In the late hours of April 29, 1999, NATO bombed Avala Tower, a tall, elegant television transmitter that had been a symbol of Belgrade since it was built in 1965. It was not its symbolic value, of course, that drew the bombing, but NATO’s claim that the tower was a part of the Serbian wartime military machine. In military language, it was part of a C3 network—control, command, and connect.
Cruise missiles destroyed Avala Tower six days after an event that was far more devastating: the bombing of Radio-Television of Serbia (RTS) headquarters on April 23. Both strikes were part of the effort to stop the propaganda machine of Slobodan Milosevic, president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a nationalist accused of “cleansing” non-Serbs from large areas of the former Yugoslavia in an effort to create a “Greater Serbia.” The bombing killed 16 out of 150 RTS staff members working that night.
Between those two events, NATO celebrated its 50th anniversary at a summit in Washington. As government heads celebrated, the bombings symbolized a strategy of stronger attacks, by expanding the list of legitimate military targets.
To this day the RTS bombing remains the most controversial decision of the 78-day NATO military campaign against Yugoslavia. The controversy has two major aspects. The first concerns the very definition of the act. The second relates to the interpretation of its significance.
Initially, the attack was justified as destroying the “media engine that was feeding the war and exporting fear, hatred, and instability in the neighboring countries,” as explained by General Wesley Clark, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe at the time of the campaign.
Amnesty International immediately reacted, declaring the bombing a war crime, asking for a full investigation and justice for victims. In 1999, responding to humanitarian objections, the War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague, initiated an investigation of six particular bombing incidents, including RTS headquarters. A year later, in June 2000, when the war was over but Milosevic still in power, the Tribunal published its Inquiry. It found that “NATO targeting of RTS building for propaganda purposes was the incidental (albeit complementary) aim of its primary goal of disabling the Serbian military command and control system and to destroy the nerve system and apparatus that keeps Milosevic in power.”
In other words, the Inquiry found that there was no deliberate targeting of civilians or unlawful military targets. Carla del Ponte, the chief prosecutor at the time, expressed no intention to hold NATO responsible and closed the case. That hardly ended the controversy, however.
I vividly remember that night—screaming sirens and flames piercing the late night sky at 2:06am. Watching it from my balcony, along with many neighbors, we knew it was RTS that had been hit. The television station had been an expected target long before it was hit, even as NATO said it would not be. It was obviously expected by the regime, as RTS resumed programming within a matter of hours. Even the destruction of Avala tower, its major transmitter, did not stop it, and a system of complex retransmission through local channels kept the Belgrade based TV program going till the end of NATO campaign.
Most of my research in the 1990s was critical analysis of RTS and its shameful role in supporting an autocratic regime and generating popular support for its war policies. Nothing could be said in its defense.
Still. Bombing was a different matter, and NATO missiles posed an entirely new question: Where is the line between military and non-military targets in modern warfare? Or, in other words, Is it acceptable to bomb media operations because they are propaganda machines? Does lying and spreading hatred make media a legitimate war target? Or does bombing media outlets, and the civilians who work there, constitute a war crime? Since NATO has continued bombing TV channels (Al Jazeera in Kabul; Libyan TV) it seems that military logic has prevailed.
The second controversy concerns commemoration of the bombing. RTS was named TV Bastille, and was a frequent rallying point for anti-Milosevic rallies from 1991 to 2000. Few publicly remembered its destruction. In 2002, the general manager of RTS at the time was convicted to 10 years in prison because he did not evacuate the employees to the safe location during the air raid. Still, frequent questions by the families of the 16 killed went unanswered, and such families built a monument in nearby Tasmajdan park, with the question “Why” on it? They wished to see all those responsible on trial—the regime officials who they say sacrificed innocent people just to gain international attention, and also NATO commanders who ordered the bombing of a civilian target.
But they were on their own. For many years, commemoration was a private ceremony by families, friends, and colleagues of those who died. The bombing of these prominent public institutions was turned into a private tragedy, and there was a silent consensus to avoid a disturbing question—why was the state television headquarters bombed? For a few years after 2000, the new democratic government ignored it. Even the journalistic community was ambivalent.
RTS is particularly important for Serbian journalism history. It became Milosevic’s propaganda fist, but only after almost 1,000 professionals were fired in the early 1990s. They formed a new Independent Association of Journalists, dissociating themselves from the regime and from the journalists who obediently continued to serve the regime. For journalists who fought Milosevic, lingering questions about the bombing all go back to the public silence bout the Serbia’s role in the wars that tore Yugoslavia apart. Without such a discussion, the bombing is only a private tragedy of 16 victims.
And with the passage of of time, the significance of the bombing in national memory gets more complicated. In the new climate of revival of nationalistic political parties, the RTS bombing victims might just be once again used to silence the conversation about Serbia’s war past, a conversation that has never really started.