Dancing In The Shadow of Death – Acts Of Reckless Defiance: The Bombing Of Novi Sad (Travels In Eastern Europe #31)

For Americans the 1990’s were largely a decade of prosperity and carefree optimism. The dotcom boom sent the economy soaring, unemployment was low and incomes were rising. Terrorism was still on the periphery and the national mood was optimistic. The country was consumed by the internet, various Clinton administration scandals and the OJ Simpson murder trial saga. By and large the United States was at peace, except for involvement in a handful of military engagements, the most prominent of which was in the former Yugoslavia. As the decade wound down Serbian forces, at the behest of Slobodan Milosevic, interjected themselves into the conflict in Kosovo to ostensibly protect the province’s Serbian population against ethnic Albanian forces. This threatened another round of genocide such as had already occurred earlier in the Yugoslav wars. When Serb forces refused to obey a NATO order to leave Kosovo, the alliance led by the considerable firepower of the United States, conducted a series of military strikes against targets in Serbia. Many of these strikes hit the city of Novi Sad, which I was passing through on the train to Belgrade.

Liberty Bridge in Novi Sad destroyed during NATO air strikes in 1999

Liberty Bridge in Novi Sad destroyed during NATO air strikes in 1999 (Credit: Darko Dozet)

Prime Target – A City In The Crosshairs Of Conflict
My fear of traveling to Serbia had largely subsided after a couple of hours gliding across the Vojvodina region by train. The countryside looked much like that of the Great Hungarian Plain, endless fields of prime agricultural land. It was hard to imagine that an alliance led by my own country had ever dropped bombs on this land, which looked like a snapshot of serenity from the window of a train car. The hard truth was that this had indeed occurred and not that long ago. As the train arrived on the outskirts of Serbia’s second largest city, I was about to pass through what had been a prime target of the bombing.

If there was anywhere in Serbia that I should have worried about negative attitudes towards Americans than Novi Sad would have been that place. The city had suffered grave damage during the NATO bombings of 1999. This was sadly ironic since politically, Novi Sad did not support Milosevic, but instead was ruled at that time by the Democratic Opposition. Nonetheless, its role as the second largest city in the country, situated astride the Danube made it a prime target. Novi Sad was home to three bridges over the Danube, as well as various industrial facilities.

Bombing began on March 24th and would continue for the next two and a half months. In less than four weeks NATO’s missiles and cluster bombs managed to destroy all three of the city’s bridges that crossed the Danube. This would effectively blockade the river for the next four years, causing economic hardship both for Serbia as well as for NATO members upstream. One of the enduring images of the bombing was black smoke pouring into the sky. This resulted from multiple strikes against oil refineries located in the city. The pollutants that were released could be just as dangerous to civilians as any bomb. Breathing in such a large amount of carcinogens in so short a time, led to respiratory problems or worse. It was estimated that over 50,000 tons of refined oil went up in thick, toxic clouds of smoke.  The city’s electrical and water supplies were also knocked out. Novi Sad was on its knees by May.

Black smoke billows up from a refinery struck by the NATO bombing of Novi Sad in 1999

Black smoke billows up from a refinery struck by the NATO bombing of Novi Sad in 1999 (Credit: Darko Dozet)

The Dark Side Of Irony – A Twisted War
This being modern warfare, the strikes were also tinged with a dark irony, both during and after the bombing. By one estimate, the destruction of the oil refineries and other industrial targets actually led to less pollution. The old communist era refineries were so archaic that their destruction actually improved air quality. Another darkly ironic twist took place on the final day of bombing in June. More lives were lost on this day than any other. This was a bizarre coda to the seemingly endless Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s. It then took several years to replace two of the bridges over the Danube, the funding to reconstruct these bridges came from the European Union. Many of these same EU members were also part of NATO, effectively helping pay for the reconstruction of what they had previously destroyed. The bridge, which my train crossed the Danube on, was only temporary. A permanent replacement is still in the planning stages.

The scars of the bombing can be quantified in terms of physical damage, but the human toll is quite another matter. Precision strikes can limit collateral damage, but not entirely avoid it. Innocents were killed and wounded, some unwittingly used as human shields by the government. Others lived through a trauma they would never forget.  The sky looked very different after death and destruction had rained down from above. The NATO airstrikes brought the Milosevic regime to the point of collapse while saving the lives of countless Kosvars, both Albanian and Serb. Meanwhile, Novi Sad paid a heavy price since much of its population opposed the regime. It was unfair, but war is not about fairness. There was no escape for civilians. A sad reminder that one thing remains certain in war, that there will always be losers.

Crater from NATO missile strike between two apartment buildings and elementary school

Crater from NATO missile strike between two apartment buildings and elementary school (Credit: Darko Dozet)

Getting Bombed – Shaking Fists At An Empty Sky
And there will always be madmen and women who take on a different persona, transformed by war. One of the less reported aspects of the bombing concerned teenage Serbs. Rather than huddling in shelters, they spent the days drinking and partying. They hung out close to the Danube. When it was time for another round of bombing the police would usher them away.  It was an act of reckless defiance. Mortal threats did little to dissuade their behavior. There was something both insane and admirable about such conduct. These young Serbs had few defenses other than liquid courage. It was one way to fight back against the injustice of war. This confirmed what I had heard about Serbs, that they are a very tough people, who love to enjoy life. Here was the youth of a nation dancing in the shadow of death while shaking their fists at an empty sky. While black smoke billowed up and hundred foot flames licked the air, many of Novi Sad’s younger citizens threw caution to the infernal wind.  This was perhaps the most appropriate, rather than the safest, response to the grave injustice that fell upon that city by the Danube.

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