The Guardian asked me to write this comment, actually some readers did!
Remembering NATO intervention in Belgrade 1999
None of my friends in Belgrade believed that the West would bomb us.
They considered themselves modern big-city Europeans, but my father thought otherwise. He was a World War Two partisan veteran, so during his entire lifetime he had stockpiled food, petrol and medicines.
On March 24, 1999 the first air-raid sirens went off. Instinct overwhelmed us and we ran to our basements, hauling canned goods. We’d seen this done in movies, of course.
Since it was downtown Belgrade where I lived, the basements were already occupied. My neighbor was Mica, a Roma beggar and prostitute with a crippled arm. When all the tenants flew to her humble room Mica proud to play the hostess, met us with a powerful brandy from an unmarked bottle.
Death was the great equalizer. We forgot our documents, our social values, we just tried to cope with the fear, and Mica offered consolation to all of us.
Later on, as the NATO air-raids became constant, regular and wide-spread, we developed the habits of a city under siege. During the intervals between alarms, we would scrounge for food, cigarettes, booze and medication, vigorously street-trading. Shops were empty or closed. Money was hyper inflated: the banks and schools were closed, public transportation didn’t work, and our private cars had no petrol. The entire town was a black market.
I’d never known that my neighbors were such nice and kindly people, so eager to trade favors. I opened my doors, and soon my flat became an informal mental-health clinic for the terrified and sleepless. The hospitals and mental institutions had dismissed their patients, so the homeless and anxious appeared at my door with sleeping bags, food, drink if they had any.
We would pass the night watching the warplanes. Soon we learned how to judge the distances by the shock and tremor of the detonations, and we invented ways to check on our friends and family in that part of town. The telephones were often dead, electricity blacked out, faucets were dry. But people would walk or bike the city, bringing news as couriers.
Children were the best messengers, our new postmen, full of energy and curiosity. They lacked the adult dread that we grown ups tried to conceal from them. Male children who turned 18 were suddenly draft dodgers or army deserters, more scared of arrest and court-martial than they were of the enemy bombs. These young fugitives commonly hid-out with the families of friends. The local military was mingling with the population, too. They had no bunkers that could possibly survive the NATO smart-bombs.
Siege life was monotonous. A young stranger pedaled up on his bicycle to my door, traded me his mom’s cake for a Hannah Arendt’s book I translated, then took a shower with my running water before going home to send off my email messages for me. Our part of town had water , his had electricity. Such was the nature of our hour-by-hour persistence, with our lives shrunk to the diameter of our neighborhoods. We had very little information on what was happening outside our neighborhood or hope for a happy end. But we had a lot of dignity and love for each other. Love affairs and even marriages were common in those days that might have been last for some.
To keep myself occupied, I made a movie during the bombings. I also wrote a war diary for the Internet, and soon befriended other such war diarists, such as the Nuha al Radi, an Iraqi dissident and emigre who had been bombed in Beirut. My electronic diary got gratifying feedback from other parts of the world, and it even appeared on the front page of the Guardian. Thanks to that, one of my dad’s long-lost college friends from Manchester was surprised and pleased to learn that my father was alive.
People in Belgrade survived the NATO bombings, but after the racket and concussion stopped, they died like flies. Friends of mine died one by one, my mother too, for all sorts of alleged reasons, post-traumatic stress, depleted uranium dust, the broken hospital system. The globalization of Balkanization was loose on the face of the Earth, with terror like the winds and disorders like the waters. Anyone could be blown up anywhere at any time; the incredible was real.