Dispatches From the War Zone

Notes from different corners of the world.
March 30 1999 10:00 PM

Dispatches From the War Zone

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BELGRADE, March 30--In nearly 15 years in journalism, I have successfully avoided two things that seem, sooner or later, to happen to all of us: using a pseudonym and learning to touch-type. But after the Yugoslav Embassy extracted from me a promise--under threat of arrest--that I would not practice journalism, I caved in on the vanity issue. And now, sitting here in a darkened room during one of the interminable and pointless blackouts, I discover I can touch-type.

In the next room, three people are dancing to some corny '70s-style Serb pseudo-folk. The music is excruciatingly slow, but the trio is managing some pretty sexy moves. They claim that it's the idea of their light silhouettes in the black window that inspires them. They are in fact lit by projectors in the garden of the Russian Embassy across the street: The blackout apparently does not apply to the eight-story, glass-and-concrete monstrosity with the satellite dishes on top. Good to know the Russians can watch CNN. Though they are probably watching Russian TV, which is outdoing even the Serbs in its pathos, bordering on hysteria, in covering the NATO bombings. It recently reported that there have been 1,000 civilian casualties. The Serbs, for reasons probably having nothing to do with the unreliability of the report, chose not to pick it up.

In the tiny room farthest from the dancing silhouettes sits a very young woman, a second-year psychology student, who decided two hours ago that she could not and would not be a psychologist. For the last few days she has been trying to work the phones in this nongovernmental organization whose offices I have been staying in since I arrived just over 24 hours ago. Apparently she can't handle it. Last night she spent an hour on the phone with a woman in a small town who was overwhelmed with fear for a nephew who may be drafted, for her sister who may lose a son, for herself who may lose something she could not quite identify. After that, the young psychologist could not eat or go home or sleep in the office on a mattress on the floor. So tonight she decided she wanted to be a journalist. Perhaps this is because I had slept so soundly on one of the other two mattresses in the room.

Actually, it couldn't have been that, because at that point she didn't know I was a journalist. For the sake of maintaining my tourist-visa cover, I had told her I was a translator. Then, this evening, the director of this organization, an old and dear friend of mine, decided she was being unfair to her colleagues by taking me in without letting them in on my secret. The former psychologist and aspiring journalist was tremendously excited to learn of my new profession. Everyone else found the news considerably less thrilling. This includes a woman who told me last night that she was "happy that NATO is bombing." I think she was trying to get me to like her. I suppose she no longer finds me attractive. After my secret was out, she told me I could not file my stories from the organization's computer (we settled on my using a Web-based e-mail address to make the point of origin untraceable).

So in a bit--around 3 or 4 in the morning--I am going to move to the offices of another nongovernmental organization, whose members are apparently less frightened or, more likely, less well-informed about who I am--for now, anyway. Actually, all of this is perfectly understandable. If there is one thing that even the thickest-skinned of casual visitors will surely pick up on in Belgrade, it's the fear. Grown men speaking in whispers. Heroic women dragging their offspring to the bomb shelter even though they realize it's next to impossible that a bomb will drop in the center of town. A friend who works in a crisis center told me she was planning to phone women in Bosnia "to find out how to work with people who have so much fear."

But, like so many other people I know, she spends her time dialing phone numbers in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. She finds out just how frightening fear can be. One woman says she and her family are whispering inside their house because they are afraid the Serbian troops gathered all around the house will hear them. She is also afraid of starving to death because, when she finally got up the nerve to go out a couple of days ago, she discovered that all the Albanian-owned shops had been looted and shut down and all the Serbian shops checked customers' IDs and refused service to ethnic Albanians. And today she said that the fires, which have broken out all over the city and which seem to have no physical relationship to the NATO bombings, have broken out on her street, and she is afraid that her house will be set on fire. They have packed several of the 30 people in her family into the two cars they had and sent them off toward the Macedonian border, which is rumored to still be open. But she is afraid they won't be allowed to leave, as happened with at least one of her friends.

Back here in Belgrade they've just turned off the music and huddled in the kitchen to discuss "the detonation that was so close." In fact, it was miles away--but it's the first one they've actually heard since the bombing began six days ago. And they are scared.

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.