Targets Hit Bull's-Eye for Defiant Serbians
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 9, 1999; Page A1
BELGRADE, April 8 – The predominant Serbian reaction to the NATO bombing campaign – a mixture of fatalism, defiance, gallows humor and paranoia – is best summed up by a symbol that has taken the country by storm over the past two weeks.
You see the target sign everywhere: adorning billboards, the clothes of young children, newspaper front pages, web sites, bridges and lapels of government ministers. Consisting of a black bull's-eye surrounded by two concentric circles, and usually attached to people or peaceful objects, it is designed to mock Western claims that NATO has no quarrel with the Serbian people, only with their leaders.
"We are trying to relieve our anger through humor," says Miroslav Radic, director of a small public relations company in Belgrade responsible for popularizing the target sign. "We are trying to send a message that not just Serbs, but anybody in the world can be targeted by aggression or by an anonymous bureaucracy."
The target sign – supposedly borrowed from the advertising symbol for the American department store chain Target – has multiplied like a virus in the 16 days since NATO war planes and cruise missiles began hitting sites in Belgrade and other cities that Western officials say are parts of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's war machine.
Something of a Serbian equivalent of the peace sign worn by American peace demonstrators in the 1960s, it reflects widespread anger and bewilderment over the NATO bombing campaign. While the anger has been harnessed by Serbian authorities and fanned by government propaganda, it has deep roots in the popular psyche.
The grass-roots reaction to the bombing campaign is best conveyed by the Serbian word inat, which has no direct English equivalent but implies a combination of extreme stubbornness and a willingness to go to any lengths to get revenge on someone who has wronged you. Examples of inat are legion: from the waiter who spits in the soup of a patron who has been rude, to the people of Belgrade who took to the streets every day for three months in the winter of 1996-97 to protest the government's refusal to recognize an opposition victory in local elections.
"Inat is a natural state of mind for a weak person dealing with a stronger people," explains Voja Zenetic, a Belgrade commentator and advertising executive who has been leading the target campaign. "When Milosevic thought he could do whatever he wanted with us, I was against him. Now I am against NATO because they are strong and we are weak." He traces the concept of inat to the desire of Serbs to get back at the Turks during their 500-year subjugation to the Ottoman empire.
Expressions of defiance of the United States and its NATO partners range from the creative to the obscene. Visitors to Belgrade are greeted by a huge billboard over the Sava River that is angled slightly upward, in the presumed direction of U.S. warplanes. It displays an obscenity in English. American restaurants have been given names like Baghdad Cafe and the Canadian Embassy has been renamed "the Embassy of Quebec." The American Information Center in the downtown pedestrian street has been trashed and ransacked, along with the cultural centers of Britain and France.
Lewd drawings of President Clinton are going up all over town, and Monica Lewinsky jokes are legion. NATO is routinely referred to as the "New American Terrorist Organization." The once-flourishing industry of Milosevic jokes, meanwhile, appears to be grinding to a halt.
"I don't think Americans would make jokes about Clinton if they were attacked by Russia," says Zenetic, who answers his cell phone, "Hello, Clinton speaking."
Asked to tell the most recent Milosevic joke, he comes up with an old chestnut. Clinton, Yeltsin, and Milosevic are in a plane that is about to crash. Fate decrees that only one can survive, and he will be chosen by democratic ballot. The final vote count goes like this: 1 vote for Clinton, 1 vote for Yeltsin, 1 million votes for Milosevic.
Political jokes apart, the crisis has spawned much black humor as Serbs attempt to make the best of their situation. An entire subspecies of humor has been spawned in the underground air-raid shelters mainly frequented by people who live close to military sites that could be targeted by NATO bombs.
Question: "What is the difference between a black beetle and a red beetle?" Answer: "Just the taste."
Many of the jokes consist of puns that are difficult to translate into English. For example, the Serbian expression for "good morning" is "dobar dan", but people now say "bombar dan."
Some jokes are directed at NATO planners. After it was reported that the only town of any size in Serbia that had not yet been targeted by NATO bombs was a place called Zrenjanin, a billboard went there with the slogan: "NATO, why don't you hit us? We are not contagious."
Mingled with the humor is suspicion of outsiders and a conviction that NATO saboteurs are traveling around Serbia directing the incoming attacks. Rumors have spread that subversive elements are planting electronic "locaters" in military buildings, which are then blown up by NATO bombs.
This morning, this correspondent was briefly detained by military police for "loitering" near the Defense Ministry while waiting for his driver to return from an errand. A military building just down the street had been bombed overnight by NATO warplanes, and the soldiers were naturally nervous.
The ubiquitous target sign is said to be the brainchild of Serbian activists in Boston who appropriated the emblem of the U.S. retail company, adapting it slightly to their needs. It then crossed the Atlantic via Internet.
In Serbia, the image has been distributed by a group of advertising executives and intellectuals previously critical of the Milosevic regime who are now directing their creative energies to making fun of NATO. In addition to hundreds of thousands of target leaflets and T-shirts, the group has also launched its own web site (www.yutarget.com), where copies of the sign can be downloaded along with audio clips of air raid sirens sounding over Belgrade.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company