Dispatches From the War Zone

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About three years ago, I ignored the bad weather and, rushing to the airport, crashed my car into an oncoming truck. I guess it could have been a passenger car. Or pedestrians. This is what I found myself thinking about as I went to sleep last night in the ballerina’s apartment. I was trying to figure out what sort of human impulse could have resulted in NATO pilots bombing the Kosovar refugees. I mean, it had to be a human impulse, right? It had to be the poor visibility, didn’t it?

When it came on the news, the ballerina said, “You see, the problem is, we do not know what is true. Like this–they are reporting it, but could it be true?” I told her I had had a call from an editor in London: It seemed it was true. She started crying inaudibly, almost invisibly, in the way of people who are frustrated by their own fears. “Those poor people,” she whispered. “They get it from three sides–from the Serbs, then they were at the border for days, and now …”

The ballerina, like a disproportionate number of Serbian cultural workers, is a descendant of post-revolutionary Russian émigrés. Her home, a long and cold Italian-style flat, combines family heirlooms of heavy wood and dark silver with Eastern European chintz. She is probably about 60, and has been an activist, an antiwar activist, since 1991. She worked to bridge the tiny but famous Eastern Slavonia town of Pakrac, split down the middle by a Serb-Croat frontline. She worked for years, and ultimately the project failed, because the Croats’ commitment to it turned out to be too short-lived, and the Serbs’ fear of the Croatian government too well founded.

She pulled her face into an expression of tight resolution, her eyes still red, and said in a near whisper: “If they go to the end, if they only get rid of Milosevic, I will forget everything. But they must make him no more. They must go to the end. It will be bloody, very bloody.”

In the past three days, I have traveled the length of Yugoslavia, from the Hungarian border to where I am now, very near the border with Albania. I have seen the evidence. I have seen more so-called collateral damage than either Western or Serbian media, with their different motivations and limitations, have reported. I have seen an entire village devastated by what was apparently a series of explosions on the railroad that runs alongside it. I have seen industrial plants where tens of thousands of people worked that have been completely destroyed. I have seen more demolished bridges than I can count.

I have also seen roads empty except for police cars, military trucks, and military-police jeeps–everywhere, it seemed. I have seen fighter jets parked in schoolyards and military trucks parked between houses, and all along the way, I have seen country motels transformed into military or military-police bases. I have seen villages of three or four houses where soldiers are sitting on stoops, and I have seen farms where soldiers are lying in the meadows, cradling their AKs. I have seen entire buses of men in their 30s and 40s in uniforms that probably fit better last time they were called up. I have not seen one place, no matter how small, that did not have an apparent military presence.

I have probably seen more than the reporters who are working here officially have seen. And I have probably seen less than I would have if I had traveled roads not used by regular intercity buses. But the military presence I have seen–and so-called general mobilization has not even been announced yet–is evidence that NATO ground troops, should they enter, are in for street-by-street fighting. And the damage I have seen means the fighting will be block by block and house by house. I have also seen the daily rallies, still called “peace concerts,” which are now running into the evening and night and where speakers with suicidal rhetoric have supplanted upbeat music. I have seen tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of people preparing to die for their country.

I agreed with the ballerina, and it will be bloody, very bloody. It was not my place to agree that NATO should “go to the end.” But only that could possibly justify this war, if anything can.