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Life During the War in Serbia.

Serbian writer Jasmina Tesanovic. She’s just published a book called “The Diary of a Political Idiot,” (Midnight Editions 2000). The book, comprised of excerpts from her personal journal, narrates daily life in Belgrade during the political upheaval and bombings in Serbia. She is one of the founders of 94, the first feminist publishing house in Serbia. She lives and works in Belgrade.


Other segments from the episode on December 6, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 6, 2000: Interview with Jasmina Tesanovic; Commentary on legalese.


DATE December 6, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Jasmina Tesanovic discusses her book about the bombings
of Yugoslavia by NATO last year

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

When NATO started bombing Serbia last year, Jasmina Tesanovic tried to stay
sane by writing. She opposed the Milosevic regime, but she was terrified of
the bombs. Tesanovic is a novelist who lives in Belgrade. She also
co-founded Serbia's first feminist press and edited a collection of essays
Croatian and Bosnian refugees. During the bombing she e-mailed journal
excerpts to a writer friend in Sweden. The friend posted the diary entries
the Web site of a magazine she wrote for. The journal was soon on 50 Web
sites and e-mailed around the world. Now Tesanovic's journals are published
in the new book, "The Diary of a Political Idiot." We invited her to talk
about life just before and during the bombing and about life since Milosevic
was overthrown.

Let's start with a reading from her journal entry written before the NATO
bombing when the Serbs were on the rampage in Kosovo.

Ms. JASMINA TESANOVIC (Author): (Reading from "The Diary of a Political
Idiot") March 20th, '98. It has been a terrible month. The killing has
started again, this time in Kosovo. Once again, we are witnesses who cannot
see. We know it is going on, but we are blind. It's not even the killing
that makes me die every day little by little. It's the indifference to
killing that makes me feel as if nothing matters in my life. I belong to a
country, to a language, to a culture which doesn't give a damn for anybody
else and for whom nobody gives a damn. And I'm completely paralyzed.

I'm not used to fighting. I'm not used to killing. I don't believe anybody
anymore; not even myself. I have stayed here and I have made a mistake.
Victim or not, I have become one of those who did nothing for themselves or
for those they love. I have a feeling that I will not survive.

GROSS: That's Jasmina Tesanovic reading from her new book "The Diary of a
Political Idiot: Normal Life In Belgrade."

Jasmina, why did you decide to stay in Belgrade knowing that the bombing was
likely to begin?

Ms. TESANOVIC: I tried to get away in 1992, when--the first time we had a
threat of bombing Belgrade. I went to Vienna with my family, with my
daughter, and we stayed there for three months. I was so unhappy, you know,
because worrying all the time for my friends; for my family who couldn't
it. And as soon as the threat was gone, we went back, you know, to
And there was other threats in '95; in '97, I think, again. But, you know,
'99--in '98, actually, in October, when we were quite sure that the bombs
would come, I had this feeling that if I leave now, I will never be able to
come back because somebody else will take over my country. I will have no

place to come back, you know. Either be it Milosevic, who will take over
completely; either be it some troops, you know, occupied by the, you know,
winners. Whoever the winner is, I would lose my country.

And then I felt a great solidarity with the people who couldn't make it; who
couldn't leave for many reasons, you know. And actually, I could have left,
only with my daughter. That means leaving all my men behind. And, you
men in these situations, get depressed because they're mobilized. They have
to kill and they have to be killed. And with my philosophy of being a
I thought that women can save men from being killed--at least their own
man--and from killing, you know. I was, like, glued to Belgrade.

GROSS: Now the impression I had trying to follow the story from here in the
United States...

Ms. TESANOVIC: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...was that most of the intellectuals and the writers and the
dissidents had fled Serbia years ago and that there was very few
and artists and dissidents left anymore. What was your impression of that?

Ms. TESANOVIC: No. You see, I don't believe in that kind of vision. And I
fight strongly against it because I think nobody had a true option, you
There were compulsive options, you know. And there is a division going on
between those who left and those who stayed behind. Both of the sides
consider themselves better off, you know. Those who left accuse those who
stayed behind, saying, `You're the traitors. You're accomplices to the
situation.' Those who stayed behind accuse those who left, `You left us.
abandoned us. You are the traitors,' you know, especially now when the
situation got better and everybody wants to stay in Belgrade, actually, and
build their life anew, you know. But I always protest against this kind of
divisions because those who left had to leave, you know. Nobody had a good
choice, you know. And I think that the division line was really among those
who could do it; who didn't have a family; who had the money; who had the
opportunity to go somewhere, and those who didn't, you know. And that's how
it should stay, you know.

