War stirs Serb memories

BELGRADE – The rumble of airplane engines, whizzing sound of missiles, columns of thick black smoke: The images coming from Iraq are all too familiar to many Serbs, exactly four years after NATO bombs rained down on Belgrade. Although the US-led war on Iraq has often met with disapproval, anti-war protests have been scarce in Serbia, where memories are still strong of NATO’s 11-week bombing campaign to halt then-President Slobodan Milosevic’s crackdown in Kosovo. Across Serbia, where commemorations were held on Monday at spots where people were killed during the bombing, people spoke of the bombing four years ago and today. «I can’t watch reports from Iraq for more than five minutes. It’s all too familiar – the sound of air-raid sirens, dusty shelters, uncertainty,» said Marko Ilic, a 32-year-old teacher. «I was against Milosevic and his policy but the bombs did not bring a solution,» Ilic said. At the height of the war in the southern province of Kosovo, weeks of peace talks failed to bring an end to almost two years of bloody conflict between Belgrade’s troops and independence-seeking ethnic Albanians. When Milosevic rejected a last-ditch diplomatic solution, the alliance’s warplanes set off on March 24, 1999 in its largest and first such military action in Europe. During 78 days of bombings aimed at military targets, more than 1,500 people were killed, among them 500 civilians whom NATO described as «collateral damage.» The bombings ended on June 10, 1999, with a UN Security Council resolution ordering Belgrade security troops out of the province, seen by many Serbs as the cradle of their nation. Two days later, the first NATO-led peacekeepers moved into Kosovo, which was also put under the administration of the United Nations. Since then, more than 800,000 ethnic Albanians who had fled the violence during the war have returned to their homes, but more than 200,000 Serbs and non-Albanians have left Kosovo, fearing reprisal attacks. In Kosovo, both ethnic Albanian officials and civilians have backed Washington’s campaign against Milosevic’s forces as the «only way to get our freedom.» «Without the bombings, we would either be dead from Milosevic’s mercenaries or expelled from our homes,» said 29-year-old Fazliu. But Ilic said the bombings might have ended Milosevic’s crackdown on the Albanians, but «did not do much else.» «There were so many victims, Milosevic stayed in power for two more years, there were new waves of refugees and the country was ruined,» he said. Milosevic, currently on trial before the UN tribunal in The Hague for war crimes committed in Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia, was ousted after a popular uprising in October 2000. Reformist, pro-Western authorities that took over the impoverished country suffered a major blow with the assassination of their main leader, Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, on March 12. The damages of the air bombardment on Serbia and Montenegro, then Yugoslavia, were estimated at roughly $30 billion. Traces of the air war can still be seen throughout the country. The main bridge across the Danube River in Serbia’s second city Novi Sad has yet to be rebuilt. In central Belgrade, avenue Kneza Milosa, home to a number of Western embassies and the Serbian administration – including two huge ruins of the Defense and Interior Ministry premises which were seen by NATO as the «heart and brains» of Milosevic’s regime – are a daily reminder of the bombings. Authorities say that more than 100 unexploded bombs have yet to be deactivated and pulled out from ruins or rivers throughout Serbia, due to a lack of funding for such actions. «I was against Milosevic and I am against Saddam, but I remember how I felt during the bombings of my country, and my sympathy goes to someone in Baghdad who is against both Saddam and the bombs,» said 42-year-old Ljubinka Nikolic. She said her 10-year-old daughter still had «nightmares» from nights spent in air-raid shelter. «When she saw the images in Iraq, she asked whether we should go back to the cellar, to hide from the bombs,» Nikolic said. «These are the dark memories no one can forget,» she added.

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