IT LOOKED as though a giant had run amok through the Sloboda co-operative factory. Entire buildings had been pulverised, roofs ripped off and hurled over railway lines, heavy electrical machinery torn from its fittings and thrown hundreds of feet into the air. Half a building had fallen into the river. When I went to find the impact of one of the 12 Nato Tomahawk cruise missiles that devastated this square mile of industry on Tuesday morning, I almost fell into a 30ft crater.
The burnt-out sheds contained mangled vacuum cleaners and hair-dryers, flattened kitchen stoves and twisted fridges. One huge packing shed had been blown inside out, its tons of wooden cartons left hanging in the blasted trees, its iron lathe resting on a bridge. "I have a wife and four children and I earned 100 German marks a month and now my life is over," one of the factory workers muttered. He was weeping.
"Last year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of our factory and yesterday we received the strangest congratulations from Nato," screamed Radonir Ljujic. "The factory is destroyed - 5,000 jobs and 20,000 citizens of our town who live off this factory - all gone." Mr Ljujic was shaking with anger, sweating, his tie askew, anxious to try his cynicism on us. "Please report all this as objectively as you can," he shouted. "Don't make vacuum cleaners into grenade launchers."
No, there were no grenade launchers to be seen in the wreckage of the Sloboda factory. Nor heavy guns, nor tanks, nor aeroplanes. That the men of Cacak who worked here made vacuum cleaners and hair-dryers and boilers and fridges was all too obvious. The heat-sealing glass of a thousand stoves sparkled in fragments amid the pink cherry blossom in front of the undamaged factory head office. But rather a lot of policemen hung around a few small sheds at one end of the plant, including a clutch of plain-clothes men who didn't want us there. "One of these wonderful high- tech missiles of America failed to explode," Mr Ljujic added by way of explanation.
At least two Yugoslav sources pointed out that a small part of the Cacak factory did, at one stage - after the imposition of United Nations sanctions during the Bosnian war - make ammunition. Dual-use factories were introduced by the late Communist dictator, Tito, and I couldn't help but wonder why so many blue uniformed policemen should want to patrol those remaining sheds, separated from us by a plastic tape which - "for our own safety" - we could not cross. "There was a small part of the factory that was used for secondary production for particular purposes," the Yugoslav military source said. "But even so, was it really fair to destroy all this?"
The Serbs still staring in disbelief at the desolation of Cacak's famous factory would have known how to answer that. Belgrade Radio had framed the familiar response a day earlier in words that echoed every 1960s Radio Moscow broadcast: "Unprovoked Nato pact aggression." And those Yugoslavs who know about Western missile technology told a frightening story of how effortlessly America destroyed the working lives of the Serbs of Cacak, the 12 Tomahawks, computer-programmed onto the Sloboda sheds, were carried in B-52s from Britain and fired at Serbia from Hungarian airspace.
What is the answer to such technology, the Serbs keep asking? Three days ago, I heard Yugoslavia's air force commander, General Sposoje Smiljanic, trying to answer that question. "A man who is willing and capable can resist technical superiority," he told us. "And a nation is invincible if it knows what it is sacrificing and defending." But that only seemed to echo the Iraqi minister who insisted, just before the Western onslaught on his country in 1991, that "a country of 18 million people cannot be defeated by a computer".
In the equally industrialised town of Kragujevac yesterday,we found thousands of men from the Zastava car factory who thought they had found their own answer to Nato's technology. Almost all of the 26,000 workforce have slept in the production sheds, the off-duty workers sleeping alongside the night shift; human shields that are daring Nato to commit an atrocity by killing them all. Jusic Doravic said he was more than ready to die for a factory that keeps his town alive. "Without our factory, there will be no city," he said. "If Zastava dies, we die."
And so it was that before Nato's bombardment began a week ago, these Zastava car men posted an Internet message to the world - and to the White House - announcing their permanent presence on the factory floor and their readiness for martyrdom. It seems to have worked. There are the usual Nato rumours of dual-purpose production at Zastava - and at least one report of an adjoining plant being damaged by a missile - but the main factory, running the length of the town, has remained untouched.
Instead, Nato turned its attention on the first night of the war to the barracks at Sumarice. A row of garages has been pulverised near the barracks. It was, one officer agreed, a military target, though hardly one that would win Nato's war. "I have to agree it was military," he said. "And if you live next to a barracks, you may get hurt. But apparently in Kosovo it's different. There Nato is bombing civilian villages."
Many thousands of the Zastava workers trooped past the damaged barracks yesterday to join a "peace" demonstration. For by an awful coincidence, Nato's first salvo of this new Balkan war landed only a few hundred metres from the mass grave of 7,000 Yugoslav civilians, victims of the worst Nazi atrocity of the Second World War.
The Serbs I spoke to all wanted to remind me of this killing field, anxious that the Englishman with the notebook - whose country was once an ally against Hitler - should remember these Serb martyrs of the war against fascism. In retaliation for the killing of 70 German soldiers in 1941, the Wehrmacht ordered the execution of 7,000 men and women - 100 for each German killed - and when they couldn't make up the numbers, they went to the schools and dragged children to the execution pit.
Old Milija Becanovic even remembered seeing the corpses half buried under piles of hay. In the little museum on the hill, there were photographs of frightened men and women, under German guard, awaiting their slaughter. And I could not help thinking, as I looked at the 58-year-old pictures, of what was happening on the other side of the mountains to the south, in Kosovo. "Terrorists," Mr Becanovic roared when I mentioned the stories of mass slaughter in the province. "It is the Serbs who are being killed." The mass grave at Kragujevac, it seems, means all things to all men.
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