Dispatches From the War Zone

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 3 1999 10:00 PM

Dispatches From the War Zone

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The Interior Ministry was still burning when the birds started singing. Then in a few minutes the pink glow from the fire faded and a bluish light came into the room. We were drunk and punch-drunk, and we felt safe in the light of day--as though NATO missiles were street hoodlums who sink back into their hiding places when night fades. Two of us left the office and grabbed a cab to the Interior Ministry before going back to the place where I had my sleeping bag and my friend T. had left her bike. The buildings of the federal and Serbian interior ministries are directly across the street from each other. The streets are blocked off in every direction, but after some complicated maneuvering our cabby managed to drive right past them. The federal building, a seven- or eight-story 1930s structure, was still standing, apparently gutted by the fire. From what I could see, it had no windows left. The Serbian ministry was a more dramatic sight: A low modern structure of steel and concrete, it had folded into itself like a crushed Coke can.

I guess this is what you call a surgical strike. I felt a little embarrassed at having been scared last night. Maybe those guys really do know what they are doing and won't hurt us thrill-seeking reporters and other helpless civilians. Then I remembered the missile that landed in a friend of a friend's yard.

"I thought there would have been more damage," T. said wistfully. She may be against the bombings in general, as all of us who hang out here are, but it's hard not to revel in the destruction of the buildings that command the Serbian police in Kosovo.

At the same time, T. is sad about the bridge in Novi Sad, blown up two days ago. It was a beautiful structure, over 100 years old. And it's not just that. Many of our friends have developed what we call "the fear of bridges." That is, the fear of being on a bridge when it's bombed. So the issue of going back and forth between the old town and New Belgrade on the other side of the Danube, where many people live, has become, well, an issue. But last night T. and I were going to do just that: go over to her place in New Belgrade and take a television set to put in the office where I am staying. But then her brother said he'd drive the television over himself the next day--somehow he was convinced he would get the mythical gasoline tickets supposedly reserved for civilians--and not to bother coming. And then, about half an hour later, the bombs came.

The first thing that S., the cyber maven from Sarajevo who also sleeps in this office, said when he woke up was, "Did you hear about Iraq?" He thinks those missiles must have been launched at the same time. He also thinks there is something funny about them hitting just in time for CNN prime time.

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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