By Dominick Scafidi
BELGRADE, A stark memorial to the 1999 NATO intervention in Serbia sits between a modern blue glass structure and an older white stucco building just behind St. Mark’s Church, one of Belgrade’s most famous landmarks, abutting the central Tasmajdan Park.
The ruins of the Radio Television Serbia (RTS) building are a stark contrast to the well-manicured Tasmajdan Park. Kids blissfully play in the park in the shadow of the building. Nearly 20 years have passed and yet, the structure remains unchanged.
The ruins are ghostly: missing an exterior wall, years of weather and exposure have decayed the interior to an apocalyptic scene. Pigeon nests are visible in the ravaged structure.
In the early hours of April 23, 1999 NATO fired a missile at the RTS building as part of a 78-day air campaign to force former President Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw his forces from Kosovo. The explosion killed 16 workers.
It’s an event seared into Belgrader’s memories.
“Every night we would sit together, watch movies, play cards, and tell stories. I wanted be with friends while the bombs fell,” says Vesna Milic, 59. She spent her nights with friends Bogdan and Olivera Mrkobrada during the bombing campaign. Bogdan was a Video Mixer at RTS and many nights Vesna would keep Olivera company while he worked.
Vesna stayed at her mother’s flat on the night of April 23. The RTS building was directly visible. Air raid sirens went off as darkness fell and she went to sleep.
Around 2:06am Vesna woke up to three loud bangs, a commotion in the flat, and a very bright light. She walked out on her balcony and saw the RTS building in flames. “I heard the explosions, I saw the fire, I physically felt the bombs go off,” she says.
Nemanja Kovacevic, 37, is a neighborhood resident. He turned 20-years-old the week RTS was bombed. The event cast a dark shadow over his birthday and his childhood memories. “Growing up I played in Tasmajdan Park, right by RTS. I ran up and down it, I know every square centimeter of it. The bombing of RTS killed those memories,” he said.
The grounds that Nemanja played on as a child are now home to a memorial commemorating the bombing. Zašto, written in large dark letters on the memorial plaque, asks a simple but poignant “why?”
NATO claimed their objective in targeting RTS was to shut down Serbian media’s violent incitement. NATO command believed Milosevic was using RTS to broadcast propaganda during the Kosovo war. Within the coalition there was hesitation about targeting RTS. According to the Washington Post, France was reluctant to approve the strike questioning its legality and legitimacy.
There’s no debate in Belgrader’s mind. Both Vesna and Nemanja believe that the RTS bombing was a major crime. “It was a crime and not a mistake. Innocent people died. People that were openly against Milosevic died,” Vesna said.