NATO bombs fail to dim the spirit of Yugoslav capital

Belgrade maintains essential services, a sense of civic pride

War In Yugoslavia

May 30, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Imagine what would happen if the Baltimore area were blacked out four times in a month, with everything from street lights to televisions shut off.

Picture living without running water for a few days.

Then, visualize people coping with air raids, anti-aircraft fire and bombs.

This is what it is like to be in Belgrade these days as NATO's war against Yugoslavia plows on.

Almost amazingly, the place hasn't yet fallen apart.

In fact, NATO planners might be shocked to find shops full of goods, buses and streetcars operating, cafes serving cappuccino and restaurants dishing out hunks of prime meat and fresh fish.

Even by the standards of some American cities -- which often grind to a halt for a week because of a couple of inches of snow, let alone bombs -- essential services aren't all that bad. Civic order and pride remain remarkably high, too.

City `still works well'

Garbage gets picked up, streets are cleaned and grass is cut. The tulips are even in bloom in front of City Hall.

That's where Belgrade's deputy mayor, Milan Bozic, holds court, sipping whiskey like lemonade as he details how a city of 2.2 million people remains alive.

"It still works well because of two things -- the discipline of the citizens and their support of the city," says the one-time mathematics professor.

It's not governmental agencies that are supported, Bozic says, but the entire concept of Belgrade, the city by the Sava and Danube rivers, the cosmopolitan heart of Serbia.

Under attack, people have been bound together, he says. Traffic lights may not work half the time, but traffic flows smoothly and accidents are rare, as drivers seemingly make up wartime rules as they go. In a society where pushing in line is expected, people are standing patiently on the pavement for such items as bread and cigarettes.

"If you are confronted with the most powerful military alliance since forever, then you stick with yourselves on the level of the family and the place where you live," he says.

Some unusual things are occurring in wartime Belgrade, Bozic notes.

He says recorded crime is at 20 percent of pre-war levels. Ask him about murders, he pauses and says, "I haven't heard of any, or read of any in the newspapers."

Sanitation workers also seem to be having a remarkably stress-free war, too.

"The collection of garbage is going quite well. People are throwing away much less and producing less garbage -- less than half the pre-war level," Bozic says.

Power is the key

But the key to it all is power.

NATO keeps knocking out power plants and shutting out the lights, and local engineers find new ways to flip the switches back on. Officials are loath to provide details of how they have regained power for fear of tipping their hands to NATO.

But power is normally restored first to areas around 13 hospitals. It usually takes up to two days to regain full power in the city after each major airstrike against power stations.

"The whole thing consists of how to put as much electrical power through the weak lines," Bozic says. Fortunately, Belgrade is in the center of the country. You can bypass the destroyed transformers for another."

But when NATO shuts out the lights, it also comes close to pulling the plug on a water system, which is dependent on electricity.

"We are afraid of diseases in Belgrade," Bozic says. "Imagine a city without water or a considerable part without water."

The man charged with keeping the taps flowing is Predrag Uskovic, general manager of Belgrade Waterworks and Sewerage Enterprise. A mechanical engineer by training, Uskovic has worked for the water company for 23 years. He revels in discussing the intricacy of a system created in 1892.

But nothing in his formal training could have prepared him for this, he says.

"This is not an easy or simple job to do," he says.

Thirty percent of Belgrade's water comes from the Sava River, while the rest is pumped from aquifers surrounding the city. In many ways the system is fragile, with fewer than three days supply of treated water in reservoirs.

Last Monday, the city was down to the final 4 percent of treated water before electricity was switched back on. By late Friday, Belgrade was back up to 43 percent of normal reserves.

"You don't have to be very wise to know all equipment, including pumps, are powered by electrical energy," Uskovic says.

But it's not just a lack of electricity that is disrupting supplies. Uskovic says two major pipelines have been struck by NATO bombs.

"It's not clear to us why NATO is hitting those systems," he says. "Is it collateral damage or is it on purpose?"

But Uskovic claims, one way or another, the city won't run dry. If water can't be delivered through taps, it will be delivered by tanker trucks hauling supplies from nearby springs.

"We can react very fast," he says. "We must admit the human factor is the most important factor."

Somehow, his workers are getting water to the people. Yet despite the long hours the staff is putting in, nobody is getting rich.

In fact, city workers, like everyone else, are getting poorer, with wages cut by as much as 30 percent to 40 percent during the war.

And in wartime, there is no chance of getting paid for overtime.

"In practice, we raised taxes by reducing the salaries," Bozic says.

For now, Belgrade works. But Bozic doesn't really want the word to spread too far. After all, NATO is watching.

Pub Date: 5/30/99

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