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Sunday, March 28, 1999 Published at 17:21 GMT


Life under fire in Belgrade

Sustained air strikes by Nato warplanes

Most foreign journalists have had to leave the Serbian capital Belgrade since the air strikes began. One of the few western journalists who have managed to stay is BBC World Affairs Editor, John Simpson.


[ image: John Simpson: But for the silence, everything would be normal]
John Simpson: But for the silence, everything would be normal
I feel I have been here before. I do not mean Belgrade because I have spent a lot of time in this city over the years. I mean the feeling of being in an almost empty hotel with cruise missiles heading in our direction at 500mph. It is very like being in Baghdad in 1991.

At night I peer out of my window at a dark and frightened city just as eight years ago I looked out at Baghdad when the air war began there.


Simpson: "I feel I have been here before"
In the daytime I can see the big road junction which lies just outside. There are relatively few cars out there and they are going faster than usual. It is a beautiful sunny day yet out of that pale blue sky anything can come.

Differences with Gulf War

Kosovo: Special Report
But it is the differences with the Gulf War that are instructive. Eight years ago in the Al Rashid hotel we had no water, no power, no telephone. Here in Belgrade, if it were not for the fact that the corridors of the Hyatt Hotel were empty, everything would be entirely normal.

I watch BBC World on the television set in my room. I ring room service every now and then for a coffee or a sandwich and when I am ready to file a report for the BBC I pick up the phone.

It does not always work if there is an air raid going on. But in that case I reach for my mobile. Directly the western press pulled out of here the other day the network became a lot less congested.

Hi-tech war


[ image: Sea-base cruise missiles aimed at Serbia]
Sea-base cruise missiles aimed at Serbia
The city is enduring something very different from the war it anticipated. You can see that kind of war in the old black and white feature films they show on Serbian television just about every evening at present. Dazed civilians clambering out of the rubble, gallant partisans shooting entire detachments of Nazis.

That of course is not the way the west fights its wars now. It is all done with laptops and head-up screens and if just one of those expensive bombs or missiles should go badly astray and hit say a school or a hospital, the effects on public opinion the world over would be catastrophic.

Which brings me to the other big difference from Baghdad. There, the authorities realised right from the start that the only way a small, weak country can fight a coalition of strong ones is to work on their public opinion.

The Iraqis welcomed foreign journalists and gave them every protection and help in their reporting. Serbian attitudes are much more unreconstructive than that.

For a start, this is not a dictatorship like Iraq, even though President Milosevic is cleverly using the big extra powers which the current state of emergency gives him to strengthen his position and clamp down hard on any possibility of defence or disagreement.


[ image: Violence in Kosovo intensifying]
Violence in Kosovo intensifying
But Serbs do not have to be ordered out of their schools or hospitals or factories to go and demonstrate against the west as happens in Iraq. Here the feeling is genuine and it can break out at any moment.

It is obviously happening now in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo province. There is no need to give Serbian policemen or soldiers any orders to arrest or shoot ethnic Albanians there. They do it off their own back.

Anger among Yugoslavs

As for the kind of Yugoslavs whom many of us have met in different parts of the world - pleasant, educated, English-speaking people, fond of Britain and the United States and usually deeply hostile to the extreme nationalism of President Milosevic - well they feel more betrayed than anyone that the countries they like most should now be attacking them.

I do not go out much in the streets at the moment because to be recognised as a westerner is pretty dangerous. But whenever I have been out I found it was often the educated Anglophiles who have been the angriest.

Which brings us to the biggest difference of all between the situation here and in Baghdad eight years ago. Here, they feel the western press has thoroughly traduced them, demonised them, turned them into an enemy.

Serbs have, they say, been presented as the villains of every war here since the former Yugoslavia started to break up a decade ago.

It is no good trying to make the distinction President Clinton did when he tried to speak directly via television to the people of Serbia that the only person to blame was President Milosevic and that the United States and its allies have no quarrel with the people of Serbia.

Even those who are most strongly anti-Milosevic do not buy that one. They feel they are on the receiving end of the bombs and missiles.

Political differences between Serbs get smaller each time the air raid sirens go and, as I am writing this, the sirens are going once more. President Milosevic is about to consolidate his domestic political position yet again courtesy of another round of Nato missiles.



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