Magazine article The Spectator

A Policeman's Hand on My Shoulder

Magazine article The Spectator

A Policeman's Hand on My Shoulder

Article excerpt


THE warnings came fluttering down on a light breeze outside the hotel. For a moment I thought they were pieces of waste paper, then realised they were leaflets. Thousands of copies of a Nato proclamation drifting into the sunlit streets of Belgrade. The leaflet itself looked a little like the titles of a Hollywood disaster movie, with each line in progressively larger type:

`No Fuel,

`No Electricity,

`No Freedom,

`No Future'.

And then in even bigger letters, accompanied by his photograph, 'Milosevic'.

There was a more complicated text on the back which was not easy to understand fully, my assistant explained, because it was written in poor, ungrammatical SerboCroat. But the message was clear: 'Milosevic is responsible for your sufferings.' Thirty-six hours later Nato dropped a graphite bomb on the country's biggest power station at Obrenovac and turned out the lights in Belgrade and most of Serbia. General Wesley Clark's political masters have given him his chance to win the air campaign by targeting civilian morale, and I am writing by torchlight in the dark.

Conditions at the Hyatt Hotel are not yet intolerable. The emergency generator is running, powering the lifts and corridor lighting and, as befits a first-class hotel in wartime, there is even electricity in the bathroom. The water was cut off but has now returned, sludgy brown in colour, and I have taken the precaution of filling the bath with the stuff. When I finally managed to run a cable from a bathroom lightfitting to the television set, it was the voice of Jamie Shea that boomed out of it, triumphantly declaring that, `Nato has its finger on the light switch.'

Shea's boast was not appreciated at Belgrade's Institute of the Mother and Child where the sudden power-cut plunged medical staff into darkness and left them struggling to save the lives of two newborn babies in a respirator. Dr Natasha Stajic worked a rubber hand-pump for ten minutes to keep the oxygen going until the emergency generator could be started. She now fears that, in spite of her efforts, the babies may have suffered brain damage. Elsewhere in Belgrade the loss of electricity, long anticipated and feared, seemed merely to deepen the atmosphere of stubborn gloom. `If this goes on, we may have to give up after a few months,' said a Serb friend pensively. `Months?' I asked, dreading the prospect. `Well, we might be able to hold out until next year.'

In the last week, however, my concerns have been more focused on the threat, or should I say the promise, of expulsion hanging over me. My difficulties appear to stem from an encounter with one of the figures who hold unquestioned power in this country, a local police chief.

It all happened in a place called Surdulica, in southern Serbia. With surprising speed, the police chief hoisted his vast blue-uniformed frame into the Yugoslav army press-bus and came straight to the second row where I was sitting. A large claw-like hand gripped my shoulder and a bark in Serbian instructed me to leave the bus. I squirmed out of his grip and instinctively grasped the seat in front of me as other journalists averted their eyes and looked the other way.

We had come to Surdulica to bear witness to another in the growing catalogue of Nato blunders. Two missiles had hit a residential area. One smashed a small house to pieces, leaving a giant crater in its place, but miraculously caused no civilian casualties. The other plunged into a more substantial home where adults and children were sheltering in the basement. Sixteen people, including six children, were killed, their bodies torn apart or mangled almost beyond recognition. The following morning our bus arrived to what was, at first, a surprisingly courteous welcome. The rotund moustachioed figure of Serbia's Prime Minister was on hand to declare that Surdulica was a good town with good people, and down the street an elderly lady permitted us to set up our satellite transmission equipment in her back garden and clucked over us with chairs to sit on and cups of coffee. …

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