Learning About The Serbs-As A Captive

I arrived in Bosnian serb territory at the invitation of Sonja Karadzic, a would-be pop singer who runs the press office for her dad, the president. NATO bombers had been working the Bosnian skies all day, and reconnaissance jets could be heard far overhead. "There's a small problem," a military policeman said, scowling at my American passport and un-shouldering his short-barreled machine gun. "Come this way." Once we were out of sight of possible witnesses, he tied a smelly handkerchief across my eyes and led me down the road. I peeked, keeping my eyes on that gun. I reminded myself that Bosnian Serbs like to take Western hostages when threatened, but so far they hadn't killed any.

U.N. peacekeepers had hoodwinked the Serbs--by pulling their blue-helmeted potential hostages out of harm's way. The last British troops left Gorazde a full day before the first F-16 bombing runs. The Bosnian Serbs made up the shortfall by issuing a rare invitation to journalists, then detaining them as they pitched up at the border town of Zvornik. I was among six who took up the suspicious offer, and we were soon locked up in a military barracks.

The Bosnian Serbs have, to say the least, a PR problem. I was led into an officer's cubbyhole. Soldiers came in from time to time-their boots gave them away-and hooted, "Heil Hitler." It was hard to tell if they were addressing me, or one another, but either way the laughter wasn't amusing. A woman's voice snapped out, in English: "You are Turk-lover." (The Serbs call the Muslims "Turks," which they're not.) "You're bombing my country," a man snarled. Otherwise, no one told me or asked me anything.

Then the blindfold came off. The same Serbs offered me a cup of cold "Turkish coffee." American, Dutch and Greek journalists were brought in. With more of an audience, our captors wanted to reason. "NATO's airstrikes are disproportionate to the offense," one said. The woman who called me a Turk-lover complained that civilians were being killed in the air raids outside Sarajevo; inside the city, civilians are slaughtered by Serb firepower daily. None of these earnest folks would give their names. I was struck again by that peculiarly Serb ability to complain about how victimized they are, at the same time that they're being bullies.

It was over after one night. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke personally raised the issue with the Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic used to simply dissociate himself from the bad behavior of his Bosnian proteges. Now that he's forced them to agree to let him negotiate on their behalf, there is, as one diplomat put it, "a whole new set of rules." The fortunate result was that we weren't chained to ammo dumps or staked out on runways as human shields. Our families were spared being told that we died in the bombing. (The day we were freed, the Serbs also released video showing five European Union monitors alive after they had announced that NATO raids had killed them.) And of course, our homes were not burned to the ground, our relatives weren't raped, our bodies weren't bruised. We had powerful friends, unlike the local Muslims.

Uncontrolled powers in an outlaw state can't help behaving like . . . outlaws, After a bit of last-minute robbery of valuables from my luggage, my captors released me. One of the Zvornik military policemen said, as if all this were perfectly normal and we could now quite easily be friends: "It was just a misunderstanding." I'm afraid that we understand all too well.

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