Josip Brroz TitoWhat do you expect someone to say when asked about being under bombardment for months? That a major European city could be bombed for months in this day and age (1999).

The stories are heartrending, visceral, charged, defensive, pained.

Similar to American denials of CIA overthrows in Guatemala, Iran, the Congo, etc., until the Freedom of Information Act allowed journalists to prove, yup, we sure did, Serbians now generally accept the horror and extent of atrocities against Croats, Bosnians and Kosovo Albanians. Most, though not all. I will attend the Republic Square rally of recently released (alleged) war criminal Vojislav Seselj tomorrow. I don’t expect much repentance there.

The Balkans have a long and contentious history as a crossroads between East and West. The conflicts of the 90’s happened after the death of unifier and beloved, “benevolent dictator” Josup Broz Tito.

Tito was a lifelong communist, even serving the Party for a time in the Soviet Union. He was considered the most effective of WWII European partisan leaders, and thus drew the respect and support of Churchill, American presidents and Stalin. Until he decided to go his own way, and formed the Non-Aligned Movement. Stalin was not amused. So, just as Tito rose to the head of the Yugoslav communist party after his predecessor was invited to Moscow and murdered, Stalin tried to kill Tito (the nom de guerre of Josip Broz) several times. Tito wrote Stalin an open letter:

 “Stop sending people to kill me. We’ve already captured five of them, one of them with a bomb and another with a rifle (…) If you don’t stop sending killers, I’ll send one to Moscow, and I won’t have to send a second.”

Marijana 2Leigh Ziller, who pushed us over the top in our Kickstarter campaign, funding the “Afterparty” project, introduced me to Gazprom architect Marijana Curuvija. We met in Novi Sad, an hour north of Belgrade, a major target of the bombardment. I took pictures of the Cathedral where we met. But forgot to take one of Marijana, which drew a scold from Leigh. We walked to a cafe.

Where were you during the bombardment?

I first heard of it in school. My parents didn’t really talk about it. I heard something on TV, and kids at school were saying we were going to war. I didn’t think it was real; someone was going to bomb our country?? I couldn’t imagine why. We were watching Esmeralda, a soap opera.

What was the plot?

A poor and blind woman falls in love with a rich fellow.  It was an interesting episode.  The sirens went off in the middle of the show.

So you missed the ending. Maybe he dumped her!

(Laughs). Typical soap opera plot. My father came home half an hour later. We didn’t know how to react. We were supposed to turn off the lights and go down to the basement but we didn’t know we were supposed to do that. My father said, “We will be the first place they are going to bomb.”

Novi Sad 4 Did the bombs ever get close?

The closest was 20 kilometers away. It hit the bridge. It was loud but we didn’t see it. We couldn’t visit my grandmother as much because the bridges were blown up. We saw the oil refinery go up from 40 kilometers away. The sky turned orange in the middle of the night.

NATO was claiming humanitarian reasons for the bombardment, protecting Kosovo Albanians from ethnic cleansing, even genocide from the Milosevic led Serbian armed forces and militias. Did anyone ever discuss why it was happening?

We never discussed politics. I don’t remember asking why it was happening. I know there had been people coming from Bosnia and Croatia. I knew there was a war. I was only six during the Bosnia war.


Novi Sad bombed bridgeWe talked about her student exchange experience with Leigh in Mississippi. She was surprised by the separation of ethnic groups. Her mother’s parents were from Bosnia. Her fathers’ parents were from Croatia. Under the strong hand of Tito, everyone considered themselves Yugoslavs. We discussed the irony of the (historically, and sometimes still, segregated) United States  bombing her country for ethnic cleansing. I asked, “Is there nostalgia for the days of Tito?

Yes, among older people. They say everything was easier. Ethnic cleansing is the wrong term. We didn’t attack. We were defending. We felt there wasn’t a necessity for NATO to come in and try to slve things because it was an internal problem. The country had to solve its own problems.

Do you harbor any anger toward the US?

No. I was an exchange student there. It wasn’t the people from the country. It was the administration. I don’t hold a grudge.


Brian Gruber is traveling around the world visiting the scenes of the major U.S. military and covert actions of the last half century. The project, “War: The Afterparty” is funded by 62 backers via Kickstarter. Follow Brian’s global walkabout on the blog and on Facebook.