Dispatches From the War Zone

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 13 1999 10:00 PM

Dispatches From the War Zone

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Chris Rea, Eastern Europe's favorite English-language singer, crooned "The Road to Hell." Cheap metaphors continue to be easy to come by. As soon as we neared the Yugoslav border, the driver found a Serbian news station that endlessly repeated substance-free announcements about "the neofascist NATO attacks on the sovereign republic of Serbia." The woman behind me actually sang along every time the song about the army's beloved Serbia came on, as it does every few minutes. Before turning around to look at her--I had to wait for an opportune moment, since acting as though singing along to this was not the most natural thing would immediately expose me as an outsider of some sort--I visualized her as very young, so buoyant was her singing voice. As it turned out, she was a matron with a frozen helmet of jet-black hair. She was throwing sideways looks at my book: Walking around Budapest--perhaps the least suited for strolls of all European capitals--in search of an International Herald Tribune and an espresso, I had ended up with a copy of John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley and a haircut. Both seemed like they would make my continued journey easier.

Northern Serbia--the province of Vojvodina--is a barren place, flat and brown and green and, in the slanted light that came through the low clouds, mostly gray. In light of NATO's recent bragging about having achieved its goals despite the bad weather, clouds are no longer an assurance of safety, just another reason to grow depressed. The bus wove a convoluted route through country roads and the hearts of small towns whose cobblestone streets seemed too narrow for the bus. Many roads have been damaged--to say nothing of bridges. Crossing over the one remaining bridge over the Danube in this part of the country, everyone on the bus straightened up tensely: After last night's news about the train from Thessaloniki that was hit, bridges are scarier than ever. The Danube, brown as usual, is full these days, swollen with snow from the mountains. Several rows of trees stand up to their knees in water.

An obvious thing occurred to me: Bridges take a very long time to build. To all of us wondering how long this war will go on, this is the solipsistic answer: as long as it lasts, plus as long as it takes to build the bridges and roads. A very long time.

I arrived in a Belgrade thick with fear and rumor. Someone heard Slavko Curuvija's funeral was today; someone else heard there will be no funeral. Dictatorships survive by randomly applying tyranny. Once the stakes have been raised by war, dictatorships survive by aiming well. Curuvija's death was a lucky strike, the perfect instrument of fear. It was in the timing--the middle of the afternoon--as well as in the execution: two masked gunmen, two bullets to the head, plus at least one for his girlfriend. Curuvija was abandoned by almost everyone after he was fined heavily under the new media law, which was passed last October and designed especially for him--or so people say. So, the one person who didn't abandon him had to be shot.

But we all know he was not the only target. Last October, speaking on television, Vojslav Sesel rattled off an entire list of people and organizations who had betrayed their motherland. At least a couple of people I know made the list; now they fear both bullets and abandonment. In a statement released following this weekend's NGO conference in Budapest, Serbian organizations warned that they would not be making any more public statements. They had to issue this one because colleagues from abroad kept demanding they take a stand. "Don't they understand we can't even open our mouths?" M. screamed in exasperation.

Then she showed me a statement released by the New York group of Women in Black, an international women's antiwar organization. The statement said the Women would stand vigil against the anti-Albanian violence in Kosovo and "in solidarity with all women in the world."

"Women in Black was founded as an organization that would speak up against its own regime's aggression!" M. complained. "That was the whole point: Israeli women would protest their own government's actions, and Serbian women their government's, and so on! But Americans only understand Republicans and Democrats, they don't understand what it is to fight against a regime. Under Nixon they understood. But with Clinton--they all voted for him, so now what do they do?" I didn't have the heart to tell her that it probably had less to do with Americans' attitude toward Clinton than with their attitude toward Serbs.

The Serbian Women in Black are on Sesel's list.

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.