After a day of air raid sirens that warned of bombing attacks on the Croatian capital, Zagreb, Zlatko Barovic feared that the bombardment had begun as he was stuck in morning rush hour traffic Monday on a one-lane bridge, preparing to leave the country.
"I heard this roaring sound like a plane, and I was scared," the Johns Hopkins University graduate student recalled here last week. "But my brother-in-law showed me it was just the tram car grinding along the side of the bridge. I felt relieved, but I knew it would get worse for my family remaining there."
Clouds of fear dampened normal life in Zagreb, Mr. Barovic said, as forces of the Croatian republic surrounded Yugoslav army barracks, prompting fear of air force reprisals and gunfire by the besieged units.
Residents warily picked their travel routes through the city to avoid passing the barracks and outposts scattered throughout Zagreb and environs, he said.
Air raid warnings sent people running to bomb shelters or basements, awaiting a response by the Serb-dominated federal forces.
Newspapers ran ads for firearms of all types, he said. Bulletproof jackets were also in demand.
"TV programs were relatively normal, but movie theaters were empty because people feared bombing. But the coffee shops were filled; everyone was talking about the situation."
Many debated the moral dilemma of whether to stay and fight or to move with their families to safer areas in nearby Slovenia. "My brother-in-law saw the kids he had taught in school were volunteering for the local forces, and he wondered how he could abandon them. He felt he had to stay in the country," said Mr. Barovic, who had returned to Zagreb for his father's funeral.
"And if Vesna wasn't here [in Baltimore], I could not have been able to leave my country," he said, referring to his wife, Vesna Dalbelo, who is an interiors architect with the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.
The Hopkins connection paid off in finding a refuge for their families left in Zagreb. A woman living in Slovenia, whom the couple met at Hopkins last year, invited the families to her home. A day after Mr. Barovic left Yugoslavia, his mother and his sister's family, along with Ms. Dalbelo's sister and children, moved to that house in Ljubljana.
Since Croatia's declaration of independence, the couple see no future for a reunited Yugoslavia.
"Our generation didn't care about borders," Ms. Dalbelo said. "But the madness of nationalism spread through the country, and it can never be the same again."