Outlaw nation? Even Serbs who hate Milosevic are outraged at the NATO bombing. SALON MAGAZINE
BY LAURA ROZEN | "You have the most disgusting president in the world. He's a pig and he's a bastard," Sasha, a Serbian translator who has helped Western journalists cover the Kosovo crisis, tells me over the phone from Belgrade on the second night of NATO airstrikes against her country.
"Nothing against you," she adds.
Sasha studied at a U.S. university, enjoys friendships with dozens of Americans and Western Europeans, and has even flirted with the idea of immigrating to the United States. Unlike most of her fellow Serbian citizens, she has seen firsthand the devastation and violence Serbian security forces have unleashed on the ethnic Albanian citizens of Serbia's southern province of Kosovo, in her role helping journalists cover the crisis.
But despite her many ties with the United States, and direct knowledge of the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo that triggered NATO involvement, Sasha's hatred of the U.S. and NATO is raw. And understandable, after a sleepless night punctuated by air raid sirens, arrests of foreign journalists in her charge and the explosion of 2,000-pound precision-guided bombs not far from her family's home in a suburb of the Serbian capital, Belgrade.
Serbia is convulsed with outrage at the NATO bombings. Even Serbs like Alex -- who laugh at the lies broadcast on Serbian state-controlled television, lament the persecution of ethnic Albanians and long for the day their despised dictator Slobodan Milosevic falls from power -- think no action Serbian troops have taken in Kosovo justifies NATO intervention against their country.
For an outside observer familiar with events in the region -- I have spent about five months in Kosovo over the past year of conflict, and three years in the Balkans -- there is a puzzling disconnect between this outrage Serbs feel about the NATO airstrikes against Serbia and their comparative indifference to Serbian forces' brutal killing and mass displacement of ethnic Albanian people in Kosovo.
"It's wrong," says Zarko Korac, a Belgrade psychology professor and political activist, of the NATO air strikes. Korac, a wiry, slight, bearded liberal, is one of the few Serbs who says openly that NATO action was justified to punish Serbian massacres in Bosnia and Croatia. But Korac believes NATO bombing now only serves to strengthen Milosevic. "You are not bombing Milosevic. You are bombing me and my 85-year-old Jewish mother. The bombs are falling on our heads," Korac screams, before holding up the phone so I can hear the air-raid sirens blaring throughout Belgrade.
For the first time since World War II, Serbs are experiencing war in their own territory. Their government has helped support wars in neighboring Bosnia and Croatia, and for the past year in the majority-Albanian province of Kosovo -- wars that have altogether killed almost 300,000 people. War has now come to Belgrade not just in bombings and air raid shelters, but in the little things that drain daily life of its normalcy. The government has suspended the sale of gasoline to non-military vehicles. A 6 percent war tax has been imposed. Schools and universities are shut. Store shelves are bare from runs on candles, bottled water and other staples. The last few independent media have had their transmitters seized and their editors arrested. Veran Matic, the editor in chief of the anti-Milosevic independent radio station Radio B92, was interrogated for eight hours by Serbian police overnight Wednesday, after they raided the station and halted its broadcasts. Matic has warned repeatedly that NATO airstrikes would only hurt the fragile community of pro-democracy groups, independent journalists and student activists in Belgrade. At first glance, the NATO airstrikes have, predictably, fueled a backlash within Serbia against political liberals like Matic.
Belgrade's war mafia is reactivating, with Zeljko Raznatovic "Arkan" showing up at Belgrade's Hyatt Hotel tea room to intimidate remaining foreign journalists, and calling for volunteers to staff his paramilitary thug armies in Kosovo. Serbian state-run TV shows grainy World War II-era movies of the Yugoslav partisans defending their land from the Nazi invaders. The propaganda includes false declarations that NATO planes have been shot down, and that thousands of Serbs are volunteering to fight against NATO. In reality, thousands of young Serbian men are in hiding from the military police, trying to avoid the draft declared for all men under 54 years old.
