Letter From Belgrade
If It Comes From Sky, NATO's to Blame
By William Branigan
Now it's being blamed for the weather.
According to Serbia's minister for the environment, all those planes flying around during the NATO airstrikes--and the tons of fuel they burned--caused it to rain buckets this spring and early summer.
"The ministry's analysis shows that the latest bad weather is closely connected to the NATO aggression against our country," the minister, Branislav Blazic, said late last month. "Bearing in mind the intensity of the aggression, it is logical that meteorological conditions were disturbed and that it rained in enormous quantities."
Starting March 28, rain fell over the country "like never before," Blazic said. In Belgrade alone, there were 19 rainy days in April, he said. A somewhat drier May was followed by an unusually sopping June and July, which caused some flooding.
Blazic attributed this to 367,200 metric tons of fuel that he said the ministry calculated was burned over Yugoslavia during the 37,465 sorties flown by NATO.
Belgrade residents said the ministry appeared to be seizing on a popular belief that a series of unusually violent thunderstorms in July must have had something to do with the bombing campaign. But independent scientists weren't buying it.
Dragan Veselinovic, a professor of natural sciences at the University of Belgrade, attributed the storms mainly to the influence of La Nina, a worldwide weather pattern. He noted that "half of Europe" also was affected.
Now, all that is literally water under the bridge. In Belgrade during August, sunny skies are back with a vengeance. On a hot summer afternoon in parts of the city, it takes little imagination to conjure scenes of Paris or Rome.
Despite a declining economy and the lingering effects of economic sanctions, sidewalk cafes and restaurants seem to be doing a brisk trade. Boutiques on the Knez Mihajlova, a pedestrian street in the heart of Belgrade, sell the latest fashions, including counterfeit designer clothing. Ice cream vendors seem to occupy just about every street corner.
Down by the Sava River, opposite an ancient fortress that overlooks the junction with the Danube, rollerbladers glide by a row of floating restaurants.
Downtown streets are filled with people carrying cell phones and with young women in midriff-baring outfits. They buy newspapers or cigarettes from French-style sidewalk kiosks and sip espresso or macchiato in cafes shaded by huge umbrellas that bear the logos of Coca-Cola and other beverages.
Indeed, U.S. and other Western products seem to have come through the war in relatively good shape. A McDonald's outlet was ransacked in a wave of anti-American anger right after the bombing began on March 24, but a boycott of Coke and Marlboro cigarettes--two of the most visible U.S. brand names here--never seemed to take hold. And nothing happened to stores such as the Lee Shop, which sells Lee jeans or versions of them, or such obvious targets as a tobacco store displaying the Lucky Strike cigarettes logo on its awning accompanied by the slogan, "An American Original."
These days, apart from an occasional march by disgruntled retirees demanding pension payments, or the massive opposition rally the other night, life in Belgrade has a certain languid quality.
But there is always a jolt back to reality. It can be the buildings on Knez Milosa street that have been pulverized by NATO bombs. It can be the drab, concrete office or apartment blocks, built under Communist rule, that are crumbling apart from the NATO airstrikes. It can be the homeless Gypsy children bathing naked in a fountain beside Republic Square while their mother, having washed their clothes in the same water, lays the clothing out to dry on a statue of Branislav Nusic, a 19th-century playwright known for his comedies and, judging by his likeness, his bowler hat and cane.
Or, the reality check can come from the capital's ubiquitous graffiti, much of it scrawled on targets of public wrath during the U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign. The facade of one such target, the vacant U.S. Embassy, remains decorated with colorful epithets.
The walls of the American cultural center, which was ransacked in the early days of the war, are similarly adorned. Now, children sell trinkets on the sidewalk in front. The items, laid out on blankets, are mostly cheap toys and costume jewelry, but there are also a few books. Among them: used copies of paperback Westerns by Zane Grey, translated into Serbian.
Spray-painted on the wall behind the children are the words "Hitler Klinton" and rude references to the president and Monica S. Lewinsky. Then there is this thought-provoking message: "Columbus, [bleep] your curiosity."
The graffiti might convey the impression that most Serbs were rallying behind Slobodan Milosevic during the bombing. But public indignation against the airstrikes did not necessarily mean support for the broadly unpopular Yugoslav president.
That became clear when bombs struck one of Milosevic's residences in an exclusive Belgrade neighborhood. The house was vacant, and Milosevic escaped harm.
Shortly afterward, a new lament appeared on walls around town: "Slobo, when we needed you most, you weren't home."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company