By Tatyana Stoyanovich
It is said that human memory is arranged in such a way that after a while it shuffles the details, building pictures that have never been in reality. But at the same time, the person is absolutely sure of them. So it turns out that we experience our past several times, thus living several lives. I do not know that my memory has been shuffled for 20 years, but I am more than sure that everything was exactly as I remember. In March 1999, I lived the ordinary life of an average young Serbian woman. And then began the NATO aggression against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Today I will tell you how I remember life in Belgrade during the bombing. My simple Belgrade life.
It all started with Plato
In March 1999, I worked as a teacher of the Serbian language and literature in a Belgrade gymnasium and studied in absentia in graduate school at the philological faculty of the University in Belgrade. On March 24, in the afternoon, we had scheduled lectures on the theory of literature. Probably, it is not necessary to emphasize that, being a working person, I attended the lectures on time, but that day I wanted to get there at any price. And not just to get there , but also to prepare for classes — to find and read Plato’s dialogue once again, so that we can take part in the discussion with fresh ideas.
After classes in school, I went not to my home, but to the library. There was no book in the library – all copies were checked out. Then I went to the bookstore. There on the shelves with the words “Philosophy” was all that was needed.
Both the library, the bookstore and the faculty are located in the very center of Belgrade. Prior to this, for several days in a row, the main TV channels had warned the population about the likelihood of a NATO attack, that it was about to start, but no one knew why. Therefore, on this day, which I remember as a quite pleasant spring day due to the weather, there were fewer people on the street than usual. Some strange atmosphere reigned: the feeling of a frozen frame. It’s as if you are going somewhere, doing everything that is usual, but you don’t have any confidence that you will do it tomorrow. And in general, there is no idea how tomorrow will come and how you should exist in this new reality.
In the bookstore it seemed that everyone needed books much more than on ordinary days. The seller kindly gave me a copy of Plato, apologized for the broken Xerox, gave me a notebook so I could start a short dialogue on the subject, showing the maximum understanding about the need for ancient philosophy in Belgrade, which suddenly arose.
At the lectures I completely plunged into the problem of real creativity and imitation. It seemed that nothing could be more important.
The evening was banal – a Spanish telenovela was shown on one of the channels. I pretended that I could not do without it, simply because the news went through the main channel. But at about 19.50 the broadcast was nevertheless interrupted: in a serious voice, the television broadcasters announced that “our country has been attacked”. It began. There was no anxiety, no thoughts, just a strange misunderstanding of how all this might look next.
Yellow grocery bags
And although there was no idea of what awaits us in the future, one thing was immediately clear: whatever it was, there is no doubt that father, brother and I will stay in Belgrade. This question was resolved a year before the start of the bombing of mine, in March 1999, already deceased, mother. In the summer of 1998 I was going to Russia – I was invited to go with the students of the RSUH on a folklore expedition to the Arkhangelsk region. Then the scenario of an air attack on the FR of Yugoslavia was already discussed with might and main, and I began to doubt the justification of my trip. “What if I go, I will spend the money, and then we will need it to save life?” I told my mother. “Do you have a lot of money there?” She asked. “Two thousand German marks.” “Well, you can’t get four adults out of Belgrade in the event of war. Which of us will we save then? ”, said mother, and closed the topic.
The next day I went to school, as usual, on schedule. There we were told that there would be no lessons until the bombings stopped – too risky for the children. We, the teachers, will be on duty once a week in groups. I left the school much earlier than usual, went on foot to the very center. Unusually good and bright was the day.
Upon arrival home, my brother and I decided, just like our neighbors, to go to the supermarket and buy everything you need in case of some large-scale disaster. No one had any idea whether bread would go to the stores, whether there would be flour and butter, meat and milk. Therefore, when we entered the main supermarket chain in our area, we saw almost empty shelves and a huge queue at the cash register. But a few days later it became clear that everything is there and everything is enough, stocks can not be created. However, in a country in which only those without which life would have stopped, people seemed to move from offices to shops. They say food heals fears. Or just a daily ritual of going to the supermarket gave people a sense of normality, of their control of their lives. Shops in those days were always full.
