A Balkan Diary

By Greg Campbell

Westview. 229 pp. $25

Reviewed by Paul L. Wachtel

"Us" and "them": two small words that have been at the root of so much senseless horror, perhaps nowhere on earth more than in the Balkans. War correspondent Greg Campbell's The Road to Kosovo conveys with disturbing vividness what happens when so many charged particles of antipathy and nationalistic identity are compressed into a critical mass.

This is not a book for readers with a weak stomach; Campbell's accounts of suffering and inhumanity are powerfully done. One comes away with striking images of roads rendered almost lunar in their cratered desolation, of rusting automobile carcasses at random angles of repose, of buildings pockmarked with shell holes or marred by a burn pattern that has sardonically come to be called the "Sarajevo rose." (Campbell's road to Kosovo winds literally and figuratively through Bosnia.) Even worse, Campbell describes in almost unbearable detail the corpses, left in a state that leaves no ambiguity about the depravity they encountered, and the almost equally horrifying fate of many of the living as well. The latter include not only victims of rape and torture but also the innumerable carriers of the virus of hatred and nationalism, a virus that consumes both victims and victimizers alike and at times renders the distinction far more difficult to make than one might imagine from the confines of an American living room.

For all the compelling immediacy of his account, however, Campbell faces a stiff challenge in this age of television and satellite communications. The general outlines of the story he wishes to convey are already familiar to us, and any reader of a daily paper or watcher of the nightly news is likely to think "I know most of this already."

One of Campbell's strategies for keeping the reader's attention is to pair his hard reporting with a first-person adventure story, the story of a young reporter from a small-town paper who has never before been in an active combat zone. Comparing himself to his well-financed and well-equipped colleagues from the major papers, magazines and news services, Campbell tells us, "I . . . was clearly of a different breed. The small newspaper I worked for had provided me with a budget of $1000 for five weeks . . . chump change for an assignment like this. When I mentioned my paper, no one could figure out what I was doing there, including me. `Why would they send you here?' they'd ask."

Creating a persona that's half Jimmy Stewart and half Indiana Jones, Campbell recounts enough scrapes and ominous moments to keep his narrative moving in cinematic fashion, but the macho cliches of the genre seem intrusive in a book that has a more serious purpose than to portray one more insouciant flak-jacketed daredevil. In some of the more interesting passages, Campbell deconstructs that persona, sharing with the reader his fears and his awareness of the ways in which the culture of war reporting can border on moral callousness. Some of the most vivid and scathing portraits in the book are of reporters and photographers asking suffering people to move aside so they can get a better view.

Campbell also attempts to go beyond what is available on the nightly news by offering a history of the region's conflicts and an analysis of the dynamics that have contributed to and perpetuated the tragedy. Here he is less successful. His historical summary relies on standard texts and offers little that is new or fresh. His account of the role of political manipulation in stirring up the passions of each group is similarly familiar, if very likely accurate. Campbell recognizes that, for all their bloody reality, the centuries of conflict have been less the "cause" of the present hostilities than a convenient rationalization for venal leaders on all sides. And he understands well how, once begun, the violence became the progenitor of a vicious circle that, without intervention, could easily perpetuate itself for many, many years. But a more thorough analytical framework is needed to contribute usefully to our understanding of how such vicious circles function and what is required to break them.

Still, The Road to Kosovo makes a vivid and useful contribution to our understanding of the daily experience of cruelty and suffering in today's Balkans. The people Campbell encounters in local bars or at police and military checkpoints are likely to remain with the reader long after the speeches of politicians on all sides have faded from memory. Not so bad after all for a new kid from a small-town paper.

Paul L. Wachtel is CUNY Distinguished Professor and acting director of the Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies at the City College of New York and author of the recently published "Race in the Mind of America: Breaking the Vicious Circle between Blacks and Whites."

CAPTION: Teuta Hajdari (center) returned to her village of Bukosh in Kosovo and found the bodies of her uncle and his daughter in a mass grave with seven other bodies