Dispatches From the War Zone

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 3 1999 9:30 PM

Dispatches From the War Zone

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BELGRADE, 2 a.m.--Loreena McKennitt and bombing go perfectly together. Whoever she is, she has a beautiful soprano voice, and she is singing on the tape someone has put on. Here's how the bombing went: I was in the office of a women's organization. Everyone seemed relaxed after two nights in which Belgrade didn't get bombed. "I now don't think it's going to happen," one of the women told me. For no better reason than that it hadn't happened yet, but that's good enough. "It's when you don't think it's going to happen that it hits," I said, just in case. I meant myself--getting caught "practicing journalism," that is--more than the bombing. I too had come to believe that good sense had prevailed and someone up there in the skies of NATO had decided not to bomb a densely populated residential neighborhood, especially now that the police and army have had ample warning and time to relocate. The army has taken over at least one school building in Belgrade, and the police have moved into the offices of a friend of mine's father's business.

So we sat in the kitchen drinking cheap, light, and fresh Serbian beer. Tired of a conversation I could barely follow, I went into the tiny computer room off the kitchen and logged on, sort of. It was taking forever to load, and I was going through the organization's English language library when the bombs went off. One, two, three, no more than 500 meters from here. The conversation in the kitchen halted. I closed and shelved the book. I always do these sorts of things in moments of mortal danger, exhibiting an otherwise entirely uncharacteristic love of order and organization. One of the women came into the room and said, "That was here." I think she felt avenged for a few nights ago, when she was terrified of an explosion miles away.

In a few moments, we all somehow ended up crouched in the hallway, which was the place farthest away from the windows. Everyone looked at me. "You've been in wars," someone said. "What do we do?" I asked if there was a basement in the building. No. Where is the nearest bomb shelter? About five minutes away, someone thought. Someone else thought fifteen. She also thought she would never, under any circumstances, crowd into one of those panic havens, with people who supported the regime that has brought this upon us. Fair enough. More to the point, we probably couldn't get into a shelter. The places are quasi-private enterprises, heavily guarded against outsiders who might take advantage of all the civilians crowded helplessly into an enclosed space. I declared no one was going out into the street.

By the time we were having this conversation, we were already in the kitchen. I heard a plane flying low overhead--low enough to bomb--and, using the authority bestowed upon me by my war experience, herded everyone back into the hallway. Then we decided to sit in the bathroom, which has a light. It was fun for the first few minutes, while the women were arranging themselves on the toilet, on the washing machine, and in the bathtub. Then one of the women tried to hang a flannel shirt over the mirror. "This mirror makes me crazy," she said. She is very butch and tough, and I think she wanted us to think she hates mirrors in general, but she was really afraid it would shatter. But I didn't want her to cover the mirror, because we Jews do that after someone has died, and I hadn't seen a covered mirror since my mother's death.

This is no time to say that it's the waiting that kills you, because it's not. But waiting for other bombs to drop gets very tedious very quickly. We started wandering around the flat. The phones were ringing off the hook--people checking to see if we were still intact. The police headquarters half a kilometer from here are burning magnificently, sending up huge clouds of smoke and tiny star-like balls of fire. We have opened the windows because someone thinks that this way they are less likely to shatter. The fresh damp air provides a good excuse for shivering. Two women defied the voice of my reason and went out to get more beer, which I am decidedly looking forward to drinking. Loreena McKennitt is singing. Another bomb has just dropped, about an hour after the first three. The women have come back, and reported what they saw on the street: ambulances and water-main-repair cars rushing around, and not a whole lot of people. It's definitely the police headquarters that were hit. They have been cordoned off and there's a sea of shattered glass in the streets.

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.