"Oh no," groaned one of my new neighbors when I moved into an apartment in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in January. "Whenever an American moves into the neighborhood, something terrible happens." His good-natured jibes were delivered with smiles as I was quickly adopted as a refreshing new addition to the neighborhood. So began my career as a spy in Yugoslavia.
I loved my new apartment, a fifth-floor walk-up attic of exposed wooden beams and sloping ceilings, in a leafy, old neighborhood of 19th century town houses known as Dorcol. Its main selling point was a small balcony with a view that stretched all the way to the Sava River.
What I didn't know when I moved in was that a year ago an American named Kevin had rented the same flat, saying he was in the timber business. Kevin captured the hearts of the neighborhood, only to disappear a few days before the NATO bombing began. The neighbors recall that as a convoy of vehicles waited on the street below for him, Kevin turned to his friends, winked and said, "I'm the best," before being driven off. Then they experienced 11 weeks of bombing, which, they point out, never stopped them from dressing up and getting out to the neighborhood cafe.
My compatriot, the NATO bombing and Slobodan Milosevic's hysterically anti-American propaganda left me a difficult legacy. Whether or not Kevin was a spy, I, a freelance journalist living in Belgrade, was perceived as an agent of the American government, which is about the most dreadful thing one can be in Serbia these days.
At first, I laughed at the neighborhood joke that I was a spy. I had worked as a reporter in the region for four years, spending months in Sarajevo, Skopje, Pristina, Istanbul, even in Belgrade before, without ever being accused of espionage, and at first it struck me as so outrageous as to be funny. It seemed obvious to me that no spy would talk as openly and as much as I did, speak Serbian as badly and be so underfunded. (I couldn't afford a car, a proper desk for my new apartment or a regular translator.)
During my trips out of Serbia, I let Belgrade friends stay at the flat. What spy would do that? Besides, I had other friends in town from my earlier reporting trips to Belgrade. They would sometimes drop by, and those relationships would confirm my credibility with my new neighbors, I reasoned.
"I've only known you for a short time, and I think you are an American spy, but you are always safe here," the cafe owner, Milan, assured me a few days after I moved in. We'd taken to arguing politics. "I will never let anyone lay a finger on you."
That kind of mixed reception, friendly but cautious, was typical. Who, after all, was Milan offering to protect me from?
"You're a spy, but it's OK, it doesn't matter," another neighbor said, as I protested.
"We decided the CIA used to send male agents, and now they're sending us female spies," another neighbor, Gojko, informed me.
It was exasperating. I printed out copies of my articles and showed them to my neighbors as proof I was a journalist. But to my enormous frustration, I found it didn't matter. I talked myself blue in the face explaining my work, the joys and frustrations of reporting, the events I'd seen in other parts of the Balkans, the difficulties of working as a freelancer abroad, with family and friends far away. All for naught.
"Hello, FBI," the local hash dealer greeted me whenever I walked out my door, raising his hand in a high-five.
With a growing sense of self-consciousness, I discovered that the day-to-day business of reporting looked a little bit like what a spy might do. I wanted to understand how everything worked, to put political and news events in the context of their society. I asked people what they thought about things. I heard the news (Zeljko "Arkan" Raznatovic's assassination, the shooting of Vuk Draskovic) early. I received various Balkans news services and regularly interviewed opposition politicians, human rights activists, local mayors, student activists, economists and humanitarian-aid workers.
Before, knowing a bit of the language had been an asset for me in the region. Now it was a source of suspicion. When my neighbors saw me reading the headlines in a Cyrillic-script newspaper, they gave each other knowing nods.
At the same time, as an outsider, and an American no less, I became a magnet for those who wanted a glimpse of the outside, who wanted to test out a theory or debate international policy, confess a war story, complain about the NATO bombing, reminisce about a trip abroad, get courage for a major life step or simply tell their story to someone who'd listen. I felt very strongly the pain of isolation my Serbian neighbors feel. If at times I was overwhelmed with a sense of claustrophobia in Belgrade, they felt it too, their world shrunk to a country condemned. People in Belgrade often talk about Serbia as a prison, with Milosevic and the international community their jailers.
As people got to know me, some would concede that maybe I really didn't know I was an American agent. "Maybe they are using you, but you don't know it."
But as the run-up to the one-year anniversary of the NATO bombing approached, the mood darkened. Suddenly almost everyone in Belgrade seemed convinced a new wave of bombing was imminent, and I was viewed with greater suspicion. Just what is she doing up there in her apartment? Picking targets for new NATO bombs, maybe? Those still friendly with me told me to be careful of the others.
