Wednesday, November 23, 2011

U Beogradu (Part 1 - Ponedeljak)

I originally intended for this post to include my entire Belgrade trip, but in writing this I discovered that I obviously had a lot more to say about some days than others. For the sake of actually giving you, dear reader, something to read while I write more, here's what I have just about Monday, November 14.


On Monday, the first organization we visited was Centar E8. They're a youth-run organization that has some projects similar to CZOR, in that it empowers youth to identify and find solutions to the problems they face every day. While we were there, E8 promoted two projects for us.

The first is called "Budi Muški," or "Be a man," and focuses on male victims of the strong patriarchy pervading Serbian society. Like in many societies, young male Serbians aren't encouraged to work out their problems and emotions through healthy means. Instead, they have to suck it up, and "be a man." This mindset, claims E8, can lead to a violent society. "Budi Muški" is an effort to show that, yes, men can be sensitive and sensible too. We all found this project to be particularly inspiring, since it shows that gender equality isn't all about working with women. Men have problems too.

The second program was "Neću Drogu," or "I don't want drugs." The title is pretty self-explanatory. The US Embassy in Belgrade provides funding and support to this project, which tries to promote anti-drug values in everyday teen culture. The key to success, they think, is to make "Neću Drogu" "cool." More on that later.

These projects were interesting and all, but by far the most touching story was that of one volunteer who had E8 turn his life around. He was a "problem child," he said, but a few E8 workers helped engage him in his school and community enough that he wasn't expelled. He told us about an E8 camping trip, similar in aim to CZOR's cross-border project, where he was tent-mates with a kid from Croatia. For the first hour or so, there was awkward silence, as each former-Yugoslav expected the other's judgement, but soon the two couldn't stop talking-- a volunteer had to come and make them go to bed. The two are now best friends, even years later, and the storyteller has made even more Croatian friends since then. It's taken him time to feel comfortable on visits to Zagreb, his favorite ex-Yugoslavian city and the capital of Croatia, but one-on-one experiences with Croats of all ages have made this easier. His parents, he says, are still less open-minded and more prejudiced, but that too is changing.

This volunteer's tale was a touching and personal story of what I've seen in my travels. The young Bosnians I've met harbor no resentment toward Bosnian Serbs, the Vojvodina Hungarians I've met celebrate their ethnic culture and their Serbian identity, and the Kosovo Albanian and Roma I met care more about quality Serbian rakija and their Serbian girlfriends than about the region's legal status.

All in all, everyone just wants to live their lives, just like anywhere else in the world.

After leaving E8, we went to a Greek place for a quick lunch. We all had cheap and delicious gyros, bringing me back to my trip to Greece this past February. My only regret from this fast-food joint is not ordering Ouzo when I had the chance!

Our next stop was the World Learning Belgrade office. World Learning is the international exchange agency through which Princeton has organized the Bridge Year program in Serbia and Ghana. Here we met Serbian college students who had studied a year in various places around the United States. It was fun hearing their stories, which are the closest we can get to a counterpart of ours.

We left World Learning to visit the office of Božidar Đelić, the Deputy Prime Minister for European Integration. How did Ceca swing this one? Đelić's chief of staff had her undergraduate education at Princeton, and was happy to help arrange this meeting (the third time that Đelić has met BYP volunteers) for us. Katarina Petrović, the chief of staff, has an impressive story herself. After her BS in physics, she decided to return to Serbia and got a job doing press work for the Ministry of Science. She worked her way up through the Ministry until she became Đelić's deputy, and she moved administrations when he did. Petrović's still in her 20s but has already been able to help her country (and advance herself, but that's less important) so much.

From left to right: Ceca (BYP coordinator), me, Jacob, Đelić, Charlotte, Dominique, Yentli, and Petrović

Đelić wanted to hear from us about our perceptions and Serbian teenagers' perceptions of Serbia. We were honest: most of the Serbian teenagers and young adults we've met want to leave the country, primarily because they want a job, but also because they see no future for their homeland. Đelić pointed out that, despite the rhetoric, most are staying. He continued from here, speaking realistically and noting Serbia's shortfalls, but also pointing out its progress. Đelić anticipates that when the EU's decision on Serbia's candidacy for membership comes out on December 9th, it will be a positive recommendation. He doesn't think that the situation in Kosovo will overshadow all of the progress that Serbia has made, and for the country's sake, I hope he's right.

Afterwards, we hurried across the city to an English-language school, where Slobodan Đinović met with us. Đinović was a founding member of Otpor! (name translates to "Resistance!"), the youth-run anti-Milošević movement. The most impressive part of the movement is that it essentially bluffed itself into existence. What started as a sort of game to see how much Đinović & co. could get away with ended up bringing down a dictator. Otpor!'s central "committee" (not a formal organization, so no real name for it) operated with strong discipline, more than any army. After all, anyone can pick up a gun. Non-violence is a lot harder to pull off. They agreed on a single message which they made all their core members memorize. This way, anyone could be a spokesman. Having a designated spokesman makes it easy to decapitate the organization. Whenever Otpor! issued a press release, they had a young person uninvolved with politics (preferably, said Đinović, a pretty girl) deliver the message and then fade away. Their apparent multitude made them look like a viable resistance movement, and their actual number made them difficult to find and stop. Otpor! used high school students to spread the message to their peers, making both the message and the messenger "cool" for being in the know. When the police arrested one of these messengers, the entire community would gather outside the police station immediately and demand his/her release-- after all, s/he's only a student, incapable of doing anything seriously wrong!

Otpor! also spread its image by graffiti and bumper stickers that read "Gotov je!" ("He is finished!" with the "he" referring to Milošević). Posted in every city, these stickers made it seem as though "Gotov je!" was a popular opinion, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even a decade later, the Otpor! fist graffiti is common (though sometime since then, other vandals have extended the middle finger on almost every fist).

Otpor! grew its network all over Serbia, and soon they had the support of various opposition politicians (Đinović tells me that current President Boris Tadić was the narrator at the New Year's party, 2000, which I blogged about during my first day here). Their growing power prompted Milošević to call early elections. His blatant fraud in the election was the final straw: soon, Milošević was deposed.

Đinović stepped out of politics and Otpor! faded away. He returned to his trade: engineering. He was involved with a Wi-Fi provider that eventually, through a series of mergers, turned into Orion Telekom, one of the largest telecoms in Serbia, of which Đinović is now the CEO. But the revolutionary inside of him still called out: Đinović uses some of his profits from Orion to fund the Centre for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), which trains people across the world in the non-violent methods that brought Otpor! victory and the Serbian people freedom.

CANVAS has had several success stories, from Ukraine's Orange Revolution to Georgia's Rose Revolution, and even had a hand or two in Arab Spring. But Đinović wanted to talk about the Maldives, an archipelago nation south-west of India which had its first truly democratic elections in 2008. When Đinović visited one prominent opposition politician, who was under house arrest by President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the arrestee promised, "When I come into power, you're getting an island." True to his word, when CANVAS-trained activists brought Gayoom out of power in a peaceful revolution, the organization was rewarded with not one but three islands, which they're converting for use as training facilities. I know where I want to intern!

From his work in Otpor! to his continued dedication to non-violent action worldwide, Đinović is easily one of the most inspiring people I've ever met. He left each of us copies of one of his books, Nonviolent Struggle: 50 Crucial Points (free download here!), which is essentially a guide to the philosophy of nonviolence and a direct how-to guide to taking down a dictator. It's pretty much the work of Gene Sharp put into step-by-step instructions. I'm not entirely sure what I'll be doing with the book (no, #OWS, the US isn't a dictatorship yet) but it's fascinating!

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