Balkan Blues (Belgrade, Novi Sad, Vukovar, Zagreb) March 2002
We entered Serbia on
the border near to Szeged, a little town in Hungary that is home to the famous Pick
salami (in which I am one of the share holders for some ten years now). Pick salami
has bought the other famous brand in Hungary ' Hertz Salami' and is now a virtual
private monopolist on the Hungarian market for meat products. Of course we visited
the factory to obtain a yearly report and were happy to find out that its financial
status is still healthy. The salami slicing behaviour of the share price must have
been due to other reasons and I am convinced that the fact that the Pick Szeged share
will one day turn out to be a right investment tip (nb that never happened and it
was taken away from the Budapest Stock exchange in 2004 or so).
Another good investment tip are insurance companies in Serbia. That Yugoslavia still
exists despite the crossing on the green card of Yu (international car insurance)
we found out when we had to buy an additional insurance for 80 euro. The argument
that our insurance company had assured us that Yugoslavia does no longer exist and
that insurance for Serbia is guaranteed by them was waived away. In fact it was the
most stupid thing I could have said when entering proud Yugoslavia, consisting of
Serbia, Montenegro and Voivodina - itself part of Serbia). But as we contributed
nicely to the foreign exchange reserves of the country, it was forgiven by the custom
officers. Later we also had to pay in euro at the toll-houses, despite the fact that
we had just changed dinars. We were foreigners and the not-so-kind toll official
told us that 'strangers pay euro, dollar, valuta'.
The roads in Serbia are rather empty, perhaps because of the toll, but that does
not prevent them of being dangerous too. There are two lanes for driving and a lane
of refuge. The latter was used however as the main carriage-way for vehicles going
slower than 150 km per hour. The middle lane is used for passing cars from both directions,
which easily gives rise to misunderstandings. Around the main road there were mainly
muddy roads used by the locals.
From the border, it was a mere hour to Novi Sad, the city the Nato had bombed heavily
during the Kosovo war in May 1999. We were in a hurry and also a bit afraid of driving
in this city with a Dutch registration plate. The atmosphere was a bit grim although
the old lady in a shop was very happy to see 'guests from Holland'. So we drove on
and missed the bombed bridges.
Two days later, however we had the opportunity to return and to make the pictures
of one of the bridges that was still broken down, and partly collapsed in the river.
An impressive sight on a sunny Sunday when looking down from the nice citadel of
Novi Sad. The Serbs did not yet repair all bridges due to financial reasons and perhaps
because they hope that the other Danube countries that want undisturbed shipping
will push the West to rebuild them. One new ponton bridge that is being opened for
ships only every few days should underline the need. And indeed, probably some assistance
will be given, at least to remove the old bridge.
But for the time being, we did noy yet arrive in Beograd 'the white city' and we
wanted to reach the house of our 'guesthouse' before it would get dark, so we continued
on this three lane ' highway'. The suburbs of Belgrade started promising with some
new modern appartment blocks, but soon the same grey flats emerged which we already
saw in Chemnitz, Brno, Bratislava, Prague and Budapest and that still reminds you
of communist eastern europe. Turning to Sawa Centre from the highway, we had our
first encounter with the the Kosovo damage when we saw the bombed tower of the socialist
party. All windows were blown away, but unlike the World Trade Centre in New York
it managed somehow to remain on its feet. We drove on to the city centre where we
found the right street after some searching (all street names are in cyrillic).
Next day visiting Belgrade we started with the old Kalamegdan citadel, situated at
the point where the Danube and the Sawa river meet (later we saw in the mountains
of Slovenia in Bohinj the source of the Sawa river). Most of the citadel originates
from the 17th century, but the area has been fortified since Celtic times already,
as Beograd is an old city. The Celtic settlement of Singidunum was founded in the
3rd century BC. The Romans arrived in the first century AD and stayed till the 5th
century. The present Slavonic name Beograd first appeared in a Papal letter in 878
and the city became the capital of Serbia in 1403, when the Serbs were pushed north
by the Turks (taking Belgrade in 1521). In 1842 the city became the capital of Serbia
again and in 1918 of the whole of Yugoslavia.
Nowadays the city has more than one side, as if it did not yet decide which direction
to go. There are some new and modern streets with shops well stocked and there is
an old area with flee markets and with shops selling everything to make a living.
Where the centres of Prague, Budapest and Bratislava flourish, Beograd still shows
the signs of over ten year of war economy and economic sanctions.
