SO NOW it’s a “command and control centre” is it? When I last walked through the door of Number 15 Uzicka Street – targeted by Nato in the early hours of yesterday morning – it contained a large desk, 14,000 books, some fine paintings by Sava Jovanovic and a brace of Persian carpets. It must have looked much the same when Her Majesty the Queen – our very own Elizabeth II – visited President Tito here.
And as it did when Winston Churchill and his son Randolph dropped by to see the Grand Old Man of Yugoslavia. Or when Nixon came to visit. And Lord Mountbatten. And U Thant, the former United Nations leader, and Nehru and Indira Gandhi and the queens of Holland, Belgium and the Netherlands.
The only thing which they assuredly were not shown – and to which even The Independent’s correspondent was refused admission to seven years ago – was Tito’s “Room of Ladies”, containing a series of nude statues and portraits of reclining girls which reflected the interests of the priapic old dictator.
Into this extraordinary shrine, we are now told, the Yugoslav regime had installed a command and control centre. Was this computerised “nerve centre” in the bedroom of the two-storey collonaded villa? Or next to the library where the works of Hegel nestled beside volumes of partisan- brigade history? Or in the old cinema where Tito enjoyed watching Richard Burton playing the role of – yes – Marshal Tito? Or near the flocks of wild birds shot by Tito and religiously stuffed for posterity? Or in the Room of Ladies? Or alongside the old boy’s desk, left as it was when Yugoslavia’s Titan left work for the last time for hospital and death?
Inevitably, President Slobodan Milosevic and his family had moved into Tito’s former residence a couple of years ago. And equally inevitably, Nato attacked it. The laser-guided bomb, dropped yesterday from a lone aircraft high over Belgrade, exploded in the bedroom.
And a few hours later, there was Ken Bacon in the Pentagon, wearing his familiar spokesman’s bow-tie, telling us it was “a command and control centre”. I can believe almost anything of this war. I have no doubt that Nato hates Mr Milosevic. I can see why. But this looked to me very much like an assassination attempt on a head of state.
Normally both Mr Milosevic and his wife, Mira Markovic – the professor of Marxism who wrote a very angry letter to Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, on Sunday – and their children, Marija and Marko, lived here, along with a one-and-a-half-year-old grandson, also Marko. But they were wise enough to stay away on Wednesday night; after all, Nato had fired cruise missiles into the headquarters of both Mr Milosevic’s and Ms Markovic’s political parties a few hours earlier. It clearly wasn’t a good night to spend in the old Tito villa, renovated in somewhat spectacular style by the Yugoslav President and his wife.
No one I spoke to yesterday knew what Mr Milosevic did with Tito’s desk or with the massive volume of snapshots I found in the house seven years ago with the soporific title National Liberation Army and Partisan Detachments of Yugoslavia. Given the couple’s admiration for Tito, they must have been kept. But where? In the basement? And what happened to Sava Jovanovic’s Portrait of a Girl which once stared wistfully down on the library? Was it shredded by the bomb?
It was a strange, pompous, old house, built in the fashionable middle- class 1930s suburb of Dedinje, with big, square lawns and straight military paths through the trees. You could see how it appealed to General Lohr, commanding officer of the Wehrmacht’s Army Group E, who moved in during Germany’s wartime occupation (one of Lohr’s aides being a priggish young intelligence officer from Austria, a certain Oberlieutenant Kurt Waldheim who went on to become president of Austria in the 1980s.) And how it must have appealed to Tito when he moved in after the war.
One of his former secretaries had shown me round 15 Uzicka Street. By Tito’s desk, the hands of a clock were stopped at the minute of his death. But already, the government had been deconstructing the Tito myth, turning his 25 May Museum into an exhibition of Serbian military history with frightful photographs of old Serbian women being hanged by a grinning rabble of Austrian and Bulgarian soldiery. Dust sheets half covered the junk of admiration which Tito had collected: the hunting rifles from Churchill, Brezhnev and Zhukov, the diamond-studded ash-tray from Nasser, the coffee service from Saddam Hussein.
“They’re getting rid of things so fast these days,” the plump and elderly retainer had puffed as we entered the residence seven years ago. “Who knows what they will close next? We don’t even know how long this place will last. If Tito was alive today, he would not have believed what has happened.” Too true, I muttered to myself yesterday as I puffed my own way up the hill in the rain towards the old Tito museum that lies behind No 15.
The gardens were overgrown. The wet grass was conquering the concrete floor of the fountain. Graffiti was splashed over park benches and walls. At the door of the museum, I was met by a Serb policeman. “I am sorry, the museum is closed,” he said. And he shook his head in a weary, amused way when I asked if there was any chance of taking a look at what was left of No 15. If I wanted to find the secretary who had shown me round all those years ago, he added, I would have to remember her name and apply in writing to the authorities. Khaki figures in rain capes watched me from the trees.
The only head of state to be wounded in action during the Second World War was buried close to his residence and I asked the Serb policeman if I could take a peak at Tito’s tomb, just in case the concrete slab had cracked as the dictator – 19 years dead – turned in his grave. The policeman shook his head with a smile.
Nor could I find out if another tomb, the grave of Tito’s young partisan mistress that lay in the garden of No 15, survived the Nato bombing. For yesterday, the old man’s home was as broken as his dreams of brotherhood and unity. Heaven knows what happened to Nasser’s ashtray. Or Saddam Hussein’s coffee service. What on earth would Tito have made of Mr Bacon’s revelation of a “command and control centre”? Best not to imagine. Another army, half a century past, had tried to assassinate Tito. And the clock stopped here a long time ago.