|NEWS FROM THE FRONT|
April 28, 1999
MARGARET WARNER: Joining us is Michael Dobbs, a correspondent for the "Washington Post," with extensive reporting experience in Central and Eastern Europe. He has been reporting from Belgrade for the past month. He's also the author of a just-released biography of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, entitled "Madeleine: A 20th-Century Odyssey." Welcome back to the states. What's it like, Michael, to be in downtown Belgrade with all these bombs going off? Does it feel like you're living in a war zone?
MICHAEL DOBBS, Washington Post: Well, it's a strange mixture of normality and abnormality. I mean, in many ways, life in Belgrade is going on as before. It's rather not as fast-paced as before, but life, street life, is continuing. There's still buses in the streets; there's still -- the cafes and restaurants are open. After 8 o'clock, when the sirens sound for the air raid warning, people tend to go back to their homes, but even then, there's still a bit of life, because people gather on the bridges to act as human shields against the bombing. And then at night, it's rather different. It's sort of much more eerie, spooky. Sometimes you hear the planes coming over; you see the antiaircraft fire going up. And from the hotel where most of the journalists were staying, the Hyatt Hotel, it's very close to what used to be the Socialist Party headquarters, and the headquarters of a few TV stations, so for the last two nights in the last week, journalists have been woken up in the middle of the night with huge explosions.
MARGARET WARNER: Today there was another one of these incidents in which NATO warplanes -- a bomb went off course, and it hit a residential area. Now, this wasn't in Belgrade; it was in Southeastern Serbia. But when something like that happens, how do the Yugoslav authorities react?
MICHAEL DOBBS: As far as foreign journalists are concerned?
MARGARET WARNER: Yes.
MICHAEL DOBBS: Well, foreign journalists are not permitted to travel outside Belgrade freely, so in order to travel to another part of the country, you need to be accompanied by the Yugoslav army in a bus provided by the army. So usually, when there's an incident like that, they think that it's in their interest to take journalists to the scene, as they did yesterday, and as they did a week or so ago with the NATO missile attack on a refugee convoy. So they round up journalists and take them to the scene.
MARGARET WARNER: So tell us about that trip through Kosovo that you and what, 30 other journalists were taken on.
MICHAEL DOBBS: Yes, there was a busload of us. It was -- we couldn't travel that same day because it was getting dark, so they arranged for us to leave very early the next morning. And it turned into a very interesting and, I think, revealing two-day trip. It was very difficult to get to Kosovo, because a number of the bridges have been blown up by NATO planes, and it took us one day to get in and then another day to get out. And they took us to the road where the incident had happened, and we saw -
MARGARET WARNER: This is where the refugee convoy was hit?
MICHAEL DOBBS: Exactly. We saw the terrible scenes of carnage on the road. But we also saw very interesting scenes along the way. We traveled about 200 miles through Kosovo to this -- to the town of Prizren in southwest Kosovo, and -
MARGARET WARNER: How long did it take get there?
MICHAEL DOBBS: It took the better part of a day to get there.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, what would you - how would you describe the conditions, say in these ethnic Albanian villages?
MICHAEL DOBBS: Well, the bus would usually stop actually in a Serb village or a mixed village, and you would see t hat there were very few Albanians living there. The people we talked to by the side of the road were usually Serbs. I did speak to a few Albanians. And they would say that their Albanian neighbors had fled. In one place that we stopped, we stopped next to what had been an Albanian store, which had become a Serb store. It had Serb nationalist insignia on the windows. And people were just helping themselves to whatever they found in the store, so that there was evidence of looting there. There was -- in a number of other places, the Serbs told us about how their Albanian neighbors had fled. Then we saw a village in some -- the destruction was partial. I mean, some villages were reasonably intact, and then the next village you'd come to would be almost totally destroyed -- a lot of evidence of shelling in -
MARGARET WARNER: I'm sorry. Let me just interrupt, because you said you talked - and I know you do speak Serbo-Croatian. When you talked to the local Serbs, not the military, but the people who lived in Kosovo, what was their attitude?
