Belgrade is buzzing but layers of misery lie under the glitter


The hottest ticket in Belgrade this week is a movie about the NATO bombing. Cinemas are packed and touts sell seats at a 50 per cent mark-up on the 40 dinar (55p) price.

Ten out of the capital's thirty cinemas are screening Sky Hook, the story of a bunch of ordinary, loveable, fractious Serbs during the air strikes.

The working-class men from the high-rise flats of New Belgrade struggle to survive, complaining about "ten years" of trials - code for the decade of wars brought by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

But driven on by a father whose young son has stopped speaking since the bombing started, they decide to rebuild their bombed neighbourhood basketball court - and bet a local cigarette-smuggler and wheeler-dealer 500 Deutschmarks that they can do it in three days.

In the end, between beer, sex, and nights of fear in the air-raid shelter, they succeed, only to find that Nato strikes again, reducing their efforts to ruins.

The young son leaves with his mother for the sanctuary of Italy. The father is killed in an airstrike. But before he leaves, the boy says the word, "Seven", the number on his dad's sport's vest, when times were good and his father was a basketball star playing for Yugoslavia.

A column in Politika, the state-owned newspaper, hails the film for its portrayal of the atmosphere in Serbia during the strikes, and for the warmth and sensitivity of its characters. Biljana Vasic, a local journalist from the non-government magazine Vreme, says: "It's true that everyone had to focus on something during the bombing. Some played basketball, others monopoly. We had to have something, or we would go mad."

On the streets, outside the cinema, Belgrade is buzzing. It's Saturday night and Serbia, under sanctions, seems to be doing remarkably well. At the Mondo nightclub, a girl in a microscopic mini sways to the beat, amid strobes and cigarette smoke. Ten minutes away by cab, kids in jeans and American-style bomber jackets queue to pass bouncers at the Lucky Strike promotion down by the Sava River - it's the biggest rave party in town.

The capitals cafe's, wine bars, restaurants, pizzerias are busy. There's not a seat in the Jazz Club overlooking Student Square, where, last year, hundreds of anti-government protesters demonstrated - but now people simply hurry between billboards, neon and glowing street lights.

The capital seems buoyant, if not booming. Its people are natural entrepreneurs. War profiteers and smugglers have filled it with money for years, now sanctions have simply served to keep their scams lucrative. Everything is for sale in Belgrade - at a price. Black BMWs or spruce new Peugeots mingle on the roads with noisy Yugos and Trabis from communist times. There's always petrol to be had on the massive black market.

Computers have seeped into the country from many sources. Access to the internet through local server InfoSky is now so competitive that many can only reach the information superhighway late at night.

Below the surface, though, times are tough for many, who have simply learned the skills of managing on less and less. A young lad queuing for the Mondo nightclub says he goes there rarely because of the cost. "I have 55p for my entrance, 22p for my girlfriend and no money for drinks," said Milutin Kostic, aged 17.

Factory women whose companies are closed or on part-time working clean offices to augment their meagre pay from state jobs; others work in spruce private grocery shops; others sell at the market. "I just want it all to end," sighs one cleaning woman with three children to feed and no income. Below the veneer of vibrant Belgrade, outside the glitz of Saturday night fever, many are, like her, simply struggling to stay alive, earning a bit on the side, to stay alive.

It grows increasingly difficult, but in this richly fertile country that was always self-sufficient in agriculture, most can get food from family in the country or by cultivating vegetables at summer cottages.

Destitution is not immediately obvious, but it is also a part of Belgrade. An hour's drive from the centre, but within the Belgrade municipality, some of the poorest can be found. They line up at a Red Cross soup kitchen in the small town of Sopot.

Around 800 of the town's 20,000 citizens queue every day outside the kitchens for their only meal - glutinous spaghetti with cheese and hunks of bread.

Peasant widows with gnarled hands and sundried skin wait, in a late spring snowstorm. Their cheeks are cold under bright, patterned scarves. Their situation is desperate.

Borka Pasic (77), gives a toothy smile, but it fades as she talks. "I was born in Sopot, but lived for 40 years in Croatia, until the war started, nine years ago, and I returned here." Her husband died in 1988 and now she lives alone, with sparse help from friends, neighbours and the Red Cross.

Huddled in layers of worn clothes, she shows a black woollen cardigan - a charity handout for the winter. Her agricultural pension of 320 dinars (about six pounds) a month has not come since April. Without the Red Cross clothes, spaghetti and bread, she would have nothing.

Air strikes were the final straw for Borka, but she has no desire or energy to allocate blame. "I just want to say that I'm afraid," she says. "We have no plums this year. We have no apples. The bombing ruined everything."

At the opposite end of the Serbian social scale, those who run the country are enormously wealthy and often very dangerous. Soon after the NATO bombing ended last year, a Western correspondent was working out on the running machine of the Hyatt gym. Suddenly a brawny bodyguard stood in front of him and demanded that he get off.

"I'm almost finished he said," not looking up. "Suddenly the machine stopped." He raised his head - angry - to find the female gym supervisor gently moving toward him and helping him off the machine.

She silenced his protests before they were uttered and led him away, whispering quietly. "Sir, that was Arkan." Arkan is the nickname of Zejlko Raznatovic, the indicted war criminal and Milosevic henchman.

She continued: "Sir, better to get off now and live - than to run and die. You can come back and run again tomorrow."

Arkan was assassinated in January by a professional hit-man in his regular haunt: the Inter-Continental Hotel. But Belgraders, from Borka to the teenager Milutin, waiting at the disco, are following the gym supervisor's motto.

They hope that tomorrow will be better. Today, under the grim shadow of the thugs, they simply try to live as best they can.