16 years later: remembering victims of NATO Belgrade bombing

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by Malia Guyer-Stevens

BELGRADE – On a cloudy March morning in Belgrade, the red stone domes of St. Mark’s church overlook a sprawling park: runners wind through the paths, children play on swing sets, café-goers spill onto the patio. A man passes by the church and stops for a moment at a headstone, crosses himself once, and passes on. The headstone is a memorial, with sixteen names and the word zašto? -“why?”- carved into its smooth surface. At the base sits a picture of a crumbling building as rescuers climb inside; someone has left yellow flowers that sit limp from recent spring rain.

“I couldn’t walk by it for a long time,” Vojka Pajkic says. Those were her friends and colleagues that it commemorates, who died 16 years ago when NATO bombed the Radio Television Serbia headquarters.

In early morning on April 23, 1999, NATO bombed RTS headquarters, in central Belgrade, in an attempt to stop the country’s propaganda. Sixteen RTS employees, who had been ordered to work that day, were killed. However, not all RTS journalists were in that building in central Belgrade.

Two weeks earlier, on Easter morning, Pajkic had been informed that she would have to leave her home indefinitely to join a group of her RTS colleagues on Mt. Kosmaj, 60 kilometers (36 miles) out of the city. For two months they waited for commands from headquarters. There were two plans: to act as a distraction for the NATO bombers to keep them away from the headquarters of the company, or to act as backup in case the RTS headquarters were bombed, and they would take up the job of broadcasting.

“We were live targets,” Pajkic remembers, sipping earl grey and smoking a cigarette in a crowded Belgrade cafe. For weeks they slept on forest floors and inside empty restaurants, living in terror as bombs dropped around them.

Spring of 1999, NATO began bombing Serbia to force the country’s then president, Slobodan Milosevic, to remove his troops from the southern Serbian province of Kosovo. Serbian troops had begun to fight rebel Kosovo Albanian fighters who were attempting to secede from Serbia.

That spring was particularly hot, but despite open windows Snezana Petrovic could never hear the bombs dropping two kilometers away. Because of the way sounds traveled through Belgrade, Petrovic, 50, was only aware of the bombs throughout Belgrade because of the way her apartment shook.

“I remember it was the most wonderful spring of all: the hottest, the sunniest, the prettiest spring,” she reminisces, drinking a glass of wine in her best friend’s kitchen, 16 years later. “Usually you don’t notice those things, you know, you keep living. Then when they are bombing, you are constantly looking at the sky… the sky was sunny for months.”

“We knew that the television building was a legitimate target for a week or more,” she recalls, having heard rumors. It wasn’t until very early on that April morning that they knew it had been attacked because they lost their television signal.

Targeting that building “was the most immoral thing they could have done,” Pajkic believes. Many throughout Yugoslavia shared her opinion as there was heavy backlash against NATO following the bombing.

Alex Radonjic, 23, grew up hearing about the bombing and the repercussions from his family and through education. He believes that after the attack, Milosevic was at his strongest.

“They were bombing us,” he says, “and so it made Milosevic look like he was right.”

“It was more symbolic,” Petrovic reflects. She too believes that when they bombed and killed civilians even those that had been anti-Milosevic became pro-Milosevic.