During the protests over electoral fraud in 1996 and '97, I was among tens of thousands of students who demonstrated at Belgrade's Square of the Republic. After years of civil war, economic sanctions, and hyperinflation, we were expressing our anger at President Slobodan Milosevic for taking away our youth and dreams of a normal life.
We thought we would see the end of him.
But now, at that same square, thousands of young people gather to protest the NATO bombing in Kosovo. The same American flags that we carried through the streets of Belgrade two years are now burned in anger as symbols of brutal aggression.
NATO bombing has pulled the rug out from under a nascent opposition base. And now, most of the leaders of the Otpor (Resistance) student movement are in hiding from military police who are conscripting young people off the street into Army service. Otpor was formed last winter to work for restoring democracy, nonviolently, in Serbia. We knew it would be a long struggle, knew that we'd be branded - maybe even prosecuted - as traitors and American spies. But we were prepared for it.
Political parties had formed the Alliance for Changes, with goals similar to Otpor's. But these parties are not represented in the Serb parliament because of fraudulent elections, which were never questioned by the international community. Both Otpor and the Alliance for Changes supported the Rambouillet peace agreement.
But once the NATO bombing began, all Western-oriented Serbs and ethnic Albanians became hostages of NATO intervention. There was no threat left that could stop Milosevic from getting rid of all his enemies - ethnic and political. The last independent radio station, Radio B92, is closed; state TV continues its brainwashing; the opposition is silent; and the number of refugees fleeing Kosovo - 300,000 - verges on the number of Serbs that fled Croatia in 1995.
The West claims NATO isn't to blame for this, but Milosevic himself. But NATO is responsible for the escalation of violence, because it abandoned diplomacy.
As the strikes intensify, we feel betrayed by those from whom we expected help in our attempts at creating a civil society in Serbia. All that we fought against - namely a policy of war - is being thrown back at us.
We condemned Milosevic when he used force in Croatia, claiming that the human rights of local Serbs were being abused. We condemned his plan for a Greater Serbia, masked by the argument that Serbs can't live in Croatia and Bosnia. We condemned his policy of threats, ultimatums, and war.
Now we condemn a NATO that uses the very same arguments, proposals, and threats it has condemned. It may seem that we've joined Milosevic's club. But it's the West that did so by accepting Milosevic's rules of the game.
But this is not my game. I'll avoid the Army as long as I can. But I'm sure the day will come when I'll be conscripted, forced to go to Kosovo to fight NATO forces. When this happens, I'd like your NATO soldiers to hold fire. Because in their crosshairs will be a regular human being pulled into a war that he has rejected for seven years, the victim of a poor excuse for a country surrounded by an irresponsible international community.
*This article was written by a Serbian leader of Otpor, a student resistance group. The writer, who did not wish anonymity, finally conceded to it because of his mother's concern for the family's safety.