20 years after

Published in Balkan Transitional Justice

Jasmina TesanovicAustinMarch 23, 2019
Author Jasmina Tesanovic started the first internet war diary while living in Belgrade when the NATO bombing of the Serbian capital began 20 years ago – a personal document of life-changing moments, extreme emotions, human kindness, survival and death.
Twenty years in peace are like 20 days of war. During the bombings of Serbia and Kosovo, I wrote from the point of view of any anonymous woman living her daily life in Belgrade, with children, friends… fishing for food, water, electricity, cigarettes… Necessity was the mother of invention, so I invented the first internet war diary, before bloggers or blogs existed. My war diary was spread through mailing lists virally, 20 years ago. ‘The Diary of a Political Idiot’ got me many friends and foes, and it changed my life.

The war diary began when the first planes flew over Belgrade, with these words:

“I hope we all survive this war, the bombs: the Serbs, the Albanians, the bad and the good guys, those who took up the arms, those who deserted, refugees going around the Kosovo woods and Belgrade’s refugees going around the streets with their children in arms, looking for nonexisting shelters, when the alarm for bombing sets off.”

Jasmina Tesanovic. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Margery Epstein.

I remember life-changing moments in those days of war, when I learned about solidarity, human kindness, sharing, life and death. I remember a man on the bicycle who pedalled to my door from Novi Sad, 60 miles, in order to buy Hannah Arendt’s book, ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’. My feminist publishing house had printed a mere 100 copies, because of shortages during the bombings.

I gave him the last remaining copy of the Arendt book for free, and then he asked me if he could take a shower since there was no running water in his town.

I remember my teenage daughter telling me rebelliously she that preferred to die with her best friend under a bridge, and not in a stuffy bomb shelter with her mom. I remember my women activists standing in Republic Square protesting against the Milosevic regime, and writing a collective message/poem; we all had our identity cards on us, in case we were attacked by soldiers or police. I remember those long nights of bombing that we spent down in our gypsy neighbour’s basement, drinking rakija and smoking her cigarettes instead of dosing ourselves on sleeping pills.

Those were days of crisis when emotions and survival mattered more than anything else, those were the days that we all learned that civilian habits do not matter in war, that we are all in the same trench when it comes to the violence of warlords.

I also learned that we don’t need many things we imagine we need, that money and consumerism are pretences, that electricity and running water are luxuries, that medicines are contraband and that our neighbours are not the people we believed they were. The human condition in the extremes of war was so simple: every day that we survived was a beautiful gift and every good night’s sleep was an orgy.

Twenty years afterwards, nowadays, I have friends from all over the world who write to me with fondness about how they came to know me. As electronic text, online, while I was in dire straits, writing my diary entries as if each day might be my last, roaming the city for electricity to charge my laptop, and phone lines to send my email… and a gas stove, so I could take raw meatballs out of my purse and fry them for my family.

Every day was similar, lived between air raid alarms, CNN and BBC satellite news and Serbian TV propaganda. During the bombing of the Belgrade TV building, 16 lives were lost, although the regime knew that NATO was certain to demolish that building. I had stored some of my own movie footage inside that stout television building, because I was trying to protect my best work, and of course the bombs obliterated it.

I also shot a new documentary during the bombing, for a German TV production. We filmed on the bridges of the Danube while NATO propaganda leaflets, written in broken Serbian, told us that the bridges were targets. Milosevic was bringing in buses of civilians to stand on the bridges as human shields.

Every day my bored teenage daughter cruised the streets with her school friends, unbeknownst to me, to gawk at the new bomb craters. The asylums were closed and every night, mentally ill patients came to my door. They had heard that I had publicly stated my fear of the bombs, and that I offered shelter, company and drinks to anyone who would admit that they were scared, too. Many people came with sleeping bags, people I will never forget, though I never saw them again.

The worst night came when a school nearby was bombed. Our house pitched and swayed from side to side; often I still have nightmares of those moments of vertigo, of the physical feeling of my home collapsing. My daughter still flinches when a tyre bursts.

But I also remember those kind people from the outskirts of Belgrade feeding us for free in the nearby market, and black market smugglers selling us their wondrous toilet paper and soap for few small coins.

I will never forget my guilt and responsibility for other people who were once my Yugoslav fellow citizens, now aliens and enemies, worse off than I was, persecuted, expelled and killed.

Civilians and force-drafted soldiers, often raw troops hardly of age, had to shoot and shell each other, while others had to skulk around as war deserters, and we hid them in the towns.

Today, many other wars in faraway places in the world are grinding on, with scenes of bombing and despair, the modern successors to what we went through. The global sanctions are worse than the explosions, for the deprivations are the ‘killers without a face’. My mother died because of a lack of antibiotics in her hospital. But wars in general have become routine: if you don’t know who the offender is, then it’s you.

However, then and now, I refuse to be categorised as the victim of the Other’s violence. If you don’t know who the victim is, then become a peace activist and find out.

Jasmina Tesanovic is an author, feminist, political activist, translator and filmmaker. Her book about life in Belgrade during the NATO bombing in 1999, ‘Diary of a Political Idiot’, was published by Granta.

About jasminatesanovic

Jasmina Tešanović (Serbian: Јасмина Тешановић) (born March 7, 1954) is a feminist, political activist (Women in Black, Code Pink), translator, publisher and filmmaker. She was one of the organizers of the first Feminist conference in Eastern Europe "Drug-ca Zena" in 1978, in Belgrade. With Slavica Stojanovic, she ran the first feminist publishing house in the Balkans "Feminist 94" for 10 years. She is the author of Diary of a Political Idiot, a war diary written during the 1999 Kosovo War and widely distributed on the Internet. Ever since then she has been publishing all her work, diaries, stories and films on blogs and other Internet media.
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