Part of an edited series of excerpts from my memoir
In hindsight, our adventure sounds misguided. Although my partner made life more fun, it felt surreal, and the closer we grew, the stranger he became. But he was also undeniably exciting. His fearlessness would tempt me to do as I pleased, the opposite of what The New York Times required. I felt sure I was on the cusp of liberation.
When we met at the start of the summer, I was struggling. There wasn’t much news worth reporting from the Balkans. But I had to pitch ideas to prove my worth. And one the stories I found would change my life.
EXIT was a nine-day festival by the Danube, which had started as protest gigs against Slobodan Milosevic. Once he’d been toppled, EXIT celebrated. It occupied a fortress in Novi Sad, where music played from dusk until well after dawn. By the time of the second event, in 2002, tens of thousands visited each evening. One was me.
When I interviewed the festival’s founders, G had joined us. He was twice their age and yawned through the conversation. His sole contribution of note was to declare that he was ‘man in charge of program’. This brought to mind The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, and Malcolm McLaren’s insistence that he was the Sex Pistols.
The duo I’d come to hear from sounded sharper. Like me, they were both in their 20s, but they’d hit upon a more uplifting lifestyle. ‘We want to do what we enjoy,’ one of them said, ‘and gather hundreds, thousands of creative, capable people around us who think like we do and try to have an impact on society.’
The brasher of the two swelled with pride. ‘We’re showing people that what looks impossible can be achieved,’ he gushed. ‘So anyone who claims change is impossible here has a concrete example of that not being true.’
‘Part of our aim,’ said the earnest one, ‘is to show you can cooperate with local authorities and still achieve what you want.’
He even spouted half-baked Zen. ‘Our motto is: If not you, who? If not now, when?’
Their festival’s name was its history, as in ‘EXIT out of the ten years of madness’. But its rhetoric was as bombastic as Milosevic’s. Apart from providing a backdrop for excess, it was said to be ‘one of the greatest marketing campaigns in the country’, ‘promoting positive democratic values’ and ‘becoming an unavoidable part of the transition mechanism.’
The river below held reminders of the Nineties. It lapped at the ruins of a bridge that was bombed by NATO, and the story behind that was murkier than the waters.
EXIT was born as a spin-off of U.S. policy, which had engineered regime change in Belgrade. Americans had funded protesters, and trained them to take non-violent action. They also helped unite the opposition, which had fielded a challenger to Milosevic. When he lost an election but wouldn’t stand down, Serbs packed the streets. The army and police switched sides to back his rivals. Washington aimed to repeat this far and wide. Young Serbs had remained on the payroll to spread the word.
EXIT got almost $200,000, from some of America’s shadier three-letter agencies. The Office for Transition Initiatives was part of the United States Agency for International Development. And like the National Endowment for Democracy, and its IRI and NDI subsidiaries, it did in public what the CIA does secretly: interfere in politics overseas. The OTI even put out a bragging press release. ‘The revolution is over,’ it decreed. ‘The evolution now rests in the hands of the youth!’
Whatever else EXIT achieved, it helped me evolve, providing me with a personalized ‘transition mechanism’. Once accredited, I decamped to the press hotel, and embarked on a weeklong stint of immersion reporting, sozzling myself insensate every evening, and dancing like an amphetamine-powered windmill.
When a figure approached me backstage on the final morning, I could have sworn his head was a ball of flaming gas. He had a hypnotic air about him, as if smiling through me. Grabbing my arm, he began gabbling at my ear.
‘Yeah man,’ he announced, by way of greeting. ‘You having good time then, or what?’
When I’d met G before, he’d sounded barely lucid. But now he seemed to be singing out his words, which took the edge off their Kalashnikov delivery.
‘You know, this show it was born in my shop in a Shepherd’s Bush,’ he cackled wildly. He’d lost me, but my mind was drifting anyway. From his pocket, he’d pulled out a blob of black hashish. ‘You wanna make joint?’ he asked, extending me his palm.
We were friends.