GROSS: Now when you knew that the bombing was going to happen, some
like, sent their children to another country. You kept your daughter with

Ms. TESANOVIC: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: How did you make that choice about what to do?

Ms. TESANOVIC: You see, I had step--I have step-sons, you know, and we
to send away one of--the older one, who was, actually, supposed to be
mobilized, you know. He was really running. He was a war deserter for 10
years, only now he got his passport. And he went to Rome. I had friends in
Rome. He even made it to enter a very good academy of arts, you know. He
came back in four months because he has--he had his girlfriend and his dog.
You see, my children wouldn't have left me anyway. My daughter--she
was--she's the youngest of all, you know. And she never wanted to leave the
country because of her friends. There was a big solidarity going on among
children, especially. And those children, actually, are the ones who
overthrew Milosevic at the very end, you know. They are part of the
resistance of a strong movement. It's a popular movement, but it was led by
students and war children. And my children are part of that movement, you

GROSS: Are you proud of your daughter for being a part of that?

Ms. TESANOVIC: Well, I--you know, proud is something--I was afraid all the
time. Now that it's all over, I'm proud, because, you know, during the 5th
of October, the day of our revolution--three hours we had the revolution--I
was in front of the Parliament. And I--when the gas came, I ran back home
because I was suffocating.

GROSS: Tear gas, you're talking about.

Ms. TESANOVIC: Tear gas. Oh, yes. And it was terrible. And I saw them
enter the Parliament. I thought, now it's over, and I'll go back home. And
my daughter phoned me. She was behind the Parliament in a much worse
situation with, you know, flames. Parliament in flames. TV building in
flames. And I said, `Oh.' And she asked me, `How are you? Are you OK?'
I said, `Yes, I'm OK. And how are you?' And she said, `Are you--oh, don't
bother,' she said. `And did the police beat you?' I said, `No. Did the
police beat you?' And she said, `No. We are beating the police.' And
16, you know. And I read it in the papers the next day that a group of
children were kicking out the police out of the police station. The first
police station that was really freed was done by a group of elementary

GROSS: So tell me more about what your daughter did in that?

Ms. TESANOVIC: Well, you know, it is a big secret for me because even
the bombings, only now I found out that she was actually cruising every
morning, you know, with her friends. It wasn't an isolated--she wasn't, you
know, a different person from other children. She was--every morning she
was, like, `Can I go out a little bit?' And I said, `Just a little bit,
but when the alarm comes, you know, you must come back home because'--and
said, `Why?' I said, `Because if a bomb hits, I want you to be with me.'
And she said, `No, I want to die with my best friend.' And I said, `No, no.
You will die with me.' And we were, like, you know, talking as if it was
a matter of going to discotheque and coming back home, you know--very
strange. But it was normal. I mean, there's nothing special about that.

And only now I learned that she was--she would take a bus in the morning
because we had only a few buses during the bombings. And they would cruise
around the hit--the targets--the hit targets. So they would look if there
were dead bodies around; how did the buildings look, you know. Children
war in a different way.

GROSS: You write about the divisions between families and between
generations. Your parents were ardent Communists, and they thought of you
a traitor for not being a Communist and then for not supporting the
government. What were the divisions between you and your daughter,

Ms. TESANOVIC: I think there is a huge generation gap, you know. We never
really spoke directly--not yet. No. I think we need some healing time in
order to bring out all our true thoughts, you know. We're not being honest
to each other because she was--all the time she was afraid for me, you know,
because she knew the kind of stuff I was really doing, politically speaking.
And she had this protective attitude. Ever since she was a kid, you know,
had this protective attitude towards me because she had this feeling that
mother is not protected enough from her parents, you know--from her
grandparents, you know. I was, like, the crazy woman doing stuff that
was really doing, you know.

GROSS: Like what?

Ms. TESANOVIC: Like, you know, political standings with women in black and
being spit. And, you know, very often I would say to her, you know, `If the
police comes in, just don't worry. Don't say anything. It's your country.
It's your police. If they ask of me, you say, you don't know where is your
mother,' and she grew up with this kind of--it's not that I was that
important. You know, that I wasn't that important politically speaking. I
don't have a party. I don't have a paper. So--but it could have happened,
you know, in a way. So she had this feeling of protecting me and she also
behaved as somebody who really doesn't want to take part in my public life
because she said that it was too public, you know. And I can understand it,
you know.

But when--what I found out later on in these last years, that she really
wasn't that straight or not interested in what was going on as she behaved,
you know. She had to do it, you know. I realized that she had a big
political conscience. But the gap exists still between us because my
conscience was from my mind. You know, it came from my intellectual, you
know, activities. And she is just a body of war. You know, she--her
childhood was war. So it's a completely different conscience.

