Pec is burning! Where are the ground troops?

An AP photographer who fled Yugoslavia at the 11th hour reports on the horror in Kosovo.

Published April 1, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Wade's eyes bulged, his neck strained. He shouted, "C'mon man, we gotta get out of here! They just put a gun to the head of a CNN guy trying to feed at the TV station. What the hell are you doing?"

Rumors were flying around the Grand Hotel, the place where most of the foreign media stays in Pristina. One was that Arkan, leader of the dreaded Tigers paramilitary unit, which had started the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in Belijna, was in town. Another was that armed Serbian civilians were on their way to the hotel to smash up equipment, beat people up and expel us.

Paranoia had gripped Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, since U.S. negotiator Richard Holbrooke had walked out of a meeting with President Slobodan Milosevic and announced that he had failed to secure a peace deal. Actually, the situation had been deteriorating ever since the OSCE, the international monitoring organization, had pulled its people out of Kosovo, but it was still possible to work. When Holbrooke left, it became impossible.

New York had ordered us to leave as well, of course. But I and my AP colleagues were dithering.

Wade's outburst pushed us over the edge. So we left -- everyone, that is, except my colleague Srdjan Ilic, who has the most amazing access to the Yugoslav Army. Ilic told New York that he wasn't going to leave, that he had guarantees from the army, that he was going to stay. He won the argument. He stayed, filing as we piled our stuff into the service elevators, loaded our cars and drove away.

Wade Goddard, a freelance photographer for Newsweek and the New York Times, and I were walking down the street when we came upon a bread line. People, both Albanian and Serbian, had realized the airstrikes, threatened for so long, were about to become reality.

I wanted to shoot the bread line, not a difficult thing, but I couldn't work up the courage to raise my camera. There was an evil in the air, an uneasiness, paranoia. I couldn't tell who was Serbian, who was Albanian. I got Wade to stand in front of me and banged off a few frames on a long lens and then ducked behind a truck. Wade, on a shorter lens, went up to the crowd, but as he started to shoot, a man yelled at him, "Hey, what do you think you're doing?" And a woman started to yell, "What are you taking pictures of?" We scurried away from the line, the accusing looks, the wicked, evil feeling.

But the feeling didn't abate. It grew. The rumors fueled the paranoia.

All of the rumors were about to prove true.

We fled. First south, then east and finally north to Belgrade. We pulled into the Hyatt Hotel, probably the finest hotel in eastern Europe, to find that our colleagues, who had been on the roof filming the first of the airstrikes, had been arrested and taken off to the police station. After getting a room and settling down to dinner in the buffet, the waiter told us, "Eat up and get out. We're at war."

So even though we had escaped probably the most paranoid place on the planet, we were in the capital, which was getting bombed for the first time since the Allies took out the Nazis at the end of World War II.

The next day, Thursday, as we pumped pictures out onto the wire from our stringers, we three international AP photographers sat in the office and wondered whether we should stay in Belgrade or move on to another city outside of the country. Although I've covered plenty of wars, this was the first time I'd been declared an enemy of the state because of my nationality. Belgrade had declared a state of war with NATO and broken off diplomatic relations with the U.S., Germany, Britain and France. As we pondered our future, a fax came in from the Serbian Republic political headquarters ordering all foreign correspondents out of the country.

Wade and Ron Haviv, on assignment for Newsweek, went back to the hotel to pack. As they walked in, another colleague, Nick, was walking out, under arrest by the secret police. Nick, a producer for CNN, explained to the police that he had nothing to do with the reporting, but they took him away anyway. Paradoxically, on CNN at that moment, Deputy Prime Minister Vuk Draskovic was giving a live interview telling the foreign press they were allowed to stay and work. Just another day in the Balkans.

We packed again and headed to Zagreb, capital of Croatia. On the border we were taken aside by angry customs and police officers. As we left, a Serbian policeman asked me, "How can you bomb innocent civilians, this is the 21st century?" I wondered how he could even think that, when no civilians had been wounded in the first night's raids and the Serbs were busily massacring and "cleansing" ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. But the Milosevic propaganda machine is very, very good. And the bombs only convinced waverers to line up behind him.

