Jasmina Tešanović, Belgrade: Faking Bombings

by Jasmina Tešanović

photos by Bruce Sterling

If it were not so frightening, it could even be fun:
New Years Eve in Belgrade.

In Rome, at midnight, they throw their unwanted junk
out of their windows, meaning you could be crushed to
death by a plummeting toilet from the early 1930s.
Some of
these things are worth money on the art flea market if
they don't shatter or kill you. Rome's inherently
dangerous lifestyle does not lack for charm.

In Belgrade, the people run to the streets… For the
fifteen years, a Belgrade New Years was more a
political carnival than a street-party. But last
night, it was the carnival for cheap, hand-held
fireworks. Major downtown streets were closed to
traffic for pedestrian fun and strolling, but the
squares became smoky pyres
guarded by the police, used as open free-fire zones
for all sorts of explosions. The deafening blasts
drowned out the two big stages with rock, pop and folk
music acts.

Music fans, there to listen and dance, were dodging
flung fireworks in that very typical errant
diametrical way, as when people from Sarajevo
struggled to avoid random snipers. Wincing girls and
scared children were obviously upset, me included…
Most of the perpetrators of this fake-bombing arte
popolare were clearly very happy with it.

On the sides of the streets hot wine, cold beer and
sausages and cevapcici were sold: a pleasant novelty
for the Belgrade economy. A huge new street poster
put up by the local government was urging us people to
get on the street and smile. The usual kiosks with
nationalist items were absolutely doubled, you could
buy books and tokens made
by war criminals and fugitives…. Pictures or poems
by the hidden war criminal Radovan Karadzic.
Window-rattling fireworks were sold at every corner
as cheap, obligatory party-favors.

Serbia is getting ready for elections January 21.
Among the leading parties, these are the major

One in Hague, indicted for war crimes, and on a hunger
strike: leader of the right wing radical party.

One in hiding overseas for embezzling state funds:
Karic, the
economic mogul. The exiled mogul's wife is running
campaign inside Serbia, with such deftness makes you
wonder who which of the two of them is the bigger

One died last year in Hague tribunal, but his party
uses the name of the deceased as the leader of its

The widow of the assassinated premier Djindjic, who
was never in politics herself, is the leading name on
the democratic party.

It is too warm in Belgrade, raining and not snowing,
the global warming connected with local pollution is
making us dizzy in
our reclusive, self-exiled apartheid state. Today ,on
first, two other neighboring Balkan countries,
Bulgaria and Romania, officially joined the European
Union. Slovenia, a former Yugoslav state, accepted
the Euro as her local currency. Serbia, as a feebler
gesture, joined the NATO "Partnership for Peace" —
meaning that next time NATO needs to bomb us, they can
officially employ our own NATO-trained pilots.

All this faked bombing warrior feast in the streets is
only the first act of the new year's play. Will it be
a black comedy, a tragedy, upstaged by Saddam
Hussein's public execution in a barbarian ritual,
while the Dutch soldiers who haplessly allowed the
Srebrenica massacre were
honored with medals… Hard to say, and even useless
to say. You cannot be honored as a prophet in your
own country, especially if your country itself lacks
honor. Which millennium does this year 007 belong to?

– – – – –

Jasmina Tešanović is an author, filmmaker, and wandering thinker who shares her thoughts with BoingBoing from time to time. Email: politicalidiot at yahoo dot com. Her blog is here.

Previous essays by Jasmina Tešanović on BoingBoing:

Dispatch from Amsterdam
Where are your Americans now?

Anna Politkovskaya Silenced
Slaughter in the Monastery

Mermaid's Trail

A Burial in Srebenica
Report from a concert by a Serbian war criminal
To Hague, to Hague

Preachers and Fascists, Out of My Panties

Floods and Bombs

Scorpions Trial, April 13
The Muslim Women 
– Belgrade: New Normality
Serbia: An Underworld Journey
Scorpions Trial, Day Three: March 15, 2006
Scorpions Trial, Day Two: March 14, 2006
Scorpions Trial, Day One: March 13, 2006
The Long Goodbye
Milosevic Arrives in Belgrade
Slobodan Milosevic Died
Milosevic Funeral

Reader comment: Chris Ladd says,

I was excited about Jasmina's piece on New Years Eve in Belgrade, and wanted to send a note about the holiday that surprised me. My girlfriend and I have been living in Belgrade for the past several months and spent the New Year out on the streets — her family are all from Belgrade. For the past few weeks, the explosions outside our window have grown exponentially as the New Year gets closer, since the New Year is the big holiday here. Most people give gifts on New Year's Eve instead of Christmas Eve, which for the orthodox is on Jan. 6. "Deda Mraz," or "Father Frost," brings presents for children, not "Bozic Bata," or "The Christmas Boy," who is roughly equivalent to our Santa Claus, which in turn was modeled after St. Nicholas. This is all a new development in an Eastern Orthodox country that was once a very religious place.

During Tito's era, the Yugoslavian government systematically replaced Christmas with New Years and Bozic Bata with Deda Mraz in order to diminish the power of the church. It's really amazing to see symbols redefined right in front of your eyes, translating one set of rituals onto new meanings. It's the kind of thing you read about in books, but I'd never actually experienced it. I heard that and it blew my mind. Today, the tradition of New Year's persists even without the communists. I suppose there's really nothing wrong with the idea, nor is it anything new. I'm not religious myself, but it seems to me that communism is a religion just the same as Christianity is a religion. Americans took Saint Nicholas and turned him into Santa Claus as a symbol of their capitalist religion.

As for the New Year celebrations, I can honestly say I've never experienced anything like it. We live near Slavija Square, and streets were blocked from traffic all the way to Knez Mihailova, or for about a mile and a half. Mobs of people on the streets, firecrackers, or petarde, exploding at your feet, in people's hands, all over the place. They're technically illegal here, but the cops look the other way on New Years. Two days prior, we almost got arrested for buying them from Gypsies at the market. New Years Eve, and they're being sold openly on the street. If a full second went by between 10pm and 1am without at least two or three explosions nearby it was an anomaly, and all on the ground at your feet. My Flickr set of photos from that night can be found here: Link.

Later, at 6am our time, we watched the ball drop in Times Square, the orderly crowds crushed together behind sawhorses, smiling and cold for the TV cameras. What a lame celebration. Belgraders and Serbians are a much rowdier, friendlier, more amazing crowd to ring in the New Year with. They are themselves fabulous yellow roman candles. Hopefully, more and more tourists will make their way to this amazing city to experience it for themselves.

p.s. Fireworks are still dangerous. Natalija's father said today that the news reported over 30 serious hand and face injuries due to the fireworks on New Years.