Dispatches From the War Zone

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 14 1999 10:00 PM

Dispatches From the War Zone

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How can you tell how many people are dead? You read the papers. They say 10 killed, 16 injured by the bomb that hit the train. Headlines say the train was targeted intentionally. You know this makes no sense. If the train was targeted, surely more would have died. So, it probably wasn't a target. But didn't NATO think to check the train schedule? Or maybe they did but failed to adjust it to Balkan time.

Even if the train wasn't targeted, you reason, there should have been more victims. A friend says her sister, who lives near the site, says she saw at least 15 bodies being collected. Journalists who were taken to the site say they saw body parts, not bodies. How do you tally the sum of body parts?

You would also think there were more victims of the relentless bombing of Zastava, the car factory that made Yugos and tanks. Serbian radio and TV say there was one night when 120 were killed or injured; Radio Free Europe says 65. But the trade union Nezavisnost (Independence) says there have been human shields there for over two weeks, and the television shows unparalleled devastation: a giant manufacturing plant reduced to what looks like a pile of giant matches. Then there are the other factories that have created human shields, and the desperate and insane human shields that are forming on bridges all over the country every night now.

Hannah Arendt wrote that one feature of a totalitarian regime was its disregard for "depopulation." (On my way to Budapest, I was asked to take to friends of friends four copies of the just-printed Serbian translation of The Origins of Totalitarianism. As long as I am taking Hannah Arendt out of the country, there might be some hope, I thought. Unless, of course, it means that everyone who would read Hannah Arendt has already left the country.)

Whether or not the state cares about the deaths of its citizens, it still has to find a way to report them. Most people will go willingly to their death only if they doubt its likelihood. This goes for civilians and military alike. So, when it comes to death, the media force you to read between the lines. Every day Politika, the most official of official newspapers, publishes obituaries. At least two or three are for young men of military rank who, the obits say, "died for their country." Knowing that non-officers will almost never make it into the paper, and that not every family will take the initiative of trying to secure space in the paper, you might multiply the number of casualties by a factor of three or five or 10. But then you might reconsider, because the Yugoslav army has a tradition of assigning the riskiest tasks to officers--a disproportionate number died in the previous recent wars.

Reading between the lines is the only way to read the papers these days. The formerly independent Vreme (Time) managed to get a correspondent into Pristina. Large letters announce, "I saw no burned houses along the road." You think, This is code, because why would anyone report what he did not see? The only problem is with the interpretation: Does Vreme mean the direct opposite of what it says--that its correspondent actually saw burned houses along the road--or something subtler: that he saw burned-down houses everywhere but along the road?

The media's best efforts aside, the feeling of actual physical danger is starting to spread. A woman I saw today responded to my greeting by saying, "How can I be when people are dying?"

"Where are people dying?"

"All around me."

"Anyone you know?"

"Bombs! People are dying!"

Being of Armenian origin, the woman was drafting a letter to some international Armenian organization asking them to interfere in the Yugoslav crisis. Armenians are very good at making peace, she told me. My own observations of events in the former Soviet Union have led me to a different conclusion, but after a night of fielding calls at M.'s place, the effort struck me as no more than suitably absurd.

M. was out for the night (I had assured her that making love, not war, was a time-honored tradition), so I was left face-to-face with her obnoxiously loud red telephone. A woman from Germany phoned to say that "if you need any help, just call." I suggested she do something about the bombing. A half dozen people called to check whether M. was OK. A couple called to report that they were. In the morning, the very early morning, came a phone call from Cynthia in Boston. M. claims not to know any Cynthias in Boston.

"I'm just calling to see if you guys are OK," said Cynthia, who did not express any interest in who I was, so I assumed she meant all of us down here.

"We are fine."

"Because, you know, there is bombing."

"We've noticed." Cynthia, whoever you are, I am sorry, but I consider waking me up a war crime even in peacetime.

"Well, just tell M. I called and that I'm really sorry about this, this bombing."

"I'll give her the message."

My next conversation, several hours later, was with the ballerina, who told me that Slavko Curuvija's funeral was in 45 minutes. I quickly changed into a black T-shirt--the best I could do, scribbled a note to M.--"Cynthia phoned. Sorry about the bombs"--and ran to the cemetery. The ballerina was there, as were about 1,000 other pale, quiet, and very, very frightened people.

Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist who is the author of Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot and The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.

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