Once I met on the street my colleague, a teacher of geography, an amazing woman with a delicate sense of humor. As you can imagine, she returned just from the store. “Since I don’t go to work, I cook every day,” she complained. “You know, one day when some new people dig us out like Pompeii, only yellow bags from the supermarket will remain from us. They do not decompose. Their archaeologists and historians will long puzzle over what a strange civilization was there and what a sacred object they had – yellow packets, ”said a colleague. But she was right – we live in a strange time. All the beauty that our ancestors have created over the centuries will easily disappear in a well-planned air strike. And plastic bags will remain forever – dirty, faded, useless.
Abram Israel, or the story of the time torn
On the first day of NATO aggression, I do not remember the siren. The siren in our quarter for the first time howled only the next evening. When I was in the ninth grade, we were taught in civil defense lessons how to recognize an air-raid alarm. Then I thought that this is one of those unnecessary pieces of knowledge that we get in school. In a sense, I was right – having heard this once, you can’t mix it up with anything and never forget it. They taught us another thing – in the event of an air attack, open the windows. I opened a window in my room on March 25 and until June closed it only once – when the oil refinery in Pancevo was on fire.
In addition to the siren, the head of the city civil defense service announced the imminent danger of the population of Belgrade – all channels broadcast its voice. And the name of this man was Avram Israel. The whole country waited for Avram Israel to say something, although secretly from others no one believed that such a person really existed. His name and surname seemed to be unreal, mythical, like some kind of underground nickname. So that the enemy did not get and did not take away from us the good man Avram, who would say that today they were bombed, where it burns and where it is not necessary to go. When it was all over, Avram Israel was shown on a television program. The name turned out to be real, and this name, as well as the wail of the siren, I will never forget.
A bomb shelter was built in the basement of our house a few days before the bombing began. Each apartment got its place on the floor. Those who had small children received a metal bed. My father, my brother and I threw an old thick blanket over our corner, which our grandmother had repeatedly rewritten and stubbornly refused to throw it away. But we went there very rarely, doing this only when my brother, who had served in the army before that and in addition spent four months at the front in Croatia, ordered “for cover”. The first time it happened on the third day of the bombing. Next to us sat the Popoviches from the eighth floor. They were refugees from Croatia and have already seen another war – the one where the enemy and blood are before our eyes every day. “Let’s go outside,” they said. Indeed, to sit in a damp basement, not hearing or seeing anything, it was just unbearable. It was much easier to stand on the street or on the balcony and watch how the air defense works. It’s scary when you are bombed from a safe distance, when you don’t see the planes – it’s not like the eyes of the attackers. You want to resist, but there is no one to hit, you just have to sit and wait.
Peacock tails and orange suns
I could not sit at home and after a while I found a job. The main Internet provider in the country at the time was looking for volunteer translators who would translate ITAR TASS news for its website. As soon as I saw the ad, I called the phone number and started to beg to be taken there. Agreed. Every day I spent about four hours in the “information center”, sometimes after work I walked around the city and went to rallies. And before it got dark, I tried to be at home. Not because I was afraid, but because my brother and I had a ritual. The first evening siren was usually announced around eight in the evening. My brother, who loves to eat, at the first sound of a siren, took bread, butter, cheese and ham from the refrigerator and made sandwiches. “Maybe this is the last time I eat at home,” he said. And I took a towel and went to the shower. “Maybe this is the last time I take a shower at home — suddenly there will be no water or I will have to flee the city,” I said. After the shower, I sat down at the table and we had dinner.
