Dispatches From the War Zone

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 7 1999 9:30 PM

Dispatches From the War Zone

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Yesterday was a good day. I managed to buy cigarettes. The crowd here had taught me to roll my own--somehow we had some tobacco around still--but I found it a tedious and unrewarding process. Changing money with a very toothless, very butch woman in Savija, the round square just below what has for 10 years now been the largest Orthodox church in the world under construction, I asked, out of the corner of my mouth, "Got cigarettes?" "Got some," she said, and produced a carton of Monte Carlo Lights, which claimed, on the box, to be an American brand. Whatever. People are relieved the black market is starting to function again following the police crackdown at the start of the bombing campaign.

It was sunny and so warm that, had I not needed to hide the cigarettes, I could have taken off my jacket and walked around in a T-shirt. Imbacil and I went to the Center for the Decontamination of Culture, an organization formed for the vague purpose of resisting propaganda, for the opening of a new installation. The opening was really a dozen intellectuals--the men bearded and intense, the women elegant and chain-smoking--sitting at some heavy wooden tables in the cobblestone courtyard drinking Turkish coffee. The installation: 32 stylized bronze figures, life-size, standing four across in what felt like a hangar, speakers blaring something desperate and unintelligible in a woman's hoarse vice. It was called "Appeal." Appeal to whom? By whom? For what? "It's ambiguous," explained Imbacil.

Ambiguous is the position of the non-nationalist opposition here--half of which was sitting in that courtyard yesterday afternoon. Always overshadowed by a political process that boiled down to a competition for the title of Serbia's Biggest Serb, now that the nation has been reunited and redefined by the NATO bombings, they have lost what little footing they had. To have a voice in a country at war, one needs to continuously reassert one's link with place and nation.

M., the crisis counselor, has found something of a solution, though she may not think so. When I called last night, she was crying: "Everyone is leaving!" Her best friend, an American who has been living here for three years, left two weeks ago: The police had suggested that might be best. Her second best friend, the media scholar Z., is planning her departure. And then there are the people whose presence creates her life's landscape, which is flattening rapidly.

"Do you still feel like you can do something here?" I asked.

"Yes, I can definitely still do something here. But you know, I know the people who stayed in Sarajevo working through the whole war, and what allowed them to survive was that they thought of themselves so strongly as Bosnians."

"Have you thought through your own plan for leaving?"

"Yes," she said. "But for the last eight years, somehow or another I have been working with victims of war. So what would I do if I left? I would go to Macedonia to work with the refugees, but it would be difficult because I am a Serb. Or I would go to some African country, but that would be difficult because of race and language. So I may as well stay here and be an international volunteer." In the '70s, Russian intellectuals who chose neither to leave the country nor to engage with the society invented the term "internal exile."

Imbecil and Papica departed for external exile this morning. The 7:15 bus, a modern two-level thing, sat by the sidewalk until a quarter to 8. Bruno climbed up to the second level and mimed saying goodbye. He hopes his father's connections may enable him to leave next week--a faint hope. Papica's father, a stout man in his late '40s, paced back and forth. Papica's mother, a plump woman with dyed-red hair, wore dark glasses. The six-hour bus ride to Budapest covers an unconscionable distance now. The rumors at the bus stop, though, suggested that the ride may take more like 48 hours: People are saying buses are held up at the Hungarian border.

Papica claims it's her parents' "psychosis" she is trying to escape: Former independent journalists, they are expecting to be arrested as soon as Milosevic closes the border and unleashes an all-out attack on the dissidents. Does she think the fear is reasonable? "Well, I doubt they would be among the first people arrested," says Papica.

"It's the parents who are the real problem," says S. "I am lucky. My parents spent the four years of war in Sarajevo, so they are not going crazy like everyone else."

The siren signaling the end of the air-raid alert, in effect since 8 yesterday evening, went off while we waited for the bus to leave. It blared ear-splittingly, apparently from a building just down the block. I asked the people in our little circle whether they knew what physically produced the siren. No. That's a perfect Serbian symbol: Life is regulated by something omnipresent but invisible, which everyone, at least to some extent, obeys, but whose origins no one can identify. The siren has at least three settings, too: the varied howl for the beginning of the air-raid alert, the monotonous nine-second sound for its cancellation, and one tune I have not yet heard but which everyone keeps expecting--the announcement of general mobilization. When it goes off, all men who have had military training--which is to say, virtually all men--must report for duty.

Of course, symbols like the tyranny of the siren are a dime a dozen now. Before leaving, Imbacil said I could use her bike, which has no rear brakes.

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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