Miami-based Kerry Sanders, visiting Yugoslavia for the first time in his life, stands on a bridge that marks the boundary between Kosovo and Serbia proper. The sun is going down and he is yelling into a satellite phone set up on the hood of his Opel four-wheel-drive to a man named Greg in New York.
"Serbia is to my left, Kosovo is to my right. We can set the camera up on me with the Russians coming in behind me, and use the satellite phone for a two-wayer with Tom."
Tom is Tom Brokaw. Sanders works for "NBC Nightly News." NBC has dozens of reporters and producers working in the Balkans. Competition to get on the "Nightly News" is intense, and will likely heat up even more when the army of reporters that has been camped for weeks in Macedonia and Albania finally enters Kosovo, probably this weekend.
Forget about the war between Serbs and Albanians. This is where the action is.
As retreating Serb troop carriers roar under the bridge with batteries of anti-aircraft missiles, Sanders continues to shout into his phone. "I am fighting to get onto the 'Nightly News.' Hopefully, we will have the lead story of Russian troops crossing the border right here. Tell Tom that this is the story he will want to do."
A derelict Yugoslav army truck is towing an even more derelict army truck back into Serbia. Suddenly, the cable joining the two trucks snaps with a sound like a rifle shot. When Sanders finds out that his cameraman has caught the moment on film, he laughs in triumph. Symbolism goes down well on TV, and this is a symbolic image. The Yugoslav army has broken down just as it leaves Kosovo.
The charred landscape of Kosovo--burned-out villages, bombed bridges, destroyed factories, the odd house still ablaze, all set in lush green hills--may seem an odd setting for a media extravaganza. After all, a year ago, most Americans would have had trouble locating Kosovo on a map, let alone pronouncing names like Djakovica and Prizren. But all that is about to change. Barred by Yugoslav authorities from witnessing the worst of the "ethnic cleansing," the Western media are taking Kosovo by storm.
It is not a pretty sight. This morning, several hundred reporters who had been cooped up in Belgrade for most of the 78-day bombing campaign were finally taken down to the Kosovo capital, Pristina, by the Yugoslav army in a giant convoy. Rooms in the Grand Hotel--the one Pristina hotel left standing--are at a premium. The race to be first in the convoy, and therefore first in line for a hotel room at the other end of the eight-hour drive, got underway the moment the reporters left Belgrade. At times, the bombed-out highway between Belgrade and Nis resembled a Grand Prix race as drivers jostled for position behind the Yugoslav army colonel who was leading the procession.
Because of NATO air strikes, the road into Kosovo has been reduced in places to a single-lane dirt track, meandering across the mountains. The journalists are headed south. What seems like the entire Yugoslav army--column after column of mobile antiaircraft units, tanks loaded on flatbed trucks, trucks pulling artillery pieces--is meanwhile headed north. Interspersed with the military vehicles are the cars of Serb refugees, piled high with everything from mattresses to a child's tricycle to, yes, the kitchen sink.
The refugees look glum. The soldiers are singing and laughing, happy to be on their way home, firing their guns into the air and flashing the Serbian victory sign. They do not look like a defeated army.
Even in peacetime, the Grand Hotel was stunningly misnamed. In wartime, the name seems like someone's idea of a bad joke. The elevators do not work, the showers sputter dirty water, the rooms have long since been stripped of telephones and television sets, and the streets around the hotel echo to the sound of gunfire, particularly after dark. There is an acrid smell of smoke in the ill-lit corridors.
But at least the Grand offers a place to sleep. For the second wave of the media invasion, expected Saturday from Macedonia, there will be no room at the inn. Reporters have been making arrangements with Kosovar Albanian refugees to take over their apartments.
The Grand also boasts two international telephone lines for a press corps filing constantly to virtually every major country in the world, and a "Media Center" with television sets tuned to Cable News Network and Sky News. In the absence of reliable information from inside Kosovo, dozens of reporters gather in front of the TV sets to listen to breathless reports on the imminent arrival of American, Russian, British, French, Italian, and even German forces in a place that is about the size of Connecticut.
With some exceptions, the Yugoslav press failed to report on events in Kosovo during the war, and is failing to report very much on the war's end. But that does not mean that there are no Serb journalists in Kosovo. Unable to report for their own media, many have got jobs as interpreters and fixers for Western journalists, the vast majority of whom do not speak Serbian. Their contribution has been indispensable in informing the world of what is going on in Kosovo.
Take the case of Nenad Stefanovic, a political reporter for the weekly magazine Vreme, which is known for its opposition to President Slobodan Milosevic. This evening, Stefanovic was standing on the bridge at Merdare, waiting for the Russian troops to arrive and following their progress by shortwave radio--performing this duty on behalf of his current employer, a Japanese newspaper.
Stefanovic is not overly impressed by the Western reporters who have descended on Kosovo. "At least 50 percent of them don't have the faintest clue what is going on. A lot of them seem inexperienced. Their knowledge is like people who think that Pearl Harbor and Pearl Buck are brother and sister."
At the other side of the bridge, Kerry Sanders is still attempting to persuade "NBC Nightly News" to show an interest in his report. "I feel good here. It's very poignant. This is the border, and we are going to show the Russian troops coming across the border. This could be the most significant development since the war began."
Sanders says he and his team are willing to wait up all night if necessary to film the big moment, catching what sleep they can in their car.
But the deadline for "NBC Nightly News" comes and goes. The Russians arrive too late.