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.

Scars Of Sarajevo – Haunted By Fear: The City As A Museum Of War (Travels In Eastern Europe #24)

Viewing the Besieged Sarajevo exhibit at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina was a highly emotional experience. As engaging as that exhibit was, a more absorbing experience was to be found out in the streets, alleyways and parks of Sarajevo. All of these places were part of a living museum. As I discovered while walking around the city, damage from the siege was written on walls scarred with holes from bullets and artillery shells, painted on the streets where roses memorialize those who were killed and in parks where the remnants of land mines could still be found. The length and ferocity of the siege meant that no area of the city had been left untouched by the brutal hand of modern war.

Graffiti on the ruins of a building in Sarajevo

Graffiti on the ruins of a building in Sarajevo

The Reality Of War – Bullet Holes & Backstreets
One of the most interesting aspects of Sarajevo was how the heavily trafficked tourist areas bore few noticeable scars from the siege. I spent hours in the Old Town (Bascarsilja) and around the pedestrian shopping street of Ferhadija which were immaculately kept. It was only when I adventured beyond these areas into the backstreets and alleyways that I began to notice hundreds of bullet holes covering the buildings. As a rule of thumb, the further out from the center I walked, the worse the damage. Some buildings looked abandoned and bore gaping wounds from artillery shells. The bucolic hills that ringed Sarajevo had been used by Serbian military forces to rain death and destruction onto the civilian populace. Some of the civilians under siege in Sarajevo had even been ethnic Serbs. The possible murder of their ethnic kinsmen did not faze those who commanded the heights above.

Viewing all the damaged buildings brought home to me just how dangerous the city had been during the siege. It was one thing to read about how the citizens of Sarajevo had to run for their lives every time they crossed a street, quite another to stand in the very same spots contemplating how anyone could have stepped out of a doorway without getting shot. What I saw was a rough approximation of the day to day reality of life in the city for over fourteen hundred days. As bad as all this looked, it was nowhere close to the fear felt by those who were caught up in a cauldron of urban violence.  Anyone who stayed in Sarajevo during the siege realized there was only one true escape from war and that was death. Roses painted on the pavement served as a constant reminder of those who were killed. Family, friends, neighbors and relatives, Muslim, Croat, Serb, Bosnian or Bosniak, death showed no prejudice.

Cemetery in Sarajevo

Cemetery in Sarajevo

Lives Saved & Lives Lost – Memories Of A Siege
If seeing all this was not enough, there was also the fact that Sarajevo is filled with people who lived through the siege. Every time I walked past someone, I would wonder to myself what they had seen and heard during the war. What kind of sacrifices had they made in the interest of self-preservation? I asked the proprietor of my hotel, who was in his late twenties if he remembered much about the war. He had been very young at the time, but remembered the constant explosions and sounds of gunfire. It was just how things were back then. His answer was very matter of fact. Maybe he was so young at the time, that it did not make a lasting impression. More likely, he had blocked out the experience or compartmentalized the trauma. Then again who would want to discuss such a horrific experience with someone they barely knew.

It was impossible to visualize the mental scars that Sarajevo suffered, but in the hills above the city I found myself witness to at least one family’s grief.  It was not the minarets or mosques or the languidly flowing blue ribbon of the Miljacka River that I found most memorable about Sarajevo. Instead, it was the seemingly endless rows of Muslim tombstones that spread out like giant white sheets covering sections of the hillsides. Late one morning I was making my way to the ruins of Vratka Fortress which overlooks the city. On my way up I came across one of many graveyards. What looked to be a large family gathering was taking place at one of the graves. There were tears, grief stricken women, middle aged men with their heads bowed and eyes cast downward. It was a sobering sight that must be repeated all too frequently in Sarajevo. As I walked past row after row of headstones I noticed the relative youth of those buried there. Elvir who lived from 1971 to 1993, Ervad from 1977 to 1996 and on and on and on. The majority of these tombstones were of young men, sons, brothers and fathers gone forever.

