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angle-left null Radioactive dandruff and other stories about how and why I ended up at the Council of Europe
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13 September 2019

Radioactive dandruff and other stories about how and why I ended up at the Council of Europe

1980-1991

Matjaz GRUDEN

On 2 November 1995, I was sitting in an office on the 6th floor of the Palais de l’Europe. It was my first day at the Council of Europe and I was staring at the keyboard in front of me. Every key had a brown smudge. I was lost in my thoughts, feeling nervously excited, trying to figure out what to do, where to start, and what was expected from me. And would I be up to the expectations. And why the keyboard was dirty. And most of all, how on earth did I ever get here.

It did not take me long to resolve the mystery of the keyboard. It turned out the previous occupant of the office, Hans, was a keen gardener – a passion that I found as alien as most of other things during that first November days in Strasbourg. As to figuring out how I got there, I am still not sure. But if I had to single out a date that mattered in that journey, 4th May 1980 would certainly be on the short list.

On that day, at 15h05, the President of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito died in his hospital bed in Ljubljana, only a stone’s throw away from my childhood home. More people grieved than they would be ready to admit today, and everyone was worried. There were no signs of an implosion and bloodbath that followed a decade later, but the country had already started to change, to pale and wrinkle, like a vegetable that is left for too long in a fridge.

That year, the Summer Olympics were held in Moscow, with the Warsaw Pact winning far more medals than NATO, not least because the West stayed away in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. “Mad Max” and “The American Gigolo” had just come to cinemas, even in Yugoslavia, and David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” threw a lifesaver to all of us who could not stand Abba.
I was fifteen and in love, and therefore only moderately aware or affected by the unfolding events. That is, apart from Mad Max and Bowie. And the trial of Slovenia’s first bona fide serial killer.

Metod Trobec was a former railway worker, alcoholic and professional criminal, arrested two years earlier after a German tourist, whom Trobec tried to rob, noted down his car registration number. When the people’s militia – as we used to call the police at the time – arrived at his remote farmhouse near Ljubljana, they discovered the bodily remains of five women. They have all been strangled by Trobec and burned in the bread oven. He later admitted to a sixth murder.

In the trial Trobec was sentenced to death. If the sentence had been carried out, he would have been the first person executed in Slovenia after 1957. But what happened was a very strong public reaction. It was not sympathy for Trobec, who was an exceptionally unlikable human being, but a protest against the death penalty as such. I remember endless discussions with my friends, our questions to teachers challenging them on why the state should be entitled to end a human life. We all grew up with stories and images of resistance fighters being executed by Nazi firing squads. True, Trobec was no resistance fighter; he was a despicable human being. But still, he was a human being, and it felt wrong. I wrote an article for the school newspaper that challenged the fact someone was considered crazy enough to be given electro shocks, but sane enough to be executed. My parents were summoned to the principal, as - even in the relatively liberal Yugoslavia - there was a lingering reluctance to accept the criticism of the authorities, especially from teenagers.

Later on my article was reprinted in the national student paper and the Supreme Court changed the death penalty to a maximum prison sentence of 20 years. This being said, as much as I would like to, I cannot offer any convincing evidence that the two events were related. In 1989 the Slovenian Parliament abolished the death penalty – which nevertheless stayed theoretically applicable through the federal Yugoslav criminal code until independence two years later, when abolition was inscribed in the new Constitution. Its Article 17 reads “There shall be no capital punishment in Slovenia”. At that moment, because of this, and other commitments to human rights and fundamental freedoms, I felt very proud to be Slovenian. For me, independence was first and foremost a civilizational milestone.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Many other things happened before that June 1991.
The Sarajevo Winter Olympics in 1984 for example. That moment when the entire world fell in love with the beautiful city on Miljacka river and its wonderful people. We all hoped that the tragic and bitter memories of Sarajevo’s earlier intrusion into world history would be forever replaced with images of a happier Sarajevo, of Bosnian friendship, hospitality and wit. Little did we know.

In 1984 Ronald Reagan was re-elected by a landslide, Yuri Andropov died and “Wham” dominated the UK charts with “Freedom”. It was also the year in which the campaign for civic liberties and human rights in my country had begun in earnest. Yugoslavia, mind you, was not the worst of totalitarian regimes. In some ways, it was much like a prison in Norway or Sweden. All beautiful landscapes, with no locks or guard towers, people smiling and coming and going almost as they wish. But even the most liberal prison is still a prison. And when confronted with anything that could seriously challenge its grip on power, the regime reacted in a distinctively un-Scandinavian fashion. It lashed out as a snake with little mercy and no remorse.

In 1984 that challenge came from Slovenia. It came from the peace movement that defied the
pervasive influence and power of the Yugoslav People’s Army, it came from the youth movements that openly questioned the ideology of their mentors, and it came from the LGBT community.

For homosexuals, living in a communist society was harsh. They were branded as deviant, and most had been careful not to reveal – and even less so live – their identity in public. So I did not know many homosexuals, but I knew many who hated them. The homophobes of today have been learning to hate since yesterday. They may have changed colours and ideologies, but not the intensity and the viciousness of their bigotry.

