On Belgrade's Streets, Relief, Defeat , Doubt
By Daniel Williams
BELGRADE, June 3 –– The rock concert in Republic Square, held daily in defiance of NATO airstrikes, had wrapped up for the day. Word spread around the cafes that peace was at hand -- and that troops from the countries that bombed Yugoslavia would soon replace Yugoslav forces in Kosovo.
The news was on everyone's lips. The atmosphere was one of relief combined with defeat.
Serbs were quickly coming to terms today with the announcement that the Yugoslav government had accepted NATO's demands for ending the conflict in Kosovo. News of the accord was broadcast through the hot afternoon. The government spin: Peace is coming, Yugoslavia will stay whole, the defense of the country was heroic.
In initial reactions, Belgrade residents declared that peace was welcome. But a nagging question soon filled the air: Was this war worth it?
"I'm bothered," said Aleksander Radulovic, an economics student who has his eye on studying at Columbia or Harvard University. "NATO killed so many people. We're still considered animals. If we get killed, it's collateral damage. How would you feel about them coming to your country? We fought for this?"
Such an opinion, if widely shared, could present a political danger for President Slobodan Milosevic. He has to sell the country on an agreement that will effectively place Kosovo in the hands of foreigners -- NATO and Russian troops deployed as peacekeepers. Yet for months, government propaganda painted NATO forces as murderers.
Meanwhile, word is beginning to filter out from Kosovo of the looting and destruction of ethnic Albanian homes and businesses by Yugoslav marauders. What happens if the much-despised ethnic Albanian rebel force, the Kosovo Liberation Army, returns to the province after all this destruction?
So far Milosevic's sales pitch has blended national pride with assurances that Kosovo is not lost -- that the United Nations, not NATO, will occupy the province. The KLA will be disarmed.
Radulovic was partially persuaded. "I think Kosovo will be part of Yugoslavia. I believe we gave in because otherwise, what would have been left? We'll see if it was worth the pain."
The mood on the eve of a possible peace was starkly different from when war broke out. The concerts, the vigils on the Branko Bridge by demonstrators daring NATO to hit them, the bull's-eye T-shirts -- all bespoke a giddy, tribal pride. Today, the giddiness was gone.
Two husky men from Montenegro in a Belgrade cafe were philosophical. "Peace is good, but might won. Even God respects might," said one.
"The politicians should have taken care of this. Now, someone's got to take care of the politicians," said the other threateningly.
At another cafe, a man named Zoran nursed a beer and hurt pride. "Yes, peace, okay. We only defended our territory against terrorists," he said, referring to the KLA. "For ages we have bled for this land. If someone inside Serbia is to blame, we will deal with him. That is our work.
An old man named Marinko pondered the cost. "This agreement is a little better than we would have gotten without war," he said. "But it wasn't worth the price. Both sides should fear God -- the government and NATO -- because they are going to pay."
"Let's face it. It was just a defeat," a younger man chimed in.
Several factors seem to have weakened the public's resolve. Although the military has not disclosed its casualty figures, obituaries showed that NATO bombing was taking a toll. In Belgrade in recent days, talk was already turning to future hardships.
"We'll see an exodus from the city," a banker predicted. "People will go to their relatives in the country, to where the wood is. "Only the rich with their own heating, and the very poor who have no place to go, will remain."
A marketing expert said that people have already started dipping into their savings and stockpiling food. Even before the bombing, the economy was ruined by sanctions brought on by Yugoslavia's role in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, and more belt-tightening seemed inevitable.
"People are spending as little as possible," the marketing expert said. "Even for Serbs who are used to nine years of hardship, things were getting difficult. It's impossible to do business. It's impossible to work. It makes people think."
At a small market, clothing vendors lamented lost sales. "Customers are buying the cheapest goods they can," said one. "It will be a long time before people have money again."
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