March 24, 1999, is a date that will forever be seared in the minds of Serbs. For them, the start of the NATO bombing campaign heralded 78 days of hiding in basements, while Yugoslav security forces committed atrocities in Kosovo.
The federal government last week declared a national day of remembrance, acknowledging for the first time that Yugoslavia has blood on its own hands. "As a country and a people, we must recognize and remember the evil that was committed against us, and the evil which we committed against others" so that "the same evil will not be repeated," said a statement from Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica's office.
This anniversary carries a special significance: It is the first since Slobodan Milosevic was toppled from power. The former president, who is under indictment by The Hague war crimes tribunal for the mistreatment of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, used the bombings to boost flagging Serbian nationalism.
Yet many ordinary Serbs are ambivalent about their new holiday. Although the Yugoslav Army recently began cooperating with NATO against ethnic-Albanian insurgents along the borders with Kosovo and Macedonia, many here remain suspicious of the alliance. "I know they now say we're friends, but I believe NATO's plan is to break apart Yugoslavia even more," says Vesna Vucetic, a seamstress.
"NATO, especially the Americans, spent all that time and money trying to destroy the Yugoslav Army and provided the Kosovo Liberation Army with intelligence data," says Alexander Radic, a military analyst with VIP, a newsletter. "Now, America is working closely with the Yugoslavs, and is working against an army it helped train. It's one irony after another in the Balkans."
By yesterday afternoon, the Kostunica government still had not announced any plans for public celebrations. Mr. Milosevic's Socialist Party has organized a rally in Belgrade's central Freedom Square.
Some citizens say they will light a candle at church for the war's thousands of victims, but little else. "I might have gone to the square to mark the occasion, but not if it's organized by people who still call Milosevic a hero," says Marija Filipovic, a student of economics. "Frankly, I've had enough of standing on squares and defending bridges."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor