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NATO destruction apparant in Belgrade


The plane makes its ascent from Belgrade International Airport. It is All Saints’ Day, one of my favorite days of the liturgical year. I miss the services back at my parish in Milwaukee, a parish that has among its members some of the wealthiest and most influential citizens of Milwaukee. St. Peter’s in Belgrade, the local parish church I attended while in Belgrade, by contrast, has some of the poorest, most powerless people. Some make salaries of only $40 a month. Serbs, like Palestinians and Iraqis, are perhaps not only among the poorest but also the most demonized people in the world. Welcome to Serbia, 2000.

The occasion of my visit was to attend the baptism of my granddaughter into the Serbian Orthodox church. My son is a journalist and lives in Belgrade with his wife whom he met while he was covering the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. My granddaughter’s name is Ksenija. It is Serbian and means “woman from a foreign land.” It is actually the root of the noun xenophobic. In my time in Serbia I would learn that this a beautiful name, prophetic and ironic as well.

My trip to Belgrade was primarily to celebrate this joyful event with my son and his wife. In the course of my visit, I wanted to search out a place to attend Sunday Mass. One cannot travel about Belgrade without encountering the devastation and destruction wrought by NATO bombing. Reminders are everywhere. Belgrade was the victim of numerous air strikes. During World War II, it was carpet bombed by the Nazis in 1941 and by the allies in 1944. Much of that damage has since been repaired. But the evidence of the 78-day attack by NATO last year is abundant and at times startling, given the vast number of civilian “targets” hit. From the neonatal hospital on the city’s outskirts that remains in rubble to the heating plant in New Belgrade to private homes, Belgrade still looks, at times, like a war zone.

In the search for one of the two churches, my walk in Belgrade took me to Radio Television Serbia, located within a mile of each of the churches. The station is on the outskirts of Tasmajdan Park, a few feet from St. Marko’s Serbian Orthodox Church, within a busy residential neighborhood with many restaurants and schools. On the morning of April 23, 1999, at 2 a.m., a missile from a NATO plane exploded inside the television station killing 16 people. They were camera technicians, makeup people, sound technicians and copyeditors. None was military. None was a government employee tied to either Slobodan Milosovic or the Yugoslavian military. They were average citizens of Belgrade simply making a living. The cruise missile that was intentionally aimed at them that morning changed that forever. A small monument with the names of the dead has been erected right next to the television station. The bombed-out shell of the building remains exactly the way it was that night.

There were many thoughts and images to reflect on at Mass that Sunday. I thought of other children, children like my granddaughter, who were exposed to the depleted uranium dropped on their country but were not as lucky as Ksenija. The children of Iraq have fared far worse from what history will undoubtedly cite as one of the worst teratogens -- agents that cause fetal malformation -- of the 20th century. How ironic that the country with the highest, most sophisticated child care practices in the world produced this weapon. It is a crime in the United States to allow a child to ride in a car without securing that child in a car seat, and yet we produce a substance so hazardous to children that we cannot yet medically identify the birth defects it causes. (Indeed, if an Iraqi or Serbian family did wish to buy a car seat it would have to be done on the black market, due to economic sanctions.)

I thought of the many students I met around Belgrade who speak English so well not because of its beauty and poetry but rather, as one student said, “Yours is the language of power and wealth. We have no choice.” I thought of my daughter-in-law, Ivana, who before she could secure a visa to visit us in the United States had to have her name run through a security check at The Hague to make sure she had not committed war crimes. Meanwhile the perpetrators of the attack on Radio Television Serbia -- within walking distance of St. Peter’s Church and about one hundred feet from St. Marko’s Serbian Orthodox Church -- not only are free but in all likelihood felt this strike to be a success beyond their wildest expectations. In this technological murder I never had seen a more dramatic witness to one of Gandhi’s seven deadly sins: Science without humanity.

Richard Holbrooke, a key architect of the war in the Balkans, made the announcement of the bombing of Radio Television Serbia at a news awards dinner at the Hyatt Hotel in New York City. In attendance at that dinner were some of America’s highest-profile media and television journalists. None of them, aside from two journalists from Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! (who refused in protest to accept their awards that night) confronted or even asked Holbrooke to clarify the incident, which resulted in the deaths of 16 of their fellow journalists. Indeed the only response from the audience was polite laughter.

My plane makes its descent into Chicago. My thoughts once again turn to the Feast of All Saints, and again I feel a little sad at not having attended any services due to flight schedules and connections. It makes me ponder even more deeply the meaning of this day. I am reminded that among the many saints were also many martyrs. Not unlike the 16 people whose names appear on the stone monument outside Radio Television Serbia. They, too, were martyrs and countless others like them, victims of the most sophisticated killing machine in history: victims whom the U.S. media tried to portray as genocidal murderers but in reality were men and women working the night shift trying to support a family. It was for them I prayed the Sunday I attended Mass at St. Peter’s in Belgrade. I asked God’s forgiveness for America with its mighty war machine that trespassed against so many people. Such was my prayer on that Sunday, the 29th Sunday in ordinary time, in no ordinary place.

Michael Scahill works as a pediatric nurse practitioner in Milwaukee. His e-mail address is mscahill@execpc.com

National Catholic Reporter, December 22, 2000