GROSS: Right. You know, even before the bombing started, you write in your
diary about how the fascism of the government seemed to be reflected on a
personal level, that the way people were acting in their own families seems
be an extension of the political fascism. Like your neighbor who beat his
wife and pissed in the hallway. Can you talk a little bit more about that,
about how you felt that fascism was being expressed in a more...

Ms. TESANOVIC: It's always been that way.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. TESANOVIC: You know, it's--always is. You can always see the political
patriarchal structure in a family, you know. You can see it on other social
levels. For example, after Milosevic came in power, we'd see little
Milosevics everywhere, you know. Not only in a family. Would see it, like,
in a gas station. A person behaving and speaking like Milosevic, you know,
because you do it. You know, people do it. They imitate a leader, you
whoever he is, be it good leader, be it a bad leader. It's some kind of
social phenomenon, you know.

And I think in every society in any time, you know, we should fight against
the vertical patriarchal structure in family. It's grassroots politics.
you deal with that, you're kind of doing what you can do, you know. And
the rest comes only so. If you deal with your neighbor beating his wife,
know, very soon you won't have this neighbor voting for Milosevic.

GROSS: So what did you do about your neighbor who was being beaten? Did
feel there was anything you could do?

Ms. TESANOVIC: Of course. We did it. We went to the neighbor and we said,
`Please don't do it.' We tried to speak and we intervened. I intervened.
And you know, I went all through my building trying to ask people to
intervene, too, and we stopped it, you know. You can do that kind of stuff.

GROSS: My guest is Serbian novelist Jasmina Tesanovic. Her journal of life
just before and during the NATO bombing of Serbia is published in the new
"The Diary of a Political Idiot." We'll talk more after our break. This is

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jasmina Tesanovic. And she
kept a diary while Americans and NATO were bombing Serbia, where she lives.
And that diary has just been published. It's called "The Diary of Political
Idiot." She is a writer who has written several novels. She's also
translated many books. And she's visiting the United States on the occasion
of the publication of her book.

It seems in some ways like the most difficult part for you during the
was just before the bombing actually happened when you were waiting for it
start. My impression from your journal is that that's when your anxiety and
your fear were at their peak.

Ms. TESANOVIC: It was much easier when it started, you know. At least we
the feeling that now it's started and it has an end, you know. And we're
through with it, you know? Finally, we are paying the price and we have to
pay it but we'll be done with it for good, you know. And I always repeat
and I'll say it again. It wasn't the bombing that was that bad, you know.
was limited in time and space. It was precise target. I am against
of course, you know, but you had a lot of decent people in Belgrade who
`Let them bomb us. As long as it's over because we cannot go on forever.'

Forever with what? With sanctions. The sanctions were a true killing
machine, you know, in Serbia. You had people getting killed because of lack
of antibiotics. I saw it. I saw children dying, children who could have
cured. The same thing is going on in Cuba still, in Iraq. It was in South
Africa. Sanctions are the killing machine. It's an invisible killer.
has dirty hands in this kind of--and only common people are struck by

GROSS: Well, it's easy in the United States to feel that sanctions are a
peaceful way of pressuring a foreign government to stop its mistreatment of
its own people or of the people of another country. You know, 'cause you're
not bombing them. It's just economic sanctions. So you're disagreeing with

Ms. TESANOVIC: Absolutely. I think bombing is not really a solution, you
know. I won't discuss that at all, you know. But I think sanctions--you
know, it has to be revised. The way they're put--you know, the way they're
implemented, it's completely working on the behalf of the, you know,
in power, or the class in power.

GROSS: Well, the way it's supposed to be working is that the people Serbia
say, `It's because of that Milosevic that we're suffering with these
sanctions; therefore, let's get rid of him.'

Ms. TESANOVIC: No, it's not that way. It's completely the opposite. We're
suffering because we are under sanctions. If we didn't have the sanctions,
would be very well off. That's how it works.

GROSS: So you get angry at the United States not at Milosevic during the

Ms. TESANOVIC: Personally I got angry at both, you know. But I think
can very easily get angry at not being able to have antibiotics and die, you
know. They don't get angry with Milosevic. They get angry with whoever
doesn't give them antibiotics, you know. So they die, you know.

GROSS: Well, getting back to the anxiety that you felt before the bombing
actually started, there's one moment you describe in your journal where you
drank a lot, you took some drugs and you started banging your head against
wall and concussed yourself.

