Monthly Archives: October 2008

Defending animals well being in Belgrade.

Some months ago, I wrote this post about the Vracar pack, a group of dogs that lives near the Temple of Saint Sava, in Belgrade. I met some of these dogs in May 2006, the first time I travelled to Serbia. Since then, I’ve been observing as I keep returning. I can now say that I know them, and I have the feeling that they know me too, although I know that’s not possible. After I wrote that post, I have returned to Belgrade twice.

In July I had the chance to understand why is it that these dogs manage to survive. Their human neighbours take care of them very well. I remember once I was walking in one of the streets surrounding the temple and I saw two of them walking together with an old man, as you they were his dogs, but without the leach. When I tried to take their photos, the man called them so that they would stand still for my camera. They approached me and sniffed me, and since then I have have this feeling that they do know me. I used to call one of them, that I identify as the leader of the pack, the ‘elusive dog’. That was because he was always around observing me, but it was almost impossible to get a decent photo of him, because he would turn his head, or go away, or move. Well, after we established contact, he stopped being elusive. Now my presence doesn’t bother him any more. I sometimes even get the impression that he smiles at me and poses for my camera. It’s probably just an impression, I know that, but those are the things that make one feel at home.

In February, I noticed a new dog living in the park around the Temple, a beautiful black dog. He doesn’t seem to be integrated in the pack. He is sweet and young, and I wonder who could have abandoned such a nice dog. Then in September I noticed a new dog there, a puppy, funny and sweet. He has been accepted by the pack.

One of the dogs, the dark one with short hair and big ears, seems to have adopted him, although the others don’t seem to have much patience for him and don’t allow him to approach them too much. He has clearly recognized and accepted the established hierarchy within the pack because he immediately backs of when he realizes that the others are not too happy with him.

Belgrade is full of stray dogs. They belong to the city as much as its people, its trees and gardens, its crows and pigeons. They are either friendly or indifferent to people. I have never seen any dog that looked aggressive. Many of them like to be caressed but they all are independent. They are not asking to be ‘owned’.

Belgrade is a dog-friendly city. Not only the stray dogs are tolerated, but we can also see that many people have dogs as pets, and they usually look happy and well cared. For me, this is one of the most attractive aspects of Belgrade, because I happen to live in a city where dogs and people with dogs are very badly treated by my co-citizens.

But I don’t want to create the impression that the situation of domestic animals in Serbia is good. It’s not. In fact, it’s appalling. I have had the opportunity to spend some time talking to animals protection NGOs and other people who care about this, and the picture is not a good one. Many animals are abandoned or mistreated.

Cats and dogs get abandoned every day, and it’s very difficult to convince people to adopt dogs with no pedigree, because there is a culture of appearances that is very strongly rooted. This permanent display of status (real or merely desired) which is also apparent in the way young women dress and behave, this showing off leads people to pay big money for dogs with pedigree, some of which will eventually be abandoned. This in turn stimulates the irresponsible breeding of dogs by people who want to make some easy money. Then there is the problem that it’s expensive to have one’s pets sterilized, not to mention those who are born in the streets.

In the centre of Belgrade it’s very common to see either people selling dogs or Animal protection associations trying to give cats and dogs and to raise awareness about this problem. I was very happy to know that there has been a positive change in this problem, because many young boys and girls are volunteering to help these associations. You can see by the behaviour of the animals in display that they are well taken care, because they are well fed and clean, and, even more important, they are not aggressive neither too nervous, which means that the volunteers who take care of them manage to give them some emotional comfort.

The commitment of these people is admirable. They are working in a poor country with many problems to be faced, where the rise in the cost of living is impressive. It’s not easy to get funds to support their work. The political situation and the levels of corruption also affect negatively their activities. The fact that it’s so difficult to travel abroad makes it very difficult to find partners in richer countries and to engage in networking. Even when there is money, the bureaucratic obstacles to projects such as the construction of shelters are enormous, while the elected local authorities hardly make any significant effort to support the activities of Animal protection NGOs.

(Maja here in the picture is a lucky girl. She has been adopted by a nice family. On the photo above Paris Hilton seduced by a puppy).

On my last week in Belgrade this October I had the chance to meet everyday a group of people who were giving animals in Slavija Square. They belong to Noa. They also have a project to build a shelter for horses so that old horses don’t end up as sausages.

Unfortunately, although they already have the necessary funds, they don’t have a space where to build it, due to the fact that the local autorities have failed in keeping the promise to provide it. Life is definitely not easy for those people who want to contribute to the progress of Serbia, but still there they are and they need and deserve to be supported.

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Especially for Anais

Only today I have managed to take 15 minutes to watch Allan Little’s report for Newsnight “Karadzic broken Bosnia endures”.

