Determined to circumvent the information blockade over what was happening to ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, Serbian human rights activist Natasha Kandic decided to mount her own one-woman investigation. Last month, she traveled to the town of Pec in western Kosovo, scene of some of the cruelest atrocities reported there, and found evidence of a grave containing the bodies of 44 ethnic Albanians.
When she returned to Belgrade and tried to describe what she had seen, few people were interested. Her neighbors and friends preferred to talk about the disruption to water and electrical service caused by NATO bombing. Newspapers and newsmagazines normally critical of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic refused to publish her eyewitness report from Kosovo.
"When I tried to talk about what I had seen and experienced, people would get impatient and change the subject," said Kandic, who heads the privately funded Humanitarian Law Fund in Belgrade. "It's as if people here simply don't want to know the truth about what happened in Kosovo. Even the intellectuals are under the influence of official propaganda."
Over the last two weeks, as foreign reporters have finally gained access to the killing fields of Kosovo, television viewers and newspaper readers all over the world have been given horrifying accounts of the violence committed by Yugoslav and Serbian forces on the ethnic Albanian population. But here in Serbia, there has been little public discussion of atrocities and no substantive reporting on the subject by the heavily censored news media.
An opinion poll published last week in the Belgrade newsmagazine Nin reported that 64 percent of Serbs do not believe reports in Western news media of atrocities by Serb-led government forces against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, a province of Serbia. Just over 14 percent of the population believes that atrocities were committed, while 15 percent think that the allegations may be partially true.
"It's all propaganda," said Tomislav Zekic, a political science student out for a walk with his family in Belgrade. "Your TV is as bad as our TV." After dismissing the talk of Serbian atrocities as the product of Western media manipulation, he added that he came from Kosovo and that, in his view, "the only good Albanian is a dead Albanian."
Even those Serbs who are inclined to believe many of the accusations leveled against government security forces in Kosovo tend to search for exculpation, such as the argument that dirty things happen in war and all sides are guilty. They find it difficult to draw a moral distinction between Serbian militiamen machine-gunning a column of ethnic Albanian refugees during an attack on separatist rebels in the province and NATO's dropping bombs on Serbian civilians during an effort to destroy Milosevic's war-making capacity.
"If these things really happened in Kosovo, then our leaders are criminals," said Vladen Videnovic, 17, a student in the southern Serbian city of Nis. "But Milosevic is not the only one who is guilty; Clinton also deserves to be put on trial."
Nis was the scene of cluster-bomb attacks by NATO warplanes on May 7 and May 12 that killed 15 people in the center of the city, including a 27-year-old woman named Ljiljana Spasic who was in her seventh month of pregnancy. Composed of hundreds of bomblets that drop to the ground in miniature parachutes, cluster bombs are designed to kill as many people as possible and are usually used against troop concentrations.
City officials argue that the use of such bombs in broad daylight against civilians was a deliberate attempt by NATO to terrorize the population of Nis and thus increase the political pressure on Milosevic to agree to Western demands over Kosovo. NATO spokesmen insist that the attack on the city center was a mistake and that the real target was the airport, several miles away.
Nis Mayor Zovan Zivkovic is a leader of the opposition Democratic Party and a longtime opponent of Milosevic. He says he is revolted by the stories coming out of Kosovo about Serbian atrocities, "but as the mayor of Nis I am even more concerned by the suffering that NATO caused to the people of this town."
Such views are fairly widespread here, even among Serbs otherwise sympathetic to the West. "The West is guilty of double standards," said Rada Djordjevic, a Belgrade physicist, who declared she could no longer bear to watch satellite broadcasts of CNN and Britain's Sky News. "You choose one side in a conflict and look on them as good guys and conclude that everybody else must be bad guys. But that is not how it is in real life. In real life, there are good guys and bad guys on both sides."
The Belgrade government has ridiculed Western allegations that up to 10,000 Kosovo Albanian civilians might have been killed by Serbian and Yugoslav forces and accused Western leaders of using the atrocity stories as a pretext for military intervention. Recently, however, there have been signs that the government here is preparing to distance itself from the bloodletting by making a public example of "rogue" soldiers and police officers who "went crazy" and killed civilians.
"These people have been arrested and will be convicted by the courts," said Goran Matic, a Yugoslav government minister close to Milosevic, in an interview here today. "They do not belong to the Serbian nation but to the nation of criminals." He added that every Yugoslav soldier in Kosovo carried a booklet on "humanitarian law and the rules of war."
Kandic, who has made several trips to Kosovo, attributes the lack of public discussion about war atrocities to lack of information, heavy censorship of the news media and the poisonous influence of the official media, notably state television. "Serbs are just like any other people who have been subjected to a very efficient propaganda," she said.
Other human rights activists believe that there are other factors at work, including a long rivalry between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and a national callousness born of years of deprivation and isolation. "Serbs are an unsentimental people," said Vesna Petrovic of the Belgrade Center for Human Rights. "We do not care about ourselves, let alone others." She adds that many Serbs, even intellectuals, have a "racist" attitude toward Albanians.
"It took Germany 25 years to come to terms with what they did in World War II. It is going to take us at least that amount of time to examine our actions in Kosovo, Bosnia and other places," Petrovic said.
In theory, the lifting of wartime restrictions later this week will make it possible for the independent news media to report in much more detail about the atrocities in Kosovo than has been possible until now. In practice, however, editors are likely to be very cautious in their treatment of such a controversial subject.
"We must be very cool-headed about this and not allow ourselves to be carried away by emotions," said Filip Svarm, managing editor of the independent weekly Vreme, which is supported by Western democracy advocates, including the Soros Foundation. "I have no doubt that there are a lot of mass graves there, but I also think that part of the responsibility lies with [ethnic Albanian separatist guerrillas]. If we get the details wrong, there will be people here who are only too happy to cast doubt on everything and say `Look, they are blaming the Serbs for everything.' "
CAPTION: Hillary Rodham Clinton, who returned yesterday from a visit to the Balkans, meets at the White House with human rights leaders Aferdita Kelmendi, left, and Vjosa Dobruna, both of Kosovo, and Natasha Kandic, right, of Belgrade.