KOSOVO JOURNAL 1999
March 31, 1999
Driving back from an interview in southern Macedonia right now, I look out the
window of our van. It looks like Switzerland: snow-capped mountains, pristine
lakes, winding single-lane roads. But it's not, and I'm in the Balkans, and
the horrific theater unfolding very close to me continues to remind me of that
How to describe my state of mind after seven days of chaos on the ground since
the NATO bombing began? Let's see: I'm exhausted, overwhelmed, nervous,
appalled, and wondering if this world has anything to do with the world that I
thought that I came from. More metaphorically, when I got up yesterday
morning to log in to my computer after four hours of sleep, I saw a small bird
perch on the balcony outside of my hotel room. It was fairly close to the
antenna of my satellite phone (which looks like an open laptop computer). My
first thought was not, 'that's nice, a bird has come to visit me this
morning.' It was more like, 'hmmm, I wonder if that creature will be fried by
whatever radiation is emanating from that antenna?" Not a positive
development in my psychological evolution.
Before coming here, I had just spend an enjoyable four days in Cairo covering
the around-the-world balloon landing. Hard work for sure, but it's Egypt, and
we got to do a few live shots from the Pyramids, so who could complain? As we
were set to take off from the airport to return to Israel, we got a phone call
from the NBC Foreign Desk: head to Brussels, NATO was about to attack.
Now Brussels sounded like a good assignment. It had good food, a European
dateline, not too much work, and a few of my close friends live there. But by
the time we landed at Ben Gurion airport, Brussels had changed to Macedonia,
and an easy four hour direct flight had become a nightmarish Tel Aviv-Istanbul-
Vienna-Skopje marathon, without guarantee of a hotel room. My stomach
dropped. I knew almost immediately that my plans to spend Easter in Turkey
had suddenly been cruise missiled, courtesy of NATO.
And what a trip this has been. Upon arrival in Skopje, an attractive small
city with a post-Communist world architectural hangover, we entered into the
maelstrom of the lobby of the Alexander Palace Hotel -- replete with scores of
journalists and international observers. Luckily, our room reservations had
held, but Jeff the cameraman and Dubi the soundman were forced to share a
bedroom, as Martin and I occupied the "Royal Suite." It was the only room
left, but it suited us fine, since we could also turn it into the NBC office.
Other journalists were not so lucky, and were forced to go look elsewhere for
a place to sleep. I had a gut feeling that if we did not play our cards
right, we could be out on the streets as well (the hotel could not guarantee us
our rooms beyond the following night), so I decided to ingratiate myself with
the wheeler-dealer hotel staff behind the reception desk who knew a gold mine -
- a mass of desperate, well-funded foreign reporters -- when they saw it. My
charm-laden approach, which included renting mobile phones from a couple of
them (at fairly high prices), would serve me well in the days to come as other
news organizations lost their rooms, but we were able to hang on to ours, and
in fact, get more whenever we wanted them as more NBC personnel arrived. Maybe
the Middle East has rubbed off on me.
It's without any trace of modesty that I must say that I now consider myself
the King of Skopje Town -- able to procure anything I want, anytime I want. I
had to grown into that role. For the first time, not only was I editorially in
charge of this operation, but I had to manage the logistics. That meant paying
for the hotel, hiring drivers, finding a local "fixer" (a local journalist) who
could help us with the language and the story, locate a site for the incoming
NBC satellite dish, and arrange transportation for another team that was going
to arrive in two days, via Bulgaria (our flight was the last one to arrive at
Skopje Airport before they shut it down once the bombing of Yugoslavia began).
I had no idea where to begin, and I had relatively little cash on me ($6,000),
which also meant that I would have to find a respectable bank so that NBC in
London could wire me additional funds (at least $20,000). Overnight, I had
become the manager of a small, unruly enterprise.
But manage I did. I lucked out by hiring the best fixer in town. Sasha is
actually the true King of Skopje. He knows everyone he passes on the street.
He got us a license for our satellite dish from the Interior Ministry in
thirty minutes flat. While other journalists were held back by the police, he
helped us get right up to the border crossing as the refugees entered. Thanks
to him, all the other pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place.
And yes, it was hard not to forget that there was a monumental news story
going on as the refugees from Kosovo began to come into Macedonia. No matter
how miserable I was, burdened by my responsibilities and stress, nothing could
compare to what these families had seen, and given up by quickly packing a bag
(if they had the time) and running for the border.
After our hotel was attacked last week by Serb protestors, I began to think
that it would be a good idea for me to keep a bag packed at all times as well
if I was ever forced to flee, should the situation turn nasty (as it had in
Pristina when journalists were forcibly expelled). But since then, things have
remained calm here, and Macedonians have been exceptionally hospitable. The
question does remain however: how long will this continue, and how long will I
AIRLIFT, by Hanson R. Hosein, NBC News
APRIL 6: SKOPJE, MACEDONIA
A woman sits at the table, writing down names, as a throng of weary refugees
file by her. She's wearing a blue uniform, supplemented by a surgical mask and
latex gloves. Meanwhile, a Macedonian official briefs the press. The Kosovar
Albanians now arriving at Skopje Airport are being flown out to Turkey within
an hour. Except, they have not been told where they are being taken, and the
Macedonians would prefer it if we, the press, would hold our peace as well.
"Germany, Germany," one young man tells me, before he is shuttled out by bus to
the airplane. That's what he's been told that his ultimate destination will
be. What will happen once the aircraft door opens and he steps out onto the
runway of the airport in Istanbul?
There is no way to finesse it. These people -- many of whom had just spent a
harrowing few days in "No Man's Land" on the Macedonian border -- are being
deported, from a country that can no longer absorb them.
The Macedonian airlift strategy appears to be to disclose as little information
as possible to the refugees. It's a policy that comes from painful experience.
Monday, eleven planes bearing over 1,400 refugees took off for Turkey. But it
did not take place without a struggle as a few Albanians resisted, fighting
with policemen, trying to flee. They did not want to be dragged even further
away from their homes in Kosovo.
But today, the Macedonian veil of silence did not quite succeed. Once the
refugees boarded the first airplane, they discovered that they were headed for
Turkey. Sources told us that they staged a near mutiny. And yet, ten minutes
later, the plane is still able to take off. Before the end of the day, another
700 people will have been shipped eastwards, many of them oblivious to their
destination point until it is too late to do anything about it.
In the chaotic rush to get these unwanted people off Macedonian soil, families
are torn apart. One woman marches compliantly by us, and still manages to
explain that she has no idea where her husband is. Perhaps he's still in No
Man's Land, perhaps in a NATO refugee camp. Another woman screams and cries at
an airport official, imploring him to find some of her children, who somehow,
have been left behind.
The Macedonians are stoic and forceful, but not violent. No show of force
seems to be needed here to get the refugees on the airplanes.
