In the back pages of the state-run newspaper Politika there appeared recently a most unusual item: During the war there was one suicide a day here in the capital.
From the night that NATO bombing began on March 24, and for the next three months, the official organ reported, 96 residents of Belgrade took their lives; another 19 attempted suicide. They hanged themselves, pointed guns at their heads and hearts, threw themselves off buildings and bridges, under trains and down wells. Two people blew themselves up with grenades.
While the prewar suicide rate was not available, experts here agreed that the frequency jumped from its normal level during the bombing--a change that did not surprise Belgrade residents. For the war here and in Kosovo has taken, and will continue to take, a terrible psychological toll on Serbs as well as ethnic Albanians.
In psychiatric wards, where because of sanctions there is no more Thorazine to treat the truly psychotic, in mental health clinics, where there is no more lithium to quiet the storms of bipolar depression, in hallway conversations with doctors, patients, ordinary Serbian citizens and soldiers, it is clear the conflict has left many here as the walking wounded.
In the United States, every national trauma, from the Oklahoma City bombing to the killing spree at Columbine High School, is always followed by the appearance of counselors and experts deconstructing the national psyche. In Serbia there has mostly been silence, denial, anger and guilt. And there is soaring alcoholism, according to professionals who treat all those on the edge of a society that does not want to admit defeat.
But that does not mean the symptoms go away.
The director of a mental health clinic, for example, has a young daughter who began to stutter during the 78 days of NATO bombing.
For weeks, anxious parents wrapped their children in blankets, gathered up some toys and took them down into damp, dark bomb shelters. As the electricity flickered on and off above their heads, many parents struggled to explain what was happening.
Aleksa Djilas, a prominent historian and son of a famous dissident during Yugoslavia's Communist era, confessed how he walked around Belgrade during the bombings with a "mental map" in his head, trying to imagine what NATO targets to avoid as he took his children to the park, to maintain, as he put it, "some semblance of normal life."
He said his young son, age 4, began to discuss with his grandmother the difference between hydrogen and atomic bombs.
"Everyone lost weight," Djilas said. "No matter how much they ate."
Many Belgrade residents say they still have trouble sleeping and confess to a kind of lethargic semi-depression, a sort of national funk. A lot of people, especially the elderly, spent much of the war sitting in their cramped apartments, waiting for the "Big One." There were not enough tranquilizers to go around, and many private and state-run pharmacies said their shelves were emptied.
Today, kids in parks still play a game where imaginary NATO bombs fall on them, and some lay pretending to be dead, while others run around in circles above them, their arms outstretched, pretending they are airplanes loaded with bombs.
"What is the psychological effect?" asked Col. Radoslav Svicevic, a psychologist and deputy director of the large military hospital here. He reached across his desk and turned around a photograph of his two grandchildren, boys age 4 years and 10 months. "The older one, he bites his nails now. He is silent. He is afraid his house will be bombed," the military doctor said. "The younger just wakes up every night screaming and crying. This was a quiet baby before."
The stress of the Serbian people came in many forms, in a country where many citizens opposed the war and, more specifically, the government of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
Many of the 10 million residents of Serbia experienced months of sleep deprivation--they were awake by night, during the bombings, and slept by day. One young woman described it this way, without irony for the bloodshed carried out in her name by Serbian forces against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo: "We lived like vampires."
Every day here, there were air raid sirens. "You must understand, how the sounds of the sirens are terrifying. This is almost a European city, and people were not used to such things," said Vladimir Jovic, a psychologist at the city's Institute of Mental Health.
Jovic said many citizens of Belgrade are suffering from an exaggerated "startle response," meaning every time they hear loud noises--trains, thunder, slamming doors--or feel earthquakes, which continue to rattle the populace, they jump or flinch.
Jovic treated several employees of the state-controlled television station RTS, the target of a NATO missile attack that killed a dozen low-level technicians. Those who did not come to work that day, Jovic said, manifested all the symptoms of survivor's guilt, Jovic said. They wondered why they lived.
Jovic and other psychologists say it will be months or years before they begin to see, or understand, whether there is a post-traumatic stress syndrome associated with those who spent the war in Kosovo and Serbia, as there was for returning veterans from Vietnam or the people who survived the Oklahoma City bombing.
But some signs are already apparent.
At the military hospital here, the largest medical facility in the Balkans, a young soldier named Branko, 21, who asked that his last name not be published, described his mental health.
In November 1998, he was a soldier in the Yugoslav army, serving his mandatory one-year enlistment, and was based along the Kosovo-Albanian border, where fighting with the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army was most intense.
Branko was in a convoy hit by a shoulder-mounted rocket grenade launched by the rebels. Before his eyes, his friend was cut in half. "Only his legs and stomach remained," said Branko, sitting in the psychiatric ward of the military hospital.
Branko spent the month of December 1998 in the ward here, and was then released to return home. But in April, NATO airstrikes pounded his town of Lucani in southern Serbia. As he describes it, Branko "freaked." He was "retraumatized," his doctor said. The young man reimagined all that he had seen in Kosovo and went running out of the house, looking to hurt someone.
"I can't get the pictures out of my head," Branko said. He has flashbacks. His worried mother sat in the waiting room, and confessed that her son seems different. He is withdrawn, aggressive, forgetful and sometimes trembles.
At the International Aid Network here, a group of young psychologists spent the war answering calls on their SOS hot line. They listened to callers, some who cried with overwhelming panic, and others who were coolly, strangely calm. Ann Djapovic, one of the counselors, remembers listening to callers who tried to explain their feelings as air raid sirens wailed in the background and the bombs fell.
"They didn't want to scare the children," she said. "But it was obvious that they were scared, and that there was this tremendous anxiety, and I believe we have not even begun to see the effects of this time."