The self-appointed defender of the Serbian people looks, as she's so often told, like hardly more than a girl. Danielle Sremac is 32 years old, and stands 5 feet 5 inches tall. Her dark hair, pulled away from her face with a clip, stretches halfway down her back. She is wearing a simple blue pantsuit with a button-down shirt, and there is a Dolce & Gabbana bag next to her on the sofa in the NBC greenroom. She holds the large date book used to keep track of her myriad media appointments.
"The problem with my story," Sremac, a Belgrade-born American citizen, says, leaning forward intently, "is that you need to know a lot to understand it."
It's a tough business, speaking on behalf of a people who have been accused by the Clinton administration of conducting a bloody campaign to eliminate ethnic Albanians from the province of Kosovo. Sremac's is a lonely voice, attempting to give the other side a fair hearing in a simplistic format, trying to explain a complex war.
It appears nobody else was showing up to be the voice of the Serbs -- although it is hard to know to what extent Sremac represents the views of any Serbs other than herself. In a city where lobbyist Edward J. von Kloberg III made a name for himself a decade ago repackaging the likes of Saddam Hussein, Samuel K. Doe and Mobutu Sese Seko, there are no public relations campaigns for Radovan Karadzic or Slobodan Milosevic, who have rapidly become synonyms for evil incarnate. Nor were any Serbian public officials stepping up to defend the government's actions. And it has been that way for some time.
"The [Serbs] need some representation here," says Tom Hutson, a State Department official who met her three years ago. "Their story is badly told. They don't have a very good story, but whatever they have is so badly told. They are their own worst enemies."
So Sremac talks on, trying to navigate a precarious path through the conflict. She defends the Serbian people without supporting Milosevic, and denies accusations of genocide and "ethnic cleansing." She has already appeared on the "Today" show, and in the last week alone taped a sound bite for ABC News with Peter Jennings, made multiple appearances on CNN and MSNBC, and participated in a round-table discussion on "The McLaughlin Group." She's been on National Public Radio, Radio Free Europe and local stations from Los Angeles to Orlando. At NBC, she has shown up for so many tapings that she is greeted familiarly by staff members, and uses the greenroom phone like it's her own.
Sometimes the discussions seem to stretch to the point of absurdity. On the "Today" show Tuesday morning, Sremac insisted that what Fred Abrahams of Human Rights Watch says he saw "is not what he thinks he saw," when Abrahams talked of seeing, first-hand, bodies of dead Albanian civilians (among them an 18-month-old baby) being carried out of the forest in Kosovo.
"Let me tell you what he saw," Sremac said. ". . . The KLA [Kosovo Liberation Army] guerrillas are fighting against the Yugoslav police. They get killed in battle. Civilians do get killed in the process because the KLA hide out in villages. They're using Albanians as human shields."
Abrahams scoffed at her. "Well, the Serbian government on television after the massacre where I was present, they claimed that these were bodies of -- that these were dolls. That was actually the official explanation," he said.
On "The McLaughlin Group," she referred to President Clinton as a "liar" and a "criminal" for "breaking international law" in ordering the bombing of Yugoslavia, and came close to comparing him to Adolf Hitler.
"She's a professional apologist for Milosevic at this point -- whether she's associated with him or not. She's sort of minister of denial for Belgrade. . . . If you want to have the opposing viewpoint, she's front and center," says Kurt Bassuener, associate director of the Balkan Action Council, which stands firmly on the other side of the issue. But in the war of words that comes with every conflict, the Serbs, Sremac says, are the only ones who are not seen as human. Their treatment -- at the hands of the Croats and Bosnian Muslims before, and by the KLA now -- is ignored, and their right to protect a part of their own nation is being denied.
She has felt this way for a decade now, since she was 22 and fresh out of college, watching CNN reports about her homeland. She looked at the pictures, listened to the words and thought, "This isn't true. These aren't the people I know from my homeland. This can't be the whole story." So she set out to tell the story herself, to anyone and everyone who will listen.
