Lana Todorovich was on the phone to Belgrade with an urgent message for her parents: “Get out. Now.”
In the early hours of March 24, U.S. NATO warplanes bearing bombs were on their way to Yugoslavia.
Milan and Yela Simic, 62 and 57 years old, heeded their daughter’s warning. They made the hair-raising journey through the city of Novi Sad, northwest of Belgrade, as the first bombs began to fall.
“They saw bombs and rockets fall on Novi Sad, everywhere just fire and destruction and fear and disbelief,” said Todorovich, a fashion executive from Westchester.
They traveled first to Budapest under cover of darkness, then took a flight on CFA Czech Airlines to The Hague, Netherlands. The paradox of this war and their flight from it: The United States was their ultimate haven from the fighting.
“So the very country that was bombing them,” Todorovich said, “was also their way out of this terrible situation.”
That ambiguous dynamic in which the pain of U.S. attacks was felt along with the comfort of sanctuary in America has played out with many Serb immigrants in the last two weeks.
They love America, they say, but they hate what American-led NATO forces are doing to them.
More than 2 million Serb immigrants live in the U.S., predominantly in Midwestern cities, such as Chicago and Cleveland. In the greater New York area, some 50,000 Serbs live in Paterson and Elizabeth, N.J., and in Astoria, Queens.
Many express disbelief at what they see as the unfairness and injustice of the NATO attack on their homeland. Todorovich, 33 and the mother of a 6-year-old girl, arrived in the U.S. about 10 years ago and is an American citizen. She said the bombing campaign left her disillusioned, frustrated and angry.
“I just believed that we would do the right thing, and we didn’t.” she said. “It is a violation of my American sense of morality, to go ahead and commit aggression, provoke death and atrocities in the name of protecting people from the very same thing,”
Todorovich is not alone in feeling betrayed by U.S. actions in the Balkans. Serbs interviewed in the city said they blame President Clinton, not the American people, who they do not believe support the assault on their nation.
They scoff, however, at the notion that the U.S. quarrel is with Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic, not with the Serb people. In protests across the city and all over the world, Serbs have taken to wearing bull’s-eyes on their shirt fronts and backs, suggesting they are also targets of the bombs.
George Bogdanich, 50, of the upper East Side, decried what he sees as President Clinton’s bungling of the conflict.
“These obnoxious references to Hitler and Nazis and so on Clinton ought to be aware that Serbs provided the first resistance to Hitler on the mainland of Europe during World War II,” Bogdanich said.
Americans just don’t understand what is at stake in Kosovo, he said. For Serbs to give in to the Kosovo Liberation Army, many said, is tantamount to a violent separatist movement wanting to secede from Texas and Russia or China saying, “Give them what they want or we’ll bomb you.”
“It’s just a sad situation,” Bogdanich said. “But Clinton does nothing but create ill will and bad policies by demonizing Serbs.”
By bombing and threatening Serb sovereignty, he said, Clinton and NATO did for Milosevic what the Serb strongman had not been able to do for himself: wipe out opposition to him in his own country.
Bogdanich bristled at reports of fresh Serb atrocities against Kosovo Albanians since the NATO bombing began. He insisted there is no evidence of such incidents.
Like many other Serbs, he blamed the reports on a biased Western media that have taken complex issues and created a simplified picture of good and evil.
“As a result of the selective press coverage, Serbs have been demonized,” Bogdanich said.
The media, Serbian-Americans argued, tagged the Serb people as genocidal for the killing of 200,000 Bosnian Muslims. But they fail to report that many Serbs have suffered ethnic cleansing at the hands of other warring Balkan ethnic groups, they said. They cited, correctly, the 190,000 Croatian Serbs routed from their homes in 1995 by Croat soldiers being advised by retired U.S. generals under the cover of NATO air strikes.
Mark Milich, 46, a third-generation Serbian-American who lives in Port Washington, L.I., said Clinton’s arrogance was responsible for a debacle.
“Our action is not the way to free people from oppression. America, the land of the free, is now responsible for driving these people deeper into their oppression,” Milich said.
“These are the days of infamy,” said Tatjana, 32, of Bernardsville, N.J., an economist for a telecommunications company who did not want her full name used. “I just don’t believe Tomahawks [cruise missiles] can bring peace.”
Todorovich’s parents are happy to be alive. But their worldly possessions have been reduced to the two suitcases they hurriedly packed when they left Belgrade.
“My parents are just recuperating now,” she said, “trying to get over the fear, the treacherous ride through bombs, through the furnace.”
GRAPHIC: CLARENCE DAVIS DAILY NEWS RALLY: Pro-Serb protesters sporting bull’s-eye look popular in Yugoslavia march outside Grand Central Terminal last week.