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Postcards from Belgrade


By David Lewis
Photos by Chris Steele-Perkins

Fantasy flourishes in Serbia and Montenegro—lands that were part of what was called Yugoslavia before a bloody civil war splintered the region and Slobodan Milosevic began his thuggish military rule. Milosevic helped create this fantasy world, running what’s been described as a "television dictatorship" —using the state’s virtual monopoly over mass media to push ham-handed and effective propaganda, stoking the nationalist flames used to bring war to Serbia’s neighbors

Belgrade, 2004
Jelena Karleusa with
her bodyguards.
and former siblings.
     Milosevic’s rule brought hyperinflation, international sanctions, and violence. State institutions including the police and judiciary were corrupted. The average income plummeted, the economy was destroyed, and Yugoslavia, the Communist world’s most culturally vivacious and economically free society, was left in tatters.
     Yet even now with Milosevic on trial in The Hague for war crimes and the truth about Serbian–perpetrated horrors exposed by a new independent media—experts here think the majority of Serbs don't believe (or don’t want to believe) their forces did anything wrong. Most just don’t want to know what the rest of the world knows: that thousands of Bosnians were massacred in Srebrenica; that Serbs ran an ethnic–cleansing campaign in Kosovo—that rape camps were organized; that Dubrovnik was shelled; and that snipers aimed at civilians
during the long siege of Sarajevo.
     “We are in limbo ... still in a conspiratorial, paranoid stage,” says Stojan Cerovic, a columnist for the weekly news magazine Vreme (Time) and one of the fathers of independent journalism in Serbia. “People are still saying NATO bombed us because everyone hates the Serbs, not because the Serbs did anything wrong.”
“We are in limbo...still in a conspiratorial, paranoid stage”       I’m sitting across the table from the self–described “Madonna of the Balkans”, ethno–pop star Jelena Karleusa, and she asks me the question I’ve been dreading: “What did you think of my show?“
     The previous night, I’d watched her strut across the stage, squeezed into a red feather bikini, lip–synching a song that began with heavy breathing. Jelena had just won the “Personality of the Year” award at the Oskar Popularnosti show here in Belgrade, an event modeled after the Oscars, complete with gold statuettes for the winners.
     I pause cautiously before answering Karleusa. She has friends in high places. I’d heard that her father was until recently the senior police official in charge of investigating organized crime, and that an ex–boyfriend was a gangster who died in a hail of Kalashnikov fire. I glance at her fiancé (now husband), Bojan Karic, the nephew of the biggest
local tycoon, who made his fortune by combining smart entrepreneurship with close relationships to Milosevic and his successors. He’s smoking a fat Cohiba. Karleusa’s future uncle–in–law also happens to be running for president (unsuccessfully, as it later turns out—he lost).      
Three hulking security guards hover behind me.      
I answer vaguely: “You were ... are ... uh, unique!”
     Like many celebrities, Karleusa is full of herself. But she’s friendly as she brags about her accomplishments, speaks of her plan to become a star outside the Balkans, and notes that Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears are major influences. As for her rather untraditional (for Serbia) deployment of sex appeal, Karleusa defends it: ”It’s normal to talk about mass graves but not to wear short skirts.   
      “I can't feel my arms or legs anymore,” says Ivan*, a heroin addict and patient at Zavod za Bolesti, a government–run rehab hospital in Belgrade. Half his teeth have been reduced to rotting black stubs. His skin is gray, his arms, legs, and swollen feet pocked with track marks from the heroin and methadone injections he’s been giving himself for over a decade. He has Hepatitis C, which is difficult to cure. &rdquoI felt better on heroin ... I was not in this world. It was nicer than my normal life. There was no thinking or thoughts.“      In Serbia, heroin use—along with Hepatitis C from sharing needles—is skyrocketing, as is the use of marijuana and club drugs like methamphetamine and Ecstasy. But heroin is the substance causing the most alarm among public–health officials. Serbia, like many of its neighbors, was slow to pick up the illicit–drug habit—an average drug confiscation in the mid–’80s yielded a mere kilo

