By Kinsley Cuen
Belgrade — When NATO drops a bomb in another country, do they hear it? Do they care? For many in Belgrade, a quick walk by the dusty shell of the Radio Television of Serbia (RTS) headquarters yields a piece of an answer to these questions.
What is left of the RTS building resembles a charred doll house. The front wall is non-existent, allowing onlookers to peek into a mangled mess of wires, twisted metal, and scorch marks. The people who once roamed the halls have been replaced by stray cats and fleets of squawking birds. Two memorials flank the sides of the building, listing those lost to the destruction. It’s not hard to imagine them wandering the now dark corridors of the building.
When the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) began a 78-day bombing campaign on March 24, 1999, Bogdan Petrovic was a journalist, interpreter, and translator for BKTV, the largest private network in the country at the time. “I was 28 to 29-year-old at the time. I had just had my first child. On the day of the bombing, the first bombs fell in the evening hours,” he said.
“We couldn’t believe the West was going to bomb Belgrade or Serbia, the heart of Europe, which had been fighting Milosevic’s political repression for a decade,” he added.
“How naïve we were.”
NATO’s bombing campaign began shortly after the UN Commission on Human Rights strongly condemned the ethnic cleansing being perpetrated in Kosovo under Serbian regime of the then President Slobodan Milosevic. NATO’s actions were not backed by the United Nations.
On April 23, 1999, NATO bombed the RTS headquarters, killing 16 employees. Situated on the edge of a popular park and surrounded by cafes, this building was highly ingrained in the day to day life of many Belgrade civilians. “When RTS was bombed, I was just around the corner. The explosion echoed loudly. I went there the next morning to see the smoking rubble,” Petrovic recalled.
“A colleague from my television station worked there part-time to make ends meet for his family,” Petrovic said, “He was annihilated that night, [he was] just 35.”
Petrovic said civilians felt like “sitting ducks” after the RTS bombing.
“It was the first time that I was afraid for my life and that of my family,” said Petrovic.
An older Belgrade couple, Gordana and Slobodan, could not help but gaze at the RTS building as they walked by one sunny afternoon. “You know, my parents lived in the house behind that building,” Gordana said indicating towards the remains of the RTS building, “And my brother worked for RTS. He missed the bombing just because his schedule was changed that day.”
“I can still feel my horror,” she said.
“It was an awful mistake,” added Slobodan.
In 2002, Dragoljub Milanović, the RTS general manager, was sentenced to ten years in prison due to his failure to evacuate employees despite having knowledge of the bombing. However, a report by the human rights advocate group, Amnesty International, stated: “NATO launched a direct attack on a civilian object… [which] therefore constitutes a war crime.”
At the 20th anniversary of the NATO bombings, the RTS remains a heartbreaking reminder of international and regional failures in accountability and protecting everyday citizens in the midst of armed conflict.