22 May 1999

Yugoslavs itch for ground war

22 May 1999
The Times of India

Yugoslavs itch for ground war

By Siddharth Varadarajan

BELGRADE: Before NATO bombs started exploding around him, Prof Sima Avramovic spent most of his time immersed in research on ancient law. A professor of legal history and rhetoric at the University of Belgrade, he would clearly much rather be discussing the finer points of Justinian’s Digest than questions of war and peace.

Over a glass of tart Balkan wine at a downtown cafe he recounts the terror he and his family felt when the first air raid warnings howled through the night and Cruise missiles came raining down. Having spent the better part of the previous night shaking like a leaf in my hotel bed, I knew exactly what he was talking about.

‘'Today'', he said, ‘'it’s not so much fear but frustration that we feel. We are down here and their pilots are 40,000 feet above. What kind of war is this in which the enemy refuses to face us?'’ Though he admits his lack of knowledge of military matters, Prof Avramovic is convinced a ground war would be less one-sided. His preference is for an end to the bombing but if it is to be a choice between NATO’s invisible war and one in which there is eyeball contact, it is the second option he would choose. ‘'At least we can fight back.''

Veljko Popovic, a thirty-something employee of a US-based NGO, is even more forthright. ‘'I really hope NATO starts the ground war because that will bring this conflict to an end very soon,'’ he said. ‘'Ordinary citizens will make them fight every inch of the way.'’ Mild and sensitive, Veljiko is far removed from the stereotype of the militarist Serb. His wife is seven months pregnant and he is overjoyed at the prospect of becoming a father. And yet, he says that if NATO invades ‘'I won’t wait to be called up. I will be at the front of the queue.''

Goran Jovanic, a young lecturer in criminology, echoed the same sentiments. For him, the choice facing Yugoslavs is clear: ‘'Either we become a neo-colony of NATO and the Americans like Bosnia and Macedonia or we shall defeat them in battle, on the ground.''

Though Washington considers President Milosevic’s supposed intransigence to be the cause of the present conflict, street sentiment is decidedly hostile to the idea of NATO ‘peacekeepers’ entering Kosovo, even if under a UN flag. Indeed, one of the ironies of this war is that a surprisingly large number of Yugoslavs believe Milosevic has struck some kind of secret agreement with the US.

Conspiracy theories run thick and fast. Often, they are tautological and self-fulfilling. For example, virtually everyone here believes the rumour that Yugoslav pilots launched a sneak attack on Tirana airport in Albania and Tuzla in Bosnia, destroying several US planes and Apache gunships. When asked why this sensational news was not publicised by Belgrade, a cafe waiter said because there was a secret deal. ‘'The Americans must have promised him something in return for his silence.''

Even if they have faith in Milosevic, ordinary Yugoslavs have virtually no confidence in the Russians. A deal between Russian envoy Chernomyrdin and Bill Clinton can produce only one thing, goes a local joke, and that is ‘Chernobyl’. People here believe Moscow is too dependent on the West to take a firm stand. Rather than peace on NATO’s terms, many would like the US to take the plunge and send in ground troops.

Anton Knezevic, the driver of a well- maintained Mercedes taxi, punched the air angrily as we pulled up at a police cordon. Just an hour ago, missiles had struck a Jugopetrol depot some 500 metres away and thick black smoke was billowing around. ‘'I will die,'’ he said, ‘'but I will never allow these bandits to push me around in my own country. Human life is something precious and I hate all death. But let them send their soldiers here. Then we shall see.''

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