Dispatches From the War Zone

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 20 1999 10:00 PM

Dispatches From the War Zone

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Allow me to introduce myself. I do not generally believe in writing about writing: Needing to add to a story the details of its making makes me suspect that the job was not well done in the first place. So part of me would prefer to stay anonymous, since that is part of the story I have been writing. At the same time, I believe journalists should be identifiable. We have the ability to hurt people and, on a story like this one, endanger them, and at the very least, we should risk our good names in the process. Also, journalism as personal as what I have been practicing requires the reader to consent to looking at the world, or a part of it, through the author's eyes. It seems to me the reader should have the right to know whose eyes these have been. So allow me to introduce myself.

My name is Masha Gessen. I am--or at least I was, before I embarked on this adventure, which has run far longer than planned--the chief correspondent for the weekly magazine Itogi, the Russian partner to Newsweek. I went to Yugoslavia on a tourist visa for two reasons: I wanted to get in fast, and journalist visas take a long time to process; and, more important, I had had a clear indication that the Yugoslav Embassy in Moscow would not issue me another journalist visa because of a series of articles on Kosovo that I did last year. At the time, I did not take this very hard: I had promised myself I would never go to another war zone again.

I know myself to be a coward. I am afraid of cities at night, and I am afraid of strange dogs, and I have myriad other fears with which I will not bore you. Like many journalists, I feel drawn to new stories and big stories and hard stories, and wars are usually all those things, but until a certain point I had always limited myself to areas where there was no actual shooting or shelling or bombing. The certain point came for me in January 1995, when Russian federal troops were bombing the Chechen capital of Grozny. I had moved back to Russia, where I grew up, less than a year earlier, and I had told everyone who asked that I would stay "until the fascists come to power." By my understanding, a government that bombs civilians, especially its own citizens and especially at least in part because they belong to a different and despised ethnic group, is a fascist government. The problem was, I did not want to leave the country. But I also didn't want to become a silent supporter of the regime by staying in the country. This meant I had to do something, and the only thing I believe I know how to do, in the public realm, is to write stories.

War reporting is addictive. Which is probably why I found myself in Kosovo a year ago, sitting on a beautiful hill at gunpoint, being told that I was about to be executed. I had climbed the hill--and made my photographer and two Kosovar interpreters do it--because I was looking for the Kosovo Liberation Army. There was still some debate then regarding whether the KLA existed at all, and our interpreters did not believe it did. We found the KLA, and the KLA found us right back. The whole scene was quite comical. When we got up to the top of the hill, we heard men's voices behind a bush. We felt like intruders, like we had stumbled upon people having sex, so we started coughing softly. Then a man dressed like a guerrilla fighter from a cartoon--camouflage trousers held up by suspenders, and a beret--jumped out from behind the bush, pointed his Kalashnikov at us, and the scene commenced. Other guerrillas joined in, they made us sit on the grass, interrogated us, told us we were spies, took our documents, told us we'd be executed, borrowed my pen to copy down our details. The tension lifted slightly when the cartoon guerilla, in keeping with a Kosovar hospitality custom, threw us a pack of cigarettes. I did not smoke at the time (I didn't start again until I was on my way to Belgrade this time), but my photographer was asthmatic, and the two interpreters were paralyzed by fear, so I took a cigarette. Then they told us to run down to our car at the bottom of the hill, and that we'd be shot if we weren't in the car and out of there in 15 minutes. I asked for my pen back, and we ran down the hill rather ungracefully, 15 minutes being not quite enough to get there.

When I got back to Moscow, I told this story over and over again until one day my 10-year-old stepdaughter asked me to "tell the story about how you smoked with the monkeys."

Sitting on the hill, I thought, "What a beautiful day. What a pity to be shot. What I am doing here, anyway?" It was a good question. Kosovo did not demand my presence. I cared about Kosovo, I had written about it before, I had friends there, but it was not my war. It was not being fought by my government, and it did not demand my presence. It was, I concluded, stupid to be there, and if I did not get shot, I would not go to any more wars.

So then NATO goes and bombs Yugoslavia in what has to be one of the most shortsighted and disastrous foreign-policy moves this century. The operation is not yet a month old, and already it has caused a humanitarian disaster. In the country where I lived, it has transformed the political situation, virtually assuring Russia of a nationalist regime following the next election. As it happens, I carry both a Russian and a U.S. passport. I do not want to have to choose between them. At the moment, it would be an awfully difficult choice, since I believe both my governments are committing mistakes at best, crimes at worst. This is, once again, my war.

When Slate asked me to do these dispatches, on my second day in Belgrade, I was concerned that I would neither be able to use my name nor to mention two things that inevitably play a role in a war situation: my nationality and my gender. It has been surprisingly easy to sidestep these issues. This is not because they are less important than I thought. It's that very quickly, in a war, any foreigner becomes simply other. Russians may have been perceived as friends and brothers in the first few days, but soon they became just outsiders who would never understand.

Of course, if it were not for my Russian passport, I would not have been able to do this. Nor would I have been able to do it if I were a man. The female reporter has a definite advantage in the macho war culture: She can become invisible. I had experienced it before, for example, when two generals would have at it while I was sitting in the room--my presence did not register. This time, I was able to walk around, travel in and out and through the country, virtually no questions asked. I did not even, unlike other passengers on the bus, have my things searched at Yugoslav customs--I believe this is because I had placed the more intimate items of female apparel on top of the backpack. I would probably have faced questions if my computer had been found--but I use a Libretto (which I really think should be marketed as a computer for women, since most men can't use the keyboard), which is so small that I can stuff it in between clothes. Finally, I believe that I risked less than a man if I had been caught.

None of this is about heroics. For one thing, had I been caught, I probably would have felt pretty stupid again. Second, I was constantly surrounded by people, my old and new friends, who risked much more than I by giving me shelter.

Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist who is the author of Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot and co-editor of Gay Propaganda: Russian Love Stories.