Samizdat 2000

Last Year in Belgrade:
From a Visit
Christine Stone


Text-only printable version of this article

Christine Stone practised at the English Bar as a lawyer specializing in crime and civil liberties before setting up the British Helsinki Human Rights Group with a number of academic and journalist colleagues in 1992. She has written for a number of publications including The Spectator and Wall Street Journal on Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union. Her column now appears Thursdays on

Archived articles by Christine Stone

Last Year in Belgrade: Memories From a Visit

Hate-Speech and the New World Order

Slovakia: Mr. Meciar's Dawn Raid

A New Croatian Spring

The New World Order Turns Against an Old Friend

Kosovo's Borderlands

Georgia is on Everyone's Mind

McCain Rocks the Vote

The Sad Tale of Croatian Independence

Christmas in Kosovo

Macedonia: the Next Balkan Flashpoint

Some Thoughts on the Killings in Armenia Who did it and Why?

One year ago next week I traveled to Belgrade with three colleagues. The bombing of Yugoslavia had been underway for nearly two months but, unbeknown to us, the war was to end a few weeks later. Many people felt that it was somehow traitorous to visit Belgrade at this time even though the British government had made no declaration of war against the former Yugoslavia nor sought any parliamentary authority for its bellicose actions. In this they were not alone, only Holland went through the correct democratic procedures and sought its parliament's approval before taking part in the NATO campaign.

The propaganda and vilification of Serbia's perceived actions in Kosovo had caused us and many others deep concern. We sensed that lies and disinformation had led to a situation where the first bombs dropped on a European capital city by the Allies since the Second World War. Lying in bed in Oxford, England my sleep was interrupted every morning around 5 a.m. as the bombers returned to the nearby air-base at Fairford having completed their nightly mission. Auden had written about the same experience during the war with "Vega conspicuous overhead/in the windless nights of June." But that was a 'just' war whereas this seemed to be an act of mendacious bullying.

Lies and disinformation. They pervade so much that is passed on to people in the West about what life is like in the Balkans and the former Communist world. It was difficult to reach Belgrade in May last year and we had to travel via Romania. The journey started in Timiosara, the town where the uprising against Ceausescu had begun in 1989. Despite its status as what the Soviets would have called a 'hero city' little has been done to commemorate its moment of glory. It is a tired, run-down place where strange, glass-fronted banks arise incongruously from a landscape of weeds and debris. The journey across the flatlands of the Banat to Serbian border took us through numerous poverty-stricken villages surrounded by abandoned fields which, even in Ceausescu's time were properly cultivated. But Romania is undergoing 'reform' as it seeks to fulfill the criteria for EU membership in the next few years, so it now produces less food than in hungry 1989!

It came as something of a surprise to cross from this 'reformed' Romania into Serbia, the 'poorest' country in the Balkans, according to the statistics lobbed at you by the experts. Here the fields were husbanded, the fruit trees pruned and crops planted and tended. The contrast could not have been more striking. From the border all the way to Belgrade the picture was the same.

There was no sign that a war was going on in this part of the country. It was only on later visits that we saw that the greatest destruction had taken place in southern Serbia and Kosovo itself. At first, Belgrade seemed normal the streets full, the shops open. Only the crisscrossed strips of sticky tape on shop windows were a reminder that bombs might fall. However, in the first days of the war angry Serbs had trashed the offices of Air France and American and British cultural institutions on Belgrade's main 'drag' Kneza Mihailova.

The graffiti on these buildings poured out hatred towards NATO and Clinton and made us wonder if we might be lynched once passers-by heard us speaking English. But nothing could have been further from the truth. People were courteous, even helpful. There were few policemen to be seen despite the propaganda about Serbia's status as a 'police state'. Sadly, as in most wars the hardships brought out the best in people and much of the sleazier aspects of the old Belgrade seemed to have disappeared, at least for the moment.

Of course, the air raid sirens went off regularly in the afternoon and between 9 pm at night and 6 am in the morning. There was no panic in fact, during the day people just carried on working, eating and going about their business. Despite the propaganda, shops had plenty of food – the main 'shortage' in the restaurants was fish which, in the extraordinary circumstances could not be transported from Montenegro for the time being. Otherwise, the only queues were outside kiosks where people waited for deliveries of cigarettes.

A few brave souls still huddled on the main bridge crossing the Danube every evening unaware that Lieutenant-General Michael Short was somewhere in Italy or at NATO's Brussels' headquarters itching to blow them to smithereens. After the wail of the nightly sirens the streets became eerily empty with only a few stragglers drinking coffee in the usually teeming bars. The sign of the final shutdown came when Belgraders took their dogs for the last walk of the day spaniels, pointers and well-groomed Samoyards were steered gently round in what was, a very English kind of promenade.

Many thoughts went through one's mind. Brought up in England on a diet of World War 11 films you wondered if it had been like this during the Blitz. But there was a major difference people could hear the Luftwaffe approaching Britain in 1940-1. Here all was silence. NATO's planes flew at a height of 15,000 feet. A cruise missile could land in your lap without any warning. In that sense, it was more like the short-lived, but deadly, campaign when the V2 rockets were launched by Hitler at the end of the war.

In fact, few bombs fell in and around Belgrade during our visit. The accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy had occurred only a few days beforehand and, for the moment, it had taken the wind out of NATO's sails. Every now and again, a dull crunch could be heard from the nearby town of Pancevo with its oil refinery, but nothing else.

