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.

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