Sremac can be friendly and personable, but it is almost impossible to get her off message. Her life is her cause, subsidized by "Serbian Americans" she does not name, consumed by her media appearances and work on a book, "War of Words: Washington Tackles the Yugoslav Conflict," which will be released later this year. She married a telecommunications lawyer, Peter Saari, last year, and they live in a $283,000 house owned by her parents in a new development in Potomac.
She gets defensive, even angry, when questioned about Karadzic or Milosevic, seeing her truth as vastly more nuanced.
"I guess this illusion that America is all about the truth, and that truth is important, is one of the things that I hold most sacred to me," Sremac says. "I think this war is very hard to understand from Washington. It's hard for people who don't understand war, and the logistics of war. What's happening in Yugoslavia is complicated, and . . . the Serbs are the only ones who aren't seen as human. That's not reality. Human beings are violent, war is violent. But I don't believe the Serbs are doing any more or less than anyone else."
An Apolitical Background
Danielle Sremac was born in Belgrade in December 1966, and came to this country with her parents when she was 8 years old. Her family left Yugoslavia for economic rather than political reasons: Her father, Sava Sremac, was a computer expert who felt he had a far brighter future outside of the communist country. Enticed by a good job, the Sremacs immigrated to Cleveland, where Danielle, by her account, easily assimilated into American culture.
The elder Sremacs -- who now live in Crofton -- were almost apolitical, and Danielle cannot remember any dinner table conversations about the situation in her homeland, though she was well aware that her father did not support communism.
"They weren't political at all," says Sremac, whose mother was a child psychologist. "They thought politics was ugly."
Danielle grew up loving mysteries -- Sherlock Holmes was her favorite -- and dreamed of being a writer. She attended John Carroll University near Cleveland, and graduated with a degree in philosophy in 1989. She was 22, still in Cleveland, when she made her first public appearance on behalf of the Serbian viewpoint.
Upset by the coverage of Yugoslavia by CNN, Sremac wrote a letter to the producers. Shortly after, she says, she was invited to appear on television and express her views. It was the first of dozens of appearances she would make on the network over the next decade.
The following year, Sremac moved to Washington, where she enrolled in a master's program in international relations at American University. By 1992, she was serving as the director of the Serbian-American Affairs Office, which was essentially a one-woman, Washington-based public relations arm of the Serbian Unity Congress, the largest Serbian American organization in the United States. In 1993, while still working for that group, Sremac sent a letter to several leaders in the American Jewish community, asking that they reconsider their anti-Serbian stance on the war in Bosnia. The letter earned a backhanded compliment from one of the leaders she had been trying to sway.
"It's the first literate letter I've gotten from them," Abraham Brayer, the director of international concerns for the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council in New York, told one reporter at the time. "But I can refute it point by point."
Sremac ended her affiliation with the Serbian Unity Congress in 1994 and later that year registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent working in public relations for the Bosnian Serb government. The paperwork listed Aleksa Buha, then the minister of foreign affairs for President Karadzic, as the contracting official. The documents said that the agreement was an oral one, and reported that no money changed hands in the transaction. Her Justice Department file is still considered active, though Sremac filed paperwork on Feb. 19 stating that her relationship with the Bosnian Serb leaders was terminated in January 1996.
For Sremac's opponents, this seeming connection to Karadzic, who is under indictment by the Hague for alleged war crimes in Srebrenica (Karadzic has refused to surrender to be tried), is seen as the fastest and most effective way to discredit her. She is regularly referred to as "Radovan Karadzic's representative to the U.S." on pro-Bosnian Web sites.
Sremac denies that she worked directly for Karadzic, says she never had a formal contract with the Bosnian Serb government and explains that she only registered with the Justice Department because "I wasn't quite sure under the laws if it was required, but I wanted to be able to speak on behalf of Bosnian Serbs as a people. The only people speaking here were Muslims. I thought somebody should be able to speak on behalf of the Bosnian Serbs."
Asked if she supported Karadzic, Sremac answered, "Support him? That's typical, that it would be asked like that. The situation is a little more complicated than that. I'm in favor of anybody defending Bosnian Serb people against attacks."
Sremac currently bills herself as the director of the Institute for Balkan Affairs, a group that, for the moment, exists only as a plan. She says that she will register the group as a nonprofit with the Internal Revenue Service, and is gathering supporters.
