Serbia, sanctioned

Since Serbia is remembering 30th anniversary since very harsh sancions were imposed on the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and as we are being pressured to impose sanctions in Russia, I am reminded of my earliest memories, which took place by the Belgrade train station.

It was hot summers’ day in 1992, and I was four, throwing a tantrum when I was supposed to be saying goodbye to my grandparents. My grandma, back then my favourite person in the world, tried to calm me down, saying that I will not have to leave, but that I should just enter the Sofia train with my mom for a few minutes. The train, of course, left with us inside it, and I somehow calmed down as my mom was explaining that we will be going onwards to Tunisia where my dad was temporarily working, that we age going this long way because of the sanctions, and, maybe as a way of enterntaining herself, that I will become Bulgarian and not be allowed back to Serbia if I were to go to toilet on the Bulgraian soil.

That was the first time I became aware of the sanctions, a term that was going to be repeated throughout my childhood.

Initially, for me as a kid, it meant that whever we wanted to go somewhere we had to go via Budapest or Sofia, that my dad, who worked for JAT at the time, will have a lot of time on his hands to play with me – as the fleet was grounded – and that the choice of toys in Belgrade was rather bad.

There however, were a few times when the sanctions were not just a vague inconvenience, even for me. I remeber the ambient stress, as my mom and grandma were scampering to get medicines and hospital supplies for my granddad – whose health worsened during our visit to Tunisia. When he died in August 1993, aged 65, it was in the middle of a sanctions-induced economic collapse and we could barely buy any food for the traditional lunch after his funeral, a major embarrasment for all of us, and especially his wife, who justly prided herself on being an excellent homemaker.

That winter, as the crisis deepened, my grandma’s ingenuity came to shine as she managed to master all sorts of recipes without flour, milk and eggs (there were shortages of everything). However, more than her austerity culinary successes, I remember my grandma having to write a cheque to buy me a pogacica – a small pastry that I really liked, from now long gone bakery in Kneza Milosa. Apparently that was such a humiliation for her, a solidly middle-class, financially extremely prudent and hard working woman, that she was actually driven to tears, which I almost remember, on that dreary gray day.

While the situation imporved in 1994, we became accustomed to frequent power outages, and – as I was living in a high-rise in the hilly part of Zvezdara hill – water shortages as well, which were particuarly annoying over the summer, whever we would return from swimming in the lake by Ada Ciganlija. On those days, tired, my mom would pack us up and we would go to my grandma’s, who lived in normally less affected Stari Grad, wash and sleep there for the night.

The sanctions, a term that I heard daily, came to signify to me the cause of everything that was bad, and I started to imagine them physcially, as a dark, impenerable barrier on our borders and over our heads. Indeed, when Dayton accords were signed on my slava (family saint’s day) in 1995 and the outer wall of the sancions was lifted, weird kid that I was, I remember looking at the skies, almost thinking that the sky itself would change. Even now “sankcije” momentarily makes me visualise skies closing over me. On the other hand the word “Dayton”, so foreign and sleek sounding in Serbian, sounds viscerally good and hopeful.

That feeling seems to be (or has been) collective. A very cool, postmodern gas station by Hyatt in New Belgrade – that now sadly no longer exists – was nicknamed “Dejton” or “Dejtonka” partly for its cool factor, partly as it signalled that oil embargoes were over, and Belgraders no longer had to rely on smuggled gas.

Post-Dayton Belgrade was happier and more colourful place, which made me realise what I was missing out on. As the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was also subject to cultural sanctions, foreign movies – and most importantly for me, cartoons – started coming back to Belgrade’s cinemas. I no longer had to rely on a local video store, run out of a smoky flat by our gravelly-voiced neighbour Vera, to get pirated VHSs – although we continued to visit her less frequenly until the internet killed that industry.

As a bookend of my sanctions-era childhood, standing opposite that traumatic trip to Sofia, another, equally tearful memory stands out. After the sanctions on our sportspeople were lifted, my grandma and mom took my to our neighbours’ basement flat to watch the European Basketball championship finals, which took place in Athens that year, and where Yugoslavia played against Lithuania. Altough always a temperamental, strong-willed and lively woman, I never remeber my grandma being so animated as she was that night, rooting for our team and the basketball greats of my childhood: Bodiriga and Djordjevic . After we won, we were all crying from joy as our squad was accepting medals, brimming with national pride which only culminated as the Croatian team (who came thrid) refused to shake their hands and left the podium.

For my neighbours, my mom, and, probably most intesely, my grandma, it was a small , but long awaited victory over the losses and humiliations of those long sanction years, which consumed what would have been her calm and happy entry into retirment age.

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