Well, well, well... After 10 years of life in Serbia under Milosevic's reign, I kind of tended to think that he is going to continue with his semi-dictatorship forever. After all the wars, sanctions, all the unspeakable troubles that we went through, everybody who was against such policy (which was observed not only as a policy, but also as a "frame of mind") was thinking that we were sentenced to life-long struggle... During the Yugoslav presidential elections, this September, it seemed that things were going to change, simply because most of the people have learned already about most of the methods that Milosevic has been using to manipulate and fake the elections... Because of the very wide campaign by several non-government organizations and some of the opposition parties, people took notice of the mechanics of the electoral system in general, and the ways that somebody like Milosevic could (miss) use it.
On the top of it all, it was important that a non-hierarchy and half-illegal organization called Otpor (The Resistance) came on the scene when the oppression of the government against the independent scene became almost unbearable -- especially during and after the NATO bombing campaign... Otpor was initially a student's organization, and it started to spread as an underground movement lead by the young people, who tried to work against the ignorance and apathy of their parents. Only later we learned that Serbs had a learned the lesson from their children, and that most of the people were enraged by all the arrests of the Otpor members prosecuted by Milosevic's police.
Anyway, it turned out that the opposition parties and their leader Kostunica were leading on the elections held at September 24st, even despite all the manipulations and thefts of the Milosevic's government... Almost everybody was aware that Milosevic was not going to give up his power, but when his Electoral Commission manipulated the election results by adding fake votes in order to at least bring Milosevic into the second round of the elections, people went mad. Suddenly, a new wave of protests spread over Serbia, which lead to the general strike. All the main roads in almost every city and every town were blocked, most of the institutions and shops and schools closed. When the large anti-government protest was announced yesterday, the idea was to gather people from all the towns all over Serbia right in the center of Belgrade -- everybody knew that, if the critical mass was reached, the opposition leaders would take some action, but nobody was sure which form is it really going to take.
So, that morning Gordana and I got into our Fiat 126 (that's one of the smallest kinds of car in the world, I guess, and it was produced in Zastava factory, which was bombed by NATO last spring), and we went to Belgrade joining a long line of cars and buses from Pancevo and all the neighboring towns... We saw a lot of smiling people, mad with enthusiasm, some of them in overcrowded rotten old buses, barely moving after years of the sanctions. Some of the old cars simply broke on the way to Belgrade, and people stopped to help them fix them and keep them going somehow... We also saw a lot of people who went to Belgrade on their bicycles or motorbikes. Some even came on foot, and there were countless Otpor flags (white fist pictured on a black background), and their "Gotov je" (He's Finished) stickers and banners, which were everywhere -- on the cars, and even on the people's clothing... Everybody was honking, or making just any kind of noise... We heard about the barricades by the police's anti-protest squad, and we wondered if they are going to clash with the people who were obviously enraged and ready to do anything to accomplish what they aimed... There was information on the radio that morning about the vans which were placed by the police right on the middle of the road, but it was hard to get any information about what was happening at the front of the long line of cars. We tried to use Gordana's cell phone, but it seemed that the whole system was blocked, because everybody was trying to call everybody else... Anyway, at one moment we passed a line of fully equipped policemen, who just stood on the side of the road, looking mean, but not very aggressive. How did they let us pass?
When we entered Belgrade, it seemed obvious that EVERYBODY was going in the direction of the National Assembly, and when we reached the place, there was an endless sea of people; I really wasn't able to guess the number... Hundreds of thousands, probably... They were in the prospects and streets in the surroundings, too. And while among the crowd, it was barely possible to hear a person next to you speaking, and only then we realized that when so many people are standing next to each other they are producing a very loud roar... In fact, never before had I seen so many humans gathered on one place at the same time... One of the problems was that leaders of the protest were using improvised amplifiers, so it was hard to understand what they were really saying... Most of the people were just walking around the streets in the center, trying to feel the atmosphere and meet their friends. At one moment, Gordana and I heard some noise, but we were in the group of people that was too far away from the improvised "stage," and we tried to come closer to see what was going on. Then the unarticulated voice of the crowd began to sound furious, we heard shots and saw a large white smoke -- it was a tear gas. Was it the police trying to break the demonstrations? We came closer to the place, just to see that everybody was trying to run away from the smoke, and our eyes were hurting -- the wind was blowing very hard, and it distributed tear gas in many directions. People looked enraged, but they had to withdraw to side streets.