Meanwhile I have been in Bosnia myself, and, although it was a brief visit, it was long enough for me to recognize the kind of environment that the report brilliantly captures.

I usually travel alone, but on this trip I had the company of my lovely niece Anais. In fact, she was the reason I decided to travel to Bosnia. My intention was to go to Kosova instead, but I wanted to show her Sarajevo, because knowing her and knowing the city, I had the feeling that the two would match.

We had a great time there. The weather was very pleasant, which allowed us to take nice photos, and we were very lucky to find a place to sleep in a private home, where the owner treated us like princesses and made us the most delicious coffee we had ever drunk. I introduced her to burek (I love burek) and we also had the best pizza I have eaten in years.

Here’s Anais, looking at a group of Japanese tourists…

I am very glad we went there. She loved Sarajevo and its people, but, thanks to the persons we met, whose conversation with me she attentivelly followed, she got the chance to have a glimpse on the current political and social problems Bosnia is facing (or refusing to face). I absolutely wanted to avoid passing her an essentialized image of Sarajevo and Bosnia.

Anais was pleasantly surprised by the beauty of the city and the warmth of its people,  but, in the same measure, shocked with the extent of destruction caused by the siege. When you arrive in Sarajevo by bus from Belgrade, you get the chance to have a good notion on the size of the city, and the fact that the bus stop is in the suburbs means that the postcard-like image of the centre of Sarajevo will not be the only one you will take with you after you leave. Everywhere she looked, the bullet holes could be seen. She had never seen anything like that. At a certain moment we passed through a souvenir shop and she saw a mug with the mascot of the 1984 Olimpic Games. It was then that she realized what the siege had meant. She looked at me and she said, “really, this is as if Lyon (her home city) had been besieged”. I though that was a good comparison.

Then, lots of questions, starting by the classical one, why didn’t the serbs manage to destroy Sarajevo…

Reality is sometimes so absurd that it hard to explain…

I tried to answer her questions and I briefly explained her in what my research consists of, but I tried to refrain myself because I think it’s best for her to have her own perspective than to simply absorb mine.

After we returned to Belgrade, I tried to give her some materials for her to have some information, but I didn’t want to overburden her.

So, when I watched this report, I immediately realized that it had what I was looking for. The environment portrayed in the report is clearly recognizable to anyone who has already crossed ‘Republika Srpska’.

I am sure she will watch it and I hope some other readers will too.

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Filed under Bosnia, Duty of memory, Genocide, War

Split

Split was the perfect place to get some rest after a very busy week in Belgrade. I was supposed to stay there just one day, I liked it s much that I stayed three days, and would have stayed more if it wasn’t for the fact that I had things to do in Belgrade. Still, three days were enough to give me a nice sun tan, and sun tan is essential for my personal identity.

…I am too lazy to keep writing and I prefer not to write than writing just for the sake of writing because words are to precious to be wasted, so here are some photos that I took there.

Early in the morning, not long after my bus arrived from Belgrade. I usually prefer to travel during the day to see the views and talk to normal people, but it happens that this time I made so many kilometres that I had to use the nights to travel, otherwise, I would have lost four days…Sleeping on the bus is not exactly my ideal of comfort, but arriving at dawn is very pleasant, because it allows me to observe the cities as they wake up.

In Dalmatia we can still eat ‘jaquinzinhos’. Giving up small fish was the price that we Portuguese had to pay for EU assession. A heavy price for our national identity it was. I just love small fried fish, although I understand that fisheries must be sustainable.

Split is definitivelly a place where I know I shall return. As much as I love the portuguese coast, the Adriatic does have its charm, and it also provides a very nice sun tan!

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Filed under Croatia, Delicious food, Joie de vivre

Cats and Dogs…

I have spent the last weeks either in Belgrade or travelling in the region of Former Yugoslavia. Of all the trips that I have made, this one was the one that I feel was the most important. Maybe the most important is always the lattest, I don’t know. Anyway, I don’t have time to explain it now, and maybe there is nothing really to explain, but I felt like sharing these photos with my readers… I particularly like stray cats and dogs: I feel like I am one of them. No pedigree, just living life as well as I can, trying to take the most of the smallest pleasures, accepting that life is unpredictable, and that such is the price we pay for not wearing a leach.

Although I am more a cat person, I think I fell in love with the puppy in the photo, the new stray dog of the Vracar pack. I have been observing this pack since the first time I came to Belgrade, and I now feel intimate with them.

I guess I am just melancolic. How easy it is to get attached…That’s a good thing, of course. But it sometimes makes us suffer a bit, what can we do, it’s unavoidable…

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Etre authentique ou ne pas l’etre

This is a guest post by Anais Pirlot.

