Djordje Kolarski awoke in time for the end. He heard the alarmed voices above the puttering of the old Russian generator, and he saw the police dogs, misting the morning air with their breath. He knew the game was up.
The military police had been around before, but only to check the activists’ identity cards. This time, they had brought the dogs to clear them out.
Djordje and his friends had spent the night in the old barracks, huddled together for warmth. They had broken the locks to take over the building. Staying overnight was a way of making sure no one locked them out again. The occupation had been vigilant – but the eviction, when it came, was brutally efficient.
“I dared not plead my rights,” says Djordje, a 26-year-old who wears his hair dreadlocked down the middle and shaven at the sides. Looking back on that January morning, he says the activists abandoned all thought of resistance when police backup teams arrived.
Cold and scared, they did as they were ordered, assembling outside with their belongings. A small crowd gathered on the street. Some shouted at the police. No one tried to stop them. By mid-morning, the building was empty and padlocked, and Serbia’s brief experiment in socially conscious squatting was over.
The activists had tried to lay the foundation for an alternative cultural centre during their occupation of the Archibald Reiss barracks in Novi Sad.
The city is the second-largest in Serbia, and the capital of Vojvodina province, It is probably best known to a younger generation of Europeans as the home of the annual Exit music festival.
The squatters argued that their city lacked a space for alternative culture. In the barracks, they hoped to create a place for workshops and performances, a home for musicians, activists and artists.
The illegal takeover of a derelict military building created a stir in the city. Although unprecedented in Serbia, the tactic had been tested successfully in the Croatian seaside city of Pula and in the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana. Activist-squatters there had reached an agreement with the authorities, eventually legitimising their presence.
The squatters in Serbia shared many ideals with their counterparts in Croatia and Slovenia. But their failure was testament to a very different reality.
The tussle over the Archibald Reiss barracks pitted the demands of artists against the needs of Serbia’s soldiers.
It showed that while there may be sound reasons for bending the law to promote culture, they carried little weight during an economic crisis. And they certainly could not counter the military’s right to dispose of its property as it pleased – even as the condition of that property deteriorated.
The Archibald Reiss barracks were built in the 1890s for the soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian empire, of which Novi Sad was then a part. They are named after a German-born physician who championed the Serbian cause in the early twentieth century.
The two-storey high structure has large windows and a pale yellow façade. Compared to the historic attractions of the city centre, the barracks appear somewhat functional. Compared to a modern Serbian barracks however, they seem rather grand.
According to a spokeswoman for Novi Sad’s main conservation body, the Institute for the Protection of Historical Monuments, the complex is the subject of a preservation order on account of its “historical and architectural” value.
The financial potential of the site is obvious. It occupies prime real estate – an area of 10,000 square metres in the heart of Novi Sad.
In 2011, Serbia discontinued mandatory military service for young men. With fewer recruits to house, the Archibald Reiss barracks were deemed obsolete.