20 May 1999

Dateline Belgrade: Bridge over troubled waters

20 May 1999
The Times of India

Dateline Belgrade
Bridge over troubled waters

By Siddharth Varadarajan

BELGRADE: Two months ago, visitors to Belgrade had a range of travel options. Now, the only reliable way in is by road from Budapest. Thanks to NATO, which has bombed every bridge over the Danube except one in Belgrade, travellers must navigate a circuitous route to the Yugoslav capital.

The highway is excellent but one is forced to weave in and out --moving on to secondary roads that cut a narrow, bumpy swathe through flat but achingly beautiful countryside --in order to bypass bridges which no longer exist.

Some 50 persons make the journey to Belgrade every day. A petrol station near Budapest airport is the `bus stop'. A handful of Yugoslav drivers sit drinking endless cups of coffee, cellular phones on the ready, waiting for their minivans to fill up. Mine doesn't, but since it is getting late and it is dangerous to be driving through the Serbian countryside at night --that's when the chances of becoming `collateral damage' are the greatest -- the driver, Duschko, decides to leave with just three passengers.

At the border, Duschko and my two Yugoslav co-passengers stock up on cigarettes, detergent, cooking oil and other articles in short supply at home. To smoothen matters at the frontier, I am `assigned' five gallons of cooking oil, several cartons of Pall Mall and an enormous packet of nappies. Fortunately, customs proves quite understanding and we are soon on our way. The sun has gone down and Duschko's gallows humour gives way to a brooding watchfulness.

Shortly before Novi Sad, one of the passengers gets off -- a fat old lady, her husband is waiting for her at a petrol station on the road. She hugs us warmly. Long after we have sped away, I can still see her waving at us. So far, the only evidence that a war is on is the lousy reception on the car radio -- NATO has bombed relay stations all over Yugoslavia -- and Duschko's reluctance to drive anywhere close to another vehicle. ``If they see a convoy, `boom!'''

However, just as we roll off the bridge over the Tisa river between Novi Sad >and Zrenjanin, Duschko points to the side where a fire is burning. Smoke is billowing around but he speeds on. Was it a bomb that missed? He shrugs his shoulder. In the back, my remaining co-passenger is fast asleep. Perhaps our imagination is playing tricks. Finally, Belgrade appears on the horizon, twinkling faintly in the inky night. We are on the bridge over the Danube when there is a faint whoosh. I don't pay any attention but Duschko takes his foot off the accelerator and looks up. Suddenly, about two kilometers from us, somewhere in the centre of Belgrade, there is a thud and then a flash of orange. A few seconds later, another thud, another flash of orange. `Tomahawks' Duschko mutters angrily. The woman who was asleep in the back starts cursing NATO. I too am angry and stunned. But above all, I am scared. Duschko drops me off at my hotel in the centre and assures me I will be safe. Tomorrow, I will find out where those missiles struck. And who they killed.

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