This Photo Cost Me a Lens

Serbia22 The light was so pretty as we left Novy Beograd, crossing the Sava River bridge, that when traffic backed up, I jumped out of the cab and ran to the median to take this picture looking downtown. While I was out there the taxi edged ahead of me and before I knew it, my wife and our friend Gordana came into view along the sidewalk. They had paid the cabbie and let him go. Trouble was, I had left a bag with a telephoto lens on the seat, and I didn't tell them.

This was spring of 1997, during the long, slow suspended-animation fall of the Milosevic regime.

We sat with students at an outdoor cafe alongside good-humored demonstrations, the plaza filled with protesters and speakers and jazz. The crowd gave the three fingered Serbian salute.

An ancient redoubt, the Kalemegdan Fortress, surveyed the confluence of the Rivers Danube and Sava from high on a hill at the tip of the old town. It’s a lovely location, but at the time, the good people of Belgrade scarcely had the luxury to enjoy it.

Such was their quietly desperate circumstance that they approached life, and visitors,  sardonically, cynically and suspiciously. And that was the urbane camp, those not filled with the parochialism Milosevic goaded in his campaign of victimization.

On the field of blackbirds, several kilometers outside Pristina, near the location of the iconic battle of Kosovo 598 years before (which serves today as the founding myth of the Serbian nation), Milosevic, in 1987 a party functionary, told Serbs there that "No one has the right to beat you … No one will beat you ever again." He was President two years later.

Ironically the Serbs lost the battle of Kosovo, and today Kosovo, like all of the rest of the non-Serb parts of the former Land of the South Slavs, like Slovenia and Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina and Montenegro and Macedonia (FYROM), lies outside of Serbian control.

I had my camera lens stolen in Belgrade, and I felt threatened by a burly, drunken group of Serbian men in a bar with grimy walls and tablecloths, where next to us young men inexplicably drank Pepsis and orange juice.

Across town a resigned young couple gladly gave us a 500,000,000,000 dinar note as a souvenir, then took us deep into an underground nightclub at midnight and came back to our extravagantly expensive Intercontinental Hotel and sat and drank with us until we told them to go home.

That was Serbia, circa 1997.

See more photos in the Former Yugoslavia Gallery on

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