Belgrade under the bombs

By Jan Oberg

TFF PressInfo 68 – June 1, 1999 

Originally published here.

Serbo-Croatian version here.


“The lack of empathy and solidarity with the 11 million citizens of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia whose society is being destroyed is as amazing as it is deplorable. Remember when people of culture, science, politics, media and humanism flocked to Sarajevo when it was under siege? Where are they now?

Journalists flock to Macedonia and Albania – admittedly for very good reasons – and they flock to NATO’s well-staged press briefings. But seeing for oneself what it means to be the object of the worst military, economic and social destruction in Europe since 1945 seems, remarkably, not to be as good a reason,” says TFF director Jan Oberg who has just visited Serbia under the bombs.

Where are those who believe Yugoslavia is a dictatorship? Supporting fellow human beings suffering under dictatorship is a noble reason to go but those around the world who hold this view stay away. Where are the human rights activists when numerous human rights are being violated by NATO? Where is the sympathy with innocent citizens who endure the systematic destruction of a European society and capital in the name of Western civilization?

So much for humanism, intellectualism and civil courage at the end of the 20th century. In spite of the war, it is perfectly possible to go there and freely meet anyone you like. I did that,” says Dr. Oberg. “It is mind-boggling that even intellectuals seem to be able to hold only two categories in their head at a time: if you are anti-NATO’s bombings, you must automatically be pro-Milosevic or pro-Serb. Or, if you go there, you support the regime and is disloyal to the West. I am afraid that those who hide behind such banal dichotomies are responsible for a gross civilisational injustice done to every and all citizens in today’s Yugoslavia.

I believe it is possible to be against all the violence – Yugoslav/Serbia’s, that of the Albanians and NATO’s. None of them will help solve the original problem of mistrust between Serbs and Albanians. All of them have made the situation worse. And I believe it should be possible to recognise and respect the human suffering of all sides – that of the Albanians, the Serbs and that of every other group in all of Serbia and Montenegro.

Yugoslavia has 25 national/ethnic categories, a majority of Serbs and Yugoslavs and 650.000 Serb refugees from Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia and the Kosovo-province. Evidently, in international politics and media their lives and human rights do not count – as refugees in, say, Africa don’t count – as much as those of other peoples’. Painful to say, this tendential racism – the view that Third World people, Serbs and Yugoslavs are ‘Untermenschen’ – is a fact of today’s Western civilization. UNHCR spends about 11 cents a day per refugee in Africa. In the Balkans, the figure is $1.23, more than 11 times greater, as Los Angeles Times recently reported.

The international so-called ‘community’ indicts President Milosevic and a handful of leaders. It’s doubtful that they will ever end up in the Hague. But those who are suffering under this leadership are being killed, punished, isolated and humiliated by NATO. Any taxi driver in Belgrade will tell you with sardonic humour: “We only have two problems: 12 years with Milosevic and now NATO’s bombs, otherwise everything is fine here!”

Yugoslavia’s opposition, independent intellectuals and peace movements will tell you exactly the same: ‘You, the West, is making everything so much more difficult for us now – and a generation’s time ahead. What are your real interests? We are the ones who WANT to be part of the modern world, who STRUGGLE for a democratic Yugoslavia and DESIRE integration with the West. Don’t you understand how counterproductive these bombs are to us?’

Oberg continues, “I watch the heavy bombs and cruise missiles fall at night – ‘successfully’ according to NATO’s spokesmen a few hours later. I hear the roaring thunder of the explosions. I feel the shaking of the building and ground. I note sirens at any time of the day and the night, NATO permits no one to sleep for long. I feel the rage inside, the utter meaninglessness, my own powerlessness and humiliation in the face of mighty high-tech destruction and I think, ‘this is my culture, it is my political leaders who do or support this.’ I know now how true it is that one has to be there to sense it and I experience how much stop working when we are without electricity – water pumps, cookers, street lights, computers, phones. There is only one word for what I feel: I am ashamed of the culture that does this.”

“I walk around Belgrade and Novi Sad to see the surreal landscapes of destroyed buildings, bridges, ministries, police stations, hotels, radio- and TV stations, apartment houses, schools and embassies. The oil refinery in Novi Sad is still burning, three weeks after the hit. What was once big trees are now black, charred stumps. I know it is different, but it reminds me of images of Hiroshima.

I experience how life becomes harder by the day. People don’t sleep at home if it is close to a potential target. They queue for cigarettes and other luxuries. They shop for hours for certain foodstuffs and medicine and care for the old, the sick and the handicapped in ways they didn’t have to before. So many ask me what the chances are to get their children out – thousands already have fled abroad. Men between 18 and 65 may be called up any day. Below-the-minimum-of-existence-salaries and pensions are paid, months after they should have been. Life is ruined when big industries in small towns are destroyed. People plan what to do to get their parents, their children, their animals and themselves in safety, if…Life is now one big IF.

People generally put up a brave face, quite defiant, actually. They seem not aggressive but rather pitying countries with so much military and so little intellectual and moral power. Many find Western civilization barbaric and ridiculous, its leaders conceited. Should anybody think that this is a citizenry that will give up soon, a visit to Yugoslavia will help cure that delusion.

I listen to courageous, independent-minded people in academia and NGOs telling me that I must no longer expect constructive social activism, not even anti-NATO protests on the bridges at night. ‘We are at war, it’s dangerous, we may be seen as fifth column; hardline politicians have published lists of potential ‘traitors.’ They refer not only to the last sixty-some days but to the last 10-12 years when Yugoslavia has been demonized, under sanctions and otherwise isolated. ‘We can’t travel, we no longer know what the future will bring – land invasion, civil war, poverty? More than one million demonstrated for change in 1997 but we got no Western support. We are simply exhausted.’

BBC reports that, according to Serb sources – that we have been told we can’t trust – a hospital has been hit. It’s pretty easy to verify the truth when in Belgrade. I find less propaganda here than in the West and this place is at war, the West is not. It bombs Yugoslav media and force Eutelsat to stop broadcasting Serbian television, so they cannot inform citizens in the West of the consequences of NATO’s aggression. The Dutch government refused to grant visas to anyone with a Yugoslav passport seeking to participate in the Haag Peace Conference earlier this months – while Kosovo-Albanian refugees correctly got theirs.”

Says Jan Oberg, “I have begun to wonder whether there is any decency, any sense of fairness, any true humanity left when all the above causes little protest throughout the West. Perhaps Western leaders had become too ecstatic with their own triumphalist power after 1989 and could use a wake-up call to reality: that there are limits to naked power, double standards, ignorance and pop ideology. NATO’s getting stuck here may be it. After all, the Yugoslavs have helped the West before.”

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