Despite this sad scene, there are still moments of grace. A recently arrived
Israeli medical unit looks on in mute astonishment as the refugees are herded
out onto the tarmac. Although they are busy unpacking their supplies from the
supply planes, ones Israeli doctor manages to find the time to wander over to
the waiting refugees and hand over the remnants of a box of mineral water to a
few women and children. He does not have many bottles left, but it is a
And there are the few refugees who try to have the last, silent, word before
they step into the plane. Two children wave cheerfully at the press and flash
the "V" for "victory" sign. More poignantly, a tearful woman looks directly
down at us and crosses her wrists -- a powerful statement that says she is
going against her will. And then, she disappears.
A VOICE IN THE CROWD, MAY 7, 1999
The Queen of England has got nothing on me. I have perfected the stiff wrist
wave as I acknowledge the cheerful and sincere salutations of my young
subjects who reside inside Stenkovec refugee camp in Macedonia.
"Hello, hello!" they cry out in their make-you-melt childish-pitched voices as
I drive by on the dirt road, past their tents. They smile. They run after the
van. They're not asking for anything, there's no malice in their voices or
false intent. In the daily drudgery of life inside a refugee camp, these
Kosovar children just seem to enjoy being friendly to strangers.
If this were India, or New York City, I would not recognize their existence,
afraid that eye contact would commit me to some scheme or sale, the inevitable
conversation with a catch.
But here, what price a wave in return? Nothing. It's free. I wave back,
whenever I can, to as many children as I can. And they look on, and smile,
pleased that a big person wants to play their game. It's almost as if the
entire under-twelve population of the camp -- thousands of children -- held a
must-attend meeting upon their arrival and decided that they would learn how
to greet soldiers, journalists, and humanitarian workers in English.
And so it is here that I must admit the following perverse pleasure. Despite
the horror of what these children -- and their parents -- have witnessed,
despite the hardship they survived in their escape from Kosovo, and despite
the barely humane living conditions they have endured as refugees, they have
somehow managed to render the time that I spend with them...enjoyable.
Dozens of people gather around us when we are shooting interviews in the camp.
But they're just curious. No one interrupts, no one asks us for money, no one
complains. Surrounding a well-fed, prosperous, foreigner staying in a four-
star hotel, they don't make an effort to make me feel self-conscious about my
fortunate lot in life, or the fact that I am mining them for their stories
But it's more than how they make me feel. There is a quiet dignity here --
unlikely anything I have ever experienced. An odor permeates the camp, but
it is not a stench. People try to stay clean: they do their laundry, wash
their shoes, shave. Inside the tents, the floors are lined with blankets,
scarce belongings put to one side.
The Aliou family invites me for coffee. I decide it would be rude not to
accept, so I do. Thirty people live inside their tent, but it is still cozy,
comfortable, and clean. I take off my shoes outside, they plead with me not to
do so, even though all of their footwear is neatly lined up at the entrance to
the tent. Mrs. Aliou serves me. The small plastic cup is spotless, the
coffee is strong and hot. In passing, she tells me that her family was eating
dinner at home when the Serbs came to chase them out. She wonders whether the
food is still on the table, waiting for them. She doesn't dwell on that, or
the fact that her father died in Pristina two weeks ago -- of unknown causes.
Her eighteen-year-old daughter cries softly and often, but I don't dare ask
why. Mr. Aliou says it's because she hurt her foot as they fled the Serbs.
The Dalipis have known me for no longer than three minutes, but they're
already showing me photographs of their sons who live in the United States,
and offering me cookies. They speak calmly to me, unashamed and honestly.
They used to own a mini-market in Kosovo, their young son Halil narrowly
escaped death when a bullet nearly hit him as they left their house for the
last time, they are very proud of what their other sons have been able to
achieve in North America. I buy Halil a Toblerone chocolate bar from a newly
erected snack bar near the camp's entrance (at a price that most refugees can
hardly afford). He breaks off a quarter of it and immediately tries to give it
to me. I politely refuse.
An elderly woman asks me, apologetically, if she can borrow my cellphone.
Here in the camp, the ability to let loved ones on the outside know that one
is safe is almost as crucial as food and shelter. I pass it to her, she gives
it wordlessly to her husband who begins to dial a German telephone number
neatly written on a scrap of paper. The woman begins to cry, unable to
believe that they are finally able to tell someone that they are alive and out
of Kosovo. Her husband passes her the phone to say a few words, she can't.
Afterwards, she holds my hand and thanks me in Albanian -- smiling.
Tonight, as I drove away from the dusty, overcrowded camp, how could I not help
but be amazed that even in the darkest of hours, the occasional flicker of
decency and grace can still break through.
KUKES, ALBANIA: June 7, 1999
Before the Internet and 24-hour cable news, there was short-wave radio. I was
almost ashamed when I bought a Sony radio four months ago at the duty-free shop
at Marka Airport in Jordan (for other throwbacks, it's the ICF-SW7600G --but
made specifically for the Saudi Arabian market which means certain frequencies
-- perhaps military and female-run pirate radio stations -- are blocked). But
I got the idea when I saw another journalist listening to a play-by-play of
King Hussein's funeral as we awaited the arrival of the casket at the late
monarch's palace. So in my constant yearning not to be caught unaware, I
And here, at the end of the world, on the Albanian-Kosovar border in the wild-
west-like frontier town of Kukes, I can pat myself on the back for having made
such a wise investment. There are barely any telephones here, let alone
television sets. To communicate with our office in New York City, we are using
a satellite phone. So amazingly enough, I am getting my news in an old-
fashioned, romantically quaint way: from the radio. And right now, at 11:30
p.m. on a hot, humid night, with the $19 fan I bought today in the town market
blowing in my face, I have been able to tune into the BBC, VOA, Radio France
Internationale, and even Canada's CBC.
Suddenly, I don't feel so isolated. But it's hard not to up here. Waiting
for what we hear is an imminent peace agreement between NATO and the Serbs, we
have set up shop near the border, along with 120,000 refugees, the 20,000-
strong town of Kukes, and various humanitarian organizations and other
journalists. For different reasons, we all want the same thing: for the
border to Kosovo to open up, and to go in.
When I first got the word from NBC that I had to return for the third
time to the Balkans, I thought someone was playing a cruel joke on me. They
called me on my mobile telephone just as I had placed some groceries in the
trunk of my car. I had just returned from my second four-week tour of duty in
Macedonia, and I was eager to settle down again. But with peace around the
corner, we had to go back. My bread, tomatoes and cucumbers would rot in my
fridge as my worst nightmare materialized: I had to go to Albania -- the
poorest country in Europe, which hardly had a government and even less of an
Immediately, I established a worse-case scenario in my mind, one that I did
not like. I was already tired from having spent eight weeks cumulatively in
the Balkans. I had to go to a place that I had only heard horror stories
about: no running water between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. at the so-called "hotel" NBC
had commandeered (run by the local Mafia godfather of Kukes), banditry run
amok throughout the countryside, and a constant diet of chicken and rice and
not much else. And to cite a leitmotif that we quickly established here, "It
Only Gets Worse." Once it becomes possible, our marching orders are to enter
into Kosovo: a place with NO running water or food, booby-trapped bridges (if
they haven't already been bombed by NATO) and roads rife with landmines, and
the possibility of encountering Serb snipers or KLA guerrillas who might not
be able to distinguish a journalist from the enemy -- or just may see a
journalist as the enemy. And NBC has yet to locate an armored car for us.
