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The Last Days of Yugoslavia

November 24, 1991|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | Carol J. Williams is The Times' Vienna bureau chief. She has been covering the war in Yugoslavia since it began.

Marble terraces lead up to the bar, disguised as a library, where a few foreign guests sip cocktails in a silence too contemplative for worried locals. The couple pause to consider the chic Avala Cafe, decorated in pastel hues and offering a sumptuous buffet. But the cafe overlooks dreary Belgrade and, by extension, the clouds hanging thick over the city's future. In the Tea House, however, preoccupations evaporate. Here, the couple can relax. The ambience is neither too reflective nor too real. Waitresses bustle about in calico frocks with white pinafores, their trays crowded with fine porcelain and cups of foamy cappuccino. In the Tea House, elegant local couples gather to parade their finery and choose among 14 kinds of cake displayed on the polished mahogany table. There are good company and gossipy chatter and someone else's misbehaving children to ensure distraction.

Belgrade's poshest places are cashing in on a fever of escapism. The Kneza Mihaila shopping center's most exquisite boutiques are raking in a mirage of profit as capital residents unload their doomed dinars. Discotheques are jammed with smartly dressed draft-dodgers and would-be guerrillas, neither crowd marring a night of laughter and dancing with talk of the war in Croatia, only an hour's drive west. On the strip known as Skadarlija, revelers deaden fears of war with numbing slugs of slivovic (plum brandy) and tip Gypsy violinists with 500-dinar notes. The blue bills, worth $50 earlier this year, are now mere symbols of generous intent.

Despite the revelry and the slivovic, there is thunder on the horizon. The war to prevent Croatian secession is destroying the Serbian towns and villages it was launched to protect. The fighting, the bloodshed and the dying are increasingly difficult to blot out. President Milosevic has recklessly printed money to pay the army, setting in motion another cycle of hyperinflation. The people of Serbia are no longer able to deny the approach of disaster. Faced with an uncertain future, Serbs with the money to do so are waltzing on the deck of the Titanic. Perhaps subconsciously, perhaps deliberately, they are going down with the ship in style. Thoughts of war and sacrifice are checked at the Tea House door.

At the Writers Club, a smoky cellar restaurant across the Sava River from the Hyatt, the clientele of intellectuals and politicians considers reality an acceptable topic of conversation--but only if softened by wit.

"Soon the Croats will have to come here to be killed, because we haven't the gasoline to go to Croatia and make war," says one Serbian diner, whose draft-age brother is living abroad to evade army service.

A young woman journalist, just back from the shellshocked Adriatic resort of Dubrovnik in Croatia, makes light of the unstoppable, barbaric war. "We go to war to get back at the Croats for what they did to us during the last war, right?" she begins, pausing to draw on a Marlboro. "They killed so many thousands of us then," she says, marking in the air with her right hand a level signifying the number of Serbs executed by Croatian fascists during World War II. "We kill so many thousands of them now, to get even"--her left hand fixes a second mark of equal height--"but we are also dying by the thousands," and the hand with the cigarette rises a little higher. "So, in the end, the Croats win! Because there will still be more dead Serbs than dead Croats!"

The Serbian journalists roar with laughter and order another bottle of the excellent white wine Ilocko, from one of the fiercest battlefronts in Croatia.

In the atmosphere of approaching apocalypse, escapism seems a small sin. But even the federal army is squandering its resources in its chaotic campaign. Renegade units harassing Croatia's Adriatic resorts fire as much ammunition into the air to celebrate as they do at their targets. Air force bombers have more than once accidentally strafed their own infantry.The army could conscript the federal rail system to transport its tanks and heavy guns to the scattered fronts. Instead, despite the fuel crunch, the hardware rumbles vast distances under its own power, tearing up highways and trailing clouds of black exhaust. Like the Tea House patrons, those commanding the federal army pay no heed to tomorrow. The tinkle of piano keys and the clatter of tanks serve equally well to drown out chilling thoughts of the war's reality.

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