Dispatches From the War Zone

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 17 1999 9:30 PM

Dispatches From the War Zone

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Pity Djordije Scepanovic (DZHOR-dzhee-yeh Shche-PAH-no-vich). He was a career diplomat. He was Yugoslavia's consul general in Sweden. He had the bad luck to be Montenegrin, to return, therefore, to Podgorica, and to be appointed commissioner of refugees, a post he has held for over six years. He could have had an ambassadorship by now. Of course, being a Yugoslav ambassador right about now would not be very easy, but no job could possibly be harder than being the Montenegrin commissioner for refugees. In 1993, 70,000 refugees arrived from Bosnia; most later left, but tens of thousands have stayed. In 1995, under attack by the Croatian military, even more Serbs arrived from the Krajina; most later left. Then, last year, the Kosovars started coming, and just when it seemed the situation was under control, the NATO operation got underway and displaced persons began to flood in. Some days, several thousand would come; some days, none. How many more will come? How many will stay in Montenegro?

"I don't know," says Scepanovic. He stands up, stooping, walks up to the map on his office wall, despairs of explaining anything, sits down again, and repeats for emphasis, "I really don't know. NATO is--doing what it's doing. Step by step, Serbia will be completely destroyed. War is war. Pristina is almost completely destroyed. Who can say whether people are leaving because they are being pressured to do so? They are leaving because of war, first of all. NATO is saying every day that the war started because of humanitarian catastrophe--so they need the thousands of refugees to show. But I don't understand: When the Croatians attacked Krajina, 350,000 people left not in days but in hours. Maybe the Serbs just don't know how to do anything, even ethnic cleansing." Or maybe it's the terrain and the sheer distances and the step-by-step way in which they are going about it.

Scepanovic may be forgiven for being a bit confused, he feels so put upon. And he wishes that NATO would get its figures straight. "They are saying 700,000 have left, 350,000 have been killed, and 500,000 are still hiding. So how many Albanians do they think there are in Kosovo? 5 million?" And, yes, his figures are questionable, and his math is off. But so is everyone else's. One of the problems is that no one really knew to begin with how many Kosovars lived in Kosovo. In the late '80s, it seems, they made up 90 percent of the province's 2 million population. But the Kosovars say the census figures were played down, while the Serbs claim they were exaggerated. In the eight years when Kosovars led a quasi-underground existence, no one counted exactly how many people left the region--though some sources say a quarter of the Albanian population did.

Also, Scepanovic wishes he'd be allowed to do his job. But how can he, when the borders are closed except for refugee traffic? Montenegro can't even get the necessary supplies through the Albanian border or from Croatia or Italy, which are observing NATO's request not to allow the flow of goods into Yugoslavia.

The borders are the key to Montenegro's fortunes and misfortunes. In addition to Serbia and Kosovo, Montenegro borders Bosnia and Croatia--hence all the refugees. But then there is also Albania and the Adriatic coast, with the Port of Bar and Italy just a ferry ride away. Most of Yugoslavia's black-market cigarettes come from Albania. Along Podgorica streets stand people of various ages, genders, and sizes, with cardboard boxes displaying an impressive array of cigarette brands--all for a dollar a pack or less. The border can't be all that closed.

Cigarettes are probably among the most innocuous items that have traveled illegally across the border into Montenegro. During the war in Bosnia, Montenegro--squeezed by both international sanctions imposed on Yugoslavia, and by Milosevic, who was exerting economic pressure in order to maintain control over the republic--supported itself by smuggling fuel from Albania to the Bosnian Serbs. The Dayton agreement prompted Montenegro to look westward, and this, in turn, caused the republic's belated democratization, or at least its Europeanization. Montenegro started to focus on exporting its timber and on its few companies. Last year, as soon as the privatization program was launched, Montenegro managed to sell its beer brewery to a Belgian concern, and parts of several other companies to other foreigners. Most important, it has managed to sell its president to the West.

"He has acquired a Western image," says Marko Spadijer (SHPAH-dee-yer), a former journalist and the ideology boss of Montenegro, forced out of the Republican Party's central committee in 1988 for the unconscionable offense of saying the party was too rigid to be reformed. He by no means wants to belittle Djukanovic: He speaks admiringly of his image. "He often appears at sporting events with his wife. And he speaks well, and most people believe him, which is very important for a demagogue, I mean, a politician." Spadijer is just bothered by the nouveaux riches who surround Djukanovic, a crowd of people who got rich off border trade.

Spadijer and I are speaking at a cafe. In Podgorica everyone meets at cafes, sometimes even by prior arrangement. The arrangement is usually made by cell phone, which allows Montenegrins to locate one another at cafes. This particular one has a green-tinted glass roof, which makes Spadijer's gray hair look green. Otherwise, everything is remarkably normal, and this bothers Spadijer. "The calm troubles me," he says, "because anything could happen."

Today the Yugoslav army warned Montenegrin authorities that the local police will have to obey the military in case--well, it wasn't exactly clear in case of what. And the Navy commander held a meeting with Montenegrin mayors, at which they discussed--well, it wasn't clear exactly what they discussed, but they clearly had some disagreements. And some sources had President Djukanovic promising a bright future for Montenegro once Milosevic was removed as president of Yugoslavia, while other sources claimed Djukanovic had reaffirmed his commitment to not airing political differences with Milosevic until the end of the war.

My previous meeting, at another cafe, was with a political scientist whose friends kept reprimanding him for speaking English over the music: The fears here are the same as in Belgrade, just less so. In Belgrade, the scientist would not have spoken English in public at all; here he just asked me not to name him.

Here no one bothers to go into bomb shelters or even to leave the street cafes after the air raid alarm siren sounds. Last night, hours after it went off, there were flashes followed by a rolling blasting sound. A spectacular thunderstorm, which went on and on even after the rain stopped. I discovered what distinguishes thunder from explosions: Bomb blasts do not reverberate.

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