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Bombing of Bridge Splits Serbian Town on All Levels

Yugoslavia: Varvarin torn by deaths, ruined economy and debate over who's to blame--NATO or Milosevic.

July 15, 1999|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VARVARIN, Yugoslavia — Six weeks after NATO warplanes killed Sasa Pantic's best friend, along with Milanka Marinkovic's only son, the daughter of the leading opposition figure and seven other civilians in this small town, the forces of nature have taken over where the alliance left off.

After an airstrike that already had changed the course of thousands of lives here, flood waters this week were tearing away large chunks of Varvarin itself, washing them downstream in the raging, rain-swollen Velika Morava River. The waters also took away the remains of a 52-year-old bridge that was Varvarin's main lifeline to the world until May 30, when NATO destroyed it--along with the 10 lives.

"It's Armageddon," Pantic, a 27-year-old machinist, said as he lighted a candle at a riverside church in memory of his friend and reflected on the more than 40 days and nights that began with NATO bombs, then were followed by a small earthquake and now floods.

"You try to live normally," he said. "You try to adapt. You try to do what little you can to better your life, to survive, to change the government, to change the man who brought this on us. But now, as you see, NATO has made that more impossible than ever. Just look around this town."

The profile of Varvarin today shows how the loss of a single steel structure and 10 people who were on it at the time can alter the life of a town for weeks, and perhaps years.

But at a time of almost daily street protests against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic throughout Serbia, Varvarin also shows how NATO's airstrikes changed the political dynamic for a wounded people who the alliance hopes will succeed where its 78-day air war failed--to drive Milosevic from power.

Among the dead that day was Sanja Milenkovic, a 15-year-old star math student and daughter of the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement's local leader. Both father and daughter were rare voices against Milosevic in a town where the Yugoslav leader and his Socialist Party of Serbia control virtually everything.

"During the NATO bombardment of Serbia, 146 members of my party who rose up so proudly two years ago in the streets here waving American and European flags were killed by European and American bombs--including Sanja, who was just a child," the movement's national leader, Vuk Draskovic, said in an interview Tuesday, referring to anti-government demonstrations in 1997.

Draskovic, who announced that his party on Saturday will join the mounting anti-Milosevic street protests, said the bombing has created "anti-American and anti-European sentiment" among his once fiercely pro-U.S. supporters and has made his push for Milosevic's resignation all the harder.

Few provide better living testimony than Sanja's father, Zoran Milenkovic.

"My personal opinion," he said, "is that the one to blame for destroying the bridge in Varvarin is NATO because it was done at 1 p.m. on market day, when they knew the maximum number of people would be on the bridge. But I also blame Milosevic and his regime as the principal cause of the bombing in the first place.

"I promised my daughter at her funeral that I will not rest as long as Milosevic is still alive," he said. "But also, I vowed to her that I will bring to justice the NATO commander who ordered these airstrikes on the bridge."

What is more, Milenkovic acknowledged that the loss of the bridge, which had linked the lives and livelihoods of nearly all 3,500 residents, has brought significant short-term gains to the town's pro-Milosevic officials. "They have everything," he said of the ruling party's control of jobs and resources, "and we have nothing."

Socialist Party Mayor Dragan Cabric and Deputy Mayor Milija Milonovic won high marks here for quick, creative moves to reconnect the two riverbanks in Varvarin--at least temporarily.

Mobilizing state workers at the government's local heavy-machinery plant, they built a barge in just 20 days, strung a rope across the 500-yard-wide river and launched a 24-hour commuter service capable of carrying as many as four cars and 30 people per trip.

The barge, Cabric and others in town said, was vital: Farmers who live on Varvarin's left bank were cut off from their pepper and tomato crops on the other side just at the height of the harvest; factory workers on the left bank no longer could commute to their jobs in cities and towns far beyond the other side; and extended families who straddle the river had been out of touch throughout the final weeks of NATO's bombing campaign.

"Our entire economy was connected to that bridge," said Cabric, 43, a committed pro-Milosevic Socialist who studied military affairs. "All exports, all imports, all commuters, all farmers, everyone depended on that bridge. And everyone thanked us when we got the barge on line."

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