While trying to recover and go back to see what was going on in front of the National Assembly, we didn't know that we were falling into "trap": there were policemen, in civilian clothes, who were throwing a tear gas from the residential houses in the neighborhood. People were swearing them, but the policemen were on the top floors, out of reach... We had to change our direction again, and this time we were really discouraged -- it seemed like Milosevic's police has done it again, they broke the demonstrations of these people desperately fighting for their rights... We went to Hilandarska Street, trying to come to the National Assembly from another direction, when there was a sound of shooting and we saw a large group of policemen with shields and helmets and long night sticks running our direction. "This is cool, will you take a picture of me in front of the squad?" asked Gordana. Policemen didn't look as they are going to stop, and I was sure that they were going to fire tear gas in our direction, so I just pushed that crazy woman into a group of people who were sneaking into the hall of a near-by apartment house.
Suddenly, it was all quiet, and some of the residents came to offer us help and give us a shelter in their apartments... A group of 5 or 6 people looked worried, they came from some distant towns and probably had to deal with several police brigade blockades on the road just to reach Belgrade, their eyes were aching because of the tear gas, and it seemed that everything is doomed again. After some time, we came out of the hall, just to see that there were different groups of protesters, trying to figure out what was actually going on... Cell phones were still not functioning, and we went to the Square of the Republic, where we heard some people screaming "We won!". Others said that police has gave up. We were really suspicious, because we had mostly seen people running away from the police, and it was really frustrating... Then we heard a crowd cheering, and decided that maybe it was time to go to the center of the protest -- we met some friends, and went there, just to see that everything was more or less quiet again, even though it was still possible to sniff the tear gas when the wind was blowing... We saw some people posing with the pieces of police gear, which brought us to the conclusion that it was probably a souvenir from a battle or something... As we were coming to the National Assembly, everybody seemed happy, and some people told us that, in fact, it was the protesters who were winning. They broke inside the Assembly building, and pushed out police squad that was hiding inside! They said that the group of the policemen that we saw running and firing tear gas was actually RUNNING OUT from the people who were chasing them! Was it possible?
Somebody said that people took over National TV, with a bulldozer! The National Assembly was burning, there were burnt remains of police cars around, but there was nobody able to tell us what really happened -- everybody knew just a fragment of the story. We saw people breaking windows and throwing out papers from the National Assembly, some were even taking chairs or any other stuff for souvenirs... I didn't like the destruction,
even though people were obviously full of anger and desperation, and they seemed ready to do just anything.... We went to see part of the building of National TV on fire -- it looked surreal at night... In the same neighborhood there was a police station that looked ruined, with kids laughing and taking out police gear out of it... We were confused by what we saw, but we had hopes that at least Milosevic is not going to use the army...
We went back to Pancevo, and when we saw that National TV was transmitting the program by the opposition (or ex-opposition) we knew that it was THAT moment -- the moment that we had been waiting for through the past 10 years! It was only on the news when we realized that police has actually gave up and joined the people who were fighting Milosevic... On a personal level, it was a ridiculous end of an era. We were there, watching it, and we didn't even realize that it was going on! We started to jump around and scream only when we came back home, and when the media told us about the facts... Well, that's modern age, I suppose? It was obvious, of course, that most of the people from the police and army have already decided to turn their back to Milosevic, and the whole incident in front of the National Assembly was just a thing that made it visible, and then everything started to unwind.
We heard that many people were injured, which seemed almost inevitable in that situation...Two people were killed, too, one of them in an accident, and the other of heart attack. If it all ends on that, it seems that it was a peaceful overthrown of the system of semi-dictatorship that we witnessed in Serbia... Even though people here lived through many bloody and violent and dramatic events, they successfully brought a change by a peaceful means... It will not bring an end to all the troubles, but it was a step that is changing our perspective. That's something!
Sasa Rakezic alias Aleksandar Zograf