An explosive situation - Vraca Memorial Park (Spomen-park) in Sarajevo

An explosive situation – Vraca Memorial Park (Spomen-park) in Sarajevo

Bombs Away – Minesweepers
My last evening in Sarajevo, I decided to walk up the road that went past my accommodation in the Vraca neighborhood of the city. It was pretty much a straight climb up until I got to Vraca Memorial Park (Spomen-park), a green space with busted concrete walkways and crumbling monuments badly in need of repair. The park is dedicated to the citizens of Sarajevo who lost their lives during World War II. While walking along, I saw an elderly Bosnian man up ahead of me who was also taking a stroll. He suddenly stopped and looked down, then began yelling in my direction while motioning me over to him. At first I wondered if it was some kind of ruse, but I kept walking toward him. When I got close, he pointed at the ground just off the walkway. There was a small hole with the remnants of a land mine. We could see where the mine had been defused, but enough of it still lay there that I immediately knew what we were looking at. The old man shook his head violently from side to side and kept saying what I imagined was the Bosnian word for land mine. He eventually walked away, but I stood there staring at that spot for quite some time. Finally I looked up. I was no longer in just a park, but on a battlefield. A sense of menace came over me. In that moment I felt fear, the fear that still haunts Sarajevo.

Visiting Sarajevo – Shattered Impressions: Thirty Years & Thousands Of Miles Away (Travels In Eastern Europe #21)

Just as Bucharest has become associated with the monstrous architectural excesses of Nicolae Ceaucescu, my next destination, Sarajevo will always be associated with two tragic events that the city can never quite escape, the Assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand which sparked World War I and the 1,425 day siege of the city by Serbian forces during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s. The name Sarajevo evokes memories of these two events. One was the precursor to modern warfare, the other indicative of its ultimate extreme. These events will always have their place in history and give the city an unjustified reputation for infamy, as if it was fated to be the place where these events would occur. In other words, there must be something about Sarajevo. I must admit that I was not immune to such thinking. It was part of what drew me to plan my first trip to Eastern Europe and the Balkans around visiting the city.

I had originally planned to take a train through Bulgaria and Serbia to Bosnia, but after deciding to visit Bucharest it was easier for me to fly into Sarajevo. This was not the optimum way to ease into the Balkans. There would be no gradual change of scenery or prolonged crossing of borders, the transition would be abrupt. It was almost as if I was being parachuted into the city. Before parting ways with my travel companion, Tim, he had mentioned visiting the city. He called it “fascinating” and said it was well worth a multi-day visit. As the plane prepared for landing on the outskirts of the city, at an airport that had been central to the nearly four year siege, I wondered what to expect. I doubted it would be anything like my first encounter with the city, thirty years before and thousands of miles away.

Opening Ceremony for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo

Opening Ceremony for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo (Credit: BiHVolim)

The Winter Games – Sarajevo Shines In The Spotlight
It was the winter of 1984, Cold War tensions ran high and the Soviet Union was viewed as a monolithic Evil Empire. At least that is what we thought or were taught in the United States. The Olympic Games were more than a sporting competition. They were also a contest in the struggle for ideological supremacy. Posing the question of which system was better at developing athletes. A state controlled, centrally planned system or one inspired by the free market? The first communist nation to hold a Winter Olympics would be Yugoslavia with Sarajevo as the host city. Yugoslavia was an outlier, not part of either the Warsaw Pact or NATO, a communist nation with elements of the free market. The Yugoslavs hoped the Winter Olympics would boost their reputation with Sarajevo acting as the showpiece. The Yugoslav government spent $135 million in preparing for the games, an unheard of sum for a mid-sized country.

As a teenager in North Carolina and fanatical sports fan I eagerly followed those Winter Olympics. My most enduring memory is of snow, lots of snow, huge fluffy flakes falling on Sarajevo for days on end. Each day I tuned in, there would be legendary ABC Sports host, Jim McKay, standing amid a snowstorm, telling an American audience that Sarajevo was experiencing blizzard conditions. The downhill skiing event was canceled no less than three times due to heavy snow and high winds. I wondered if the event would ever be run. When it finally was, American Bill Johnson would be the surprise winner. I remember everything on the race course covered under a thick blanket of snow. For me, Sarajevo became the place of eternal snow, where it was forever winter. It was a powerful image that I struggled to shake less than a decade later, when the city came under siege.

