Calling Kosovo

Serbs and ethnic Albanians are united -- in misery -- as the bombing and the terror continue.

Published March 29, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Radovan Urosevac is sitting in the dark smoking a cigarette in his office in the Kosovo capital of Pristina. The air raid sirens are wailing, and most of his fellow citizens have headed to basements to wait out the next wave of NATO bombings. But Radovan hasn't left his office on the second floor of the Grand Hotel Pristina, where I've reached him by phone. He tells me, rather, that he's just enjoyed a nice lunch.

"The shelter can't protect me. If NATO wants to kill me, they'll kill me," he says, with a touch of bravado.

Radovan runs the state-run Serbian media center in Kosovo -- or at least he did until NATO began bombing Serbia last Wednesday -- and most Western journalists were kicked out of the country. Now he has few journalists to whom he can tell the Serbian version of events, the phones only work sporadically, and he and his staff have not been able to leave the hotel for days for fear of the chaos engulfing Pristina and the rest of Kosovo.

Radovan is Serbian -- like the paramilitaries and army rampaging through Kosovo now, burning and looting ethnic Albanian villages and going door-to-door in some neighborhoods with machine guns, threatening to kill Albanians if they don't leave Kosovo. He truly seems to believe that the conflict that has raged in Kosovo for the past year is the fault of the ethnic Albanian "terrorists," as he calls the supporters of Kosovo Liberation Army. He has never once acknowledged to me the fact that Serbian police have also abused Kosovo Albanians. He's a true believer in the idea that "Kosovo is Serbia."

Though it's day four of NATO bombing, and the strikes seem to be moving closer day by day to the town, Radovan seems as spirited as ever in his defense of the Serbian cause.

"You know what NATO bombs hit last night?" he asks, with a hint of glee in his voice. "The printing house of Koha Ditore (the leading Albanian-language newspaper in Kosovo). It burned down to the ground."

He complains that the NATO airstrikes seem to have destroyed his access to the Internet, and the cell phone network in Kosovo.

He doesn't mention his daughter, or the brother I know he has in Ohio. He doesn't talk about the killing in the streets of Pristina, or the looting of ethnic Albanian shops. He doesn't mention that the hotel has -- after days of siege -- started to run out of food and water. He doesn't mention the Serbian paramilitaries that I hear have gone door-to-door in the hotel attacking Western journalists.

But Radovan, the hard-line, self-declared Serbian patriot, knows that I know that he is protecting a good friend of mine, a freelance journalist from a NATO country who, when the other Western journalists evacuated Kosovo, decided to stay behind.

"Yes, she is very scared," he says honestly. "I was surprised, because I know she has covered several wars. But I promised her I would do everything in my power to protect her."

When the cell phones still worked, my journalist friend told me about the terror of the first night of airstrikes. How the electricity went out in the city, and gangs of paramilitary thugs with machine guns were everywhere in the hotel, threatening Westerners. How Radovan told her to go immediately to his office, and not come out. She's been staying in a room with three other Serbian women since then.

NATO hasn't declared war against Serbia. But when I call to check on my friend, and I speak to Radovan and the young Serbian men and women who staff the media center, we know but don't say that our countries are at war. It's the white elephant on the front lawn in our conversation, as is my intense gratitude that they are protecting a person whose politics are so at war with their own. Sharing the terror of airstrikes has somehow brought them to protect each other.

I get the same feeling Saturday when I receive an e-mail from a Serbian couple I know in Belgrade. I've had a dozen Sunday dinners at their home in new Belgrade, many at which we've even argued about Serbia's policy toward Kosovo, long before the war started. "Hi, Just to inform you that we are all fine. Last two nights we were in the shelter, but everything was OK. Hoping that this will stop soon. How are you!!!??? Big hello from all of us."

The couple, both 30, have a 1-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy, whom I've recently sent denim jackets from Baby Gap for Christmas. Their e-mail is painful to read. I can imagine them in the air raid shelter with the children, wondering what kind of future the children have.

Every day, the trickle of e-mails from my friends in Kosovo and Belgrade is dwindling, and it gets harder to dial in to check on people. But sometimes what is most ominous is getting through to Pristina and having the phone just ring and ring, unanswered. As I wait for someone to answer, I wonder if the people I am calling are in the air raid shelter, or if they have had to flee their homes. I wonder, indeed, if they are still alive.

The last call I get through to Pristina on Sunday is to an ethnic Albanian friend, a human rights worker. I am terrified that when her phone rings that she won't pick up. The Serbian police have begun targeting the ethnic Albanian intelligentsia, and I am afraid that she is on their hit list.

Her brother answers and gets her.

"I'm so scared," she says. "We don't go out of the house. I want to go help the refugees. I just don't know."

Just a few weeks ago, this woman had been planning to come to Harvard next year for a graduate fellowship in human rights. Now she doesn't know what's going to happen to her tonight or tomorrow.

I ask her if NATO is wrong to have bombed. "No, I think there was no choice." We hang up.

As an afterthought, I call up a Kosovo Liberation Army contact.

"It's a tragedy. It's genocide," he says, in total despair. He's currently in Italy, on his way to Albania, and from there, he plans to go into Kosovo. "There's no way to describe it. There's no comparison."

I ask him the same question I asked my friend, the human rights worker. Did NATO bombing make things worse for them?

"Once and forever, the world has to finish with this army. It has to be finished. This army commits genocide. They shell civilians. What can we do?"


By Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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