War in the Balkans: Proud? No, but there's still defiance in the air

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The Independent Online
NIGHTS FALL early in Belgrade and I am used to my little room with its worn red carpet and ghastly oil painting of a full-bosomed Serb mother, her arm round a child whose ear is weirdly poking from the top of his head.

Now the government has ordered restaurants to close by 7pm, I squirrel myself away by the old wooden shutters and read Anna Karenina for the second time, or watch Belgrade television's interminable 15-year-old serial about Vuk Karadjic, the Serb epic poet and language reformer, and the First Serbian Revolt. In last night's episode, two of Vuk's friends had their heads chopped off by the Turks, while a priest called Hadziruvin was slowly garrotted under the approving eye of the local vizier. He took a minute to suffocate. After half an hour, you can see why Serb viewers might come to hate Muslims. Tolstoy has nothing on this.

So some evenings, I just wander the Kneza Mihailova, the pedestrian precinct where the young - before the next night of bombing - make their idu ruku pod ruku, their arm-in-arm walks past the 19th- century buildings, sandblasted into beauty 15 years ago when Belgrade thought it might become a tourist resort. There are plenty of pseudo-19th-century street lamps, though it's doubtful - as the Rough Guide to Yugoslavia points out - if the capital of Serbia ever truly looked like this.

It's an odd sensation walking down this street, being British and speaking English in a city under nightly bombardment by Britain and America. So I don't speak. I avoid Serbs who might ask me for a light or wish to express their views on the vandalised British Council offices halfway down the street. Instead, I wonder what they would think - especially the black- dressed skinheads with their tiger badges, who worship Vojislav Seselj and his chums - if they knew that the man in the tatty brown coat had a passport, which proclaims that "Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance".

When the air raid sirens whine, I don't think the "let or hindrance" bit counts for very much. So I prowl the bookshops. There's plenty of Ivo Andric, and several books by Vlada Urosevic, the Skopje writer, and I spot a Serb translation of my old friend Anna Karenina in a window full of coffee-table volumes on Serb monasteries. Each of the latter has stuck to its cover the symbol of the black-and-white target that is now worn by half the Serbs of Belgrade. Nato is trying to bomb every human being in the city, if you believe these badges. It is trying to bomb every monastery. It hopes to destroy every bookshop in Kneza Mihailova, if you accept the message of the target banners taped to the sides of buildings.

Some of the shopfronts have already been destroyed, though not by Nato. The American Cultural Centre has been smashed up. On the wall of the French embassy, someone has written "Les Couchones" - which doesn't say much for the influence of the French Cultural Centre, also vandalised, down the road. In the Air France office, someone has painted "Non Passaran" behind the ticket desk. Belgrade is now civil war Madrid. And the Serbs are all victims. Who will Nato bomb tonight?

In the abandoned restaurant of my hotel, a table stands on the spot where a German bomb fell in 1941. "We didn't defuse it - we left it buried here and wrote the date on a stone above it," the waiter eagerly tells me. How typical of the Serbs, I say to myself. They don't destroy bombs; they cover them up. Outside, a Yugoslav soldier passes me, a bandage round his head, tiredness in his eyes, hunched under a kitbag.

I have found a pretty little chemist's shop in the Kneza Mihailova, and spotted a shirt I might buy later this week if I can persuade my translator to do the talking. And having managed to avoid reading it so far, I'm tempted to buy the English edition of David Owen's Bosnian memoirs, which I have spotted in the window of another bookshop. But what happens when the shop assistant asks my nationality? Or when the other shoppers take notice?

I am being too hard. Most Serbs are kind to the novinar, the foreign journalist, though they are convinced that editors change our reports or threaten to fire us if we don't condemn Serbia. There's a military press centre where polite colonels bid good morning to the citizens of Nato nations. I even have accreditation as a correspondent from Velika Britanija, with "War Press Card" printed beside my name. In the foreign ministry, in restaurants, in interviews around Belgrade, I am treated not as an enemy but as a guest who has been misled by Nato propaganda. And the thought crosses my mind - how would a Serb journalist be received in London if the Yugoslav air force had just fired missiles at the Home Office?

Of course, we are not slaughtering the people of Kosovo - even if our behaviour in 18th-century Ireland had a lot in common with the MUP's activities in Serbia's southern province - and we don't have the reputation that the Serbs acquired in Bosnia. When she heard the name "Srebrenica", my translator had no idea what it was; or where it was. She was not being dishonest. Yes, there are those who know what is happening in Kosovo. "It is true, and I am truly sorry for this," a Serb friend said to me when I asked him about the "ethnic cleansing" of the Albanians. But he lowered his voice when he said that. Some people know. Some people don't want to know. Others cannot believe the truth. Others have never heard it.

I cross the road at the end of the Kneza Mihailova into Kalemegdan Park. Two old men are playing chess with massive wooden chess-pieces, watched by friends. Children are chasing each other in a dirty plastic "jungle" playroom near an empty fountain. A couple - she high cheekboned, he a little haughty (I cannot help but think of Anna Karenina and Vronsky) - walk past the statue erected in honour of the French Army in the 1914- 18 war. "Shame" is written over a frieze depicting frozen-faced poilus, stone bayonets fixed back in the age of Verdun.

Of course, this is not the First World War. Nor the Second. The Luftwaffe spent hours flattening square miles of Belgrade and killing more than a thousand souls. Nato comes just before dawn, for just a few seconds, computerised and alien, gobbling up a barracks or an empty ministry or a bridge, even before the sirens pick up the incoming missiles. On the news the other evening, they showed a clip of videotape that caught the very split-second when a Yugoslav anti-aircraft shell hit a Tomahawk over the suburbs of Belgrade, blasting it to pieces in the night sky; and you could see how proud the Serbs felt.

They don't look proud on the Kneza Mihailova. But there is a kind of defiance in the way the couples walk through the park, the determination of the old men playing chess. At one end, the smell of freshly cut grass drifts around the old Austrian fort, but I can smell smoke too, the same oily breeze that has drifted over Belgrade since Nato bombed the thermal heating plant across the River Sava. Two tall men in white socks are walking back down the Ulica - perhaps because of the socks, I suspect they are plain-clothes cops - and I avoid the crowd reading the long political tract on the pavement, another condemnation of "Nato-pact aggression".

Yes, for the people here, that is what the war is; unprovoked, bestial, vicious. If Albanians are fleeing Kosovo - and how many of those coffee- table books show Serb Kosovo monasteries on their covers? - they are not doing so because they are the victims of Serb atrocities, but because Nato is bombing them too.

Not once - ever - does it occur to anyone that the Serbs might be driving the Albanians out of Kosovo. The Serbs are victims. Victims of Hitler. Victims of the brutal Turks who sliced and garrotted their way through 18th-century Serbia. Victims of Nato. Does a society like this have to be reconstructed? Or does that democratic seed planted in the great demonstrations two years ago live on beneath the ice?

I smell the grass again and look in the grey evening light across the Sava and the mirror of the Danube to the start of the great Vojvodina plain. What was it they used to sing two years ago, the tune they still hum sometimes in the Kneza Mihailova, and which I think of more and more as I wander about this dingy, stubborn, grimy city? "It is spring - but alas, I live in Serbia."

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