Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

The Little Box That Contains the World: Serbia after the Death of Milosevic: An Essay

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

The Little Box That Contains the World: Serbia after the Death of Milosevic: An Essay

Article excerpt

I had taken them for hookers, but they were just ordinary smugglers. Mid-thirties, peroxide hair, tight counterfeit Levi's and pink blouses: the two women eyed me with suspicion as I settled back in the shabby carmine plush of my seat. The Sofia-Belgrade train was not to leave for another ten minutes, but the air in the compartment was already so thick with cigarette smoke that I felt as if I were submerged in a fish tank that hadn't been cleaned for months. The windows were almost greenish with dirt, both inside and out; the floor was littered with stubbed-out cigarette butts. I was left with no alternative but to light up myself. Join them if you can't beat them. My cigarette seemed to reassure my blondish fellow travelers and they resumed their Serbian chitchat. It was then I noticed the cheap duffel bags with the stenciled ILIENTZI logo-the biggest wholesale outdoor market in Sofia, Bulgaria. Smugglers, of course.

Everything was quiet for a while, the train listlessly trundling along. I drifted in and out of sleep, my senses dulled by the iambic dimeter of the wheels, but was suddenly lifted out of my stupor when one of the women in the compartment got up from her seat and began to frantically search for something. It took me a minute to realize what was happening. She was looking for a place to hide the contents of her duffel bag. After a short, futile investigation, every nook and cranny apparently rendered useless, her eyes finally rested on me while she spoke in sputtering Serbian, half of which I barely managed to understand. Yes, she actually asked me if I minded her using my suitcase. My suitcase! No way, I thought, no fucking way. But she looked so panicked that I relented.

I pulled down my clunky suitcase from the rack and unzipped it. It was half-empty; I always travel strategically light. The woman opened her duffel bag and started taking out clothes with their original price tags still on-I was more than relieved (and somewhat disappointed) to find out she was simply trafficking clothes-and stuffed them between my own T-shirts and socks. "No narcotics, right?" I inquired halfheartedly. My question elicited just a quick, condescending smile. "No narcotics," she said.

At the Bulgaria-Serbia border, when the train sighed to a halt between high prisonlike fences with crooked chicken wire running on top, our compartment received two official visits-first from Bulgarian customs officers and later on, a few hundred meters down the railroad, from their Serbian counterparts. Luggage was carefully probed, including the bags of the two women, but no one bothered to check mine. "What's inside the suitcase?" a corpulent guy with beads of sweat on his upper lip demanded to know. "Personal items," I answered, and that was that. In the ensuing silence the thump of the entry stamp fell on my passport, shattering the tension in the car. The sliding door slammed shut, and in a few more minutes the train jerked forward bearing me westward, deep into Serbian territory.

"How long have you been in this kind of business?" I asked delicately.

Jasmina's clothes, the merchandise I'd just helped smuggle into Serbia, were back in her duffle bag and my suitcase was, thankfully, half-empty once again.

"Thirteen years," she said. Now that I had won her trust, she seemed quite willing to confabulate, temporarily ignoring her more sullen and reclusive companion. She went on to tell me that she used to work as a seamstress in a textile factory in Krusevac, a town in central Serbia, before the factory closed in 1993, like so many other factories during that period. The other woman, who didn't give her name but would interject now and again, told me she had been a high-school chemistry teacher, but the circumstances had forced her to go into the more innocuous strains of trafficking. "We resell the clothes in our hometown," the gregarious Jasmina chimed in again. "Unfortunately, at customs they allow us to import only a certain number of articles, so we need to find ways to smuggle in the rest. …

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