Dispatches From the War Zone

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 6 1999 10:00 PM

Dispatches From the War Zone

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T. has suggested I dispense with my alphabet soup. The reason for this method of referring to people is that everyone in this organization where I am staying has been arrested in the past, and it would not be too difficult to track me down by looking at the particular collection of first names. If someone put his mind to it, that is. But T. has drawn up a chart of everyone's nicknames. Hers is Imbacil, which is meant to indicate that she is stupid. She is just contrary, actually.

Papica (pronounced PA-pee-tsa, meaning "snack"), a thin redhead who always wears a Gas baseball cap, walked into the back room where I was working and announced, "I think I am leaving. Tomorrow." We had one of those fire-burst intimate conversations that strangers who expect not to see each other again can have. What will she do? She has a friend in Macedonia, an American relief worker, a onetime lover who is willing to support her. But what will she do there? Be an American's lover? She would rather go to Budapest and try to get a spot in the Central European University, a graduate school funded by George Soros. She is 25, a few months away from finishing her degree in philosophy. Her professor is already in Budapest, but she is talking about coming back to Belgrade to pick up some books, the idiot. She claims she is more nervous being away from Belgrade than she would be if she stayed here. But doesn't Papica have a boyfriend here? No. OK, yes, they've been involved for a few months and they've been inseparable, unable to spend even one night apart. She's never felt this before. This is no time to love someone.

"But it's OK," she says. "Bruno has some very serious psychiatric diagnoses his friends have given him, so he won't go into the army. So it will be hard here for a while, maybe there won't be any electricity or water for some time, but at least I'm not worried about him." Bruno, also a philosophy student, is a tall, lanky, strikingly effeminate boy with a beautiful singing voice. He is running around trying to get some psychiatric papers for his 16-year-old brother: His father the businessman has been warned that boys between the ages of 16 and 18 will soon be called to military training camps. "Don't worry," the kind people said. "It's just a training camp, not war." Right. They'll just sit in barracks and wait to be bombed.

Imbacil is thinking of going with Papica. In the evening, which feels more like the afternoon because we have been staying up nights and sleeping in the mornings, the conversation over beer between her and S. (who has no nickname) suddenly turns quiet and serious. "I feel like I have an obligation to use my ability, what I have," says Imbacil, also a philosophy student. "And here I have become pointless, and will be for a long time now."

"All I know is that I could never do it again," says S. The son of a Croat father and Serb mother, he got out of Sarajevo seven years ago. "It's not because you have to struggle in your new place--that's easier than staying where you were anyway, because you have something to do. It's that you always feel like you are away." I know. I have been through this, too. Then S. realizes he is not being supportive. "At least you can always go back. I waited for years, and now Sarajevo is just an eight-hour bus ride away." Why hasn't he gone back? He does not have money to live off, at least not in the short term. Here his parents help him out, but in Sarajevo, where everything costs three times what it does in Belgrade, he'd be on his own.

Night was quiet except for the news on television. Around 1 a.m., according to Serbian TV, a missile hit an apartment building in Aleksinac, a town about 200 kilometers south of Belgrade. The news showed a demolished building and reported four civilian casualties. And then we heard that the third and last bridge in Novi Sad had been hit. So much for Papica's plans to leave on tomorrow's train. By morning the news of the bridge had disappeared from the televised tally of the night's destruction--authorities have generally avoided any news that can cause panic. I went to the station to check. No trains to Budapest, they told me, the bridge has been destroyed. I just want to make this perfectly clear: By bombing the bridge, NATO has cut off one of the main escape routes for the hundreds of women and children who will want to leave the country in the coming days and weeks. The Serbians are taking care of the men: Able males over the age of 16 are not allowed out of the country. Well, the more trapped people feel in this bombed-out corner of Europe, the more desperate will be the people NATO ground troops will have to contend with when they enter.

Papica is now talking of leaving by bus tomorrow. That still seems to be possible. I'm glad I optimistically planned ahead when I bought a round-trip Budapest-to-Belgrade ticket eight days ago.

I had a morning appointment with a media analyst whom I wanted to interview for a story on Serbian propaganda. "I'm sorry," she said when I called. "I would like to help you, but I don't feel like I can. I had a terrible night. I can't concentrate on anything anymore." I talked to her, a stranger, someone I have never even seen. She talked of her children, her small baby she no longer feels she can leave at home even for a few minutes. I said I understood and asked if I could call later in the day to check how she was feeling. She agreed it was a good idea--whether for her sanity or my story, we left unclear. Myself, I'd dreamed that I had had to move out of the flat I just bought and renovated and live in someone else's cavernous home, surrounded by unfamiliar objects.

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