FROM BELGRADE, SERBIACAPITAL OF THE FREE WORLD
April 14 - 20, 1999
1. Saying Goodbye to Family
PHOENIX, NEW YORK, Apr. 14, 1999 - When the war started three weeks ago, I was ready to travel to Serbia so as to demonstrate my solidarity with the Serbian people by a physical presence there. But my Belgrade friends, such as the Radio Belgrade editor Dusan Markovic, talked me out of it. They felt that I can make a greater contribution by reporting on the war from the U.S. First, because I would have access to more information sources; second because the telecommunication lines are better and faster. And so I did, working 16-18 hours every day, spewing out one or two TiM Bulletins every day.
My friends were right. Within a couple of weeks, the Truth in Media web site was bombarded by visitors' hits as Serbia was being raked over by NATO bombs. The TiM site was ranked #33 in the world out of some 40 million web sites in existence at the time. The Truth in Media was helping break the chokehold on the "truth" that the establishment media were feeding the American people. That's when I felt I could take some time off to go to Serbia and give my reports even more credibility through eyewitness accounts of the war scenes.
I consulted again with my family and friends before making the final decision. My Belgrade friends were still against it, but said they would help me if I insisted on coming there. The Yugoslav ambassador to the United Nations, Vladislav Jovanovic, welcomed the idea. He said he would help me get the visa in Budapest if I decided to go.
My younger daughter, Emily, then a junior in college, broke down in tears on the phone. "You're my only Dad," was all she could think of saying. But my elder daughter, Tanja Anne, then working as an investment banker for JP Morgan on Wall Street, thought I should go. She had been taking time off work to attend all the anti-war rallies in New York and on weekends traveled to Washington, too. She was also helping me with news clips from the various wire services that she had access to at JP Morgan. My ex-wife, who used to acquiesce to everything I did, well... also acquiesced to my going to Serbia as well.
And so I decided to go. While waiting to board my flight to Budapest at the JFK airport in New York, I was stunned to see my elder daughter in the lounge. She had taken the afternoon off work to come and say goodbye to me and wish me good luck. We only had a few minutes to talk before I had to board the flight. But her presence there spoke more to me than any words could have said.
Once in Budapest, I took a taxi straight to the Yugoslav embassy where they were waiting for me. I met briefly with the ambassador whom the Yugoslav UN ambassador had alerted about my plans. While we were chatting, his staff stamped a visa into my passport. It was all very irregular. Normally getting a visa is quite an involved procedure for an American, and in wartime, it's practically unheard of. Well, my stay at the embassy took less than half an hour.
2. Game of Chicken on the Danube Bridge
Then I was back at the airport, where I was to pick up a mini-van ground transport to Belgrade. That's normally about a 5-6 hour-drive (see the map). This time, however, with all the checkpoints and delays, it took nearly 8 hours. My fellow-travelers were an interesting group. I was the only foreigner. The rest of them had Yugoslav passports. All three thought that it was very odd that at a time when most of the Serbs were trying to figure out a way to exit the country and leave the war behind, an American would be going in.
I spent most of my time talking to the driver. He was a former soccer player who still looked to be in a pretty good physical shape. So we talked sports, life in Belgrade under the bombs, and, of course, politics. The Belgrade radio was blaring news reports about the war all the time. Once we got to the bridge over the river Danube near Novi Sad, the driver stopped the car.
"Okay," he said. "Now everybody start praying!"
We all knew why. This was the only remaining bridge. The rest of them were all knocked out by NATO's bombs in the previous several days. It was just a matter of time before this one was also hit. And that could happen any time, including while we are crossing it. So doing it was a sort of a game of chicken.
The driver crossed himself and gunned the van. We were the only car on the bridge. Inside, everybody tensed up. To break the tension a little bit, I asked the driver what all those tires were doing along the curbs of the bridge.
"They burn them to distract the smart bombs off course," he replied matter-of-factly.
"They do what?"
