War in Europe: Radio hams hear death calling from 23,000ft

When the sirens sound, some in Belgrade make for the roofs. There they listen to the eerie voices of America

FROM HIGH above Belgrade, the voices are often disjointed but unmistakably American, very occasionally humorous but usually talking like computers.

Indeed, that is what they are reading as they turn across the skies of Yugoslavia. "Contact three-two-two and twenty-four". "About four miles to ..." "I'm going to do a left-hand turn." "One victor ..." "Negative." There are Midwest voices, New York accents, Californian boys, high-altitude static cutting off their voices in the air-conditioned interiors of F- 16s.

Yes, the Yugoslavs can hear the US pilots above them. For when the air raid sirens sound at dusk, Belgrade's radio hams go to their roofs rather than their shelters and tune in to Nato's state-of-the-art air alliance. There are very few moments of emotion in those voices from the other world, just the hint of a joke and some laughter come down from the ether. Or the sudden, unprofessional surprise of a young pilot who didn't realise how real his bombs were until they exploded.

"Two impacts - wow, look at that," a young voice says. Then there are seconds of silence.

"On the right side."

"Pods quiet."

"I might continue climbing up to base plus 10."

"Comin' right, reference two-one-zero."

"Twenty-three thousand."

What are "pods"? How high is "base"? Is 23,000 the altitude of the F- 16 (altitudes being the great undiscussable, secret subject of all Nato briefings)? But be sure that if the radio hams of Belgrade can pick this stuff up, so can the Yugoslav military. And they will be listening with more professional ears than the cold men on the chilly roofs of the capital.

Already, government propagandists are making use of these radio intercepts, cutting them into false passages of "pilot" transmissions in which actors pretending to be American or British aircrew say they are ejecting from their jets or bombing refugee convoys. Radio-TV Serbia ran a taped "conversation" between an Awacs aircraft and an F-16 pilot last Saturday that purported to be a record of the Nato attack on the Kosovo Albanian refugee convoy on 14 April. "I see tractors. I hope Reds have not camouflaged tanks into tractors," the "pilot" supposedly says.

The fake "Awacs" responds: "Mother to Charlie Bravo. What kind of a strange convoy? What civilians? Hell. It's all Serbian doing. Destroy the target!" Although the fraudulent tape betrays an odd parallel to the reality of the refugee convoy attack - Nato did indeed claim it had originally mistaken tractors for military vehicles - the words of the "Awacs" are more like those of a space cartoon than the USAF. "Destroy the target!" is Battleship Galactica, not Nato.

Not so the radio ham intercepts which are undeniably real, a tape of which has been handed to The Independent on Sunday in Belgrade. And it is just possible - even for a non-technical ear - to understand how the Nato air strikes are controlled. At one point in a night raid near the capital, for example, a clear but very distant voice (much softer than the pilots') states: "Aircraft Zero-Two, SA-6, charted acquisition, Romeo Fox, five zero four three, location map ... two three seven two three. Co- ordinates four four north zero one nine."

The voice appears to be an Awacs - a real high-altitude Boeing stuffed with electronics and air controllers - which is directing a Nato (Zero- Two) jet on to its target co-ordinates, warning of possible anti-aircraft missiles (SA-6 is a Soviet-made ground-to-air missile system).

Pilots' voices then break in on the tape.

"I'm pushing up now. I'm about through seven o'clock for bomb 'ap'."

"... with the goggles yet?"

"Say again."

"Have you seen the flare with the goggles yet?"

"No."

At one point, a pilot appears to make a joke about the moon. "Can you see a floating strobe light up there?" And there is laughter from another voice. Then a poor-quality voice says, "... how high the strobe light is ... the stars", receiving the response: "Yeah, we're seeing it, man."

Stars and laughter in the skies over wartime Yugoslavia. Listening to all this on the ground, as the rain gutters down from the caked roofs of old Belgrade, it's possible to believe that we live in different worlds.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power