Dispatches From the War Zone

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 1 1999 11:00 PM

Dispatches From the War Zone

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I woke up and saw a badly damaged building wall out the window. After rubbing my eyes, I remembered that, hours into last night's panic, someone announced it would be safer to sleep in the back of the flat. I moved there with my computer, waited in vain until other people decided it was time to sleep, and finally crashed on the floor to the sounds of the Radio Free Europe Serbian Service, which broadcasts in the convenient hours between 1 and 4 a.m. An earnest young man sat in the back room for the entire three hours, listening.

The back room, shielded from the casual visitor (the first night I spent here, I didn't know the room existed), is called the Studio. That's what it was until the radio station that used it was banned about half a year ago. Now all the hi-tech recording equipment is for listening only. Today, when I got it into my head to start monitoring the rhetoric used by official Serbian radio, one of the guys suggested we tape the broadcasts, then remembered, "We got rid of all the tapes and minidisks because they could be used as evidence."

So, as I was saying, I woke up and saw the wall. Then I remembered it had been dark when I first walked into the room, so the wall has probably been in that condition for years. In the large main room, a young woman was sleeping on the long conference table, wrapped in the organization's flag. I'd considered using the flag as a blanket the night before, when I woke up freezing, but had decided waking in the morning wrapped in a red flag may prove too big a shock. I guess this woman, being about ten years younger than I and lacking my experience in Communist youth organizations, does not share my traumatic childhood associations.

I don't think an air-raid siren ever went off last night. I thought I heard it in the morning, but it turned out to be pigeons screaming in the light well. I'm sure if Serb propaganda producers heard them, they'd come up with a clever peace-dove spin. "No word means what it says anymore," my friend M. moaned, upon hearing of the ultranationalist, ultramilitarist leader Arkan's appearance at one of the daily "Peace Concerts." Serbian authorities have NATO to thank for enabling them to appropriate words like peace and humanitarian disaster.

Official propagandists have caught on to the fact they can use even the Albanian refugees' flight to make their case against NATO aggression, which, according to Serbian radio, has produced "the biggest humanitarian disaster since World War II." The authorities are calling on refugees to defy NATO by going back to their homes "because it's time to work the land." State radio also claims that at night the "good" Albanians are fighting Kosovo Liberation Army "terrorists."

I met with Natasha Kandich, executive director of the Humanitarian Law Center and probably the most reliable source of information on Kosovo. She spent the day there Tuesday. Trying to take several of her Albanian staff members out of Pristina, she was told by police that "Albanians don't work in Serbia anymore." Ordered to get back in the car, Natasha kept her legs outside. The cop slammed the door on them. I'd wondered, while I was interviewing her, whether she'd always limped: I met her a few years ago, and I thought I would have remembered. She didn't tell me about the door-slamming; I read about it in her written report when she finished it a few hours later.

A Pristina friend who has been a source of information is now out of touch. M. was probably the last person to talk to her. When she called Pristina this afternoon, the woman said she couldn't talk: She was packing because army men had come in to kick them out of the house. M. is beyond worried: How will our friend get to a border, any border? What will she do when she gets there? I spoke to M. for hours today, trying everything I know: telling her about other refugees I know from other places, telling her funny stories, trying to get her distracted and tired enough to sleep. I doubt I succeeded.

I may have done something very careless today. Trying to get information on the meeting between Kosovo Albanian political leader Ibrahim Rugova and Yugoslav President Milosevic, I called a local journalist acquaintance. Failing, for a couple of hours, to reach him at the independent newspaper, I finally identified myself as a Western correspondent and asked if anyone had any information--and immediately got disconnected. Blaming my cell phone, I called again and again, getting disconnected after identifying myself every time. By the time I realized whoever was answering the phone was disconnecting me on purpose, because it's dangerous to speak to foreign correspondents, I had grown frustrated enough and stupid enough to use a land line. Now "they" know where I am staying. But I may just be getting paranoid. I signed my girlfriend's surname to something today and then caught myself wondering whether she'd get in trouble. Then I remembered that, being in London, she is unlikely to be affected.

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.