War in the Balkans: Families blasted in `just another mistake'

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THEY HAD been torn apart. Blood was caked around what was left of Vojislav Milic's cellar, and there was the smell of meat. In the morgue, they had been unable to fit together the pieces of his son and daughter- in-law and his two grandchildren. Nato's bomb - one of two which struck the homes of Surdulica - had scored a direct hit on the house, killing at least nine other children in the basement, the youngest only five years old.

Mr Milic was still there, slumped over a wall in despair, head buried in his hands, tears draining between his fingers, a survivor who wanted to die. A tweed cap was sadly askew on his head. A blond girl put her arm round him. "We can't bear to see you like this," she wept into his ear. "We can't look at you like this."

Every house in Zmaj Jove Jovanovica Street had been ripped apart by the 2,000lb laser-guided bomb, their roofs flung hundreds of metres around the town, their walls cracked or blasted to the ground, their people - those who survived - taken to hospital in their dozens.

The few who remained untouched stood in the mud beside the wreckage yesterday. Most were crying. At least one appeared to have gone mad.

Another Nato "mistake". How often have we been writing that word these past five weeks? The civilian dead of Aleksinac (26), the passengers burnt alive on the bombed train at Grdelica, a few miles from here (27), the civilians killed in the Nato bombing of central Pristina (10), the convoy of Albanian refugees attacked by the Americans (74).

And now another slaughter of the innocents. What did Nato think it was bombing?

"There are no military facilities in the vicinity," Nabojsa Vujovic, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, announced amid the ruins. But a middle- aged lady whose best friend had been killed in the Milic house said there had been a barracks 500m away, on the outskirts of the town. Others said it had been empty. I saw a mass of tangled white prefabricated sheeting on a hillside that might once have been a military store. The Yugoslav military said four missiles had hit Surdulica at noon on Tuesday. Did two of them hit the "barracks"? We certainly knew where the other two exploded.

And their detonations - two laser-guided bombs hit civilian homes, not one as Nato later claimed - broke a community apart. For the house in Zmoj Jove Javanovica Street had the strongest cellar, the safest basement with railway lines to support its roof - the ideal shelter for the children who lived in the neighbouring two-storey villas with their gardens of tulips and lilac trees. So that is where the children ran when the air- raid siren sounded over Surdulica. And that is where they died.

"Bits of them were all over the road," a young, American-educated man said to me. "We found the head of a child in a garden and many limbs in the mud. But you don't want to report that. CNN filmed the bodies - but they didn't show them on television."

Alas, the young man was right. History is quickly sanitised here. But in the hospital a few hours after the Nato bombing, doctors were still trying to fit limbs and heads to at least 20 torsos. Among them were the remains of Mrs Milic, her 37-year-old son, Aleksandar, his wife, Vesna, and their children, 11-year-old Vladimir and 15-year old Miljna.

The dead also included two 18-year-old men, a 21-year-old woman and the relatives of a man who walked up to us near the bomb crater with tears in his eyes and said: "I have lost what I hold most dear to me." In a house just down the road, the same Nato bomb had blasted to death his aunt, Stanica Rasic, and his cousin, Dragan Manolov, as well.

An old woman was dragged alive from the mud, just as Vojislav Milic was pulled from the tomb of his family. "When he was taken out of the basement, `Voja' said he would hang himself," the middle-aged woman said. "The first thing he said when they pulled him out was, `Shoot me', `Kill me'. He had lost everything, you see - his whole family, his home..."

Surdulica was not the place yesterday to discuss Nato's latest explanations of a single erroneous bomb or its expressions of regret or the British Ministry of Defence's statement - made four hours after the attack - that Nato had had "a good day" over Yugoslavia. "Take some pictures of my house," a man shrieked at us from the timbers of his smashed roof. "Fuck Clinton and his family for this. I spent 30 years building my home. You're a bunch of fascists."

Even the woman who had watched "Voja" Milic being tugged out of the wreckage believed these houses had been deliberately bombed. "Nato hit the barracks on 6 April," she said. "So now they came to attack us in our homes."

Half a mile away, the anger was just as intense, tempered only by the fact that the Nato bomb that landed there haddestroyed the only empty house in the street.

Radica Ristic, shouting away on the lip of the crater that was her home, her grey cardigan splashed with mud, her string shoes covered in earth, spoke only of a small life in a small town. "We had run into the cellar of our neighbour's house and our home had turned into smoke," she wailed. "When you look at this hole - this was my home. I've been building this house for 10 years. I work in the agricultural school and out of this I made a living and made my home."

Surdulica will now be known as a town that lost its children. And by terrible irony, their street of death - Zmaj Jove Jovanovica Street - was named after a 19th-century doctor and poet whose personal tragedy is known to every Serb. All of his seven children died.