Most impressive in the city are not the touristic monuments, there aren't many, but
the bombed remainings of the Ministries of Defence and of Interior Affairs. You can
clearly see where these rockets hit the building. A gaping hole and collapsed concrete
floors show the impact of precision bombs. The damage to these buildings is significant
and it is almost a miracle that the buildings and resident blocks nearby show so
little damage. Odd is also the billboard of MacDonalds right in front of the ruins
of Serb intelligence forces (see also the box at the bottom of this page for news
flashes from this period).
After seeing so much misery, it is good to relax in the evening. That can be done
very well in Belgrade. Night Life is vibrant with many good bars and lots of young
people are outside on Saturday, but also during the week. In summer the terraces
are full and disco boats float over the river till deep in the morning. It is as
if the youngsters of Yugoslavia want to get rid of the past by creating an optimistic
mood, like Europe in the 1920s after WW1. On the other hand there are a lot of so
called skin heads with leather jackets that make the mood often more grim. Perhaps
they are the same people who had to fight in those terrible wars and who are now
in their 20s and 30s?
Leaving Belgrade with many unsolved questions we drove along the new highway and
then left the highway to go via secondary roads to the border between Croatia and
Serbia to have a look at the war damage in Vukovar. The border crossing was small
and the difference between the Croat and Serb sides was striking. On the Serb side
an old small concrete building with an old fashioned stove inside was the only facility
for the frontier guards. There was an old rusty barrier that had to be opened by
hand and there was no cover against the rain. 100 meter further there was a brand
new Croat border post. With such a large difference, it almost looked a deliberate
choice of the Serbs not upgrading the border crossing, like with the ruined ministries
in Belgrade and destroyed bridges in Novi Sad.
When in Croatia and approaching Vukovar, it soon became clear that also the Croats
did not yet repair all the damage. We were driving through an area that in 1991 and
1992 was a battle field. Heavy fights took place between the Serbs and the Croats
when the Croats declared indepence. At first the Serbs managed to conquer one third
of Croat territory, but after a cease fire initiated by the UN they withdraw. Only
the significant Serb minority in the Krajina declared their independence, but that
area was later regained by the Croats. We saw road signs riddled with bullets, bullet
holes in almost every house, mine fields and collapsed electricity pylons (masts).
On the outskirts of Vukovar many private houses were rebuilt, but in the centre it
seemed as if the war had just ended yesterday. Words cannot describe what we saw,
but the following pictures speak for themselves.
We left Vukovar with a new conscience of what had really happened in Yugoslavia in
the 1990s. Mr. Milosevic should not only be sentenced for what he has done in Kosovo
and Bosnia, places we did not yet dare to visit, but also for the terrible atrocities
in Croatia and even to his own people, the innocent citizens living in the resident
blocks near the bombed ministries who must have been terribly frightened during the
attacks and whose income for ten years has shown the same pattern as my salami shares.
Let's not play the Balkan blues again!
Box: news flashes from May, 1999
Allied Air Chief Stresses Hitting Belgrade Sites
BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Despite the success allied warplanes are having against Serbian
forces in Kosovo, NATO's top air war commander said Wednesday that the alliance needs
to renew its attacks against the Yugoslav leadership in central Belgrade to force
Slobodan Milosevic to give in to NATO's demands.
In his first interview since the conflict began, Lt. Gen. Michael Short said that
the alliance has expanded its attacks in Kosovo, including a dramatic day-time bombing
raid by B-52 bombers against Serbian troops.
But he also stressed that NATO needs to press its attacks in Belgrade, brushing aside
critics who say the allies should show restraint following the mistaken strike against
the Chinese embassy.
"At the same time that I am executing SACEUR's number one priority -- killing the
army in Kosovo -- I also need to strike at the leadership and the people around Milosevic
to compel them to change their behavior in Kosovo and accept the terms NATO has on
the table," he said.
SACEUR is the NATO acronym for the alliance's surpreme commander, Gen. Wesley Clark,
a four-star army officer and Short's superior.
Short offered his blunt assessment of the planning and conduct of the war in an hour-long
interview last week at his headquarters on an air base in Vicenza, Italy. He amplified
on his comments in a telephone conversation Wedbesdat.
While he was careful not to criticize NATO diplomats, Short signaled that he feels
constrained by the political limits on the bombing of Belgrade in recent days and
that the graduated air campaign approved by NATO's diplomats runs counter to his
instincts as an airman.