A burning government building during the Siege of Sarajevo

A burning government building during the Siege of Sarajevo (Credit: Mikhail Evstafiev)

Siege Mentality –  A Ruined Image
The siege of Sarajevo brought images of a war torn city where people ran for their lives every time they crossed the street. There was no snow, only burning buildings gutted by artillery fire. Bullets, shrapnel and fear were pervasive. The siege seemed to be never ending, to the point that it became almost an afterthought. Bosnia became a synonym for ethnic conflict and Sarajevo a byword for death and destruction. Was this really the place that had hosted that winter wonderland of an Olympics? A dream city had somehow become a nightmare one. The siege and the Yugoslav Wars finally came to a muddled end, but Sarajevo would never be the same, at least not in the popular imagination. The war left thousands of scars, as many mental as physical.  As peace took hold Sarajevo faded into the background, part of yesterday’s news, obscured by international terrorism and the Euro Crisis. I thought little of it, as did the rest of the world.

Any mention of the 1984 Winter Olympics focused on the dilapidated state of the once magnificent facilities. War, neglect and lack of money had turned them into ruins at a very early age. Sarajevo came back into the news with the imminent arrival of the centennial of the Great War. It started to pop up in news headlines prior to the anniversary. It had been a dream of mine to visit the actual site of the Archduke’s assassination ever since I learned about it in high school Western Civilization class. My teacher, Mr. Johnson, spent an entire class drawing a diagram of the Sarajevo street layout, then explaining the causes of confusion that ended in Gavrilo Princip firing the deadly shots from point blank range that murdered the Archduke and his wife. Mr. Johnson had an incredible curiosity and spoke with such passionate fervor that it made me want to visit Sarajevo. To stand in the exact same place where to my mind, twentieth century history had begun. That was my goal in traveling to Sarajevo.

Sarajevo - from above

Sarajevo – from above (Credit: Julian Nitzsche)

Shock of the Normal – Opposites Attract
As my flight to Sarajevo touched down at the airport I looked out the window. I saw a place that looked completely normal. The wounds of war had been paved or painted over, the airport totally refurbished. It was inviting and well organized, passport control was a lark. My first impression of Sarajevo was of a warm, welcoming place, the complete opposite of its recent past.

It Was Not Just the Balkans: Pre-World War I Political Violence in Europe

One of the prevailing stereotypes in 19th and 20th century European history is of the Balkans as a tragic and fated land, riven by infighting, feuds, diabolical plotting, ethnic hatred and outright war. There were notable examples of this kind of behavior throughout the region on multiple occasions over the past two centuries. Yet the same could be said for much of Europe during that time.

Bias & Backwardness – The Traditional Balkan Narrative
The reputation of the Balkans took a turn for the worse during the 1990’s. Following the collapse of Communism and Eastern Europe’s peaceful return to democracy and economic development, the former Yugoslavia went in a very different direction, it imploded. What followed became known as the Yugoslav Wars. The fighting was broadcast via television and internet to a western world stunned to see that large scale violence and ethnic cleansing could still occur in post-modern Europe.

The popular press covered the fighting with a wide range of preconceived notions. Among these were several recurring themes including that the violence was endemic to the area’s history, feuding and plotting was a way of life that rose almost to the level of a profession and it was a backward land infused with oriental despotism. Whether these were true or not hardly mattered, they fit into a traditional narrative that had a long history reaching back a couple of hundred years.  Trying to identify the origins of this bias against the Balkans has been the subject of many book length studies. This is not the time, place or space for such a study. Yet an understanding of how the Balkans came to be viewed today as a land of despotism can be easily understood through the action for which it was most famed in the late 19th and early 20th century, the act of assassination.