How the air defense works, it was best to watch from the balcony. Our positions were somewhere out there among the hills behind the Lesce cemetery. At night, we could stand for hours and watch the “battles” of airplanes and air defense. Until today, I do not know exactly what the flying objects were there and how to name them correctly. But when “this” descends on the city, it looks as if a huge orange sun is falling very slowly, three times as large as the astronomical sun that gives us light and gives life. And in the direction of this orange sun stretch red and green “peacock tails”. These tails are most likely tracer shells. Sometimes they fancied how to stretch across the horizon. And with this “orange sun” in the middle. You stand so on the balcony and you realize that death itself is slowly and confidently swimming towards you.
But this is kind of incomprehensible, an intangible death that does not concern you and you are not afraid of it. You do not know where this orange sun flies, but it always seems that it flies just to you. Then, when in 2001, on May 9th, I stood on the Sparrow Hills and watched victory day, I thought how beautiful it was, recalling the monstrous beauty of the “air battles” in the black Belgrade sky.
U-turn and the grain of hope
When I was a student, say, second grade, I never thought that I could become a witness to history. It seemed that all of history was already left behind along with the Second World War, and now we have a normal and peaceful life under the reasonable guidance of Marshal Tito, which can only lead to happiness and prosperity. And the world after such a terrible war would never allow the repetition of past horrors.
But today I understand that when you become a witness of history, you do not realize this at the time. Awareness of the moment occurs much later.
When Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov turned his plane around in the middle of the Atlantic, canceling an important meeting for obtaining a US loan in Washington, and returned to Moscow, I did not know that this was a turning point in Russian-American relations. But I hoped that this would be a turning point in the modern history of Yugoslavia, in which so many lies were told about the Serbs that the Serbs themselves almost began to believe them. But my story is true.
When I came to live in Moscow in the fall of 2000, in response to the words that this unusual foreign accent is in fact Serbian, I almost always heard the same thing – “Yet, we did not protect you.” It took years for this phrase to stop being the first one heard when meeting new people. Now it sounds rare, a lot has happened in the world over the years. But I want to say one thing: even then, a few days after Primakov’s “turn”, which did not meet the expectations of a simple Belgrade young woman, I realized for myself — those who say that Russia betrayed Serbia in 1999 forget that Serbia was doomed since the moment when Bulgaria and Romania made a firm decision to join NATO, closing all air corridors.
The night when the mountain hit
In the “half-life period” of Yugoslavia, in the early 90s, there was a popular rock band “Galia” and their song, which included such words: “While you were sleeping, did you dream of how Avala was falling?” Avala is a mountain close to Belgrade. It’s not very high, but at its top is a television tower, a sort of Belgrade Ostankino. This tower was the pride of the Yugoslav builders, the tallest building of its time with a viewing platform on one of the upper floors, where I was taken as a child to “pretend to be a bird.”
For all the time of the bombing, as I said, I did not close the window and did not undress. I slept in jeans and a sweatshirt to always be ready to jump out into the street if need be. On April 29, I also lay down immediately after the siren, which reported the termination of the raid. In the middle of the night I was awakened by a strange push. The bed seemed to shake or move a little. I got up and turned on the TV – a television tower on Avala collapsed under NATO bombs, the reporter said. The pride of the Yugoslav builders was like a house of cards, waking up through some underground veins that delivered me, almost to the other end of the city, the last moments of her life.
It did not seem real to me. I am one hundred percent sure that I felt it.
Death on the air
One of the most terrible moments in the history of modern Belgrade without any doubt was the blow to the television station, in which the entire duty shift of the employees of Radio Television Serbia were killed. It happened at night, April 23rd, at two o’clock and six minutes.
Until that time, I had developed a special sense of danger. At first I woke up at the slightest sound, and then without a sound, simply because it was suddenly scary in a dream. Where was the source of danger, I did not know. Eyes opened themselves. And on April 23, the eyes opened in the middle of the night. As if by an internal command, I moved to the big room and turned on the TV. The TV answered me with gray dots and buzzing. So is the second button. I began to change channels, until I saw a terrible picture on “Politika”. The building of the Radio Television of Serbia stood cut from the first to the last floor, and in its collapsed structure, with a foot stuck somewhere between the protruding iron and concrete, a corpse hung head down. The head of the unfortunate was attached only at the spine and flapped in one way or the other, until thick blood was flowing from his head.
