I wrote this story from Belgrade for Postmedia News, the wire I worked for back when it was Canwest News Service. As far as I can tell the piece was picked up by zero papers. I blame . . . me?
(Original link here.)
BELGRADE, Serbia — The young man in the old army cap posed theatrically, a cardboard tombstone held above his chest, his black boots thrust in front of him as he lay on the concrete path. Surrounded by a sign-waving mass, he grinned and joined in as the crowd chanted in unison: “Libya! Serbia! Libya! Serbia! Libya! Serbia!”
While much of Europe united last week behind a NATO-led bombing campaign against the Gadhafi regime, reaction here to the attacks has been much more tepid.
Ties between Serbia and Libya go back decades, to the Belgrade-born Non-Aligned Movement, and the wounds from NATO’s strikes against Serbia in 1999 remain fresh in the minds of many here.
Last weekend two separate rallies were organized in central Belgrade in support of the Gadhafi government.
On Saturday, Libyan students joined a few dozen Serbians in Belgrade’s Republic Square to wave green flags and anti-NATO posters while speakers condemned the western-led bombings.
At one point, a Libyan student took to the microphone to unleash a curse-laden rant against the United States, NATO and especially French president Nicolas Sarkozy.
“You are all bull—-,” he said. “F— off forever.”
The next day, a group of Serbian ultranationalists gathered in a nearby park to pose for the cameras and brandish signs accusing NATO of “legal terrorism.”
“They took Kosovo from us, they will probably take East Libya from them,” said Milos, a young man with an adolescent moustache and green Gadhafi T-shirt.
Milos, who would not give his last name, was eight when NATO planes attacked what was then Yugoslavia in 1999.
“I was terrified,” Milos said of the bombings. “I watched the sky turn red.”
The 11-week campaign, designed to halt ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, devastated Serbia’s infrastructure and remains a highly polarizing topic here. Some of the buildings destroyed in the bombing remain crumpled and Belgrade’s military museum still displays the uniforms of U.S. pilots shot down during the war.
Among those at the rally Sunday were supporters of Vojislav Seselj, an ultranationalist politician currently on trial for war crimes in The Hague.
Many in the crowd wore the uniform of the European extreme right: heads shaved, camouflage pants tucked into black boots.
Those protesting were likely a “small fringe,” said Mirjana Kosic, the co-founder of Transconflict, a non-governmental organization in Belgrade.
But online, at least, support here for Gadhafi has been robust. By Tuesday morning more than 62,000 people had “liked” a Facebook page named Support for Moammar al Gadhafi from the people of Serbia.
The page was set up by the far-right Nasi 1389 party, according to a report from the AFP. But membership has spread beyond that small niche.
Zarko Zdravkovic joined the group last week. Like some Serbian students, he also traded his Facebook profile picture for one of Gadhafi with his fist held high.
At an outdoor cafe in Belgrade Sunday, Zdravkovic, a law student, explained his support for the Libyan dictator.
“Gadhafi supported Serbia during the war,” he said. It’s only right that they support him now.”
Zdravkovic was born in Pristina, now the capital of independent Kosovo. Like many ethnic Serbs, he fled the area in 1999. He has lived in Belgrade ever since.
Gadhafi’s government was one of the first to offer aid to Serbia after the Kosovo war. To this day it supports Serbia’s claim to the breakaway province.
Zdravkovic, dressed in military pants, a bomber jacket and a black and white kaffiyeh scarf, said he doesn’t favour dictators, necessarily. If the people of Libya want to get rid of Gadhafi peacefully, he said he would be behind them. But the rebels in east Libya aren’t protesters, he said, they are terrorists.
Back at the rally, a Libyan student arrived in a long wool coat and green scarf. He had a thick stack of glossy Gadhafi posters wrapped in brown paper. The protesters surrounded him and stripped the pictures away.
Another student, Abdussalam Basher, said he came to Belgrade to do a PhD in management.
“I was in America,” he said. “But I hate Americans.”
Throughout the rally Basher tried to prod the crowd into chanting: “Long live Gadhafi!” But for whatever reason it never took. Instead the crowd, old and young, always returned to the same words: “Libya! Serbia!” they chanted. “Libya! Serbia!”