War In The Balkans: `Once you kill people because you don't like what they say, you change the rules of war'
Saturday 24 April 1999
Deep inside the tangle of cement and plastic and iron, in what had once been the make-up room next to the broadcasting studio of Serb Television, was all that was left of a young woman, burnt alive when Nato's missile exploded in the radio control room. Within six hours, the Secretary of State for International Development, Clare Short declared the place a "legitimate target".
It wasn't an argument worth debating with the wounded - one of them a young technician who could only be extracted from the hundreds of tons ofconcrete in which he was encased by amputating both his legs. Nor with the silent hundreds who gathered in front of the still-smoking ruin at dawn yesterday, lost for words as they stood in the little glade of trees beside St Marko's Cathedral, where Belgrade's red and cream trams turn round. A Belgrade fireman pulled at one of the bodies for all of 30 seconds before he realised that the man, swinging back and forth amid the wreckage, was dead.
By dusk last night, 10 crushed bodies - two of them women - had been tugged from beneath the concrete, another man had died in hospital and 15 other technicians and secretaries still lay buried. A fireman reported hearing a voice from the depths as the heavens opened, turning into mud themuck and dust of a building that Ms Short had declared to be a "propaganda machine".
We had all wondered how long it would be before Nato decided that Radio Televizja Srbije should join the list of "military" targets. Spokesmen had long objected to its crude propaganda - it included a Nato symbol turning into a swastika and a montage of Madeleine Albright growing Dracula teeth in front of a burning building.
It never reported on the tens of thousands of Albanian refugees who spoke of executions and "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo. It endlessly repeated films that depicted Yugoslav soldiers as idealised heroes defending their country. It carried soporific tapes of President Slobodan Milosevic meeting patriarchs, cossacks, Russian envoys and the Kosovo Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova. The channel was showing an American interview with Mr Milosevic when the first cruise missile smashed into the station's control room just after two o'clock yesterday morning.
But did this justify killing the night staff in their studios and taping rooms? Two weeks ago, Nato's spokesmen had been suggesting that RTS would have to carry six hours of Western television a day if it was to survive - CNN's bland, safe coverage of events presumably offering some balance to the rubbish churned out on the RTS news. But once Nato decided this was as preposterous as it was impracticable, its spokesman announced that the station was not on the list of Nato targets. Then, on Monday, CNN's bosses called up from Atlanta to inform the satellite boys in Belgrade that they should pull out of the RTS offices. Against the wishes of other Nato nations, so the word went, General Wesley Clark had decided to bomb Serb television. CNN withdrew from the building in Takovska Street. And that night, we were all invited to have coffee and orange juice in the studios.
The building was likely to be a target of the "Nato aggressor", according to Goran Matic, a Yugoslav federal minister, as he walked us through the ground floor of the doomed building. Yet, oddly, we did not take him seriously. Even when the air raid siren sounded, I stayed for another coffee.
Surely Nato wouldn't waste its bombs on this tiresome station with its third-rate propaganda and old movies, let alone kill its staff.
Yesterday morning, the moment I heard the cruise missile scream over my hotel roof, I knew I was wrong. There was a thunderous explosion and a mile-high cloud of dust as four storeys collapsed to the ground, sandwiching offices, machines, transmitters and people into a pile of rubble only 15 feet high.
Yet, within six hours, Serb television was back on the air, beaming its programmes from secret transmitters, the female anchorwoman reading the news from pieces of pink paper between pre-recorded films of Serbian folk-songs and ancient Orthodox churches. All along, the Serbs had been ready for just such an attack. We had not believed Nato capable of such ferocity. The Serbs had.
The crowds still stood in the park as darkness fell, watching the men with drills punching their way through the concrete for more survivors. By that time, explanations were flowing from Nato's birthday celebrations in Washington. Serbia's "propaganda machine" had been prolonging the war. I wonder. I seem to recall Croatian television spreading hatred a- plenty when it was ethnically cleansing 170,000 Serbs from Croatia in 1995. But we didn't bomb Zagreb. And when President Franjo Tudjman's lads were massacring Serbs and Muslims alike in Bosnia, we didn't bomb his residence. Was Serbian television's real sin its broadcast of film of the Nato massacre of Kosovo Albanian refugees last week, killings that Nato was forced to admit had been a mistake?
Yes, Serbian television could be hateful, biased, bad. It was owned by the government. But once you kill people because you don't like what they say, you have changed the rules of war. And that's what Nato did in Belgrade in the early hours of yesterday morning.
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