Belgrade, 2004
Ivan in rehab.
or two (about two to four pounds)—due in part to the once relatively impermeable borders separating Communist Bloc countries. By 2003, police raids reached an all–time high. The total 189 kilos (417 pounds) of heroin seized by Serbian authorities in the first half of 2003 exceeds the amount seized in the entire previous seven years.
     Under Milosevic, Zemun, Belgrade’s most powerful drug gang, joined forces with the infamous Red Berets (Milosevic's own vicious long arm of the law). In 2002, Zemun was thought to control about 80 percent of Belgrade’s drug trafficking, and about 50 percent of the heroin trade. After Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, elected in 2001, threatened to crack down on drug cartels, he was shot dead while leaving his office. During the police roundups in the months after the 2003 assassination, so many Zemun dealers were arrested that Serbia experienced a severe diminution of illegal drugs,
and the price of cocaine briefly spiked to €100 (US$124) a gram. Desperate addicts mobbed rehabilitation centers, others staged raids on pharmacies. But a mere two months after the shortage began, smaller gangs had picked up much of Zemun’s business, and heroin was once again flooding the market. Some groups on trial for making synthetic narcotics apparently have ties to the police, and there is still intermingling between the government and the gangster elements Milosevic empowered.
     (Even Djindjic used his connections with the gangs and the secret police when he was first rising to power. “A man must have friends in both heaven and hell,” he said the summer before he was killed.) “Wars were good for the black-market organizers,” says Mathias Eick of the Belgrade office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
     As for Ivan, he insists this is his last trip to rehab.
He wants his elderly parents, who’ve stood by him all these years, to “die knowing I am clean and have a normal life.” But the chief of the hospital later tells me that’s also what he said during rehab trip number seven.   

*Name has been changed
“I am like Robin Hood. I am a man of the people. I am an idol for how young men can live.”       Kristijan Golubovic, the man who describes himself proudly as Serbia's “last Don,” slowly backs his late–model BMW into his space in front of a Soviet–gray apartment building.
      Just a few years ago, operators like Kristijan were making fortunes off guns, drugs, cigarettes, and other goods looted from towns in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. But after Djindjic’s assassination, they’re lying pretty low; at least 10,000 such gangsters (in a country of only 10.8 million) were rounded up and jailed after the killing.
     A couple of young guys with crew cuts jump out of the BMW. Then the man himself slowly emerges, wearing a leather jacket and, improbably, pajama bottoms featuring the Warner Brothers cartoon characters Tweety Bird and Daffy Duck.A decade ago, Kristijan was featured in a film about Serbia’s gangsters called Vidimo se u citulji (The Crime

Belgrade, 2004
Kristijan Golubovic displays
his prison scars.
That Changed Serbia) . There were dozens of mobsters in the film. He says he’s the only one left alive. He takes me up to his luxurious apartment and offers me chocolates as I sink into a soft leather couch. There’s a picture of Milorad “Legija” Lukovic— the man suspected by the police of organizing Djindjic’s assassination—on Kristijan’s living–room wall. He describes Legija as “my brother.” (Legija turned himself in to the authorities for questioning shortly after I left Belgrade.)
      Kristijan seems eager to hold the spotlight his fellow mobsters are avoiding. He’s notorious for shooting up the nearby Majestic Casino (“I wanted to show them I was a boss”), and his most recent claim to fame involved participation in a mob attempt to burn down Belgrade’s only mosque. After he managed to bring a gun into Serbia’s Parliament building last spring, police promised to shoot him on sight if he was seen in the vicinity again.
“There's nothing in this country. People are taking drugs to forget the war.”
     Kristijan readily strips off his shirt to show me his tattoos and scars. He has an appalling series of knife slashes across his torso, which he says with a grin were a jailhouse gift from an Albanian terrorist. “I wanted to be a tough guy since I was 13. To have gold and good cars and girls. I liked to fight. It was all about money and fame. I was like a rocket that went up fast.” He brags about his artistic skills and ability to speak six languages, quotes Nietzsche, and states that he's “a born leader.” He also makes clear that he expects to catch a bullet sooner rather than later.
      He is a jolly fellow with a wide smile who won’t stop talking. I try to get a lock on the flow and logic of his rush of words—occasionally attempting to steer our “conversation” with questions—but I fail, so I just sit back and listen to him expound philosophically. The tenor of his thoughts runs the emotional gamut.
He tells me at one point: “I am like Robin Hood. I am a man of the people. I am an idol for how young men can live.”
      “There’s no future in this country,” he says later. “There’s nothing in this country. People are taking drugs to forget the war. They live like they're going to die tomorrow. They live in the moment.”   

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