Wednesday, 4 August 2004

The journey home from Belgrade

Did you know that Serbian hairdressers are called 'frizzy'?
Did I say that there weren't enough general meetings? Well they made up for that with a marathon last day General Meeting that lasted a bum-stiffening six hours. We formed into spokes, that is, affinity groups who each chose a spokesperson. I guess that was to increase efficiency and stop individual rambling. We, as a samba group, are a natural affinity group but some others had to join up with people they didn't know.
There were five agenda points and each spoke had 20 minutes to discuss each point, after which a vote would be taken. Unfortunately some of the agenda points clashed with each other. For instance: the first agenda point discussed proposed Global Days of Action some of which were accepted and some not. Then the second agenda point asked if we were an organisation or a network. We were a network! So how can we endorse certain days of action and not others if we aren't an organisation? Doh.
We also discussed for the second agenda point whether the PGA would allow people from NGO's and political parties to come to the conference. As a group we decided that they could come to the conference but not join in the process unless they agreed with the PGA hallmarks. Still following? Well, there could be a situation where a fundamentalist Islamic group wanted to come. They may have valid points to bring to the conference but they obviously wouldn't agree with the PGA hallmark that rejects sexism.
This also brought up an incident whereby the conference newsletter "outed" a woman from Germany who was affiliated with a political party. The article written was rather nasty and they also published a photograph of her. She left the conference that day feeling very upset...
This brought us onto the third agenda point: what to do when someone has been the victim of physical or psychological violence. Do they exclude the perpetrator? Do they just believe the victim (who could, in rare circumstances, be falsely accusing the perp)? One woman came from another affinity group to ours very upset, almost in tears, saying that she had been the victim of violence at the conference. Despite asking for help, nothing was done. With our encouragement she then spoke up again, she had tried to before but she was ignored. (The gender 'reader' given out on 'Gender Day' spoke about how when women speak at meetings they are ignored until a man restates what they have said, in other words the word of a man is worth double that of a woman even at activist meetings). She complained that all these fine and pretty words at a meeting were worthless if they were not implemented!
I reflected about her coming over to us rather than staying within her affinity group. And I realised that it was probably because we were the most female-dominated affinity group as the samba band has many women.
Sorry I cannot report on rest of the general meeting because I popped into the kitchen to make us some coffee and all hell had broken loose. The food at the conference had mostly been provided by RAD, a workers collective. Their business had been privatised but now they had formed their own collective.
The first couple of days the food was okay but the vegans had managed to dominate the menu. And I tell you, 5 days of unidentifiable vegan brown Serbo-slop with mystery chunks (some kind of soya) can be a little wearing.
Plus the kids won't eat it, due to depressing colour and 'bits' in it.
Well unbeknownst to everybody in the 'autonomous kitchen', RAD weren't coming anymore. The autonomous kitchen had to provide all the food for 200-300 people at rather short notice. (It had apparently been announced but none of the kitchen crew knew, and they had downed tools and said no way can we prepare food for so many at such short notice).
So guess who ended up organising this lunch for 200-300 people? Me.
I tried to vary the menu a little, add some colour. But there weren't many ingredients or cookers. After quite alot of panic, plus realising there weren't enough plates, forks etc so we had to use cups, we did succeed in the following menu: garlicky tomato sauce, pasta, brown rice, lentil soup, soya chunks in soy sauce, onion and garlic, fried potatoes.
There were also rumours flying around that a local Nazi youth, (apparently one of the Nazi big cheeses was actually living in the village where we were camped) had been kicked out and had been seen calling out for back-up from his mates.
There was one exciting meeting the day before, that I sadly missed, called by the anti-Deutsch group, literally, the anti-Germans. These are 3 young Germans who feel such guilt about the holocaust that they embrace Israel and the U.S.A. They had put up notices all around the camp saying that they felt the PGA conference was anti-Semitic and that the U.S.A were good because they defended Israel. As you can imagine, their meeting was somewhat lively, many people walked out in disgust. Irish Greg voted that meetings' facilitator the best of the conference.
I went to one meeting called "Breaking out of the activist ghetto" But they didn't seem to be discussing anything remotely relevant, rather they were discussing tomatoes and strawberries. Weird.