"Apparently the thick smoke of burning tires throws off the navigation systems of Tomahawk missiles," the former soccer player explained as if he were a military expert. Guess in wartime, people learn quickly the things they need to know to survive.
We made it across without an incident. The following night, the bridge was destroyed. There were no more bridges left around Novi Sad to cross the Danube. "It will be interesting how I will have to go back," I pondered. "Hopefully not by boat in these frigid waters."
3. No Place to Hide
The Hotel Intercontinental staff were used to seeing me there during the Croatian and Bosnian wars when I was practically the only foreign guest staying at the hotel. So none of them were surprised when I walked into the lobby.
"Welcome back, Mr. Djurdjevic," the doorman said. "We figured we'd see you again one of these days, now that the bombs are falling again."
I got similar comments from the staff inside. All of them were cheerful, some even boisterous about standing up to the enemy.
"I am sorry, Mr. Djurdjevic, but the CNN crew have rented your suite," the front desk clerk said. Indeed, during the Bosnian wars they always kept the same corner suite on the executive floor for me - #701. It wasn't a hard thing to do. I was usually the only guest on the floor. "So we'll have to put you up at the fourth floor corner suite - #401," the clerk added.
"No problem," I said. "If a bomb hits the hotel, I don't think it will make much difference what floor I am on."
Suddenly, I realized that some of that swagger went out of the staff's body language. It is one thing to sound brave and boisterous when the bombs are falling somewhere else in the city. But my comment seems to have struck home... that we could all also be targets here at the Intercontinental. (A few days later, the nearby Hotel Yugoslavia was hit, as was a tall office building very close to the Intercontinental Hotel - see a Belgrade "postcard," right - "One of NATO Souvenirs," taken a year later).
It did not take me long to realize that I had "a room with a view." As my first live nighttime raid began, I was able to watch the streaks of anti-aircraft artillery rounds light up the sky over Belgrade (see the photo). But it was the sounds of explosions that are the most frightening (click on the links below to listen).
Yet no recording device can quite reproduce the terror that an exploding bomb strikes in a human being. The level of noise is absolutely incredible. It's like nothing that I have ever heard before. You feel as if your ear drums will shatter. And yet none of the bombs hit even within half a mile of where I was. I could just imagine what it's like to be really close to the strike zone. Terrifying!
Interestingly, I felt no fear. Instead, I felt anger rising in me anew, watching my hometown burn. "Bastards," I thought, thinking of Clinton, Albright, Gen. Clark and other marionettes of the New World Order who were terrorizing innocent civilians like that, so they can play their geopolitical monopoly games.
And then I wrote about it. And wrote about it. And millions of people around the world read the reports, as I subsequently found out from the number of hits the TiM web site was receiving. And then they got angry, too. And joined in to protest the war at rallies in Washington, DC, among others (see March on the Pentagon; June 6, 1999).
The phone in my room rang. A strange male voice was on the line. "Is this Mr. Djurdjevic?" the caller asked.
"And who wants to know?" I replied brusquely, always cognizant of spies spying on spies in situations like this.
The caller introduced himself as General Such and Such of the Yugoslav Army.
"How did you know I was here?" I asked.
"Your sister told me. We knew that you were coming (I supposed from the UN and Budapest ambassadors), so we called your sister figuring she'd know how we could reach you."
"And what can I do for you?"
"Well, it's kind of hard to talk on the open lines like this one, but I wonder if you could meet with us tomorrow morning?"
"What for? What do you want to talk about?"
"As I said, I can't say on the phone. But we understand that there has been a meeting today in Washington between some Serbs and President Clinton and since you are an American with good connections, we thought you may be able to help us find out more about it."
"Okay," I said. "I'll see what I can do."
I then dialed a number in Washington, DC. Bingo. The person I talked to had just come back from that White House meeting. He told me all about it (see "Clinton Pleads to Serbian-Americans for Help", Apr 16, 1999).
I called the Serbian general back and told him all I knew. He seemed shocked.
