It was close to midnight and Vlada, a Serbian engineer, was speeding towards his apartment in Belgrade. He had taken his 20-year-old son out that evening but bombs had started to fall across the Yugoslav capital. The power grid was down and he wanted to get home.
Nato, the world’s most powerful military alliance, had been pummelling Yugoslavia from the skies since late March to try to bring a halt to atrocities committed by President Slobodan Milosevic’s forces against ethnic Albanians in the province of Kosovo. It was now 7 May 1999 and the US-dominated air campaign was only growing more intense.
Vlada’s family had spent many nights in recent weeks huddled with others in the basement of their apartment building as air raid sirens blared outside, praying that an errant missile wouldn’t strike their homes.
They were lucky, some thought, to live just next to the Chinese embassy – an important diplomatic mission. Being there would surely protect them.
But as Vlada and his son approached the glass doors of their building in the dark, US B-2 stealth warplanes were in the skies above Belgrade. They were locked-on to the precise co-ordinates of a target selected and cleared by the CIA. All Vlada heard at first was the whoosh of an incoming missile. There was no time to move. The doors shattered, spraying glass at them.
The force of the first bomb lifted us off the ground and we fell… Then one after the other [more bombs landed] – bam, bam, bam. All the shutters on the block were ripped off by the blast, it broke all the windows.”
They were terrified but uninjured. All five bombs had hit the embassy, 100 metres away.
The US and Nato were already facing scrutiny over mounting civilian casualties in a bombing campaign conducted without UN authorisation and fiercely opposed by China and Russia. They had now attacked a symbol of Chinese sovereignty in the heart of the Balkans.