RTS bombing still haunts Belgrade 16 years later

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by Nick Dye

BELGRADE – Clouds hang over Radio Television of Serbia. Light rain falls over the nearly-16-year-old scar from the NATO bombing campaign. It appears that no efforts have been made to clear the debris. The only apparent addition to the site over the past two decades is a single white security camera.

Across the parking lot from the site stands a memorial no bigger than a mailbox. At the top of the stone plaque in the largest font reads, “Zašto?” – the Serbian word for why. It’s a question many Serbs ask themselves standing here in Tasmajdan Park.

Two lines below on a list of 16 victims reads the name “Ksenija Bankovic, 27, Vision Mixer.” For Bogodan Mrkobrada, this name strikes deep.

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Mrkobrada has worked at RTS for 37 years as a Vision Mixer. During the 78-day NATO campaign, he and his wife, Olivera, continued to work in Belgrade. He remembers driving past the Yugoslav Ministry of Defense and 15 minutes later it was demolished by NATO Air Force bombardment.

Most of all, he recalls April 23, 1999. The day before he had worked at 12 hour shift until 8am on April 22. He was rewarded the night off the following day, considerably good timing.

Mrkobrada remembers the exact minute the bombs fell on RTS – 2:06 am. At that very moment, he was watching RTS and the picture abruptly went black. At that moment, he knew, undoubtedly, his office had been attacked.

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Sixteen minutes later he was at the site. “There was still fire and smoke and everything was burning and nobody knew if there were dead people,” he says. A search began immediately; he looked for Ksenija, a young colleague and friend. Nobody knew if the staff had been evacuated before or if they were inside during the attack.

Bankovic’s parents had called Mrkobrada asking if he knew where she was, he couldn’t say at the time. As many as16 people died that night, Ksenija Bankovic being one of the youngest.

Under a rough diagram of the attack location Mrkobrada drew, he wrote “Zasto.” He too asks himself the question haunting Belgrade’s past because, he says, journalists never physically harmed anyone here.

By the memorial, a young man casually walked past. He was two-years-old at the time he called “a crime by NATO,” an opinion commonly held by the people of Belgrade.

Another young man was walking his dog through the park. He was 9 when the bombs fell. His grandfather, like Mrkobrada, worked for RTS as director of lighting and out of “pure luck” wasn’t working that day.

He drew parallels to the January 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, when 12 people were killed, most of whom journalists and cartoonists. “In the essence, it’s the same thing, you kill a dozen journalists, you’re not killing army soldiers, you’re not killing terrorists, but it doesn’t make sense really.” While that comparison is being made all over Serbia, he claims foreign papers don’t give it any thought. He says the western world “simply swept it under the carpet.”

Again he said, “it just doesn’t make sense.” The people who worked here were not aggressors; they simply supported their families from which they were taken, he said.