THURSDAY NIGHT~ we went down to the students cultural centre in Belgrade for our 'visibility' day. The students cultural centre looked like a palace, not the usual sodden-carpeted back room...
Some Indymedia films were shown then we started playing... it was great, such a buzz. You could feel everybodys excitement especially when we went out into the street and stopped the traffic. The police came and were particularly shocked by my daughter playing her caixa (snare), drumming her little heart out.."Where is the mother? Where is the father?" they kept asking. Then someone pointed me out to them, playing an even bigger drum. The next day there was a picture of us in the papers.
The police said that we were not allowed to play in the road so somebody argued that if at the crossing, we kept pushing the button so that there was a continuous 'green man', then we had every right to play in the road, for we were just "crossing" it.
The police did not pursue it. Many Serbs came up to me afterwards and said that is just what we needed..."colour and life on the streets of Belgrade, after 10 years of war".
So the next day we were returning home: we were going to be efficient, get up on time, have our tents and sleeping bags packed, be up at 5 and at the bus by 7 sharp. Yes!
No! A message was received in the middle of the night that one of the minibuses had broken down and was on the other side of Belgrade. Many worrying hours passed, the Serbian RAC was called, the people with the bus had no mobiles, etc etc.
Finally the bus was fixed and we set off, tapping out a tune on the sides of the bus, at 1p.m., six hours later than planned...
The journey home was hot and sticky. Believe me, 3 days in a mini-bus ain't a holiday. Points of relief: we stopped for a beer in Hungary and were offered free schnapps..we stopped at one of the Germans' mums house and were given coffee and sandwiches. Even the slightest slowing down of the minibus led to the smoking contingent leaping out and desperately inhaling nicotine. The buses became increasingly whiffy, due to feet, rubbish and Diego's cheese.
We played accordion and that weird big tambourine thingy that Greg has, on the ferry. A merry band of minstrels...
Some stuff occurred on the ferry and the ride back to London, where I finally lost my rag...but this is not the place to air it..
Back at LARC, the others went for a curry, I took all the drums in my van back to Kilburn, will see you guys on Wednesday at practice.

