It has been almost a month since the NATO bombings of Serbia started, and every morning I have to take a good look at my face in the mirror. Because, even at its worst, with black rings under the eyes and three days' stubble, it is still irrefutable proof that I exist.
I am an ethnic Serb, and - contrary to the laws of Serbian nature as portrayed by the Western media - I am still pro-NATO and anti-Milosevic. In fact, though my family and friends remain in Belgrade, I strongly support the current NATO bombardment of my country, if only as a necessary precondition for a ground attack aimed at removing the malignant source of almost all the evils that have befallen Serbia and its neighbors during the past 12 years - the dictatorship of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
From childhood, if I thought of myself as a Serb, it was exclusively in terms of belonging to some kind of European, or Western context, not the Eastern, or communist context. This, incidentally, was the main reason, notwithstanding considerable qualms and practical difficulties, I left Belgrade a month ago and came to Prague. I simply didn't want to find myself on the wrong side of the border, or, should I say, on the wrong side of the front line when NATO came marching in.
What's more, I'm neither alone nor a rare exception to the media stereotypes about tribal Serbs. Those who share my convictions aren't some tiny, well-educated cabal estranged from the "common people." Yes, I admit, I'm a writer and translator, presumably an intellectual. But what about my cab-driver friend who, in downtown Belgrade on the first night of NATO air strikes, hurt his leg in a fight with a security guard after spray-painting graffiti like "WELCOME NATO" and "MILOSEVIC IS A TERRORIST"?
I suspect that, in case of a landing by NATO ground troops, if openly and unambiguously directed at the regime in Belgrade and not against "the Serbs," many of my compatriots will be able to appreciate the difference.
Of course, it's only natural that even the pro-Western segment of Serbian society is infuriated by the airstrikes. The bombing is perceived as a meaningless exercise of indiscriminate power. It's unrealistic to expect any other reaction, considering the media-fueled nationalist frenzy and overwhelming pressure in society to conform. Anyone who speaks out now, and maintains pro-Western leanings, is branded a traitor.
But once the West lays its cards on the table, this is bound to change. Given a clear choice between "Fight for Milosevic and be rewarded with more oppression and poverty" or "Give it up now, and we'll help you get rid of Milosevic's lot" many Serbs will think twice. (Let me remind you, it has been years since Milosevic's party managed to pull in more than 35 percent of the vote.) At least, decisive NATO action may substantially raise the rate of desertions and surrender.
The story of newfound Serbian unity and willingness to fight to the last is likely to go down as the single most successful invention of Milosevic's propaganda, a bait wholeheartedly swallowed by both the Western general public and self-proclaimed experts.
Indeed, as I've scanned the Western news and commentary over the past month, I haven't found a single exception to the rule. Analysts, journalists, diplomats have rushed to do their part in fear-mongering and hyping various doomsday scenarios, stereotyping all Serbs as somewhat of a cross between SS divisions and poison spiders.
These foreign observers fail to notice an obvious fact: Even in a society so lightly burdened with rationality, it's quite impossible for such a radical change of fundamental political attitude to happen overnight. There are, in fact very few people able to perform a mental somersault that would suddenly turn them from bitter opponents of Milosevic and his henchmen into avid supporters. These opponents will return to the scene, emboldened, only if the West demonstrates resolve to remove Milosevic.
As the world is confronted with tragic images of Kosovo Albanians flushed from their homes - stirring still-fresh memories of massive bloodshed in Bosnia - it is easy to forget the Western-oriented Serbs who also feel victimized by more than a decade of Milosevic's national-socialist tyranny.
That's why we urge NATO not to stop, until the job is done.
*Vladimir Petrovic is a Yugoslav freelance writer and translator living temporarily in Prague.