By: Isabella Cronin Favazza
BELGRADE – Tasmajdan, a park with ample foliage, ambling pedestrians, and joggers with dogs trotting alongside, sparkles in the sun. Across the street sits the charred remains of Radio Television of Serbia (RTS), transformed into a sinister-looking bird cage. Making a home in this monument to the bitter memories of Belgrade, birds flock to perch on the crippled stall dividers of an ashen bathroom and roost on broken pipes that stick out like splintered bones.
At around 2 a.m. on April 23, 1999, NATO bombed RTS, killing 16 nighttime employees.
Attempting to end the Belgrade-controlled forces’ crackdown against ethnic Albanian guerillas and civilians in Kosovo, NATO launched an aerial campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), composed of Serbia and Montenegro, attacking military compounds and other targets it argued were being used in the war. The alliance said that RTS was a propaganda tool used to gain military advantage.
The NATO bombing remains controversial, not least as it never gained approval from the UN Security Council.
Aleksandar Vasovic, a reporter for the Associated Press at the time, was three blocks away when the explosion occurred and on the scene 20 minutes after. He paces back and forth, opening and closing his office window, as he recounts the fatal moments.
“There was one ambulance and there was a man hanging, his head was down, his legs were trapped… And they were pulling out at least two bodies, maybe three, from the rubble… another ambulance came with a surgeon and they had to amputate both legs of that man… and he died later in the hospital.”
Vasovic says nearly everyone in Belgrade knew that the attack would take place.
“As far as the bombing goes, every journalist and his dog in Belgrade knew that the RTS is about to be bombed. CNN was warned not to feed from [there]… friends of ours were warning us not to go to the RTS. So, more or less all of Belgrade knew what was coming.”
Waged between Serbian forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army, the war was fought over the future of Kosovo. It was kindled by revoked autonomy of the then-Serbian southern province, as well as a decade-long repression against the ethnic Albanian population by the regime of late strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
Many believe the 16 employees were sacrificed by the Serbian regime so it could assume the mantle of victimhood. The RTS director in charge at the time, Dragoljub Milanovic, was later jailed for 10 years for not protecting his employees when he had known the RTS building was a NATO target.
Ann K. Cooper, executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists at the time, said she was especially disturbed by the RTS bombing because it violated the rules of war created at the Geneva Conventions.
“NATO’s decision to target civilian broadcast facilities not only increases the danger for reporters now working in Yugoslavia but permanently jeopardizes all journalists as noncombatants in international conflicts as provided for in the Geneva Conventions,” Cooper wrote in a letter to NATO Secretary General Javier Solana sent on April 24, 1999.
While few dispute the role of RTS in spreading misinformation for the Milosevic regime, many question whether propaganda was a weapon of war in need of stopping.
“It’s interesting that NATO attacked media houses – do you think its legitimate to bomb a propaganda house?” says Deutsche Presse-Agentur correspondent, Boris Babic.
Almost two decades on, flowers are still left to honor the dead at the monument asking the question Zasto (Why) as their families and friends keep waiting for the answer.