Wednesday, 28 July 2004

Belgrade missive

More news from cock-up central...
Val arrived on the train early but remained asleep. She then realised the train was moving to Athens and had to hurl herself and her luggage off the moving train and possibly cracked a rib.
Jim the accordion player was fined 1000 (about a tenner) on the local bus because he punched his ticket wrongly. Serbs are quite jobsworth.
The first co-ordination meeting got off to an exciting start when Fabian, one of the LARC (London Action Resource Centre, an anarchist meeting house in London) drivers, decided to register his protest against the organisers, (actually they don't like being called that because the PGA isn't an organisation so there) by squatting in the middle of the meeting, taking down his trousers and wiping his arse on the PGA agenda.
Half the people walked out. The next morning it was announced at breakfast by a beautiful French punk lesbian that there were "subversive infiltrators" at the conference. Tee hee.
We did the first drumming workshop in the camp but mostly adults, Serbs and PGA conferencers turned up. The workshops were supposed to be for the Roma community. Val 'mestred' (conducted) and did really well.
We were then asked to play for five minutes to open a plenary meeting (I've learnt a lot of jargon here, this means a general meeting for the whole conference). However we changed mestres without realising that there were differences between Amsterdam RoR hand signals and London ones, and we sounded like a lurching drunk.
Due to the lack of kids at the first kids workshop we went to another small school 4 km away to do 'outreach' with Roma kids. Loads of kids turned up and some of them were excellent drummers and dancers. First of all they divided themselves on gender, the girls went for dancing and the boys for drumming. Later a few girls drummed too but no boys danced however.
We decided to do the rest of the workshops at the school, to the disappointment of the Serbians who had come to the first workshop. The Serbians are reluctant to mix with the Romas; there are huge prejudices against Romany people in Serbia.
On the second day with the Romas a meeting was arranged and also a cultural exchange. I did not attend because certain rowdy members of the samba band, yes you know who you are, kept the whole camp up all night with loud singing. I was too tired basically.
Instead I attended a 'process meeting' where I complained about the family unfriendly policies. The promised 'kids space' did not materialise properly and was manned only by the parents of the few kids here. It's a vicious circle because people with kids do not turn up to these conferences because it's not family friendly. In fact I've been bringing up this issue in every meeting I've attended. The bulk of the people here are between 18 to 30, childless, squatter punk types but white and middle class of course.
While writing an article on this for the daily newsletter I was confronted by one young punk saying "people who have children shouldn't come to these conferences." 
"So when you have a child you will give up activism?" I asked.
 "I will not have children. I have made a choice." He replied.
"How old are you?" I asked.
"What!! You've made a choice not to have children and you are only 23 ! For a start it's not you that's going to decide, it will probably be whatever girlfriend you have and at 23 you don't know anything." I splutter in frustration at his arrogant ignorance. And this guy thinks he's an anarchist? 
People admitted that the European PGA tends to be an alternative youth ghetto while claiming to represent the global situation. Globally 90% of people have kids so how representative are these people? I was told the worldwide PGA meetings are quite different. There will be one in Nepal next year. Do you reckon the samba band will fund a trip out there, just askin'...
I turned up later to the Roma/samba cultural exchange and it was a riot, a mad mix of gypsy beats and samba, and everyone was dancing in a frenzy.
The meeting was apparently very productive which is more than you can say about most of the meetings here. The Roma described the prejudice against them and how most of their kids are illiterate and rarely finish primary school.
I have attended a few turgid meetings here. They are slow because you have to wait for translation, and often I feel that people are saying the bloody obvious but with academic jargon.
Then the heat stopped and the rain started. My tent turned into a lake within minutes because I left it open and I found my back pack floating in it.
Have felt slightly suicidally depressed every morning ever since.
This was worsened when someone received a text saying the weather is lovely in London.
I feel that the samba band are really doing something useful rather than all the talking shops going on here. Although there's been squabbles and we have all gotten really tired and wet, it's been worth it.
Tomorrow is the last day and we are playing a street party in Belgrade for what is called "the visibility day". i.e. the day when we emerge from our camp and show Belgrade that we are here.
There have been rumblings also though because some people have felt that proceedings and decisions have not been transparent. There haven't been enough general meetings. For instance yesterday the electrical workers asked us to come on their demo but the Serb organisers discouraged this saying they would get into trouble. This pissed alot of people off. In the end some people went and it passed without incident.

Sunday, 18 July 2004

Peoples Global Action conference, Belgrade, 2004

This series of posts was originally written as a newsletter email to Rhythms of Resistance, the samba band, who went as a group to give workshops at the anarchist political meeting, People's Global Action or P.G.A., which this particular year was held in Belgrade, Serbia.