Anais is my oldest niece. She joined me in Split some days ago, and since then we have been travelling throughout the countries of Former Yugoslavia. Anais is half portuguese half french. She was raised in France, and, as she was growing up, she used to spent almost all her holidays in Portugal with me and the rest of the family. She currently spends most of her time in the United States, so this has been a precious occasion to enjoy her company that I love so much. She has proved to be the perfect travelling companion. Not only she is sweet and funny, but, above all, she is an acute observer, acquainted as she is to live with people of different cultural origins. The questions she makes me about the region, its peoples and its problems are helping me find the best way to make my perspective accessible to people with no previous knowledge on the region.

She wrote it in french and we decided to keep it in french. I apologise to the non-french readers.

“Voilà enfin des gens AUTHENTIQUES” me dit ironiquement Sarah dans le bus qui nous mène au centre de Sarajevo. Je rigole car elle fait référence à une anecdote que je lui ai raconté à propos de certains clichés.

En partant pour l’Europe de l’Est, j’appelle mon père une dernière fois depuis l’aéroport. Il me félicite de voyager tant et me fait cette remarque qui m’est restée en travers de la gorge comme une arrête de poisson: “Ah, bah là au moins tu vas rencontrer des gens authentiques” (c’est à peu près ce qu’il m’a dit). Sachant que ces 6 derniers mois j’ai passé le plus clair de mon temps à voyager à travers les États-Unis, il faisait allusion à ces américains tellement globalisés, consommants, consommés et industrialisés qu’on se demande s’ils sont encore humains.

Mais quel stéréotype ignorant! De tout ce que j’aime des États-Unis, ce que je préfère ce sont justement les gens; leur enthousiasme, leur convivialité, leur liberté qui leur permet cette informalité si chaleureuse. Sans parler de leur respect du travail.

Que c’est drôle alors de constater la difficulté d’obtenir rien qu’un sourire ou un bonjour d’un serbe ou d’un croate, ces gens si authentiques*… Mais voilà qu’a Sarajevo, oú les gens ont tant souffert, tout le monde sourit et est heureux de voir que l’on apprécie leur ville. Les gens sont enthousiastes et aiment vivre ici. C’est sans doute ce qui fait que leur ville est si belle aujourd’hui. Quant à savoir si cela fait d’eux des gens authentiques, j’en laisse le soin à d’autres, moi ça ne m’intéresse pas.

Photos: Above, an ‘authentic’ kid playing hiding with Anais on the bus from Belgrade to the suburb of Sarajevo called ‘East Sarajevo’. Bellow, an ‘authentic’ old man riding his bike in the centre of Sarajevo.

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Filed under Bosnia, Joie de vivre

Belgrade today

Belgrade is packed with police, just like the Interior Minister Ivica Dacic promised.

It is impressive how many of them there are in the streets, but besides that, everything seems normal. This atmosfere of tense normality is puzzling, because it is a false normality. People here seem to be used to such environment, but for me it seems very oppressive. Earlier today I was speaking to a young man who was telling me how he doesnt feel free at all because he is not allowed to travel, due to visa policies. The fact is that it is the serbian politicians themselves, in this case the Serbian Radical Party, that are curtailing his freedom, by disrupting the work in the parliament.

This reminds me of a debate that was held in February in Belgrade, where a nationalist academic said that the serbs didnt need visas at all and that they could very well turn their back on the West. Then someone from the audience reminded him that he had had his PhD in Oxford…

I have met some of the chidren of the serbian conservative elite. They all travel abroad, they manage to get grants to study in Western Europe, and they look modern and sofisticated, but in fact they all live in Heavenly Serbia. They dont care at all for the average citizens who hardly know how to speak english because the shcooll system is so bad and who cannot afford a passport and visa. In fact, keeping their co-citizens in darkness and isolation is what makes them look modern and sofisticated.

The more I hang around in Belgrade, the more I meet normal people (and not only priviledge people) the more I get the feeling of how deeply isolated this society is and how dificult it will be to break this pattern. The signals send by the current government are mixed. A certain degree of openess exists, especially if compared to Kostunica governments, but not real signs of a strong commitment for change.

Today at 16h an anti-fascist rally is being held. I think I prefer to watch it on TV later… I am just an observer and I have to remember that. I could go and observe, but after having observed the riots in February, I think I can bypass this. The day is beautiful and I am feeling more like going to a nice place and take some sun. My friends tell me that they dont consider me an outsider anymore… maybe they are right, maybe I am starting to think this opressive environment of fake normality is normal…(Belgrade fascinates me and depresses me at the same time. I miss Lisbon).