Air Force doctrine calls for striking government ministries, television stations,
electrical plants and command centers from the outset. But it took weeks for the
military to win approval to bomb "leadership targets," institutions that the Milosevic
regime uses to run the country and which are important to maintain his hold on power.
"Airmen would have liked to have gone after that target set on the first night and
sent a clear signal that we were taking the gloves off from the very beginning, that
we were not going to incrementalize, that we're not going to try to a little bit
of this and see how you like it and try a little bit of that and see how you like
it," Short said.
"The way we did business during the first couple of nights in Baghdad went to the
heart of the problem," the general added, referring to the strikes at the outset
of the 1991 Persian Gulf war. "We sent a clear signal to Saddam that we were after
the very heart of his operation. Nineteen nations voting, competing pressures, that
makes it very, very difficult to do that."
The base in Vicenza is located at the end of a two-lane road and seems entirely unremarkable,
especially compared to the bustling Aviano Air Base an hour's drive to the south,
which is bursting with warplanes. But it houses one of NATO's most critical command
posts: the Combined Air Operations Center, a windowless office that directs the air
war over Kosovo.
Large screens in the darkened battle center shows NATO's air armada in and around
Yugoslavia. More than 400 NATO officers, including war planners, air traffic controllers
and intelligence specialists work at the center during each shift. Short runs the
war from the battle center, dressed in his green flight suit and wearing an aviator's
The son of an army officer, the 55-year year general flew combat missions during
the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars. Plainspoken, but intense, he has been virtually
invisible to the public during the seven week campaign.
Working behind-the-scenes, he is trying to do something that the military has never
done: win a war from the air alone. An enthusiastic proponent of airpower, he has
a very personal stake in the conflict: His son is an A-10 pilot over Kosovo.
Short has been involved with the former Yugoslavia since 1995 when as chief of staff
for the NATO air forces in southern Europe he planned air strikes against Serbian
forces in Bosnia.
Last year, the Balkan conflict thrust him in a diplomatic role. He accompanied Richard
Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy, to Belgrade. The general's task was to negotiate monitoring
arrangements for an accord limiting Serb forces in Kosovo, drawing on U-2 spy planes,
reconnaissance drones and other aircraft.
During one of the Belgrade meetings, Milosevic asked him jokingly if he would be
the man to bomb Yugoslavia if Holbrooke's talks failed.
The commander of Yugoslavia's Air Force, however, was not in a joking mood. He stressed
his units were not responsible for the assaults against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo
and were not looking for a fight with NATO. But Short left the Serbian Air Force
under no illusion that it would escape attack if NATO decided it needed to resort
"I said, 'Hey, I understand that, but you are part of your national defense establishment,"
he recalled. "You are part of Milosevic's regime."
After Yugoslavia violated the accord and NATO launched air strikes, however, Short
found himself under many constraints.
The U.S. Air Force generals involved in the air campaign during the Gulf War had
far more authority to plan and carry out the bombing strikes. They also had a direct
relationship to Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the allied commander.
But Short, the top airman in an airwar, admits he is more of an implementor of a
political-military strategy designed in Brussels than its architect.
"I am an executor more than I am an air campaign planner," he said.
Under NATO's complex command structure, Short does not report directly to Clark,
but to a U.S. Navy admiral in Naples -- James O. Ellis Jr., the commander of allied
forces in southern Europe and a naval aviator -- who in turn reports to Clark.
"I think that colors the equation a bit in terms of my latitude, if you will, in
this air campaign, Short said.
There are plenty of other difficulties, which have turned what was intended to be
a brief demonstration of force into a grinding battle of attrition. Without troops
on the ground, for example, it is hard for NATO pilots to identify their targets.
"I don't think there's any question it affects me," Short said. "I'd like to have
that company commander down there on the ground saying to my son, the A-10 driver,
'OK, they are dug in 5,000 meters in front of me. I can see tanks. I can see artillery
dug in. I can see troops massed on the other side of that village."
Fleeing refugees and the alliance's concern with limiting civilian casualties have
added to his burden. After U.S. F-16s mistakenly bombed ethnic Albanian refugees
who were interspersed in a Serbian convoy, Short instructed his young pilots to contact
senior officers at the command center in Vicenza if they are unsure.