"My God, you work fast!" he exclaimed. "That's incredible. We've been trying all day to find out what happened and kept striking out. And you did it in just a few minutes. But please don't say anything more on an open line. Can we meet in the morning? We'll send a car for you."
Of course, I was going to "say things on an open line." That's what war correspondents do. Dig out the truth and report it. So I then went on to write up the above TiM Bulletin about Clinton pleading for help.
So the meeting next morning was an anti-climax. But it was interesting to talk to the top two Yugoslav Army generals who were in charge of the country's military intelligence. So I sort of turned tables on them to get some more information about how the war was going. It seemed only fair. They seem to be grateful for the White House news I dug out and filled me in quite extensively about the deception tactics they were using. It was only years later that such information became public knowledge (see "How Serb Dummies Fooled NATO Dummies," June 1999, and "NATO's Secret Losses," Aug 2006).
5. Card-carrying War Correspondent
Later in the day, I was picked up at the hotel by one of my Belgrade media friends. He took me straight to the Yugoslav Army media center in downtown Belgrade. Without further ado, I was issued there an official war press ID card. Even though I have been traveling to and reporting from the various Balkans war zones for eight years now, I was now officially a card-carrying "war correspondent." :-)
"This should come handy," my friend explained, so you don't have to show anyone your American passport at various checkpoints."
And indeed, it had proven itself to be quite useful. In wartime, checkpoints are everywhere. And while my name was fairly well known in Serbia by that time, still there were no guarantees that every Joe military guard would know it or even care, if he saw someone carrying an American (i.e., enemy passport). The card cam handy in a couple of days, when I left Belgrade to travel into the interior of the country.
The ID card ended up being an interesting wartime souvenir, along with the decorations pinned on me by Generals Perisic and Pavkovic, the former heads of the Yugoslav Army whom I met in Belgrade and in Nis, and several other "artifacts" one sometimes brings home from the fields of devastation, such as my worn out, threadbare "Bosnia boots," as my family used to call them.
6. Ennobling Effects of War
Two days later, I was walking along one of the busiest thoroughfares in Belgrade, the Kneza Milosa Street, where most of the western embassies are located (see Belgrade photo album). Suddenly, a van came to a screeching stop, almost causing an accident, as several other cars behind it had to hit the breaks, too. A man jumped out of the van and ran toward me, waving frantically. I recognized my driver from Budapest to Belgrade, the former soccer player.
"Mr. Bob, so good to see you, my friend!" he said, embracing me warmly as if I were a long lost relative. "How is it going?"
I told him I was taking pictures of the bombed-out buildings and defaced western embassies.
"Just keep on reporting to Americans the truth about us," he said. "God bless you for the work you're doing." And then he ran back to the van.
Now, if something like that had happened in, say, New York or Chicago, or even in pre-war Belgrade, there would have been a cacophony or blaring horns by angry drivers in the cars behind the van, protesting the delay in traffic. Not a peep this time. Everybody waited patiently until the former soccer player got back behind his wheel and drove on.
Wartime conditions change people, often for the better. They become more courteous to each other; more sympathetic; more understanding. It's interesting, I thought, how something as brutal as wanton mass destruction of buildings and lives can have such an ennobling effect on people. Guess there is a certain comradery among the victims; a unity in suffering that makes them cut each other more slack than would have been the case under normal peacetime conditions.
As I walked further down Kneza Milosa Street toward the Ministry of the Interior building that was destroyed a couple of weeks ago (see the photos below), I noticed that all the shop and apartment windows had masking tape on them. That's so as to help minimize the shards that fly when the air pressure from exploding bombs shatters the glass. Sometimes this secondary shrapnel can be more dangerous that bullets.
I also saw notices posted everywhere that the curfew was at 16:00 (4PM). After that, no shops or restaurants stayed open. That's so as to prevent large numbers of people being killed in the event an establishment was hit by a bomb. During the first three weeks of NATO attacks, bombings took place at night. But that has changed changed. April 16, my third day in Belgrade, saw the first daytime NATO bombing (see "Facing Air Raids with Patriarch").
