Assault on the Serbs: Under a bomber's moon, burning buildings light the road to Belgrade

In Belgrade
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The Independent Online
In Belgrade

A BOMBER'S moon shone silver bright over hundreds of kilometres towards Belgrade but it was a darkened country we travelled, the street lights switched off, the cottage windows in the smallest villages blacked out.

Not far on our road to Belgrade, a light appeared on the horizon, like a Christmas tree, and by the time we reached the motorway toll at Novi Sad, the man in the booth said, matter-of-factly: "They're bombing again - three missiles."

But we had stopped at the booth to pay our motorway toll. Just as in those frightening, silent villages, our driver, Boran, halted dutifully when the traffic lights were working and showed red: a strange kind of normality when Nato is supposedly bringing Serbia to its knees.

But you couldn't help feeling frightened under that moon last night. The sky was a pageant of stars and the vast fields on either side of the empty road glowed white. "Look over there," Boran would say, pointing to a distant glimmer. It was a relief when he switched on Belgrade radio. There was a death toll: 10 dead, 38 wounded.

Mr Yeltsin had instructed the Russian ambassador in Belgrade to tell the Serbs how much he "deplored" the Nato air strikes. The newsreader's words were translated by the women in our little bus.

Liljana had been seeing her daughter off to America from Budapest airport. Snjezana, a lecturer at Belgrade University, was returning from a conference in England. Teresa sat by the window, nervously urging Boran to drive faster.

We were scarcely an hour out of Belgrade when the headlights picked up smoke and a thick, rubbery smell pervaded the inside of our bus. A glance to the left: a massive building was leaking red fire into the sky.

True, the Serb occupants of our little bus were nervous enough; but they were brave, none the less, staunchly returning to their capital city under Nato's bombers and missiles. Liljana simply wanted to go home. Teresa and Snjezana were worried about their children in Belgrade. "Do you think air raid shelters are safe - I don't know what the one near my home is like," Snjezana asked. I told her I was always worried about bunkers. I remembered the American bombing of the shelter in Baghdad and the hundreds of dead. "Yes," she said, "but when you have children you feel you must take them to the shelter."

Boran gunned his bus down the motorway, playing Seventies pop tunes now on his radio, the Danube a pale mirror to our right. A newsreader told us there had been air raid sirens again at 5 o'clock in the city. Behind his voice you could hear that familiar wailing sound of all cities under attack.

Yet just when Teresa fidgeted nervously at the long hours, Boran stopped for coffee. Yes, coffee in a little restaurant by the side of the road, one of the very few buildings with lights; even its little garage and petrol pumps blacked out. It was odd, this sense that things had to go on, even amid such a crisis.

Fearful our passengers may have been, but they listened attentively to the news and watched the horizon with almost fatalistic care. We all watched the horizon until every star appeared to be a jet, every distant light a pinprick of flame. I studied a string of red lights for several minutes before I spotted a green light and realised a passenger train was lumbering over the plains towards Belgrade, windows shuttered.

So when the blazing building came into view to our left, the facade cruelly outlined by the golden flame, it came almost as a relief. We knew they had bombed here and, sure enough, here was the result. There was not a soul on the road; indeed the few policemen who stopped our bus were business- like - tired, but remarkably lacking in anger - just like the immigration officials who courteously saw us across the border to Serbia.

On the radio, a boy was screaming: "Long live Yugoslavia, long live Serbia, long live Montenegro!"

The women remained unmoved but it was difficult not to be struck by their mood nor by our own precarious journey on the dark road to Belgrade. In Pentagon briefing rooms, air strikes against Serbia probably seem simple enough affairs, a tactic designed to destabilise President Slobodan Milosevic. But on the ground, under that dangerous sky, it all seemed very different: bombing a country didn't seem very heroic, bombing it at night even less so.

Belgrade came up a twinkle of grey light, the street lamps switched off, the highways empty of people and traffic. "What happens next?" Snjezana asked me as we drove into the city. Ah yes indeed, that is the question, isn't it? More air raids today? And tomorrow? And on Sunday?

Hadn't we been through all this once before - no, many times before - in Iraq? What if the Serbs simply refuse to go along with Nato's wishes and allow Nato forces into Kosovo? Are we in for daily bombings ad infinitum? True, Kosovo remained the issue, even in our little bus. Teresa talked of the need to "clean" the province and we gently drew in our breath. But she didn't look like a woman who was about to give up. Nor did Snjezana, nor Liljana. Nor Boran, whose love for coffee could evidently overcome his anxiety.

"They bombed down there last night, just 50 metres from here," Teresa reported as we stopped at yet another lonely traffic light. It was like that all the way. Those distant flashes, the burning warehouse, all spoke of a political act - but one that appears to have no end.