Peter Maass

Isadora Sekulic is pissed off.

“These people are the worst sort of garbage,” she tells me.

We are sitting in her temporary office at Radio-Television Serbia, where she is running the newsroom of what was, for the past decade, the country’s principal outlet of nationalist and racist propaganda. Along with several other independent journalists, she has been sent to RTS by the country’s new government to ensure good behavior by the former mouthpiece of former President Slobodan Milosevic. So Sekulic, who was fired from RTS in a political purge during the early years of Milosevic’s rule, is surrounded by men and women she has despised for years, and now she despises them all the more, because instead of quitting or apologizing or attempting to continue their noxious programs—this would at least be consistent—they are sidling up to her and suggesting they always supported the opposition, and they are providing her with the names of colleagues who, they insist, were Milosevic’s real enforcers at the station.

“They were all working under the regime,” she scoffs. “They were liars, they were war mongers, they were dirty journalists—until four days ago. Now they are trying to tell me they are honest professionals.”

She glances outside her office, at the RTS journalists scurrying about, putting together an evening news program that they hope will please their new masters. I get the impression, from Sekulic’s grimace, that if she had a grenade she might roll it into the newsroom.

It was with a sense of curiosity that I visited RTS. I wanted to talk with the men and women who incited the hatred that caused four wars in the former Yugoslavia; first in Slovenia, then Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. They weren’t killers in the normal sense of the word, but they were responsible, at least in a moral way, for the killing that occurred. The questions that surround these people—what they did, why they did it, and how they explain it now—illuminate the murky intersection between human nature and state power. Why do people compromise themselves for the sake of an evil regime? These are questions that interest me, so I’m afraid today’s “Diary” is going to focus on them.

I began my sojourn at RTS with Marija Mitrovic, a leading journalist at the station.

“I am finished,” she said. “I am the face of the politics of Milosevic, and that is a problem now. People hate us, and I understand that.”

Mitrovic, a villanous yet frank lady, spent years reading news reports that glorified Milosevic and slandered the opposition. She has fared relatively well since Thursday, when anti-Milosevic protesters stormed RTS headquarters. She hasn’t, for example, been beaten by an angry mob, as happened to Milorad Komrakov, the editor in chief of RTS, nor has she been spat upon by protesters, as happened to anchor Staka Novkovic. Mitrovic continues to draw her paycheck, although she is too unpopular to appear on the airwaves any longer.

“Let me tell you, I think the Milosevic politics were wrong, and I wish that in the last few years I had said ‘No, I am leaving,’ ” Mitrovic continued. “Why I didn’t do that, I don’t know.”

Actually, I know one of the reasons why, as does everyone else in the country—the living was good. You could acquire a nice apartment if you worked at RTS, you had a reliable salary, and all you had to do in exchange was tell lies, day after day, that would lead to the deaths of several hundred thousand people. Mirkovic, who has the imperfectly dyed blond hair that is a hallmark of East European hairdressers, possesses a second home in Chicago and has pretty much kissed off her chances of continuing at RTS, so she says what many of her scurrying comrades refuse to say.

“My work here was a mistake, but more than that, it was damaging,” she said as a friend passed by and gripped her shoulder in a have-courage-we’ll-get-through-this way. “If I and my colleagues had worked the right way, Milosevic would have fallen a long time ago.”

But they didn’t, and he didn’t.

Natasha Mihailovich, who is in her 30s and, with her black clothes and leather jacket, would look at home in SoHo, is a bit less forthright. For the past five years, she has worked as a news editor at RTS, and when I met up with her, she was chain-smoking her way through the day after being told by one of her bosses that her services would not be needed for now. Mihailovich was furious because the editor who nudged her aside—trying, it seems, to please the station’s new managers by fingering her as a Milosevic diehard—was more compromised than she was. It was an odd defense, and it began with a phrase that I heard many times—”I was only doing my job.”

“In my heart I never agreed with the editorial policy, though every person at RTS was an exponent of Milosevic’s regime,” she said. “Every one of us could have quit at anytime.” She did not, and she says it was because she is a single mother with a son to provide for. I suggested that there were many ways a single mother could care for her child in Belgrade. Mihailovich replied that she did what she could to tone down her news dispatches. “I never used the worst phrases, like Clinton being a narco-terrorist. Never, never.”

I asked whether RTS was evil. There was a moment of silence.

“On Thursday, my mother called and asked me what happened in Belgrade,” she began. “I told her that RTS was attacked by protesters, and my mother said, ‘Yes, that’s good. Your company is evil.’ I told her that Milorad Komrakov had been beaten up. She asked me whether he was beaten to death. I told her no. My mother said he should have been beaten to death, because he is evil.”

She paused.

“I think our company was doing evil things.”

“Does that mean you were doing evil things?” I asked.

“In that relation, yes. But we were only workers. I am not somebody who decided about news.”

Isadora Sekulic has been hearing much of this in recent days.

“It’s the old story,” she said, in a voice as thick as the cigarette smoke that hung in her chaotic office (and hangs throughout the Balkans). “That’s the story of the Second World War, of fascism, of Nazism. Nobody was in charge. How is that possible? No, it is not true. It is only their alibi. I think all of them should be punished.”

I suppose that’s why I am lingering in Serbia after the fall of Milosevic. Crime and punishment—an old story, endlessly fascinating.