In early October, when the international community appeared to be taking a hard-line stance toward Serbia, the deputy prime minister, Vojislav Seselj, announced: "We cannot shoot down every NATO plane, but we can grab their agents who are at hand . . . our citizens who serve foreign powers." Seselj went on to explain that he meant, above all, Serbs who work for foreign media.

Among the people Seselj was aiming at are those known as "fixers" in media circles, because they serve as go-betweens connecting citizens of their own country with the foreign journalists who are their bosses. It is the fixers' knowledge of the situation, as well as their network of official contacts and their circle of friends and relatives, that constitute the source of raw material for the correspondents. The job of a fixer is a little like gathering intelligence--a characteristic Seselj recognized when he accused fixers of being "an extended arm of spying agencies." A well-informed and enterprising fixer will not only help a journalist make contacts but also point out possible subject matter or a new angle.

Dushko, a Bosnian Serb fixer, has probably had more influence on the way the world views Republika Srpska than any other individual. A parade of journalists have picked Dushko's brains, met his friends in the cafes of Bijeljina, visited with him the whorehouses that the town is famous for, and tasted the chestnut cakes his mother bakes. Whether they work in print, radio or television; whether they're from the United States, France, Holland or Japan; whether they're writing about politics or the economy, filing features about indicted war criminals or front-line dispatches about the victims of ethnic cleansing, countless journalists have relied on Dushko's many connections.

Why do so many correspondents go to Dushko? He is courageous and intelligent and he has a car (a rickety red Yugo that he used to drive defiantly through Sarajevo with Cyrillic number plates when nobody else dared). He also understands situations and behaviors that to an outsider would seem totally illogical, but he does not hold extreme views. What's more, he speaks good English. A rare species there, indeed.

Dushko is a soft-spoken, private man in his late twenties. Because most journalists operate in packs, so do the fixers. They wait outside press conferences when no translation is needed, looking a little like embassy drivers outside diplomatic parties. They gossip about their employers--what the New York Times had on the front page, or if The Washington Post got the scoop.

In the former Yugoslavia, more than almost anywhere else in the world, fixers have to serve as translators. Other major foreign assignments--the former Soviet Union, China or the Middle East, for example--are often covered by journalists who went through language training. A region like Central America, which was the focus of so much attention in the 1980s, could be handled in one, relatively widely spoken language, Spanish.

But no one anticipated the events in the Balkans. Nobody--certainly not Josip Broz ("Tito"), the father of postwar Yugoslavia--foresaw the country's rapid disintegration. No more than a dozen journalists have a working knowledge of the local language (which used to be called Serbo-Croatian, but now has three other names and variations). To move around with ease in the former Yugoslavia you need to be able to chat over a kafa in Croatia, sip kahva in Bosnian cafes and take kava in Serbia.

Over the last three years in Bosnia and Kosovo, I have often traded my language skills and knowledge of the local people for meals and rides (particularly those coveted trips in armored cars) with other foreign journalists. I've never used a fixer, but I have befriended many and learned from them about their lives.

Why are they in this profession? The truth is, there aren't many honest jobs in the former Yugoslavia these days. Many Serbs have chosen what they call "internal emigration": They have withdrawn from public life, restricting their contacts to only a close circle of friends. Others, like the fixers, try to practice "virtual emigration"--living and working among foreigners. The possibility of earning real money is an attraction, too. Depending on the assignment, journalists generally pay between $50 and $150 (U.S.) a day, which is the equivalent of the average monthly salary in Serbia.

But fixers pay a high price for their choice of work: They face a perpetual dilemma of loyalty. My friend Zoran, a graduate in electrical engineering, tells of being greeted with a single question these days by his friends (or former friends): "How much did you earn today for betraying us?" He repeated this to me with characteristically self-deprecating humor, but I could see that it hurt.

Another fixer, Sasha, gets anonymous death threats and mail from the Serb extremist organization "Black Arm" because she works for what they describe as an "enemy wire service." Knowing that five other fixers have gotten the same message, Sasha pooh-poohs the danger.

Given the prospect of NATO bombing (or even of tighter sanctions) as punishment for some criminal act by the Serb regime, would she alert the foreign correspondent of a major newspaper or wire service to that criminal act? "Of course." She sounds certain, but the foreign correspondents can never be totally sure, can they?

In Kosovo, Albanian fixers face the opposite predicament. They see foreign journalists as allies and often provide their services free of charge, as a patriotic gesture. This sometimes means that they are less objective than the Serb fixers, worried that some derogatory remark be unpatriotic and even hurt the Kosovar cause.

Furthermore--and this goes for both ethnic groups--the fixer risks more than many journalists. A Western media outlet will raise hell to protect one of its flock but will probably be powerless to extract a local fixer from prison or detention. How many journalists will act like Sydney Schanberg, the protagonist of "The Killing Fields," who spent four years trying to locate his local Cambodian fixer, Pran Dith, who was in a labor camp?

With the battle lines drawn by ethnicity, the fixer's role becomes particularly dangerous. When Serb fixers travel around the predominantly Albanian villages or tent settlements in Kosovo, they carry with them the stigma of their Serb names, which play the role of an enemy uniform (just as they did during the Croat and Bosnian wars). My friend Dejan, who works for Time magazine, was detained without explanation for nine hours by the Kosovo Liberation Army even though, as a local journalist, he writes stories that could not be considered anti-Albanian.

Most major foreign media outlets have two fixers in Kosovo--one Serb and one Albanian. Yet when traveling across the front lines, it is better to have someone who is from neither ethnic group but gets around in both languages. Back in 1992, when I was covering the Bosnian war, I went from Sarajevo to the Serb-held territory in the company of the correspondents for The Washington Post, National Public Radio, Voice of America and the BBC. Serb forces detained us for a whole day and night because one of my companions took along a fixer of the wrong ethnicity.

Two weeks ago, when NATO airstrikes seemed inevitable, the Serb information minister forbade local radios to rebroadcast BBC, VOA, Radio France International and Deutsche Welle because, he said, they were "in the service of propaganda and psychological war of Western forces." Meanwhile, the state-run Serb television suggested in a commentary that it was immoral--tantamount to treason--when local people ("those whose names end in 'ic' " as most Serbian names do) spread defeatism.

The atmosphere is becoming ever more ugly for those who work for independent or foreign media. No wonder that when one fixer heard himself mentioned on state TV as having betrayed Serbia, he grabbed his passport and some underwear. His next call to me was from a neighboring country. He hadn't even taken his computer. "You crazy?" he said when I asked why. "Do I want to smuggle this spying device?"

I know of two foreign media outlets whose reporting from the former Yugoslavia would suffer if my friend stayed on his forced vacation for too long. That, of course, is what Seselj is bargaining on, but my friend (whose name does indeed end in "ic") will be back soon. Anna Husarska, a fellow at the Media Studies Center in New York, headed the Kosovo project at the International Crisis Group for the past two years.