So it was not surprising that I quickly began to wonder why was it that the
two worst experiences of my life would seemingly have occurred in two
similarly-sounding dumps. That would be Albany, New York (where I wrote the
virtually impossible New York Bar exam in 1992) and now, Albania. Similar to
Albany, I knew I would make it through Albania, but I also knew that 1999's
experience would be no more pleasant than 1992's.
With a heavy heart on the eve of my departure, I questioned my choice of career
and prepared for what I pray may be my Last Great Adventure. For the third
time ever, I put my beloved Breitling watch into a safe. It bears noting that
the other two occasions also involved my fear of a meeting with the Serb
military, who would be happy to rob me of my most prized possession: in 1997
in Bosnia, and in early April when I went into the Serb-dominated hinterland
of north-western Macedonia. Why is it these people put me not only in fear for
my life, but for my ostentatious time-piece as well? But my attitude was that
I was only going to take things that I was prepared to lose, be it to the
Serbs or Albanian laundry. And I am, of course, determined to hang on to my
life. I even considered taking my Trinidadian passport with me, because if
apprehended by the Serbs, I could claim a non-NATO nationality. Do normal
people have to think about such things? And why couldn't I be a normal
Despite my huge misgivings, I forced myself to prepare as much as possible. I
am equipped with Swiss Army knives (yes, plural), first aid packs, an
overabundance of boxer shorts, a torch light, granola bars, Gore-Tex boots and
shoes, a sleeping bag and my short-wave radio. I am a bit of a Boy Scout, at
least when it comes to accumulating survivalist paraphernalia (extra underwear
aside), and now it was finally time to face the music. Because, as I am now
well aware, It Only Gets Worse.
And so far, that seems to have come true. However, "Worse" is not as "Bad" as
it could be. Our flight for Tirana via Budapest left at 5:50 a.m., and we had
a four-hour layover in Budapest. That was bad, but Hungarian airline Malev
had better-than-expected service (except when I used my mobile phone on the
tarmac in Budapest hoping that the Tel Aviv bureau had good news about our
being diverted to Hawaii for some other news story, and was promptly screamed
at by the heretofore friendly flight attendant. I suppose she thought the
phone signal would disrupt the plane's navigational instruments and we would
get lost on the ground as we taxied up to the terminal).
Upon arrival in Tirana, we got stuck in a huge, disorderly line-up at customs,
and we had to wait for our twenty-two pieces of luggage (TV gear is bulky) to
be unceremoniously dumped in front of us by surly baggage handlers. No
carousel, no porters. That was bad. But the Rogner Hotel in town was
surprisingly classy and clean, with air-conditioned rooms, and a swimming
pool. Now I began to conspire with the rest of the NBC team how we could
steal away the Tirana assignment from a less-deserving group. The urgent need
for this conspiracy grew even greater as we sat down to dinner at La Piazza --
a nicely furnished, candle-lit restaurant that would not seem out of place in
New York City -- and listened to horror stories about Kukes from the others
who had already done time up there. I was barely able to eat my vegetable
soup and grilled sea bass. But don't get me wrong. Tirana is no Paris,
but there were still a few oases of civility among the mire, and in true
journalistic style, we were able to find them.
The next day we took one of the most grueling trips of my life. It took
us nine hours to travel 200 kilometers northwards from Tirana. The driver of
our red Volkswagen mini-van never shifted into anything higher than third gear
as we took on the potholed roads of Albania that eventually became single-laned
dirt tracks along mountain ridges with nary a guard rail to be seen, and many
white crosses painted into the rockface to commemorate those who had plunged
valiantly over the side. My colleague Martin Fletcher, who has been in many
war zones, and spent a lot of time travelling in Africa and Asia looked at me
and said, "This is the worst road I have ever seen."
But we were compensated with stunning mountain scenery, and we all began to
contemplate investing money in Albania because someone would eventually figure
out the place was a goldmine worth developing (someone other than the
Albanians because obviously THEY hadn't figured it out). The dirt and chaos of
Tirana gave way to the clean air and silence of countryside. Our moods
brightened. When we passed an abnormally long wooden fence along the hillside,
we quickly agreed that henceforth, it would be known to all as the "Great
Picket Fence of Albania." It seemed funny at the time, but I'm sure the
overly-sensitive Chinese government would quickly suspend diplomatic relations
if they knew.
But six hours later, and having endured our driver's cassettes for too long
(three times around for Cher's "Do You Believe in Life After Love?" and Aqua's
"Jingle Bells") ), we had had enough. We saw the cold clear water streaming
down from the mountains irrigating the fields and cooling a nearby cafe's beer
and beverages, but we also bore witness to the incredible amount of garbage
along the road that people casually tossed aside. When we finally pulled into
Kukes after nightfall, the ramshackle buildings and refugees gathered in the
streets were almost a welcome sight.
And now, twenty-four hours later, things aren't quite as bad as they could be.
Because of our low expectations, the food tastes better than we thought, the
hotel is nicer than we anticipated, and Kukes doesn't seem like such a terrible
place, regardless of the sound of machine gun fire and fighter jets at night
from my open window. The scenery is spectacular, as we're situated on a plain
surrounded by mountains and a lake. The refugees that we met in the camp run
by the United Arab Emirates are just as hospitable and friendly as the ones
that I met in Macedonia, with a few minor differences: the children noting that
my complexion and facial hair appear similar to that of their benefactors don't
run up to me and yell "hello hello!" as they did in Skopje, but rather "Salaam
Melaikum! (they learn quickly). And the old man who was delighted to hear that
he had the same first name as my gentle grandfather (Ibrahim), demonstrated
equal delight when he heard enormous explosions in the distance, assuming that
NATO was summarily pummeling the Serbs. "Good, good!" he would say, quickly
exhausting his English vocabulary as he put his index and middle fingers and
thumb to his lips and kissed them like some French pastry chef.
Meanwhile, we wait for word about when and if we will be able to enter into
Kosovo. We don't know if the border will open here once the peace agreement is
signed, and we certainly don't know if the refugees will go flooding back. As
an American Army officer insightfully told us at dinner tonight (we invited him
over, trying to curry favor with the Americans and looking for a scoop), in
somewhat sarcastic American militarese, "It's definitely a 'kinda, sorta,
maybe.' situation." Everything is up in the air right now, but without a
doubt, it can only get worse.
KUKES, ALBANIA, June 9, 1999
SOLILOQUY TO THE GLAMOROUS LIFE (OR SOUR GRAPES)
The electricity signaled its triumphant return by re-igniting the fan
hovering over my bed. Because minutes seem as hours here in this odd place, I
found it difficult not to attribute some kind of personality to an unreliable
offshoot of Benjamin Franklin's discovery: the Northern Albanian Power Company
(I doubt that such a thing exists in this state-less nation) had decided to
grace us yet again with its product -- just in case we forgot that a constant
electrical current should be considered a bonus for enduring conditions here,
and not merely expected with thoughtless North American arrogance.