Ms. TESANOVIC: Yeah, it was a terrible moment. I remember that night. I
don't know how to explain it. I think it's normal thing, you know, what
happens to people who want to find the way out. They cannot find the way
It's some kind of suicidal attempt I think I had, you know. And, you know,
know very well that I have a daughter, I have children, you know, I have
parents, you know, and that I cannot afford suicide, you know, so I think
was some kind of, you know, imitation of a suicidal attempt. But it was
dramatic, you know. I remember it was ver--this expectation of--the tension
was in the air, you know. Really it was easier when the bombing started
because, as I said, we were waiting for the end at the time and that...

GROSS: How'd you feel the next morning, after you'd given yourself a

Ms. TESANOVIC: Stupid, you know. Stupid and--but I was relieved that I'm
alive, you know. That I didn't do something more drastic.

GROSS: During that period when all these nightmare scenarios were going
through your mind, what were the worst things? The things that you most
wanted to avoid happening?

Ms. TESANOVIC: Personal violence, you know. I have this--you know, we all
have interiorized pictures of previous wars. You know, Second World War,
example. My father was in Second World War, my mother too, you know. Well,
the films we see...

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. TESANOVIC: ...the catastrophic films. You don't even know what
fears you make, you know, in your subconscious. They all came out. Like,
know, I was imagining things happening to my family which I saw in the
which I heard about. But what really--I was afraid of personal kind of
You know, that somebody will come up to my daughter and rape her, for
There was no trace of something happening of that kind because we had great
solidarity among, you know, Belgrade, among people. Everybody was looking
after each other, you know. But this was kind of--picture of violence I was
afraid of, you know.

GROSS: Well, in talking about the solidarity, though, was Serbia divided,
though, between the people who were for Milosevic and the people who were
against him?

Ms. TESANOVIC: No, absolutely. This was one of the prejudices that I hear
very often from--during the bombings everybody was brought together by this
survival struggle and, you know, death makes you equal. I wish we could
in peace that kind of solidarity without threat of death, you know, because
you're on the threat of something above you--you know, money, class and
race--melts, you know, the differences. Money cannot save you from a bomb,
you know.

GROSS: You know, earlier we were talking about how one of the common
you'd have with your daughter is whether she had to be home if the air-raid
sirens went off because you wanted to make sure that if you died, you died
together. But she preferred to die with her friends.

Ms. TESANOVIC: Yes, but she loved me.

GROSS: So would she come home when the sirens went off or would she stay

Ms. TESANOVIC: I imposed on her, you know. It was really a very difficult,
difficult decision for me to impose on her, you know, because I didn't want
ever to impose something on her. But I--it's not that she was safer with me
than her friends, you know. There were--we had no, really, clues to what
be hit, you know, as collateral damage.

GROSS: Right.

Ms. TESANOVIC: But I imposed on her and she said, `Why?' And I said,
`Because I'm your mother,' you know. Had no argument. `I'm your mother
you know, you have to come back home.' But at a certain point, I didn't
impose on her anymore. I said, `You can stay wherever you want to. You
me a phone call and I know that you're inside,' because we felt safer inside
than outside.

GROSS: God, what a really strange thing to have to experience. It's like,
`Well, all the other mothers are letting their children die with their
friends.' It's...

Ms. TESANOVIC: Only few did it. I consider myself a feminist in that
would stick--you know, they were very--all families--you know, we have this
kind of phrase. `Where are you spending the bombings tonight?' And the
answer was, `In the circle of my family.'

GROSS: Were you always with somebody when the sirens went off?

Ms. TESANOVIC: Well, I--yeah. I was very much afraid to stay alone, you
know. And I also--when my husband left for a few days--he went away from
Yugoslavia for a congress and he came back after three days. I invited my
friends to sleep with me because I was afraid to sleep only with my
you know. And--but usually people spend bombings in the circle of their
family. It was like a Christmas party, you know. Like you choose circle,
your family. But I extended it. I had an extended family. I wanted it to
circle of my friends. So we're like in 10:15. We had this big place, a big
house and we spend at 10:15 every evening. From 8 to 4 AM, that was usually
the air-raid time. You know, sitting together with dogs, with children and
trying to, you know, watch the missiles. And we had a good terrace so we
could see them and talk about it as if it were stars, you know.

GROSS: Jasmina Tesanovic is a novelist who lives in Belgrade. Her now
"The Diary of a Political Idiot," is her account of life just before and
during the NATO bombing of Serbia. She'll be back in the second half of the
show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

Coming up, more on life in Belgrade, during and after the NATO bombing of
Serbia. We continue our talk with Serbian writer Jasmina Tesanovic. And as
the contested presidential election continues to play out in the courts,
linguist Geoff Nunberg comments on the language of the law.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Serbian novelist
Jasmina Tesanovic. Her diary of her daily life in Belgrade just before and
during the NATO bombing has just been published in the new book "The Diary
a Political Idiot." She co-founded Serbia's first feminist press.

