Dispatches From the War Zone

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 5 1999 10:00 PM

Dispatches From the War Zone

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

Click here for Slate's complete Kosovo coverage.

Advertisement

"How do you spell appreciate?" asked D. The e-mail connection is too slow to run a spell checker on Hotmail. Appreciate what? "I would appreciate it if you could send me the schedule of NATO bombings for the next month." He was writing to a friend in New York. "I don't think she works for the Pentagon, though," he acknowledged.

"Write that this might be your last logon!" suggested T. helpfully.

"I did that last time. It would be redundant."

Since the office I'm staying in is something of a haven for cyber-junkies, last week we had connections to at least half a dozen providers. But one server was destroyed by the Serbs last week, along with the American Library in which it was located. Another, the fastest satellite uplink, was damaged by the bombing the night before last. We seemed to have used up our hours on the third, and the remaining numbers are so overloaded as to be interminably slow. Somehow, though, the missiles that flew right overhead before exploding just after 4 in the morning in Zemun, the municipality right across the Sava River, jolted the connection to life, and we were able to surf for the next two hours. A friend in New York told me by ICQ--an Internet chat system--that the U.S. media had reported 17 wounded and several killed by a previous explosion, the one near the airport just after 2.

"How do they know so fast?" asked T.

"All the official Western correspondents are staying at the Hyatt, just down the road," I explained. "I told you that would be the best-covered hit."

We have turned into a regular little newsroom here. T. and I finally dragged the television over from New Belgrade yesterday. Now we sit, listen for the missiles to fly, then for the explosion, note the time, wait for Serbian radio or TV to tell us where it hit, and then I call it in to the bureau. I think this is what you call blow-by-blow reporting. Whenever I return to the office, B. or S. hands me notes on what's been on the radio. B. thinks of me as our answer to CNN. Stuck here between the crude brainwashing by official Serbian media and the Western coverage by people who seem to accept the basic premise that the United States owns the world, one can get to feeling awfully small.

Just after the Zemun missiles, which scared the hell out of us--it felt like they were flying down our street--a special on Serbian military might came on TV. Shakily shot, narrated with mind-numbing pathos, it was the perfect comic relief. Soon B., a very serious bespectacled student activist, D., a rosy-cheeked big jock type, and T. were rolling with laughter. "I never knew TV could be so much fun!" T. screamed.

Moods swing wildly. At the time of last night's first explosion we were at M.'s house. T. and I had walked there around 9 in the evening through an almost deserted city. Only about every 20th café was open. With the exception of a few bums, the only people in Tashmajdan, a large park in the center of the city, were reluctant dog-walkers. It was a gorgeous night, too, warm and clear. The more stars you see in the evening, the more likely you are to hear bombs at night.

The dinner company was accidental: T. and I had been invited, but C., a 31-year-old feminist activist, had been about to head home to New Belgrade when the air-raid alarm siren sounded and the fear of bridges struck. At dinner M., a counselor, tried to engage us in talking C. through the fear. We tried mentally walking across the bridge, fantasizing about bridge adventures, and even thinking erotically about sirens. I could not scare up much enthusiasm for the exercise: For one thing, I think the fear of bridges is perfectly reasonable, and for another, it's not fear that's the problem in war, it's losing one's sense of fear.

Our standards of safety have already changed. After the 2 a.m. explosion, T. and I went out to see if we could discern where it had hit. Just three nights earlier I would have been opposed to venturing outside once bombing started. Probably the single most important lifesaving trick for war journalists is to get out before your acceptable risk benchmark moves too high. I think I still have a good amount of fear in reserve. T. and I did not see anything outside: M. lives at the bottom of a hill. Actually, she lives right next to the zoo. At the beginning of the wars in Bosnia and Croatia she had two recurring dreams. One was that Belgrade was bombed and wild animals from the zoo were roaming her street. The other, and more disturbing, was that she was walking across Serbia. The thing is, she had never thought of Serbia as an enclosed entity until then. An activist in several Pan-European movements, an inveterate hitchhiker, she thought of Yugoslavia as a porous part of the world.

In the last week, several people we know have actually walked across a part of Serbia, the 70 kilometers from Pristina to the Macedonian border. All of them called from the border, once their cell phones started working again, outside of Kosovo. I'm not sure how all of them managed to keep their phones from being taken by marauding Serbs, but at least one woman, a doctor, banked brilliantly on male squeamishness: She hid the cell phone in the baby's pampers, and her ID documents in her menstrual pad.

  Slate Plus
Working
Nov. 27 2014 12:31 PM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 11 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked a helicopter paramedic about his workday.