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Belgrade Braces for Possible Airstrikes

October 8, 1998

Article from: The Washington Post
Article date: October 8, 1998
Author: Guy Dinmore

The Fred Flintstone bar is an unlikely place to take refuge from NATO airstrikes on Serbia. But the bar, carved into a cliff in central Belgrade, is actually one of hundreds of long-unused and forgotten air raid shelters that have been converted into commercial enterprises. Frightened customers joke that the bombs had better come at night because Fred’s bar is closed during the day.

Vanja Vukasovic, head of a nearby residents’ association on 29th November Street, is taking her job seriously as caretaker of their underground shelter. Unfortunately, as anxious neighbors gather out of fear of imminent NATO strikes, she doesn’t have the key. Their shelter, she said, has been leased to a museum for applied arts. “It’s a real nuclear air raid shelter. But the museum hasn’t moved out. If the bombs fall, we’ll have to break in,” said Vukasovic, a biologist.

Yugoslavia — which now comprises the two republics of Serbia and Montenegro — is on a war footing as NATO steps up its warnings of intervention to stop the seven-month-old war with ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo province. Military police are dragging draft-age men out of their homes and off the streets and into the army. Opposition parties reported that mobilization of air defense reservists is underway. Hospitals are sending non-urgent cases home, and schools have held evacuation exercises. Gas is in short supply. Foreigners and locals alike are evacuating.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman told the Reuters news agency that the embassy was planning to withdraw staff in the next day or two and would sharply curtail operations if airstrikes occur. Among the other embassies that were either reducing staff levels or urging nationals to leave were Britain, France, Canada, Norway, the Netherlands and Austria.

What scares Serbs the most, however, is not the growing likelihood of being bombed but the chaos that NATO airstrikes may unleash. “The psychological pressure is gnawing away at us,” Vukasovic said. “The big worry is what will happen after the bombs. We are organizing guards to prevent looting.”

Analysts say that, as reflected in general elections a year ago, Serbia is bitterly divided between supporters and opponents of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Ljiljana I., a 22-year-old shop assistant who would only give the initial of her last name, says half of her male friends have been drafted recently, and the rest are in hiding. “My friends are really panicking,” she said. “We are angry with Milosevic. He is responsible for everything. I would rather protest outside his villa in Dedinje than the American Embassy.”

But Slavko, a fluent English-speaking taxi driver, believes U.S.-led airstrikes will give Milosevic a lifetime in power. “You don’t realize,” he said, “that the great majority of Serbs see themselves as surrounded by enemies, the last bastion of Christendom against the Muslims.”

Many Serbs, disillusioned with politics and struggling to make ends meet, believe the West is engaged in an elaborate charade to keep Milosevic in power as he is the Balkan leader it can do business with. They also fear the extremist backlash that airstrikes could trigger. The ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party, led by Deputy Prime Minister Vojislav Seselj, has warned Serbs against working for the “enemy.” Zeljko Raznatovic, better known as “Arkan,” is ready to reactivate his Serbian Volunteers Guard, a former paramilitary unit that spearheaded attacks on Muslim and Croat civilians during the wars in Bosnia and Croatia.

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