Last night was the scariest night of my life," wrote missionary Martha McComb during the first week of NATO bombing over Yugoslavia. She told her friends back in the United States, "I had to stop writing last time because of the sirens. All electric plugs have to be unplugged. The sirens came steadily until 8:00 when the bombs started coming. There was a blackout in the city. I was with Bata and Sladjana, the pastors here, and their children. We were all on one couch against a wall with blankets and pillows over our heads. With all the lights out, with our shoes on, with our passports in our pockets in case of hasty retreat-or death-we kept the children between Sladjana and I. Bata knelt over us shielding us from possible broken glass and debris that would come with the bombing."
That evening, nine NATO rockets hit Nis, the city of about 200,000 people, 150 miles south of Belgrade, where Miss McComb has been posted for Youth With a Mission since 1996.
One rocket came within 200 yards of her house. She said, "It was horrible, you could hear the planes coming, then the rockets and then you didn't know how close it would come. The children would start crying, we were praying and then they would hit, one after the other after the other."
NATO planes targeted military installations and barracks in Nis, where the Third Army Corps is located. The windows above Miss McComb shook, even though they had been opened to prevent glass from exploding. She and fellow church members became physically sick, awaiting both the torrent of deadly firepower around them and the deadening silence between each attack.
Westerners have seen ample evidence of the havoc brought upon Kosovo's Albanians as they have been forced from their homes and sent into exile by the army forces of President Slobodan Milosevic. Reports of rape are growing, foreign medical workers said. People are killed with no evident pattern, and farm animals, dogs, and cats are put to death as a matter of course.
By now, according to the United Nations, fewer than a million ethnic Albanians are left in Kosovo, and nearly half of them are displaced, hiding in forests and mountains. No one knows how many displaced people remain in Kosovo, but 400,000 seems a reasonable estimate, said UN spokesman Jacques Frankquin. This past week, Mr. Milosevic's forces expanded their aggression against Albanians, seizing a border hamlet in northern Albania and torching homes before withdrawing, according to Albanian officials and international observers.
Yet, grim stories on the other side also deserve telling. With Western press and cameras ejected from much of Yugoslavia at the start of the NATO action, capturing life inside enemy territory has been more difficult. When Miss McComb began sending e-mail describing the plight of the war's Serbian victims, it received instant and expansive circulation on the Internet.
Russian and Yugoslav sources say at least 400 civilians have been killed in the course of NATO strikes against military targets. NATO officials say the number is lower, but acknowledge that collateral loss is inevitable in the operation. "We regret any unintended damage or loss of civilian life," has been a phrase used by more than one Brussels spokesman as the bombing campaign wears on.
On April 10, ten passengers on a train in southern Serbia were killed and dozens more injured when the train crossed a bridge just as a NATO jet fired a missile meant to destroy the span. The week before, at least a dozen people were killed when an errant missile struck an apartment complex in Aleksinac. In addition to death and injury, much of the surrounding area in the mining town of 17,000 was completely destroyed.
Likewise in Nis, not far from Aleksinac, collateral damage was actually more severe than reported. Several downtown buildings were destroyed. Whole streets that housed military facilities were gone, as were houses, shops, and other businesses within blocks of the military installations. At a local university, missiles leveled student dorms and a cafeteria, along with power facilities. Storage facilities for humanitarian aid administered by one Baptist church were bombed, ending an ongoing relief project.
The psychological toll is rising, too, with diminishing supplies and unnerving, now nearly round-the-clock attacks. "The anger and hatred grows with each hour," said Miss McComb. "A nation that was on the verge of change has now been unified against a common enemy and has rallied around the only seeming savior around-Milosevic."
Miss McComb told WORLD she believes support for Mr. Milosevic is near-total in Yugoslavia. State-controlled media, combined with a communications blackout, she said, has put a chokehold for many months on the information received by most Serbians. Coverage of the tension in Kosovo, she said, has been misreported to most Serbians for many months: "They have an inbred mistrust for the West," due to long-standing support for communism and a mistrust for Muslims (which most Albanians are) stemming from half a millennium of Ottoman Turkish rule.
Miss McComb soon found herself on the receiving end of anti-West sentiment. Neighbors showed up outside her home the day after the NATO attack, threatening to burn her car. As neighbors gathered and police were called, Miss McComb saw that her landlord, too, was in danger because she was housing an American. Church members advised her to leave the city.
"At this point I realized that for me to stay was actually endangering the lives of the very people I was there for. I had always said that as soon as my presence was harmful and not helpful-I would go," she said. With sirens signaling another attack, she said she fled the country.
Miss McComb first traveled to Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, and then on to Budapest, Hungary. She would like to return to Yugoslavia but doubts the opportunity will arise soon. "We are the enemy right now, and unless something changes soon, I'm sure that we will be unwelcome there for a long time to come," she told WORLD.
Other civilians from the West have found themselves in harm's way, as well. CARE workers Steve Pratt and Peter Wallace, both Australians, disappeared April 1 at a Kosovo border checkpoint. After more than a week, Yugoslav officials confirmed that they were holding the men, who oversaw relief programs for CARE in Serbia. Later, Yugoslav state television played a video which showed Mr. Pratt "confessing" that he used his position for espionage. CARE officials deny this.
The United States is increasing aircraft numbers in the region, sending 24 Apache helicopters to Albania. The Pentagon initially said 2,000 soldiers would accompany the aircraft-but increased that number to 4,800 last week. Adding to the specter of incremental ground war, Britain will likely make official this week its plans to send an additional 2,000-3,000 troops, along with 20 tanks and 50 armored personnel carriers, to join the NATO force that it leads in Macedonia. NATO forces on the ground in Macedonia now total more than 12,000.