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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Belgraders Debate Merits of Bomb Shelters

May 12, 1999|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — Sirens wail across this capital around 9 most nights, setting Vesna Stefanovic off on a dreaded routine.

From her apartment, she leads her two children through an underground parking garage and down more stairs to a dank subbasement crammed with rows of tiny bunk beds. Until morning, when a second, steady siren signals all is clear, this is home for as many as 120 war-weary neighbors.

Her husband ignores the nightly air raid warning and stays in the apartment eight floors above. "He can snore through all that bombing," boasts Nikola, his 7-year-old son.

Weeks of NATO bombing have failed in one key objective--to open a rift among people here over their government's crackdown in Kosovo. But the bombing has sharply divided them on an issue closer to home: Is it better to dodge the bombs above the ground or below?

Most Belgraders are fortunate to have a choice. So far, a majority has chosen to shun the shelters, saying the odds of sudden death are not worth the grim, claustrophobic life underground or the sense of defeat that comes from surrendering their evenings at home.

"Psychologically, it's very hard to live in those shelters," said Mirjana Ilic, 29, who spent three nights below ground just after the bombing began in March and then quit going. "They are full of frightened elderly people and restless kids. It's easy to catch a disease or become paranoid. You hear so many scary rumors down there--like what neighborhood NATO will bomb next."

Yugoslavia's civil defense system features one of Europe's most extensive networks of bunkers. The heavily fortified refuges, built under large apartment buildings during the Cold War years of Communist rule, can accommodate about 80% of Belgrade's 2 million people, according to city officials, who broadcast daily appeals for people to use them.

Yet no more than 30% of the city's residents do so, officials say.

Bombing by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization eased Sunday night, which alliance representatives attributed to bad weather.

But not even the heaviest pounding of the capital, late Friday and early Saturday when NATO mistakenly hit the Chinese Embassy, did much to alter behavior. Lights remained on in many homes during subsequent nighttime alerts, a few cafes and kiosks remained open, and the streets were not entirely deserted.

Mayor Spasoje Krunic reacted this week with a new televised appeal to residents to use the shelters.

"People are growing accustomed to the bombing and losing their discipline," Deputy Mayor Milan Bosic said in an interview. "The bombing makes them feel vulnerable, but in another sense they act as if they're immune."

Debates about the merits of shelters often turn on grim calculations of the odds of survival.

Historian Aleksa Djilas, citing a conservative estimate of 500 civilian bombing deaths from a national population of 10 million, said being here is like playing Russian roulette with a giant pistol containing 20,000 chambers and a single bullet. "The odds of death are tiny," he said, "but you still have to put the gun to your head and pull the trigger."

Those who avoid shelters note that a direct hit by a bomb killed at least 15 civilians in a solid basement in Surdulica, a town 175 miles southeast of Belgrade. Those who favor shelters counter that people in unprotected quarters have been killed by shrapnel hurled from bombed buildings hundreds of yards away.

Although she couldn't stand the atmosphere underground, Ilic, a schoolteacher, falls asleep in her apartment with a stew pot over her head and the lid over her heart. Her older sister, Vesna, teases her endlessly, saying survival is purely a matter of fate.

"There are two kinds of people in Belgrade," said Vesna Ilic, a doctor who sleeps at home and leaves for work before the all-clear siren, "those who are going to die in these bombings and those who are going to survive."

Marija Karadic, a 25-year-old physical therapist, divides Belgraders by a different measure. She's not taking any chances--especially after NATO blundered and struck the Chinese Embassy early Saturday--so she goes to the shelter.

"There are brave people who try to go on with their lives and not-so-brave people who go to the shelters," she said. "How brave can you be when NATO keeps hitting the wrong targets?"

NATO says it is aiming at military targets in a bid to win security and autonomy for the beleaguered ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo, a province of Yugoslavia's dominant republic, Serbia. Most Serbs, inside and outside the shelters, voice support for President Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown in Kosovo and his resistance to what they call Western efforts to separate the province from their country.

Such sentiment is especially fierce at another shelter, which in peacetime is a kick-boxing gym run by Bojan Tadic, a national champion in the sport. Like many bunkers, it had been leased by the government for private enterprise and reclaimed in March for civil defense.

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