This was the first and last time when this frame was shown on the air. Already in the morning the announcers reported that the material, because of its unprecedented rawness, would not be repeated.
Then they said that parts of human bodies were found on the roof of the Russian church, which is located nearby. The church itself in the bombing also suffered and was closed for a long time, as cracks appeared in the walls.
My school was right behind the television building and the church. Our guard and Jack of all trades of Parliament were constantly living there with his family. The school principal immediately called Rada, he said that everyone is alive and well. In the morning he called the director himself. “I just went through all the classrooms. Not a single window, imagine, not a single window has burst. If only a crack. Everything is whole, ” he wondered.
I have a friend, one of the guys who died that night was her neighbor. She once said that for months after this tragic night, his mother begged: “give me at least something, something, something I can put in a coffin, a coffin in a grave, go to a cemetery.” It is said that from those who were in the place where the blow fell, not even molecules remained.
We have seen total darkness
Some methods and means by NATO of destroying people were tested in Yugoslavia for the first time. One of them was the so-called graphite bombs, which, after striking the thermal power plant Obrenovac, instantly de-energized a large part of the territory of Serbia.
It happened late in the evening. Suddenly the light went out at our house. I immediately rushed to the window. So we checked the scale of what is happening. If there is a light in the houses opposite, then everything is temporary. There was no light anywhere. Not a single point. Even the stars that night was not in the sky. I went to the phone – silence, no beeps. Went to the radio, powered by batteries. Buzz. Not a single radio station. And then suddenly a knock at the door. While I was thinking whether to open or not, on the other hand, a thin voice came out: “Neighbor, it’s me, Anna.” Anna was the five-year-old daughter of our first neighbor. I opened the door, and there a child with a flashlight in his hands. “Mom said that all of you should urgently go down to the basement with us,” the girl commanded. It was hard not to obey. In this pitch darkness, no one knows what awaits us, but it certainly will not be something good.
It was one of the rare nights, part of which we spent in the shelter. When we went back to the apartment, I found the only working radio station – Radio Pancevo. It turned out that they had their own generator. So we encountered graphite bombs.
From that night until the end of the bombings, a flashlight was always lying next to me in the bed, and a radio receiver was on the bedside table, at arm’s length. I hated the darkness.
For all 78 days of NATO aggression against the former Yugoslavia, Belgrade lived its own life. People gathered on the streets, stood on the bridges, protecting them from bombs. Hot weather started early, much earlier than usual. Spring hastened to turn into summer, maybe nature itself cared for people who spent the night at the open windows or, as in many places in Serbia, lost their homes. During the day, the streets were full of people, life raged, as in any other European capital. But it was enough to hear the air raid alert, and all this movement was suddenly frozen. People froze in place for a moment, so that after a couple of tens of seconds, they could continue their work.
So every time I stopped on the street at the sound of a siren. At that moment life stopped for me. For 20-30 seconds, and then continued at the same place. And since it stopped at every sound of the siren, it stopped for the whole time of the bombing. It was a period when it seemed to me that I had fallen into one continuous present, that there would be no future for me anymore. A friend from Russia called me and invited me to Moscow, “as soon as everything ends.” I laughed – what if it does not end? While the bombing was going on, no one knew how long it would all continue, whether a ground operation would begin or not, and what would happen if it began? I often thought – what does it look like when an occupier appears in your hometown?
When, 20 years later, when I was thinking about my life in Belgrade in the spring of 1999, it did not occur to me that I was scared or that I could die. I feel terribly hurt for what I could have been and wanted to become, but did not, because these events forever changed me, my country, and the world in which I live.
Published on: Mar 24, 2019 @ 20:52