I think a lot of people who weren't in Serbia, like people here in America,
were wondering, `Well, how do the Serbs feel about everything that Milosevic
has done with the Serb military to the people in Kosovo, to the people in
Bosnia?' Could you talk about that a little bit? You oppose Milosevic.
obviously were not in favor of this. You co-edited a book that contains the
writings of Bosnian refugees. But still, how did you deal with knowing that
your government was responsible for these atrocities?

Ms. TESANOVIC: You know, I think not a lot of people what was really going
on. You have to bare in mind that the control of the media was absolute.
know, you had the TV pictures and, you know, broadcasts which were saying
completely the opposite. And this went on for years, like the Albanian
terrorists. I'm speaking now of the last war, let's say. You know, I can
speak for all of the--you know, it goes for all the rest of wars, for the
Croatian war, for the Bosnian war.

And, you know, the power of propaganda is great, you know? It's really
enormous, you know, on minds of common people. So I'm sure that most of the
people really didn't know. They would hear it from here and say, you know,
from people who come from Bosnia. But I know, for example, my father who
comes from Herzegovina, he wouldn't believe it. For many years he didn't
believe it but he was hearing. You know, if he heard the opposite from what
for him was impossible--you know, only when he heard from his town a person
believed that the Serbs were killing Muslims, he said, `Our Muslims? The
Muslims we protected in the Second World War from the Nazis?' And they
`Yes, they put them in concentration camps,' and then he got all red. And
really had a heart attack after that, you know, because that was his
of a partisan, of a Serb, of a proper man, of an honest man, you know? And
this really broke his heart.

Well, I always had this feeling that maybe we should have done more. We
should have done better. We should have been braver, you know? You know, I
believe in a collective guilt, not as an objective guilt, but as something
which does have a strong hold on people who are part of a community or a
leader of an army which does this stuff. I think we need some kind of
process of some kind, of taking part in our history, actively saying, `We
idiots. We were manipulated. If you're guilty, you have to stand a trial,'
you know? `But if you're not guilty directly, like if you don't have dirty
hands, you know, if you're not a killer, still, you have to go through this
process of acknowledging what your president or your police did.'

GROSS: What about neighbors and people who you knew who were strong
supporters of Milosevic? What was it like to interact with them, knowing
policies and what he was responsible for?

Ms. TESANOVIC: You know, it was very difficult to engage a proper
conversation because my neighbor, for example, whom I supposed to have voted
for Milosevic, I found out that they actually didn't vote for Milosevic.
were afraid of saying they didn't vote for Milosevic, you know?

GROSS: They were afraid they would be punished.

Ms. TESANOVIC: Oh, they're afraid they'd be punished, they would lose their
jobs. You know, people were living on very small money and the very big
pressure of losing even that money which could cover, like, bread and water,
you know, elementary stuff. But even if you would engage in some kind of
conversation, you would get only those stupid things you would hear on TV,
know? `It wasn't us Serbs first; it was them first. We're persecuted for
centuries.' You know, `Our graves are in Kosovo. We have to defend our
graves.' You know all that stuff which has to be deconstructed. You know,
needs time to deconstruct that kind of manipulative construction of
victimization which was exactly what Milosevic was doing, you know, because
made this position that Serbs are never guilty, you know, the biggest people
in Balkans, but they were persecuted by all other nations, and that's a
difficulty you should deconstruct.

GROSS: You say in your journal that some of your women friends ended up
volunteering to work for a various humanitarian groups during the bombing,
for you, what you had to do was write. I mean, that's the way you were able
to get through this. What did writing do to help you endure the bombing?

Ms. TESANOVIC: It helped to stay mentally sane, you know, 'cause after you
would go through an experience of a day in Belgrade, you know, like,
ridiculous stuff, like, you know, speaking to my daughter, `Where should we
killed?' you know--when I sat down and wrote all of that, I would see, you
know, the difference between normal life and peace and the life we're living
as normal now in war because the problem with war is that they're boring,
that they're exciting. You know, they're terribly boring. You just have
single life. We all live the same time every day, you know, but it's not a
life at all. It's some kind of cultural death you're living every day, you

And by writing it down, I had this feeling of staying on the side of life,
the side of peace, you know? And also I remember I had this feeling that if
something happens to us, to me, you know, somebody maybe one day will find
dairy and will see what really went on the ground, because you know all this
information we had on TVs--you know, I was watching BBC all the time, Sky
which were the best and CNN, you know? And they were good, but, you know,
still we were invisible. Our lives were invisible. Never really mentioned
life of, you know, a person from Belgrade.

