Shattered by misguided bomb

NATO apologizes after 20 are killed on quiet, tree-lined street

Military barracks missed

April 29, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SURDULICA, Yugoslavia -- The old man named Vojislav Milic wandered aimlessly through the mud, shattered glass and smashed tiles that lay along Zmaj Jovina Street yesterday. A cloth cap was tucked low over his unkempt hair, his face was unshaven and his eyes were rimmed red.

The house he had built with his sweat, the one that was considered the neighborhood's safest, was a wreck, a pile of concrete slabs and twisted steel. And his family was gone, his wife, son, daughter-in-law, two grandchildren, and a grand niece, swallowed up in the rubble of a NATO bombing mission gone horribly wrong.

This industrial city of 15,000 tucked into a lush green valley in southern Serbia, was in mourning, trying to come to terms with the awful moments Tuesday afternoon, when death came to Zmaj Jovina Street.

Twenty people were killed -- including at least three children between the ages of 3 and 5 -- and 100 were injured in the attack, according to Nebojsa Vujovic, a Yugoslav Foreign Ministry spokesman.

"There are no military facilities in the vicinity," Vujovic told reporters who were escorted to the scene by Yugoslav army officials. "So the civilians have been targeted as a policy of intimidation."

Jamie P. Shea, the NATO spokesman, said the raid destroyed an army training center. But during the attack, he said, "a precision-guided weapon failed to guide accurately to its designated target and impacted some 200 to 300 meters beyond the barracks in a small residential area."

He told reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium: "NATO has never and will never target civilians."

But it was hard to persuade people in Surdulica that they were anything but NATO targets.

This is the kind of place where you're supposed to live a quiet life amid tree-lined streets and immaculately kept homes. It's where many grow up to work at the local car factory, Zastava.

As workers cleared the rubble at two sites devastated by bombing, some residents wept while others cursed. Men sat on rooftops clearing away busted tiles. Others stood in stunned shock and disbelief a little more than 24 hours after the strike.

And almost incomprehensibly, tulips blossomed around the corner from the devastation.

On a street called Beogradska, a silver-haired woman dressed in black named Slavica Ristic stood on the lip of a crater that was 15 feet deep and flecked with bits of brick, wood and wire. A brown carpet also lay in the muddy remains. "Why my house? Why my house? I am not guilty," she shrieked, looking at the hole where her two-story home once stood.

Ristic survived the bombing only because she had fled to a neighbor's home.

But the carnage was a half-mile away on Zmaj Jovina Street. Milic's home was flattened, concrete piled up like toast on a plate, bent steel and shredded wires lying in the mud.

The family's new house, built next door to the old one and unoccupied, was also destroyed.

Heading for shelter

Neighbors said that at the time of the strike, Vojislav Milic was out in the fields, picking medicinal herbs.

When the air-raid sirens sounded, Vojislav's 37-year-old son Aleksandar, an auto factory worker who owned two tiny general stores, gathered his family and some neighbors and headed for the safety of the cellar in the older home.

But the place that was supposed to be safe turned into a death chamber.

Neighbors said nine people died in the basement, and only one got out alive, an elderly man who was buried up to his waist in rubble.

Another six homes in the neighborhood were destroyed, walls sheared off and beams fallen. And still more homes had smashed windows, or red clay tiles stripped off rooftops.

"This must remind you of your towns in your countries," said Dragan Tomic, a Serbian government minister.

He implored reporters to look at the "beautiful green hills" that surround the city and to "look at all the destruction."

It was hard to imagine what occurred here during an attack that residents said started at 12: 15 p.m. Tuesday and lasted about 20 minutes.

"It was like a very, very strong earthquake," said Dusan Petkovic, an English teacher.

"We didn't come right out after the first explosion. My son counted up to nine and then he stopped. We came out after the first long period of silence," Petkovic said.

And what the neighbors found was gruesome as workers sifted through the wreckage of Milic's home where blood-stained mattresses still lay in the basement a day after the strike.

"The only piece of a body you could see taken out as a whole was a leg," Petkovic said. "You can imagine the rest."

Others were touched by the tragedy. A man named Misa Radinovic, his eyes red, told reporters his aunt and cousin were killed.

`Write the truth'

"Write the truth, please, only write the truth," he said.

Across the street from Milic's home, a 48-year-old man named Slobodan Milosevic -- no relation to the Yugoslav president -- looked at the ghostly remains of his house.

"To build it, I worked four years in Africa, two years in Tunisia and two years in Algeria," said the construction engineer, who was six miles away from the city when the attack occurred.

"My first thought? We were lucky not to be in the house," he said. "We would have died.

"It's better to be alive. We'll build another house."

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