By Claire Taylor
Belgrade, Bogdan Mrkobrada sits cross-legged, taking long draws on his cigarette. The look in his eyes is heavy but his voice is full of passion as he recalls a painful day 18 years ago.
Sixteen of Mrkobrada’s colleagues were killed when NATO bombed the Radio Television of Serbia (RTS) offices early in the morning on April 23, 1999.
“They were just doing their jobs,” said Mrkobrada with pain in his voice.
The bombing was part of NATO’s campaign to end Serbia’s crackdown on the ethnic Albanians seeking independence in its southern province of Kosovo. The Serb forces were under the control of the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, then the president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
The television station was targeted because NATO said Milosevic’s regime was using the station as a propaganda machine and weapon of war. RTS at the time was a mouthpiece of the regime and in 2011 its management issued a public apology for what it admitted had been hate speech in 1990s.
The justification was not enough to convince the international community. According to a Washington Post article written the day after the bombing, NATO member France was initially reluctant to agree to the strike over concerns of its legality, and human rights watchdog Amnesty International has since called the bombing a war crime for its targeting of a media outlet.
The part of the RTS offices destroyed by the strike have not been repaired, and today it stands like an open wound facing Tasmajdan Park and the towering redbrick Church of St Mark in central Belgrade. The wires are frayed, damaged piping and brick is exposed, the ceiling has collapsed in some places, and birds fly in and out of this destruction they have made their home.
The building’s ruins, as well as a nearby small stone memorial to the victims that asks the question “Why?”, above a list of the victims, allow passersby to remember and reflect.
But Mrkobrada has no trouble remembering that night. “I will never forget,” he said.
He was watching the RTS station on April 23 when the screen went black. “I immediately knew what happened. There had been rumors, but we did not think it would actually be bombed,” he said.
Ksenija Bankovic, a 27-year-old vision mixer and close friend of Mrkobrada, was working that night. Mrkobrada immediately rushed to RTS to search for Bankovic. “When I got there, it was smoking and I could see bodies hanging from the building. I went to find her and searched for her all night. Her parents were calling me, but I didn’t know where she was. She was eventually declared dead after they found a piece of her sock, but her body was never found,” he said.
Mrkobrada asks the same questions as members of the international community who question the legitimacy of the strike.
“Why bomb the house of TV? Those people just worked there. It wasn’t their fault. They just put on the TV what they are told, and it’s not just political. I just keep asking ‘why’,” he said with anger in his voice.
As children’s laughter rings throughout Tasmajdan Park and a couple beams as they pose for their wedding photos, a woman leads her young granddaughter to the memorial to the victims of RTS.
The woman reads the names of the victims to her granddaughter, and they pause to gaze at the building’s ruins before continuing with their day.
But for others, the bloody wars of the 1990s are best left in the past.
“We are just trying to forget and move on,” said Vladimir Kostic, a 42-year-old Belgrader as he casually sipped his morning coffee.