Not that I should even dare to complain (I'm not really, just trying to point
out the perverse humor to my whole situation). Aren't there hundreds of
thousands of people who are suffering around me, living in tents, having lost
their houses and loved ones, wondering if they'll ever return home? Well yes,
that's true. And I feel truly sympathetic for them, and hope that in some
small way, my work as a journalist can help illustrate their plight to the
rest of the world and make things right. How can I not help but feel when I'm
sitting inside a hot United Nations tent in the center of town, speaking to a
man my age who has just been released from prison by the Serbs as he fights
back tears to tell me how he was tortured for 18 days and he wonders where his
wife and two children are now? I can't help it, and I do -- strongly. And
I've been doing so strongly for the last nine weeks, just as I do when I meet
dispossessed Palestinians, Israeli survivors, abused Jordanian women, Kenyan
aid workers, landmine victims in Bosnia, the homeless in New York.
But I am not here to suffer stoically on behalf of the Luxury Class of the
western world with our sometimes shameful indulgences. I admit it. I want my
piece of the pie too, and sometimes, what I do, what I see, and what I live,
can be a bit too much. Not to say that I'm fed up. But I would like to think
that all these experiences have sufficiently taught me not to take anything
for granted, to enjoy my free time, to be grateful for what I have, to nurture
friendships, to cherish family, and to help those who need help when I can,
and sometimes, even when I don't think that I possibly can.
And while I'm still new to 30, I've also learned that I can't change
everything in the world that is wrong, and I can't always feel guilty for all
the hardship that I bear witness to. This is not some kind of theory of
immunity that allows me to tune-out and withdraw into a shell at the first
sight of misery. But I can't share one granola bar with two hundred children,
and I can't allow ten thousand refugees to use my mobile telephone. I will do
what I can do for them, most likely on a more manageable, individual basis, and
I will treat them with dignity and respect. Because, in the end, although I am
well-fed, well-clothed, well-paid and healthy, I am almost certain that many
one of the people whom I have encountered would rather be in my shoes (at
least on paper, no one ever dare need suffer through my own personal foibles).
Certainly, life is not a zero-sum game, where one person's happiness depends n
another's unhappiness. But at the risk of over-generalizing, most people want
the same thing, and some people have it, and some people don't. And sometimes,
at one point or another, some people can lose it, and others can find it. So
while you have it, enjoy it, share it, appreciate it, and don't feel bad about
having it. Sacrifice is not always necessary or necessarily good, there is no
need to live like a self-flagellating monk, and you don't always have to
suffer for your art.
So where does this all come from? I'm not quite sure. I started writing this
off the top of my head after I realized that my narrow room here at the Hotel
Adriani, with its narrow bed, small window, and communal bathroom bears a
frightening resemblance to the Parisian dormitory that I inhabited as a
student seven years ago. I thought that was worth noting in a funny, ironic
kind of way. But I suppose there was something more that I had to say.
Many of my friends look at the kind of life I lead and say that I'm lucky to
be able to travel the world, free of familial and financial responsibility. I
am. But sometimes, it's not so great. Living halfway around the world far
from loved ones; unable to get a personal life properly kick-started because
of cultural barriers, a transient lifestyle, strange work hours, too much
travel, and my own eccentricities; furnished apartments instead of a place to
truly call "home" -- I wonder how much longer I can endure an existence that I
began five years ago as a "lark." Those close to me with whom I have shared
these doubts already say I got what I was looking for too easily, and too soon.
Perhaps. And maybe if my life became a bit more normal I would quickly get
bored. Perhaps. Or maybe it's only now that I understand what's really
important in life. Does this mean it's time to give it all up and go looking
somewhere else? I just don't know.
It's cold comfort
to the ones without it
to know how they struggled, how they suffered about it.
If their lives were exotic and strange
they would surely have gladly exchanged them
for something a little more plain
maybe something a little more sane.
We each pay a fabulous price
for our visions of paradise....
I find myself singing the lyrics to this song a bit too often lately.
But then again, I like to sing in the shower. And it certainly beats singing
"Bridge Over Troubled Water" when I was sixteen (to those who still think I
doth protest too much, don't despair, I also wish that Simon had recorded
the vocals rather than Garfunkel, cos' I could never hit the high parts).
PRIZREN, KOSOVO: June 15, 1999
THINGS THAT CAN LULL YOU INTO A FALSE SENSE OF SECURITY
- A sunny morning
- Lounging on the grass by the Albanian-Kosovar border (Albanian side) under
an apple tree eating military rations waiting for the German Army to open the
- Seeing Albania disappear in your rear view mirror.
- Smoother and straighter roads than the ones in Albania -- in a region that
had been continuously bombed by NATO for 78 days.
- Hundreds of Serbian soldiers lounging alongside the road, looking dejected
and depressed as we roar by in our unarmored press vehicles. It's now a
- The beautiful Kosovar town of Prizren, with its stone bridges over a rapidly
flowing river, a Turkish-style mosque in the center of town, and an ancient
fortress up on the hill.
- A hotel with running water, electricity, daily maid service and a toilet in
each room. Despite the cockroaches and rundown state, it's much better than
camping and even better than the Hotel Adriana in Kukes, Albania. And hey,
Kosovo is a war zone.
- A German tank just outside your hotel window (Yes, I know).
- Hundreds of Kosovar Albanians cheering as you drive into town, making you
feel like the Americans did when they liberated Paris in 1944. Lots of
handslapping and cheering. German vehicles are covered in flowers. People
chant "NATO! NATO!" Everyone wants to shake your hand. You can do no wrong.
THINGS THAT BRING YOU BACK TO REALITY
- A bottle hurled most likely by an over-exuberant Albanian that shatters the
passenger side window of your truck carrying your camera and satellite
equipment. The Albanian probably thought that the truck was a Serbian one,
fleeing the town, its occupants fearing the wrath of the returning refugees as
NATO assumed control of the area. The assailant obviously does not notice the
trucks Albanian license plates or the "NBC NEWS MIDDLE EAST" stickers affixed
to the front and rear of the vehicle.
- Gunfire. Just outside your hotel window.
- Machine gun bursts. You hit the ground. It's a firefight. You begin to
wonder how much being hit by a stray bullet might hurt. But that's as far as
you allow yourself to go. You're anxious, but not paralyzed by fear. You
have to act because after all, it's a story, and you are a journalist. Once
again, you reconsider your choice of profession.
- German soldiers shouting. Kosovar Albanian children crouching inside the
tank wheels, trying to avoid being shot. You look through the window. You
see a yellow Lada driving slowly backwards as it's pummeled by fire by German
guns. You go downstairs to see if your cameraman is safe, because his camera
is still on its tripod in the middle of the street (you find out later that he
is alright, and he had the foresight to aim the camera when the shooting began
and leave it running. Your pictures are exclusive and the best available).
You hear the occupants of the car shouting for help. No one comes to their
- Deserted streets by nightfall. The exuberance from earlier in the day has
disappeared. You wear a flak jacket and helmet and drive carefully through
town to the BBC satellite truck to feed your tapes to New York for the Nightly
newscast. You're ahead of schedule because you hear rumors that the BBC might
pull out of Prizren because it's too dangerous. You wonder why you aren't
doing the same.
