A painful reminder, 17 years after Serbia’s broadcaster was bombed

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Graffiti found at the base of the RTS building saying “For victims of 1999". Photo: Meredith Howe

By Meredith Howe

BELGRADE, The grey, billowing clouds suspended directly over the worn building matched the atmosphere around the Serbian state broadcaster perfectly. They brought a tone of melancholy to the building that still sits gaping open with a flock of birds flying from inside to out at sounds unheard. The building is a stark reminder to Belgrade and to visiting tourists of the city’s turbulent and, for many, painful past.

Torn open for all to see, the bombed building of Radio Television of Serbia (RTS) is a mess of faded red brick and plaster, weather-beaten and crumbling with wires hanging from the ceilings of the five floors.

It is a juxtaposition to the other well-maintained RTS buildings flanking it, one of which is a modern glass construction.

The bombed RTS building with the other buildings comprising RTS on both sides. Photo: Meredith Howe
The bombed RTS building with the other buildings comprising RTS on both sides. Photo: Meredith Howe

The RTS building has been left in pieces since the NATO bombings in 1999, intentionally or not as a wound to tell outsiders of the pain visited on the city. The bombing campaign by NATO sought to end the bloody conflict between Serbia and independence-seeking Kosovo, which was the site of ethnic cleansing by Serbian forces. RTS was hit because it was seen by the West as the mouthpiece of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. NATO claims it targeted the building in order to undermine Milosevic’s influence.

Sixteen staff members, including security guards, cameramen and technicians were killed at the station when the building was hit on April 23, 1999.

Maja Derikonjic’s friend was one of them.

“He was a doorman, not a journalist, not a technician, only a doorman. He had a young daughter at home. He had no reason to die,” Derikonjic said.

According to Balkan Insight, there have been calls for investigations to determine whether Milosevic ignored the warnings given about the attack on the station so the civilian causalities could be used as propaganda against the NATO intervention. Dragoljub Milanovic, the head of RTS at the time of the bombing, was sentenced to 10 years in prison by a Belgrade district court for not evacuating the people in the building despite knowing it would be bombed.

“People were literally, deliberately sacrificed,” Derikonjic said.

The bombing campaign targeted strategically significant locations such as the military complex in downtown Belgrade and bridges throughout Serbia.

Close to the RTS building rests a simple grey stone with the word Zasto? – Serbian for Why? – carved into it beside the names of those killed and a picture of the dust settling after half the building fell; all as a memorial to the loss Serbia felt that night.

RTS Victims Memorial asking “Why?” with a picture of the building being hit by the bomb. Photo: Meredith Howe
RTS Victims Memorial asking “Why?” with a picture of the building being hit by the bomb. Photo: Meredith Howe

Rights groups at the time condemned the bombing as a deliberate attack on a civilian building that could constitute a war crime.

“People couldn’t believe this bombing was possible because we live in Europe. Plus, it was in the center of town, I thought ‘it won’t happen,’” Derikonjic said. “Not at work. Not at a place where people make their living,” she said over coffee, looking out the apartment window into the Belgrade night. Derikonjic was 29 at the time of the bombing and a new mother of two.

Yet, with Derikonjic’s belief that the deaths were unnecessary, she also believes the building should not be fixed nor torn down but stay as it is. “It is a good historical moment and memory to see and be reminded of.”

Her 19-year-old son Pavle, however, disagrees. He went to a high school across the street from RTS and saw it almost on a daily basis. It reminds him of an era he wishes wasn’t still affecting him, the bombings he knew to fear, even at two years old. “I think they have to fix it,” he said. “It’s ugly.”