While my Serbian friends have for years freely complained about life under Milosevic, his totalitarian tendencies, the lousy Serbian economy and their meager salaries, they still considered themselves inhabitants of a civilized, historic, Central European country. They complained about life under Milosevic while sitting in cafes in the faded but elegant Belgrade downtown, with its 19th century and turn-of-the-century architecture, its universities, theaters, nightclubs and culture, its Hyatt and Intercontinental hotels, its antiquated but still considerable military, the remnants of the fifth largest army in Europe.
The NATO airstrikes have shattered and insulted this self-image, this identity. Serbs are shocked and outraged to realize that the first time the 50-year-old defensive military alliance of NATO would act against a sovereign country over international humanitarian violations, it would be against Serbia. In their eyes, Serbia may not be the most democratic country in the world, but they do not believe it deserves this special stigma. Serbs refuse to see their country as the outlaw nation that President Clinton, the international human rights community and NATO commanders describe -- a nation that is committing a slow genocide against its ethnic Albanian inhabitants, after committing genocides against non-Serbian peoples in other parts of the former Yugoslavia. The trappings of civilized European life have blinded many Serbian citizens to the atrocities that have been committed in the name of Serbian security forces in Kosovo. As one Serbian man told Serbian television incredulously, "NATO is treating us like barbarians."
While the misery of war is startling and new to many Serbs in Belgrade, ethnic Albanians in Kosovo are used to the proximity, terror and uncertainty of conflict. Over the course of the past year, some 400,000 Kosovo Albanians -- almost a quarter of the population -- have been forced to flee Serbian security forces, who have gratuitously torched villages after shelling the people out. Some 2,000 people have been killed, many in cold blood.
But though ethnic Albanians in Kosovo have for months longed for NATO to punish the Serbian government forces for their crackdown, now that the strikes have come, life in the province is even more terrifying. Armed Serbian civilians as well as Serbian security forces and paramilitaries have prepared a hit list of prominent ethnic Albanian intellectuals, political activists and journalists for revenge killings for the NATO airstrikes. On Friday, Human Rights Watch confirmed that a well-known ethnic Albanian human rights lawyer, Bajram Kelmendi, and his two sons, who had been abducted by Serbian forces on Wednesday, were found shot dead near a gas station outside of Pristina. A doctor in the southwestern Kosovo town of Djakovica, Azem Hima, was also killed by Serbs.
"I am in hiding," an ethnic Albanian journalist told me when I reached her by phone in Pristina. The doorman to her newspaper's offices had been shot dead by Serbian police the day before when they raided the building. The editor in chief, Veton Surroi, who was one of the signers of the Rambouillet peace agreement, has also gone into hiding.
The ethnic Albanian family who rents me a room in Pristina told me that daytime is better than the night, when the electricity is shut off across the entire city as the bombs drop. They're worried because their daughter-in-law is due to give birth next week. They're trying not to tell her too much about what is going on outside, but she can hear the explosions, and knows that her family has not gone outside in days, not even to buy food. It will be impossible to take her to a doctor when her time comes without exposing the entire family to danger.
Last Monday, another Kosovar friend, a restaurant owner, was wounded by shrapnel when an explosion went off at the Magic cafe, across the way from his restaurant, killing a well-known 22-year-old ethnic Albanian actress. His wife told me that on the first night of airstrikes she sat with him all night in the state-run Serbian hospital, with the Serbian doctors and nurses looking at them with hostility. She took him home the next day.
Though they live in mortal fear that their Serbian neighbors will attack them in revenge for the bombings, the Kosovo Albanians seem more willing to live through the terror in order to have a more peaceful future.
Not so the Serbs, who feel they have nothing to gain from the NATO airstrikes.
"For you Americans, this is like a computer war. You don't picture the civilian victims of your bombing," says Zarko Korac, the Belgrade psychologist.
And in a way, he is right. As the misery unleashed by Serbian security forces in Kosovo was unreal to most Serbs in Belgrade, the suffering of Serbs under attack from NATO is unreal to American TV viewers as we note the first combat use of the $2.1 billion B-2 bomber, the explosions turning the night sky of Belgrade a video-game neon green, the dull Pentagon and National Security Council briefings.
As we see Serbia as an outlaw nation, so they see us. SALON | March 27, 1999
Laura Rozen is a freelance journalist who covers the Balkans, and an analyst for the International Crisis Group.