The joke that I was a NATO spy was no longer funny, I tried to explain to my neighbors; I told them to knock it off. I wasn't really afraid that I would get lynched, mostly just tired of the constant inversion of the truth that is so overwhelming in Serbia.
The small episode of being perceived as a spy was just one symptom of the larger insanity of life in Belgrade, where people have succumbed to a whole parallel universe of lies and propaganda spouted by the regime, and conditioned by an earlier lifetime spent on the fault line between two superpowers. Such as, "The Kosovo Albanians are terrorists, deserving of whatever happened to them." Or "All foreigners in Serbia are spies and their local friends, NATO mercenaries." Or "NATO bombed Serbia because the U.S. wanted to control Kosovo's coal mines," because of Serbia's "strategic" location on the crossroads between East and West or because, some said, in her youth U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was jilted by a Serbian boyfriend during a stint in Belgrade after her family fled wartime Prague. Others thought Milosevic was an American agent too, putting a wrecking ball to Yugoslavia to fulfill America's desire to dominate the ever-important Balkans.
What was at stake for me in this whole episode was my credibility among this group of fairly powerless and bored gossips. But what was at stake for my neighbors was something bigger. They wanted to believe that I was a spy because it filled in one part of a larger mosaic of lies that allowed them to cling to the belief that the violence that had overtaken Yugoslavia for the past decade was just as the Milosevic regime said it was -- the work of outside powers, and not any fault of their own.
All I wanted, stubbornly, vainly, at times desperately, was for people to perceive me as I was. But what they wanted was reassurance that their suffering had some larger meaning, some purpose, some explanation. They couldn't bear to accept that their suffering -- the years of sanctions and international isolation and condemnation -- was the result of the wartime policies of the Milosevic regime, which some of them defended and others criticized.
I left Serbia for a couple months, returning to Belgrade in the lush green of late May, with its lengthening days and lighter mood. Neighbors greeted me with what seemed to me a growing acceptance, and I found friendly faces waiting for me at the neighborhood cafe at all hours of the day. There had not been another round of NATO bombing, the U.S. hadn't overrun Serbia and I felt vindicated. People stopped talking about NATO spies. Finally, I thought, it's getting more normal around here.
In late May, the Milosevic regime took over the last remaining independent television station in Belgrade. As I reported on the growing tension between the government and the people, I felt a sense of solidarity grow between me and my neighbors, similarly frustrated with the increasing totalitarianism of the regime.
One day a man in a white polo shirt stopped by the neighborhood cafe and began to question me. He knew the foreigners who lived in the flat before me, White Polo said, a French diplomat with whom he used to play tennis, and then an American, who worked, where was it? White Polo waited for me to answer. "People here say he worked for the Central Intelligence Agency," I said.
White Polo asked if I was having any problems in Serbia; I told him I wasn't. He asked if my visa situation was clear and offered to introduce me to some of his contacts in the Serbian political world. I didn't bite. He noted that I had picked up a few words of Serbian as I chatted with friends, and moved closer as I picked up my ringing cellphone.
Although I wasn't immediately aware I was being questioned by a professional and I didn't have anything to hide, White Polo was making me nervous. When I went inside to try to shake him off, he followed me, a menacing white presence in my peripheral vision, rendering the whole cafe silent. Finally, he left, and I was overcome with the feeling of having been interrogated, followed, harassed.
As rage welled up inside me, I exploded at Serbian friends who had witnessed the whole incident, telling them of the frustration of constantly having to explain myself to every new outsider who came by. They clucked sympathetically, and said they went through the same thing at their jobs and universities, with people from the regime coming to let them know they were being watched. But later, I wondered, why hadn't anybody there told him to get lost?
At the time, I was becoming friends with some young people active in liberal political circles and human rights groups. They seemed refreshingly unbrainwashed. As I got to know them, I learned that one's grandfather had been in charge of counterintelligence for Marshal Tito, and that the father of another had been the head of the analytic department of the Yugoslav intelligence services, the UDBA. Was everyone else in Belgrade in the intelligence business, I began to wonder?
Sometimes, I mentally reviewed the people whom I spoke the most with in Belgrade and wondered, is one of them reporting on me? Probably, almost certainly yes, but who?
Then a week ago, I chatted by phone with a friend, the daughter of the former intelligence analyst for the UDBA. "Yes, you know, people in your neighborhood, they think you're an American spy, and they don't believe you're married. They think you're just pulling their leg."