A Bridge Too Far

Jagodina (central Serbia, pop. 50.000), April 21st this year, noon. A crowd of over a hundred is gathered near one of many narrow old pedestrians-only bridges over the Belica river. A person who, although bearing absolutely no physical resemblance to me, happens to be my brother and is standing in front of them trying to give a speech under the blazing sun.

I’m in a different part of the town at the time, learning about Hook’s Law of Elasticity, but from what I could hear from my brother rehearsing the night before, I can pretty much recreate in my head what’s happening out there while I’m drawing a force/length diagram on the blackboard.

‘Friends and comrades, fellow citizens, ladies and gentlemen, members of the ‘Resistance’, welcome to the grand opening of the Belica bridge,’ he starts. People are a bit surprised to hear a ‘comrades’ communist welcome, but are then reassured they came to the right place, hearing the ‘Resistance’ being mentioned.

‘Before the tape is cut, let’s give a big applause to the people who laid the foundation stone for this amazing four-lanes bridge more than two years ago, but who, because of their modesty, gave us the honour of opening it for use.’

Again, the crowd doesn’t know what to make of the speech. They do sense the irony of it, but are not sure whether they should really applaud or boo, like they do any other time ‘those people’ are mentioned. So they just keep silent. My brother continues with his speech, not so sure anymore that the people will understand all the sarcasm in it:

‘It’s not only modesty that stopped them from coming here, but also the fact that there are so many more foundation stones to be laid across this great country of ours. We are all happy they keep laying them, keeping the quarries working triple shifts for many years to come. Why plant crops? Hail falls and destroys them, a flood comes and washes them away. Stones last forever!’

Apparently, they do get it, if all the cheering and laughter that can be heard is any measure.

‘Thank you for sharing with us the joy of this momentous occasion and showing to our builders that we are still following every move they make, and that we will never forget what they have done for, to, and in the name of, us.’

Once again, a cheer and an applause. My brother moves to make room for another speaker, but not before the tape is cut to open, or re-open I should say, that pedestrian bridged under which a foundation stone was laid two years ago for a four-lanes traffic one. Another ‘Resistance’ performance well done.

I first heard of the ‘Resistance’, or ‘Otpor’, as it’s called in Serbian, more than a year ago, when they had one of their first performances – throwing shoes at the Federal parliament building and painting red footprints on the streets of Belgrade. The first opinion I had of them was not a very good one – the words ‘brain dead’ come to mind. Their symbol was a clenched fist, their colour was black, they were all fresh out of, or still in, high school.

Maybe I don’t know how to overthrow a government, but I certainly know how it’s not done, and practically stamping ‘Hitler’s Youth’ on your forehead, thus giving the government and RTS plenty of ammo to shoot at you, probably tops my Not-To-Do list.

And for once the government and I sort of felt the same. RTS didn’t even use all that ammunition the ‘Resistance’ left it, opting to leave the public to decide for itself on whether the so-called student movement is just a handful of neo nazis, or a mislead group of young people residing on the payroll of some foreign agencies. They were neither, of course, and I knew that. But I also knew that abstract actions like the above mentioned shoe throwing campaign wouldn’t motivate the simple people of Serbia to make a move against the government. Then the war came, people had much more important things on their mind than kicking Sloba out of power, and ‘Otpor’ laid low for six months.

At the end of the whole Kosovo ordeal, only a small number of people in Belgrade knew of it or had seen it in action, and the more provincial parts were totally unaware of what was about to hit them. ‘Hit’ is probably to strong a word to describe what happened. It was gradual, actually. First you’d hear something about ‘Resistance’ activists in Belgrade being arrested, molested or beaten up by younger members of the government coalition parties, SPS, JUL and SRS. Then the same thing would happen in other, smaller cities. And for every ‘Otpor’ action that was interrupted, there were two successful ones.

For every activist that was beaten up or in jail, five more would join. Pretty soon every town in Serbia was swarming with young men and women in black shirts with a fist in front, right? Well, not really. They were more covert. A few posters here and there, a few stickers glued to the doors of public buildings and schools, and just a couple of low key performances aimed at students and intellectuals.

The first time I came in direct contact with the movement was when my very own brother brought a couple of ‘Otpor’ pocket calendars and badges to the house, to be handed around school. Then he brought some more calendars, then some posters, and after that he surprised us all saying he’ll be giving a speech at a ‘Resistance’ performance. You’ve already read the outcome.

What turned a disorganised group of students into a movement maybe most feared by the government? The government itself. After the bombing they were frightened of everything threatening their claim to power, and the fear of youth was one of the greatest ones. That led to ‘Otpor’ activist getting beaten up, foreign agencies noticing the movement and giving it money, enabling it to spread around to cities other than the capital, gaining support, respect, even admiration, in the process.

But what do I make of them now? Well, although progressing quite a bit from my first ‘brain dead’ evaluation they’re still not the thing to kick Sloba out, only a not too well organized gear in the greater opposition machinery they’d like to distance themselves from. Moral support? Definitely. Respect? Perhaps. Admiration? Most certainly not.