The group has no office yet, and no telephone number. As a result, the Balkan Action Council -- an offshoot of the recently closed Balkan Institute -- frequently finds itself fielding calls for Sremac's institute. Given that the Balkan Action Council stands firmly on the other side of the conflict, that does not make Bassuener, the associate director, very happy. "The first time we heard of her was when she was on the news presenting the opposing view, and we'd never heard of her organization until last week," Bassuener says.
`They Feel It Every Day'
Tom Hutson, the State Department official who had served in the Balkans, says he came away from his first meeting with Sremac "impressed" by her and her "organized" and "often logical" arguments. His impression is not unusual. Like Brayer in 1993, many of Sremac's opponents find her rational and thoughtful even while disagreeing with virtually every argument she makes and every "fact" she promotes.
Sremac, then, is hard to categorize. The people she defends have been painted, as she says, as "baby eaters," and Milosevic has been referred to as a "junior league Hitler" by Vice President Gore. But Sremac clearly does not come across as a handmaiden for either of those images. While fiercely pro-Serb, Sremac also says that she is sympathetic to the plight of the refugees fleeing Kosovo, and does not condone attacks on ethnic Albanian civilians. She just does not believe that the violence against the ethnic Albanians is as widespread or one-sided as has been reported.
As a result, Sremac manages to remain a sympathetic figure -- even a likable one -- while saying things that others consider naive at best, and offensive at worst. For example, she steadfastly denies that Milosevic is systematically trying to eliminate the ethnic Albanians from Kosovo -- no matter what it says on the front pages of newspapers around the world. She rejects the notion that this is a campaign of genocide.
"There's a campaign to sell this idea," Sremac says, referring to the NATO bombing, "and today the new thing is genocide. Yesterday, it was 500,000 refugees or some ridiculous number. . . . It's becoming like a communist propaganda machine here. It's incredible. . . . But if you say `genocide,' and somebody like me says it's nonsense, then I have to bear the burden of this incredibly judgmental response: `How can she say it's not? How can she say that?' But if you continue to cry wolf over genocide like they have been, then when there is a real genocide -- a genocide like in World War II -- I don't know if we'll recognize it."
Her father-in-law, David Saari, a professor at the school of public affairs at American University, credits what some see as naivete to what he described as a "truly good nature."
"I don't think she means ill will to anybody," Saari says. "In conversations with her, she's very rational. I think she does recognize Milosevic's tendencies toward genocide, but I think her natural tendency is to say, `What about the other genocide, the one against the Serbs? Why is it only being reported from one side?'
"I don't think she's a denier of it," he continued. "Maybe she sounds that way, but that's not her true nature."
Prof. Jerrold Post, director of the political psychology program at George Washington University, says that Sremac's statements in defense of the Serbs stem from the same desire as her opposition's attempts to paint Milosevic's regime in the harshest light possible.
"In a conflict like this, everyone gets defensively aggressive and idealizes your own side while demonizing the other," says Post, author of "Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred."
Post has not spoken with Sremac, but he is not at all surprised that she is unwilling to accept reports of ethnic cleansing and genocide by the Serbs in Kosovo.
"Your own people doing terrible things like ethnic cleansing -- that is simply inconsistent with her sense of what Serbia is, and what she is," Post says. "It's almost a psychological requirement to deny that."
For Sremac, though, it's as much about what's happening to the Serbs as about what they are doing to others. She was last in Yugoslavia in February 1998, but she is in touch daily with family members -- cousins, aunts, uncles -- in Belgrade and grows increasingly concerned about them.
"They're afraid that by the time they stop bombing, everything will be destroyed," she says. "They feel it every day, all day. They can't sleep, can't eat. It's hard. They're baffled by this. They never thought it would come to this."
CAPTION: Danielle Sremac, above, insists that Serbian violence in Yugoslavia is not as widespread or one-sided as is reported. Her opponents point to the sight of refugees fleeing the fighting and villages said to have been burned or shelled by Serbian soldiers, and call her an apologist for President Milosevic.
CAPTION: Danielle Sremac, a longtime U.S. citizen born in Belgrade, says of the Serbs: "These aren't the people I know. . . . This can't be the whole story."