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TCU Magazine "Purpectives"

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Sam Woolford '00 quit his job last year and spent three months in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, searching for direction. After befriending some young Serbians, he discovered that all education is not equal.

By Sam Woolford '00

Zeljko Obrodovic has spent his entire life in Belgrade. He was the first employee Yugoslavia's national bank hired after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic's regime in 2000. He was also the first revolutionary I met on my trip.

For Zeljko, higher education was not the same experience that a student finds in Fort Worth. His classes were conducted in crowded auditoriums where the stairs and aisles were considered prime seating. He was lucky if his professors did much more than read to the class out of a textbook, though this was helpful since the students often had to share their study materials.

At the time, however, textbooks were the least of his concerns. Upon graduation, all Serbian men must complete at least nine months of military service. Before October 2000, this service might have included combat in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia or Kosovo. And Milosevic's cruel campaign of ethnic cleansing was something that Zeljko wanted nothing to do with.

Later I met Danilo, Doc and Surgeon, all fellow students with Zeljko, and as a group they told me how they toppled a government with the help of 20,000 or so of their fellow students. The account of their protests was astonishing.

At the time, NATO was bombing the city in an effort to force Milosevic to stop aggression in Kosovo. To minimize civilian casualties, the locations of the bombing targets were broadcast. In a version of reverse psychology, the students threw parties on the bridges around Belgrade so that they wouldn't be destroyed in the nightly raids. The students had little regard for NATO's political targets but valued the bridges. "Without the bridges, we would have had to swim across the river," Danilo joked.

During the largest student demonstration, more than 25,000 unarmed students faced 8,000 police in the street in front of the parliament building. The street is now called Revolution Boulevard. They threw no rocks and set no fires. They didn't even yell at the police. The typical police officer in Belgrade is barely out of his 20s and poorly educated, so the students hoped that their opposition would see how determined they were and realize the hate behind Milosevic's propaganda.

The protest lasted eight days. In the area between two massed groups, the students decided to have some fun. On the first day they held a soccer tournament. On the second day it was a beauty pageant, complete with sashes and a tiara for the winner. Doc and a student named George helped organize a battle of the bands on the fifth day. They halted the revelry on the last day and searched their homes for full-length mirrors. In the end, they held the mirrors up in front of the police in a defiant gesture.

Shortly after the protesters dispersed, members of the former ruling party simply disappeared. What remained was a city battered by relentless bombing but filled with inspired and hopeful residents.

The price for that hope was very steep. Approximately 2,000 people in Belgrade died during the six months of bombing. It's difficult to describe how it feels to meet someone who lost relatives in military action carried out by his own country. In theory, they were sacrificed so that others would not suffer. In practice, it's harder to justify.

Yugoslavia still has problems, despite a more democratic government being in place. Corruption runs rampant. Normal citizens are still restricted from traveling to other countries without foreign sponsorship because the government is afraid of mass emigration. Large numbers of people are unemployed or employed far below their skill level. Homeless children drink from the fountains in the town square and beg for handouts. Public health is only beginning to take shape. Outbreaks of measles and polio have been recorded this year.

Zeljko is heading for Vanderbilt University, thanks to an impressive scholarship. The 25-year-old who taught himself English got a better score on the GMAT than the average of last year's class at Harvard.

My Yugoslavian/Serbian friends taught me that the true revolutionary isn't necessarily the person waving the flag or giving the speeches. As Americans, we take such an important role in shaping what goes on in our global community. Zeljko and his friends are my age, but they don't complain about what they don't have. Rather, they embrace the potential that they can now take advantage of.

The day before I left Belgrade, I decided to visit the U.S. Embassy. The directions were easy. Head north on Revolution Boulevard and take a right.

It's past the second bombed-out building on the right.

Contact Sam at