Balkan War Reports

Dear CTHEORY readers,

We have received numerous responses to Fast War/Slow Motion, focussing on NATO'S bombing in Yugoslavia and the intensified ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. In the interests of encouraging a dialogue among CTHEORY readers beyond the two fundamentalisms of Serbian nationalism and NATO cruise-ism, we are publishing the following two accounts of the war, one from Amsterdam, the other from Belgrade.

Meanwhile, the war turns in the direction of three orders of cynicism: fashion cynicism in the streets of Paris with the recent upsurge of interest in "Balkan peasant chic;" specular cynicism on the part of NATO with its special-effects burning of Belgrade beautifully visually framed by the night sky, and all this carefully staged for the opening of the next day's CNN news cycle; and political cynicism on the part of Milosevic who has already won the first stage of the war in Kosovo, colonized public opinion in Yugoslavia around the dictates of Serbian nationalism, and now is restless to begin settling accounts with Montenegro. For the Kosovo Albanians, then, three orders of victimization: by fashion, by NATO, and by ethnic nationalism. Today, the indeterminacy and commutability of the pure sign of evil stalks the world-city.

Arthur and Marilouise Kroker
Editors, CTHEORY

P.S. This just in from the vid-stream. Speaking from the silence of the dead in Kosovo, Milosevic offers a unilateral cease-fire. The White House is flustered, but you can just catch in what's not being said by its spokesman that a political deal could be in the air. Of course, nothing about crimes against humanity, nothing about war criminals staying in power for another day and another game, and certainly nothing about all those Kosovo refugees forced, often at gunpoint, to internment camps in Guantanamo Bay and Guam and Germany and Turkey. Refugee relief? or a new style of disappearing embarrassing political images? Two styles of ethnic cleansing: one grounded, one airlifted.

Dear Editors,

I am your passionate reader and I would like to contribute as much as I can to understanding the Kosovo problem. Therefore, I'm sending you this Letter From Amsterdam, hoping that you will publish it.

Sincerely yours,

Marko Popovic from Belgrade

A Bridge Too Far

The Petrovaradin bridge was destroyed this morning at 5 am. My wife woke me up with the news she just heard on BBC radio. I thought it was the newer railway/highway bridge but when I finally succeeded in phoning Novi Sad in the evening, I heard it was the old metal bridge connecting the center with Petrovaradin and the old fortress above, on the other side of Danube. Why that bridge? It was built in haste in the winter of 1944-45 by the German POWs under the supervision of the Red Army engineers and a railway line was added to renew the connection with Belgrade, 80 km south. So in my childhood, with each train passing, the ramp would go down and the traffic would pile up on both sides. It wasn't that much traffic. I remember the uneasiness I felt every time crossing the bridge even in daytime: the wooden planks of the side board got loose and rotten and one could see the water underneath. I feared I'd step into the void and even sink into the Danube, little as I was. In the early sixties, a new bridge was built 2 km down the river and the railway track was displaced too. The old bridge got a face-lift and served all these years as a busy connection, a way to enter straight into the center of Novi Sad from the Srem side. In the years before I had a driver's license I would often cross it often on foot to see the sunset, or stroll to the fortress, or visit some of the inns on the Petrovaradin side alive with wild Gypsy music. I would then return in the early morning hours, admiring the dawn above the city.

Ugly as it was, this bridge was part of my childhood and adolescence. The consequence of the bombing is that windows are broken in that part of town and there is no running water around, even the large hospital on the nearby hills of Fruska Gora, with some 900 beds, is without water. This is not making the awful lot of Kosovo Albanians easier. It is not prompting the brave Novi Sad citizens to begin an uprising against Milosevic. Of course not, Milosevic is stronger than ever and as popular as he was in 1988-89. Moreover, many decent Serbs will hate NATO, Western Europe and the USA for the next 50 years. The self-destructive, obsessive ideology of Serbian nationalism has been fed richly by this past week's attacks and has seen all of its favorite myths reinforced with new arguments and examples. If only NATO had bombed Milosevic's fleet in the Adriatic in September 1991 when it started pounding Dubrovnik, well before Vukovar and the horrors of Bosnia & Herzegovina, the ongoing Balkan war could have been stopped at an early stage. If only a fraction of 1% of what NATO is now spending in this campaign had been spent instead to support the emerging forces of the civil society and the independent media Serbia would have a different future.

Military escalation will not halt the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo nor speed up the return of the refugees. This senseless violence should stop at once. The politicians and generals have committed great errors in judgment. They should halt further bombings and step aside for a while. How about a conference with 50 Balkan scholars from Western and Eastern Europe getting together and using their collective knowledge to envisage some sort of future without war and terror, to restart a dialogue. In the meantime, politicians can vote budgets for the humanitarian aid much needed in the region and entrust the generals to implement it. We know how good they can be at it.