THINGS THAT CONVINCE YOU THAT EXCEPT FOR ZEBRAS AND THE NEW YORK TIMES, NOTHING IS BLACK AND WHITE
- Charming Kosovar Albanian family invites you to their home for dinner in
between live shots for MSNBC. You are their first visitors from the outside
world in ages. They roll out the hospitality in the most incredible way:
women dress up, they share their food (scones, crepes, jam and salad), they
break open the Kosovar wine (sealed by a bottle cap) and the vodka. They tell
you how they lived in fear indoors for the past two months, relying on stored
food, and going out only at night --using rooftops rather than sidewalks to
get around the neighborhood. Their lobster red faces and necks show how
susceptible their skin is to the hot sun, after two days of celebrating their
newfound freedom in the streets. They describe how badly the Serbs treated
them, how they lived in fear. The grandfather explains proudly in German how
he served as a soldier in the Second World War...for the Germans...in the SS.
You try to tactfully tell them that two of your colleagues are Jewish, and one
is Israeli (I say "They're from Israel" several times). But they don't seem to
get the hint. It's difficult for you to forget about the old man during the
remainder of the evening, despite the warmth of your hosts.
- Beautiful pastoral scene in Southern Kosovo. Cows grazing, refugees
returning. Then you hear a huge explosion. Instead of instinctively ducking
you look up and see a large plume of smoke in the field, and the carcass of a
cow rise thirty meters into the air. It all seems to occur in slow motion as
you see other bits of the cow splatter in every direction. The cow has just
stepped on a mine. Your cameraman isn't sure he got the shot, so we stake out
the rest of the cows, just in case. But to be on the safe side, he puts on a
flak jacket, to protect himself from any other cow shrapnel. A dog runs to
the spot where the dead cow landed and helps himself. The other cows lazily
and calmly walk over to another part of the field. Somehow, they know, there
are no mines there. Nearby, children still look on with curiosity, their
fingers in their ears.
THINGS THAT NEED NO EXPLANATION, OR JUST CAN'T BE EXPLAINED
- Burned out houses in the nearby town of Suva Reka. You follow your
translator Hamdi into his neighborhood. It's deserted. As he walks into his
front yard, he begins to cry. The house is intact. He last saw it two months
ago when he was forced to flee by Serbian soldiers. They gave his family no
time to pack. He walks into the house. It's dead quiet. You only notice the
drone of flies buzzing, and the stink of rotting garbage, and maybe of
something else. The furniture is smashed, "Serbia" scrawled on the living room
wall, clothes all over the floor. For some reason, there are hundreds of more
flies on the second floor, and even more lying dead on the floor. As Hamdi
walks outside he says calmly, "Look what they've done to my dog." Still
chained to the wall, the corpse of a dog lies there, decaying.
- Suva Reka locals show you a cafe. The windows are blown out, inside
everything is black and shattered...except, curiously enough, the glasses
hanging over the bar -- which are just black. They tell you that on March 24,
Serbian soldiers forced people living nearby into the cafe -- a neighborhood
hotspot --and threw a hand grenade inside. After the explosion, those who
survived and fled outside were machine gunned. You can see the bulletholes in
the wall, and the shell casings on the ground. They also tell you that the
bodies were dumped in a mass grave in a nearby village. You find the village.
You find large mounds of earth. You find female hair, bits of bone, a wrist
watch that stopped at 3:20 on the 24th, a wedding ring, a packet full of money
and ID papers.
And you just don't know what to think anymore.
MACEDONIA/KOSOVO November 14-19
And I had been complaining about the unending summer in Israel,
its balmy temperatures and lack of much-needed rain. Then I
went back to the Balkans for yet another story, and for a week,
I found it hard to remember what it was like to be warm...
Hundreds of trucks carrying humanitarian aid are backed up on
the Macedonian side of the border. Unshaven, unshowered men
play cards, snooze, and read in the cold, open air. They
welcome the diversion of our camera crew poking around and
shooting their long wait. These are not American truck
drivers. They don't have sleeping cabs, they can't afford to
keep their diesel engines running to stay warm. The Bulgarian
driver told me that he gets paid 70 deutchmarks for the entire
300 kilometer trip from Sofia to Pristina. That's about $40 --
and because of Macedonian customs and the congested, narrow,
roads, it's taking them up to ten days to get their cargo to its
destination. The Turkish driver tells me he's pissed off and
shows me his kitchen and bath: a small container on the
underside of his truck containing a carton of eggs and some
fruit, and a spigot that lets off a tiny stream of water. I
marvel at the fact that all of them are cleanly shaven.
It takes us nearly two hours to cross the border, and that's
despite our special access NATO KFOR passes. I've had my pass
since the end of the war, and I keep thinking that it'll be the
last time I'll have to use it. Then when I get the call to go
to Kosovo, it's a struggle to figure out where I last left
stowed it away...
A 5 a.m. wake-up call at the inappropriately named "Grand Hotel"
in downtown Pristina. There's no heat, no running water.
Luckily, the electricity came back on overnight. On the eighth
floor with tons of camera gear, it's a good thing when the
It's raining -- hard. The driving along the winding,
single-lane roads is treacherous. I think the potholes are
getting bigger from the constant flow of the heavy military
convoys. Happily, they've rebuilt the bridge on the road
between Peja and Pristina and we do pretty good time. Still, I
wish I wasn't the one at the wheel of a decade-old Volkswagen
Golf when the crew has the luxury and safety of a four-wheel
drive vehicle. But they need the room for the gear, and I like
On the way, we meet a family living in the same tent they had in
a refugee camp during the war. They're living beside their
house that was burned down by the Serbs. A third of Kosovo's
homes were destroyed during the war, 350,000 people left
homeless. They have a wood-burning stove, a sick old man who
can't leave the tent, and children without enough clothing for
the cold. A woman hangs clothes on the 2nd floor of a roofless
house. A bouquet of dried out yellow flowers sits in a pot
downstairs on the window sill. I wish I had brought some candy
with me to give to the children.
"Winter is here, and I don't know what we'll do" their father
tells us. The United Nations and aid agencies have realized
there was no way they were going to be able to rebuild houses
before the winter, so they've settled with cobbling together one
"warm room" for each family -- essentially four walls, a roof, a
door, carpet, and a stove. No one has come to help this family
yet. It continues to rain. Good for the story we're shooting,
but not for the people who are suffering. It'll get worse when
the snow comes in a few weeks.
Driving back to Pristina I hear something snap and the Golf's
accelerator dies while I'm stuck in third gear. Being totally
useless with vehicle mechanics, I'm heartened by the "can-do"
attitude of cameraman Steve O'Neill and soundman Dubi Duvshani as
they rig up, A-Team style, a makeshift tourniquet out of duct
tape and keep the engine revving at about 40 km/h. That's
enough for us to crawl back to Pristina, but none of the other
drivers seem to mind -- we're still faster than the ubiquitous
farm tractors that dominate the roads. Nobody gets too upset by
this unforeseen event. It could have been worse: it could be
raining, it could be dark, or we could be living in a tent.