Well, it was an eventful start to the trip: after a delayed, samba-style departure from our London meeting point at L.A.R.C on Fieldgate street, Whitechapel (1) two minibuses, one full of activists, the other crammed with sambistas and their drums, eventually make it to Dover.
Where senior surdo player Val realised she forgot her passport and had to turn back. I realised I'd forgotten my bank card and would have no money for the trip.
All night partying on the bus for the younger generation then a hot sweaty drive through Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany then Austria. Mittel Europe. It all looks the same. 
We camped for the night in the back yard of a cute Alpine villa where they played oompah music. We were surrounded by cornfields, wild flowers and very large beers.
The plan was to rise at 6 am and take off early but general RoR faffing and alcohol abuse meant that we actually left at 8.
The next day a kindly member of the party(2) went to meet Val (who had now heroically returned to England and then booked a flight) at Lubj something and was getting an all night train to Belgrade.
We made good time through the Baltic states, Slovenia, Croatia then we hit a jam 15km from the border with Serbia. We were told that it was a 4 to 6 hour wait so after collecting various band members who had gone AWOL(3) one with an accordion, we drove to a smaller border.
We were then clobbered with various fines by the Serbian border guards(4). I realised my daughters' passport had expired in March this year. The green card insurance for both minivans did not cover Serbia (probably because the war had only recently finished) only UK, Eire and Cyprus!!. It cost a pretty penny. I wanted to offer a bribe instead.
We were then stopped for speeding when other cars were going alot faster.
Our impression of Serbia was deteriorating by the minute.
Poorer and tired we pushed on through to Belgrade. We arrived at the camp at 3am. I set up my tent on a 45% slope and others tried to find a corner in the crowded bit of woods next to a large school built in Soviet-style architecture.
My daughter and I woke bunched up at the bottom of our tent in the morning.
There is a large French contingent including Scottish activist Fin and her son, Ash (and the only other single mum, gosh, we are a rare breed, those of us who haven't given up). He changed his name to Ash at the age of 8 when his mum decided that he should now name himself. This crew have been here organising everything for several days already.
My daughter and I braved Belgrade to find the British consulate to renew her passport and buy flip flops for our swollen feet. The street names are in Cyrillic so reading a map is a lot of guesswork.
People actually very nice and rather apologetic about the state of the country.
The locals are pleased that we are here; the camp is in a suburb of Belgrade. We are something new. Locals have talked about the amount of dirty bombs dropped around Belgrade containing Uranium. I start to worry about my kid growing tumours, extra limbs etc. But seriously the cancer rate has skyrocketed and birth defects too.
Some of the PGA bunch who are a little more challenging in their look, with dreads, mohicans, piercings and tattoos (in other words your bog standard punk anarchist uniform) have encountered some hostility in Belgrade from a people who are intrinsically quite conservative but it's generally been a good vibe.
It's very hot.
There is a Serbian workers co-op who are making the food for the camp which numbers between 400-500 people. These workers were sacked when their canteen went bankrupt in the war, but they decided to continue it as a co-op. This camp is a good earning opportunity for them. Large beers are only 20p a bottle.
Tomorrow we will do our first workshop making drums etc with kids.

(1) LARC stands opposite the building where George Orwell stayed when writing 'Down and out in London and Paris'. It's now been turned into luxury flats.
(2) I was being terribly diplomatic here. In actual fact I was furious. Val made the mistake of forgetting her passport and then used up RoR's phone bill, time and patience expecting us to make a six hour detour to pick her up from the airport. Yours truly, having an eczema suffering 8 year old in tow, lost her temper and played the bad guy as usual, telling Val she would have to sort it out herself, what with being a fully formed adult and all. I was then accused, in a minibus meeting, complete with Reclaim The Streets hand signals, of  being "mean". Joyce of LARC was kind enough to take a train to the airport (hours of her time), collect Val and guide her to Belgrade. In this way, two minibuses didn't have to add hours onto the already arduous journey.
(3) Again, being diplomatic...the real story was that the accordion player wandered off and could not be found. When it was time to go, Fabian, one of the minibus drivers, no doubt due to fatigue, got very angry  and seemed on the verge of hitting the accordion player. As one of the few present near to Fabian's age, and therefore not afraid of him,  I managed to put a stop to the row.
(4) I was all for paying them off , which would have been cheaper. But activists, especially young ones, perversely, like to play by the rules.

Note: Looking over this post in 2013, it is sad to note that both Val and the accordion player, Jim are dead. Val died of Motor Neurone disease. She was always complaining that she felt ill. I found her generally quite irritating and so found it difficult to be sympathetic. Just like Spike Milligan's tomb stone which had engraved 'I told you I was ill', it turned out she was very sick indeed. She was diagnosed in 2007 and was dead by 2009. Horrible end to her life. 
Jim Marcovitch was one of the most talented musicians I have ever come across. I know he really enjoyed playing with the gypsies, exchanging musical riffs. He played klezmer and there are many links between that and gypsy music. His death is commemorated in the 'Festival of Jim' held annually in Sussex.