Kosovo Offensive: Calm before the storm in city that thought it would never be bombed

On Streets Of Belgrade
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The Independent Online
"THEY'LL NEVER bomb us," said a man in torn jeans only hours before Nato's massive bombardment began. He was shovelling soil into the back of a lorry beside a main road "They don't have the balls for it." His friend disagreed, "I think they will," he said, against the din of the rush hour traffic."But they have no reason to."

The men are stonemasons and bricklayers from Crna Trava in the far south of Serbia near the Bulgarian and Macedonian borders and not far from Kosovo. They won't give their names, but want their region mentioned. "It's famous for its stonemasons," one man explains. "The best in all Serbia."

Like most people on the streets of the capital, they say their president is right not to sign the Kosovo peace accords, which would give self-rule to Kosovo with its large Albanian majority.

Further down George Washington Avenue, in the centre Belgrade, Goran, Velko and Dragan, all aged six or seven, were playing football in their school playground. "Everyone says they're going to bomb us," Velko said, "But I think they won't do it. I think they're just mucking around."

Yesterday was almost a normal working day in Belgrade. But not quite. From early morning people could be seen reading their newspapers as they walked down the street, rather than at home or in a cafe.

And for those who dislike the Milosevic government an important part of their daily routine disappeared - listening to B92 Radio, the most influential of all the independent media. The station was raided by police and officials from the telecommunications ministry early on Tuesday morning and taken off the air.

Until now its programmes have been re-broadcast by local radio stations throughout Serbia. "With one blow the independent media has been decapitated," a journalist at the weekly magazine Vreme said. Vreme could be under threat when this week's issue goes to print tonight.

The satellite station of the European broadcast union used to feed television programmes out of Serbia. It was also closed down by police yesterday. They also confiscated a BBC camera.

Serbia's independent media in Serbia, already crushed by a draconian law on information enacted last October, is bracing itself for more closures, and perhaps the detention of journalists. "There is no mercy for deserters, for those who disseminate panic, who spread false rumours, or who in any way diminish the defence capabilities of the country," said Vojislav Seselj, head of the Serbian Radical Party and deputy prime minister in the Serbian government.

The "state of the imminent threat of war", declared on Tuesday evening, has already given the government some powers to curtail civil liberties. The more serious measure - the declaration of a state of war - would allow the government to mobilise the whole male adult population. Then do almost anything it wishes.

But many in Belgrade still doubt it will come to that. "They might mobilise everyone in southern Serbia," said Goran, 32, an engineer. "But they wouldn't dare mobilise the people of Belgrade. They are too afraid of us taking our guns and going up to shoot a few people in Dedinje, before we go to Kosovo." Dedinje is a smart residential hilltop above the city and home to many senior officials, including Slobodan Milosevic.

The loyalty of the army is discussed in opposition circles. A purge of the military leadership took place earlier this week. That followed another purge last December, when the commander in chief, Momcilo Perisic, was replaced. He had publicly criticised the regime for "trying to go to war with the whole world".

The officer corps of the Yugoslav army has been increasingly politicised in the past years, with top positions going to officers who are also members of JUL - the Party of the Yugoslav left, run by president Milosevic's powerful wife, Mira. A cartoon in Vreme showed Slobodan and Mira, their arms around each other's shoulders, up on the bowsprit of the Titanic.

Pro-government observers scorn any questioning of the army's loyalty. "If the army abandons the country in its hour of need, it would undermine the whole purpose of its existence," said Miros Lav Lazanski, defence correspondent of Serbia's best-selling tabloid, Vecernji Novosti. "The army is not threatening anybody. But we will defend ourselves. And the countries that allow their airspace to be used will be exposed to retaliation." Lazanski went on to sketch one of the scenarios that Nato commanders fear - attacks on Nato troops in Bosnia and Macedonia, and on naval vessels in the Adriatic.

In the past week, the generals have repeatedly referred to the heroic exploits of the Serbian army in the First and Second World Wars, and far back into history in the rebellions against the Turkish rulers.

On Kalemegdan Hill overlooking Belgrade, the military museum is housed in the old fortress. Outside, in a grassy moat, grey painted tanks and artillery pieces, mostly relics from the Second World War, point their barrels harmlessly at the skies. Most are covered in graffiti - declarations of eternal love, swear words, and "Fight war, not wars".

Inside the museum there is the order, issued by the commander of the 2nd Battalion, the 10th Regiment, and addressed to the defenders of Belgrade against Austria-Hungary on 9 October 1915. "Precisely at 3pm the enemy is to be... torn to pieces by our hand grenades and bayonets. The honour of Belgrade... is to be upheld. Soldiers, heroes...our regiment is sacrificed for the honour of the fatherland." Others like referring to the German air attack on 6 April 1941 when large parts of the city were damaged and thousands were killed.

But yesterday many Belgraders were worried about the fate of their sons in Yugoslavia's army. Of the 114,000 soldiers, the vast majority are conscripts serving 13 months' military service. Until yesterday they were most afraid of them dying from the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army. Now their fears are redoubled by the thought that they could be killed by a Cruise missile fired from a Nato plane or warship.

"The innocent always die first," a mourner at the funeral of a young Yugoslav army soldier who was killed in the fighting in Kosovo told me last week.