If you want to see what a Tomahawk cruise missile can do to a modern urban building, come to Belgrade.
It was in 1998, when Serbia was still the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (along with what is now Montenegro – Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Croatia had already become independent), that it decided to clamp down on the irredentist Kosovo Liberation Army, and to do so violently. The United States, for reasons which don’t seem entirely clear even now, regarded the KLA as freedom fighters and not terrorists (as always, a deeply subjective dichotomy), thus as Serbia’s attacks on the Kosovo Albanians escalated, so did the diplomacy within NATO and the UN. This lead to UN Security Council Resolution 1199, and after the failure of cease-fire talks, the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.
One place where this history took very kinetic form was on Belgrade’s Kneza Miloša, where the Yugoslav Interior and Defence Ministries stood on April 3, 1999. Eight Tomahawks struck these two buildings, each missile carrying almost half a ton of high explosives. Such a huge amount of energy will easily shatter concrete, yet will not break the reinforcing steel within it. Slabs of aerial debris are held together only by twisted metal, as a few tendons may connect a severed limb to a torso. Hugh architectural wounds gape amongst the right angles and straight lines formerly present. Through the liberation of chemical energy, the modern becomes organic.
Astoundingly, though this happened almost 14 years ago, the damaged buildings still stand in Belgrade. No attempt has been made to repair or demolish them, and only a fence and some hoardings have been erected around them to prevent things falling on the heads of passers-by. You can walk by them, and look in, and – if you’re discreet – even take photos. I wasn’t, which earned me a brief chat with one of the uniformed army guards there.
Most cities don’t leave their scars of war open. In Warsaw, the old town was rebuilt as a facsimile of how it was before the Nazis flattened it, and in London, the hideous Barbican rose from the craters of the Blitz. Only the most evil of places, like Auschwitz or Oradour-sur-Glane, are left as is, a testament to crimes that must never be forgotten. Yet in Belgrade, this wreckage is left to stand, an unhealed scab. This isn’t new behaviour, either – a short walk away, in the oldest part of Belgrade, you can see the ruins of the National Library of Serbia, utterly destroyed (along with a good part of the records of Serbian culture) by the Luftwaffe in 1941. This is no memorial; indeed, if not for some canvas signs erected as a seeming afterthought, you’d never know what history lies between the grassed over bricks around this hole in the ground.
Another war scar from another war, left open in the air. This is a city in penance, whose sins apparently warrant the mortification of the civic flesh. But while some evils are remembered, others are forgotten.
Belgrade is divided by time, and the river Sava. On the eastern side of the Sava is the original Belgrade, settled for hundreds of years; on the western side is Novi Beograd (“New Belgrade”), a planned expansion of the city built after the Second World War to accomodate the many war refugees. But before Novi Beograd, still visible yet forgotten, the east bank of the Sava held the Sajmište Concentration Camp, established by the Nazis after their invasion of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Forty thousand people were murdered here.
An abstract sculpture at the focus of a semi-circle of parkland here is apparently a memorial to the victims of Sajmište, but you’d need Wikipedia to know that: there’s nary an explicatory plaque to tell the visitor what is being memorialised. As for the camp itself, the land where it stood has been woven back into the urban fabric of Novi Beograd, and apart from the still extant, distinctive yet abandoned central tower, it’s difficult to see the outlines of evil anymore. An inflatable sports hall stands perhaps on the same spot as a barracks used to. Roads cross the area, perhaps the same roads that brought the mobile gas-chambers to Sajmište. There’s houses built here now, obviously poor, and large dogs bark as you walk pass. It all seems so ordinary now.
A delicate, smoky mist lay on Belgrade the entire time I was there, and small, hard piles of dirty snow lingered after recent flurries. The cycle of the seasons over many years flexed the render off the tired buildings, leaving exposed brickwork that no-one has repaired. Something has bent the rusted awnings outside apartment buildings, and they’ve seized in place. Graffiti is endemic at ground level. Like a lot of other cities in former Yugoslavia, it’s not cleaned off, a punk veneer on cold, dour streets.
After Belgrade, I took the bus Skopje in Macedonia. Over the ten hours of the journey, we stopped in minor towns along the axis of Serbia, a dreary trip of glimpses into small towns that don’t generally trouble the writers of the Lonely Planet. The number of abandoned buildings astounds, a reminder that economies can contract as well as grow. Such a prospect must have seemed as distant to residents of 1989 Yugoslavia as it now seems to us.
I had one final thought in the last Serbian town I passed through before crossing the Macedonian border, called Bujanovac. You’ve likely not heard of it, and neither had I. Almost everyone has heard of London or Moscow, and most will know of Brisbane or Brasilia or Sacramento. But these cities aren’t the whole world. In every country, there’s hundreds of towns you or I have never heard of, towns like Bujanovac or Denkalikottai or Luquan. And in each of these towns, there are thousands of people like you or I, each living a life as complex and wonderful and painful and happy as yours or mine.
The world is always bigger than you can possibly imagine.