Correspondent Martin Fletcher and I visit the only power station
in Kosovo that afternoon. We comment as we climb the stairs to
the third floor that it's a bad sign when the electricity is out
in a place like this, and the elevators don't work. We are
greeted heartily by the plant engineer. He says only one
turbine is working right now. The badly maintained machinery is
struggling to keep up with the demand. They're trying to get
things fixed along with the help of French, German, and British
engineers, but at this point, they're only pumping out a third
of the electricity that Kosovo needs to get through this winter
(about 650 megawatts).
A sunny morning. We drive to the U.S. military base, Camp Bond
Steel, which is in the midst of a massive building spree. Some
journalists have called the new and improved base "Disneyland,"
and an ironic twist compared to the number of Kosovars who don't
have homes. A harsh wind blows, mud clogs up our tires and the
crew -- who visited the base when it was first established --
say, "this is no Disneyland." Yes, we have a whopper at the
Burger King truck (served by Kosovar Albanians in BK uniforms...
I didn't really want the burger, or the Dr. Pepper that went
with it, but I figured since I could, I should), and we visit
the PX and the gym, but it's no different than any other U.S.
Army base I had visited. And this was Kosovo after all, not
Fort Bragg -- some level of comfort is necessary. Still, the
question remains: living in wooden huts and no longer in tents,
was the Army preparing to remain here over the long haul with
their largest base camp since Vietnam? Congress doesn't
necessarily want to hear the answer to that.
The Public Affairs Officer, Major Eric Gunhus, greets me like a
long-lost relative and gives me a bear hug. We had first met at
the beginning of the war when the three American soldiers were
captured by the Yugoslav Army in Macedonia. NBC had gotten some
very good access at the time and put together a few exclusive
stories, so we were on good terms. Gunhus said that with
President Clinton coming, they weren't inviting any press onto
the base, but when he had heard it was us he figured we were
worth the time. I was happy to see him again.
Another vehicular incident. Our excellent fixer from Macedonia,
Sasha, accidentally leaves the keys in the ignition of the 4x4,
and somehow, all the doors are locked. We're in the middle of
nowhere. We consider breaking a window, try to jimmy a lock,
and wish that we were in Albania where we could easily find a
car thief. But amazingly, we are able to flag down a group of
young Kosovars walking back from work. They drive us back to
town and find a young locksmith who on the third try, finds a
key to get us into the car. Another unforeseen delay, but
again, no one loses his temper. All part of the territory.
That evening, we are invited to dinner by the Kantarxhiu family.
It's a long story, but essentially, I first met them through our
translator in Macedonia, Agron Alimi in May. My parents
sponsored two members of the Kantarxhiu family (Agron's
brothers-in-law) to come to Canada as refugees. This dinner is
the family's way of saying thank you, and it is terrific. They
treated us like royalty. We sit at the table with the head of
the family -- all of us men being served by the women. In this
happy, warm, albeit traditional atmosphere, we eat meat pie,
salad, cucumbers in yogurt sauce, and chocolate cake. It is the
best meal we had eaten in Kosovo, and for the first time this
week, we feel relaxed and warm. The family is all smiles.
Martin remarks that after so much hardship and oppression, these
people must actually enjoy having outsiders in their home. We
are honored to be there.
Working on another story about a five-year old girl who lost her
parents during the refugee exodus, but then found them after the
war, we visit her village school. I've been to New York
City-area schools, but this is worse. No heat, no electricity,
the bathrooms are closed because there's no water. We walk into
a classroom where a young teacher wearing a stars and stripes
shirt is teaching geometry. The children immediately rise out
of respect for the visitors. I'm impressed by their politeness
and discipline. The students gamely ignore the camera and pay
close attention to the lesson. Martin then walks in and they
get up again. He smiles, possibly thinking this comes with the
territory of being a star correspondent. We both marvel at the
fact that seven months ago, we were doing stories about these
children who had nothing and were living in tents. The only
difference between then and now seems to be that today, at
least they're safe and back home.
The principal says things are tough and they're worried about
winter. The children have very little paper. Feeling foolish
and empty-handed yet again, I rummage through my bag and come
across a half package of blank printer paper and hand it to them.
A nice gesture, but clearly, not enough.
BOSNIAN JOURNAL 1997
SARAJEVO, FRIDAY, JULY 25, 1997
If it's Friday, this must be Sarajevo. Last Saturday, Vienna, a week ago,
New York, two weeks ago, Tel Aviv -- sounds like a fantasy expedition, but
frankly, it's exhausting, and I don't dare contemplate my eventual move
to Israel in the Fall.
Despite fears of the tension here in Bosnia, and the possibility of violence
the most dangerous thing I've experienced is the wiener schnitzel that flew
over my head when our waiter tripped on the patio in a restaurant on the
road to Sarajevo from Zagreb on Sunday. But I don't want to trivialize
what we are doing, nor the reality of what has happened here in the
last five years.
I got back to New York last Monday (a week and a half ago), only to find out
two days later that I was to go to Bosnia to work on a special NBC News
series on the indicted war criminals there. We were to work with handpicked
crews and correspondents from our London and Frankfurt offices and put
together a number of compelling stories on the hunt for these people, and
about the victims.
This is a strange place. In Israel, the Palestinians and the Israelis get
along, more or less, but they're unable to live together in the same
country. In Bosnia, not only do these people not get along, they hate.
All that in a beautiful stretch of Europe that, with its rolling hills and
abundant vegetation, appears to be a cross between Switzerland and the
Berkshires in Massachusetts. Of course they said that Lebanon was once the
Switzerland of the Middle East, which makes me wonder whether such analogies
automatically condemn a country to implosion.
Sarajevo is in Bosnian Federation territory. My first drive through it was a
surreal experience, with its bombed-out buildings, the infamous Sniper Alley
near the Holiday Inn, bullet holes in walls. I'm almost ashamed to say that
I was barely shocked by this scene -- some parts of the Bronx can pass for
a post-war Sarajevo (which shows how much a New Yorker's senses have been
dulled by our complacency).
People are returning to the streets of Sarajevo, and it is beginning to
resemble any other European city again with its markets, shops and cafes.
Unfortunately the war began soon after the fall of the Communist regime
in Yugoslavia, so architecturally, Sarajevo did not have ample
opportunity to recover from the hangover of socialist chic (concrete,
modernized, bunkers of essentially fascist architecture). But that's ok,
the mosques and their minarets on the hills more than make up for that
bit of urban yuckiness.
To me, Sarajevo's most significant landmark is the small bridge downtown
where a Serb gunman assassinated Arch Duke Ferdinand from the Austrio-
Hungarian Empire in 1914. It's amazing that the catalyst for the First
World War could occur on such an unremarkable structure. And based on
my own bit of geo-political/historical theory, that would mean that the
20th century began with a few gunshots on an insignificant bridge in
a small city in the Balkans, and ended with hammer blows and the fall
of a graffiti-laden wall in a large city in Germany.
