Gul Agha Shirzai was the governor of Kandahar Province in the early 1990’s, an infamous period filled with anarchy that was shocking even by Afghan standards. Gul Agha was personally acquainted with the ethos of those times. In 1989, his father, who had joined the jihad after the Soviet invasion in 1979 and became a respected commander and Pashtun tribal leader, was murdered by a cook who slipped arsenic into his lunch. Avenging the crime, Gul Agha tied the cook to a tree, shot him with a Kalashnikov and hung his shredded corpse from a branch for a week.
When the United States government went shopping last fall for someone to lead an army into the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, Gul Agha re-emerged as America’s go-to warlord. He had spent seven years in luxurious exile in Pakistan, waiting for a chance to get rid of the black-turbaned Taliban mullahs who’d gotten rid of him. In early November, he slipped into Afghanistan with a ragtag army of 1,500 Afghan fighters and joined up in the border village of Shinarai with a honed unit of a dozen or so American Special Forces soldiers who arrived in helicopters at night. In the days that followed, weapons arrived after dark, too, falling to earth in wood crates shoved from the bellies of American military aircraft. The crates, attached to parachutes, contained Kalashnikov assault rifles, serrated steel bayonets and rocket-propelled grenades, and they were collected outside Shinarai by the Special Forces troops who gave them to Gul Agha.
A day before his march on Kandahar began, Gul Agha assembled his newly weaponized fighters by a stream outside Shinarai. The first speeches were delivered by local mullahs who urged a just war that would bring freedom to the Pashtun-dominated southern chunk of Afghanistan still held by the Taliban. Gul Agha, the last to speak, ordered his men not to take revenge on Taliban soldiers who surrendered—they were mostly Pashtuns, too, after all. But Arab and Pakistani fighters of Al Qaeda should receive no mercy, he said, because they brought ruin to the nation.
He wasn’t finished.
“If I find somebody who takes revenge on Afghans, or who indulges in looting or something illegal,” he added, “I promise you that in times of war I get very excited, and I will shoot you.”
He turned to the mullahs at his side.
“If I shoot soldiers violating my rules, would that be sinful?”
The mullahs could not respond quick enough.
“Shoot them, shoot them on sight,” they advised.
It is unwise to believe everything, or anything, a warlord tells you in Afghanistan, but when Gul Agha threatens violence, he is a man of his word. One of his commanders recited for me a variety of insults Gul Agha shouts at soldiers who do not please him, but the curses are just a warmup.
“When he’s really angry,” the commander smiled, “he doesn’t say much. He just punches.”
This is a key difference between Gul Agha and Hamid Karzai, the interim prime minister of Afghanistan. The United States government, seeking a Westernized Pashtun to boot the Taliban from Kandahar, assigned a larger number of Special Forces soldiers to Karzai, and far earlier, than to Gul Agha; Karzai was even whisked into the country in an American helicopter, whisked out again when he got into trouble, then whisked back in. But Karzai, a former deputy foreign minister who speaks fluent English, had never commanded anything grander than a government driver, and he rarely visited the front lines. His troops, based north of Kandahar, never reached the city.
Today it may appear, from titles alone, that Hamid Karzai is the leader of Afghanistan. Actually, he is a figurehead, chosen at the behest of United States officials. Afghan delegates at the conference in Bonn that selected the government have told reporters they voted for Karzai only because American officials instructed them to. Karzai’s largest following is in Washington, not Afghanistan.
That’s why, after the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan is in the callused hands of men like Gul Agha—veteran warlords who know and care more about power and money than about human rights or civil society. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a warlord who switched sides so many times in the past decades that he gave betrayal a bad name, is back in power in Mazar-i-Sharif and has shown little regard for Karzai. Ismail Khan, another pre-Taliban leader, has returned to Herat and does not wake up in the morning waiting for orders from Kabul. Other regions are divvied up among smaller warlords, and most are doing what Gul Agha is doing—mouthing politically correct words of fealty to Karzai but treating him as little more than a delivery boy for aid checks the United States and its allies have pledged to write.
“Is lunch ready?”
Gul Agha is hungry. After a monthlong march on Kandahar, he has captured the Taliban’s spiritual capital, and now, a few days after he entered the city in a Toyota Land Cruiser, it is time for his midday meal.
“Not yet,” replies a bodyguard in military fatigues.
“Then go and prepare it,” Gul Agha orders. “We must have lunch.”
The new governor of Kandahar Province is a large man of large appetites, not just for food, but for battle and laughter and power. He speaks in a rough growl, as if his mouth is full, which it often is, but even when it isn’t, his words are slurred, like Marlon Brando in “The Godfather.” The absence of a front tooth or two only partly explains matters.
He sits cross-legged on a patio at a military barracks opposite the governor’s office building that people call the “palace”—a palace he has vacated for the day because several hundred anti-tank mines and tank shells are being removed from its roof. The fleeing Taliban planned to detonate the munitions once he moved in, but an informer blew up the plot to blow up the new governor.
