April 10, 1999


Are the Bombs Following Me?


BELGRADE, Serbia -- My wife, our two children and I live in the
center of Belgrade. It's a very pleasant part of town, and
convenient, too -- except when NATO is waging an air war. Now
we see our neighborhood through different eyes, as a set of potential

And we worry. Will a nearby target be hit so hard that our apartment
building collapses from the blast? Will a cruise missile or bomb miss
its target and hit us? And in the back of our minds is the horrible fear
that some military planner or commander may decide, in spite of all
the assurances, to attack civilians. 

Ever since the early 1990's, when Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and
Herzegovina and Macedonia seceded from Yugoslavia, the
Federation has consisted of only Serbia and Montenegro. But the
federal Parliament building has not shrunk. It is as huge as ever, and
unfortunately only about 300 yards from our apartment. Two big post
offices are even closer, and to get to Serbia's main television station
you just turn the corner and walk one block. 

Having lived in this part of Belgrade (actually, in the same apartment)
since early childhood, I had never paid much attention to these
buildings. Now they are my main topic of conversation. My wife and I
try to enter the minds of NATO planners and guess if they've put
these sites on their bombing lists. 

All of Belgrade is engaged in similar conversations, especially after
explosions in the middle of the night. While the sky is purple from fire
and a cloud of dust and smoke slowly rises, people come out into
streets covered with broken glass to talk and point and guess what
the next target is. 

My own record is mixed. I predicted that two police buildings on the
beautiful Kneza Milosa Avenue would be among the first to be hit, and
sure enough, three cruise missiles got them in the wee hours of April
3. Of course, the police had completely emptied the buildings, so the
main effect was to terrify the pregnant women in a maternity hospital
some 100 yards away. 

But I was wrong about the bridges. I knew that those in Kosovo would
be bombed -- the Yugoslav Army and Serbian police had stationed
tanks and troops in the region. But bridges in Novi Sad, 50 miles
north of Belgrade and almost 300 miles from Kosovo? Never. They
were hit, though. And the Danube, Europe's central waterway, is no
longer navigable. So I am no longer confident that American-led
NATO will not bomb the Parliament building in my neighborhood
simply because it is a symbol of democracy. 

NATO has kept its promise to attack all of Serbia's territory 24 hours a
day. The air attacks on Belgrade last an average of 12 hours. Since it
is difficult to stay enclosed for so long, my family and I, like the
majority of Belgraders, do not seek protection in bomb shelters. 

Civilian casualties are mounting. In Aleksinac, a poor mining town in
southeastern Serbia, some 17 people were killed. In Pristina, the
capital of Kosovo, with a mostly Albanian population, the number of
dead has not yet been established, but the bombing was so intense
that a Western journalist described the city center as "a scene from
Dante's Inferno." 

"Fascist murderers!" scream the Serbian official media. "Neo-Nazi

We are doing our best, NATO spokesmen reply, but mistakes
happen. I am one of the few in Belgrade who still believe that NATO
makes serious efforts to avoid civilian casualties. But I also suspect
that targets are often selected not for their military importance but for
their proximity to civilian dwellings. 

NATO, I believe, hopes to intimidate the Serbs, while counting on the
precision of its weapons to keep the civilian casualties within the limits
of "military correctness" -- limits that are acceptable to the Western

Nikola is the only person I know who is completely unperturbed during
the one-minute-long howling signal that announces the beginning of
an air attack. He even finds cruise missiles and bombs attractive and
smiles cheerfully when we talk about explosions and fires. I envy
Nikola for being a cool guy. But he has an unfair advantage -- he is 4
years old. His parents -- my wife, Olgica, and I -- and other adults
differ from one another only in the degree of success with which we
can bluff our lack of concern. 

Worrying about our children (Marija, our daughter, is 2), Olgica hardly
slept or ate at all during the first week of bombing and lost 12 pounds.
Olgica and I tried to laugh: had the West's quest for a perfect quickie
diet finally been fulfilled? But we decided that even Californians would
be reluctant to try the cruise-missile diet. 

Fear makes people move. My mother- and father-in-law have come to
stay with us because their apartment building is dangerously close to
a bridge over the Danube. It appears that of the almost two million
Belgraders, several hundred thousand are not in their homes now.
Many have gone abroad, the preferred destination being neighboring
Hungary, for which visas are not needed. Those with relatives in the
villages of Serbia have gone to live in them. 

The simple truth is that the people in Belgrade and Serbia are
suffering from the bombing. But are the Albanians in Kosovo
benefiting? I don't think so. My guess is that many of the 300,000
ethnic Albanian refugees in Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and
Serbia proper have run away from the NATO bombing as much as
from the Serbs. After all, Kosovo is being bombed more intensely than
Serbia and Belgrade. 

And after more than two weeks of bombing, the Serbian paramilitaries
and the Kosovo Liberation Army fighters still have their Kalashnikov
rifles and their knives. These are the weapons of ethnic cleansing --
not the Government buildings, factories and bridges. It is going to be
a long campaign, NATO planners say. Have they considered that for
us, the suffering Serbian and Albanian citizens, the time flows much
more slowly, much more painfully, than it does for them in their
high-tech bombing arcade? 

Aleksa Djilas, a historian, is the author of ``The Contested Country.''

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