17 Aug 12

Squatters’ Rites

Miodrag Sovilj

In the beginning, this story seemed to have many of the ingredients of a classic investigation: Corruption allegations, tycoons,  politicians, puzzles and reams of paperwork.

But the strongest claims were the hardest to confirm. There was no guarantee that everything was as sinister as some of my sources said. And even if it was, I would need many months to find the proof.

It was time to shift focus. I had been looking for signs of foul play in the state’s management of derelict property. I found my real story by going back to what had brought these properties to my attention in the first place – a campaign by youth activists to occupy them.

Why did they want to take over these sites? Why had they failed? After all, the activists’ counterparts elsewhere in the region had been more successful.

In the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, I met the occupants of Metelkova, a deserted army barracks that had been converted into a thriving cultural centre.

Nineteen years ago, these activists had traded insults with police and city officials over their illegal occupation of the site.

Today their experiment in a semi-autonomous community is a major tourist attraction. It even has the support of some local politicians – not your obvious idealists.

“Culture in general is not profitable. We cannot equate art and youth activism with any other type of industry,” Uros Grilc, Ljubljana’s city councillor for culture, told me.

While the construction of large shopping malls might deliver more benefit to the economy, Grilc said the city’s “essence would be compromised” without the cultural centre.

Serbia has no shortage of abandoned military and municipal buildings. It even has activists who would like to take them over. What stands between them and the model of Metelkova?

Talk about it!

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