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Belgraders Try To Forget Airstrikes

March 25, 2000

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Away from the noise and bustle of state-sponsored ceremonies marking the first anniversary of NATO airstrikes, ordinary Belgraders were trying to forget the bombing ever happened.

``I don’t need anyone to remind me of it,″ said Ljilja Stevanovic, 31, as she walked her 4-year-old son Marko across a park Friday. ``And I don’t buy the slogan what a great victory it all was.″

The government marked the anniversary of the start of the campaign on March 24, 1999, with rallies and declarations of a great victory. The government line is that the Serbs stood up to the greatest military alliance in history and that confronting such force was more courageous than bowing to Western imperialism _ regardless of the price.

But Stevanovic remembers how she grabbed Marko and ran to a shelter as the first air raid sirens shrieked across Belgrade soon after sunset. When she heard the distant sound of Tomahawk missiles slamming into the Batajnica military airport, she trembled with fear.

That emotion stayed with her for most of the NATO campaign.

To Stevanovic, events like the government-organized marathon or ``peace run″ Friday around each of the capital’s bombed-out landmarks, were bizarre and meaningless. ``The money would have been better spent on refugees or new jobs,″ she said.

Across from the park, on the other bank of the Sava River, the tilted and charred high-rise ruin of the Socialist Party headquarters _ struck with three NATO laser-guided bombs last April _ dominates the skyline of the residential New Belgrade area.

Many more mammoth destruction sites still stand: the Foreign Ministry, the army headquarters, the state television building, the federal and Serbian police buildings.

NATO’s bombing was acutely traumatic for the public, and up to 25 percent of the population is thought to have developed some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, psychiatrist Zoran Ilic told the independent NIN magazine. Belgrade’s Mental Health Institute has been flooded with people seeking help, he said.

But Ilic said many people are unable to move on because of the chaotic state of society _ a ruined economy, the country ostracized by the West and repression both of free media and dissent against the government of President Slobodan Milosevic.

``It’s a vicious circle _ the chaos on the outside triggers internal turmoil,″ he said.

According to Ilic, airstrike commemorations are not a good idea because for trauma survivors, any anniversary means reopening unhealed wounds.

Resolving the past involves realizing one’s responsibility, and Serbs are still a long way from doing that, analyst Drinka Gojkovic said. Serbs still lack a fundamental understanding of the Kosovo conflict and the fact that the NATO airstrikes were in response to the regime’s crackdown on ethnic Albanians, Gojkovic said.

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