|A young Kosovar boy comforts his brother
crying for his father after walking out of Pec along a snowy road which
goes to neighboring Montenegro Wednesday March 31, 1999. Thousands of refugees
continue to flood out of the embattled province towards the Montenegran
border on foot, by tractor or in cars.
|March 28, 1999 Podgorica, Montenegro
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?" I, with my AP colleagues, was dithering.
Rumors were flying around the Grand Hotel, the place where the majority of the foreign media stays while working in Pristina. One rumor was Arkan, leader of the Tigers paramilitary unit, which was responsible for the beginning of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in Belijna, was in town. Another was the Armed Serb Civilians were on their way to the hotel to smash up equipment, beat people up and expel us.
But Wade's outburst pushed us over the edge. Of course we were on the phone with New York and they ordered us to leave Pristina as well, everyone except, that is, my colleague Srdjan Ilic who has the most amazing access to the Yugoslav Army. Ilic argued with New York that he wasn't going to leave, that he had guarantees from the army and he was staying. He won the argument, he stayed, filing as we piled our stuff into the service elevators and cars and left.
Paranoia had been gripping Pristina, capital of Kosovo, since US 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, since the OSCE had pulled their monitors out of Kosovo, the situation had rapidly deteriorated, but it was possible to still the paranoia and work. But when Holbrooke left, it became impossible.
Wade Goddard, a freelance photographer for Newsweek and the New York Times, and I were walking down the street. A bread line had formed as people, both Albanian and Serb, realized the air strikes, 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 Serb, 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. And the rumors fueled the paranoia.
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 our colleagues, who had been on the roof filming the first of the air strikes, arrested taken off to the police station. After getting a room and settling down to dinner in the buffet, the waiter told us to 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 the second world war.
The next day, Thursday, as we pumped pictures out onto the wire from our stringers, the 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've 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 US, 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 and 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 foregin press they were allowed to stay and work. The contradictions of working in the Balkans.
We packed again and headed to Zagreb, capital of Croatia. On the border we were taken apart by angry customs and police officers. As we left, a Serb policeman said to 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 lined up those wavering, 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, at gunpoint, demanded they leave. 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 but without insignia, most probably a paramilitary unit. Only Miguel, a cameraman working for APTN negotiated a deal to stay. He agreed to use his toko satphone 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, Milsoevic was going to remain defiant, not cutting a deal, and second, Serb forces were going to go on the rampage against an innocent population, taking out their aggressions against Albanian "terrorists." But how quickly would the Serb army act, how much force would they use and would they strike against the cities. These were questions which 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 number tags from Bosnia, being beaten by police in his car. He was then rifle-butted in the head, hauled out of the vehicle, handcuffed and beaten severely. As they drove off they were certain the man had little chance of living. With no checks on the Serbs, there was little hope of them respecting the human rights of ethnic Albanians and even some Serbs. There were rumors, the Serbs were targeting people who had translated for the OSCE, they were looking for people who had worked for the foreign press, 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.
A trickle at first, those who feared for their lives 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 and 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 towards the border. To Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro. The trickle became a flood. First hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands started to pour across the borders. They came in cars, on trucks, tractors and by foot. They came with their belongings and without. Some people managed to load up their cars and others came with nothing more than a bathrobe and house slippers. They came silently weeping, terrorized by the Serbs who are ethnically cleansing an entire homeland of its indigenous people.
Ron and I stood on a road looking at the Serb 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 walking. The Serbs, as a final act of callousness, charged each car 100 Deutsch 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 they were being expelled from their homes and were most likely not going home in the near or distant, future.
But the women and men knew. They wept. One woman walked up to us and said, after learning we were American, "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 arrived into Montenegro with nothing except an overcoat and her street shoes.
As each bomb falls, more refugees are being forced to flee their homeland. And NATO has no policy of sending in ground troops to defend the defenseless. They believe they can stop this Serbian aggression from the air. They believe they can wipe out Milosevic's ability to wage war from the air. I beleive they believe wrong. Without someone confronting the Yugoslav army, on the ground and in the air, the ethnic cleansing will continue until Kosovo is a homogenous state, a Serbian one.
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