Serbia's Rebel Youth

The TV images of Serbs marching through the streets of Belgrade Thursday night, setting fire to part of the U.S. embassy, brought back ugly memories of the nationalist rallies sponsored by former strongman Slobodan Milosevic. In some ways this riot was worse. There's a reason you don't see too many close-ups of the angry crowds: Demonstrators were attacking not just foreign journalists on sight, but all journalists; even ultra-nationalist Serbian reporters were running for cover. I have never found it this dangerous to work the streets of the capital, even during the street mayhem that preceded Milosevic's fall. Tonight, you didn't even dare talk on a mobile phone in any language other than Serbian.

If viewers had been able to examine the crowd more closely, they would have noticed something even scarier--the extreme youth of the most violent protesters. When I fell in behind a band of a couple thousand people headed for the American embassy, I was shocked to see that many were kids who looked as young as nine or ten. That would have put them in diapers in 1999 when Serbia went to war with NATO over the breakaway province of Kosovo, whose declaration of independence on Feb. 17 sparked these protests. You could hear them on their mobiles, smoothly assuring their parents that they weren't out in the city with the mob. There were older demonstrators too, but most of them were teenagers, with an incendiary seeding of soccer hooligans sporting the flags and emblems of Belgrade's soccer clubs, long a breeding ground for radicals. Even they would have at best been in primary school when Serbia lost one Balkan war after another, culminating with the defeat in Kosovo.

This children's crusade was both quixotic and violent. At latest count, 96 people had been injured, 32 of them policemen, four of them foreign journalists. (One hospital reported that many of the injured protesters were drunk). The U.S. embassy reported that a body was found inside the consulate building, burned beyond recognition. Stores and boutiques with Western brands were looted and burned. Embassies that supported Kosovo's declaration of independence were attacked and some were, like the American embassy, set ablaze. Although police quickly regained control of the area around the U.S. embassy, they were repeatedly overwhelmed by the numbers of protesters, and on several occasions were forced to flee. The violence was still ongoing late into the night. At the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad promised to seek a U.N. resolution "reminding the Serb government of its responsibility to protect diplomatic facilities."

This was not the image that Serbia wanted to present to the world. Recent elections brought to power Boris Tadic, a pro-Western moderate whose main campaign pledge was to bring Serbia into the European Union. But Tadic, knowing that the march had been planned, found this an auspicious time to visit Romania. Instead Serbia's hard-line nationalist prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, launched the protests around 5 p.m. He had declared today a sort of a national holiday, and ordered all schools, even theaters, closed, while providing buses and special trains to bring people to the capital from all over the country. It was hardly surprising that large numbers of young people showed up. Estimates of the crowd's size varied from 100,000 to 200,000, although that was still a far cry from the million protesters Kostunica had hoped to draw. Many will be heading home with brand-new Nike sneakers-sports shops seemed to be, after the U.S. embassy, the most sought after target of the young mob.

Things soon spun out of control. As they marched on the American embassy, police charged and pushed the group back, but they regrouped and attacked, some of them throwing rocks and beer bottles-which they drained first, of course. Beer and the traditional plum brandy were much in evidence, despite the age of the protesters; the great majority of them were boys. Fortunately, the heavily fortified U.S. embassy was vacated by the time they got there. In all of the conflicts of the Balkan wars, protesters have only once before penetrated the grounds of the embassy. But this time some of the protesters were so small they were able to squeeze through the bars. Soon they had two of the main buildings set alight, with huge fires burning inside them. More demonstrators poured into the street in front of the embassy, many taking souvenir pictures of the scene with their cellphones, others expressing disappointment that "we missed it," because they arrived too late for the action. It took police another 20 minutes to restore order, attacking with water cannons and teargas so that fire trucks could reach the scene. The embassy was believed to have been heavily damaged, but not destroyed. The reported fatality there might have been a security guard, or even one of the children, overcome by smoke; at this point it's not clear. The B92 news agency said the body was so badly burned even the gender was unclear.

It was a sorry outcome to Serbia's declared strategy to take the high road in the dispute over Kosovo, claiming that recognition by the United States and some European countries of the province's secession was illegal under UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which recognized that Kosovo was a part of Serbia. Serbia's position has powerful supporters, including China, Russia, and even half a dozen members of the EU. "We're not alone in our fight," Kostunica pointedly told the crowd before it turned violent. "President Putin [of Russia] is with us." Tonight's events, however, won't win the country many admirers. Children's crusades have a way of ending badly.