For me the Fourth of July is all five senses: the taste of ice cream and Coca-Cola, the smell of salt in the air and the ocean breeze on my skin, the bang of fireworks and their starburst reflections on the dark waves. Almost every year of my life, I have celebrated the day with my family at my grandparents’ house on Oak Island.
This year I spent the day an ocean away from the North Carolina coast. Needless to say, in Belgrade the Fourth of July featured none of these familiar sensations. People went about their business as usual; there was hardly a red, white, or blue garment to be seen as I walked to work down Ulica Kralja Milana. And I felt uncomfortable mentioning that it was the Fourth, even to the liberal journalists with whom I work. This was not just to avoid seeming like a chauvinistic foreigner: there is a deep ambivalence about America here, one that is unsurprising given the fact that American forces bombed Serbia twenty years ago.
In March 1999 the Kosovo War had been ongoing for more than a year. Serbian forces had killed thousands of Kosovar Albanians and driven hundreds of thousands more from their homes. In order to end the war, NATO forces bombed the fractured Yugoslavia, including Belgrade. The American military participated in the bombings, which focused on military targets, utilities, and government buildings but nevertheless killed hundreds of civilians.
It is one thing to read on the internet about American intervention in other countries. It has been a very different experience, during my time here in Serbia, to hear the firsthand accounts of people who lived through the bombings.
One man told me about being a teenager in Belgrade during the three months of NATO airstrikes. It was a gloriously free time in many ways, with parents more focused on staying alive than corralling their children. He and his friends went to alternative clubs, listened to Nirvana, and got drunk as they waited for the bombs to fall. Yet there were terrifying moments as well. One of his friends looked out his window one evening to see an American missile fly in over the Sava, turn towards him, and hit the building next to his home.
My host parents have described the sirens that became a part of daily life during the bombings. The sound that meant a bombing was approaching was dubbed šizela, Serbian for “standing up to be crazy.” The sound that signaled safety was smirela, or “coming down.” For months my host family’s lives were lived to the rhythm of these sirens, their voices a reminder of the danger they were in. “We felt humiliated, like cockroaches,” my host mother told me.
The legacy of the bombings here is visual as well as verbal. When I walk to the office of SIT, the organization that partners with DukeEngage to run the Serbia program, I pass the bombed-out husk of the Yugoslav Ministry of Defense building. The edifice was never demolished or restored, and to this day the yawning black maw of its windowless façade looms over Ulica Nemanjina. When I run through Tašmajdan Park, I pass a statue of a little girl clasping a doll to her chest, black stone slabs spread out behind her that evoke a butterfly’s wings, standing on a tombstone. The inscription reads, in Serbian Cyrillic and English, “били смо само деца—WE WERE JUST CHILDREN.”
It is not for me to decide whether bombing a city was justified in order to end the war in Kosovo. It is beyond the scope of this essay to pass judgement on American interventionism, a subject that is massively complex both factually and morally. And yet spending the summer in Belgrade, hearing the stories and seeing the scars of the NATO bombings, has nevertheless given me a sense of where I stand in the world as an American. Our nation has incredible power, and the way we use that power affects the lives of real people. It costs the lives of real people.
After spending the summer in Serbia, I believe that the American people have a responsibility to entrust that power to leaders who will consider the consequences that its use can have. We have a responsibility to hold those leaders accountable for their mistakes. If we fail to do so, people will needlessly lose their lives and livelihoods and childhoods and homes. We may never know their names, we may only see their deaths as statistics in newspaper headlines, but after this summer I will never again be able to ignore how our actions affect their lives.
Walking home from dinner on the evening of the Fourth, a friend and I stopped as we heard a loud bang and saw a flash of light. Even here, in Belgrade, someone was setting off fireworks. As the display continued, I felt a little glow of pride. This summer has not entirely disillusioned or embittered me towards America; I still love my home country. Yet my pride was tempered by the knowledge that twenty years ago a different kind of bombs were bursting in air over Belgrade. With America’s great power comes great responsibility, and I hope that I can live up to that responsibility once I return home.