Remembering the 1999 NATO Bombing of Radio Television Serbia

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By Carolyn Paletta

BELGRADE, The charred, naked facade of a four-story structure stands out from an ordinary row of buildings. The wall has been ripped off, exposing each floor of the destitute interior to the public eye as pigeons fly in and out with free rein.

On the night of April 23, 1999, NATO fired a single missile into the former headquarters of Radio Television Serbia (RTS), killing 16 people working inside.

The bombing was part of a 78-day raid on the capital city of Serbia to end the conflict between Serbia and Albanians in Kosovo.

Marina Hinić lived in an apartment 10 minutes down the road from the RTS building when the attack occurred.

“It was very loud, and it was very terrible,” Hinić reflected. “We didn’t expect that we could have that experience in these years, especially because we are in Europe.”

Nearly two decades later, the tattered building remains unrepaired, standing crooked and disheveled on the perimeter of Tašmajdan Park in Belgrade. An active parking lot divides the viewer from the ruins and the surrounding buildings conceal its remains.

Typical passersby show signs of recognition as they pass the building. Dog walkers gaze up as their pets explore the grassy surrounding. Parents often point out the ruins to their children.

One old man named Sasha is staring silently at the RTS building. He barely speaks English, but he musters the three words on the tip of a lot of Serbian tongues: “Why bomb building? Why.”

Memorial plaque commemorating the victims of the NATO bombing and asking the question: Why? | Photo: Carolyn Paletta
Memorial plaque commemorating the victims of the NATO bombing and asking the question: Why? | Photo: Carolyn Paletta

Zašto. The question, Serbian for “Why”, is written in large, dark letters on a memorial plaque commemorating the victims of the attack. Sixteen names are listed, representing victims who working as makeup artists, technicians and cameramen when their lives were abruptly cut short by the bombing.

NATO justified the bombing by categorizing the highly biased, government-operated media broadcasts as a form of weaponry serving military purposes. The 2003 Yearbook of International Law notes that NATO considered RTS “an important contribution to the propaganda war which orchestrated the campaign against the population of Kosovo”.

American diplomat Richard Holbrooke’s widely-quoted reaction to the bombing reflects this sentiment: “One of the three key pillars [of the war machine in Serbia], along with the security forces and the secret police, have been at least temporarily removed and it is an enormously important and, I think, positive development.”

Another common question is why the building was not evacuated in the first place.

In 2002, the general manager of RTS, Dragoljub Milanović, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for failing to evacuate the building when he knew it was a potential NATO target. Many blame the government for risking the workers lives to “score a propaganda coup against NATO should they be the killed”, as written in the New York Times.

“I think the Serbian government holds a lot of responsibility because they had to have known that the RTS building may be bombed,” Hinić said. “I think they can warn the workers before the bombing, and in that way can avoid the innocent victims.”

No international criminal investigation was opened over the attack. Though this chapter is closed for the international community, the RTS building remains a physical manifestation of the scars of war and the innocent lives taken in the name of peace.

“I think that in war, all sides think that you can bomb everything because victory is the only thing that matters,” Hinić said. “The victims are nowhere.”