7. Partying under Bombs
Late in the afternoon on my third day in Belgrade, I met with the Russian deputy ambassador at their embassy. I had known Shershakov and his wife from my prior visits, when I would meet with ambassadors or top diplomats of the U.S., Britain, Canada, France and Russia embassies every time I came to Belgrade. I was introduced to Shershakov, though, through a writer-friend, who also hosted a geopolitical show on Serbian TV on which I appeared occasionally. As is the case with most Russian diplomats, the No. 2 at the Russian embassy was an extremely cultured and well-educated man with whom you could talk about any subject - from poetry, to theater, to sports, to war and politics. His wife was a physicist with a PhD in nuclear science.
"How is Olga doing?" was the first thing I inquired.
"Oh, she is fine," Shershakov replied. "Thank you for asking." All embassy staff and families, except for the essential personnel, were evacuated back to Russia at the start of the war, he explained. "So she is at our apartment in Moscow, fretting about me," he added with a smile.
Well, at least the Russians (and the Chinese) had some skeleton staff left. The only skeletons left in the western embassies were those of the Clinton and Albright effigies the demonstrators may have burned (see the Belgrade photo album), or the lingering ghosts of the ambassadors who double-crossed their allies in two world wars (the Serbs).
In happier times, Shershakov, his wife, my writer-friend and his spouse, my elder daughter and I used to dine in the beautiful garden of the Writer's Club in Belgrade, such as in June 1998, for example. So we reminisced a little bit about that, before deciding on where to eat dinner this time.
"I know a place near the cemetery," Shershakov said. "The owner used to run a restaurant in Moscow. He won't mind having us past the curfew."
"Near the cemetery" meant near the main Belgrade Cemetery where all of my maternal ancestors (Bogdanovic's) are buried. "At least they won't have to carry us far if the restaurant is hit," I joked.
It's funny how in wartime levity is almost as necessary is oxygen. Laughter relaxes the body and eases the mind. And so, as the first air raid sirens sounded, Shershakov pulled his car out of the Russian embassy garage, and drove it personally toward the cemetery (in peacetime, he would have had a chauffer; but no driver would have been crazy enough to drive around the city past the curfew hour while the bombs and AAA rounds provide the background music).
The restaurant was actually a private house whose main floor was converted into a small and intimate bistro. The owner evidently lived in the upstairs apartment. The building was atop a small hill overlooking Belgrade. It was a great place from which to watch the deadly fireworks, I noted as we entered it.
A fairly large man in his late 30s-early 40s was standing in the doorway, smiling ear-to-ear. He stretched out his arms, and gave me a big hug. "Welcome, Mr. Djurdjevic! Long time no see."
And then the penny dropped. This was Rade, the head waiter at the Writer's Club in 1989, during my first visit to my home town after a 20-year exile. When I came back with my family a year later, Rade also waited on us during a particularly violent thunderstorm that rattled windows and blew curtains around as we dined on delicious Serbian specialties. After that, he apparently left for Moscow where he opened his own restaurant. It all worked out well until the Russian mafia found out about his successful little enterprise. So rather than pay for "protection" or end up with a bullet to his head, Rade came back to Belgrade and opened this place.
I returned his hug. I was really glad to see him again. I had fond memories of his cheerful disposition and friendly service 10 years ago. His broad smile revealed a genuinely kind soul behind it.
"How are your two daughters doing?" Rade asked, as we took our coats off.
"Oh, they're fine," I said. "Thank you for asking. The older one has graduated now from the university and is working in New York now. The younger one is due to graduate next year."
"My, oh, my... how quickly they grow up, don't they?" Rade mused. "They were such cute young blonde girls when I last saw them."
"Well, at least that hasn't changed," I smiled. "They're re still blonde."
We ordered some drinks. Rade joined us at the table for a while while his head waiter went behind the bar to prepare them. We were his only guests for the night, and maybe for the week, or weeks, who knows. After all, the curfew was supposed to be in effect.