Updates later…

Update:

So, the regretable incidents of last year in Novi Sad were not repeated in Belgrade this year. I took lots of photos, of course. I had never seen so many police in my life, and if you bear in mind that I was in Belgrade when the riots after the independence of Kosovo happened (21th February 2008), I think that gives the measure of how much police there was on the streets. It is very strange to see how that didn’t disrupt at all what was for most people nothing more than a sunny Saturday. Here is a photo of the rally. I find it particularly interesting how the Cyrillic letters are used in this context because it is a good way to remind everyone that nationalists don’t have the monopole over nationhood, in this case over serbdom. Here the moment when the anti-fascist rally passed through Republic Square where the rally in support of Radovan Karadzic was being held. The moment they passed, a group of war-crimes supporters started waving their arms and shouting “Volimo Srbiju!” (We love Serbia). What kind of love is this that can only be expressed through hatred? So, there were provocations, and some arrests, but no disruption at all.

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Extremists and self-isolation: the case of the daily rallies in Trg Republike, Belgrade.

It’s been more than two weeks now since I arrived in Belgrade. This is my sixt trip to Belgrade, which makes Belgrade the city I know best other than my home city Lisbon.

When I am in Belgrade I try as much as possible to live like the belgraders do. I stay at my friend Jelena Markovic, I go to the market and to the supermarket, I watch TV, read the newspaper, go to the caffee, take the bus, have family dinners (Jelena’s family adopted me, and Jelena’s mother is a fantastic cook), hang around with friends.

The only differences between my life in Lisbon and my life in Belgrade is that my husband stays in Lisbon when I come to Belgrade and that the car stays with him, so I don’t drive in Belgrade.

Not driving in Belgrade, I failed to grasp to which extent the daily rally in support of Radovan Karadzic is disrupting the routine of Belgrade citizens. That is, until yesterday…

Yesterday, about 6h p.m. as I was walking to the centre, I was surprised to see that Terazije, Belgrade’s main square, was blocked to traffic. Although I already knew about this, I haden’t yet realized what it meant to be stuck in traffic because a few dozens of people decide to make a marca during rush hour, to protest against the fact that their government, the serbian government, arrested and extradited war-crimes indictee Radovan Karadzic, something that the government was legaly bounded to do.

The rally is organized by the extremist nationalist movement 1389. Besides the daily meeting in Trg Republike, the 1389 members ‘visit’ anti-nationalist organizations, that they identify as traitors to the nation, in order to intimidate them. Last week, they visited the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, where they daubed a swastica. Some time before, they had also been at the Humanitarian Law Fund, I was informed, and I also saw on a website the photos that they took themselves of their visit to NUNS, the serbian independent association of journalists.

The traffic on Terazije was cut by the police itself, who escourted the ‘crowd’ of no more than a hundred people (I counted them myself) until Republic Square. Then, when the ‘croud’ arrived, the Soviet Union Russian anthem was played. There were participants waving the flags of Venezuela and Cuba. All of this took at least 40 minutes, if not more.

My point then is: why is it that 1389 is treated by the competent autorities as a legitimate organization? Why is it authorized to daily disrupt the routine of the heart of Belgrade in order to protest against the arrest and extradition of Karadzic, something which, it’s important to stress this, the serbian government is legally bounded to do.

Not only the rallies, which fail to attract more than one hundred participants, disrupt the routine of the city, but, above all, serve as a legal cover to acts of harrassement and intimidation against persons and organization who promote Human Rights and Democracy.

I have posted on this blog that a neo-nazi rally had been called to be held in Belgrade this saturday (11 October). Well, the rally was not authorized. That is good news.

However, the fact is that, every day, a fascist rally is held in Belgrade. It is so because it is allowed. They are allowed because they fulfil a useful function. When they ‘visit’ civic-minded organizations, they are ‘confirming’  the idea that civic minded organizations and people are really the mirror of neo-nazis and extremists nationalists. This then allows the ‘moderate’ sectors to comfortably denounce the civic-minded organizations activities as extremists and to discredit their perspective. It is important to stress that this serves the interests not only of the conservative elites, but also a part of the pro-european elite.

In fact, this is the measure of the degree of self-isolation in which the serbian elite lives. A substantial part of the political elite of the pro-european sector supports the idea that there is no need for confrontation with the past. For them the problem is not that problems exist, but that they become visible when someone decides to talk about them.

This becomes particularly clear when attacks such as the recent campaign against Sonja Biserko, which Marko Hoare analizes here, fail to provoke a strong reaction within the pro-european ranks.

Final remark:

for those who claim that 1389 has nothing to do with neo-nazis, i would be glad to show them the photos of skin-heads in their rallies, photos that I took myself. I just don’t publish them because I think there are limits to bad taste and don’t want my blog to look repelent.

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