You know, I must insist on that because I don't want to hurt people from
Bosnia. It wasn't that bad. We had everything all the time. It was only
fear that was great, and this impossible situation of fighting against the
whole world, you know? It was something not manageable, you know? It was,
like, really a death drive if you fight against the whole world, you know?
And you had to put up with this, feeling that eventually if you're gone,
you will be killed.

GROSS: Now at the same time you were writing journal, you were also
what was happening around you on film.

Ms. TESANOVIC: Yes, a woman who write--producter--is it producter?

GROSS: Producer, yeah.

Ms. TESANOVIC: A woman producer from German TV, national TV, she read my
dairy on the Internet and she liked it very much. And she phoned me and
me to film it. She wanted me to be all the time, you know, speaking and
doing--you know, living my life and to direct it. And I thought it was
impossible to do it all the time, to do it by myself, so I asked the
to do it. And I must say that my family thought that I'm pretty crazy to
accept to do it, and it's some kind of cynical attitude toward what was
on, you know, to film it at the same time it was going on. But I said, `You
know, I am artist. I'm a filmmaker. And being an artist, something about
exhibiting your life, you know, it's some kind of--not a very decent
profession. There is something not decent about being a writer, an artist.
And so...

GROSS: So something exhibitionist, then?

Ms. TESANOVIC: Yes. Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, the exhibition
won over my shy part of being the personal person, you know...


Ms. TESANOVIC: ...with the family. And my family was very much against it
and they didn't want to participate in my project. And the people on the
streets were also against it. They were, like--you know, they didn't let us
film their pain, the tragedy, you know, and I would write about it. We had,
like--people didn't want us to film them, and we had the military police
us because it was prohibited to film anything, you know, during the
war--martial law. So my film is, like, only me explaining what's going on,
you know, and the sound because it's the only documentary film really filmed
during the bombing, so it's a document. And as such, I think it's very
precious, but everything is out of the picture, you know?

GROSS: Right.

Ms. TESANOVIC: You didn't have someone behind saying, `Oh, here is a bomb,
you know? Hear it "Dong!" you know?' And the other side, you have, `Here
the people killing, but they don't want us to film them,' you know? So it's
very strange film. It's very conceptual I think.

GROSS: My guest is Serbian novelist Jasmina Tesanovic. Her journal of life
just before and during the NATO bombing of Serbia is published in the new
"The Diary of a Political Idiot." We'll talk more after a break. This is

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jasmina Tesanovic. She's a

Serbian writer who's written several novels, translated a lot of work.
the bombing of Belgrade, she kept a journal. That journal was e-mailed to a
friend who put it on the Internet. It kind of traveled around the world on
the Internet. Now it's actually been published in book form. It's called
"The Diary of a Political Idiot: Normal Life in Belgrade."

I want to get back to your daughter.


GROSS: You write and this is--you say, `My daughter seems to be about five
years older than when the bombing started. She seems older than me and
me as if she is. I've lost her. Do you still feel that way?

Ms. TESANOVIC: Yes, absolutely. I have lost her as a child, and that's
exactly when I wrote it. I didn't even know I was writing it so properly,
know, at that time. She stopped being a child during the bombings. You
maybe it would have come anyway, you know, because she was, like, 15. And
usually girls at 15 get away, but it was some kind of spirt, you know? And
she came back as a grown women now. You know, as I said, very protective
towards me, very independent. Now, for example, she's alone in Belgrade
because I'm here in the United States with my husband. And, you know, she's
alone. She's taking care of her old grandfather, and I don't really worry
about her anymore, you know? And...

GROSS: 'Cause she's so self-efficient.

Ms. TESANOVIC: She's self-efficient.

GROSS: There's a new president of Yugoslavia, Kostunica. Any thoughts

Ms. TESANOVIC: I'm pretty happy with him, you know? You know, all of us,
you know, think that your president, especially after you had Milosevic for
years, should be a prince on a white horse, you know, because he did come up
like that, saving us, you know? And so everybody expects a perfect person,
you know? And I stopped expecting the perfect person, you know? I'm happy
that he's being a democratic person, that's he's educated and that he's
really hard to bring back Yugoslavia to normal life, you know? And
everything--the rest is something that we have to do, you know? It's a free
space, and we--people from Yugoslavia, we have to fill it in with our

For example, you know, women are not in power in Yugoslavia at all. They're
completely invisible. So we have to fight for that, you know? We have to
fight to change the laws. We have to fight--you know, we have to work.
There's a lot of work to be done. You know, with this kind of president who
is inclusive president who doesn't want, you know, to go against anybody
because he pursues just his own politics of his own party, but he likes it,
somebody who wants to be president of all citizens. And in this sense, he's
good president I think.

GROSS: What's your neighborhood like now? Has normal life resumed?

