Comment: It's a Serbian Thing

NATO says that it is not at war with the Serbian people. They beg to differ.

Comment: It's a Serbian Thing

NATO says that it is not at war with the Serbian people. They beg to differ.

The initial effect of the NATO bombing was relief. Since the first threats of air strikes last October, the Yugoslav population has been under extreme psychological pressure.

On the night of 24-25 March, when the bombing began, the situation finally became clear: the country was under attack and the enemy was identified. In short, NATO has done an incalculable favour to Slobodan Milosevic, who, whether we like it or not, is president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

At the same time, the NATO attack has--probably in the long term--shaken to the foundations, if not destroyed, both the civic opposition in Serbia and Yugoslavia, that has been built with much effort over the years, and the room for manoeuvre for independent media and their associations.

Paradoxically, those Serbs who follow world news with the help of relatives abroad, the Internet or satellite dishes are much better informed than ever before. But alongside the programming of the state Radio-Television Ser bia, the news from CNN, SKY, BBC and other European networks looks like poorly disguised propaganda.

Viewers in Yugoslavia react with a shrug of the shoulders, or even outright laughter. When, on the night of 3-4 April, a heating plant in New Belgrade was hit, the question on the streets was: "How will [NATO Gen.] Wesley Clark explain this 'military' target?" Attitudes hardened noticeably when on 12 April a NATO warplane destroyed a passenger train killing 11 and wounding 20 civilians.

In Belgrade, more than 100,000 people have each day flocked to open-air concerts despite air raid sirens. Similar rallies have been held in other cities and towns of Serbia, as well as Montenegro. Sometimes, the demonstrators visit places that have already been hit, such as the bridges in Novi Sad over the Danube.

They leave messages, bouquets and candles--as if mourning family members. Bridges in Belgrade, and manufacturing plants elsewhere in the country, have been "defended" by human chains or shields. These are not gatherings in support of Milosevic.

As Vlade Divac, a Yugoslav player in the US National Basketball Association, explained to CNN's Larry King, "It is not about our president, it is about all of us." Nor are these the gatherings of Serbs who are uninformed about what is happening in Kosovo, since the citizens of Serbia believe they know very well know about the plight of refugees.

It is not that people are not afraid. Fear exists, and people don't hide it. There have also been many civilian casualties. At night, one can hear shouts in the big residential blocks, after a bombing: "Cowards! Come down here . . ." A rich repertoire of Serbian curses follows. But the dominant feeling is not fear but anger, and defiance.

Before the outbreak of fighting in Kosovo in February 1998, the Yugoslav army had been reduced by the regime to being little more than a police service. Now, however, it is an unchallenged leader and hero defending the country. The explanation for the Yugoslav response is not hard to find. People may be behaving defiantly because they know that the attacker is trying to avoid civilian casualties; therefore, statistically at least, they should be safe.

They also view the entire matter as somewhat infantile: Bill Clinton's "bombing for peace" is similar to "smoking but not inhaling," or having an affair but not "sexual relations" or many of the othe r logical absurdities of his presidency. But most of all, Yugoslavs gain a sense of strength because NATO is so vastly superior, that survival itself is a great victory. Many people in Belgrade--children but also their parents--cover their heads at night.

They hope that the warmth and the darkness of their blankets will protect them from NATO's "democratic bombs". Under those covers, they are aware of the humanitarian catastrophe--even if the reasons and specific details seem unclear. To them, NATO is shielding behind a humanitarian disaster that it produced itself.

And as the estimates of refugees constantly shift, change and are corrected, they wonder what is wrong with the calculations of the joint NATO/CNN information effort? For Yugoslavs, the issue is not human rights. The air strikes have not been approved by the UN Security Council. NATO has abandoned its defensive posture for an aggressive approach.

And Europe, as seen from here, has abandoned the principles of dialogue and c onsensus enshrined in the founding documents of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Thus Yugoslavia (and its personification in Slobodan Milosevic) is not defending the corpse of communism, but the principle of sovereignty.

They believe they are simply defending their country--something they feel everyone should be concerned about. The suffering produced by the air strikes will no doubt continue.

And Serbs will continue to endure it. Seen from here, martyrdom and a glorious death in defeat does not seem too bad a solution. These days, when a Belgrader asked: "How are you doing?" the answer is: "I'm waiting."

Aleksandar Ciric is an independent journalist from Belgrade.

Serbia, Kosovo
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