AIR RAIDS TAKE TOLL ON CIVILIANS
by Guy Dinmore
Special to the Chicago Tribune
April 5, 1999
BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — NATO says its air campaign is intended to degrade the military machine of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, but the latest phase of bombings against urban center
infrastructure appears to be directly affecting civilians more than soldiers.
Missile strikes against three fuel depots early Sunday morning killed three civilian workers and injured at least five more, according to the Yugoslav army.
Belgrade’s night sky was illuminated by a giant fireball, followed by a pall of black smoke, when a cruise missile or two scored a direct hit on a fuel depot that fed a central heating plant supplying warmth to
300,000 people in the suburb of New Belgrade. One night watchman was reported killed and two workers injured.
The precision attack opened the fuel tanks like a giant tin can, but the
heating plant itself was left intact. Not so the windows of surrounding
residential tower blocks.
Olga, who asked that her last name not be used, was saved by her piano,
which blocked a shower of glass from her shattered windows. Like
many other Serbs, she has decided to spurn air raid shelters because of
the rats and dirt. Shocked and angry, she said she would send the bill for
new windows to President Clinton.
NATO presumably hit the depot to prevent the army from using the fuel
in its campaign against ethnic Albanian rebels in the province of Kosovo.
An attack on an oil refinery in Pancevo, just to the northeast of Belgrade,
killed two workers, the army said. The refinery was put out of action
because its energy producing units were disabled, but the rest of the
complex was not severely damaged.
The army said enemy aircraft bombed the Beopetrol fuel depot in the
central town of Kraljevo, destroying diesel intended for use by farmers
in their spring sowing.
NATO also has degraded Serbia’s carpet cleaning capabilities–with
two devastating strikes on the Sloboda household appliances factory
that used to employ 5,000 workers in the central city of Cacak. NATO
sources insisted that part of the factory had military uses, but local
officials said that was laughable.
The destruction early Saturday of two Interior Ministry buildings in
central Belgrade may have sent a symbolic message to Milosevic,
whose residence is less than a mile away, but the buildings had long
been evacuated. Instead the blasts blew out hundreds of windows in
neighboring houses and a hospital next door, sending 70 mothers and
their newborns into the basement for a night of terror.
Serbia has spoken of civilian casualties since airstrikes began March
24 but has released no overall figures. Local reporters are convinced
that Russian media reports of 1,000 dead are grossly exaggerated.
Strangely, the city most affected by NATO’s new phase is Novi Sad,
one of Serbia’s most beautiful cities, more than 250 miles from Kosovo.
It is famous for its rich ethnic mix of peoples: Serbs, Hungarians,
Slovaks, Romanians and others, as well as the moderate policies of
its opposition-controlled municipal council.
Last Wednesday cruise missiles destroyed one bridge linking the old
and new quarters of Novi Sad across the Danube, and on Saturday a
second bridge was hit. Television pictures showed a car balancing
precariously on the edge of the shattered ruins while residents said
another had plunged into the river. Several pedestrians and at least
one cyclist were wounded. The attack came just after 8 p.m. and
with no warning by air raid sirens.
The residents of Novi Sad now have just one bridge left, and many are
without water and telephone lines that ran across the two destroyed
bridges. Red-tiled roofs built more than two centuries ago when Novi
Sad was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire have been destroyed.
“Now when we hear air raid sirens in Belgrade we immediately call
our friends in Novi Sad, but yesterday we were too late,” said one
Belgrade resident with relatives in the north.
On Sunday NATO also damaged a third bridge over the Danube in
the far northwest of Serbia near Backa Palanka.
The air raids on Belgrade have clearly raised the sense of fear in the
city, especially among the young and elderly. Demand for cigarettes
(Serbs are inveterate smokers) has shot up, and the few shops that
have supplies are rationing sales to two packs per person.
But the fear is outweighed by outrage. “Have they no religion?”
asked Milena, astounded that NATO could strike during Easter
weekend. Orthodox Easter follows one week later. Like many Serbs
she drew parallels with the first air raids on Belgrade by Nazi
Germany during the Easter festival of 1941.
Daily rock-against-the-bombs concerts held in central Belgrade and
other cities draw ever larger crowds of tens of thousands and feature
“Crazy Nero burnt Rome, the craziest Clinton is burning Europe,” read
one. “Is this the way to celebrate Easter?” read another.
Young men who tried to dodge their compulsory military service
during the wars in Bosnia and Croatia now vow to volunteer if NATO
sends ground forces into Kosovo.
“Croatia was not our war,” said Radovan, a young Serb originally from
the mainly Serb-populated Krajina region of Croatia that was emptied
of almost all Serbs by Croatian forces in 1995. “Kosovo is ours, and we
will fight for it.”
But on the economic front the war is taking its toll. The dinar has fallen
about 10 percent on the black market, and the government is three
months behind paying out pensions. It also has told state workers they
must wait for their latest monthly salaries. Gasoline is hard to find.
But Serbs have learned to endure hardship during years of economic
sanctions that were first imposed in 1992 after war erupted in Bosnia
Rumblings of discontent against Milosevic can be heard only in
whispered conversations. Plainclothes police are more in evidence,
and once-outspoken opposition figures have lost their voice. The
independent media has been completely silenced as all newspapers
are now under censorship by the Serbian Information Ministry.