I walk the streets of Belgrade seeking the worst of the damage. The Ministry of Defense. Government buildings. The old Radio Television of Serbia building is a trek, but I need the exercise so I walk some more. It’s on a side street, up a short hill. The large office building staring down at me is large, fairly modern, showing no signs of destruction. It’s now dark, five pm, and getting cold, with the wind picking up. I walk past security through the parking lot and make a right turn to the back of the building. As I walk, the spectacular St. Marks Church is in in my direct line of sight, just a few hundred yards away. I turn right again and I’m standing in front of a violently shattered structure.
Sixteen media staffers died here in 1999. NATO justified it as necessary, the state media apparatus being a propaganda tool of the Milosevic government. I take pictures and shoot video. It’s dark, but I can see building details pretty well, with the help of a few small lights in and around the building. I walk up to the wreckage and touch some of the exposed concrete.
I consider walking all the way to my meeting with Blic newspaper editor Ivan Jovanovic, but I’ve walked enough for one day. The taxi driver I flag down has no idea where Kafe Bar Stepa might be, even after I give him the street name. I fumble through my MacBook Air and iPhone screens and find a number: 415n.
The ride is taking longer than seems necessary and I am tracking him with my GPS, like a good little OCD digital consumer. The taxi fares are so low—most rides have been about three bucks—that the delta between perfect efficiency and the long way is probably a dollar.
He asks three people along the way. I’m getting edgy. I’m aware that my anxiety is absurd. We finally get in front of 415p Stepa. He announces, “It’s P, not N, P”. I ask, what is the significance of the N or P, is it North or South? “It’s a letter,” he instructs me. Yes, but…forget it.
And then, we are there. And Ivan arrives. I insist on buying a round of drinks, and he insists the same. I’m his guest. He is tall, in his mid-thirties, a light beard, and is very friendly. He apologizes for his English, but it sounds fine to me, though the accent will make it harder to transcribe amidst the bar noise. I turn on the recorders afar some small talk and we begin.
What is your most vivd memory of the bombardment as it started?
My girlfriend gave me some advice for you. We were not aware that we were in danger of being bombed. We had Milosevic, and we had censorship, state media and we had only the information that they wanted to give us. Serbia was a huge victim in the Great War, in WWI and WWII, and we were not expecting something like what we saw in Vietnam, in Iraq, in the third world. This is Europe.
On 24 March (1999), when we heard planes and explosions, we were very afraid, and we started to watch national television. And we started to watch CNN and BBC. We saw our media was not objective, and that CNN and BBC were not objective. But we had more sympathy for our media. NATO said they were going to bomb only military targets, but they bombed a lot of civil objects like bridges. It was very painful for all of us. But the best thing about the bombing was that suddenly we became aware of the dangers of Milosevic, and in the next election we told him “Goodbye Charlie”.
I am 33. At the time I was 16, 17. All high schools are closed, our normal life stopped and we are living under bombardment. After 3 or 4 weeks, we got used to it, and started to play basketball and football…
It was insane. We didn’t like Milosevic, but we thought that Europe, and especially the United States, betrayed our democratic position, because we were the hostage of one man and the US and NATO punished all of the country because of one man. That was the main problem for us.
Just as we in the US are complicit for what our government does, to what degree do you think a country becomes complicit in the actions of its leadership?
There is a very long pause.
Tough question. And maybe an unfair question. Observers who I speak to on the American side are sympathetic to the Serbian people, but insist that Milosevic was a bully, and unless you act like a bully, with force, he will do (in Kosovo) the same as he did in Croatia and Bosnia.
That is a correct point of view. But the other side of that story is that the Serbs had victims in those wars. We made mistakes again and again and again.We are guilty for Croatia, we are guilty for Kosovo, but it is our territory, our country. Milosevic made a lot of mistakes. There were a lot of things done against the Serbs by guys (he names several) in Bosnia, from Croatia, from Kosovo. But only Serbians are sent to the Hague (the International Criminal Court).
It’s hard to measure this. Death is death. Milosevic, after Hitler, was one of the greatest villains in history.
Wow, that’s a strong thing to say.
In the 90’s, Romania and others were behind us; after that, they are in front of us and we start being compared to African countries in terms of our economy and GDP. We were left behind for two or three decades. We have national pride, we are always Serbs. There is no virtue on either side.
When you look back now, since at the time there were limits on information, did you ever come to the point where you understand why this was considered a humanitarian mission? Or do you think that is all bullshit?
