Dispatches From the War Zone

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 18 1999 9:30 PM

Dispatches From the War Zone

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A beautiful backdrop for the horrors of war is a former-Yugoslav specialty. I actually think that was why Zagreb at one point accumulated a disproportionate number of international volunteers: It is a few hours by train from Vienna, full of cafes and refined architecture, not far from the gorgeous sea coast. Now I sit in the resort town of Ulcinj (Ool-TSEEN), in a hotel room with a terrace overlooking the Adriatic. The dominant color in Montenegro is green. Green mountains, green water, and even the donkeys that wander the mountain roads with apparent disregard for the cars seem to have a greenish tint.

I took a train from Podgorica to the port of Bar. At ten dinars--just over 50 cents--I figured I could afford first class. Three men and a woman were already sitting on the plush, red velvety seat in a compartment where a sign announced in four languages "No Smoking." We all smoked and ground our butts into a long-suffering gray floor. We passed a lot of water on the way to the coast, lakes and rivers that had swallowed entire tree groves and were threatening to engulf houses. In another time the flooding would have made the newscast, along with the earthquake in Macedonia someone mentioned in passing the other day.

There were no buses for Ulcinj until tomorrow, but an old cab driver agreed to take me in his ancient green Mercedes.

"Your country is good," he said after I told him where I come from.

"Montenegro is beautiful," I reciprocated.

"Yugoslavia was beautiful," he corrected me. "War is ugly."

"NATO is doing bad," he said after a pause, accommodating my poor command of the language that used to be called Serbo-Croatian or Croato-Serbian, depending on where you were, and is now called Serbian, Croatian, or Bosnian. Only in Montenegro have I heard it referred to as South Slavonic, which could be taken as an expression either of Montenegrins' internationalism or of their indecision. "NATO is doing ugly in Serbia, but not in Montenegro," the driver added.

"Bombs three times in Podgorica," I contributed. Actually, four, it seems. There had a blast a couple of hours earlier while I was haggling with the hotel staff in Podgorica about my inflated phone bill. The desk clerk said: "Hear that? That was a bomb!" He seemed to be implying that it was my fault or, at least, that this was no time to be complaining about paying $40 for 10 minutes of local calls. I cut this diversionary maneuver short by saying, "I have heard bombs, and that was no bomb." A few minutes later one of the journalists brought the news that there had been an explosion and anti-aircraft fire at the airport, which has been bombed before.

"No," the driver insisted. "NATO not bomb Podgorica, not do bad for Djukanovic." He was the first ordinary Montenegrin I have met who confirmed the politicians' insistent assertion that the public here understands that NATO is targeting the bad Serbian regime, not the good Montenegrins. He also lives far from Podgorica.

"Many refugees in Ulcinj, eh?" I probed the extent of the driver's liberalism.

"Yes, terrible," he agreed. "Running from Kosovo."

"Why?"

He looked at me like I was an idiot.

"Are they running from NATO or Milosevic?" I persisted.

"From Milosevic! Milosevic is chasing them out!" His intonation lifted but quickly settled with a sigh. "Yugoslavia was beautiful 10 years ago."

I had met the perfect Montenegrin. He was a patriot without being a Serb nationalist. He was against the NATO bombings, but he understood who was really at fault. He was also, as I discovered when we pulled into Ulcinj and he asked for directions, an Albanian--like just under 7 percent of Montenegro's permanent population (the number of Albanians has nearly tripled with the influx from Kosovo) and most of the population of Ulcinj.

Being a resort town, Ulcinj has the infrastructure to house about five times its population of 11,000. Right now there are nearly 30,000 displaced persons here. Most of the hotels and other available public buildings, inclduing mosques, as well as other private houses, are bursting with refugees. I got a room at the Albatross Hotel, which is privately owned and therefore empty of refugees. "They're still hoping for a tourist season," said Robert Breen, the head of the Podgorica suboffice of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, smiling in a way that showed he knows better. The tourist season here is June and July.

Right now outside my window Montenegro is showcasing its excess of nature and weather: sunshine, a foamy sea storm, a thunderstorm, and a hailstorm all at the same time. "Not good weather for being in a tent," said a relief worker whose organization's policy bans press interviews. He, being British, has turned his attention to the weather. There are hundreds of Kosovars staying in tents on the outskirts of Ulcinj, in what is, during the tourist season, a campground.

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