Dispatches From the War Zone

Notes from different corners of the world.
March 31 1999 10:30 PM

Dispatches From the War Zone

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To be reduced to sleeping on the floor with all my clothes on, struggling to use a light jacket as a blanket, in an apartment that has intact windows, hot water, and an Internet connection--that sums up the Belgrade war game in which I am now undeniably caught. In every other war I have covered, it was the normalcy that struck me. I remember confessing this to a Warsaw friend six years ago, when I was returning from my first visit to the disintegrating Yugoslavia. "I know," she responded. "I used to beg my mother to tell me about the war, until she finally said, 'What do you want me to tell you? I took the tram to work every day ...' " I have since observed the many different ways in which people reach for their routines, setting up candlelit marketplaces in bombed out city blocks, holding discos in temporarily vacated bomb shelters, and insisting on having a civilized cup of tea by the window while drunk soldiers shoot their fear off just outside.

Belgrade, of course, has to be different. I have seen no evidence of bombing within the city proper. Acts of war have been limited to Serbian vandalism of the American Library, the British Council offices, the French Cultural Center and Air France, and all the McDonald's in the city. But the atmosphere of war as one might imagine it--a cinematic sense of crisis--has been perfected. Milosevic has been accused of being the aggressor so often he must be relishing this opportunity to play the victim. Nobody gets to do what he used to do anymore. Many nongovernmental organization employees do not go to their offices for fear of an official crackdown; in several cases, people who used to do other things have taken their place. The university is shut, and final exams, which generally occur in April, have been canceled--the better to staff the daily patriotic concerts. There are even shortages: Cigarettes have all but disappeared. I came here with three cartons of Lucky Strikes, which struck me as a questionably tasteful brand choice--but this was what my friends requested. Today a feminist anti-war activist friend told me that "women from Bosnia are sending us Lucky Strikes and Nescafe." Is there no coffee? "To be honest, there still is coffee," she laughed. "But just in case."

Now that news of NATO's third-phase bombing plans has trickled in, all this war preparation has shifted into an even higher gear. The organization where I was staying until last night has decided to vacate its premises, which are a couple of buildings away from Serbian military headquarters. I have moved to the office--a converted apartment, actually--of another group, a couple of streets over. We have removed the inner window frames so we have something to put back in and shield us in case the outer glass is shattered by the bombing expected overnight. Of course, this is the first night since the bombings began when the air raid alarm siren has not sounded. So the crowd here--about a dozen people, mostly idling university students--are waiting with varying degrees of tension. Two guys are sleeping on the floor in the room where I am working. Most are sitting at a long conference table playing preference, a watered down version of bridge. Two are playing virtual soccer on a computer.

A couple of guys occupying the other computer have been logging on and being kicked off for the last six hours, downloading and printing CNN reports. This is, they claim proudly, "a digitized environment"--in fact, I met a couple of the core members of the group four years ago when I was doing a story on e-mail in the Balkans. Like many local intellectuals, these guys don't have a television. "It's dangerous these days to watch TV," said one of them, a 24-year-old who escaped from Sarajevo eight years ago. "It can make you go nuts." Sanity, of course, is relative. When they are not passing around printouts from CNN's Web page or tuning into the BBC via RealAudio, they get their news the old-fashioned way: by telephone. Someone called and said the Vatican was sending a peace envoy to Milosevic. Someone else phoned in the news that NATO head Javier Solana and Gen. Wesley Clark have had a falling out and Solana has resigned. We're not sure about Solana, but the Vatican visit was confirmed. Of course, the confirmation came from official Serbian radio, which can also make you go nuts.

One thing featured prominently on the radio lately are so-called "locators," mythical objects supposedly dropped by NATO planes. They are said to be Styrofoam boxes that enter buildings without breaking glass and allow NATO to home in on its targets. Persons who find these locators in their homes are asked to disarm them by removing the battery or to report them to the police. I hope they use AA batteries like my flashlight. I also hope they really don't break the windows, because I'm freezing under my jacket as it is.

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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