It may not have been the polite thing to do, but I just gate-crashed a revolution. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was not in the mood to provide journalists with invitations, in the form of visas, as his judgment day neared, so I boarded a Swissair flight from Zurich to Belgrade and hoped for the best. The options included a) being arrested at the airport; b) being allowed into the country; or c) joining a Balkan version of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. If you guessed c), you would be correct.
I was among more than 60 foreign journalists who arrived at the airport on Friday, and the police had no idea what to do. A day earlier several hundred thousand demonstrators had marched through the streets and stormed the federal parliament building and the national TV station. Now the protesters were back in the streets again, the government was collapsing, and the airport cops didn’t know whether to imprison us or serve champagne.
So, they told us to wait in the lounge. An hour passed, then two. The police were waiting for instructions from the government, but it wasn’t clear whether Yugoslavia still had a government, or if it did, who was in charge of it. Most of us had cell phones, so frantic calls were made to people who might be able to liberate us. A colleague reached Zarko Korac, an ever-helpful opposition politician, and Korac promised to do what he could but explained, speaking on his cell phone, that at that moment he was leading a march of 100,000 people, so he really had his hands full.
Few foreign journalists were in the city, so nearly everyone at the airport was receiving calls from desperate editors. It didn’t seem to matter that our main source of information was listening to hourly bulletins on the BBC World Service. A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter was called by an editor at a TV network in New York. Could she interview him about the events in Belgrade? The reporter explained our out-of-touch predicament, but that posed no problem for the editor, who read him the latest wire reports and told him she would call back in a few minutes to hear him tell her what she had just told him. Elsewhere, a British correspondent was phoning in a convincing account of the events occurring in the city, a ramparts dispatch that could at any moment have been interrupted by an announcement about an arriving or departing flight.
After eight hours, we were released into the city, and when I arrived at my hotel and called a Serbian a friend, the first thing he said was, “Did you hear the news? Milosevic resigned tonight.” It was well past midnight, and I headed for the city center, where the partying was still underway. There was dancing in the streets—I mean this literally—as strangers high-fived each other and friends embraced in group hugs, whirling around like tops. Everyone was happy and drunk, which seemed appropriate after a decade of four disastrous wars and international isolation.
The last act was played out on Saturday, when the newly elected federal parliament presided over the inauguration of Yugoslavia’s new president, Vojislav Kostunica. It was a peculiarly Serbian affair in which there were nearly as many bodyguards in attendance as politicians and journalists. The nastiest ones surrounded Vojislav Seselj, a 6 foot 5 inch redwood of a man who leads a party for which the gentlest description might be “fascist,” and who has been indicted for war crimes in the Hague. There were several indicted war criminals at the session and, likely, a sprinkling of unindicted ones. If you spend much time covering Serbia, you have to find some sort of equanimity in the company of these sorts of men. I have a soft spot for them, in the way, perhaps, that an infectious-disease specialist would be fascinated with samples of the smallpox virus.
Seselj’s bodyguards have the appearance of Sing Sing parolees on steroids. As he strode past with his posse forming a tight wedge around him, I didn’t stand a chance of getting more than a question in; I was, suddenly, the Sam Donaldson of the Balkans, shouting above the roar of the metaphysical rotors. I asked for his reaction to the overthrow of Milosevic, and he looked at me as though examining a piece of gum on the sole of his shoe.
“From which country?” he said.
“From America,” I replied.
“No,” he said.
I jumped out of the path of the wedge.
I had better luck with Zoran Djindjic, who is the head of the largest party in the opposition bloc that ousted Milosevic. Djindjic has nearly as many bodyguards as Seselj, but Djindjic’s boys, like their boss, are snappy dressers; they are Armani thugs. Like almost every other anti-Milosevic politician, he no longer cares about the former president. “He was my problem during the time he was president, and he was dangerous for our security, but now he is a pensioner and a private person and I am not interested,” Djindjic said.
It is a curious position, and I wanted to discuss it in greater depth, but after a few minutes, the boss gave his boys the signal, and I was politely but firmly nudged out of the way. Later, a friend who works in the opposition told me the following story about Djindjic’s bodyguards: On Thursday, when Belgrade erupted into revolution, my friend was with Djindjic at City Hall. Suddenly, four or five of his bodyguards came into the room with several canvas bags. They closed the door and unzipped the bags, which contained an arsenal of pistols, assault rifles, grenades, flak jackets, and enough ammunition to fight a war. They stuffed the weapons into their clothes, slinging the AK-47s around their backs, under their jackets, and strode out, like Serbian terminators. Not a word was exchanged. “I thought I was watching a movie,” my friend said.
Serbia, Serbia, Serbia. It’s good to be back. I feel sorry for colleagues of mine who, having just arrived here, are suddenly packing up. The lobby of the Hyatt Hotel was filled this morning with television gear being loaded onto airport vans. Much of the pack is rushing off to Israel and Lebanon, where there is talk of war.
I hope they have visas.