Dispatches From the War Zone

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 4 1999 9:30 PM

Dispatches From the War Zone

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S. nearly busted into the bathroom when I was taking a shower this morning. He had gotten up, seen my sleeping bag and sweater--and no me. He must have thought I'd been caught and taken away.

The few Western journalists who are still here--as opposed to the few who were allowed to come in after the bombings began--are trying to lie so low as to be almost unnoticeable. Don't get stopped by police, don't get your documents checked, and maybe they'll forget you're here. Of course, this is getting more and more difficult because police are on every street corner.

I hooked up with Tom, a British reporter who has been living here for two years. He is packed, just in case. His wife, a 25-year-old Serb, returned from London, where she is going to graduate school, as soon as the NATO operation started. Over dinner at the Writer's Club, opportunely located in a basement, she told me she'd gone to volunteer for the army, but was told "small girls" are not needed. "Small girls make good snipers," she had responded. She has a medal for sharp-shooting. I've noticed a few women in military uniform in the street--I don't think I'd seen any before last night.

Worried for Tom, she went to see the Orthodox priest who married them last November to see if he could offer any protection. "Tom is a bigger Serb than most Serbs," the priest told her.

"Is this true?" I asked Tom. He grinned. The only thing I could read on his face is that he is very much in love with his wife. She doesn't think she can go back to London now that Britain is bombing Serbia.

There were six journalists at our table. Six cellular phones on the table. None of them rang. I remembered Kosovo, where a constant trill accompanied journalists wherever we went. We learned to tell brands apart by their rings. "Who's got an Ericsson?" someone would call out, and six people would reach for their pockets. Now, toward the end of supper, we grew suspicious of the silence. Sure enough, none of us could get through to London. Radio Free Europe's Serbian Service has broadcast an unconfirmed report from German Telecom that Serbia has cut off cellular communications with western Europe. When my phone had not rung for four hours or so, I realized my father in Paris, who had surely seen reports of the bombing in downtown Belgrade, must be dialing me like crazy. I called--no connection with Paris, and he's probably logging on to Slate to see if I am filing, and not finding a link from my old dispatches posted last week to the new ones posted in Chatterbox over the weekend. At least I managed to reach my brother in New York. I guess they'll get around to cutting that link as well.

In the past I have done some very excited reporting that embarrasses me slightly now that I am a bit more seasoned. One is a five-year-old story on Kosovo's Albanian society, which even back then had moved entirely underground. I was so enamored of the pacifist rhetoric of the Albanians that I completely missed the story: the polarization that occurs when an entire group of people withdraws from the reality that surrounds them. During the eight years that the underground society was in existence, an entire generation grew up, Albanians who have never spoken to a Serb. During the war in Bosnia, there were places where soldiers screamed to one another across the front line, arranging a cease-fire to celebrate someone's birthday. I saw this in Tusla. In Kosovo, they would not have a language to speak to each other if they wanted to. Relying on Albanian and western European television to get their news for the last few years, Albanians have led a virtual existence outside of Serbia that has knocked what ground there was out from under any negotiations. Of course, Serbs had written Albanians off even earlier, creating an image of them as monstrous subhumans. "Even we were surprised, when we went to Pristina, to see normal people walking in the streets, sitting in cafes, drinking coffee, and listening to music that we liked," confessed S., who went to Kosovo on a huge peace mission last summer.

The other story I would like retroactively to edit is a four-year-old one on the use of e-mail in the former Yugoslavia. I thought I had found a world that could no longer be segmented, where no place could grow as isolated as, say, the Soviet Union was during the Cold War. When I first called my friend M. in Belgrade last week to say I might be coming, she said, "Remember what you said about how isolation is impossible anymore? You were wrong!" The fact that people have seen the same films and listened to the same music and wear the same fashionable clothes as the residents of NATO countries a five-hour-train ride away does not mean that they share any common mental ground or that the communication lines that link them cannot be severed in a matter of days. Our silent cell phones are one symptom; that Radio Free Europe is starting to rely on reports they can't confirm inside Serbia is another, and it is even more disturbing.

A society in danger goes into information overdrive. Most of Serbia is spending its life in front of the television. A few people are staring at the computer screen, trying to log on to the BBC and CNN. As this gets increasingly difficult, the proportion of rumor in our information diet grows. We hear that NATO won't bomb if it's windy, that Ibrahim Rugova is dead or held hostage or in exile--and that the footage of a supposed meeting with Milosevic was culled from video archives. We hear that Milosevic is dead. That last one, said Z., an anthropologist in her 40s, "really made me suffer: I imagined for a minute that there might really come a day when he won't be around anymore and maybe all of this will end." Then she realized this news, which reached her by e-mail, was an April Fool's item that had been stalled somewhere in cyberspace.

We're also relying more and more on official sources, trying to separate truth from fiction in a process that decidedly threatens our sanity. Serbian radio reported that NATO troops stationed in Bosnia had blown up the portion of the Serbia-Montenegro railway that goes through Bosnia, killing a railroad guard. We thought that the rail part was probably true but that the guard part wasn't. Then they announced his name. Then came the news of a second bridge destroyed in Novi Sad, and another damaged in Cacak in central Serbia. "If they blow up the third bridge near Novi Sad, you're going to have trouble leaving the country, darling," M. warned me. S. wondered if blowing up bridges meant NATO was getting ready to bring in ground troops. At least our "fear of bridges" has been validated.

I went to bed early--before 3 a.m.--locking myself in the studio. Since it's nearly soundproofed, I missed the 4:30 a.m. explosion at the heating plant in New Belgrade, which, I understand, is still burning. I found out about it in the middle of the afternoon, from a couple of men who shared my table at an outdoor cafe just off the main square. We spoke Russian. Both of them also spoke fluent English, as I admitted I do. One of them, growing frustrated with our halting conversation, kept switching into English, disgusting as he said it was. (Before the schools and universities were shut down last week, the Ministry of Education directed all English instructors to apologize to their students for teaching them the aggressor's language.) The man was complaining about his hopelessness. "I am ashamed to be sitting at this cafe," he said. "I should be out there fighting, but this isn't that kind of war." Not yet, anyway. But since no institution is functioning regularly any more, the only thing left for anyone to do is to claim his reward for lasting the night by drinking coffee in the sun with music wafting up from the daily rock concert. The men told me they'd be at the cafe at the same time tomorrow.

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