Dispatches From the War Zone

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 12 1999 9:30 PM

Dispatches From the War Zone

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I have never had much patience with the rhetoric that would have us incredulous at the Yugoslav horrors going on "in the heart of Europe," in the 20th century. For one thing, Yugoslavia is not in the heart of Europe, unless you're accustomed to locating the heart in an extremity. For another, as Bryan Hall writes in his thoroughly enjoyable must-read on the disintegration of Yugoslavia, The Impossible Country, "of all the continents and all the centuries to mention" (disclaimer: I am not Bryan Hall, though I may wish I were; nor am I Joe Klein). But the fact that one can still pay 40 marks and take a bus from the bombed Serbia to the Europeanized Budapest boggles the mind.

I had to leave Serbia on Saturday, for reasons more bureaucratic than political. I am staying anonymous because I am going to try to return. The sidewalk in front of the Parc Hotel in Belgrade teemed with people, men embracing girlfriends, mothers embracing daughters, tears streaming. A solid, broad-shouldered man of about 35 stood alone on the sidewalk, squinting, reaching into the pocket of his baggy green corduroy trousers every minute or so for a white handkerchief to mop his eyes. A woman with two late-teen daughters got on the bus and took a seat next to me in the very back. Her daughters sat just in front of us; she hugged one of them from behind and they wept and wept.

Tears welled up in my eyes, because they're contagious, and because I fear I will not be able to return to Belgrade for a very long time. It is the time, not the laughably short distance, that bothers me. People change in wartime: Pacifists I knew in Kosovo last year have joined the KLA. I can't blame them, but I can't talk to them either. The night before I left, M. said, "Things are changing." She meant that people who were her allies just a couple of weeks ago are slipping away. I noticed that her face, strikingly angular when I fell in love with it years ago, has acquired a softness I don't recognize. People grow old in wartime. The new friends I leave behind are painfully young, barely shaped. Those of them who tend toward plumpness are not yet fat; those who will become square-shouldered and stolid are big and awkward; those who will be gaunt and elegant are gawky. I hope they all live long enough.

The bus ride took ten hours--a bit more than it should have, not nearly as long as the fearful rumors have indicated. After we crossed the border into Hungary, I took out my cell phone and spoke English--something I had not done in public in Belgrade in days. The night before, I had wanted to do something nice for M., take her out for a meal, but you cannot speak English anywhere except maybe the Writers' Club, which is as claustrophobic as a bomb shelter. So, we ended up buying a couple of bags of tiny fried sardines, a traditional Easter treat, and ducking into a taxi so we could get to her house, where we could talk. We passed new billboards for a cell phone company: "We don't sell American. Ericsson Nokia Samsung." Not that anyone ever used American cell phones in this part of the world.

After I put mine in my pocket, the woman who had earlier been crying addressed me in English.

"Do you read Serbian?"

"I manage."

"I have something for you." She took out a printed e-mail message I quickly recognized: An American organization is claiming that the U.S. is using missiles made out of radioactive byproducts. "It's not just Kosovo," the woman said. "It's all of Serbia. We're going to become a wasteland."

Diasporas everywhere are tiny, no matter how big they are. The next day, as several of us sat in a cafe in a Budapest pedestrian mall, we were joined by one, then another, then a third Yugoslav who happened by. As we migrated to a hotel lobby, the crowd grew bigger. Mostly these were women--who can still leave the country--and some of them had come from Belgrade for an NGO conference. "This is the first time I have been to a conference where we were treated like victims," said Z., the media analyst, who has defied rumors and not yet left Belgrade for good. She just asks everyone, "Should I stay or should I go?" By the end of the day she was leaning toward Sarajevo over Paris.

The woman who shared my bus bench turned out to be a peace organizer. She had been crying because, after hearing of the radioactive weapons, she had decided to bring her daughters to Budapest--"for a couple of weeks," which is the current shorthand for "possibly for good." We sat around a low lounge table--the peace activist, a dancer-turned-organizer, an artist on her way to Italy, an American volunteer who's had to leave Belgrade, a human rights lawyer--discussing rumors of the latest damaged bridge and what that meant for our chances of getting back to Belgrade. The hotel sound system had a Simon and Garfunkel album on endless repeat, which meant that "Bridge Over Troubled Water" came on every 22 minutes.

The lawyer had a face that, cleared of its power makeup and a lawyerly shoulder-pad framing, would belong to an earth mother. As we got ready to go out for dinner, she went to the elevator to fetch her 14-year-old son. She returned not a minute later, the roundness drained from her face. "They have killed Curuvija," she said.

Slavko Curuvija (pronounced cheh-RU-veeyah) was a journalist and a co-founder of the Belgrade Daily Telegraph, a tabloid that used its good sources to get on the government's nerves. The dancer got on the phone to a mutual friend who lived in the same building as Curuvija. The woman was in tears. He had been shot, execution-style, in front of the building in broad daylight, she said. His girlfriend had been wounded. "It's one more step every day," someone said.

"I am going to the funeral," said the dancer, holding her head up in that way aged ballerinas have. She also said I could stay with her if I returned to Belgrade--a good thing, since the president of the organization that has given me shelter has decided they've risked enough. The dancer has the freedom: Five years ago, doctors told her that her lung cancer was untreatable, and since then she has been surviving on courage, energy, and Chinese herbs.

It was hours before we made it to a restaurant. Over Chinese, we exchanged news. Remember that German peace worker, the tall guy with the glasses? He disappeared last Sunday on his way to Croatia. Never showed up in Zagreb, hasn't made an appearance in Germany either. And you know all the people who have been getting interrogated? Anyone got any news on bridges?

Imbacil and Papica are fine, staying here in the offices of the American Friends Service Committee, whose director has dubbed it the Refugee Pantheon. Imbacil plans to return to Belgrade in another week. She is grateful to have taken a break from the panic, but there is nothing for her in Budapest. Papica has an allergy to Budapest water.

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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