The destruction that had taken place was on the level of the spectacular rather than the mundane. The Socialist Party headquarters by the side of the Danube had been blown apart. It was almost heartening to find, on approaching the rubble, that only a bust of Lenin stood completely undamaged by the blast the symbol of Belgrade's old world order defiant in the face of the latest ideology to be visited on the place, that of 'humanitarian intervention'.

Further down the river, the main power station had been badly bombed, its fuel tanks and pipes now mangled into a simulacra of some gruesome exhibit of modernist art. Only the spot where the nightwatchman and his small hut were blown away provided a reminder of the human tragedy that had occurred there. Then there was the television station. Bits of celluloid from old reels of film still blew in a melancholy way around the site of its destruction. A small, children's theatre lying nearby had also been hit at the same time, something conveniently overlooked by the Western media. It can only have been a stroke of luck that saved the exquisite, early 19th century Russian church standing adjacently.

But, for ordinary people, the previous six weeks had been a nightmare. I visited friends who lived high on a hill overlooking the city. Their small, one-bedroom flat now housed 7 people – including elderly parents brought to safety from their own apartment close to one of NATO's regular targets. The worst experience for them had been the graphite bombs which had been used to disable the city's electricity supplies. This not only affected lighting and heating it also impeded water pumping facilities. However, local technicians had soon developed a way of repairing the damage which was one small victory over the aggressor. Children were running wild they hadn't been to school for weeks. Despite the relative absence of destruction in the city everyone knew someone or other who had been affected by the bombing in some cases even killed.

While ordinary people had to put up with this situation leading members of the Serb opposition made sure they were not around to endure any hardship. Djindjic, et al., had fled to Western Europe or gone down to resorts on the Monetengrin coast where they plotted with the US's Balkan envoy, Robert Gelbard and, it is rumoured, played tennis and relaxed in the Adriatic sun. Belgrade also seemed mercifully free of the usual gaggle of 'youth' many of whom had also, presumably, fled to avoid the draft.

However, one senior member of the opposition had remained to be with his people, so to speak, and that was Vuk Draskovic.

The offices of Vuk's party, the SOP, on Kneza Mihailova next to the trashed British Council reading room were operating much as before. A few shaven-headed types wandered in and out while young women – office staff, presumably – sat around drinking coffee from plastic cups and smoking. It was 11 0'clock in the morning and Vuk had still not appeared. "He is completing his toilette" we were told "he will be here soon."

At this stage Vuk had not completely taken on the mantle of oppositionist. In fact, at the start of the war he had been deputy-prime minister falling out with the regime over the accreditation which he supported of Western journalists to Serbia. However, he was still playing the part of the dedicated patriot railing against NATO's aggression and the fact that the likes of Zoran Djindjic had abandoned his country while it was under siege. Djindjic, he said, would only come to power "on the top of an American tank," something that is probably still the case a year later.

He also took great pleasure is regaling visitors with some of his more choice Albanian stories. Like the one about the Kosovan family who kept the finger of a relative dead for many a year in the freezer only to bring it out to stamp (an Albanian couldn't, of course, be expected to write) the relevant form to receive his pension. One wonders if such politically incorrect stories have been quietly put to rest since Vuk hardened his stance against Milosevic.

That was already beginning to happen as the summer wore on. On a further visit to Vuk's offices in July his spokesman, Ognjen Pribicevic, told us with some discomfort that it was necessary to cooperate more closely with the Montenegrin president, Milo Djukanovic. As Djukanovic was and still is the West's favourite politician in the region it was easy to see the way the wind was blowing. By the autumn Vuk had thrown in his lot with Djindjic et al. and the former members of the Serb opposition tried to put aside their differences and do the West's bidding. As Robert Gelbard had been quoted that June as saying that Vuk was on a "short-term contract" with Washington and as it was rumoured that he had been threatened with a hefty indictment from the War Crimes Tribunal for his past actions in the Balkan wars if he had failed to cooperate, it is easy to see how he might have been persuaded to come on board.

After three days we left Belgrade and headed back to the 'fleshpots' of Romania. The inward journey had been unproblematic but as we approached the border on the journey back there was a sudden, seemingly inexplicable roadblock. Police were everywhere and we thought that, for the first time, the authorities might be about to interfere with our visit – something that had not happened in Belgrade. It soon became apparent that the police were not stopping people but herding cars into a nearby field where large petrol tankers were parked. Ahead, battered vehicles with Romanian number plates stretched as far as the eye could see. On each back seat there was a petrol canister.

Apparently, local Romanians from the Banat region had never forgotten how the Serbs brought them goods and fuel during the worse days of the Ceausescu regime. Now was the time for the favour to be returned and hundreds of them were doing so. It was a heartening sight. At least one could leave Serbia without thinking that all foreigners were, at worst, war-criminals or, at best, cowards.

Looking back a year later, and even allowing for our opposition to NATO's war, could we really have foreseen its consequences, the destruction and mayhem that it unleashed? I am afraid some of us already suggested in 1998 that the United States' shift to backing the KLA at the expense of moderate Albanians in Kosovo was likely to provoke a war which would end in more ethnic cleansing and more criminality than ever before. As Thomas Mann said: "Any act that has significance also has unity, in it there can be no such thing as chance." Much of what happened should have been predicted by NATO's leaders "it was probably was by their advisers" which makes the actions of those involved even more reprehensible.

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