World

Determination under fire

Serbs have adapted to the horrors of war, often with humour. But there is little gas and little money. Many people are trying to leave.

May 10 1999
World

Determination under fire

Serbs have adapted to the horrors of war, often with humour. But there is little gas and little money. Many people are trying to leave.

May 10 1999

Determination under fire

World

Yugoslavia

On April 24, correspondent Guy Dinmore, who has reportedfrom Belgrade for Macleans for more than a year, was suddenly given 24 hours to leave Yugoslavia. Dinmore, who is British, was one of several resident correspondents ordered to leave at about the same time. He believes they were targeted because their in-depth knowledge of the country proved unsettling to the regime of President Slobodan Milosevic. From Rome last week, Dinmore filed this account of how Serbs are bearing up under NATOspunishing attacks:

“Dear Mom,” begins the letter from Belgrade. “How are things in Canada? Life here is not so bad. We’ve just had some daffodil cakes to celebrate Sanja’s sixth birthday. The school has taken the kids on an outing to the suburbs and I’m just back from the frontline trenches in

the main shopping street. Morale is high but we are fed up with swimming across the Sava River to get to work. NATO has run out of missiles and is now bombing us with spears and axes— good quality stuff, too. Love, Aleks.” The fictional letter, dated April, 2004, and circulated on the Internet, reflects the wry humour sustaining the Serbs during the terror of nightly bombing raids. But it also shows a kind of gritty determination that NATO did not factor into its calculations when it launched its air campaign on March 24. Belgrade is a changed city, but people adapt and life goes on. All schools are closed, so families have the added stress of looking after their children all day. The school buildings are now makeshift quarters for troops and police who have left their empty

barracks behind for NATO to bomb.

The biggest problem facing everyone is a lack of money. Tens of thousands of workers have been made jobless by attacks on industrial complexes across Serbia. Fortunately, summer has arrived and people can get by even without electricity in the few areas of the capital where supplies have been cut off. Plenty of seasonal produce is flowing into the markets and food prices are falling. The shortage of gasoline is hurting—the monthly ration has just been cut to 20 litres from 40—but the black market that sprang up during sanctions from 1992 to 1996 is flourishing once more. Restaurants are shut in the evening, or close at the first wail of the air raid sirens, usually around 8 p.m. One venerable establishment that does stay open late, however, is the Writers Club, long a

Serbs have adapted to the horrors of war, often with humour. But there is little gas and little money. Many people are trying to leave.

fashionable haunt for the city’s intelligentsia. Its crowded restaurant is conveniently located deep in a basement.

People are leaving the city in great numbers, however. Official statistics are now a military secret, but some residents estimate the exodus at over 100,000, about five per cent of all Belgrade. Although men under the age of 58 are barred from leaving the country under the state of war, some are taking refuge in the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro next door or bribing their way across the border into Bosnia. Ironically, Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital that was besieged by Serb forces for nearly four years, has now become a safe haven for Serbs. Women and children are crossing into Hungary, where they don’t need visas, while many Belgraders are fleeing to their weekend cottages in the country.

Zoran, a lawyer, slipped out of Belgrade, crossed into Montenegro and got a ride with a mafia boss who was taking his speedboat—usually full of cigarettes—across the Adriatic to Italy for a weekend of golf. Zoran is not coming back. “What NATO has not woken up to yet is a mass exodus of Serb refugees if this war drags on until the autumn,” says one east European diplomat still in Belgrade. Some aid workers believe up to one million Serbs—over 10 per cent of the population—may flee over the next few months, swamping east and central Europe, just as the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo province are flooding into the southern Balkans.

Those left in Belgrade are often becoming more fit—if they don’t fall foul of stray NATO bombs which, officials say, have killed over 500 civilians across Serbia. (The reported monthly death toll among civilians is higher now than during the war in Kosovo last year.)

With little to do, Nebojsa, an economist, plays tennis daily in the courts that lie in the moat of Belgrade’s ancient Kalemegdan fortress. Since cigarettes, like gas, are hard to come by and about twice as expensive as before, Nebojsa is cutting back. He can’t afford much meat either, although farmers are slaughtering pigs in large numbers because they can’t afford to keep them. “This war is actually making me healthier,” Nebojsa laughs. “At this rate I will be the over40s tennis champion.”

Joking aside, there is a deep-seated fear among Serbs that if the bombing persists until the autumn—and so far there is no sign that Milosevic intends to capitulate—then civic society will begin to disintegrate and Serbia itself will be dismembered. Serbia and its much smaller sister republic, Montenegro, are all that remain of the former Yugoslavia. NATO’s air power is attempting to cut lines of communication between the two to prevent Milosevic from reinforcing his troops in Montenegro, where his fiercest critic, pro-Western President Milo Djukanovic, looks vulnerable to a military coup. For similar reasons, NATO air strikes are also cutting off Kosovo to the south. More perplexing is NATO’s destruction of six of seven bridges across the Danube, which runs across northern and central Serbia. The northern province of Vojvodina, with a large minority of ethnic Hungarians, is almost cut off from the rest of the republic. Its capital, Novi Sad, the most ethnically mixed and politically moderate of all Serbia’s cities, has been the most heavily bombed of all.

Despite its legendary status as the soul of the Serbian nation, Kosovo province is, in the eyes of many Serbs, already lost. For this, many blame Milosevic,

although few would dare say so in public. But the thought that the rest of Serbia is to be carved up, possibly through a ground invasion that many expect, is just too much.

Natasha, a well-educated bank clerk, polished her manicured nails and over a cappuccino contemplated what she would do. “I’ll pick up a Kalashnikov,” she says. “NATO can expect street-tostreet fighting.” An element of bravado, perhaps, but her words reflect the welcome NATO should expect if it switches from the air to the ground. Gen. Wesley Clark, NATO’s supreme commander, has claimed that Milosevic is facing a “serious” problem with deserters. True, there is a great deal of unhappiness, especially among mothers, at the sight of young men leaving their city jobs to don a uniform. But the reality is that the army has too many troops on its books and many reservists are being sent home after a few weeks of training while others are rotated in. There is litde the army can do against an unseen enemy in the skies, except to dig in, disperse and conserve its resources for the long haul.

On my last journey out of Serbia, I saw a surprising number of mobile antiaircraft units trundling up and down what used to be called the Brotherhood and Unity highway that leads to Croatia. The military clearly has enough fuel to keep some of its weaponry on the move and therefore more difficult to target. At the border, I was interrogated and stripsearched, and my car was thoroughly checked. After three hours, finally satisfied that I was indeed a journalist and not a spy, the officer in charge turned the interrogation into a discussion of politics. “How is it,” he asked, “that the countries we helped through two world wars are now our enemies?” He seemed genuinely confused.