Still an Open Wound: Radio Television of Serbia

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By Emma Woods

BELGRADE, The headquarters to the Serbian public broadcaster is startlingly incompatible with its surroundings.  It is not every day you see a bombed out building in a modern city. It sits between two other public broadcasting buildings made of glass and steel, which amplifies the peculiarity of the crumbling red brick structure.

The Radio Television of Serbia (RTS) building in central Belgrade stands as a visible structural scar, memorializing the NATO bombings of 1999.

“To me it represents an open wound which will still take long time to heal, a cut in the urban flesh, a place of disturbed reality,” said Iskra Krstic, a Belgrade architect.

Radio Television Serbia facade. Photo: Emma Woods
Radio Television Serbia facade. Photo: Emma Woods

She was 17 at the time of the bombings.  The area holds a lot of symbolism for her. “In the first few days I felt sheer horror, which was soon replaced by a kind of a claustrophobic feeling of being separated from the rest of the world,” Krstic said via email.

By March of 1999 former Yugoslavia had seen its fair share of war.  The conflict involved Serbia and independence-seeking ethnic Albanians in what was then the Serbian province of Kosovo.  The war showed no signs of slowing down, and with allegations of ethnic cleansing mounting, NATO decided an air campaign against Serbia was necessary to stop the violence.

Most of NATO’s targets were military, police, or intelligence gathering buildings.  Anything thought to be critical to former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic’s ability to maintain political and military control of Serbia.

NATO upped the ante, however, by putting the state run Radio Television of Serbia on the list of targets.

When the dust cleared, 16 people were dead and 18 were injured.

“It’s important to say that all of the people who were killed were not journalists.  They were technical staff,” said Slobodan Momcilovic.  He was a cameraman working for CNN during the 1990s.  Momcilovic had been in RTS earlier that day, but CNN was informed that the station was a potential target so it pulled its crews out.

A memorial to the television technician killed in the bombing of RTS. Photo: Emma Woods
A memorial to the television technician killed in the bombing of RTS. Photo: Emma Woods

Criticism of the bombing was almost immediate.  “The bombing of the headquarters of Serbian state radio and television was a deliberate attack on a civilian object and as such constitutes a war crime,” said Amnesty International.

Thinking about that day is sobering for Momcilovic, even 17 years after the bombing.  When asked if he knew any of those people killed or injured his face fell.

“All of them,” he said flatly.

Momcilovic struggles with the subject of the bombing.  CNN was informed of the bombing, yet countless others were told to come into work that day.  He is left with many questions about who is responsible for his friends’ deaths.

The director of RTS at the time, Dragoljub Milanovic, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for failing to evacuate employees before the impending air strike.

Krstic also wonders who is to blame for the tragedy, saying “Milanovic was one of the culprits for the slaughtering of 16 employees of RTS – but I also believe that there were more people to be sentenced for this crime, in Serbia and abroad.”

For Momcilovic, no reconciliation will come out of the trauma the bombings caused.

“All the actors and the people involved are still in the game and here in the public scene right now, so there is no hope that they will be prosecuted.”