It’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed since the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. From today’s vantage point, those 78 days seem like a foreign world, and one that I sometimes wish to forget, but my memories, dreams and spontaneous associations bring me back to the spring of 1999, whether I want to remember or not. What follows, then, is not necessarily a historical analysis or an overall depiction of what occurred; rather, it is a glimpse into my memories, my dreams and my spontaneous associations of life in Belgrade during the bombings.
It is important to remember that most people did not really believe that it could happen. Even with the conflict in Kosovo raging (which, mind you, we were constantly misinformed about from official media), it was hard to imagine that “the West” would intervene militarily against us. But my mom, who worked with the Americans, knew that it was coming. The day before the bombing started, she stayed at work the whole night, saying farewell to her American colleagues who left early in the morning for the airport. Just after daybreak, she left work and went straight to our local monastery, which (fittingly) was dedicated to the archangels Michael and Gabriel. She lit a candle and asked the priest, “What do you think, Father – will it happen?” The priest gave an unexpected, and darkly humorous, response: “If God wants to scorch us, he will scorch us.” Unassured, she came back home.
The night that the bombings began, around 8pm on March 24th, my whole family was packed and dressed, ready with a few essentials. I was sitting closest to the door with my sneakers on; my dad sat in another room, reading the daily newspaper. We hovered in the “ready, set, go!” position, knowing that every second counts if anything were to happen, since we needed to rush down three flights of stairs before we reached our shelter. Thinking about it now, I realize that nobody in our building would have had much chance of survival had we been hit, three floors downstairs or otherwise. At the time, though, we waited in nervous anticipation.
After a while with no action, our thoughts slowly began to drift away from the unbearable. But suddenly there was a bang, like if a metal furnace exploded. It was not so loud, but not so far away either. We waited, ears perked, for another detonation. We did not have to wait long. The next bang was a true explosion, rattling the ground and our nerves simultaneously. We took our things and, together with about 30 people from our building, rushed downstairs to the shelter. The bombings had begun.
“We wuz here,” asserted a scribble on the shelter’s wall. In 1988, when the shelter was built, there was still a belief among government authorities that an invasion (from either the West or the East) was possible. No such invasion happened, of course, until after the country that built the shelter had disappeared. In the meantime, the underground space in the suburbs of Belgrade became a basement and storage locker for the building’s tenants, filled with bicycles, building materials, pickled vegetables and more. Stuffed inside with the pickled veg, we quickly realized that the air conditioning barely worked. We even joked amongst ourselves that if there ever was an invading army, they could easily just suffocate us inside.
After some time in the shelter, some neighbors began opening old equipment, so now the stuffy, pickled air mixed with smells of mold and dusty cloth. Of the few military tools and first aid kits available to us, the field beds were the most used. Squeaking when lain into, they provided little comfort, often disrupting rather than facilitating sleep. As the bombings continued, people from nearby buildings started to join us, as they either did not have a shelter of their own or had heard rumors that ours was an “atomic resistant” shelter. Together with Saška, a neighbor from the 2nd floor, we added a new scribble with a carbon pencil I used to draw doodles: “We wuz here too!”
The original plan for the NATO bombings was to target military installations in Kosovo. When that proved ineffective for the NATO coalition, they expanded their targets to include military posts throughout all of Yugoslavia. (Later on, NATO started bombing non-military targets as well, but that is getting ahead of ourselves.) So why were we, in a residential suburb of Belgrade, holed up in our bomb shelter-turned storage locker-turned bomb shelter? A few bus stations away, roughly a 10 minute drive, stood Straževica hill, which had several old factories dotting it. As it turns out, Straževica was also home to a partially-underground military base. It was even rumored at the time that Slobodan Milošević was hiding there. After the bombings had ended, the government erected a monument on the hill, although today this memorial lies dilapidated and largely unremembered.
Given the proximity of this military base, we were subject to bombing raids practically every night, oftentimes even twice in the same night. I remember the ground shaking like an earthquake, with ear-shattering detonations marking the beginning of the rumbling. The walls in buildings began to crack, and windowpanes started to rattle loose from their frames. Afraid that the glass would shatter into their homes, people began covering up their windows with whatever they could find: blinds, blankets, even duct tape. I remember watching Straževica hill slowly transform into something resembling the moon or Swiss cheese, with the dense forest replaced by gaping craters.
Television was a major source of information throughout the bombings. We often turned to the TV to find out when a raid was about to occur. (Our local siren, which was attached to the top of a heating plant’s chimney, was out of order. In order to hear any sirens, we had to get as high as possible and listen for sirens in nearby districts.) Our television program would be interrupted by the voice of a man, always Avram Izrael, who would say, “Pažnja, pažnja…(attention, attention),” sometimes with the sound of a siren blaring in the background. Spooky as this may sound today, these announcements brought both warning and relief, signaling for us to get safely downstairs to the shelter. There was often a patriotic jingle played as part of the announcement, which accompanied us as we went downstairs: “volimo te otadžbino naša (we love you our homeland.” As the vazdušna opasnost, or aviation danger, continued, many TV channels put up a small airplane sign so that we would never mistake a show for reality and vice versa.
