Belgrade bracing for more hardship

As bombing goes on, residents struggle to see crisis through

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

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- On a day of rolling blackouts, hard rain and even harder feelings, Dr. Dusan Vranjesevic counts the costs of NATO's war against Yugoslavia.

The head of Belgrade's Clinic for Child Neurology and Psychiatry ticks off the familiar list of lost lives and crushed industries. He agonizes over the toll taken on the health of the country's children. Then, bringing the conversation to a personal level, he talks of losing hair and weight, and taking tranquilizers to calm nerves grown frayed by work and war.

"I use them," he says. "I am not ashamed."

A doctor taking tranquilizers provides a metaphor for how people here cope with a war that is starting its third month.

When NATO launched airstrikes March 24 to resolve the crisis over the Serbian province of Kosovo, few in the West envisioned the war going on for more than a few weeks, let alone a few months.

But with conventional wisdom turned upside down and the struggle threatening to become a war of attrition, many here are girding for weeks if not months more destruction and shortages.

The mood here has veered sharply over the past few weeks, with defiance toward the West giving way to acceptance that hardships may increase. Daily concerts that used to lure thousands to a main square are now lightly attended and less festive.

But people here appear resolved to see the crisis through to the end, and to hang on to Kosovo, a land rich in history dear to the Serbs and filled with hundreds of Orthodox churches and monasteries.

In some ways, though, Belgrade's population is blinkered. While the city has taken its share of hits, so have others, including Novi Sad, which lost its bridges over the Danube River, and Nis, home to Yugoslavia's third army.

Of course, Kosovo has taken a battering, from the air and the ground. The plight of the up to 1 million ethnic Albanian refugees who have been forced out of the province barely registers among Belgrade's citizens.

Still, life is growing harder here in the wake of NATO's repeated targeting of the power grid that serves the city.

By unplugging Belgrade, NATO is disrupting people's lives in a bid to sow dissension with the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Many here claim that the opposite is happening, that each bombing increases support for Milosevic. Only time will tell, especially since there have been sporadic reports of anti-war protests in three southern Serbian towns.

Take away the electricity, and Belgrade could become a cranky place. The city relies on electricity for lights, cooking and providing water. Many homes have freezers filled with spring vegetables and autumn meat, which could begin to spoil.

"Every day, it's harder and harder. I don't have to imagine what will happen if this continues," says Zivana Stosic, a 48-year-old housewife who lugs water up 11 flights of stairs and worries about what to do with 60 pounds of meat that might spoil in her freezer.

Hospitals are forced to use backup generators and burn fuel that has become even more precious since NATO has destroyed the country's refineries and depots.

Zoran Micic, a 26-year-old who lives with his elderly mother, Milica, is growing increasingly frantic. His mother needs dialysis treatment but was turned away yesterday because there was no power.

"If something happens to my mother I will hold NATO directly responsible," he says. "Revenge will be mine. I would like to see how the average American would react to this."

The average person here has been remarkably resilient, whether hunkering down in shelters during air raids or simply ignoring the threats and enjoying the night life in the handful of cafes and restaurants that struggle to remain open.

But the war stress on his patients concerns people like Vranjesevic, who runs the child neurology and psychiatry clinic. He's also cognizant of how vulnerable they are while lying in the hospital. During the war's opening days, he had his maintenance staff paint a giant red cross on the hospital's roof.

Now, the 45-bed unit is only one-third full. Vranjesevic, who has postponed his retirement a year, says a lack of gas, buses and money prevents parents from bringing their children to the unit.

Cutting the electricity was the last straw.

"I'm not politically oriented, but as a doctor, I'm bitter," he says.

He worries about his patients and his country. Vital medicines are in short supply, he says. Food could also become a problem if refrigeration is cut. Like many here, he wonders if NATO bombing has somehow created ecological devastation.

"Damaging the electricity and water is not good for so-called Western democracies," he says.

Still, he will hang on, providing care for his kids. The country is broken. But the spirit is willing.

"I think it will take years for us to rebuild," he says.

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