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BEHIND THE HEADLINES Yugoslav Jews send e-mails to describe the crisis they face

ROME, April 12 (JTA) — A former leader of the Yugoslav Jewish community plays tennis with a group of friends two times a week in Belgrade. When they play now, the men wear bull”s-eye targets pinned to their backs — a symbol worn by Yugoslav citizens protesting NATO bombs. Last week they had to cut short a game because of an air raid siren, but despite the bombing, the games “will probably go on,” he quipped by e-mail, “as long as the tennis courts are intact — or as long as we are intact.” This man, like most people contacted for this story, asked that his name not be used. He added: “I still feel that this is surreal. I still cannot believe all this is happening. Ok, I do, but not yet 100%. I suppose people in Beirut, Sarajevo and perhaps Vietnam, for that matter, felt the same way.” NATO”s ongoing air war against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic”s campaign against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo has placed Yugoslavia”s 3,000 Jews, most of whom live in Belgrade, in much the same crisis as that faced by their fellow countrymen. Yugoslavia”s Jews are well integrated into mainstream society, and they share the same concerns, frustrations and fears — as well as the same black humor — experienced by their fellow citizens as they try to carry on their daily lives. “Our worries are the same, and our troubles, too,” said one Belgrade Jewish man, communicating, like most, by e-mail. “Food is still sufficient, so is water and electric power. Once that becomes scarce, we shall be in trouble.” Reported another man, a Jew from Sarajevo who, along with 200 others, found refuge in Belgrade seven years ago during the Bosnian war and remained in the Serbian capital: “Where I live in Belgrade, you can hear explosions and see lights from the rockets and bombs. In the suburbs, the situation is worse. The rockets fall even on civilians, and some of our friends spend all the time in the bunkers.” Said a community member who survived World War II and the bombing of Belgrade by the Nazis in 1941 and the Allies in 1943: “I hate shelters and do not have the feeling that my wife and I are endangered, so we do not go to shelters. We spend our time in the Jewish community offices, or at home. Our flat is on the 11th floor. The problem is that we live far from the community so we have problems [getting there]. There is no fuel to buy now.” The NATO attack triggered shock, surprise and anger, as well as dismay and disruption. It also triggered a sense of common fate against an outside enemy. “NATO united the Serbs for the first time since 1815,” said one Jewish man. The Yugoslav media — tightly controlled by the state — present the war as a struggle by tiny Serbia to maintain its sovereignty in the face of a Nazi-style onslaught by the greatest power on earth. The Serbian atrocities in Kosovo are not mentioned, and the plight of the Kosovar refugees, if mentioned at all, is presented as the result of the NATO bombing campaign and attacks on Serb forces by the Kosovo Liberation Army. Yugoslav Jews — who throughout the series of Balkan wars in the 1990s steered clear of taking any official political position — for the most part have closed ranks with the rest of the country in protesting the NATO campaign. This was expressed publicly in a March 28 appeal issued by the Federation of Jewish Communities of Yugoslavia to halt the attack. “The bombing hurts all Yugoslav citizens including Jews, as we also are citizens of Yugoslavia,” it said. Individual Jews — such as the tennis player — protest symbolically by wearing a “target” or by dancing and singing at the anti-NATO open-air concerts held at noon daily in downtown Belgrade. One young woman reported by e-mail last week that she had wanted to join other residents of Belgrade in a vigil as voluntary human shields on the city”s bridges, but was too scared to do so. “There wasn”t any bombing in Belgrade last night, but my mother was awake all night listening for airplanes,” she wrote. “We stayed in our beds. We are too cowardly to go on the bridge at night — and I am not proud of that.” One member of the Jewish community, Avram Izrael, has become a well-known public figure during the crisis. Izrael is the spokesman for Belgrade”s Monitoring and Early Warning Center, a civil defense office that informs the public of imminent attacks. In this capacity, he appears regularly on local radio and television issuing air raid warnings and explaining what should be done in cases of emergency. One Belgrade Jew said that among the placards carried by the crowd attending the daily protest concerts was one that reads, “Hey, Clinton, may Avram Izrael wake you up!” Few in Belgrade — Jewish or otherwise — thought that NATO would actually attack. Nevertheless, months before NATO launched its missile and bombing attack, Yugoslav Jewish leaders met in Budapest with Hungarian Jewish leaders and representatives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to map out a crisis strategy — just in case. “We organized everything that we could foresee,” a Belgrade community leader said by e-mail last week. “Our people have the same problems as all other inhabitants of Belgrade — and even more. “Jews have no relatives living in villages where they can move in case they feel endangered here in the town, or from whom they can receive some food supplies for free.” Plans, which have since been carried out, included renting buses that recently evacuated some 250 children and elderly people to Budapest. Yugoslav officials are forbidding men between the ages of 18 and 60 to leave. Last week, the Jewish community of Pristina evacuated its young people to relatives in Serbia, according to the JDC. Prior to the April 8 evacuation, community members had said they felt safe and preferred to remain in the Kosovo capital. As with the Jewish-organized bus convoys that evacuated people from Sarajevo earlier this decade, non-Jews have also been taken out on the buses to Budapest. Small reserves of cash, food, water and medicines were prepared in advance, and procedures to aid and communicate with the small Jewish communities in eight provincial towns and cities were developed. Provisions were also made for community members to find shelter in the Belgrade synagogue if they were afraid to stay in their homes. Few have made use of the opportunity, but about 100 people — more than usual for the holiday — attended services in the synagogue on the first night of Passover. About 50 stayed on for a seder held on the premises. The JDC and the London-based World Jewish Relief managed to get Passover supplies to all provincial Jewish communities except Nis and Pristina. Meanwhile, the European Council of Jewish Communities has launched an appeal to other Jewish communities to help Yugoslav Jews. “Inside Yugoslavia, the situation is dark,” it said in a statement last Friday. “The Federation of Jewish Communities of Yugoslavia is maintaining daily contacts with the nine Jewish communities, financially supports them and coordinates the protection of all its members. War is creating emergency needs for these communities of Yugoslavia. The available funds the JDC has provided will soon run dry. As usual in such situations, money can solve some of the problems!””

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