Ms. TESANOVIC: We sleep again. And it's much livelier. Actually, it's
slower. You know, it's slower, but, you have relaxed faces. You know,
are not complaining. People are not tense. We have prices going up because
we have the free market now. You know, this is some kind of interregnum
political period, you know? We have no laws, no true government, some kind
controlled anarchy. And prices are going up. We don't have electricity.
We're paying now for all the misdeeds that Milosevic did and hid them under
the carpet, you know? And I'm always worried how long will these people,
know, resist all this kind of--not having, you know, enough to eat or heat,
you know, because I'm better off. You know, I'm not that bad, you know?

But I hear--like among common people in the market, they never complain.
said, `If we made it through all these years, we will make it another year
two.' Of course, they need help and I'm really appealing all the time for
humanitarian aid, like medicines, heating, you know, nothing special, just
make them feel human after all of this. Then they can vote better, you
It's difficult to expect intellectual conscious if you're hungry. It's
nearly impossible.

GROSS: Your book, "The Diary of a Political Idiot," about your life in
Belgrade during the bombing, has been published in the United States. It
started off as just your journal. You e-mailed it to a friend. She put it
the Internet. It spread all around. But your name was taken off so as to
incriminate you because you were saying things against the Milosevic
government in these diaries. So you became famous for something that was
anonymous. It must have been a funny sensation.

Ms. TESANOVIC: Well, you know, it's one of those stories I always teach as
women studies because I have this course of creative writing for women, of
women, you know, and I look back at history and, you know, all the women
always invisible in their doings, you know, especially their writings. You
know, you have so many--like, Hepasia(ph)--you know, we don't even have her
writings. We only hear of her through other men's writings, you know? And
when it happened to me--in a way, I always wanted to be invisible because I
had a feeling that I can be freer if I'm invisible. So I always used other

names before, you know? I used to use men's names in order to be free to
publish, you know, free to speak out also. You know, it's some kind of
interior censorship I used.

And when they took my name off and I became the anonymous woman from
writing, I felt it was OK, you know? It was right. When I wanted my name
back, it was because of protection. I wanted my name to protect me, my work
to protect me. It was when the journalist was killed in Belgrade and I had
feeling that only publicity will protect me. On the contrary to what they
did, I think, you know, often publicity does protect you.

GROSS: Now I want to get back briefly to the day that Milosevic was
overthrown. You were at the parliament building that day. What brought you
there? What did you expect was going to happen that day?

Ms. TESANOVIC: Well, we were hoping for many years that it will happen, you
know? Ever since '96, we had those huge demonstrations of half a million
people for three months demonstrating, you know? And ever since '96, we
that it was possible, you know, that people were against Milosevic, you
And that was the day that--I think it was a collective feeling, we had a
feeling that if we don't do it today somehow, you know, we will be done for
another 10 years at least, if not forever, you know? You know, what
we found out later on was that it was very organized by the opposition, you
know? They had already contacts with military police. They had contacts
the army, so they knew that there were great possibilities that the army and
the police won't intervene against the people. But people didn't know that.
People just had this feeling of strength if you're in many and if you're
together. And if you stay together, and in many, and if you don't move,
will try to kill and they will kill a lot probably. But they cannot kill
everybody. They cannot kill one million people, you know?

And this is exactly one of the leaders had it in the one free radio we had
which was really impossible to hear. You could hear it and hear it not.
know, very often, he said that and it was like some kind of message, `Go out
and just do it,' you know? I remember the first gas--lectronogenous gas(ph)
that came out, you know, tear gas, and I said, `OK. Jasmina, now you cannot
breath but you will breath.' You know, it was some kind of--you know, you
this adrenaline stuff, you know? You're different, you know? And I started
breathing all of a sudden because it was decision to breath. But I said to
myself, and everybody was doing the same--I'm just some kind of collective
voice, until they answer the parliament, we won't move. And we did it, you

So I said, `OK. Now I can behave normally. I think it's over,' you know.
Then I decided to go home and then we encountered military tanks and we were
looking at the soldiers and the soldiers were looking back at us. And in a
certain point, the soldiers waved at us friendly, and we waved back. And
was it. Of course, it was very dangerous another 24 hours because Milosevic
was trying badly to give orders of killing, of being--but it seems that the
generals didn't want to obey him. It's still a history to write, you know?
I'm just speaking from somebody who knows a little bit from inside but
actually I'm just a woman from the streets, you know?

GROSS: Well, I thank you so much for sharing some of your experiences and
thoughts with us. And I wish you the best of luck. Thank you.

Ms. TESANOVIC: Thank you.

