War in the Balkans: `Nato came by night, and God at dawn'

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The Independent Online
NATO CAME at night, God in the morning. The air raids lasted until dawn, the longest yet; that's when the earthquake trembled its way across Belgrade and moved the rubble of the defence ministry and the wreckage of Nato's latest awesome "mistake" - this time a direct hit on homes near the university. Two dead civilians were dragged from one house. "And they hit a car," an angry Serb shouted at me afterwards. "A man had stopped at the traffic lights on the street and a bomb cut him in half."

It had been easy - until yesterday morning - to mock CNN's reports of Belgrade's air raids. Missiles, we were always told, "rained down" on Yugoslavia. But when I walked on to my bedroom balcony early yesterday, it was raining fire. Tracer shells and anti-aircraft missiles arched and twisted up into the darkness from Belgrade's air defences as the night sky - how ominously lucid and white the moon had seemed at that moment - pulsated with sound.

A rumble of explosions shook the horizon and then the shriek of bombs passed over our roof. I remember thinking, standing there with the Sava river clear beneath the moon, that there was something inevitable about all this and I waited for the impact with a strange curiosity. Laser-guided, I thought to myself; 2,000lb. How familiar we have become with Nato's technology. But I never guessed it would change the atmosphere so suddenly that I would feel the air pressure against my chest. There was a mushroom of fire - only a few seconds of it - a second explosion (an echo?) and complete silence. And then the howling of a hundred dogs and a thousand burglar alarms.

We all knew the defence ministry was empty - it had been abandoned for weeks - and that the foreign ministry opposite (I had taken coffee there on Thursday afternoon, beside its high, fussy pseudo-baroque corridor) was deserted at night. Only a policeman or an unlucky motorist could die in such an attack. And they did.

The policeman was outside the foreign ministry, once the department of industry in the old Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and was torn to pieces. The motorist had obediently halted at the traffic lights on the junction of Kneza Milosa and Nemanjina Street - such normal routines continue amid all wars - and a missile hit his car.

That hollow drum-roll of sound came to us again from across the city, followed by another iron, supersonic scream, and a bright crimson light softened the rooftops. The old interior ministry hit again, the ruins of last month's bombs now sheared neatly in half. The television antenna at Avala was attacked and the Milosevic party headquarters for the third time. Then they bombed Vracar.

An entire house had been blasted into Maksima Gorkog Street which had partly collapsed; a burst water main inundated a row of smashed cars. They pulled out the first shattered body within 30 minutes. I had dined with Serb friends at their home 300 metres away just a few hours before. "We are all safe," Vesna said. "Do you want to know what it sounded like?" I didn't. The whole city echoed with explosions. I don't know how many were bombs dropped by aircraft, how many were missiles. In fact, I've never seen a Nato plane in five weeks of raids; because, almost always, they come at night.

Still the tracer arched high above Belgrade, the shells exploding in little white stars whose detonation took two or three seconds to reach us. When I come to think of it, sound never matched vision. There would be silent explosions of light - and dark, inexplicable bursts of noise. Only Hollywood synchronises the image and sound of war. And the moon was gone. The lights on the three great bridges over the Sava - the very river itself - had disappeared. A mist was passing over the city, a thick grey shroud of smoke and burning embers. It penetrated my bedroom and I fell asleep thinking how similar it smelt to the fires of Beirut in 1982.

I was sure another raid had begun at dawn when I woke with a racing heart to find my bed moving across the floor and the walls shaking. A Serb friend had given us a "Lazarus bell" - children wear them round their necks on the Orthodox Easter Saturday - and we had hung it over a bed lamp. Now it was ringing crazily, bouncing on its string as the whole building swayed.

Can air raids cause earthquakes? The tremor lasted all of 15 seconds and when I ran to the balcony again, the city lay blanketed in smoke. Serb television had been bombed off the air for the third time - and repaired for the third time from hastily mended transmitters. A car's headlights blinked through the smog from the Branko Most bridge.

How had I slept, the waiter at the street cafe downstairs asked me. He apologised for the zemljotres, the earthquake. An old man was drinking coffee at a table with a pink cloth. Round the corner, more than a thousand people queued like ghosts for cigarettes, waiting forlornly in the gritty- brown air. There were more queues for the buses by the vegetable market in Stari Beograd, the buses ever fewer as the petrol runs out, the queues ever longer. But standing there were girls in bright blouses and mini- skirts with well-polished nails, and men with briefcases; more of that dangerous routine that stubbornly defies human conflict.

I drove east out of the city, over the massive steel road-and-rail bridge that spans the Danube, where tyres still smouldered from the night before. The Yugoslav army sets them alight - not to obscure the bridge from the Nato pilots, which would be impossible; but to confuse the guidance system of their bombs, blinding the lasers with a wall of smoke.

There was something both wearying and gentle about the countryside north of Belgrade, the little towns with their 19th-century German-settler architecture, farm-horses pulling ploughs. But by the time I had driven for an hour up the Danube, the sky darkened again. Nato had just hit the Novi Sad refinery for the eighth time in four weeks and its scummy black clouds hung over the fields for 30 miles. Across the river, the smoke towered a mile up into the sky from the oil storage plant. To how many cancers has this month-long cloud already given birth?

It drifted far over the Vojvodina plain. Beneath its black film were peasant women in scarves herding sheep and goats outside villages called Vilovo, Perlez, Titel, Lok, and delicate churches with golden onion domes, all dedicated to the wrathful god who had shaken the earth beneath us a few hours before.