Dispatches From the War Zone

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 3 1999 7:30 PM

Dispatches From the War Zone

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How do you pinpoint the moment when war has started? It creeps in on you, and after a while you start to recognize the feel of it. I think that's a sign that you've been to too many. Almost exactly a year ago I was in Kosovo with a horde of other journalists, all of whom had covered Bosnia or Chechnya or both. We knew the feeling, but the local residents--with the exception of the several thousand Serb refugees from the Krajina who had been re-settled in Pristina--could not recognize it yet. It was a very uncomfortable knowledge to be saddled with, this vision of what would happen in Kosovo.

Today the feeling came to Belgrade. As a friend of mine put it today, people have stopped feeling fear and started feeling panic. Fear you can counter with rational arguments; panic you can't. There's a feeling of total overwhelming helplessness--either people think, I've got to get out of town, or they think, just shoot me now, because I can't take the waiting. The city teems with armed policemen and army men in camouflage. The residents talk about the bomb that's sure to drop tonight. Everyone seems convinced it will be the General Staff building, a few streets over from the Interior Ministry buildings destroyed in last night's attack, and just a block from the place where I spent last night (this evening I am at a different office, five or six blocks away).

Overcoming my fear of bridges, I went over to New Belgrade today to deliver a package a friend sent to her grandmother here. The friend, whom I'll call Maria, is a journalist now posted in the city where I live. She holds two passports: Yugoslav and Polish. This just had to start less than two weeks before Poland joined NATO. Thursday after the bombing began, Maria couldn't get her grandmother on the phone. Crying on the line to me, she said, "It's a horrible feeling--knowing they may bomb the people I love, and at the same time thinking, 'At least finally someone has done something.' " The next day, the two of us were at the Yugoslav embassy--Maria was helping me get my visa--and, whiling away the wait, started talking about whether NATO could have come up with a better solution. We decided it would have been better to assassinate Milosevic. And Sesel, as the most dangerous possible successor. We were discussing the fact that the two often go places together and could be taken care off with a single, well-placed explosive device. Then we remembered we were at the Yugoslav embassy.

I took a flashlight, batteries, and money to Maria's grandmother's sister's apartment. The sister, a youthful pensioner with dyed-black hair and a prominent moustache, gave me juice and said how scared she had been the night before.

"Maria wants her grandmother to go to Bosnia," I said.

"I know."

"Is she going to?"

"No. We keep waiting for this to stop any day. But there is no end in sight," she said, apparently undisturbed by the contradiction between their plans and their fears. "They are going to bomb the General Staff building today."

Then she added that Maria had phoned and said she was going to Macedonia. At some point you just grow incapable of staying away, which is, I suppose, why I am here.

On the way back over the bridge, I suddenly saw Kalemegdan--a Roman fortress rebuilt by the Byzantines in the 12th century and later modified by the Turks, the Austrians, and the Serbs into a magnificently weird labyrinth--and I remembered that I love this city. Scurrying from house to house for the last week, I had lost sight of the place. I remember reading years ago--I think it was Misha Glenny's book about the disintegration of Yugoslavia--that Belgrade was a hideous city. He seemed to hold this to be self-evident. But to me, Belgrade has the kind of eclectic beauty that makes a city. Narrow winding cobblestone streets straight out of Istanbul lead up to grand buildings with clearly Parisian aspirations. State buildings make one thing of the Habsburg Empire, and Orthodox churches look like retrofitted mosques. And then there is Kalemegdan, overlooking the rivers Danube and Sava.

Last year, on the way back from Kosovo, my photographer and I spent a couple of days in Belgrade. He had never been here, and I had told him the city would be our reward for nearly getting executed in Kosovo, which is a separate story and the reason I swore never to return there or to any other war zone. I broke the war zone promise because I could not stay away, but I have definitely lost Kosovo, and now I fear I will lose Belgrade as well.

That sunny day last year the photographer and I ran all over Kalemegdan, stopping to drink beer at outdoor cafes and otherwise celebrate our return to civilization. So today, going over the bridge, I decided to pause and treat myself to the comforts of the city. I had a piece of pizza, which is the first hot food I've had since Monday. Then an Irish coffee at an outdoor cafe. Everyone around me was talking about the General Staff building, and by 6 pm the cafe was closing. I walked over to the Internet cafe in the House of Youth off the main square, but it was closed. I wouldn't be surprised if it is shut for good. The Internet and cellular communications may be the last of the joys of civilization that we will soon have left. It's also what allows me to file these dispatches, and it is very easy to cut off. The authorities did cut off all mobile communications in the Kosovo region right after the bombing began.

The radio newscaster has just announced that the NATO forces stationed in Bosnia have blown up the part of the Serbia-Montenegro railway line that cuts through Bosnia. It's closing in on us.

The air raid alarm siren just went off. It's 8 p.m.