The view of war from streets of Serbia
The reporter covers the Kosovo conflict for the Monitor.
BELGRADE, YUGOSLAVIA — The Serbian people are an enigma to even the most seasoned visitors, but judging by those I've encountered recently, they're willing to keep fighting against NATO.
The people's resolve is of great consequence to their leader, Slobodan Milosevic, who is standing firm against the bombs pounding Yugoslavia. Will Serbs stand for a war of devastating cost against the world's strongest military alliance? Or will they turn against their leader, who appears to be leading them on a suicide march?
Before the first NATO plane flew over Yugoslavia, I was sitting in a taxi with a driver whose name happened to be Slobodan. He said he was a nationalist, which isn't necessarily a bad word here.
Slobodan told me he loved America, and I could see it was true by the sports stickers on his glove compartment. "But," he said, speaking a mixture of English and Serbian, "I love Serbia more, and I'll join the Army as soon as the bombs start falling."
Later that day after the airstrikes had begun, I scurried to find safer grounds at a hotel in Belgrade. On the way, a man who was probably a security officer recognized me as an American and tried to stop me.
Eyeing the menacing gun on his waist, I felt my worst fears were confirmed: People here wanted revenge.
It was the same feeling at the Belgrade Hyatt, where over the past year of press conferences I've gotten to know some of the men who work the front door. They used to park my car for me if I was running late, even though they weren't supposed to. But on this day they pretended not to know me. One of them called me "sir."
The next morning, after a full round of airstrikes, I woke up to a phone call about a young American woman, Allison, who taught English here and was now trapped in Zemun, a suburb across the river where the Serbian Radical Party has its headquarters. Her boyfriend, a Serb, sounded panicked as he begged me to try to get her out of the country. I said I would do the best I could. By that time the US embassy had long been closed.
The Hyatt is usually a safe place, but all that changed when a thug named Arkan appeared. Arkan is known to be the second-most ruthless criminal in Serbia, and that day he succeeded in scaring most of the foreign journalists out of town, myself included.
I took my girlfriend, a Serb, and started heading toward the Hungarian border. I called Allison, but there wasn't an answer at her house. There was no other way to contact her.
By now it was dark, and NATO bombers were flying overhead, so I drove fast along the northbound highway. A soldier standing in the middle of the road caught me by surprise. I slammed on the brakes and swerved around him.
We had driven into a mobile Serbian air-defense site. There was a rocket the size of an oil tanker right in front of me. To the left, under the canopy of some trees, were two MIG fighter jets. This was just the kind of target NATO was trying to hit.
The soldiers were puzzled when they saw me, but they acted like professionals, and kindly told me to turn around. Now, I can't help but wonder if they shot down the US stealth fighter that crashed Saturday night.
Ireturned to Belgrade, deciding it was too risky to leave and better to dig in. I hid out for most of the first day and dyed my hair black to look more like a Serb.
The next day, I was able to spend more time on the street, and it was clear a growing chorus of Serbs wanted to fight back.
The US embassy had been vandalized. Windows were smashed at the downtown McDonald's, once the most popular restaurant in town.
The feeling was explained by a man named Dragan, who, when his country is not at war, fixes computers. "My 70-year-old grandfather even tried to sign up as a volunteer - so he could cut off NATO fingers," Dragan said.
I spoke by cellular phone to someone in a bomb shelter in Belgrade, who told me pensioners were sitting on benches trembling, remembering the air raids from World War II, cursing America.
But when I talked to Marija, an old friend in Belgrade, I got a different perspective - of those who were against the war and ready to make amends.
"I'm sick of killing, because I've been living through it for nine years," she said. "I wasn't born for war. I'm nervous. I'm afraid what will happen if it lasts. Will we have food or water to drink?"
Then I called Allison again. There was no answer and more bombs went off.