GROSS: Jasmina Tesanovic is a novelist who lives in Belgrade. Her new book
"The Diary of a Political Idiot" is her account of life just before and
the NATO bombing of Serbia.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, as the contested election makes its way through the
our linguist Geoff Nunberg comments on legalese. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Commentary: Realm of legal-speak in light of all the court
action surrounding the presidential election

The broadcast of the legal proceedings surrounding the Florida vote are
exposing us to some confusing legal language. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg
some thoughts about legalese.


When the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the secretary of State had to
provide more time for hand recounts, George W. Bush was quick to react.
court had rewritten the law, he said, and cloaked its ruling in legalistic
language. That last bit might have raised a few eyebrows. In the
circumstances, it was a little like criticizing the pope for cloaking his
encyclicals in Latin. But no politician went far wrong taking on lawyers in
their language and nowhere more so than in modern America. In a curious
its reflection of the obsessive interest we have in our legal institution.

Take the Italians, for example. They don't tell lawyer jokes the way we do,
but then they don't make media stars out of people like Judge Judy or
Cochran or devote a whole TV channel to running nothing but court
in numbing detail. And in the end, they don't have the kind of trust in
legal system that Americans do or spend nearly as much time litigating their
disagreements. In Italy, taking somebody to court is a fool's errand.

That paradoxical attitude about the law carries over to the way we think
its language. Of course, there's plenty to make fun of. Legal language is
like one of those dialects they're supposed to speak in remote Appalachian
hollows. It's a kind of para-English that branched off from the main shoot
the language in the late Middle Ages and has set up an independent
Now it lives in respectable succession from the reality that the rest of us

To be sure, lawyers are aware that this is a problem, and in recent years,
there have been efforts to rewrite statutes and consumer documents in
that people can understand. Even the Supreme Court has toned down some of
more Baroque linguistic effects. The legal scholar Peter Tearsman(ph) noted
that over the decades there's been a consistent decline in the court's use
words like hereunto and aforesaid in its opinions.

Still, it isn't likely that the lawyers are ever going to wind up speaking
just like the rest of us. Part of this is just economic self-interest. As
Tearsman observes, lawyers feel more comfortable about billing their clients
$250 an hour for advising them of something than for simply telling them
it. The main reason why lawyers cling to their language, though, is that
like to think that it's more precise than ordinary English. But actually a
growing number of legal scholars have begun to question that point.

And after sitting through the O.J. trial, the impeachment proceedings and
all the Florida election cases, you'd think that the general public would
begun to have some doubts about the precision of legal language as well.
anybody still think that lawyers have a clearer hold on the meaning of their
word discretion than we do on the meaning of ours? Sometimes, in fact, the
language of the law is more obscure and ambiguous than anything that
English has to offer.

Take the simple word `shall' that appeared in that crucial Florida statute
about when the secretary of State was supposed to certify the results. It's
one of the most bizarres turns of the whole affair that the election of an
American president might depend on the interpretation of a word that closed
its run as a productive element of American speech around 1916, the year
Henry James died.

But lawyers keep inserting shall into contracts and statutes as if the
imperatives of law were too sacrosanct to be rendered by a verb that
people still use. It isn't as if shall is more precise than the other
In fact, "Black's Law Dictionary" says that the word can mean must or may or
will or should, depending on the context. And right now there are lawyers
lined up three deep behind each of those interpretations all because the
Florida Legislature wouldn't stoop to writing a statute that began `The
secretary of State has to.'

In Australia, they've taken the step of banishing the word shall from their
statutes, but I don't know if that move would have much support here. As
legal scholar put it, shall is a totem that serves to conjure up the flavor
the law. And the public has its own reasons for wanting to keep the legal
language separate from the hurly-burly of ordinary usage, the same way we
the courts to be above the partisan fray.

That was doubtless what was going through the minds of the Florida
as they debated what their role in the drama should be. They kept talking
about the need to bring conclusivity to the process. That has only a
claim to being a word. You won't find it in either the OED(ph) or "Black's
Law Dictionary." It does pop up occasionally in statutes as a pretentious
substitute for conclusiveness, but that wasn't how the Florida legislators
were using it. What they really meant to say was something like, `We have
bring finality to the process or what people nowadays like to describe as
closure.' But they wanted to invest the notion with the feeling of legal
certainty and the word conclusivity had the sound of a incantation that will
lay everybody's doubts to rest.

And in a sense, they're right. The whole business has gone the way
legal proceedings always do. Palm Beach, Miami-Dade, Seminole, postmarks,
chads and dimples, things have gotten so messy and complicated that nobody
thinks it's still possible to determine who actually got the most votes.
matters is who carries the day in court. In the end, win is a legal term,

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University and the Xerox
Alto Research Center.

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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