The first thing my Serb driver and I did when we crossed the Kosovo border 10 days ago was to use heavy black duct tape to cover the Belgrade license plates on our car. We were entering a land where you can get shot for belonging to the wrong nationality--or waving the wrong number of fingers in the air.
The next thing we did was to use more tape to plaster the car with signs reading "TV"--an easily recognizable shorthand for "international journalist." We figured that might protect us from the Kosovo Liberation Army, which just a few days before had shot and injured an Israeli journalist on the assumption that he was a Serb. Whether the TV sign would help us with Serbian paramilitaries mistrustful of all foreign reporters was another matter. But on balance we felt a little safer.
I was making my second trip to Kosovo since the start of the NATO bombing campaign on March 24. The first time, everything was simpler. I had visited Kosovo in April as part of an organized group of journalists taken by the Yugoslav army to see the site of a NATO bomb attack on an ethnic Albanian refugee convoy. We looked on the Yugoslav army as our protector, both from a possible air attack by NATO or an ambush by Albanian guerrillas.
This time, it was much more complicated. With Yugoslav security forces withdrawing, NATO troops moving in, and the KLA coming down from the hills, lines of control were constantly shifting. To move around and gather information, we needed help from both Serbs and ethnic Albanians. Our Serb assistants were terrified of the KLA, and reluctant to go anyplace where KLA fighters were known to operate. Our ethnic Albanian helpers displayed a similar fear of retreating Serb troops and paramilitaries.
Kosovo is a small place, and it is easy to get confused about where you are and whom you are likely to run into. The right kind of greeting is most important. The ethnic Albanians use a traditional two-fingered victory sign. The Serbs use three fingers--a custom linked to their Eastern Orthodox religion and the symbolism of the Holy Trinity. (The Serb tradition is also to greet each other with three kisses and employ three fingers when making the sign of the cross.)
Driving through a mixed ethnic Albanian-Serb region, my Albanian interpreter made the mistake of waving two fingers at a Serbian soldier. His reaction was swift. "Do that again and I'll cut your fingers off," he yelled, as we sped away.
As an Englishman working for an American newspaper, I could count on getting a friendly reception from Albanians, provided they did not mistake me for a Serb. Surprisingly--given the fact that NATO warplanes have been bombing them for 2 1/2 months--many Serbian soldiers were also friendly and willing to talk. But there were some who looked as if they would prefer to slit our throats.
Having lived in Belgrade in the '70s--during what now seems like the golden Tito period when Yugoslavia was prosperous and at peace--I am reasonably proficient in Serbian. At times, the language proved to be more of a liability than a help. Bantering with Serbian soldiers by the side of the road, I noticed that one of them was looking at me curiously.
"You are not English. Englishmen don't speak Serbian. You must be an Albanian from Macedonia."
I laughed and tried to show him my British passport, with its flowery-sounding demand: "in the name of Her Majesty to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance." He was not impressed.
"You have Albanian shoes. Englishmen don't wear shoes like that. They have mud all over them. You must have just come from a village."
It was true. Earlier that day, I had been tramping through the mud, inspecting the mass graves of about 70 ethnic Albanian refugees slaughtered by Serb policemen. Fortunately, some British soldiers were nearby, standing beside a tank. I called out to them in fluent English. The Serb was still not convinced.
"Just because you speak English doesn't mean you are English. Albanians speak English."
This was an argument it was impossible for me to win. I beat a dignified retreat, trying to look every inch an Englishman.
To Serbs and ethnic Albanians, we all looked much the same, a new occupation army swarming over Kosovo with our satellite phones, cameras and fancy cars. Like most armies, however, the invading press corps was scarcely homogeneous.
The most important division was between the Belgrade press corps and the Skopje press corps. Initially, the Belgrade press corps had the advantage. We got to Pristina first, grabbing all the rooms in the comically misnamed Grand Hotel, a 14-story Stalinist monstrosity that deserves five stars for discomfort and appalling service. When our Skopje-based colleagues arrived a few days later, along with the first NATO troops, they had to fight each other for room on our floors.
Quickly, however, as Serbs began to flee Kosovo and ethnic Albanians emerged from hiding, the advantage shifted to the more numerous newcomers. They all had Albanian interpreters, four-wheel-drive cars and passes from KFOR, the NATO-led peacekeeping force. When the Pristina water supply was switched off by the departing Serbs, they could drive back to Skopje to take a shower, grab a decent meal and get a good night's sleep. We were left at the mercy of the Grand Hotel, smelling a little worse with every day.
It was not just the showers that didn't work. Meals could take three or four hours to arrive, if they arrived at all. Fights broke out in the restaurant, with one Serb policeman threatening reporters with a gun. The elevators were so erratic it was often quicker to walk up 10 flights of stairs. Those of us foolish or desperate enough to entrust our clothes to the hotel laundry found ourselves sorting through great heaps of semi-washed shirts and underpants piling up in the dimly lit basement. "You had a yellow shirt," a laundry worker would say helpfully. "Take this one."
The differences between the two press corps transcended questions of comfort. We tended to have a different view of the story. The Belgrade-based reporters had seen the effects of NATO bombing. The Skopje-based reporters had spent much of their time listening to the tales of woe of ethnic Albanian refugees. While we were all horrified by the discovery of mass graves of ethnic Albanians, those of us who had arrived from Belgrade tended to be less willing to issue blanket condemnations of Serb behavior. We knew there were victims on both sides and that Serb civilians had suffered, too.
The murder of two German journalists from Stern magazine soon after NATO troops arrived provided a chilling reminder of the risks of reporting from Kosovo. To this day, nobody knows precisely what happened to them, or whether they were killed by the KLA or by Serbian paramilitaries.
My scariest moment was being stopped in a blinding hailstorm on a mountain road by Serbian military police traveling in a Mercedes without license plates. They told us to follow them to their headquarters a few miles down the road. One of the policemen, a big beefy fellow waving an AK-47 who introduced himself as "The Terminator," asked to see our documents. We showed him press passes issued by the Yugoslav army. After an anxious few minutes, he said we were free to leave.
Deserted roads make me nervous. On the way out of Kosovo, a Serb policeman saw our Belgrade license plates and waved us off a road choked with the cars of fleeing Serb refugees and onto a back road used by the Yugoslav army that snaked across the mountains. He was no doubt being helpful, but I would have preferred to spend a couple of hours in a traffic jam than travel a practically empty dirt track used only by the occasional Serb soldier.
When we arrived at a military checkpoint in the border town of Kursumlija, the questioning began.
"Why did you come on this road?"
"I see there was a Press sign on your car. Why did you rip it off?"
"Why is there no rubber stamp on your press passes?"
Evidently our answers satisfied him because he eventually lifted the barrier, waving us out of Kosovo and into Serbia proper.
"You can go. Never use this road again."
CAPTION: A retreating soldier gives the Serbian three-fingered salute.
CAPTION: Ethnic Albanian children give a two-fingered victory sign. It's important to give the correct greeting in Kosovo.