Dispatches From the War Zone

Click here for Slate’s complete Kosovo coverage.

Just before leaving for Belgrade from a certain Eastern European city, I stumbled upon the following news item: In light of the NATO bombings, a Russian publishing house was canceling Monica Lewinsky’s publicity tour scheduled for the summer. “How did the entire world manage to lose its mind in just a couple of days?” I screamed, perhaps exaggerating just slightly. “I know,” a colleague agreed. “Things seemed to be OK, didn’t they? And now that they’ve done this, how do you stuff all this shit back in?” By “they” she meant NATO, not the publishing house.

The “shit” is an instantly transformed political and military situation in this part of the world. The bombings have turned Russia from a country split between its Western aspirations and its national pride into a land seeped in anti-Americanism and vintage Cold War rhetoric. And in Serbia itself, they have, in just one week, all but destroyed independent media, killed off the last of the non-nationalist political opposition and, as everyone outside of Serbia and Russia knows, turned the situation in Kosovo from bad to catastrophic.

Of course, I have something of a vested interest in bombs not falling, being that I’m here and would like to get out alive. And I am surrounded by people whose life goal has shifted from fighting the Milosevic regime to surviving. But whom besides civilians like them did NATO think it would be putting at risk? So far I have heard lots of talk from NATO and the Western press of bombing military equipment. But what about the people assembling it? Today I learned that at least two such plants, both of which have been bombing targets, are deliberately exposing their workers to risk–one has required workers to show up daily to clean up the rubble, while the other has formed a human shield around the plant.

Since he has been in power, Milosevic has consistently demonstrated a willingness to part with an unlimited number of his citizens, whether they die in battle, emigrate, or are denied basic life-sustaining food and medicine as a result of international sanctions and an economy sacrificed to war. So, did the Western alliance think that once they started bombing, allowing the regime to claim that Serbia was the object of aggression, Milosevic would suddenly grow protective of his people? That he would, in essence, become less of a tyrant once he was declared one?

Trying to find some semblance of logic in NATO’s actions is the most difficult task facing anyone in this country who chooses to concern himself with it. Perhaps it’s just as well that the independent media have had to submit to censorship, since they would have an awfully difficult time criticizing the president even if they had the opportunity. For the first time since the Balkan wars began, there is no denying that Milosevic is being treated unfairly. It is blatantly unfair to have negotiated with him as an equal partner on Bosnia and then to interfere in an armed conflict inside his own country. It is blatantly unfair to have allowed Boris Yeltsin (to name just one of the closest neighbors) to bomb the life out of Chechnya, meanwhile supporting Russia with financial aid and even accepting it into the Council of Europe, and then to bomb Yugoslavia over Kosovo.

For better or for worse–well, probably for worse–Kosovo is, by any legal standard, a part of Serbia. Just as important, it is an integral part of Serbia emotionally and economically. Bosnia was important to Serbs, but it was something like the gallbladder–it can hurt, it can bleed, it can kill you if starts rotting, but if it is removed, you will survive. For most Serbs, who have never even set foot in Kosovo, it is like the heart: Every schoolchild knows that Kosovo is the cradle of Serbian civilization, the site of the Serbs’ most glorious military moment, the battle of Kosovo Polje. The Serbs lost that one, by the way, and the fact that they continue to celebrate it as a triumph of their heroics should give NATO an indication of Serbs’ very particular brand of fighting spirit. Not coincidentally, Kosovo was also the site of Milosevic’s greatest glory, the moment he emerged from the ranks of the gray Yugoslavian nomenklatura to speak up for Serbian national pride. He has been their leader and hero ever since.

Serbs also believe that Kosovo holds much of their national wealth–that it is literally the country’s gold mine. They claim that there is more gold and other metals to be found there than anywhere else in Europe. The claims are difficult to confirm, of course, but they make for a long-standing expectation that someday, when Kosovo is perhaps no longer populated primarily by Albanians, Serbs will mine their loot. Already, Kosovo provides a significant portion of Serbia’s electricity. It is inconceivable, Serbs believe, that Kosovo would ever be severed from Serbia. Of course, until a couple of days ago we all thought that it was inconceivable that anyone would drop bombs in downtown Belgrade. Now we keep expecting them.

How you stuff all this shit back in I do not know. Perhaps it is a job for ground troops. But couldn’t someone have thought about this before the world went nuts?