From Zagreb we heard reports from Pristina that our colleagues had been roughly expelled from the Grand. Men with assault rifles had burst into their rooms and forced them to leave at gunpoint. An armored car in use by CNN, which was packed and ready to roll to Skopje, Macedonia, was shot up and set alight by men in uniforms without insignias, most probably a paramilitary unit. Only Miguel, a cameraman working for APTN, negotiated a deal to stay. He agreed to use his satellite phone to transmit pictures out of Pristina for the Serbs in exchange for being allowed to film what NATO was going to do to the capital.

And what was NATO going to do? That was the question on most of our minds. We speculated, as we had been doing in the weeks leading up to the bombing. For sure two things were going to happen. First, Milosevic was going to remain defiant -- he wouldn't cut a deal. Second, Serbian forces were going to go on the rampage against an innocent population, taking out their aggressions against Albanian "terrorists." But how quickly would the Serbian army act? How much force would they use? And would they strike against the cities? These were the questions we were asking ourselves.

We didn't have to wait
long for the answers. While we were leaving Pristina, the police and
paramilitary units had set up roadblocks and were checking papers. Wade
and Ron saw one man, in a car with tags from Bosnia, being
beaten by police in his car. He was rifle-butted in the head,
hauled out of the vehicle, handcuffed and again beaten severely. We were certain the man had little chance of living.

no checks on the Serbs, there was little hope of them respecting the
human rights of ethnic Albanians or even some Serbs. There were
rumors that the Serbs were targeting people who had translated for the
OSCE, that they were looking for people who had worked for the foreign
press, that they were going house-to-house, terrorizing the population.

And then the bombing
started. And Milosevic remained defiant. The bombing was stepped up,
barracks were destroyed, communications posts were taken out. And
Milosevic remained defiant.

And then the refugees started to come.

It was a trickle at first. A few had fled just after the OSCE had pulled out, suspecting the Serbs would carry out far worse atrocities than they had committed the summer before. And they were right.

The police and militias
went house-to-house. Masked gunmen told people they had five minutes to
pack up and leave. They wanted to be Albanians, now they were going
to have the chance. They tore up passports, took money and expelled the
population. They packed them into cars, onto busses and sent them
toward the border, to Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro. The trickle
became a flood. First hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands
poured across the borders. They came in cars, trucks,
on tractors and by foot. They came with their belongings and without. They came pushing their parents in wheelbarrows. They came silently weeping.

The Serbs are ethnically cleansing an entire homeland
of its indigenous people. This is happening now.

Ron and I stood on a
road looking at the Serbian police. Behind the checkpoint were perhaps 200
cars. Each car was packed with at least one family, sometimes two.
Those without cars came on tractors or on foot. The Serbs, as a final
act of callousness, charged each car 100 deutsche marks to cross the
border. After they paid they were allowed out, to start their lives
over. Because in Kosovo there was nothing left for them: no houses, no
cities, no family, nothing.

The stares from the
refugees were vapid, vacant, unbelieving at what they had witnessed and
just experienced and what they had yet to face. Shock hadn't set in.
Some of the children still smiled and flashed us the victory symbol,
unable to grasp that they had been expelled from their homes and that they were probably not going home in the near, or the distant,
future. Maybe not ever.

But the women and men
knew. They wept. One woman walked up to us. After learning we
were American, she said, "Tell NATO that Pec is burning. Where are the ground
troops?" She burst into hysterics and had to be slapped by her daughter
to calm down. She had arrived in Montenegro with nothing except an
overcoat and her street shoes.

As each bomb falls,
more refugees are being forced to flee their homeland. More wheelbarrows with old women. More men beaten to death with rifle-butts. More children smiling before they start crying.

NATO says it won't send in ground troops to defend the defenseless. It
says it can stop this Serbian aggression from the air. It says it can wipe out Milosevic's ability to wage war from the air.

I believe they are wrong. Unless someone confronts the Yugoslav
army, in the air and on the ground, this terrible campaign will continue.

By David Brauchli

David Brauchli is an Associated Press photographer and writer. Until the NATO attack, he was stationed in Pristina, Kosovo.

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