Dragan Klaic

Dr D Klaic is Professor at the University of Amsterdam and the Director of the Theater Instituut Nederland.

Dear CTHEORY editors,

After following for a whole day media reports on events in Yugoslavia happening at the moment, here is one more opinion seen from another point of view, this time architectural.

Today, we received this letter from a friend in Belgrade.

Ana Dzokic and Marc Neelen

Architectural Guide to the Ruins of Belgrade

Belgrade, April 3rd 1999

Ah, what a glorious victory, what a major hit!

The NATO bombers destroyed last night two empty administration buildings in downtown Belgrade. Besides threatening the nearby complex of hospitals, notably the Institute of gynaecology in which several babies were being born at the moment, they achieved virtually nothing. It took no more than an idiot to know that after days of threats, no people and no equipment would wait for the bombs inside these buildings. The Pentagon cynically says that the aim of this attack was to frighten the Serbs, but psychologically this destruction only increased the local population's anger and resolution to resist, broadening the gap that will have to be spanned once the war is over.

However, certain damage is achieved and it belongs to the field of culture, something that speaks, to use a euphemism, extremely unfavourably of the NATO's intentions. Both destroyed buildings were important pieces of architecture. The older one, the Federal Ministry of Internal Affairs, was erected immediately after WWII by Branko Petricic, previously Le Corbusier's collaborator, and represented one of the rare examples of Socialist Realist architecture in Yugoslavia. Now, someone may say, why would anybody cry over a building of such a "notorious" style? The reason lies primarily in its historical value: the very fact that it existed as one of few such examples clearly testified about an early rejection of Stalinism both in Yugoslav politics and culture. The other destroyed building was also very important. It was built at the end of the 70s by Ivan Antic, one of Yugoslavia's best post-war architects, and it completed a long strip of state administration buildings and embassies along Kneza Milosa Street, making a soft transition to the surrounding landscape. Thanks to its prominent position, the building acted as a gate to the centre of the city and was, therefore, an important landmark.

Cynics would say that neither of these two buildings belongs to the first-class architecture of Belgrade, but what follows, most probably as soon as tonight, will correct this fault. Other major state administration buildings have also been threatened in the last few days. Again, when attacked, they will probably be empty, but the cultural damage will be much greater. Any of the Ministries along Nemanjina Street can be ranked as a precious piece of architecture, and so can the Federal Government building in New Belgrade, one of the most beautiful examples of the International style in Yugoslavia. But the greatest value is, conveniently, at the greatest risk. It is almost surprising that the Ministry of Defence, a strategically completely harmless building, especially in this situation, has not been already bombed. Designed in the 50s by internationally renowned Nikola Dobrovic, the mythical figure of Serbian architecture and Honorary Member of the Royal Institute of British Architects, the building represents his last and his most important work and the only work he built in Belgrade. The Ministry of Defence means to the Serbian architecture what the Villa Savoy means to the French or, say, the Guggenheim to the American. To destroy it, and this is bound to happen in just a few hours, would mean an irreparable damage not only to the local, but to the international cultural heritage, regardless of what those who command its destruction say.

After damaging the ancient monasteries of Gracanica (UNESCO-protected) and Rakovica, destroying a strategically unimportant bridge in Novi Sad and the two buildings in downtown Belgrade, and after threatening other important works of art, it seems that Bill Clinton, who reportedly personally signed the order for last night's attacks, and NATO commanders have excellent tastes in architecture. So, what could be the next move? Take some hints from a humble professional: if you like Ivan Antic's oeuvre, then the Museum of Modern Art in New Belgrade is a must - you would destroy not only a masterpiece of modern architecture, but also a major collection of modern art. The Children's Clinic by Milan Zlokovic would also be good to attack: you could destroy not only the building that marked a turning point in Serbian Modernism, but also kill hundreds of ill kids. Why not consider the National Library by Ivo Kurtovic? When Germans burnt down the old library in 1941, only 500 000 books were lost - now the result would be much, much greater. Something more traditional? Take Princess Ljubica's Court - besides being so lovely, it is practically built into the densely populated heart of the city. There would be, oh, so many casualties and imagine how frightening it would be for the Serbs!

Until ten days ago, I was writing with my colleagues a guide to the architecture of Belgrade. It seems that in a couple of days we will have to shift our work to a guide to the ruins of Belgrade.

As I finish this letter, the sirens start to blow. Pray for us.

Vladimir Kulic, architect