The exception or the rule - Gavrilo Princip being detained by Austro-Hungarian soldiers right after his assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

The exception or the rule – Gavrilo Princip being detained by Austro-Hungarian soldiers right after his assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Murder & Intrigue – A European Phenomenon
Assassination seems to be the prototypical Balkan crime. It hits on all the derogatory stereotypes given to the region: radical politics, ethnic strife, extreme nationalistic sentiments and subversive conspiracies. It as though the Balkans had the market cornered on this type of behavior. In reality it did not. At the height of an assassination phenomenon lasting from 1900 to 1913, no less than twenty-eight different politicians, diplomats and heads of state were shot, stabbed or blown up in Europe, yet the Balkans accounted for only eight of these. That is less than three out of ten in the supposed powder keg of Europe.

One of the main reasons the Balkans became tarred with a reputation for murderous intrigue was because of two famous assassinations which occurred in the area during the early 20th century.  One is still well known today, the other relatively forgotten even though it caused a sensation at the time it occurred.  The more famous of the two was the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by a Bosnian Serb nationalist. It goes down as one of the most improbable and important events in modern times. The reverberations from that murder led to World War One. People who haven’t the slightest idea about the Austro-Hungarian Empire or its annexation of Bosnia are still aware that a strange character known as an Archduke was gunned down in Sarajevo. Many still believe such crimes to be typical of a backward region consumed by ancient hatreds.

Le Petit Parisien cover image of the assassination of King Alexander I of Serbia

Le Petit Parisien cover image of the assassination of King Alexander I of Serbia

Primitive Instincts
The other, lesser known political murder which informed the popular image of the Balkans took place in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia in 1903. In what is now called the May Overthrow, a group of Army officers led a coup against King Alexander I and his wife Queen Draga. The conspiracy is said to have grown to the point that it included an astounding 160 people. On the 29th of May, just a few hours past midnight, in the damp, chill air of Belgrade, the Royal Palace was surrounded by officers and soldiers determined to kill the King. They had a difficult time getting access to the royal quarters, but were determined enough to blow the King’s bedroom door open with dynamite. After searching in vain for a considerable amount of time, the royal couple was discovered hiding behind a secret door. What happened next is open to debate, but it seems that both the king and queen were almost immediately shot. The conspirators then took turns sabering them, accounts state that up to twenty-eight slashes were inflicted upon their bodies.

To add a final humiliation, the bodies were dumped out of a second story window of the palace onto manure piles in the gardens. The report of the coup made headlines all across Europe. The vindictive violence done to the corpses was shocking and bestial. This helped cement a popular impression of the Balkans as a land of backwardness, where royalty was treated with utter contempt. Interestingly, both famous Balkan assassinations took the lives of royal spouses. In this land, even the wives of royal heirs and monarchs were not safe.

Nikolai Bobrikov, the Governor General of Finland was one of three political figures assassinated in the Nordic Country during the early 20th century. Political violence was endemic and sometimes much worse in other parts of Europe than the Balkans

Nikolai Bobrikov, the Governor General of Finland was one of three political figures assassinated in the Nordic Country during the early 20th century. Political violence was endemic and sometimes much worse in other parts of Europe than the Balkans

Alternative Reality – European Backwardness
The two assassinations still inform how the Balkans is viewed today. The region has never really been able to escape the popular perception of what happened in Belgrade and Sarajevo over a century ago. The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s only tended to exacerbate matters. Ignorance by the general public in this case lends itself not to bliss, but to fear. Many avoid travel to Bosnia or Serbia due to its violent reputation. Those who do travel to the region are pleasantly surprised. Despite the fact that it is still developing economically it is one of the safest places in the whole of Europe with incredible natural and cultural history on offer.

Those who do bypass the Balkans would do well to remember that the rest of Europe was plagued just as much or more by political murder in the early years of the 20th century. For instance, in 1900 the King of Italy was shot dead, pierced by the four bullets of an assassin. Four notable Russian politicians were murdered from 1900 – 1911 and even in Finland (a land which today conjures up images of placid serenity) three notable public figures were murdered in a seven year period beginning in 1904. Yet no one much recalls those acts of violence. There is something about the Balkans that brings to mind smoke filled coffee houses, populated with saboteurs plotting to bring down the powerful. Whether this is true or not, hardly matters. That is the perception in the western world and that perception has created its own reality.