Even after 20 years, the sound of a siren still makes me feel uneasy and alert. My skin crawls and beads of sweat form whenever I watch videos from that period. And it is not just me who feels nervous whenever sirens come on; a friend told me about a trip to Venice a few years ago when, due to a potential flood, sirens sprang up all across the city. “We stopped walking, like we were sunken in the ground, and looked up,” he recalled.
Humor was a great way for us to deal with the political and economic situation in our country. Bombardments became a frequent inspiration for humor, too. The opening siren was called šizela, one that goes crazy, and the closing siren was smirela, one that calms down. We had all sorts of jokes about the prime ministers and presidents who supported the bombings. Of course, there was plenty of paranoia, as well: people spoke of leaflets thrown from ‘enemy planes’ to encourage distrust in the government and accused everyday objects like pencils to be ‘locators’ for targets.
Another way in which we combatted the stress and sense of danger was by organizing public protests. People gathered in the main squares and on famous bridges, including those that had recently been destroyed, to sing and dance their fear away. Dangerous though it may seem for people to gather in targeted areas, it was a way for the collective to vent anger and fear. (These gatherings were also used as a propaganda tool by the government. It is worth remembering here that the current president of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, was then Minister of Information.) I cannot imagine what would have happened had any of those public squares or bridges, packed with people, been bombed… in any case, my family never went to any of these protests; we considered it too dangerous.
The opposition was stuck with the dilemma about whether or not to support the general protests against the bombings and condemn the actions of the West, which had been the main partner in fighting Milošević and pushing for greater democracy. As one author from Vice Serbia put it, it was like being caught between the hammer and the anvil. Disillusionment with the West spread rapidly. Cultural centers funded by the United States and France were demolished or vandalized as symbolic revenge, with the most famous example being the Monument of Gratitude to France, erected in 1930 to celebrate the partnership between the two nations during WWI. In 1999, after France joined the NATO bombing, young citizens shrouded the monument in black cloth and vandalized it with the words: “May there be eternal glory to France which no longer exists.” Since I was a kid during this time, I was not fully aware of these types of protests – I was more worried about what happened to the beautiful and painstakingly-crafted airplane model that had hung in the window of Air France’s local office.
Most of the time, the danger came during the evening and night, so we would still go out during the day. We would take a car, an old Renault 4, and go for a drive, sometimes to go shopping, sometimes to visit friends and relatives, and sometimes simply to get a change of scenery. During the drives, I would look out the window of the car and see the muddy residue of tank tracks, coming to and from unpaved roads leading to the forests and fields that held military hideouts and anti-aircraft batteries.
It was important to vent in order to not go crazy with stress. I remember a neighbor from our floor who started behaving weirdly, talking to herself, chuckling unexpectedly and performing leg exercises in the entrance to our building. Once, while we were chatting in between waves of bombs, a dog came running towards us, dashed inside the building for a moment and then took off running again. A bomb crash followed seconds after.
Some nights we could hear the planes themselves, but mostly we just heard the bombs and the anti-aircraft guns, or PVO (protiv-vazdušna odbrana). These guns were old and totally outmatched by the sophisticated equipment of the NATO forces. We could always see the munitions of the PVO shot into the night sky, like fireworks exploding every evening. Although technologically inferior, the PVO did sometimes hit their targets. In the small village of Buđanovci, in present-day Kosovo, an American Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk (colloquially known as a Stealth Fighter) was hit. Crashed in the mud, the villagers rejoiced in the stealth creature’s fall and began collecting fragments of the plane as souvenirs. One of these fragments reached me (original or fabricated we did not know), but my parents were hesitant to keep it, afraid of potential radiation. NATO forces supposedly used depleted uranium bombs, which use uranium with a lower content of fissile material than natural uranium yet still can potentially cause long-term health problems. There has been a recent initiative in Serbia to try to measure the lasting health consequences of the use of these bombs. There have also been lawsuits filed against NATO member-states for their use of these weapons, although many questions on the subject remain unanswered.
The bombing campaign, officially named “Operation Noble Anvil” but erroneously understood in Serbia at the time as “Operation Merciful Angel”, originally targeted only strategic military outposts in Kosovo and then the remains of Yugoslavia writ large. As the campaign continued, targets started to include non-military structures as well. Some civilian targets, including bridges and factories, were perceived as holding military significance. The consequences of targeting these civilian buildings were often fatal. In early April, the oil refinery in Pančevo was hit, igniting 80,000 tons of oil and causing the local level of carcinogens in the air to rise over 10,500 times the legal limit. About a week later, a civilian passenger train was hit while traversing a bridge above the Grdelica gorge, killing between 20 and 60 civilians. The bloodied walls of the Radio Television of Serbia (RTS) building, where 17 journalists were killed, stood visible for some time after the bombing. The remains of the building are still there, together with a monument dedicated to the victims. Their families are still seeking justice, blaming the locals who kept people there even as rumors circulated that the building would be a target.
