Comment 30 Mar 15

How Belgraders Remember the NATO Bombings

As the Serbian state tries to construct a narrative of national victimhood around the 1999 NATO air strikes, how did ordinary Belgraders experience the days and nights under fire?

Orli Fridman
Belgrade
The USCE tower on fire during the 1999 bombing.

I was not living in Serbia in 1999 and I did not experience the 78 days of the NATO bombings of the country from March 24 to June 10. In fact, living in Tel Aviv at the time, I cannot recall where I was on the day when the bombing campaign began.

This is however very unlikely for anyone who was living in Serbia then, as well as for those from then still Yugoslavia who were living abroad but following the events very closely. This is one of those events in Serbia about which one can still ask: “Where were you when the bombing began?”

This practice is of course not unique to Serbia, and in any other country such living memories of catastrophes and important events can still be vividly remembered. To my generation from Israel for example, it would be very common to remember: “Where were you the night when Rabin was assassinated?”

In Serbia today, there are indeed more recent events carrying such shared living memories. One can still ask: “Where were you the day Zoran Djindjic was assassinated?” “Where were you on October 5, 2000?” or even “Where were you when the twin towers fell?”

In the current ongoing construction of collective memories of the recent decades in Serbia, the 1999 NATO bombings is emerging as an important event on the new official state calendar, with new ceremonies and new annual rituals created.

This year, commemorating the 16th anniversary of the bombings, a state ceremony was organised for the first time in front of the ruined army headquarters buildings and broadcast live on TV.

The hegemonic narrative of victimisation places the events of the bombings as if almost isolated from the entire decade of the 1990s, disconnected from the broader context of the violent post-Yugoslav wars and conflicts.

Such collective memories will remain available to future generations, who will no longer have any living memories of the bombings but will carry the given meaning of those events as constructed and remembered in the present.

In recent research I conducted on the Memories of the 1999 NATO Bombing in Belgrade, I noticed early on the gap between the official state narratives and the way ordinary people recall the period of the bombings, especially the months prior to and during the bombings.

I hence set out to explore what was it that ordinary residents of Belgrade experienced during the months of the NATO bombings, asking the following questions: how is this event remembered and discussed (or not discussed and if so why) with 15 years’ hindsight? What narratives, other than those of victimisation, emerge from those memories?

Looking into the memories of experiences of ordinary citizens living in Belgrade during the bombing, additional narratives beyond victimisation come to the surface: friendships between people, the best parties in town, the local sense of humour, sarcastic graffiti on the walls of the city, side by side with memories conveying a sense of fear, despair and great confusion.

Serbian officials commemorate the 16th anniversary of the bombardment. Photo: Beta.

The months building up to the actual beginning of the bombings are quite fuzzy in the memories I came across. People remember a sense of confusion, of anticipation that something bigger or terrible was about to happen, a sense that ‘something was in the air’.

I even heard reference to a piece of graffiti that appeared in the city some time before the bombing, asking: “Are you going to bomb us, or can we paint our apartment?” But mostly, it seemed that people simply refused to believe this was really going to happen.

The decision whether to stay or leave Belgrade was reflected upon in all interviews with participants who were adults during the bombing; being able to leave was and still is perceived as a matter of privilege.

One participant, who was 16 years old during the bombings, fled to Serbia from Sarajevo with her mother and sister after the siege of the city had begun.

For her, this became an unforgettable moment: “I was already then [in1999] living in Serbia for seven years… my parents decided to move back to Sarajevo [when the bombing started] because Belgrade was not safe anymore. I remember my mother asking me, what shall we pack, and me thinking to myself, I cannot be a refugee all over again. I told my parents that I was not going…”

Most participants highlighted the uniqueness of interpersonal relations among their families, friends and even neighbours during the months of the bombings.

Younger participants remembered those months as an extended vacation; as there was no school, beautiful spring weather and plenty of time to play, watch films (mentioning great collections of films in the small hours of the night on Serbian TV) or theatre plays and films at the cinema for just one dinar.

While participants spoke about their memory of a sense of a routine of life in the city during daytime, nights are remembered as the time when most of the bombing took place. Night is also is remembered by some as when they experienced the best parties in town.

Fear was almost not discussed by participants who came of age during the bombing, while those who were adults already spoke at length about it. Fear of not being able to guarantee the safety of their loved ones, of their own kids, fear of the unknown, fear of exhaustion of over a decade of crisis and fear of the manner in which, according to some, the bombings strengthened the Milosevic regime that benefitted from it by fostering national homogeneity.

The most interesting finding for me, as a scholar of Peace and Conflict Studies, is the distance people in Serbia see between their experiences of the bombings and the actual war in Kosovo.

The narratives of victimisation that surfaced during the 78 days of the attacks, in many cases did and still do shatter all interest, knowledge about or awareness of the events that had taken place in Kosovo, from mass crimes against Albanians to acts of ethnic cleansing.

As one participant in the study put it: “The NATO bombing in Serbia is often addressed as if it had nothing to do with [the war in] Kosovo. Trying to contextualise the whole event, you immediately risk being attacked.”

Ordinary citizens of Serbia who see themselves as victims of Milosevic, as victims of the 1990s and of the NATO air strikes, find it hard to acknowledge and have compassion for the suffering of the other, in this case the Kosovar Albanians.

Memories of the NATO bombings as framed in the new Serbian calendar and more recent mnemonic practices are contributing to the lack of empathy and to a sense of a frozen conflict between Serbs and Albanians in relation to the recent war in Kosovo.

Such lack of empathy remains the main challenge for scholars and practitioners in the field of conflict transformation in their search for ways to bring about change in the relational dimensions between groups in conflict.

In my years of working as a facilitator of encounters of groups in conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, as a Jewish Israeli, I have experienced the lack of empathy of my own people towards the suffering of Palestinians as the most challenging aspect of my work.

It remains difficult to accept the lack of acknowledgement of the suffering of the other, even more so in recent years during Israeli attacks on Gaza, as I witness expressions of indifference and even joy towards the suffering of the Palestinian people.

The change I have experienced in my own worldviews led me to believe that the power of education, political education (as education for peace) and the choice to know are crucial tools for social change.

Unlike in current Israeli-Palestinian relations, in Serb-Albanian relations there is a window of opportunity that has been opened for processes of conflict transformation.

In the ongoing creation of new mnemonic rituals in Serbia there are choices: the possibility of transformative change or the cementing of the current frozen conflict. How will the present leadership shape the way future generations will remember the 1990s and the war in Kosovo in particular? How will these memories reflect on future Serb-Albanian relations and possibilities for improving or worsening inter-group relations?

Orli Fridman is the academic director of the School of International Training (SIT) Study Abroad program in the Balkans. She teaches at the Faculty of Media and Communications (FMK), where she heads the Center for Comparative Conflict Studies (CFCCS). The Memories of the 1999 NATO Bombings in Belgrade research was conducted at CFCCS as part of the project ‘On the Receiving End: towards more critical and inclusive perspectives on international intervention’. The project was funded by the British Academy and led by the Centre for International Intervention (cii) at the University of Surrey.

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