Arts, Culture & Media

Serbia's Exit Festival

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Photo by Igor Ripak
EXIT Photo Team

Follow the Danube for the Geo Quiz now. The long and winding Danube River touches at least 10 European countries. In Serbia, it flows through the northern province of Vojvodina. And that gets us very close to the city we want you to name this time: it's Serbia's 2nd largest.

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The city was mostly ruined by bombardment during the 1999 war in Kosovo. All of its bridges across the Danube, its residential neighborhoods and the oil refinery had to be rebuilt. The 17th-century Petrovaradin Fortress survived and this past weekend it was the setting for one of Europe's biggest and coolest music events.

The answer is Novi Sad, Serbia where a music event called Exit Festival takes place this time of year. As Nate Tabak reports the festival is a symbol of Serbia's resolve to move forward.

Tight access controls greet visitors at Novi Sad's 17th-century Petrovaradin Fortress, where Exit is held. A row of locking metal gates stands between them and the four-day music extravaganza held this past weekend. They open only after someone on the other side scans a barcode on your wristband.

11 years ago, when a group of student activists effectively thumbed their noses at authorities by staging the festival. It was the twilight of Slobodan Milosevic's reign, and Exit served as a veiled platform to advocate regime change.

These days, with Milosevic long gone and Serbia increasingly oriented toward the European Union, Exit is about drawing big international music acts like the American indie group Beirut — not bringing down governments.

19-year-old Luka Pesalj, strolling the fortress on stilts high above a sea of young revelers, says Exit is fun, pure and simple: "So much people here, and you can see all bands come from all over the world. It's great. It's great."

Milivoj Babic sees something far more important than fun: Normalcy. "First of all, this is opportunity to show the world what's happening here, to show some different story of which they heard before."

Babic just received a master's degree in economics but he was working security at Exit, ahead of a job search in a country with nearly 20 % unemployment. Babic says Serbia has its share of problems, including its economy, but most outsiders don't realize that the country has changed a lot since the wars of the 1990"²s.

"They heard a lot of bad things that happened in the past, and they judge from that."

If Exit is about winning over hearts and minds, then people like 27-year-old Netherlander Guillermo Gonzalez are the target. "We know Kosovo and Mladic, but we don't know Serbia," he says

After a few days at Exit, Gonzoles saw more to the Serbia than its former province and the accused war criminal it recently caught and sent to The Hague.

"Now I think some different. Nice people, lovely country, lovely view," says Gonzales.

Asmaa Alghoul agrees wholeheartedly. The blogger, journalist and activist from Gaza says she felt a kinship with the young Serbs she met at Exit. But there's still something that troubled Alghoul especially when she talked with people who support Palestinian statehood and the Arab Spring, like her.

"We are talking about revolutions in Arab world, and we are talking about how to change politics, how to change governments, how to protest, but I cannot believe how Serbia they support Gaddafi, the Libyan president. "

Some Serbs sympathize with Gaddafi because they see parallels between NATO's ongoing campaign in Libya and the alliance's bombing of Serbia in 1999." Alghoul said that, and the popularity of Serbia's ultranationalist Radical Party, suggest that the activist goals of the original Exit Festival are still very much needed. Even though Exit has lost of much its political bite, Alghoul believes music can still create positive changes: "You know, music is the international language. Music is the solution for, if we can say, culture conflict."

And there was a hint of that in Exit's music lineup. Take for example the inclusion of a band from Kosovo for the first time. That's the country that seceded from Serbia in 2008, a touch subject here. The Freelancers played on one of the smaller stages and drew about 100 people. The Albanian indie rockers made no mention of their origin and their songs were in English.

The Freelancers may have kept a relatively low profile, but at least some spectators thought their presence embodied the original revolutionary spirit of Exit and the new spirit of Serbia.