BELGRADE.- Under the word «why?» a small monument outside the headquarters of Serbia’s public broadcaster bears the names of 16 people who lost their lives when their building was bombed two decades ago by NATO allies during a campaign to bring an end to the Kosovo War.
Dragan Tosic, 47, a sports producer at Radio Televizija Srbije (RTS), was one of the survivors of the attack on the state broadcaster’s building. But 20 years on, he still wonders why the building was not evacuated in time.
«All my life I’ve asked myself why I survived,» Tosic told EFE, standing next to the monolith, a stone monument in memory of his slain colleagues installed in the Park za pse Tasmajdan, across from the parking lot at the RTS headquarters at No 10 Takovska street.
Indeed, all the survivors of the bombing have asked themselves the same question, according to the producer.
Sunday marks 20 years since NATO began its 78-day campaign to drive the Serbian armed forces out of Kosovo in a bid to bring an end to the years-long repression of the Kosovo Albanian population.
One of the most controversial attacks took place on the night of Apr. 23, 1999, when the RTS facilities in central Belgrade were hit. NATO said Serbia’s authoritarian President Slobodan Milosevic was using the site to broadcast propaganda.
Tosic survived the attack, but it claimed the lives of 16 of his colleagues, whose names are listed on the memorial.
Among those killed were technicians, security guards, a makeup artist, a video mixer, a cameraman and a director of television.
In the weeks leading up to it, Tosic had been working on news broadcasts, which were going out more frequently now owing to the uptick in strikes.
NATO earmarked the RTS headquarters as a legitimate target, as well as the broadcaster’s repeaters, which were systematically destroyed across the whole of Kosovo to prevent programs from being broadcast.
Despite this, things at RTS continued as usual in the days leading up to the attack, Tosic recalled.
Besides the regular faces, journalists and technicians from abroad also came to use the facilities in order to file stories to their own employers.
Just before the bombing happened, the management told its employees that under no circumstances should they abandon their work stations. They were warned that if they did, they would be fired, Tosic said.
«Maybe we felt some tension that night, more than in previous days,» he continued.
Tosic had been working with six other colleagues on a 2 am news bulletin, and six minutes into the program they felt the explosion strike the office. He was only five or six meters from the site of impact.
The power went off and the studio filled with smoke and dust.
A desk with heavy equipment fell on top of him, but he managed to free himself and get out of the room. It was at that point he saw that part of the building had been blown off.
The first thing he did was save a colleague, who, stunned by what had happened, was about to go towards the edge.
The survivors were evacuated, but it was not an easy task, with rubble blocking all of the building’s entrances.
Tosic pitched in to help firefighters rescue his trapped colleagues.
«That’s when I felt some rage. Why was a television station, a media outlet, a legitimate target?» he asked. «There are no words strong enough to justify something like this, they don’t exist.»
Nobody has, to this day, explained to the survivors and relatives of the victims why RTS was targeted, according to the producer.
He said his life was saved by a «miracle,» but since the attack happened he has not been able to stop asking himself why nobody took steps to protect the RTS employees: someone should have known about it in advance.
«I would like to know, not for revenge, I’m not that kind of person, who carries this burden on their conscience?» Tosic asked.
The destroyed RTS building still stands today as a stark reminder of what happened on that night in Apr. 1999.
Amnesty International condemned the bombing at the time as a grave violation of international humanitarian legislation, while the International Federation of Journalists demanded NATO apologize for the deaths of 16 people.
In 2002, three years after the attack, the then-director of RTS Dragoljub Milanovic was handed a 10-month prison sentence for not having ordered the evacuation of the building on time.
It is still not known whether anyone at RTS knew its headquarters was going to be hit that night.
Besides striking military installations, NATO’s airstrikes caused serious damage to civilian infrastructure, including bridges, factories and buildings.
After the 78-day campaign, Belgrade’s armed forces withdrew from Kosovo, a territory that nine years later unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia.
Serbian independent organisms say there were some 760 deaths, including soldiers and civilians (Serbs and Kosovars), while NATO has put the death toll at 1,200.
NATO’s military operation against Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) took place from Mar. 24, 1999 to June 10, 1999.