"We are on our own"

Serbian dissidents are encouraged by Vuk Draskovic's moment of honesty amid Milosevic's propaganda.

Published April 28, 1999 1:00PM (EDT)

If NATO bombing was meant to wear people out, it has succeeded. Belgrade residents describe a feeling of weariness, a struggle to simply endure, after 34 days of NATO bomb attacks, which usually come at 8 p.m., right after supper.

So it was with relief when Sunday evening, they heard something that sounded refreshingly true to ears weary of the spirit-boosting propaganda that the Milosevic regime has been serving up: The Serbs are losing their battle with NATO.

"The people should be told the truth: We are on our own," said Vuk Draskovic, the dark-bearded Yugoslav deputy prime minister, who, as an opposition party politician, led massive street protests against the Milosevic regime in 1996-97 before joining the government earlier this year. Draskovic was speaking in an interview on Studio B, a Belgrade television channel controlled by his political party, the Serbian Renewal Movement. "Our destiny is in the hands of leaders who invoke World War III and who are lying to the people, saying that Russia would be involved," in supporting the Serbs, he said.

At this point, Serbia's main national interest, Draskovic continued, is "understanding and realizing reality."

It may seem strange that Serbs would be buoyed by the news that their country is losing a war. And Draskovic merely stated what is obvious to the rest of the world. But from inside Yugoslavia, where Milosevic has imposed tight controls on the media and on internal dissent -- Belgrade journalist Slavko Curuvija paid for speaking the truth with his life -- the truth has been invigorating, like learning a long-suspected family secret.

Draskovic told television listeners that Serbia should consider yielding to one of NATO's key demands -- accepting an international military force for Kosovo, under the auspices of the United Nations. "Now we should declare our opinion as to an adequate force which can guarantee the return of refugees. Can it be a civilian force? [Russian special envoy to Yugoslavia Viktor] Chernomyrdin says no."

But Draskovic adds, "The U.N. flag is not alien to Yugoslavia. U.N. troops are not considered an occupying force in any country of the world."

To Western diplomats and NATO leaders, the words sounded like the possibility of a climb-down by the Yugoslav government, and an opening for potential negotiations on a resolution to the Kosovo conflict. "The statements [Draskovic] made show that there are senior members of the Yugoslav government that are beginning to recognize the reality of the situation Yugoslavia is in," NATO spokesman Jamie Shea told journalists at a press conference Monday. But to Belgrade listeners, Draskovic's statement sounded like the common sense ordinary people have been afraid to voice since the bombing began, and Milosevic cracked down on those it accused of damaging Serbian morale.

"What Draskovic did was really good," says Bratislav Grubacic, a Belgrade political analyst and editor of VIP news, by telephone Tuesday. "He made such mental relief for the population. We are so tired of all this propaganda: 'NATO is losing, we are winning. Clinton and [British prime minister Tony] Blair are devils.' Draskovic basically said, You know what? We are really alone. The whole world is against us. And NATO isn't going to lose."

Though Grubacic, a weathered Serbian newsman and analyst with great contacts inside the Serbian regime, admires Draskovic's typically nutty courage in saying -- on TV no less -- that the Serbs are losing in their confrontation with the greatest military alliance on earth, Grubacic doesn't think Draskovic will succeed in positioning himself as a successor to the Milosevic regime.

"More likely than not, Draskovic will fail in his plan to establish an alternative to the [Milosevic] regime," Grubacic writes in VIP, his newsletter. "But he has opened cracks in what has so far been a monolithic political structure in Serbia, which has allowed Milosevic to claim that his policy in Kosovo is supported by [everyone]."

"On the other hand," Grubacic continues, "[Serbian] public opinion largely agrees with Draskovic."

Zarko Korac, a Belgrade psychology professor also known for his liberal opinions, is more pessimistic. While Draskovic's comments gave the Serbian public a glimmer of hope -- and at least a break from the drivel -- Korac points out that Draskovic's position as deputy prime minister is a tenuous one.

"Draskovic is really the junior partner in the federal government, I must point out," Korac said by telephone from his apartment in downtown Belgrade near the university where he teaches. "There has been absolutely no reaction from the government at all to his comments. And in fact there were new censorship measures introduced today in Serbia. This is a war here. There are all kinds of new laws. We really are not certain what is really happening."

Korac knows about censorship and the dangers of speaking out against the wishes of the Milosevic regime. Two weeks ago he spoke at the funeral of Slavko Curuvija, the Belgrade newspaper editor assassinated after months of criticizing Milosevic's policy in Kosovo. On Monday, two newspaper editors in the smaller Yugoslav republic of Montenegro said they had gotten death threats and were going into hiding. Most of Serbia's independent journalists have been keeping their heads down since the NATO bombing started -- threatened with treason by the regime -- or have left the country. People's fear of speaking out, their terror of the regime and the bombing, have made Draskovic's comments all the more precious.

By many accounts, the war is taking a heavy mental and psychological toll on those trapped in Serbia. People describe a sense of being worn down, of boredom and of terrible isolation.

"I'm getting tired," said Korac, the Belgrade psychology professor. He said although NATO is targeting things -- and not people -- the destruction of bridges and buildings tears at the soul. "This is a new kind of war. It's the infrastructure of the country that gets destroyed. There are not many casualties -- although there are more than the government admits. Primarily the destruction is of infrastructure. Today NATO destroyed Novi Sad's last bridge. Now 400,000 people there are without running water."

Korac says his grandmother, who survived two Balkan wars, World War I and a concentration camp in World War II, taught him something he thinks about now. "She always told me the most important thing is to survive. That property is not important. That's what people here are doing. They are coping, to survive. To endure and survive."

Other people experiencing the NATO bombing describe the way it has erased their normal sense of time.

"This is all unbelievable, and it looks like a terrible dream," writes Vladan, a friend from new Belgrade. "Each day is almost the same, and I don't even have a feeling of time."

Many refugees from Kosovo also describe time in terms of how many days it occurred after the NATO bombing started. "The Serbs came to our house and told us we had to leave on the fourth day of the bombing," a woman, Hanifeh, told me in a refugee camp in northwestern Macedonia. Baton Haxhiu, the Koha Ditore editor who went into hiding in a Pristina basement for fear of retaliation by Serbian forces, describes totally losing his sense of time, what day it was, except that he saw a press conference announcing his own murder on the "Sunday after the bombing started in Serbia," March 24. It's as if, in a weird way, the first day of NATO bombing has become "Day Zero" for almost everyone experiencing it, whose lives have been utterly transformed by the bombing and the chain reaction of violence it has unleashed.

Something else that comes across in conversations with Serbs experiencing the bombing is their attachment most of all to bridges, and their real grief at seeing the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad's three bridges destroyed by NATO, the last one on Tuesday.

After describing a bomb that came close to his apartment building and literally levitated him and his family out of their beds, Vladan writes, "Many factories, bridges, beautiful buildings and private houses are destroyed all around the country. There are several bridges in Belgrade, hundreds of people are standing all night to protect them as they hope NATO will not dare to shoot when they are full of people. But I wouldn't count on it. Please pray for us."

It's as if the bridges -- like Draskovic's comments suggesting the possibility of an end to the bombing -- are a last link to the outside world that the Serbian people desperately want to preserve.

By Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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