A DAY before the NATO summit in Bratislava, on Thursday 27, in a week in which the head of Slovakia's intelligence service had supposedly claimed that the country was not under any real threat from terrorism, a member of the public tipped off police about a possible bomb threat. Following the lead, they discovered a total of around half a kilo of explosives secreted beneath a waste bin on the bank of the Danube, just around the corner from the Slovak Philharmonic, the venue of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.
Lasting over the weekend until Monday, this major event was to draw large numbers of important international delegates, including the NATO secretary general, and although security was tight, the discovery was indeed timely.
When Slovakia joined NATO back in April this year, I suspect that the general population believed that the move would, amongst other things, bring an added sense of security to the country. However, it appears that being a member of such an organisation also draws attention to a nation that may not previously been a natural target for terrorist groups.
I, personally, happened to be in a building situated less than a five minute walk from the area when the news broke, and I read the consequent reports, one of which mentioned that the frighteningly, but aptly named "dead zone" would have been about 25 metres from the epicentre of any explosion that may have occurred. Needless to say, my journey home that evening was one of concern and unease.
As an armchair observer of the international war on terror, I have watched the appalling acts of violence that have occurred throughout the world in recent years with abject horror. However, like many of the people fortunate enough not to have had experienced such shocking tragedies as the Madrid train bombing, for example, I had fallen into the trap of complacency, making the reports all the more startling. Before moving to Slovakia, I have lived in London and heard of instances of bomb threats and explosions, but it is a comparatively enormous city, and everything seemed so far away. The news on Thursday brought everything that much closer.
The following day, I needed to return to that area to offices located not 250 metres away from the Philharmonic and directly across from the US embassy, and it was with more than a little trepidation that I made my way there. When I alighted from the tram at a stop near the Nový Most, it was obvious that security measures had been significantly tightened; vehicles were being stopped under the bridge and subjected to vigorous checks, and police cars lined the main road alongside the river in their dozens. Even the weather had taken a more serious approach to the day, and with my hood up and head down against the wind and rain, I strode towards my destination.
I soon found that my route was blocked by a line of thick wire riot barriers, manned at all entry points by security forces. Naturally, I passed through without causing any major concern, but under the scrutinizing gaze of a huge policeman clad from head to toe in black riot gear, an irrational feeling of guilt came over me, the kind that one gets in the presence of figures of authority when not actually doing anything wrong.
As I started to make my way down the normally pleasant tree-lined avenue, I passed several armoured vehicles, some with Polícia emblazoned on the side, and others appearing more military in type; with every other doorway housing a member of one or another of the security forces, I couldn't help wondering about what the atmosphere of the city may have been like leading up to the fall of communism in 1989.
I finally reached the offices and, within seconds, was asked about if I had heard about the discovery of the "bombs". The general feeling expressed was that of fearful reluctance at being so close to the venue of the Assembly, and an impatient expectancy of the day's end. I suspect that this was a sentiment shared by many in that building, which was increasingly including myself.
When it came time for me to return home, I deliberately chose to take a tram that departed some way away from the river, and as it pulled away from its stop and headed out of the centre, I noticed one of my fellow passengers, an elderly woman, glance towards the river and cross herself. Now, I don't know whether or not this gesture had anything to do with the sense of apprehension prevalent in the city that day, or whether it was just out of a fear of public transport, but, had I been a religious man, I may well have done the same.
Despite the scares of that week, the NATO assembly wound down on June 1 after a weekend without explosions, anarchist rallies, or other major disturbances of that nature. That evening, as I stood on my balcony, I could hear crickets chirping merrily in the growing dark and the sweet fragrance of jasmine filled the air; at that moment, Slovakia felt like the safest place on earth. Thinking back over my sojourns into the city, I was convinced that I had allowed myself to be carried along on a wave of alarm that had increased as it passed from person to person, and I felt a little foolish about my paranoia. After all, it couldn't possibly happen here... could it?
7. Jun 2004 at 0:00 | Richard Wood