BELGRADE, YUGOSLAVIA — When an earthquake hit northern Serbia last week, the people of Belgrade thought it was the Big One - not a natural disaster, but the bomb attack NATO had been threatening after seven months of violence down in Kosovo.
I was in that southern province at the time, just a three-hour drive away, and my phone began to ring. One caller was Aca, my best friend in Belgrade. He was wise enough to know the difference between a temblor and a cruise missile, but he was still scared.
"I can't take this anymore," he told me. "Not Kosovo, not Bosnia, not Slobo" - the nickname of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic - "I'm leaving."
So Aca gathered a few thousand German marks, packed his bags, and headed out. He said his mother was crying, but that she wanted him to go and start a new life.
Perhaps Aca never believed Mr. Milosevic, who has long mustered popular support by telling Serbs they are despised by the West.
But he sees new developments as ominous: America's Balkans fireman Richard Holbrooke engaging in last-ditch diplomacy in Belgrade and Pristina, with NATO next meeting Oct. 8, and China and Russia digging in their heels on military action.
I came back to Belgrade the next day not knowing what to expect. Vojislav Seselj, the radical bully who once led paramilitary troops in Bosnia, was openly threatening foreign journalists. The US Embassy - rumored to be poised to close up shop - had e-mailed me a travel warning. The world was expecting airstrikes.
'You're our first hostage'
My first stop was at the auto-repair shop near my apartment. I consider the mechanics there to be friends. One, Dusan, supports his wife and children on a $200-per-month salary. If Serbia mobilizes, as the street says they will, Dusan will have to go.
"It's good to see you," he said, squinting through bleary eyes. "Now we'll take our first American hostage."
He was joking, something the Serbs have learned to do after living through a decade of nationalism, war, sanctions, poverty, failed protests, and, finally, another war in Kosovo, where the Albanians want independence.
Serbia was best explained to me last summer in Belgrade, as I sat at a cafe on the Danube River with a brave young woman who is also thinking about leaving the country. During the hyperinflation of 1993, when salaries were around $3 per month, she used to drive overnight to Hungary so she could buy food to feed her family.
"This is Serbia," she said, pointing to an empty ash tray on the table. She picked it up, turned it over, and slammed it back down. "Everything is upside-down."
Josip Broz Tito, their beloved Communist dictator, invented the upside-down act. He borrowed money from the West, artificially pumped up the economy, and, as the saying goes, "never did any people live so well and do so little."
No longer. The problem of Kosovo, which Tito could only stave off, rose to the surface not long after his death in 1982.
Kosovo has a revered place in Serbia's history. The 1389 battle of Kosovo Polje - in which the Ottoman Turks overran the Serbs and began a 500-year occupation - is held up as a touchstone, a devastating loss to Muslims that must continually be avenged.
The Serbs consider Kosovo to be a holy land still under invasion, but they have been lied to for so long about it that they know very little truth about the place. Most have never been there, nor have they ever met an Albanian. When they speak about it, they sound to be parroting the same political leaders they hate.
The other night I talked about Kosovo with a friend named Djole, who is a hairdresser in Belgrade. He defended Serbia's actions in Kosovo, and he kept asking me if the American settlers had massacred native Americans, and if Americans had committed war crimes in Vietnam.
"Yes," I said. "It was wrong and I'm ashamed of it."
Weary of official views
Serbs must sort through a view of the world clouded by official spin. They get their information from state television, which they know lies, but which they somehow believe.
Last week, one channel said a massacred baby discovered in Kosovo by international observers was a plastic doll. On another channel, an "investigative journalist" outlined the secret CIA plan to destroy Serbia. Some people even think last week's earthquake was the result of a US-invented underground missile.
I asked Nena, who works at a flower shop in the oldest quarter of Belgrade, what she thought of all the commotion in the past few days, with all the bomb scares, rumors of mobilization, and earthquakes.
She said she didn't care too much, but only hoped that if she died it would happen when she was with her daughter and granddaughter.
It struck me that she was not afraid because Milosevic had already beaten her. She couldn't get any poorer. Her hope had been blown away in the storm.
My friend Ivan said the same thing. He's a former student leader who once gave speeches to hundreds of thousands of protesters during demonstrations two years ago.
Since then, the opposition forces that Ivan was a part of have splintered and some of the heroes of yesterday are working for Milosevic. Now Ivan laughs at politics and, like so many of Serbia's best and brightest, he thinks of leaving.
"There can be no optimism for the future," he told me. "I'm not afraid I'll be killed in war or die of hunger or be beaten by nationalists - I'm just afraid I won't be able to live here anymore."