Dispatches From the War Zone

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 8 1999 9:30 PM

Dispatches From the War Zone

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The other night, going to sleep, I thought I heard a couple of explosions and the conversation in the kitchen halt. You always end up listening for more, but nothing comes for hours--or at all--until the following night. I found myself wishing they would just get on with it. In particular, I wished that they'd bomb the General Staff building already. The whole town has been waiting in dread for this to happen. Everyone was so convinced the bomb would drop there, in the heart of downtown, that virtually every house nearby emptied out as soon as it got dark. And then we'd listen. And wonder whether we'd heard it.

A lot of things sound alike. Firecrackers sound like gunfire. Diesel buses and motorbikes sound like bomber planes. Five years ago, M. and I were in New York together and happened upon fireworks. People ran toward the waterfront; M. wanted to run away. She had never actually been in a war zone then, but I guess she has a better imagination than I do. Three years later, after covering wars, I was in St. Petersburg when I heard cannon fire and saw people running. I ran with them--for shelter, I thought, in the split second that I had to think before we got to the waterfront, where a crowd was gathering to watch the fireworks.

Hearing the bombing all around is the first stage. C., the one who said, when I first got here, that she was "glad they are bombing us," used to say she heard explosions constantly, every time the air-raid alarm siren went off. Last night she said, using the little English she knows, "Naahto is crreizi." She also said that she no longer notices the explosions at all. And that was exactly when the bombs went off--two or three of them, we couldn't quite tell, somewhere nearby--causing M. to jump up from the table, which, it seemed, scared C. more than the explosions. M.'s cats hid under chairs.

Before sitting down again we moved the table away from the window. War comes into homes by rearranging their topography. Windows, no longer openings for looking out of, become sources of danger that could enter at any moment. I now sleep with my head almost right up against the door, my feet toward the window. But after crowding into the back of the flat a week ago, we have gradually been reclaiming the rest of the house. It's a grand townhouse layout, with two large rooms with huge windows at the front; the rooms get smaller toward the back of the house, with the Studio just a tiny dark cubbyhole. S. was the first to move back into one of the front rooms, on a night his girlfriend was here. Last night I braved the other front room.

But before that, at M.'s house, after we heard the explosions, the entire apartment building stomped past our door, down the stairs to the basement. It doesn't make much sense to hide after the bombs hit, but the explosions compel people to action, preferably of the collective sort. Ours was to turn on the radio and start calling people who live closer to the General Staff building. Had they finally got it? One woman said she could see smoke. M.'s mother asked whether it had hit louder where we were. We actually considered the question for a second before breaking out in laughter and resolving we should place sound meters at every home so we could compare readings.

Of course, if we did, we would be busted for spying. The whole country is still on a quest for "locators," those mythical objects NATO supposedly drops before bombing. A joke heard at the Center for Cultural Decontamination: "A new nationwide contest has been announced: Whoever collects six locators will have a Tomahawk delivered to his house." After the explosions night before last, M.'s computer started making desperate beeping sounds. Unable to determine what was causing them and scared that the neighbors stampeding down the stairs would hear and assume it was a "locator," she stuffed it under the pillow, where it cried until the battery died.

I got a cab soon after the explosions. The driver was so shaken up he could not remember where the street I needed was. He also thought I was a spy.

"Do you know where it hit?" I asked. It seemed like the best conversation starter, the night being a clear one.

"Yes."

"So? Where?"

"That's none of your business. How do I know who you are?"

"Do I look like a spy to you?"

"You could be KGB."

"If I were KGB, I wouldn't have to ask you where the bomb fell."

"I can tell you are a liar. I don't know what you are doing here. None of this is your business. You would never understand anyway, because you are not from here."

I had the bad sense to ask for a receipt, which set him off on an even longer paranoid tirade.

The radio finally announced the address of the building that was hit, but not what it was. You never know: Spies could be listening to the radio. Today I joined a lunchtime crowd of rubberneckers around the building. Two buildings down from the General Staff, it's a Soviet neo-classical monster that takes up an entire block. The bombs were apparently dropped directly from above, so the shell is still standing. It almost looks as if it could have been gutted by a fire.

Except it's too empty. Save for the shattered glass that covers the sidewalk, there is no debris: no charred computers, no table legs or coat racks. It was completely evacuated days ago--as, I think, were most of NATO's targets. Everywhere soldiers crowd into school buildings, sports centers--especially ones that happen to be next to hospitals. I saw a military helicopter parked in a small stadium in Rakovica, a suburb that has been bombed repeatedly. A makeshift military camp has been set up in the park next to the St. Sava Cathedral, the unfinished Largest Orthodox Church in the World. Unlike other large buildings, which are blacked out at night, St. Sava is illuminated. A bomb that hit it would be a godsend for Milosevic.

The onlookers broke up into small clumps, each of which had its own gray-haired poorly shaven man in a thick woolen suit holding forth on military strategy. Marshal Such and Such would have done it differently. If General So and So is allowed to do his thing, NATO ground troops are in for a big bad surprise.

I sat down in a courtyard cafe a hundred meters from the building. L., a TV journalist, came in a few minutes later. She works for a production company that used to supply programming to independent electronic media. All of its staff were issued "war press cards," but they are never given the daily passes for videotaping. "Go ahead and shoot," they are told every time. And we'll be happy to arrest you, is the subtext. She smoked and fiddled with her short thermal T-shirt, which kept pulling up and exposing her midriff. It turns out she lives just one building away. She was playing chess with her boyfriend when the bombs hit. She lost. Her little dog gets terribly frightened of the sirens and the bombs. She'd like to pay for my coffee: She has a grant from an American media organization and nothing to spend it on.

Photograph on the Slate Table of Contents from CORBIS/Bettmann.

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