Survivors decry strike on Serbian TV

They dispute claim by West that facility broadcast propaganda

April 24, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- If truth is war's first casualty, then what is the world to make of NATO's attack early yesterday morning on the headquarters of Serbian state television?

That's the question on people's minds here.

Was it a strike at the heart of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's propaganda machine, as Western leaders claimed? Or was it a deadly act against free speech, as survivors maintained?

And even amid the rubble of a ruined television station, the questions gave way to the bloody reality that among the dead were the unseen human cogs of news-gathering and television production -- technicians and engineers.

"My colleagues were just doing their jobs," said Jelena Vidic, a Serbian state radio reporter. "Most of them were boys, some 20 to 25 years old. What is their guilt?"

In NATO's monthlong war against Yugoslavia, the bombing of Serbian TV in the heart of Belgrade was a devastating hit on a city's psyche. Ten people were killed, at least 10 were missing and 18 were hospitalized, according to Goran Matic, a Serbian government minister.

Many could hear the blasts as at least one missile smashed into the corner of the main studio and production building yesterday. And those watching television at 2: 10 a.m. could see the effects of the attack, as an interview Milosevic gave Houston's KHOU-TV station gave way to ghostly snow.

Within six hours, the station returned to the air. By last night, details of the event were shunted to the latter part of the main news broadcast, and the newscaster mentioned only the injuries and one death.

But throughout the day, debate raged.

To Western leaders, Serbian TV symbolizes the grip Milosevic holds over the levers of power in Serbia. In their view, the station's mixture of pop, pomp and propaganda provides a warped view of the Kosovo crisis and the "ethnic cleansing" campaign undertaken by Serbian security forces. The public also receives only one side of the story because the independent media were squashed before the war.

British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said the West intended to challenge Milosevic's "poisonous propaganda."

Yugoslav authorities said the West was attempting to "silence the truth." Officials here have long contended that NATO was embarrassed by Serbian TV coverage of such events as the mistaken attack on a convoy of ethnic Albanian refugees in Kosovo and a strike that killed passengers on a train.

"A truth cannot be caged; a truth can come to the surface," said the foreign minister's spokesman, Nebojsa Vujovic.

Workers spoke of their shock at being attacked, despite persistent rumors that the station was under NATO threat. They figured that if the West wanted the station shut, a less lethal strike could have been made against the main antenna located atop an unpopulated hill.

Instead, the blasts smashed the main control center, which was also used by Western television networks to send video feeds over a satellite. No Westerners were in the facility, but more than 100 workers were in the building, authorities said.

Zeljko Pantelic, a news anchor for Serbian state TV who was in the facility, spoke of hearing "two explosions, side by side."

"Everything crashed down," he said.

With smoke filling the studio, Pantelic and his colleagues desperately tried to find a way out of the building and eventually made their way to the street.

"It was terrible," he said. "Screaming. It was like a nightmare."

Some climbed down stairs. Others crawled through the rubble. Some did not get out. They were left buried in the twisted, fiery wreckage.

"Five of my friends are going to stay there forever," said Svetlana Radosevic, who works a day shift in the station's sports department.

She described those who died as young and innocent.

"They didn't think it would be their last night," she said.

Even those voices suppressed by Yugoslav authorities spoke out against the attack.

"This is not the way to solve the problem in Yugoslavia and Kosovo," said Veran Matic, director of radio station B-92, which was closed in the opening days of the war. "Western democracies are going against their democratic policies."

As workers cleared the wreckage, Western reporters were escorted to the site. The back of the building was blown out and windows were shattered, but a transmission tower remained standing, albeit with ripped wires dangling. Two satellite dishes lay on the grass.

Asked what he thought of the scene, Matic joked, "Maybe we'll get a modern satellite dish. Smaller."

"You can try to destroy our buildings, our cameras," Matic said. "You can't destroy the truth."

At a nearby children's cultural center that faces a courtyard near the TV station, workers stood in disbelief. The windows were gone, doors caved in and a fine dust coated the floors and walls.

But ceramic objects such as a cat and children's choir stood unmoved on tables.

A woman at the center struggled to describe her feelings and finally blurted in English: "I think it's a terrible thing."

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