NBC is staying at the Hotel Grand, just outside the city center of
Sarajevo. It's a new facility, supposedly run by a Muslim Mafioso. It
has running water, electricity, an elevator, international telephone
lines, laundry facilities, cable t.v., and a restaurant that delights in
never serving you what you order (but I suppose being served spaghetti
bolognaise instead of homemade sausage is part of that spice of life thing
I keep hearing about).
I point out all these things about the hotel only to say that this is not
the terrible place it was during the war. The people here are making a
gallant effort to return their part of the world to European civilization-level
standards. The old NBC hands who paid their dues in the early 1990's here
can't get over how much the region has changed. As we drive through the
city, Heinrich Walling, our cameraman directs our attention to the bunker-like
television building, which was bombed seconds before he arrived to feed a
tape to New York a few years ago. They tell us about the roads they couldn't
drive because of the hail of mortar shells, the time that the visiting
Mujaheidin threatened to shoot them in the heads, or when they were staying in
the half-bombed out Holiday Inn in the middle of winter with plastic sheeting
for windows, and cold water occasionally being pumped in by the United Nations
tanker truck, allowing them to bathe.
I am grateful for my opportunity to be here, to see what I have only heard
about up to now, to avoid the hardship of years previous. But I also realize
that I might only get a glimpse of the horror and insanity of what happened in
Bosnia over the last five years -- something that my colleagues were able to
experience firsthand, and thankfully, survive.
HANSON IN BOSNIA, Part 2
SARAJEVO, SATURDAY, JULY 16, 1997
It has taken a few days for me to grasp Bosnia, emotionally. Let me put
that another way around, it has taken a few days for Bosnia to grab ME
The uninitiated such as myself can only shake our heads in disbelief
that such kind, hospitable people, living in beautiful country, could
have done this to themselves. I can't help but think that this would
make a great story pitch for the Twilight Zone: aliens from another
planet land in the Balkans, to find people who look all alike, except
that they are either wearing a pink, green or yellow bandannas around their
And with that simple, inane, ridiculous, insignificant distinction
in the color of their headbands, they take it upon themselves to rob, rape,
shoot, slaughter the guys with the other bandannas. And oh yeah, before
some country bumpkin nerd-type guy with huge ambition handed out the
headbands from a box, these people got along just fine: living together
as neighbors, playing, eating, laughing, marrying, making love together.
So the aliens just scratch their heads and watch on in great puzzlement.
What do you think Mr. Serling?
Twenty-nine-year old Hassan, an interpreter for the United Nations in Tuzla,
and a Bosnian Muslim describes how he had to abandon his family at the "safe
haven" internment camp in Srebrenica when the Serbs took over the camp and
started shipping people out, mostly to be murdered. He feels enormous guilt:
his mother was killed in a Serbian prison, his younger brother and father
are still missing, probably dead, but until he finds their bodies, he
maintains a faint glimmer of hope. Very faint. Because what galls Hassan
most is the thought of some "Serbian shepherd walking over the bones of my
family." He hates the Serbs, he hates the Dutch soldiers who let the Serbs
walk into the camp, he hates himself.
A middle-aged Muslim woman from a part of Bosnia which is now wholly-
controlled by Bosnian Serbs, tells us how she used to own a lot of land and
a few cars with her husband, who was an interior decorator. She says the
best man at their wedding, a Serb, denounced her husband a few years ago.
Her husband was eventually arrested, and killed, by Serb authorities during
the war. The family was forced from their home. The only thing she has to
show for all their upper-middle class possessions from their previous life
is a large blanket, which the Serbs suggested that she bring upon leaving
her house for the last time, since she was going to spend the night in the
nearby soccer stadium.
Neither Hassan nor the woman would dare return with us to Srebrenica, now
firmly entrenched in the Serbian part of Bosnia. So we decided to drive
their on our own, in an attempt to get pictures of the camp, and the nearby
town. We were all nervous at the outset. We were told that we could
expect to be arrested, that we should leave our valuables in the safety
deposit box at the hotel, that our cameras could be confiscated. So we
took one camera, and a hidden camera for safe measure, and set out in
vehicles with diplomatic license plates, and convinced a United Nations
official to accompany us in his white UN jeep.
Our three-vehicle convoy took an idyllic drive through Switzerland-type
hills, passing by the wooden A-frame houses. We barely noticed that we
had crossed into Serb territory soon after leaving Sarajevo, except that
the road signs were now in the Cyrillic alphabet, and that there were
significantly more SFOR (NATO Stabilization Forces) armored car patrols.
The trip was uneventful. A few Serb policemen approached us along the
way, but Mickey, our Serb driver, who was well connected with the police,
and with his wits, was able to convince them that we were harmless. No
one would speak to us, probably more out of fear of offending their leaders
than anything else, but we were never threatened. Posters of Bosnian Serb
leader-cum-indicted-war-criminal Radovan Karadzic with his sagging jowls
and bouffant hairdo were plastered all over buildings, subtitled, in
English, for NATO-troop consumption: "Don't Touch Him!"..."He Means
Peace!" Our correspondent, Donatella Lorch and I posed for a photograph
in front of one of the posters in Srebrenica. A few seconds later, a
woman approached the poster, and stroked Dr. K's face a number of times,
obviously for our benefit, obviously to show her solidarity with the
K-man's cause. We later ate roasted mutton, salad, french fries and
sugar crepes in a Bosnian Serb restaurant overlooking a valley, served
by a very genial owner, despite the sun-bleached photo of Doctor K hung
over the counter inside.
Until today, I felt that I was an observer of this very strange, deadly
anthropological experiment. But then I met Melissa, and I walked through
the village of Ahmici.
SARAJEVO, SATURDAY, JULY 26, 1997
Atrocities in Bosnia were not only committed by Serbs -- although the
most, and most serious, were. Muslims slaughtered Serbs, Croats slaughtered
Muslims, Serbs and Croats went at each other too.
On April 16, 1993, Croat militiamen attacked the Muslim village of Ahmici,
about an hour outside of Sarajevo. The attack was unprovoked, the
militiamen shot and burned over a hundred people -- mostly elderly people,
women, and children -- to death. The village was totally decimated by
mortars and explosive charges.
Today, the village is mostly abandoned, with the exception of a few Croats
who have built their houses on the hill. The mosque's minaret, which once
towered over the valley, has capsized into the main part of the building,
and is plastered in pro-Christianity graffiti. Burned-out cars lay still
in garages. Half-intact houses, with nary a window to be seen, glare at
us with an open yawn. A few trees sport medium-sized green apples. Vlaya,
one of our Croatian fixers/interpreters runs off to pick a few for us, and
returns, with a cynical grin on his face, "apples of atrocity," he says,
"take some." According to Vlaya, it's apparently good luck to eat fruit
from trees in a graveyard.