Today’s luncheon involves 20-odd merchants and elders, gathered alongside and opposite Gul Agha. I am seated on his left. We are soon served chicken in mustard sauce, as well as rice and nan, the oblong Afghan bread, all of which we eat with our fingers, as is customary. Hefty and ravenous, Gul Agha does not cut a pretty sight while feeding.
A man walks up, looking for a spot on the floor. Gul Agha eyes him and says, “Take off your shoes,” and addresses him with an insult to him and his mother.
The shoes vanish in a split-second shuffle, and everyone laughs, including Gul Agha, who uses profanity as a way of saying hello. With his audience assembled and warmed up, it is time to talk about his favorite subject: war.
“When the enemy attacks,” Gul Agha begins, “I fight them face to face. I do not hide behind my soldiers. When I came into the Kandahar airport, we were in four cars, and I was in the first car. The Arabs came at us. I told my soldiers that anyone who runs is a [see insult above]. I took out my Kalashnikov and killed three Arabs. When my soldiers saw that I killed three Arabs, they were encouraged and jumped from their cars and ran at the Arabs. We killed 18 Arabs at the gate of the airport.”
His version of events may not be precisely true; perhaps he killed only one Arab, perhaps none. But the essence of what he says is correct. I talked with dozens of his commanders and soldiers, and all said admiringly that Gul Agha leads from the front, not the rear. They also spoke admiringly of his bullying; Afghan fighters may have a tough reputation, but in truth they are not reliable and are prone to fighting among themselves or preying upon civilians, especially if they are thrown together as hastily as Gul Agha’s army. Without a commander willing to kill his own men, battles cannot be won in Afghanistan.
Khalid Pashtun, who lived in the United States for more than 20 years and is Gul Agha’s chief adviser, says he believes that the man he serves is a great warrior and that perhaps the man Gul Agha is supposed to serve is not. “Mr. Karzai was in Uruzgan Province for two months,” Pashtun explained to me. Uruzgan Province lies just north of Kandahar Province. “But he didn’t have the guts to get close to Kandahar.”
So in Kandahar, as in the rest of Afghanistan, the Taliban are gone and the warlords are back, and the last time they were in charge the country slipped into a horrid civil war to which the hand-chopping, head-chopping Taliban were the puritanical solution. And right now the biggest warlord of them all is sitting at my side, blowing his nose into the tail of his turban. Gul Agha is ready to tell another story.
“Mullah Omar said, ‘I want to fight Gul Agha once because I have heard about him a lot, and I want to see if he is a good fighter.’ I said, ‘I will give you a knife, and I will have a knife, and we will be alone, face to face, and we’ll see which [that expletive, again] will shout first”—and once more, the insult involving one’s mother.
The Special Forces soldiers who were with Gul Agha had two tasks: coordinate airdrops of supplies and coordinate airstrikes. The second task was more crucial, because without the firepower of the United States Air Force, Gul Agha and his soldiers would not have gotten out of Shinarai.
The Americans lived and worked closely with Gul Agha, according to several senior commanders of his who used, in separate interviews, the same phrase—“shoulder to shoulder.” The soldiers pitched their tents next to Gul Agha’s tent, or shared rooms in the same compound, and frequently ate with him. The campaign’s military strategy was dictated by the Americans—Gul Agha’s troops would probe forward, drawing Taliban fire, then retreat so that American fighter jets could attack the newly revealed Taliban positions.
Initially, Gul Agha was nervous about the Americans—how would his troops react to foreigners in their midst? Might that cause trouble? As things turned out, according to Yusuf Pashtun, a senior adviser to Gul Agha, the opposite was true—whenever the Americans slipped from view, as happened when they went to the front lines or met a helicopter bringing supplies or new personnel, the rank-and-file would get nervous that the Americans were abandoning the fight.
“Our soldiers became so enthusiastic about the Americans, they would say, when they weren’t around, ‘Where are the Americans?”’ Pashtun explained. “We told them they were resting, that it was not fighting time.”
There were three key battles—at the Kandahar airport, at the strategic town of Takhteh Pol and at a village called Potaki. The battle at Potaki was the first, and it occurred because Gul Agha was double-crossed.
It is acceptable in Afghan warfare for commanders to switch sides for the right price, and after an appropriate payment was made to secure the loyalty of several hundred Taliban troops near Potaki, they fell in line behind Gul Agha’s men—and promptly opened fire on them.
Gul Agha, along with his Special Forces friends, was encircled: mountains on either side, Taliban in front and back. The terrain was typical of southern Afghanistan—dusty, arid, nothing for an army to hide behind. But the Special Forces team knew what to do: they quickly called in airstrikes on the Taliban positions, which were shredded by American fighter jets.
The precision and devastation of the attack was magic to Daro Khan, another of Gul Agha’s commanders. (In Gul Agha’s army, there are only the ranks of commander and soldier.) I met Khan at a Kandahar medical school where his 100 soldiers were billeted; judging from the distinct aroma in the room, some of his men had been smoking hashish, which is the equivalent, among Gul Agha’s fighters, to G.I.‘s downing a beer at the end of the day.
“Without the bombing we would have been finished,” Khan recalled. “But when the Americans bombed we were able to counterattack and break free. We killed many Arabs and Talibs.”
