Terror, Rage Grip Residents of Belgrade
by Guy Dinmore
BELGRADE, March 26 – The night sky south of this city glowed orange, and explosions roared from all directions tonight under the heaviest barrage on the capital since NATO began its air assault.
Air raid sirens, which earlier today had heralded NATO’s first daylight attack, offered no warning of the stunning onslaught that came after dark. The city’s increasingly harried residents screamed in terror at the first explosions, and soon ambulances could be heard racing through the streets.
Studio-B, a government television station, reported that bombs had hit Belgrade’s Galenika drug factory, and the sound of explosions north of the city appeared to signal an attack on a military airfield at Batajnica. But the few foreign reporters left in Belgrade were prohibited from visiting bomb sites and could only watch a column of smoke rising in the southern sky.
State television gave no civilian casualty figures for today’s attacks or those that preceded them. But, for the first time, news footage was aired showing damage to schools, a hospital and a nearby village.
Serbian Education Minister Jovo Todorovic said about 30 schools have been damaged around the country since NATO launched its first missiles Wednesday in an effort to force Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to accept a peace plan for the Serbian province of Kosovo. State media showed what looked like an unexploded missile sticking through a wall in one school, as well as a hospital ward in the southern city of Nis strewn with debris.
Images also were broadcast of seriously damaged houses in the village of Sinkovce. Official reports said no one was injured there, but medical workers at Belgrade’s main hospital said about 50 civilians from surrounding areas had been treated for injuries.
Local journalists said they believed the Yugoslav authorities were playing down casualty figures for fear of spreading panic. Asked about reports of damage to a student dormitory in Nis, Information Minister Milan Komnenic replied tersely: “This is a war. We are giving no details.”
Amid the maelstrom of fire and thunder brought down on Belgrade by NATO, the mounting anger of this city’s residents has become more evident. Windows at the American Cultural Center have been smashed and the building’s walls are daubed with graffiti – “Nazi whores” is written in black paint beneath a swastika. The British and French cultural centers display similar damage, and in Pristina, Kosovo’s provincial capital, the U.S. Information Service building has been burned to the ground.
Radan, a Belgrade taxi driver who declined to give his full name, chose his words carefully as raced home amid the wail of air raid sirens. “I hate Clinton for what he has done,” he said. “I don’t like Milosevic either, but when it comes to Kosovo we Serbs are united.”
Radan said the Western powers are making a fatal error if they believe airstrikes will weaken or topple Milosevic. “All this is what Milosevic wanted,” he said. “The opposite will happen. Milosevic laid a trap and NATO fell into it.”
Beneath the embattled city, however, hard-line hatreds were muted, as Serbians huddled together and waited out the attack.
Sanja and her husband, Predrag – both of whom refused to give their full names – spent much of Wednesday night in a cellar with other families, including ethnic Albanians originally from Kosovo.
“We were all smoking together,” Sanja said, laughing.
“We get on fine,” added Predrag.
The middle-aged couple said neither of them had ever voted for Milosevic. Victims of Yugoslavia’s crippled economy, which has been stung through much of this decade by an international embargo, they said they can’t even afford to pay their electricity bills. Nevertheless, they sent their daughter abroad to study and find a better life. But now they feel anger and bewilderment, asking how their Western allies in two world wars could turn against them.
Perhaps reflecting Milosevic’s tight grip on state media, they said they cannot believe that Serbian security forces have been responsible for atrocities against Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians, causing more than 200,000 people to flee and stirring the West to take military action.
Recalling that her father had helped rescue an American pilot downed by the Germans in World War II, Sanja pleaded: “Tell the world we Serbs are good people.”