War In The Balkans: City where everything has become degraded

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The Independent Online
WE DRIVE at speed across the Branko Most, the great bridge over the Sava river that links the old city with the glass suburbs of Novi Beograd. The other night, the air raid alert sounded as my driver Georgije and I approached the first span. Georgije's eyes swivelled to the north - I suppose he thought he would be able to see the cruise missile as it came swishing over the water in the darkness - and just for a second, his foot left the accelerator. "Georgije," I said, "keep going." After all, I reflected, Belgrade is a city where Nato's bombs have the disconcerting habit of exploding before the air raid alert or after the all-clear.

But now that Nato has attacked 32 bridges, I let Georgije choose his own speed over the Branko Most, sliding on the old tram lines as he chases across the river. My hotel porter pointed at the bridge through the rain the other day and told me to take a close look. "It's not going to be there much longer," he said. I'm beginning to think he might be right. Any road in Yugoslavia, it seems, can now qualify as a "military supply route". After four weeks of bombardment, Nato is beginning to concentrate on those most familiar of "military" targets: bridges, television transmitters, electricity relay stations, telephone lines. Like Iraq, like Yugoslavia.

Every day, the definition of "military" subtly expands to embrace something we hadn't thought of. Like the tobacco factory in Vranje. Outside my hotel now, every morning, a thousand people queue in the rain for cigarettes. Rak is Serbian for cancer, rat for war. Smrt is Serbian for death. Nato is now ensuring that smrt claims its principal victims from rat rather than rak. And last night, rescue workers broke through to the basement cafeteria of the bombed-out RTS television station in Belgrade ("a propaganda machine... a legitimate target" - Clare Short) to find more crushed bodies where the staff were enjoying a coffee and a smoke when Nato's missiles hit the building on Friday.

Officially, 10 civilians - Serb journalists among them - died in the explosion. But at dinner on Saturday night, I was sitting opposite a former RTS reporter whose close friend was burnt to death by the missile, when an acquaintance approached him and muttered in his ear. The journalist shook his head and looked up at me and said: "It's now 17 dead." I wasn't sure if he blamed me or Nato. "They'll do the bridges next," he added. "And the other TV stations."

They did. Within six hours, Nato had bombed the Serb television transmitters at Avala south of Belgrade, taking RTS off the air for the second time in 36 hours. And another bridge at Novi Sad - half of the city's electricity supply has now been cut. On the same night they attacked RTS television, American jets destroyed two electrical transmission stations in the Belgrade suburbs of Resnik and Batanica, cutting power to a large part of the Zemun region. The same day, Nato bombed the "Telekom" building in Uzice, cutting almost all telephone lines in the city.

By last night, three small television channels were still broadcasting in the capital and Belgrade radio continued to transmit news - news, needless to say, in which all Kosovo Albanian refugees are fleeing from Nato bombs rather than "ethnic cleansing". Amid a population also told that hundreds of Nato troops are deserting from their posts in Macedonia and that dozens of US soldiers have been killed there, President Bill Clinton is personally blamed for the raids on television transmitters. Just before Kosava television was bombed, locals have noted, it had been broadcasting a film that showed an actor as Mr Clinton receiving oral sex from a Monica Lewinsky lookalike.

It's not difficult to see what Nato might have to gain by all these attacks: if a society is deprived of news, it might disintegrate. When the official news agency reports 40 missiles exploding in just over two hours on Vranje - as it claimed two days ago - and when the government is warning of an ecological disaster after repeated missile strikes against petro-chemical plants, Nato might hope to spread panic around the country. But the absence of television and electricity did not break Serb resistance in two world wars - so why should it do so now? Serbs in neighbouring countries are now sending e-mails to their compatriots in Yugoslavia every time Nato jets pass over them, estimating the time it will take for the planes to reach big cities in Serbia - the first time in the history of warfare that the Internet has been used for air raid alerts.

And what of the ecological consequences of the raids? According to the Belgrade authorities, the Panchevo refinery attacks have polluted both the air and the waters of the Danube with chlorine, mercury, phosgene, sulphur dioxide, benzene and ammonia, necessitating the evacuation of 80,000 people from their homes. Belgrade, these past three days, has been shadowed by grey and yellow clouds - similar in colour, though by no means as thick, as the darkness that spread over Kuwait after its oil fields were set alight. Obviously, it is in the regime's interest to accuse Nato of an environmental catastrophe. But when Nato is boasting it has destroyed 100 per cent of Serbia's entire refining capacity, what is the effect on the atmosphere?

Questions rather than statements, therefore, now permeate the language of every Serb. How long can this go on? How long before Belgrade, too, loses its electricity, its phones, its bridges? The collapse of the Avala transmission system has also cut live-image broadcasts from ITN, the BBC and CNN in Belgrade. A few of their reporters have been asking themselves whether this, too, was one of Nato's intentions.