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Belgrade's Ruined Defense Ministry Serves As Reminder Of NATO Airstrikes

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Nations, like individuals, have different ways of dealing with trauma. Some build memorials. Others bury any sign of the trauma and try to pretend it never happened. NPR's Ari Shapiro found himself in one country that left the damage untouched, keeping the memory of what happened fresh. Ari sent these reflections from Serbia.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: It is just so shocking to walk down this hill and see this huge government building that looks like it was bombed yesterday. Huge holes are blasted out of the wall. Staircases dangle, concrete floors are hanging. But this was destroyed in a NATO airstrike in 1999. It's been untouched since then - staying as a reminder of those airstrikes.

SLOBODAN PETROVICH: (Through interpreter) I live right by, close to here. Every single bomb that fell here, I felt it when it landed.

SHAPIRO: Slobodan Petrovich is walking his dog past the ruined defense ministry in Belgrade. NATO bombed the building to stop Serbian forces from attacking Kosovo 16 years ago. Petrovich says this reminder of destruction and war shapes his feelings about the West today.

PETROVICH: (Through interpreter) My view was far better in the past than it is now, of course because of everything that happened, which needn't have happened. There was no need for it to happen.

SHAPIRO: This building is not officially a memorial to the airstrikes. Over the years, various Serbian government officials have said they would like to tear it down but they can't because the building is historic or because it would cost too much. Many younger people here say it long past time to close this open wound.

DRAGAN MARKOVICH: I think it's a disgrace.

SHAPIRO: Dragan Markovich is an 18-year-old student.

MARKOVICH: I think we should do what the Americans did with the twin towers. When they were demolished, they built a memorial.

SHAPIRO: Do you think they're trying to send a message by leaving this reminder of the bomb?

MARKOVICH: Of course, but a memorial would be such a better message.

SHAPIRO: Officially, Serbia wants to be closer to the rest of Europe. Visiting Americans are treated well here, but the country doesn't seem ready to demolish this bombed-out shell of a building just yet. After 16 years, the ruined defense ministry has become part of the national identity. And as one person put it, here in Belgrade, NATO is still a four letter word. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Belgrade, Serbia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.