War in the Balkans: Serbia - Belgrade's new bunker mentality

Robert Fisk
Tuesday 01 June 1999 23:02

ON SUNDAY, they came at dawn, the smoke rising above the Belgrade suburbs in a grey blanket, the thump of bombs broken by the bells of the early 19th-century Church of the Communion and the scream of starlings. On Monday night, they arrived just after dusk to bomb the Bezanijska Kosa power station and plunge us all into darkness. So when Ljubo Ososlija turned up for coffee at my hotel yesterday morning with wounds on his legs and feet, he had a bone to pick with Nato.

"I was just walking with a neighbour and we were 200 metres from the power station when we saw the first missile," he said, sipping Turkish coffee because the hotel has run out of espresso. "The second one got me. It blew me five feet in the air and almost broke my leg." Ososlija is a publisher who is signing up volunteers to pay for new volumes of best- selling fiction and children's stories: all profits are spent on the purchase of cigarettes for soldiers at the front. Nato, of course, bombed the tobacco factories more than a month ago.

Like Ososlija, I hadn't taken a shower yesterday. The power cuts have stopped the water supply again. My taps roar at me like a sick lion and the red plastic bucket on my balcony collects an inch of grey rainwater from Belgrade's polluted skies; definitely not for brushing my teeth, maybe just enough to flush the toilet. No power, no water, no cigarettes.

In Brussels and London and Paris, you might be forgiven for believing that Nato's wishful thinking represents reality; that Serbia is on its knees, that its people are on the verge of insurrection. But returning to Belgrade after a month away is a weird experience. The mood is harder, more cynical, more resigned. The moment I walked into the candlelit office of The Independent's Belgrade travel agent, I was met with fury. "This is not a war like you people claim," he shouted. "It's an attack. If I was ordered to go down to Kosovo now, I would go at once and fight there. Here I sit and wait and can do nothing. We cannot fight back. But you don't understand the mentality of the Serbs. We are stubborn. At the beginning of this, I might have given up. But now, I will never give up."

I heard much the same from the icon-seller on the end of Knez Mihailova street. A bearded refugee from Krajina - the most unreported "ethnic cleansing" in the Balkans, presumably because the Serbs had the cleansing done to them rather than the other way round - he offered me a black Angel Gabriel painted on the back of a broken wooden floorboard. He wanted only 65p.

"Nato told the Hague tribunal to charge Milosevic and I know what that means," he said, leaning against his wall opposite the Tsar Cafe. "Nato is burning Milosevic. The Americans won't be able to negotiate with someone they call a war criminal. So they don't want to talk. They don't want [Viktor] Chernomyrdin [the Russian envoy to the Balkans] to succeed. So the war will go on."

There's a new joke going the rounds - even Goren Martic, a Yugoslav government minister was passing it on yesterday - based on the premise that Nato will always sabotage peace hopes when the Russians try to negotiate. "Watch out!" the joke goes. "Chernomyrdin's coming back."

And it sometimes feels like that. Every night, the jets go for Rakovica where, so rumours have it, the Yugoslav military hierarchy work from a bunker deep beneath the airfield runways. "They're trying to destroy the bunker but they don't know exactly where it is," a Serb friend says. "It was built after the break-up of the old Yugoslavia - the Bosnians and the Croats who were in the Yugoslav army don't know its location so they can't give it to the Americans."

But the real bunker lies, I suspect, within every Serb. Not so much the stubborness that my travel agent talked of. Certainly not any maniacal loyalty to President Slobodan Milosevic. More a refusal to lie down, an absolute unwillingness to accept the demands of foreign powers, right or wrong.

True, the Serbs are not being told of the terrors visited upon the Albanians of Kosovo. Only opposition news agencies report an anti-war rally banned in Cacak and the sentencing of three military conscripts to almost five years' imprisonment for failing to return to their units. But even the chairman of the Cacak municipal assembly is now saying that his protest was of "a civil and patriotic character", one that shared every Serb's abhorrence of "Nato aggression".

I've come across only one man who has been truly broken by the bombings. I saw him last a month ago, weeping in the arms of his neighbours and promising to commit suicide because he had survived the Nato bomb that killed his wife, son, daughter-in-law and and all his grandchildren in Surdulica.

Back in the town on Monday - after Nato had killed another 18 innocents when it scored a direct hit on the local hospital - I asked a friend of Vojeslav Milic if he had recovered. The man shook his head. "Voja is very bad," he said. "He has a big poster of photographs of all the members of his family who died - and now he goes around town and sticks their pictures to the windscreens of parked cars. We try to keep him sedated. In the past two weeks he has tried to kill himself twice."

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