Guerrilla Radio, published by NationBooks, is the remarkable story of B92, a Belgrade radio station founded in 1989 by a group of young idealists who simply wanted to “play rock ‘n’ roll and tell the truth.” As Slobodan Milosevic led his country into four Balkan wars, B92 became the leading voice of resistance for those who opposed his dictatorship. In a moving account of life inside Belgrade, Matthew Collins describes how the station’s founders survived four shut-downs, economic hardship, armed gangsters and NATO bombing, until the dramatic overthrow of Milosevic in October 2000. The following is an excerpt from chapter four. Click here for info about Guerrilla Radio, including how to order a copy online.
The first thing to hit you was the noise. From a mile away it sounded like a thousand screeching tires–a road race, like the Monte Carlo grand prix, circling round and round tight cobbled corners, or a distant football match, with angry fans screaming their displeasure at some poor refereeing decision. Then closer, and the shrill silver whinny, a piercing sheet of sound bursting from thousands of whistles, was underpinned by the queasy low moan of cow horns blowing a mournful bass counterpoint in unison. And then the people: too many to count, a rolling surf of faces and bodies, each chanting, whistling, blowing hard until they had to catch their breath–and smiling, positive, innocent again with a sudden flush of wonder; a lost emotion inexplicably rediscovered.
A frail, headscarved old lady halted the marchers and passed out home-baked cakes. A ruddy-faced pensioner threw down cans of beer and packs of cigarettes from his fourth-floor balcony. A woman cradled her child in one arm, gazing down on the city’s children, brushing away tears with her free hand. Tears welled up in the marchers’ eyes as they saluted her with whistles and arms aloft. From every towerblock, people were waving and cheering, showering the crowd with tiny strips of torn paper.
In the middle of it, a phalanx of funky drummers, woolly hats pulled low against the chill, stepped jauntily to a samba beat bashed out on cheap East German drum kits, while fellow marchers banged along merrily on saucepans and cheese graters and tinny, tinkling cowbells; anything they could pull out hastily from a kitchen cupboard and carry along to make some noise, to shatter the silence, to synch to the beat which declared: We are here–now listen.
It was a carnival of resistance. Belgrade had woken up and opened its eyes. From nowhere, an intrepid spirit had sprung from the concrete boulevards; a hardy winter flower blossoming on barren ground. Everywhere you looked, someone was plotting and planning, trying to outdo the rest with the most outrageous and telling strike at the heart of the regime; the blackest joke, the most audacious allegory.
Across a frosty quadrangle and down the yellowing corridors of Belgrade University’s Faculty of Philosophy, a bunch of students, clad in jeans and sportswear, were working on their daily newssheet, the Protest Tribune, and arguing, laughing, joking, while upstairs their comrades huddled in sleeping bags–the night shift, snoozing lightly for a few hours before it was their turn to resume command.
One of them stopped for a moment, rubbed his red eyes, lit another Marlboro, inhaled quickly, then explained, in the kind of hurry that indicated all talk was a waste of precious time that could be better spent on action: “When we started we were full of enthusiasm. We thought if we carried on for 10 days they would listen to us. Now it’s cold, we’re tired, we have exams coming up, we don’t want to go on the streets. Milosevic is ignoring us, hoping that we will get bored and break down. In 1991 and 1992 we failed, and each time we failed it got worse and worse. I don’t know what will happen if we fail this time. We can’t make any more compromises.”
This was Miroslav, an archaeology student, inflamed with lack of sleep and the urgency of a body clock running on double time. “We learn about democracy, about justice, about human rights, but then we see the media blockade, manipulation all over the place, police on the streets,” he gabbled. “They stole our votes. It’s not like we were taught. Many people think nothing will change if the opposition come in. Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong. But come on, let’s see! We can’t lose anything more.”
Thousands of police, he said, were parked up in the back streets, waiting to strike when the order comes. He remembered 1991, when the tanks rolled in to the city squares and stood there, arrogant and threatening. “We don’t want any bloodshed, we don’t want anyone to die, but if necessary I will be the first to lie in front of the tanks. They’ll run me over: OK, no big deal–I don’t want to live in a country where there is no freedom.”
Across town, in the dusty basement of the Faculty of Electrical Engineering underneath Bulevar Revolucije, another group of students, most of them no older than 20, were sucking down bottles of Czech beer, huddled around glowing computer screens, their dishevelled clothes indicating that none of them had been getting much sleep down here. They were slightly nervous, worried that the police might discover the location of their guerrilla bunker, but simultaneously euphoric, urging each other onwards. Pasted on the wall was a chart listing the world’s top twenty dictators, downloaded from the Internet. Slobodan Milosevic was in at number fourteen with a bullet. One of the students complained sarcastically: “He should definitely be in the top ten!”
This claustrophobic room was the command center for the young protesters’ website. They wrote reports, took photographs, collated news, translated it into English, coded it and published direct to the world the same day. By web design standards, theirs wasn’t a slick, flashy site: it just did its job. “The Internet is the only free media in this country, the only way to communicate with the international public,” said one, Igor. “We are making connections with young people all over the world. We are saying: ‘Look at us, we are the same age, we think the same, we like the same music, we are also Europeans and we want to be part of Europe.'”
He and his friends had been down in their strip-lit bolt-hole for weeks, toiling selflessly day and night. Their studies were on hold for the duration and they expected to have to spend another year at college to catch up. “Most of our teachers and parents support us,” said Igor. “They say it’s better to lose one year of studying than to lose your whole life in the darkness.”