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City of dreams - Belgrade

What do you do when every day is an exercise in survival? You queue. Serbia's women have been queuing for 365 days now, since the Nato bombardment began, but while they've been standing in line, they have not been standing still. Helena Smith reports from Belgrade

Thursday March 23, 2000

If female fortitude could be measured in queues, then in Serbia it would be serpentine. Serb women have got good at queues. Nice, neat queues that will have curled their way around a block before dawn. You see them, gracious figures in the sub-zero early light, standing tall as trees in bobble hats. They just stand there, for one, two, three, even four hours, for a pint of milk, a can of oil, a sack of sugar.

Across Belgrade, food queues are proliferating, spreading as fast as the mirthless mood in a city brutalised by war, besieged by despair, broken by Nato's bombs. It does not take long to discover that, under Slobodan Milosevic's rotten regime, Yugoslavia is disintegrating. It is bitten by the mafia, unravelling at the seams. And no one knows this better than its women. For, against all the odds, it is women who are, somehow, keeping together the tattered social fabric of this outcast Balkan blip.

"The crisis has proved yet again that women have better survival methods than men and it has brought them out of the private into the public sphere," says feminist novelist Jasmina Tesanovic. "Men, if not violent, have become depressed."

The phenomenon is first encountered in the queues. Like the coarse Golab toilet paper that has come to represent everything that was wrong with Tito's communism in the bad old days, the queues have come to symbolise everything that is wrong with Serbia under the tutelage of Europe's last real tyrant. Serbian men, some of the best Balkan patriarchs, are back home, hangdog faces in an alcoholic blur, too disoriented and depressed to stand in line.

"Women may be the first to be fired, the first to make sacrifices for their children, but they are keeping this country alive," says Brankica Grupkovic, a 41-year-old human rights lawyer. "Like every woman, I used to worry about ageing. Now there are so many more painful problems because every day is an exercise in survival at the most basic level."

Time is not treating Serbia well. Half its population live below the poverty level, with daily soup kitchen meals jumping from 18,000 to over 100,000 in recent months. Infant mortality is on the increase, as are the invisible poor, prostitution, domestic violence, professors selling smuggled petrol on sombre streets. Such is the spiral of decomposition that, according to the UN, 25% of Serbian women feel it would be "irresponsible" to bear children in their nation in its present state. Unlike Kosovo, where the UN mission has ensured that vulnerable persons' lists and 24-hour hotlines now abound, Serbia proper has more or less had to go it alone since international economic sanctions were first imposed eight years ago.

With average monthly wages now hovering around 20 (a haircut costs 4), growing numbers of women have taken to sweeping the streets, cleaning offices or bartering on Serbia's burgeoning black market. You see them by the busload, in the middle of the night, travelling the long, rough road to Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary to buy the goods - cheaper cloth, paper towels, underwear. And you see them dreaming of change.

"There will be no revolution here because the sanctions have destroyed the middle class," says Grupkovic, a divorcee who has learnt to survive by refurbishing apartments, a strategy that has seen her move four times since 1995. "My salary was $2,000 in 1990. I used to go to Rome twice a year to buy my wardrobe. Now it's less than $300 and I haven't bought any clothes in years which, of course, impacts on your self-confidence."

Five hundred thousand of Serbia's brightest and best have fled; those who have stayed have an over-riding sense that things will get worse before they get better. Repression is growing and Milosevic, now despised by the overwhelming majority, shows no sign of going away. But there has been a change, a dramatic shift in gender roles not even he can erase: Serbian women have been empowered by the very hardship that has moved them into the public domain.

It is a power shift that has pitted them against Serbia's patriarchal system and turned them into Milosevic's silent foe. For the first time ever, many want to challenge the system, to break out of the old moulds, just as the ANC women's league did years ago during the dark days of apartheid.

"Why should we be exluded, like second-class citizens, and not have a voice in matters of life and death when we are so obviously keeping this country together?" Grupkovic asks. "For far too long, we have been separated from power by an invisible wall, but we are no longer willing to be invisible, we make up 54% of this population and we have to be heard."

Voting is not compulsory in Yugoslavia and most women have rarely used the right. Feminists say they could now play a catalytic role in ushering in democratic changes - if given the chance. Although Yugoslavia has come a long way since 1978 when the Coatian writer Slavenka Draculic set up its first feminist group (causing some men to want to chain her in Zagreb's main square), prejudice is still deep-seated.

"There is this very strong sense here that if you're a feminist, you're either lesbian or divorced," sighs Ivana Alexic, a campaigner for women's rights. "Serbian women have been taught to be passive and told not to vote. They have no idea about their own human and political rights, and that has been reflected in the decline of female representatives at all political levels."

The response has already been enthusiastic. Since Yugoslavia's descent into civil war, it has been women who have been behind the vast majority of pacifist and civic initiatives, often crossing ethnic lines in the process. "There has been a tremendous solidarity among women that has not been related to ethnic or national identity," Jasmina Tesanovic points out. "They have covered each other with false names and nationalities, risked lives, written letters, given promises and kept them. Today, 70% of all our new non-governmental groups are created by women."

Last month, 80 such organisations gathered to discuss ways of mobilising women across the beleaguered state. "We've got a two-prong strategy to raise gender awareness by educating women in the media, trade unions and other liberal professions, and lobby for more involvement on a political level," Alexic says.

Time is of the essence. There are fears of another crackdown on dissidents before crucial local elections are held in April. "For a long time, we knew what we didn't want but not what we wanted," Grupkovic says. "Now we know we want democracy, we also know the only way of getting it is by galvanising women into action."

With the resumption of air links to Belgrade, it is hoped help will also come from feminists abroad who have yet to experience Belgrade's bad kind of queues.

Women's Aid to former Yugoslavia

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