War In Europe: The night the sky caught fire

Even Milosevic's opponents are outraged and defiant as the Nato bombing of their city gathers force
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The Independent Online
BY THEIR graffiti, thou shalt know them. Just round the corner from the Skoljka restaurant, high above the Danube, someone has written "French murderer" on the wall of the French embassy in carefully painted capital letters.

In the Kalemegdan Park, the great statue of a woman by Ivan Mestrovic - a Croat, but no enemy of the Serbs - commemorating Serbia's military alliance with France in the 1914-18 war, has been draped in black cloth. "French murderer" it says again on a banner attached to the drapery.

Close to the Slavija roundabout in Belgrade, some tough, cynical humour manifests itself. Spray-painted beside a building are the words: "Either you bomb it as soon as possible or I'm going to have to paint my house." Given the events of the last 24 hours, the owner had better wait another few days before he makes a final decision on renovation. Even as dawn slunk over the city yesterday, the smoke still drifted through the streets all the way from Avala, 11 miles out of town, a grey fog that penetrated doors and bedrooms.

I knew the cause. Not long before midnight on Friday, there was a flat, hollow explosion, a surprisingly short but powerful clap of sound that banged all the windows in our hotel, slamming shut the open windows, rattling the others on their hinges. Then a strange, almost unearthly wind billowed up the curtains. Like ghosts, they rose swiftly to the ceiling and stayed there, fluttering against the roof. There was no blast, just this warm wind which rushed through our hotel near the Danube; the cooks and the receptionists and the chef in his white jacket all ran to the lobby, two of the kitchen girls holding hands in fear.

From the sixth floor, we could see a crimson glow creeping along the horizon, a great mass of fire that illuminated an entire hillside. Nato had struck an arms depot and the missiles there soared into the night's sky, gold and bright red, a pall of smoke drifting away in the light of the fires. We have heard jets, although some said the whistling sound represented missiles. For minutes we watched the fires, the window occasionally shaking gently from the explosions. Then we crept downstairs in the darkness.

A military target, Belgrade radio announced. Casualties unknown. By mid- day yesterday, the Serbs were talking of gravely wounded civilians - a government minister said the same an hour later, although there were no figures. Then came the sort of grim rumour all wars can do without; that some form of chemical store had been hit, that poisonous chemicals may have been set alight in the bombing, that the wounded had been near suffocation. In several bomb shelters in south-west Belgrade, residents were told to wear gas masks. Everyone had smelt the smoke; it had a strange smell, one young woman told us in an echoing government ministry yesterday afternoon.

In a land which still honours the language of communism - of soldiers fighting honourably for the fatherland and courageously "performing national duties" - news is a jealously guarded commodity. "Nato last night systematically and blindly bombarded our country," Milan Komnenic, the Federal Yugoslav information minister, announced at mid-day. "The greatest victim of that attack was the capital of Yugoslavia which from its outskirts to its centre was systematically bombarded with shells and bombs." From such nuggets of Comintern prose are we supposed to extract diamonds.

But the bombing is indeed systematic - and many were the Serbs of Belgrade who wondered whether Nato disturbed their night in revenge for the sight of two MiG-29s over Bosnia, shot down according to Nato but very much undestroyed (and not even flying over Bosnia) according to the Yugoslav military. And from Avala to the centre of Belgrade, there was not a soul who did not wonder what this massive explosion portended. By yesterday afternoon, the anxiety was palpable. The blast of another explosion tore over the city, followed - too late - by an air raid siren, and I found men and women running in panic through the city streets. Not a plane could be heard. Was it a missile?

I remember, while watching those explosions rippling along the skyline on Friday night, asking myself if there was any response to technology; if its possession - in the shape of computer-guided rockets and 3,000- mile range bomber missions - had not created an unstoppable power. The Yugoslavs have stood up better to the American attacks than did the Iraqis. But then, Nato has not attacked bridges and electricity stations and sewage plants. Not yet.

Down by the Danube, just before the afternoon air raid, we had lunched with old Serb friends, Jelena and her daughter, both English teachers, both normally level-headed, serious, intellectual, tough people. We tucked into Montenegro fish and Calamari over cold Niksicko beers but I hadn't expected to find such venom for the country whose culture they had studied for so long.

"Nato is helping Milosevic," Jelena said. "Like Iraq, the Americans have closed our borders and isolated us and made even people who were against the President stand with him. Religious people here feel we are being punished for what has happened to us which is because of communism. And are remembering that the man who brought us communism through his support for Tito was your leader, Winston Churchill."

In the air raid shelters the previous night, Jelena's daughter had been astonished to hear a middle-aged woman quote from a 20th century Serbian Nostradamus, Dedamilojel, a prophet supposed to have been born in 1914, though no one knows if he is still alive - or ever lived - but who will die, if he is alive, at the beginning of the Third World War. "Grandfather Deda," believed President Milosevic was going to be the saviour of Serbia, the lady told the people in the shelter. "Nowadays," Jelena said, "I am ashamed I taught English for so long." The terrible stories of atrocities in Kosovo were not received well at our luncheon. Jelena did not know the truth of them, she repeated over and over again.

Yes, prophets can be believed these days in Belgrade. Mr Komnenic told us yesterday that Belgrade would be a symbol of resistance as Madrid was in the Spanish Civil war. Minutes later another official claimed that Belgrade would achieve the same unity as Prague during the Soviet invasion of 1968. How easily history is embraced in Serbia these days. How easy it is to bomb.