Captive in Kosovo

A journalist finds herself caught in the middle of the Drenica Mountains with a guerrilla pressing a gun against her head.


Susan Milligan
February 18, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

"I kill my friend. I could kill you."

This was an unnecessary summing-up of the situation. After all, each of the dozen or so Serbian special forces militia surrounding us had assault weapons and pistols, one of which was pressed firmly against the base of my skull. The large, heavily muscled soldier behind me was holding the gun against my head with his right hand. His left, curiously, was gently pushing my left shoulder against the car he and his colleagues had just ambushed minutes before. Clearly, these men were ready to shoot me and my fellow journalists. Yet this soldier was taking pains to not jam my shoulder too forcefully against the car.

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I had never experienced this kind of base terror. It was the sort of fear that is so overwhelming it can't be expressed. I had never felt so close to death, and yet my body reacted to it with a remarkable calmness that bordered on the irrational.

I shrugged at the commander. "Well," I said, "I don't think you should."

The scenario -- being drawn into the reality of the war when I was only supposed to be observing as a journalist -- was something I always knew, hypothetically, was possible. And yet I never really considered it might actually happen. To me, the conflict between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo had been like a movie, and a subtitled one at that. This was not my language, not my country and not my place to be involved. If this was a film, I wasn't even in the supporting cast. So how, I belatedly mused as the soldiers rifled through our car and our bags, did I get here?

It had happened so quickly. There we were, three reporters and a translator, driving back to the provincial capital of Pristina from a town called Orahovac, where there'd been a major shoot-out just weeks before. We'd done it so many times, it all seemed normal -- getting stopped frequently by heavily armed Serbian police at checkpoints, having guns on the tanks pointed at us while they checked our papers. I'd see snipers in the mountains, or soldiers digging trenches, and instead of feeling fear, I'd just jot it down in my notebook.

A rule of thumb in such conflicts is that the more heavily armed members of the ruling side's army are less dangerous than the untrained militia guys in makeshift uniforms, casually waving Kalashnikov rifles, drunk with newfound power or maybe just drunk. During the time that we were there, we'd grown accustomed to the many rules; they seemed like normal work conditions to us. Perhaps the mind creates some sense of rules and organization when there is none, to help the body function. We had had no sleep, had seen people living and dying in horrible conditions, had chatted with armed soldiers from both sides and had done it all by traveling around a war zone in a rented midnight-blue Peugeot with a sunroof. Stay in any environment long enough and it becomes normal.

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None of the reporters covering the conflict ever talks about the
danger, although it is extremely dangerous. A few have been shot at; these
stories are traded at the Serbia Media Center in the dilapidated,
laughably named Hotel Grand in Pristina. We use these tales to convince
ourselves that close calls are possible, but that no journalist would
actually get killed. No one talks about it. It's as if the threat is
only real if it's expressed verbally.

The drill is the same: Every day, reporters gather at the hotel, form groups and set out in cars (or armored vehicles) to some
town or village where we can talk to locals. We adapted to war-talk the
same way White House reporters acquire Washington-speak. I once threw
around such insider phrases as "subcommittee markup" and "stuck in
conference" when I was covering Washington. Now, my daily speech is
peppered with such terms as "hard car," "soft car" and "VJ operation"
(meaning it was a Yugoslav Army offensive).

There we were that day, in our "soft" car about halfway back to
Pristina, when we saw the blaze. One hill over, a village was clearly being
burned to the ground -- a tactic the Serbs were using to intimidate the
ethnic Albanians living there. We didn't really discuss it; we just
turned down a dirt road toward the blaze. We'd stopped about halfway
up the hill and were gossiping about something unrelated to the story we were
covering when I heard them. I didn't even hear their angry shouts at
first; what I heard was the terrifying click-click-clicks of guns being
cocked. We were pulled out of the car and
searched for weapons.

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The soldiers were screaming at us. A few spoke English, a small
comfort. I had with me only my "Serbo-Croatian for Travelers" guide, a
palm-sized book that showed me how to say such useless things as "Is there
a disco nearby?" and "Does that include service?" I remembered a T-shirt I
once saw a reporter wearing; it said "Press -- don't shoot" in a dozen
languages. I'd laughed when I saw it, but now I was sorry I didn't have
one.

We were now being held against the car and surrounded by men with
various kinds of weaponry. One was brandishing an Albanian flag -- a bad
sign, as it likely meant they had just captured it as some kind of trophy.

"Where are you from? What are you doing here?!" one demanded. Great. In the eyes
of the Serbs,
the only thing worse than being an Albanian was being American. I suddenly realized an extra complication: our translator, a
20-year-old woman who, while perfect in her spoken Serbian, was an ethnic
Albanian. What might these soldiers do to her?

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My colleague, Edward, from National Public Radio, spoke first. "Chicago," he
said.

One of the soldiers got very excited. "Chicago! Chicago Bulls! Chicago
Bulls!" He was smiling.

"Yeah, Chicago Bulls, that's right," Edward responded. The soldier -- tall and athletic-looking enough to play
basketball himself -- continued. "Who's the best player on the Chicago
Bulls?" he asked. Edward tried to think fast, realizing that what sounded
like idle sports talk might make the difference on how, and whether, we got
out of there. It occurred to him that he shouldn't mention Toni Kukoc, the
Croatian player. You never know how that would play with the
Serbs. Would they be proud of their fellow former Yugoslav? Or were the
wounds from Croatia's war of independence from Yugoslavia deeper? It was
like some high-stakes game show.

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"Well, Michael Jordan," Edward said confidently. Good answer, I
thought, and it apparently was the right one. The inquiring Serbian soldier
got very friendly, bouncing up and down a bit and saying, "Michael Jordan!
Michael Jordan! Michael Jordan!" Then he took Edward's tape recorder from
him, walking around the car and joking. "Hallo," he said with the affected
serious tone of a local newscaster. "I am reporter from New York Times." His fellow soldiers laughed. They got very friendly then, insisting on
having their picture taken with me (with their camera; they wouldn't allow
us to photograph them).

This is actually quite normal behavior from the Serbs; it's not
uncommon for a Yugoslav to be hostile to you one minute and offer to be
your best friend the next. They'll drink, argue loudly, smash glasses on the floor as
they deride your government, then put their arms around your shoulders
and insist on paying for the "raki" you were sharing. The trick is to turn
the emotion in your favor. All the rules of being a war correspondent --
making eye contact, not speaking too much or acting aggressively when
face-to-face with an armed soldier -- are especially relevant in the
Balkans. Try to schmooze with some U.S. Marine outside an embassy and
he'll look right through you. But the Serbian police at checkpoints are less
stoic. If I smiled at one while I handed over my passport and papers, he'd
puff up his chest and swagger over to his buddies, saying what appeared to
be something like, "Hey, she's checking me out!"

On the dirt road in the Drenica Mountains, we were lucky to find a group who were sports fans before they were soldiers. I considered how
television had directed our day. Had it not been for TV, we probably
wouldn't have felt we had to actually witness the razing of a village up
close and personal. And had it not been for TV, this Chicago Bulls fan
wouldn't have had a clue who was the best player on the team -- he might not
even have known much about basketball at all.

The soldiers sent us on our way (after confiscating Edward's tape).
One of them turned to our translator. "Tell them not to write anything bad
about us," he told her, in a manner she described as more of a request than
a threat. The commander looked at me as I eased, gratefully, into the back
seat. "You must understand," he said, "this is war."

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I nodded. "Yeah. I get it now."


Susan Milligan

Susan Milligan is a freelance writer living in Budapest whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal Europe,the Boston Globe and the New York Daily News.

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