My dad once stayed on the terrace during an air raid and witnessed the TV and radio tower on the Avala mountain as it was destroyed. The tower, built in 1965, was one of the iconic symbols of Belgrade. Hit by three separate rockets, the tower collapsed in on itself. After the bombing, we went to see the destroyed tower ourselves, though we were not allowed to take any pictures of it. Though it’s not like we would have anyways – unlike today, we tended not to document reality but rather focused on taking photos of nice life events. The news documented everyday life enough as it was.
Sometime during the 78-day bombing, which was originally planned to last much shorter, my parents decided to move closer to the city center, mostly to get away from the twice-nightly bombing routine we had started to grow accustomed to. We packed our car and purposely drove an unusual route so as to avoid going too close to the notorious Straževica hill. As we exited the Belgrade-Niš highway into Bubanj Potok, a non-residential suburb of Belgrade, we passed columns of ruined buildings near the road. Little did we know that just a short while ago this area had been bombed. We found out later that this suburb was home to several military bunkers, including one that housed the Yugoslav film archive Kinoteka.
We moved into my late grandmother’s place in Vračar, a municipality in the very center of Belgrade. My mom used to say that Grandma had “luckily” died just a few months before the bombings began – who knows how she would have taken it. Here, the sounds of sirens and planes were still common, but there were fewer bombings right around us. I do remember two bombings though: one was of an elementary school nearby and the other was of the Generalštab building, the military headquarters in the heart of the city, which stood right next to one of the main buildings of the central government. Firefighters and military personnel arrived at the destroyed building after the first bombing, only to be caught in the fire of a second run by NATO planes. One of the military men lost both of his legs. Trucks with tanks of water were pierced by shrapnel and riddled with holes. The Generalštab building still lies unused, unlike some damaged police buildings which were demolished after the bombings ended. For years, many such damaged buildings were left in plain view, serving as both reminders of the horrible events of the past and as alternative tourist sites; it was even rumored that some buildings housed unexploded bombs. There are still war-torn buildings in Belgrade today, though given the city’s turbulent past it’s sometimes hard to determine if the holes from metal fragments sent off by explosions are from WWII or Operation Noble Anvil.
At the beginning of the bombing campaign, people would frequently run for shelter, but as time went on, more and more people could be seen walking leisurely, even with the sirens sounding. Knowing the absurdity and danger around us, it seemed like people started trying simply to live as full and rich a life as they could. A friend of mine said that he had attended one of the best parties of his life during the bombing campaign. Years later, a Lebanese acquaintance of mine noted a similar phenomenon during Israeli bombings. Buildings dotted with holes, frequent electricity and water shutdowns, and an intense kind of living – it all sounded so heartbreakingly familiar that it brought tears to my eyes.
The war finally ended on June 10th, 1999. Yugoslavia celebrated being “unconquered”; Kosovo received U.N. peacekeeping troops (formally known as the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo, or UNMIK) and NATO proclaimed “mission accomplished”. Of course, the Yugoslav media only focused on Yugoslavia’s victory, and spoke strictly about our side of the story. But the bombing had serious consequences to the economy, public health and public morale, even if there was a relatively small number of civilian casualties. I missed many school days and, being in the 8th grade at the time, lost time to prepare for and pass final exams before entering high school. Many of my fellow eighth-graders were in the same position – so many, in fact, that the state cancelled the entry exams for high school altogether. We were jokingly referred to as “war profiteers”.
Some of the memories of the bombings lingered on. During high school, I attended drama workshops and performed a song featuring a parody of politicians involved in the bombing. A few years ago, I dreamt of big, old and loud warplanes, flying closer together than is possible, filling the entire sky above my apartment building. The dream was heavy and unnerving. Just last year, I went to back to visit Straževica hill for the second time. I was greeted by a nice view with no traces of bomb craters, a monument to fallen soldiers and a dizzying feeling.
Today, a part of me wants to say, “thank god, we have survived this (too).” Another part wants to quote a song by Đorđe Balašević: ma jebite se devedesete (well fuck you 1990s). I will keep my memories of this specific past, but I will not be crushed by the memory of conflict. I love history, but will not be its slave. Facing the trauma directly is the first step towards never allowing something like this to happen again.
For more information about the artist and his project, visit: Testimony and representation of trauma in visual arts: NATO bombing of FR Yugoslavia
Cover photo: Pančevo, Spring 1999/Zoran Jovanović Mačak