes, this is very bad! Why is he so much by the book? Ok, ok, ok, I should go and talk to him again!" Collecting his courage the man walked out of the compartment.
A few minutes later he came back triumphant and said "Ah, he is a fine man after all! Everything is settled, he has been afraid from our guest here [me], he thought he is from the West and didnt want to sell us tickets in front of him, he-he-he!" Further, they told us the following story:
"When we were coming back from Russia the first time it was during the wars [the Bosnian and the Croatian], in the greatest crisis here, you remember, when the salaries were a few deutsche-marks per month! We were with all our luggage from the train from Moscow so we hurried straight to the train we had take from Beograd, we didnt buy tickets in the station! We pleaded to the conductor to let us in, he was like "you cant do like this, there is order, where are your tickets", at the end we gave him 5 DM and he was "all right, all right, get up, but next time buy your tickets at the station!" and he hurried away. But throughout the journey he kept visiting our compartment, the poor guy! "Listen, you wouldnt tell anybody right!? This is LOTS of money you gave me!" He was so worried, of course! 5DM here was the amount of two months salary at that time!"
Me and the granma architect were curious how they managed to earn so much money, enough for several houses and land and more! His reply was he didnt drink in Russia, and he didnt waste money on women and prostitutes as the other yugoslav workers did. And his wife worked also, in Moscow, selling newspapers on a stall in the metro, she had a very kind boss. She [the owner of the stall] would let her keep all proceeds of newspapers she sold overtime. One day there was a murder at her metro stop, some of the chechens [or some other caucasians] killed one boy, it was something about their business. That day she went to her boss'es house very scared. She told her, "don't worry, just dont mess in their business. And if the militzioneri [policemen] come to ask you about it, you havent seen anything, it will be alright!" I asked why not report to the police? "Because the police one day is here, the next is gone. But tomorrow the chechens will be back there and you wouldnt want to have something to do with it." But her boss was very kind and offered her to sell on a table in another part of the city. The architect woman: "Mm, you are very prudent people, very wise to invest your money so well, when you came back, and to build such good fortune! How are the sons? Do they keep adding and building to what you have done?" "Ah, is not so, is not so. But they took nasty wives, we dont like them! They control our sons and only use them to spend our fortune. They dont want to work or to save but only get new caprices! And the sons cant get away from their magic! I think after we pass away everything will get dispersed. We are not happy with the daughters-in-law! Our youngest son is our hope, that he will see his brothers error and get a decent and working woman!"
After the exciting couple stepped down, it was high time for the typical Balkan suspicion to anyone that's gained wealth: "He-he, how do you get three houses being a construction worker in Russia? I work in construction, right? and I've visited colleagues in Czech Republic and in Germany. I know how little they pay to our boys. But it is true that the young girls are waiting just outside the sites, to take their money!" "By not drinking and paying for prostitutes they saved for three houses, if it was so easy lots of people would have three houses now!" "Who knows what kind of unclean business they were doing in Russia! But beautiful people, nevertheless! Good for them!"
- I saw those billboards in Novi Sad from the Croatian government and OSCE: a picture of those "EU-rebuilt" houses in the mountains [exactly as ive seen them in Lika - with our typical unfinished red bricks look, one wonders how the germans did it!] and a group of very balkan-looking people on a table in front, i dont remember, drinking rakija and playing cards i guess. Very homy picture indeed. With big title "Croatia is a home for all of its citizens!". I was quite surprised that the Croatians demonstrate such goodwill! Are people returning?
Hmm, I dont believe it. Hatred is still too strong or our fear at least. When ours go to holidays in Croatia they drive to Hungary and take a plane from there - it is funny. [Serbia and Croatia have a common border in the north] But people say if they see a serbian number plate you have lots of problems.
- The traffic police? I know the serbian ones are bastards to bulgarian cars, for example. Always stop them and ask for stuff.
All sorts. They might burn your car. Now, I dont know how true is this or is it just a rumour, but people are afraid. They might be perfectly fine people but it is enough to have a few vandals there... A few years back some guys were murdered. It will take time, lots of horrible things happened, and it will be difficult to heal... I saw the other day on TV about that guy of theirs, and the Hague... Ante Gotovina [he was just arrested somewhere in Spain]. So many fanatic people... Do they show that in England?
- Oh, yes. Not that much of course. But in Croatia he is a national hero - ive seen the posters and billboards there. I think the government must be very happy he was arrested outside of the country. Otherwise, if the responsibility was theirs the parliament probably wouldve been stormed by the people.
Belgrade - Nish - Dimitrovgrad,