FOCUS: WAR IN EUROPE: Just another day of dread

It's business as usual in Belgrade, but the Serbs are waiting in terror for their homes to be flattened by what they believe is the `Luftwaffe' of the Western powers
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In the wrecked streets of Aleksinac last week, I stopped to ask the way back to Belgrade. A Nato jet - a British Harrier, according to the Yugoslavs - had bombed the city but missed the military barracks by half a mile and destroyed more than 40 homes and, on the latest count, up to 24 innocent Serb lives. The man outside my car window was trying to keep his footing amid a pile of timber roof beams but smiled back at me with Blitz-like charm. "First right and first right again onto the motorway," he replied. He was the local postman.

It came as a shock to see him. Relatives of the dead of Aleksinac were standing by the road with members of the Serb paramilitary police; but here was the postman in his smart dark blue uniform delivering mail from a big leather pouch of the kind that British bus conductors once wore. And when we reached the "autoput" back to Belgrade, there was a tired Serb in the toll booth handing out tickets to motorists. And once back in Belgrade, I had to thread my way through the old Russian electric trolleybuses and trams of this dingy city.

It would be tempting - if you could forget the war crimes of Kosovo - to hunt for 1940 parallels in Belgrade. Business as usual. There's a morning rush hour over the great river bridges not (yet) destroyed by Nato, the department stores are busy, the popcorn vendors crowd round the ever more decrepit (and ever more extreme) pop concerts at Republic Square. Julia Roberts premieres in Stepmom in Belgrade cinemas this Orthodox Easter weekend. When my wife bought a new dressing gown (made in Macedonia) across the road from the old Communist party headquarters where Milosevic Esq began his political career, the old lady at the till apologised only that she had no wrapping paper.

"Happy is the country that has no history," a Serb friend said to me - in all seriousness - over lunch a few days ago. Having been told that Nato's air bombardment is the same as Hitler's, the Serbs of Belgrade waited in terror for the Luftwaffe of the Western powers to flatten their city. Their fear was real. But, of course, Nato is not, yet, flattening civilian areas of Belgrade (as opposed to Pristina, Cuprija and Aleksinac). So, the nightly air attacks are short and empty, in every sense of the word. For between 2.30pm and 5pm Belgrade's civil servants clear their offices of every file and computer and phone. Packed into boxes and trucked out of the city, they are brought back every morning if the office has not been bombed.

When we called by the foreign ministry last week, Yugoslavia's former charge d'affaires in Washington greeted us in a room with huge, and entirely empty, filing cabinets. When I visited my local Serb police station for a visa extension that afternoon, they were already putting their phones into cardboard boxes. A trip to the post office in the late afternoon elicited only one comment from the guard at the door. "Go home - it's not safe here any more." Thus Nato conspires to bomb government offices which every Yugoslav knows - and presumably every Nato pilot knows - are entirely empty of personnel and equipment. The only parallel with the Second World War are the air raid sirens - probably the very same cranked machines which howled over Belgrade on 6 April 1941. Avram Israel is the man in charge of them - the name of the chief air raid warden is known to every citizen - and his evening warnings are oddly timed to coincide with the government's 7pm closure orders for restaurants.

The thousands of young people flocking the shopping streets go on drinking coffee until way after dark; many of them gravitate later to the river bridges to participate in the night-time "human shield" which is supposed to prevent Nato's bombers from destroying the spans linking old Belgrade with its new suburbs.

At Novi Sad, where only one bridge remains over the Danube, its citizens take their night-time vigil more seriously. Two nights ago, on the Orthodox Good Friday, thousands stood on the vulnerable bridge to listen to a concert of hymns and plainsong which moved many to tears. But the bombers never came. "Clinton," they chant in Belgrade, "every morning Avram Israel will wake you up." But it is not only Clinton who needs waking.

Not a word, not a single second, of television or radio time or an inch of newspaper space is devoted to the pogroms of Kosovo Albanians. Talk to the Serbs of Belgrade about the Kosovo Albanians and they tell you of traitors, fifth columnists, foreigners. Ethnic cleansing? As Yugoslavia's former Washington charge, Nebojsa Vujovic, insisted: "Our police are skilled, professional forces and they are there [in Kosovo] to prevent Nato aggression. They are very disciplined soldiers."

In the Kneza Mihailova pedestrian precinct, they are making a killing out of postcards which reprint the front pages of the First World War French weekly magazine Le Petit Journal. Romantic graphics show Serb peasants holding muskets, fighting "l'envahisseur", while a bloodthirsty illustration shows "le massacre de paysans serbes par les bandes turques". Women are having their throats slit, priests are being knifed to death by crazed hordes. That such scenes might be happening in Kosovo, presumably escapes the postcard-buyers.

Petrol is strictly rationed but Nato's war has not stopped the buses or the postmen. It has upset the railway schedules, however. You can still take the train to Nis but the line to Pristina will not be open for a long time. Travelling through eastern Kosovo last week, I saw the track that had just been bombed by a Nato aircraft. The pilot had missed a bridge but clipped the tracks neatly in half at one end with a bomb that left a 20ft crater on the permanent way.

A few hours later, I sat in my Belgrade hotel and watched a Pentagon general on television show a photograph of the very same bridge. "We meant to bring the bridge down," he said. "We could repair our bridges and railways in a day or two," a Belgrade government official assured me. "We are Yugoslavs and we know how to repair things in war. But if we rebuilt the bridges now, Nato would bomb them again - and we'd have to rebuild them so often that we'd run out of resources. So we're waiting."

With state-of-the-art technology against them, it's not surprising that Serb humour - deep but very sharp - has played its part in the war. The first Nato bombers to fly over Belgrade dropped small Styrofoam "locator" beacons to give American and European aircraft positioning points when bombing the city. The Belgrade authorities immediately asked its citizens to call the police when they found the small round objects near their homes. So what do you do when you find a locator outside your front door? Every citizen of Belgrade knows the answer. Throw it in your neighbour's garden!

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