And then, one day, homosexuals in Slovenia decided they would hide no more. They stood up for their freedom and dignity, and for mine. I admired their courage, and I hoped for their success. In 1984 the Students Cultural Centre ŠKUC founded MAGNUS as a Cultural Organisation for Socialisation of Homosexuality. This was a key milestone in the beginning of a profound social and political change.

The first reactions were negative, but relatively muted. Until the nascent nationalists in other parts of the country went berserk. Their reaction against “the faggots in Ljubljana” was bursting with vitriolic hate. To this day I believe that most of the people in other parts of Yugoslavia, regardless of how uneasy they may have felt about gays, did not share that hate. But they remained passive, and they remained silent. And that is the lesson I have learned from the homophobic rant that was left without response – you cannot plead ignorance when confronted with hate. If you do not stand up against it, you will be complicit in its eventual triumph.

Today, homophobic attitudes are no longer coming to Slovenia from abroad, but there is a healthy home-grown brand, and that injustice is shameful. As long as discrimination, lack of respect and inequality persist, there is a moral debt of my country to many of our fellow citizens who have done so much for its independence and freedom. We not only owe them respect, we owe them gratitude. But again, I left my finger on fast-forward for too long. Back to the summer of my nineteenth year.

Time came to serve in the Yugoslav People’s Army. It was 1984, and I found myself at a George
Orwell reality show. In July, I was drinking beer in student hangouts in the Quartier Latin, failing
miserably in chatting up demoiselles, counting my centimes, skipping meals and feeling like the richest and the luckiest person in the world. In August, I was digging a hole to fit a cistern truck and setting up field showers. Welcome to anti-biological, chemical and nuclear warfare, Yugoslav style. If you are hit by a dirty bomb, you take a long, hot shower. And use anti-nuclear shampoo to prevent your dandruff twinkling in the dark a long time after you have been blown to pieces and you are no more.
What shocked me most was not the silliness of the situation. There is, after all, a whiff of romantic innocence in the idea that you can protect yourself against an atomic bomb by taking a shower.

What really got me was the relentless ideological crusade, propagating and manipulating prejudice and paranoia. It was smart, it was calculated and it was effective. Every evening we first watched the news, and then listened to the same news being explained to us. It was always the same message – us versus them. The people against internal traitors. The people against external foes. Don’t think, hate. Obey, or betray. In that crowded TV room, smelling of young men who built many showers but seldom had a chance to use them, I discovered the power of populism. It disgusted me, and it scared me. It still does.

I survived the army with little lasting damage to my sanity. I spent the next few years concentrating mostly on my studies (and a few other things that perhaps do not need to be mentioned here, or anywhere else for that matter) in Ljubljana and abroad. In June 1991 I emerged from my postgraduate studies in Belgium, ready to take on the world. That year, the cult Belgrade group Ekaterina Velika released its album “Dum Dum” (Bang Bang) with dark premonitions of horrors about to be unleashed.

On 24 June 1991, the European championship in basketball had started in Italy. Two days later,
Slovenia and Croatia declared independence. On 29 June, Dino Radja scored twenty-three points in the final game against Italy, bringing to the Yugoslav basketball team its fifth and definitively last European title. This was probably the only sports competition in history won by a team from a country which, for all practical purposes, no longer existed. And you know what - we still rooted for that team.
But that is another story.

In June 1991, the disintegration of Yugoslavia had gone through a gear-shift change. On Friday there was a party. On Saturday we woke up at war. At the age of twenty-six, I watched my country falling apart, disintegrating in violence. Even without the foreknowledge of the far worse horrors yet to come to other parts of my former country, I was worried. Nationalism is a seductive, nasty beast that feeds on its own adrenaline and brings pain and destruction to those who are hated and those who hate.

A day after that legendary final basketball game in Roma’s Palazzeto dello sport, on a beautiful early summer afternoon, I was standing at a border crossing near Trieste. On the Italian side, beachgoers were sunbathing and sipping their aperitivos, a few meters on the other side Slovenian policemen and confused conscripts of the no longer-very-Yugoslav-nor-People’s Army were locked in a grotesque armed standoff. Two thoughts came to me at that moment with alarming clarity; the first was that the line between peace and total chaos is extremely thin and fragile. The second was that war does not always happen only to other people. I thought I would do something about it. I did not think I could change the world on my own, but perhaps I could at least try to do my bit to stop it from going completely crazy.

Which eventually brought me to that office in the Palais. Twenty years later and I have taken up
gardening. But I got myself a black keyboard.
All in all, this has been a fantastic journey (so far) and I feel privileged to be on board. When I was young I have lived in a country where freedom was rationed and have I learned not to take it for granted. I grew up in a country in which everyone believed peace would last forever. It didn’t. I have seen how quickly fear and ignorance can turn into hatred, and how fertile a ground they provide to those who wish to rule by peddling prejudice and sowing division. This is why I believe in the Council of Europe, in the European Convention on Human Rights, in the type of society the two have helped to build and they are helping to protect. This is not some lofty, idealistic pastime. It is our central line of defence against nationalist folly and destruction. I speak from experience. That experience helped me and motivated me in doing my job. Lately, it also makes me worried. I look around me, and Europe seems to be getting all pale and wrinkled.