The next several hours ended up being some of the most surreal moments etched in my wartime memories. Just like that summertime storm thundered around the Writer's Club 10 years ago, a discordant symphony of war raged outside on this April night. Inside the restaurant, however, the four men drank, talked, sang and ate their fears away. Just like in Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," the music they made was punctuated with occasional thunderous explosions of NATO bombs and the anti-aircraft machine gun fire, which obviously originated from some place close to us. Neither of us got drunk but we had a great time. It was a wartime party for the ages. I almost resented the silence that followed after the NATO show was over for the night.
It was late at night by the time Shershakov drove me back to my hotel through deserted Belgrade streets. I admired his calmness even though we were blatantly violating the curfew. And it seemed the feeling was mutual. The following day, he arrived at my hotel unannounced to personally deliver to me a bottle of the finest vodka Mother Russia can make. He dropped it off at the front desk and left before I could see him. His handwritten note that accompanied the bottle was quite moving. It spoke about courage in terms of the cream rising to the top when the chips are down.
I have not seen Shershakov since. But if I met him again today, I am sure we would pick up right from where we left off on that cold April night in Belgrade. Wartime bonds between men are the strongest and longest lasting of any male friendships, in my experience.
After the war, I came back to that restaurant with my family members and friends a number of times. The food was always great, and Rade, the host and his staff cheerful and friendly. But I missed the NATO bombs to provide the "atmosphere." Isn't that bizarre?
8. Trying to Stay Sane amid Wartime Madness
By the time my brother-in-law came to pick me up at the hotel and take me to Sremska Mitrovica for a short overnight visit to see my mother and sister, it was again close to curfew. But we made it through numerous checkpoints and arrived at my sister's house before dark. I then walked over to a nearby apartment building where my mother lived.
She was no stranger to war. As a young girl, she and her five siblings and her mother were Serbian refugees in Kosovo (1916-1918), while my grandfather fought with the Serbian army in Greece, before returning to drive the Germans and the Austrians out in 1918. During World War II, she and my father were also in exile in Eastern Serbia, where my father, with a military rank of captain but wearing civilian garbs, worked undercover for the anti-Nazi resistance. This time around, however, even at the tender age of 89, she sounded more militant than I ever remember her. She cursed NATO and the loud air raid siren that was mounted atop her apartment building.
I didn't stay long. I didn't come to Serbia to socialize. Soon enough NATO war planes reminded me of that. As I returned to my sister's house, one could already hear the rumble of distant explosions. Then they came closer. My sister's house is a couple of hundred yards from the bridge over the river Sava that we thought would be a potential target. There were also some other industrial and military sites nearby. When I opened the entrance door, I saw my brother-in-law cowering at the end of the hallway. He was visibly upset. Nightly bombings do take a toll on people's nerves. They are a form of psycho-terrorism even if they don't kill or maim.
I proceeded to set up my laptop connection to the phone line in the hallway so I could be close to the door and watch the air raid in progress and post dynamically eyewitness reports to the TiM web site. Then I had an idea.
"Sveta," I told my brother-in-law. "I could use your help." I didn't really need him, but thought that if I made him feel useful, it would take his mind off the fear of dying. "Would you mind standing on the outside porch and describing to me what you see while I type my reports?"
He agreed. He seemed relieved to be doing something useful. And so was I.
We spent the next few hours working like that in tandem. As I was filing these reports, I was also downloading hundreds of e-mails I had been getting from all over Serbia and around the world (I used to get well over a thousand e-mails every day, and had to hire an assistant by the end of the war - my younger daughter - to filter them for me). So I was also sharing other news reports with my sister and brother-in-law. It looked like both Novi Sad and Pancevo were being hit hard that night. The reports described the fires that were raging out of control in the oil refineries in those two cities. When I received some pictures, I also share those with my sister and her husband.
They became so engrossed in my job that they ignored the air raid outside. The fear had drained away from my brother-in-law's face, replaced by curiosity that wartime reports tend to awaken in people. The bridge over the river Sava was not hit that night. In fact, it survived the entire war intact. But several nearby military installations were struck. One night watchman was killed in one of them. So overall, it wasn't a bad night, as far as war goes.
