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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA | REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK

To Some Serbs, War's a Banana Peel

Humor: Jokes spurred by bombing give ordinary folks a chance to express criticism of regime.

May 29, 1999|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PODGORICA, Yugoslavia — The conflict between NATO and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has given rise to a rich harvest of Serbian humor--and lent new life to some old gems. Many of the jokes are of the gallows humor sort, and sometimes not very funny to American ears. But the jokes--including some of the worst ones--reveal that many ordinary Serbs have a sharply critical understanding of their government's behavior.

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One joke has Milosevic talking to a picture of himself hanging on the wall. The picture says to him: "You know, pretty soon, our positions might be reversed. They're going to take me down, and you're going to hang."

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This joke cropped up soon after the last bridge over the Danube River in the city of Novi Sad went down under NATO bombs:

"What's the kid from Novi Sad going to be when he grows up?"

"A ferry boat pilot."

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Many Serbs believe that NATO technology includes the use of "locaters" placed on the ground at targets for bombing. So:

"What does a Serb do when he finds a locater?"

"Throws it into his neighbor's yard."

"What does he do when he finds two locaters?"

"He throws one into his neighbor's yard and the other into his mother-in-law's yard."

"What does he do when he finds three locaters?"

"He throws another one into his mother-in-law's yard, just in case."

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A few old jokes have regained currency, with some taking on deeper meaning in the current situation.

One golden oldie about Milosevic's negotiating style offers fair warning to anyone who thinks a deal to end the war means an end to the Kosovo crisis:

Bill, Boris and Slobo are elephant-hunting in Africa. They see a big elephant and shoot it, but to their dismay they discover that there was also a baby elephant. They agree to keep watch on the baby overnight and to take it to a zoo the next day.

"OK," says Bill. "I'll keep watch from 8 p.m. to midnight, Boris will watch from midnight to 4 a.m., and Slobo can keep watch from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m." Everyone agrees.

Bill wakes up Boris at midnight, and Boris wakes up Slobo at 4. But when everyone's up in the morning, the baby elephant is gone.

"Slobo, where's the elephant?" Bill asks.

"What elephant?" asks Slobo.

"You remember, yesterday we shot a mother elephant, but there was a baby," Bill says.

"Yes," Slobo replies.

"And we agreed we'd keep watch on it overnight?"

"Yes."

"I woke Boris up at midnight. Did he wake you up at 4?"

"Yes."

"So where's the elephant?" Bill demands.

"What elephant?"

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Another joke--among the darkest of all--suggests that many people are not so naive about the brutality inflicted on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo as it sometimes seems, given denials by the Belgrade government and most Serbian media:

After the conflict is over, war crimes investigators go to Kosovo and discover a large number of bodies.

"Aha! What's this?" asks one of the investigators.

"Oh, they ate poisonous mushrooms," comes the reply.

Tests show that the victims did indeed eat poisonous mushrooms.

The search continues, and another burial site is found. Tests again show the people died from poisonous mushrooms.

But at a third site, everyone has been shot in the head.

"And how do you explain this?" demands the investigator.

"They wouldn't eat the mushrooms."

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