MICHAEL DOBBS: I think their attitude was that "we are winning this war. We have been the oppressed minority for many, many years. Kosovo belongs to us." I mean, there are different -- I don't think you can say that the attitudes are completely uniform. I mean, there are some people who were very aggressive towards us and towards their former Albanian neighbors, and there were other Serbs who I talked to who said they were looking after the property of their Albanian neighbors, and spoke of them quite kindly. So it's not totally uniform, but I think that generally, they felt, for the moment at least -- the Serb minority in Kosovo -- more secure than they have for some time.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, I interrupted you. You were starting to talk about what signs of military activity you saw.
MICHAEL DOBBS: Yes, on the Serb side, we -- I mean, we didn't actually see any shelling going on as we drove through. I think they wouldn't have shelled a village as a busload of foreign journalists was passing. But we saw certainly evidence of very recent shelling, particularly along the Macedonian border, where entire villages had been shelled and were deserted. The town of Prizren was more or less intact, however. But as we went up the road from Prizren to Djakovica, this road where the incident with the refugee column happened, that was -- all the villages on either side of the road were practically destroyed, and had probably been destroyed fairly recently.
MARGARET WARNER: And were Serb tanks and Serb military people very much in evidence?
MICHAEL DOBBS: Well, this was one of the main impressions I had, was that the Serb security forces were well in control, but through a system of checkpoints. But they had dispersed their forces. So it was not as though they were driving tanks along the road. When you saw a tank, as I did in a couple of places, it was usually very well disguised -- for example, hidden in a haystack. And they -- the Serbs have not moved in convoys of troops along those roads. We saw a lot of Serb soldiers in private cars, private cars that may have previously belonged to Albanians. But if they move, they move in civilian vehicles. And from the distance -- from a height of 15,000 feet, which is the height that NATO warplanes are flying, it's very difficult to see whether that vehicle is occupied by a civilian or by Serb military.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, when you got to the scene of this refugee convoy that was hit, could you conclude whether or not -- I mean, I know NATO ultimately admitted it hit the Serb -- the refugee convoy, but were you able to make conclusions about it?
MICHAEL DOBBS: I concluded at the time, as did most of my colleagues, that it had probably been a NATO missile that had hit this convoy. First of all, there were fragments of American weaponry that were just lying around. I mean, they could have been planted, I guess, but I think they were just -- it didn't look like a setup. Secondly, the refugees talked about being bombed from the air. So the alternative is either it was the NATO planes, or it was the Yugoslav air force that had bombed them, and that seemed rather far-fetched, given the fact that NATO claims to have established superiority in the air, and NATO had been operating along that road that day. So the most -- you know, the evidence really pointed to NATO.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, when you get back to Belgrade and you talk to ordinary Serbs, how much do they know about what's going on in Kosovo? And do they discount -- I know a lot of them do have western TV -- do they discount the stories of the refugees? What is their view of what's happening there?
MICHAEL DOBBS: They -- well, again, you get different reactions. This is by no means uniform. A lot of people, particularly in Belgrade, have access to satellite TV. I spent an evening with a Serb family in front of their satellite television watching CNN and watching BBC. So they have access to independent information. They tend to discount quite a bit of it. I mean, there have been some cases where information broadcast by NATO has turned out to be wrong, and so people kind of latch onto that, onto a little piece of information that is wrong, and say, "well, none of it is true." I think that other people suspect that, you know, terrible things are happening in Kosovo. And Serbs have told me that it's quite likely that, you know, many awful things are happening, but this is war that's going on, and just as NATO planes are bombing civilian areas by mistake, civilians are getting killed in Kosovo. I think they tend to think, you know, it's the same on one side as it is on the other.
MARGARET WARNER: Finally how free, how independent do you feel as a journalist there? Are you free to report what you see and hear?
MICHAEL DOBBS: Certainly free to report what I saw and heard. That doesn't mean that I see and hear everything, particularly outside Belgrade. We'd like to travel much more freely than we were able to. I think for print reports, it is somewhat freer than for TV reporters. For TV there is what amounts to censorship. For print, up until now, there's been no censorship, and we are free to go round Belgrade, talk to whomever we want and file our reports normally at the end of the day.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, I wish we had more time, but thanks, Michael Dobbs, very much.
MICHAEL DOBBS: Thank you.