Serbs met bombs with shock, defiance

By Julijana Mojsilovic

March 21, 2000

(Rtr) - Serbs greeted the first air raid sirens a year ago with a mixture of shock and disbelief.

Some people started rushing for air raid shelters when the sirens began to wail in the industrial town of Nis in southern Serbia. Others just froze, staring at the sky.

Families gathered in the town square, clutching plastic bags with bottles of milk for babies, water for the adults and anything else they might need to see them through a night or more underground.

In a surreal touch, classical music blared out from a car whose owner had opened the doors and turned his radio up loud so he could hear news of what had been hit.

The town was spared that first night, for many the longest of NATO's 11-week bombing campaign.

Nis Mayor Zoran Zivkovic, an opponent of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, wrote an e-mail message to U.S. President Bill Clinton.

"Serbs, ordinary people, doctors, professors, workers, artists live in Serbia, not (only) Slobodan Milosevic. Please bear that in mind," it said.

Like other opposition figures in Serbia, Zivkovic knew that once the bombing started, he would be a labelled a traitor and collaborator by the authorities.

"If Nis is not hit, they will say I did a deal with NATO," he said, only half joking.

He need not have worried, Nis was bombed later in the campaign, despite the message to Clinton. Twenty-five civilians were killed in the town, many when stray cluster bombs hit a shopping street.


On day two of the air strikes, a colleague and I tried to reach Kosovo. The only cars on the road were coming in the opposite direction. "Something stinks," he said.

Suddenly, we recognised other journalists among the cars.

"Turn back you idiots," one of them said, when we stopped to ask what was going on. Serb police had chased them out.

Back in Belgrade, the city was not quite the same. The first week was a time of getting used to war.

Government officials argued in public over what to do with journalists. A handful were arrested, then released. Others left the country. Still others stopped reporting, because there was only war to write about.

At first nothing was allowed, then some rules were set and later still it became clear which ones you could ignore.

Television film was censored, text and photographs were not, but journalists were not allowed near military installations and could be arrested for moving around without permission.

Some reporters stopped working, because they felt it could have been dangerous. Others spent days and nights on rooftops waiting to film a split second of blasts lighting the skies above Serbia.

"See you if they miss me," one cameraman said each time he set off to drive, at lightning speed, across one of the three main bridges leading to the city centre to buy food for a night of bomb-watching on his office roof.

After a few weeks, sophisticated warfare with invisible attackers and rare collateral damage became a way of life.

Jets roared in the sky into the early hours and, after a few days in stuffy air raid shelters, many of my neighbours decided to stay out on their balconies, assessing the damage.

Military bomb sites were kept out of view but when civilian objects were hit, journalists were taken to see and smell the victims' burned flesh. NATO said some mistakes were inevitable, the Yugoslav authorities that civilians were being targeted.


When Yugoslav air defences downed a U.S. Stealth bomber, people danced around the wreckage. Parts of the plane now have pride of place in Belgrade's air museum. Russian officials quietly took other pieces away.

"Sorry, I didn't know it was invisible," read badges picturing the Stealth that sold like hot cakes in the city centre. Only the one with a bull's eye on it was more popular - almost everybody wore one, either for fun, or out of rage.

Some people tried to understand that bombing was the West's last resource after Milosevic had refused to budge over Kosovo, where Albanian civilians were bearing the brunt of his forces' campaign against separatist guerrillas.

Others, echoing the message pumped out by state media, berated the West for interfering with "our internal affairs".

The rest argued that one could not save Kosovo's Albanians by destroying Serbia. They said it was stupid to spend money on destruction when you would have to pay to rebuild it later on.

"We deserved this if for nothing else than for not standing up against this regime," said one woman in her early 40s, one of many with a similar thought.

"But what one can do now, under the bombs?"

Other people asked why NATO was bombing them if they were trying to target Milosevic, criss-crossing their windows with tape to stop glass flying if they broke. Everybody called them "Windows '99".

For journalists, the low point of the war was when NATO bombed a state television building, killing 16 colleagues.

The television, which NATO called the propaganda arm of Milosevic's war machine was back on in just six hours. But even now, a year on, the parents of the junior staff who died have still not been told why their children were on duty overnight when other likely targets were evacuated.

Other people were recommended to join what officials called patriotic human chains on Belgrade bridges that were said to have been legitimate NATO targets, though none were bombed.

They also held open-air folk music concerts. Some people, their workplaces closed and with little to do, welcomed the distraction. Others viewed them with sadness and disgust.

When the bombing stopped after 78 days, air defence units around Belgrade fired salvos to celebrate the end of war.

The reason for it all - Kosovo - had played a minor role in people's minds and now it was no longer an issue.

A year later, Kosovo is still not an issue for most of those not from the province. But fear of new bombing is. No one can say why, but no one can be persuaded it is not going to happen.

Original article