In Belgrade in 1999, as the air-raids became regular and widespread, we lived on instinct, and in constant fear
Firefighters tackle the burning Serbian interior ministry building in downtown Belgrade after a Nato cruise missile attack, in April 1999. (Photograph: Stringer/EPA)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 second world war veteran, and during his lifetime he had stockpiled food, petrol and medicines. Now I look to Damascus, and I wonder how they are feeling about western intervention. I could tell them.
On 24 March, 1999 the first air-raid sirens went off. Instinct overwhelmed us and we ran to our basements, hauling canned goods along with us. We’d seen this done in movies, of course. Since we were in downtown Belgrade, the basements were already occupied. My neighbour, Mica, was a Roma beggar and prostitute with a crippled arm. When all the tenants flew to her humble room Mica was proud to play the hostess, and met us with a powerful brandy from an unmarked bottle. The threat of death became the great equaliser. We forgot our documents, our social values, we just tried to cope with the fear.
Later on, as the Nato air-raids became constant, regular and widespread, 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 cars had no petrol. The entire town was a black market.
I’d never known that my neighbours were such nice and kindly people, so eager to trade favours. 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 and drink if they had any.
We would pass the night watching the warplanes. Soon we learned how to judge the distances by the 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 was blacked out, taps 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.
A young stranger pedalled up on his bicycle to my door, and traded his mother’s cake for a Hannah Arendt 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 existence, our lives shrunk to the diameter of our neighbourhoods. We had very little information on what was happening outside our neighbourhood or much 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 the last for some.
To keep myself occupied, I made a film during the bombings. I also published a war diary on the internet, and soon befriended other such war diarists, such as Nuha al-Radi, an Iraqi dissident and emigre who had been caught up in the bombing of Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. My electronic diary got feedback from other parts of the world, and it even appeared in the Guardian. Thanks to that, one of my father’s long-lost college friends in Manchester was surprised and pleased to learn that he was alive. We felt less isolated thanks to the internet.
People in Belgrade survived the Nato bombings, but after the destruction stopped, many died for all sorts of reasons – post-traumatic stress, depleted uranium dust, the broken hospital system. My mother was among them. Neighbouring countries suffered also the consequences of polluted air and water and crippling economic sanctions in the war zone. The result of this conflict was the globalisation of Balkanisation. Anyone could be blown up anywhere at any time; but in humanitarian terms, few would ever profit from it.
Jasmina Tesanovic is a Serbian author, filmaker and a feminist: she lives between USA, Italy and Serbia and writes online here