May 12, 1999
JIM LEHRER: Next, a conversation with Steven Erlanger, who has been covering the war in Yugoslavia for the New York Times. He just finished a trip inside Kosovo and talked earlier today by phone from Belgrade with Elizabeth Farnsworth, who is in Denver.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you for being with us, Steve.
STEVEN ERLANGER, New York Times: Happy to be here.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Would you describe, please, the circumstances of your trip, for how long you went and with how much freedom?
STEVEN ERLANGER: I've been in Belgrade since before the beginning of the bombing. And I've been campaigning with the Army press center to be able to go down to Kosovo on my own. And as long as I had this paper from the Army, which authorized me to be there and this press card which I had, I was largely untouched. I mean, I was able to move around. When I was stopped at checkpoints, I was allowed to go through. There were moments when police or Army shooed me away from speaking to people, often clumps of ethnic Albanians waiting by the roadside, but that was often not true. And I was able to travel basically freely, in some ways more freely than I can outside Belgrade normally.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us your overall impression before we get into specifics of Kosovo from this trip. And by the way, how many days were you there?
STEVEN ERLANGER: I was there six full days. The army was willing to extend me a few days, and so I was there from early Monday through late Sunday. And it was a bit like being behind the "Wizard of Oz" and getting to see what actually the story is all about. Now I had been in Kosovo quite a lot from the beginning of this year before the war started, so I had a pretty good idea of what it actually looked like, and the level of destruction was quite shocking. There was a real period of war and rage that went on all over that province. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of houses, mostly of Albanians, which have been burned and trashed. There are areas, mostly Albanian areas of the main cities, that I went to -- which are Pristina, Podujevo, Prizren, and Pec -- that have been looted and trashed.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us about them in Pristina, the capital, which is, I gather, the city you made your hub. Tell us about the ethnic Albanians living there. What shape are they in?
STEVEN ERLANGER: Well, some of them have actually come back to live there. Particularly in the first ten days or so, there was, it seems to me, an organized campaign by the Serbs and Serb paramilitaries to stampede ethnic Albanians out of Pristina. That mostly happened in the Albanian districts on the outside, but Albanians who remain inside Pristina, you know, feel the storm has pretty much passed, but they're still very much afraid. I mean, many of them just live quietly in their apartments; they go out for bread. They're not wandering the streets all that much. They tend to dodge Serb authority when they can. But sometimes their neighbors have gone out shopping for them. Sometimes their Serb neighbors have actually put Serb nameplates on the doors of their apartments. Some Albanian refugees from other parts of Kosovo who have been sort of squatting in Pristina because it's safer have told me they've been ordered out. But, in general, Pristina is a much calmer place. There's a sort of air of normality if you don't look too carefully at the trashed ethnic Albanian areas and the commercial districts and the odd quality of the town, because there are almost no children there. I mean, because the Serbs have largely sent wives and children out of Kosovo while the bombing goes on. And the bombing is an ever- present noise and worry and danger. I mean, it is very scary to drive around Kosovo. You've got the roads basically to yourself and the military. There are a few civilian busses, but most of the busses that go by are full of troops.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us about damage from bombing in the capital city.
STEVEN ERLANGER: NATO has been concentrating its attacks on the outskirts of Pristina, on the airport, on the army, on the fuel dumps, on bridges, roads, artillery pieces when they can be found, tanks when they can be found, concentration of troops when they can be found, on all fuel supplies, on railroad tracks. It's very hard to drive there, because so many of the roads have been blown apart or chopped apart. One ends up taking lots of detours through villages, which is a kind of a chilling feeling, because many of the villages have been depopulated and burned, and there are lots of dead animals everywhere. The roads are littered with dead animals, sometimes from lack of care, sometimes because people are driving so fast to try out-race the bombs that, you know, it doesn't matter what they hit. You just have the sense there of horrible storm of passion and revenge that went through the place, and it can be very eerie, and in other towns than Pristina-- let's say in Prizren, where quite a lot of Albanians were pushed out only about ten days ago now. When I was there, I almost had the feeling I was in the middle of something. The tension was extraordinarily heavy. It was almost rancid. There were hundreds of soldiers and police around. I got stopped every five minutes. Albanians who I tried to talk to pulled away out of fear. Some did talk, of course, but one had the sense that, you know, that there was something terrible happening, and you were in middle of it, and everybody just wanted you gone.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Steve, did Serbs admit what had been done by Serbs to Kosovar Albanians? I was very interested in a quote that you had in one of your articles. One Serb official in Pristina, you said, said, "There are times when something gets broken in the minds of people, and no one is ever the same again." Was it unusual for him to talk with you that way?
STEVEN ERLANGER: A little bit unusual, yes. There are, it may surprise some people, Serbs with a real moral center and who feel a great deal of shame. Understand about Kosovo, I mean, Serbs were probably 6 or 7 percent of the population. Many Serbs who care about Kosovo wouldn't live there. It's a very poor part of the country. They had a feeling, the Serbs who live there, that the Albanians who are taking over their house, if you like, were richer, had more privileges. It was a lot of resentment and a lot of revenge. And when the bombing started, there was definitely, I think a very specific effort to stampede Albanians out of Kosovo. And, you know, you don't have to order everyone to go to have them go. And you don't have to shoot everyone in order to create fear and panic. People do panic. We're all in a way kind of cattle and we get stampeded when we're very afraid. And that is some of what happened, but there were also deaths and shootings and looting and a real viciousness, and a form of evil that Serbs with a conscience will acknowledge privately. Officially, Serbs will say the first ten or twelve days were terribly hard, because the NATO bombs, because of efforts by the Kosovo Liberation Army to attack Serb positions and begin a real insurrection; that there was warfare in large areas of the province, including cities like Podujevo. They'll admit there were days where Podujevo had only 100 people left inside it. There was a lot of fear and terror. Serbs sent their own families out; Albanians fled. It was a form of nightmare. And it's one of reasons they drove the foreign press out in the early days, so that no one could actually see it. But it is now possible to reconstruct some of what has actually happened, and some Serb officials, in some ways you could say they are getting their stories straight, but some of them will acknowledge without question that terrible things happened and they are responsible.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In your stories in the "Times," you reported that some ethnic Albanians have actually fled the NATO bombing. Tell us more about that.
STEVEN ERLANGER: Well, you know, if you're there, there is the constant drum and thud and rumble of NATO aircraft, and a lot of bombs go off, and a lot of the bombs hit areas that they're meant to hit and some of them hit areas that they're not meant to hit and kill civilians. And it's very, very scary, and a lot of people--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Steve, what do ethnic Albanians there say about what it would take now to make them feel safe?
STEVEN ERLANGER: You know, it's a very interesting question because part of the argument that NATO's having with Belgrade is the composition of an international security force to come into Kosovo after a settlement. You know, I could hardly do a scientific poll, but the Albanians I spoke to who remain inside, they do want a foreign presence, and they want a foreign presence with some force behind it. But frankly, who that foreign presence consists of, they are entirely indifferent. They simply want people there between themselves and the Serbs, and they want them fairly quickly, and whether they're Irish or Fijians or Russians or Brits or Americans, I don't think most people really care. They just would like this to end in a way that gives them some degree of justice and gives them some degree of security so they can stop feeling afraid.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Steve Erlanger, thank you very much for being with us.
STEVEN ERLANGER: Happy to do it.