- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2008

BELGRADE, Serbia

On the list of famous Serbs are soccer stars, tennis champions and notorious politicians. Then there’s Vesna Vulovic. She was a 22-year-old flight attendant aboard a Yugoslav Airlines plane in 1972 when a bomb ripped apart the jetliner high above the snowy mountains of Czechoslovakia.

Trapped in the plane’s tail cone, she plummeted 33,000 feet to earth in temperatures of minus 50 degrees and landed on a steep and heavily wooded slope near the village of Srbska Kamenice.

Her amazing survival made her an instant national heroine.

She went on to put her celebrity at the service of political causes, protesting strongman Slobodan Milosevic’s rule in the 1990s and, most recently, campaigning for liberal forces in upcoming elections.

The May ballot may determine whether Serbia moves forward in its bid to join the European Union or sinks deeper into isolation as it defies international pressure to accept Kosovo’s independence.

“I struggled against Milosevic’s regime in the 1990s because I didn’t want Serbia to be a pariah state, and I’ll do the same this time because I want us to be part of the normal world,” said Ms. Vulovic, now 58.

Ms. Vulovic is said to be an inspiration for the opening scene of Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses,” which describes the two protagonists surviving a high-altitude fall from an airliner blown up by terrorists.

In 1985, she was inducted into Guinness World Records for “the highest fall survived without a parachute.”

“She is one of the most famous Yugoslavs ever,” said Cedomir Janjic, former head of the Yugoslav Air Force Museum. “She’s certainly the luckiest.”

On that fateful January day, the tail cone holding Ms. Vulovic tumbled through pine branches and into a thick coating of snow, softening the impact and cushioning its descent down the hill.

All 27 of the other passengers and crew aboard the Douglas DC-9 jetliner perished after the explosion detached the cockpit from the fuselage.

The front section, which was found about four miles from the main wreckage, contained the bodies of the two pilots. They had donned oxygen masks and tried to fly the plane after the explosion, apparently unaware that nothing remained behind the cockpit door.

Croatian nationalists were suspected of planting the bomb during a scheduled stopover in Copenhagen, but no one was ever arrested.

Villagers said they saw a flash in the sky and heard the sounds of bodies falling to the ground “like sacks.”

Ms. Vulovic was rescued by a woodsman who followed her screams in the dark forest. She was rushed to a hospital, where she fell into a coma for 10 days. She had a fractured skull, two crushed vertebrae and a broken pelvis, ribs and legs.

Paralyzed from the waist down, Ms. Vulovic eventually recovered and returned to work for the airline in a desk job. She now walks with a slight limp.

She has never regained memory of the accident or her rescue. She can recall greeting passengers before takeoff from the airport in Denmark, and then waking up in the hospital with her mother at her side.

During the Milosevic regime, Ms. Vulovic braved repeated clashes with riot police after she joined the opposition Democratic Party. She was sent into early retirement from the state-owned airline in the 1990s as punishment for her involvement in the anti-Milosevic movement.

As part of a reformist coalition, the Democrats won elections in 2000, forcing Mr. Milosevic from power. Ms. Vulovic is still an activist in the party, but holds no political posts.

Serbia’s coalition government collapsed March 8 after nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said Serbia could not become a member of the European Union without retaining Kosovo as part of its territory.

President Boris Tadic, who leads the drive for joining the European Union, accepted a proposal to hold early elections for a new parliament that will give voters a choice on which path Serbia follows.

“I thought I was done with politics, but the choice now is too stark,” Ms. Vulovic said.

“I don’t assume [I] will make a huge difference, but every little bit will help.”

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