I ask every Serb: `Was it worth it?'; LIBERATION OF KOSOVO

The Cost of War

VESNA'S BOYFRIEND was due home from the Yugoslav army in two days and she sat drinking her coffee like a woman reprieved. The Danube - not blue but black with oil - slid past us a few hundred metres away, its bridges broken-backed in the water. "The night war was declared, Branko received his call-up papers," Vesna recalled. "It was such a shock. A real war was going to happen. I drove him to his barracks across the Danube and we kissed goodbye behind the cemetery. I was crying."

So was it worth it? I ask that question of every Serb I meet. Vesna took almost half a minute before replying, with great care. "I felt anger when I heard about the peace," she said. "I wasn't happy at all because the government could have made that peace 10 days before the war started. I know a lot of people died, there was a lot of destruction - and you only have one life.

"I think that we got less than we could have got at the beginning. I will never understand why so many people had to die for such a stupid result. And I have the feeling that, during the war, the government didn't really respect the people and didn't want even to think about them - either the soldiers or the civilians."

Across the Danube, a squad of tiny motor-boats buzz like the mosquitoes that plague diners in the Aliska Koliba restaurant, ferrying three or four people at a time across the greatest waterway in central Europe. Through the trees to the south, we can see the great Sloboda (Freedom) bridge, blasted into the river by Nato missiles on 3 April. If war is about death, it also captures the imagination of its antagonists. And in Novi Sad, the Nato bombardment propelled into fame one Slobodan Savic, a cameraman for the city's television station who was driving over the bridge when Nato attacked it.

He was crippled by the explosion but managed to drag himself from his car and on to the sloping asphalt. After watching helplessly as another missile slammed into the bridge, Mr Savic slid down the roadway to the Danube where a motor-boat rescued him. And all he could mutter to the crew was: "Please get my camera from the car."

There are some aspects of war that are not discussed in Novi Sad. The Albanian persecution is one. Not one newspaper has so much as mentioned the executions and dispossession of Kosovo's Albanian majority. Vesna's mother, an old-style Tito Communist, watches only state television and does not believe the stories from Kosovo, circulating in educated circles around Novi Sad. To believe them is "unpatriotic". These are early days.

And what does one say to the lady in black who greets us in her tiny apartment by the banks of the Danube, whose soldier son - American-educated, a computer graduate, a Tolkien fan, a patriot - died at his post on 1 June, just 20 miles from Novi Sad? Sasha Popovic was an anti-aircraft missile battery commander and he kept his radar operating just a few seconds too long when American jets arrived - "in flocks", his mother, Liljana, says. He died instantly and was given a military and Orthodox funeral. He was Mrs Popovic's only son. She is a widow. When I met her, she fought for more than an hour to control her tears. "He was an extraordinary child and would have been an extraordinary man. He was 26 in April, when the war was already under way," she said in a high voice that hovered on the edge of breaking.

And slowly, with great dignity, she told her story; her journeys to Greece to teach Sasha about history, the money spent on his education - he had already had a book published on computer programming - that would have brought him a masters degree in engineering. He could have stayed at Illinois University last year.

"But he came back for two reasons," Mrs Popovic said. "He wanted to use his knowledge for his own country; and in a very short time he learnt that a Serb soul cannot survive in America where there are humans without souls but with lots of money." Yes, Mrs Popovic - an ophthalmologist whose late husband was a doctor - believes Kosovo must remain Serbian. So did Sasha.

"He came home on leave for nine hours on the day he was to die," she said. "And he told me: "Don't telephone anyone - I just want to be alone with you to talk." And we talked about all the things that had happened to our people. He wanted everything to end as soon as possible, to take up his books again. And then we separated and said goodnight and I didn't have a single thought that it was going to be for the last time. That very same night, my child was killed. At eight minutes past midnight. Now I shall never be a grandmother."

But there is no accusation against the Milosevic government. The war, Mrs Popovic says, was brought upon Serbia by powerful states which wanted to "destroy Orthodoxy". Europe should never have allowed the United States to have "dictated this war". It was America which provoked hatred between Albanians and Serbs. "I don't know for what reasons - maybe there were strategic interests. It was always Serbia that guarded the door of Europe. What happened was not a war. It was the murder of a nation, a genocide, a cowardly act. Rich states bombed a tiny nation from 10,000ft - a nation which did nothing to them."

I was about to ask Mrs Popovic some terrible questions. About murder and genocide and about another people - with whom she says she wants to live in peace - who were the victims of cowardly acts aplenty. But then Mrs Popovic led me into Sasha's bedroom. His Tolkien books are still on the shelf by his bed and his telescope and his Monty Python tapes. And she said again: "I will never be a grandmother."

And she began to wail in grief, like a child, shoulders bowed and shaking. And then she briefly held back her tears. "I am very proud of my son and I'll try to keep the memory of him because he deserves it," she said. "It's too hard for me now, but I have to collect my strength to do it."

And I decided that this was not the time for my terrible questions.

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