That is all bullshit.
That’s a hard question. I don’t know the right answer. As I said, there is no one truth, we made a lot of mistakes, but that was our country. What would you think if you have some problems in Texas or Louisiana, or a problem with Catalonia and Spain, or the UK, that is our question.
While the sanctions were going on, as a journalist looking back, was there any groundswell saying we have to negotiate to end them?
We were hostage to one man as I said. Today we have a lot of poor people that are very easy to…
People who do not read properly, who can be easily manipulated, because of that he was popular in those cities, and gave hope for national pride for greater Serbia, for living in the past. For people who did not have a good education, that was very nice food for them.
Just as some Russians remember Stalin fondly or the old Soviet Union, was there some nostalgia for the days of Tito, feeling like we need a strong leader?
i don’t know why people in this region have nostalgia for a strong leader. I can’t explain it. It’s something in our DNA. For some people now, Yugoslavia was paradise for us. But I think it was the wrong step after WWII. Because if we had several countries, we would not have those wars in the ‘90s.
You are flipping the conventional wisdom on its head, that you needed someone like Tito to keep the country together.
We have a lot of differences. It is different from the US melting pot. Different styles of leaders. We have history, before WWII, we had Nazi Croatia with the Ustasi. Slovenians had more in common with Austria than Serbia. We don’t have the same language.
He was a Slovenian and Croatian, and he identified with Austria.
My parents had all they needed. It was limited freedom. They gave them everything but they didn’t know better. When we went to Italy to buy something, it was like a miracle, like a space shuttle. But we had everything we needed. We had simple things but only a few choices. We had no unemployed people. No poor people. We all went to the sea during the summer and to the mountains in the winter. Now that is a thing of luxury, very few people can afford skiing,
But in the 90’s after Tito’s death, everything fell apart, and it was only eight years until the war. Yugoslavia broke apart. Bosnia was the center of that war because Serbs, Croats, Muslims all lived in that country.I think we will need a hundred years before things come together.
Let me get back to the idea of humanitarian intervention. Is there any situation, like a Rwanda or a Congo, where the international community says there is a humanitarian need to intervene in another country’s internal affairs?
I’m going to ask you another question. Why always the USA? Why do you always play God?
I tell Ivan about the intent of the Afterparty project and ask, What do you think the US needs to do differently?
All that was a statement to other countries, especially to Russia. You have to do things to protect your interests, oil, mining, that is the game of the bigs. There are only a few bigs that meet each other and fight. Russia and America don’t want to fight in Russia or America, they want to fight in other territories.
We have a pretty rebellious attitude, and pretty democratic views for the future. I don’t always like Serbia, but it is my country and I think it is our job as Serb citizens to make the country better. Not America, not Russia, that is our goal. We are supposed to make things better for our people. If you can help us fine, if you can’t, please…
From where do you think the United States draws its moral authority to intervene?
The US is a strong power with a lot of interests. It wants to protect its interests and has to spread….actually, I don’t know why they do that. It’s power and money. Money is the main reason. You ask someone from Texas, where is Serbia, they don’t know anything about us.
Srebrenica. It was such a crime. It was the most horrific thing that we did. Our military committed crimes. That was a genocide. But if we can accept what happened there, then we want to see the other side’s crimes addressed as well.
Should there be a regime or program that allows the world to intervene?
No, we have to intervene when it is really necessary. But what is the limit of what is necessary and where is the line?
In the end, war is about power and about money. I can accept that. But in a few decades, the USA will stop being the number one power. You will have China, India, maybe Russia. What then?
The situation in Ukraine is very similar to Kosovo. Putin said, if you can have Kosovo declare their independence, then you can have Ukrainians do the same. It is not fair. It is not good for Ukraine or for Serbia. In conclusion, everything is about power and money. We have to accept that, live with that. Putin did the same as the United States. The main player in the bombing of Serbia was the United States.
If there was no pressure from the United States, would NATO have intervened in Serbia?
Some people say that is why the world needs the United States.
Is the world a better place after the bombing? I don’t know. But I know one thing. We have a lot of dead children and journalists, crashed bridges, highways. The economy was devastated.
Some think many people were saved by the intervention.
Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know.
And with that, Ivan has to go to care for his guests. I look at a copy of Blic in the bar and spend some time on their website. Ivan says it’s the most popular paper in Serbia and the most read news website in southeast Europe.
It’s my last night in Belgrade. I’ll go home early and pack.