As I walked through the village, I felt as I did when I toured the Nazi
concentration camp in Buchenwald. I could picture the lives that once
inhabited the place, you thought about the man getting into his car
heading off to work, the family praying in the mosque, the children
running through the streets, and suddenly, poof, in one vile act, all
that life was snuffed out, leaving behind the place as it now is. In a
more sinister, and destructive way, it's like coming across the Bosnian
version of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Thanks to some contacts, we talk to Ahmed, a freelancer for the Associated
Press in a nearby town. He is able to find us a few survivors of the Ahmici
massacre. Eleven-year-old Melissa is one of them.
Melissa Zec doesn't remember much about the massacre. I think that's
partly due to her age, and I suspect it's partly because she's too shocked
to remember. She lay for two days beside the dead body of her mother
after she was killed. Her father and sister were also murdered. She now
lives with her grandparents, half an hour away from Ahmici.
Melissa is intelligent, and beautiful. She doesn't shy away from my
questions, but she isn't impassive either. She doesn't know who killed
her family, but she knows it was the Croats. She can't forgive them,
and if she ever meets them, she will do to them exactly what they did to
her mother, father, and sister. She has nothing to remember her family
by -- not even a photograph. Everything was lost in the massacre.
Her grandmother can't believe that the men who have been indicted by the
international tribunal in the Hague still live freely in the nearby town
of Vitez. She begins to cry when I ask her about her son. She said she
collapsed when she first heard about his death. And she is unable to visit
his grave without completely losing herself.
The Zecs insist that we stay for coffee, and perhaps something a little
stronger if we like (i.e. alcohol -- good Muslims like me it seems). We
do, and are touched by the hospitality and kindness that they offer us in
their exceptionally modest house on a hill.
We drive to the graveyard that houses 99 of the bodies of the victims of
Ahmici. Melissa's father is grave #14. No one knows where her mother and
sister's remains are -- they were never identified.
We intend to spend another week here in Bosnia, shooting b-roll and
interviews for these stories, before heading off to London to edit them.
It promises to be an interesting few days, but I truly do look forward to
something a little more familiar, and distant from this place. After
India, Israel, and here, the inane, generic comfort of a Club Med seems
to be in order. Maybe I can find one along the white cliffs of Dover.
Split to Sarajevo, September 9 ,1997: 6:55 p.m.
I can't believe that I'm back here: the land of genocide, mass graves,
mutton and really bad haircuts. Bosnia-bound, oh yes I am. Just four
weeks after my last escapade here - I still remember how relieved I was
to get out that time. Now, yet again, a specially-commissioned series,
from the NBC News Prez, this time on land mines - propelled by that diva
of causes, the second coming, she who suffered for all of us: Princess Diana.
I have just spent five days in London, as witness and raconteur to one of the
biggest events of the decade, perhaps in Hystery, The Funeral.
The sun is beginning to settle over the hills that surround the fishing
village of Split, a Croatian town on the Adriatic Sea. I'm listening to
some kind of rap music with my Bosnian driver who doesn't speak much English,
but I'm sure he'll learn fast from what he's listening to: "yo homey, let's
get togetha and consume some shopska salad." It's a five hour drive to
Sarajevo from Split. Given the short notice (less than 24 hours ago) I had
about this series, it was the fastest I could get down here. All the flights
to Sarajevo were sold out, and we have to have this story done by Friday.
Land mines aside, it could be a big weekend. Local elections in Bosnia are
set to happen, and there's major tension between Serb factions in Banjaluka.
But unless there's great unrest, nothing will deter me from getting this story
done, and getting out of here as soon as possible!
Just got stopped by the Croatian police, I think they saw our Bosnian plates.
The fun begins.
As for the events in London....
I had a hard time believing the enormous emotion that people were showing
on the streets last week. The British stiff upper lip was quivering in a
big way. The night before the funeral, I popped by Kensington Palace to
see what I had only heard about, because we had been holed up in the bureau
for the last couple of days crashing stories. It was amazing.
It was around 1:00 a.m.. Thousands of people were milling about in the
gardens outside of the palace. Some were huddled in tents, obviously
prepared to spend the night, others were clustered around candles or small
fires. My senses hit upon two things immediately. First: it was incredibly
quiet, nothing but a great hush from the multitudes. Second: the very pleasant
scent of candle wax and flowers was everywhere. When had this ever happened
In front of the palace itself, an acre of flowers...florists everywhere would
be celebrating Christmas early this year.
The day of the funeral, I drove up with a camera crew to Althorp, Diana's
final resting place. It was cool and sunny, the crowds were elsewhere in
London as we flew north up the empty M1. But there were people already
gathering for the cortege, which would not pass by for another four or
five hours. Banners lines the highway, and adorned the overpasses: "Diana,
Love you Forever," "Goodbye Diana, God Bless." As we listened to the ceremony
from Westminster on the radio, you could not help but think that this was an
emotional, momentous occasion.
One event of note while in Althorpe. I was situated in front of the gate
leading towards the house there, trying to find people to interview about
why they had come here, to the final stop, as opposed to camping out with
the multitudes in London. One young woman, approached me quite diminutively,
her baby in a stroller. With a soft voice, she looked at my crew, and said,
"Cameras killed Diana."
I didn't want to argue with her, but that made me angry. I have never
been a great defender of the press, but in this situation, I strongly believe
that the public and the press worked in tandem. The tabloids and the people
both fed off Diana's interesting, sordid, celebrity. The public cannot walk
away from this with clean hands. Nothing convinced me more of this idea than
when I was at Harrods's earlier in the week for a press conference put on the
by Al Fayed family (they were releasing the video from the Ritz security
cameras in Paris that showed the tragic couple a few hours before the crash).
As I walked out, I saw Dodi's father strolling alongside Harrods's with his
entourage. I quickly met up with my camera crew and we ran to try to get
footage of what was to be Mohammed Al Fayed's first public appearance.
As he walked around the front of the store, the crowd gathered, and in a
very big, lemming-like, star-struck way. They all wanted to touch the father
of the son who had been dating the Princess, almost as if he had some kind of
mystical connection. Granted, many of these people were trying to give him
their condolences, but others just wanted to see. They wanted to see so much
that they began to push and shove, and pour out onto the road, stopping
traffic. They wanted to see so much, that most of them probably bought the Sun
and the Daily Mirror everytime that a photo of Di adorned the front cover. WE
were better behaved - the media - than this crazy crowd. It was rock star
mania, just so cool to be near a man whose family happened to be the center of
the world's attention.
Still, I can't be totally cynical about all of our (the public and the media's)
hypocrisy. Today I met two sisters in Tuzla, who both lost their right legs in
a minefield a few years ago during the Bosnian war. They're destitute, eking
out a living on a family farm. And they met Diana when she visited Bosnia only
last month. Their eyes still shine when they think of her visit, and they cry
when they think of her death. They didn't know who she was before they had
met her, but apparently their encounter had really marked them. "She spoke
to us as women," they told me. They have never seen any television footage
of the Princess. Tomorrow, I will return, with news footage of the actual
encounter between Diana and the two sisters. It's amazing stuff, Diana's
dressed in a white shirt and jeans, and really looks like she wouldn't want to
be anywhere else than with these victims of landmines - and I don't doubt it.
I'm not quite sure how I'm going to deal with their reaction when they see this