02 June 1999

Belgrade Diary: As bombs fall, hope, despair, and some humour

June 2, 1999
The Times of India

Belgrade Diary

As bombs fall, hope, despair, humour

By Siddharth Varadarajan

BELGRADE: As NATO bombs different locations around the city, people here must
make calculations about whether to move out of their apartments or
stay on in the hope that the bombers will target some other place next.
Though the targeting is generally very precise, no one wants to be
around when the odd bomb goes astray. Everyone makes their own
probabilistic calculations and what is an acceptable degree of risk
for one may be unacceptable for another. Bosko Lakic, an independent
filmmaker, moved out of his apartment after a nearby heating plant
was flattened. He moved into his girlfriend's flat near the Pancevo
bridge -- the last spanning the Danube anywhere in Yugoslavia --
where he reckons he will be safe till NATO begins a ground invasion.
Then, he fears, the Pancevo bridge will be bombed and he will move
to his old flat before that happens. Meanwhile, his flat is being
occupied by a friend who lived close to the Chinese embassy and
Hotel Yugoslavia, both of which were blasted by NATO missiles three
weeks ago. He lost all his windows that night and fears the studio
of BK television, which is next door, will be bombed next. So even
though Bosko considers his own flat dangerous, his friend thinks of
it as a safe haven.


Thinking the hotel where I was staying to be too dangerous, Prof Sima
Avramovic of the Belgrade law school arranged for me to stay in
the faculty guest house. One day later, he phoned me in a panic.
He had heard that a neighbouring hotel, the Metropol, was likely
to be targeted. The hotel was empty and NATO might have suspected
it was being used by the government. The windows of the guest
house directly overlook the hotel and Prof Avramovic was extremely
worried. ``You must move out immediately'', he said. So I fled to the
Hotel Moskva. In the morning, I discovered there was no electricity
or water. The Hotel Prague down the street also did not have power
but at least it had water, so I moved there. Finally, the Prague
also ran out of water so I moved back to the law faculty. However,
I slept fitfully every night, making sure to draw the curtains so
that I wouldn't be hit by flying glass. Some protection. According
to latest reports, the Hotel Metropol is still standing.


Compared to the crisis in Iraq, which I covered for The
Times of India last February, the war in Yugoslavia presents
a different set of problems for the foreign correspondent. In
Iraq, telecommunications was a major problem. Thanks to the
crippling UN embargo, it was extremely expensive to send an
international fax. With the Internet outlawed by Iraq, there was
no question of using e-mail. Belgrade, on the other hand, is
easily the most cyber-friendly city in the Balkans. Apart from
cybercafes and university terminals, the military press centre
-- where every foreign reporter must be registered -- has
computers connected to the Internet. However, power breakdowns
are a major problem. With NATO targeting power plants, the
city can be without electricity for as long as 48 hours. My
first night of darkness, I lit a candle and tried writing by
hand. Then I discovered that the press centre runs a generator.
All one had to do is go there, plug in one's laptop, fortify
oneself with some plum brandy, and type.


The BBC's man in Belgrade, John Simpson, is a controversial
character. His initial reports were so balanced that British
officials publicly questioned his patriotism. Then, he began to
censor himself. Last week, he got to experience first-hand what
it means to be a hospital patient in a country that is being
bombed around the clock. Simpson slipped and fell in his hotel
bathroom, tore a tendon in his thigh and was brought to the Clinical
Centre of Belgrade for emergency surgery. The operation was
successful but soon after, the hospital was plunged into darkness.
Simpson subsequently wrote that he felt fearful as he lay in his
hospital bed but that he coped with his ordeal with fortitude.
The doctors there, however, tell a different story. According
to Dr Bora Dubic, the chief surgeon, what happened was that at
3 am, when an air raid warning signalled a new round of bombardment,
Simpson became nervous and agitated and asked that he be moved to
the Hyatt hotel. ``They are hitting hospitals these days'', he
said. ``Only the Hyatt is safe''. The Hyatt, as an American-owned
hotel, is considered the safest spot in Belgrade. All foreign
journalists -- or at least those who can afford its $185 a day
tariff -- stay there. Mr Simpson, of course, was in no condition
to be moved. The person who told me the story said he had nothing
against the BBC but hoped Simpson's experience would provide for
more objective reporting.


Every day, new jokes go into circulation. The presidents of
Serbia, Russia and Belarus meet to decide on the name of their
new confederation. ``Of course it should be Serbia'', said Mr
Slobodan Milosevic. ``S for Serbia, R for Russia, B for Belarus,
EE YA''. Ee ya in Serbian means ``and me''. And then there
is this tragic one: A Serb boy and his American friend are arguing.
``You people have no history'' says the Serb proudly. ``Yes, but
soon you will have no geography'' replies the American.


One of the people I wanted to meet in Belgrade was the Serbian
poet Stefan Raickovic. The Times of India had printed a moving
article by him about a phone call of support he received from
his son's Japanese mother-in-law in Hiroshima. From one bombed
city to another, that phone call in which only a few words of Serbian
and Japanese were exchanged by people who had no language in
common had filled Raickovic with immense gratitude and hope.
We met in a restaurant over a cup of strong Turkish coffee and
talked for more than an hour. Grey haired and noble, and smoking
far too many cigarettes than is good for him, the poet said NATO
was waging a war against civilisation and humanity. ``My son lives
in New York'', he said, ``and I told him when the bombing started
that I would never come there to visit.'' ``I am a poet and I
really love New York'', he said `` but I think I will never go
there again''. Raickovic is 70 and remembers the Nazi bombing of
Belgrade. I asked him which was worse. ``You know the difference?
They killed more people but we were not so alone then. Now we are.
We have verbal friends. Russia, China, India. Others. So many
Nobel laureates, poets, writers support us. But they cannot go
beyond the verbal...So here we are, small and suffering. But
in the future, I know that people will look back on our resistance
with pride''.


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