Magazine article The Spectator

What Will Become of Young Serbia?

Magazine article The Spectator

What Will Become of Young Serbia?

Article excerpt

Belgrade

IT is said that every time the portly Russian peace envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin comes to meet the now indicted President Milosevic in Belgrade, he starts by asking bluntly in his construction worker's manner, `Have you had enough yet?' Serbs joke that news of Chernomyrdin's arrival is a signal to head for the bomb shelters, and certainly his latest toing and froing has been accompanied by a renewed ferocity in the air campaign.

It is still startling to see bombs hitting this European capital as it tries to sleep. In the early hours of the morning I was driving not far from a much-bombed army barracks on the outskirts of the city when the skyline ahead of me was suddenly lit by tremendous orange flashes and the ground shook with rumbling explosions. Civilian casualties are again mounting, particularly in the swathe of southern Serbia close to Kosovo, which Nato appears to believe is its enemy's soft underbelly where morale may disintegrate. Near Krusevac, the scene of anti-war protests and army desertions, Nato chose lunchtime on market day to bomb a bridge, dropping cars and pedestrians into the Morava River. Fifteen minutes after the first attack there was a second, and a local priest who had rushed to help the victims was decapitated, one of at least 11 people who died.

The next day Nato bombs ploughed into a sanatorium on the outskirts of Surdulica killing more than 20 people, including TB patients and Serbian refugees from Croatia who had been housed there. The sanatorium has been on local maps since 1924 and the bombing was another hideous blunder, but as the campaign becomes more remorseless the explanations become more curt. Where Nato spokesmen once stressed that civilian casualties were rare and regrettable, they now declare unblushingly that such deaths will not deter the alliance from achieving its objectives.

As the pressure mounts, Serbs continue to display unpredictable reactions. A few days ago I gave my local assistant, Zarko, a substantial sum in back pay, a thick wad of cash in deutschmarks, and wondered idly how he would spend it. Would it be a farsighted investment in bomb-damaged property or would it simply go under the mattress? Four hours later Zarko came back with a shiny, bright red German sports car. 'Two hundred and twenty horsepower,' he told me excitedly. 'A 12-- speaker stereo system, only 50,000 km on the clock - a bargain!' Zarko bears a slight resemblance, I hope he will not mind me saying, to Toad in The Wind in the Willows, but this purchase was not born of a manic desire to drive fast through the countryside scattering other animals in his wake. The car, he explained, is a 'Jebacki Auto' - a bird-puller. `Normally I feel short, balding and fat,' he said, describing himself not entirely inaccurately; `when I am in this car I feel tall, blond and thin.' Others apparently think so too, for a short time later I saw him escort a pretty hotel waitress to the passenger seat and set off at high speed across one of Belgrade's still unbombed bridges with what sounded like a triumphant toot.

Zarko was never a man to buy a Yugo, the boxy communist-era car produced in ever-dwindling numbers until the factory was obliterated by two successive Nato air strikes in April. Now the smashed remains of the last cars to be made there dangle crazily from the wrecked production line, and the 130,000 Americans who, for whatever reason, bought Yugos in recent years will never get spare parts for them. More seriously, 20,000 workers have lost their jobs and the company town, Kraguevac, never a prosperous place under Milosevic, has been plunged into the deepest of depressions.

I was one of a small group of journalists taken on an official tour of the town which lies in the heart of Serbia and is one of the places where it is believed more anti-war protests may appear. Our visit was strictly organised, starting with an address by a sturdy blonde matron from the local Red Cross who told us that the people of Kraguevac are now living `the hardest moments in our history'. …

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