"I put out guidance saying that if you are working a target area and you're not sure
call me and I'll tell you whether to drop or not," he said. "Call me and describe
the village and say, 'Boss, I see a village and I see tanks parked next to the houses
in the village. What do you want me do do?' And I'll say 'Tell them to hit the tanks.'
And if he hits a house by mistake, that's my responsibility.
"I need to take the monkey off the young captain's back," he added. "They're up there
at 400 to 500 miles an hour, people shooting at them, dodging in and our of the weather.
They don't need the additional responsibility of, 'What'll happen if I miss that
tank? Will I be in trouble?"
As more planes have been sent to bases in Europe and as the weather has improved,
NATO has escalated its air strikes. Wednesday, officials said the alliance launched
eight waves of attack, including a record 327 bombing missions.
Military experts, however, still differ about the utility of airpower and how it
should be used. While Air Force officers generally believe the best way to score
a decisive victory is to take the war to the enemy leadership from the start, Army
and Marine Corps have traditionally been skeptical of Air Force strategy, stressing
the need to attack enemy ground troops and cut off their supplies and communications.
Diplomats, for their part, have been anxious to see the war brought to a close, but
have been worried about civilian casualties. Given the political constraints, many
Air Force officers insist the bombing campaign against Kosovo is not a true test
of what air power can accomplish.
Certainly, many of the bombing decisions are not up to Short. Some political targets
are still off limits. Concern over civilian casualties had prevented the alliance
from attacking some communications centers. Military targets in Montenegro cannot
be struck without elaborate political consultations.
As NATO escalates its strikes, Clark noted he is stepping up his attacks on Serb
troops in Kosovo.
"General Clark has set for me as my number one priority, the killing of that Army
in Kosovo," Short said. "And I think I am going to be able to do that. Not tomorrow
or the next day, but we have flown our first daytime B-52 air strikes in Kosovo.
And if I'm a young Serb soldier, eating my lunch at two o'clock in the afternoon
and out of the gray skies over my head comes a hundred plus Mark-82s, that ought
to be a signal that we're entering a new phase of the air campaign and we're taking
the gloves off a little more."
But the Serb troops in Kosovo are just one class of targets he is interested in.
The other include Belgrade, where the Yugoslav leadership lives, and the rest of
And these days striking directly at the Milosevic regime is very much on his mind.
While NATO says it is not fighting against the Serbian people, Short also hopes the
distress of the Yugoslav public will undermine support for the authorities in Belgrade.
"I think no power to your refrigerator, no gas to your stove, you can't get to work
because the bridge is down -- he bridge on which you held your rock concerts and
you all stood with targets on your heads. That needs to disappear at three o'clock
in the morning."
Yugoslavia's capital braced for a fourth day of NATO air strikes, announced to the
sound of air raid sirens and a large explosion outside the Belgrade on Saturday afternoon.
Air raid sirens also went off in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, the smaller
of the two republics that make up the Yugoslav federation.
The leaders of democratic, pro-Western Montenegro have tried to keep the republic
neutral, and Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic has accused his Yugoslav counterpart,
President Slobodan Milosevic, of dragging the country into a pointless war with the
The new strikes come a day after Belgrade residents watched fireballs shooting into
the night sky and shattering windows around the city. Friday's raids were the heaviest
and closest to the city's center since airstrikes began Wednesday.
In three days of attacks, Belgrade has become a shadow of its former self. Main streets
are largely deserted.
Many in Belgrade took cover Friday in underground shelters. Their fears were compounded
by reports that a factory had been hit and was spewing toxic fumes into the air.
Yugoslav authorities said that was the result of a strike on a civilian pharmaceutical
plant: NATO said the escaping fumes may have come from a factory that produced missile
and rocket fuel. Another NATO strike set fire to a forest close to a popular Belgrade
NATO resolve 'absolute'
NATO hopes the raids will force Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to sign a peace
agreement that will end a year of ethnic strife in the Serb province of Kosovo.
NATO officials say the Yugoslav offensive in Kosovo must stop before the bombing
"NATO's resolve to continue this operation until our objectives are met remains absolute,"
NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said in Brussels on Saturday.
Yugoslavian media claim the bomb and missile attacks have inflicted numerous -- but
unspecified -- casualties. Authorities in Belgrade claim the attacks have created
a humanitarian catastrophe with damage to homes, schools, hospitals and infrastructure.
Fuel supplies are restricted to a few priority users such as hospitals and public
transportation. City buses and trams are still running, but few people are traveling