(Funny how banal death can become... "only one dead" is good news. Well, it certainly wasn't to that poor night watchman).
But driving back to Belgrade the next morning was a different story. A huge toxic cloud seemed to hang over the city, as we approached it from the direction of the Belgrade airport (see the photos). It was coming from the bombed-out refinery and a chemical factory in Pancevo, north of Belgrade, as seen from my hotel room (right) and from the freeway outside the city (left). Fortunately, God saved the Belgrade residents as the wind turned northward, and drove the toxins away from the Serb capital.
I saw that as a symbolic sign of on whose side He was on. But I did not write about it at the time. That would have been too much for the largely atheist western public to fathom, I figured.
9. Relief, Followed by Grief
When I booked my ride back to Budapest, there was only one remaining bridge standing over the Danube. It was the one north of the city toward Pancevo. The one on which we played chicken coming in from Budapest had been destroyed. The minivan left Belgrade in the early evening hours, just as the nightly NATO show was starting. Along the way, we got to watch the fireworks, as first Pancevo and then Novi Sad were getting it again. According to Gen. Clark's boastful prediction, Serbia was going to surrender to the NATO "uebermenschen" (supermen) withing three days. And here it was now, almost four weeks since the start of the war, and there were no signs of the Serbs giving up.
One of the tragicomical consequences of this situation was that NATO was running out of targets and of bombs. Having planned for a short war, the military alliance found itself in a position of having to strike the old targets over and over again, if it was to keep up the terror against the Serbian people. And so Pancevo and Novi Sad were among the Serb cities that were being bombed repeatedly.
I was contemplating all this as I saw the huge fireballs light up the sky above Novi Sad. We were far enough away that the sounds of explosions were dampened and muffled by the van's engine noise. A part of me was relieved that in a few hours, I should be back in the peaceful safety of the Hungarian capital. But another part of me was ashamed of such feelings, as I felt an intense grief for those I was leaving behind, including my family.
The border crossing was uneventful. By the time we made it to the Budapest airport, it was about 2AM. Everything was locked up tight. My flight back to New York wasn't until about 9AM. It was a cold night and I did not relish spending it loitering around the airport. So I flagged a taxi and had him take me to downtown Budapest. I just walked into a Hyatt there and took a room on the spot, without a prior reservation.
After nearly six days of interrupted sleep by the nightly bombings, I slept like baby. When I awoke, I realized I had only slept three hours. But I felt as if I had been asleep for 13. Then I remembered from my Bosnia wartime experiences how refreshing even short bursts of sleep can be when you're under stress. You learn to "sleep fast" when you have to. A human being is an extremely adaptable animal.
To check out some of the reports filed contemporaneously from Belgrade, click on:
Also, check out... Truth in Media Statement on Kosovo Crisis, "Wither Dayton, Sprout New War?", "On the Brink of Madness", "Tragic Deja Vu's," "Seven U.S. Senators Suggest Ouster of Milosevic", "Biting the Hand That Feeds You", "A Balkan Affairs Potpourri", "Put the U.N. Justice on Trial", "International Justice 'Progresses' from Kidnapping to Murder", "Milosevic: 'A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery'...", "Kosovo Lie Allowed to Stand", "New World Order's Inquisition in Bosnia", "Kosovo Heating Up", "Decani Monastery Under Siege?", "Murder on Wall Street", "Kosovo: 'Bosnia II', Serbia's Aztlan", "What If the Shoe Were on the Other Foot?", "Green Interstate - Not Worth American Lives", "An American Hero or Actor of the Year?" (A June '95 TiM story) and/or "Clinton arme secrètement les musulmans bosniaques"
Or Djurdjevic's WASHINGTON TIMES columns: "Chinese Dragon Wagging Macedonian Tail," "An Ugly Double Standard in Kosovo Conflict?", "NATO's Bullyboys", "Kosovo: Why Are We Involved?", and "Ginning Up Another Crisis"