Khan, who has a full beard and a bald head and a loose tongue (he talked about killing captured Arabs), evoked the enthusiasm of a child with a new toy when he described looking through night-vision goggles for the first time; an American soldier had asked him to figure out whether a vehicle in the distance was friendly. (It was.) “I didn’t know these things existed,” Khan said.
As much as he admires Gul Agha, he credits the fall of Kandahar to a greater power.
“Give me 50 soldiers, and with the help of American bombing I could capture all of Afghanistan in a week,” he said.
But in Afghanistan you need more than smart bombs to win a war; you need cash. You need to pay fighters so they won’t loot, you need to buy food so they won’t steal it and you need to purchase gas for their 4-by-4’s. Most crucially, you need cash to entice enemy commanders and soldiers to switch sides, as Gul Agha thought he had done at Potaki.
The going rate last fall was several thousand dollars for a midlevel commander and as little as $30 a head for soldiers, in Pakistani rupees. Also, Gul Agha did not imprison surrendering Afghans; he gave them pocket money and told them to go home.
Muhammad Anwar seemed a good bet to know where the money was coming from. Anwar is a commander in Gul Agha’s army and one of his best friends; in calm moments during the march on Kandahar, the two men indulged in their favorite form of tension reduction—wrestling each other.
I met Anwar at his headquarters in Kandahar—a two-story building without windows, carpets, chairs, lights or decorations of any sort, except for mold on the walls and crates of grenades on the floor. He would not tell me how much cash Gul Agha spent, or who supplied it—no prizes for guessing that one—but he said Gul Agha had the foresight to bring rupees rather than dollars, the currency with which the hapless Hamid Karzai paid his inch-a-day men, even though merchants in rural Uruzgan Province would not accept greenbacks.
“We brought a car of cash with us,” Anwar said. “It was a Land Cruiser, full of money. I think it was resupplied too.”
During the march on Kandahar, Gul Agha’s wallet was a Toyota.
After the battle of Takhteh Pol, which cut a crucial road between Kandahar and Pakistan, Gul Agha moved on Kandahar’s airport; capture that, and you have the city in your hands. The airport, however, was defended by several hundred Arab and Pakistani fighters of Al Qaeda who could not be seduced by Toyota money.
The battle was fierce and involved heavy American airstrikes that were coordinated by the Special Forces troops. When journalists first asked questions, Gul Agha’s commanders confirmed that they were under orders from Gul Agha to execute Al Qaeda fighters who surrendered at the airport, and had done so. Once they realized it is not acceptable for soldiers who are fighting alongside the Special Forces to engage in such behavior or, at least, to tell journalists about it, the commanders and Gul Agha insisted they didn’t harm P.O.W.‘s at the airport.
It was at the airport that Gul Agha had his Hollywood moment. The fighting was nearly finished; just a few pops of gunfire here and there, a whoosh or two of rocket-propelled grenades in the distance. Gul Agha, as usual, had been at the front line all the time, rushing from commander to commander, making sure everyone was doing his job, which was killing. As the battle died down, he stood near the battered terminal building, surrounded by more than 20 Arab corpses heaped on the ground like bloody rag dolls, and, according to several commanders, savored his success.
“Look!” he shouted happily to his fighters, like a real-estate agent drawing attention to a great view. “Look at the Arabs now. They controlled our country but now they are destroyed. Look at them!” It was like Robert Duvall, in “Apocalypse Now,” loving the smell of napalm in the morning.
With the airport in Gul Agha’s hands, the Taliban needed to flee Kandahar. They made a hasty deal to surrender the city to Mullah Naqib Ullah, a onetime commander who was on friendly terms with them. Mullah Naqib Ullah, in turn, would support Karzai. It’s not clear whether Gul Agha was part of the deal or whether he was being cut out, or what role the United States might have played, but Gul Agha’s forces rushed from the airport to the dusty city and captured it without firing a shot on Dec. 7. The Taliban were finished; Gul Agha was the victor.
A few days later, Gul Agha was in sultan mode, enthroned on a plastic chair in the reception hall of the governor’s office building, which is in the center of a city built, principally, of mud. Above him, there were vaulted ceilings and murals that had been whitewashed by the Taliban because they portrayed famous Afghan leaders of the past; Gul Agha’s men had un-whitewashed the murals. The floor was covered by new carpets (the old ones vanished with the Taliban) upon which legions of supplicants inched forward, waiting to pay their respects to the man who booted Mullah Muhammad Omar out of town. Gul Agha sat behind a knee-high table that held an assortment of nuts, raisins and cookies, and behind him were two bodyguards in military fatigues; at least a dozen more wandered through the crowd.
Gul Agha was multitasking, shaking one man’s hand as his other hand was being kissed by someone else, and during this he spoke to a third man and might have embraced a fourth. Everyone wanted to see him, touch him, hear him, but most of all, I suspect, they wanted the cash that was inside the envelopes he was handing out. At times, a warlord must be an A.T.M.
“You are all like thieves,” he growled, warmly. “You always want something from me.”
A man came along, tapped him on the shoulder and whispered, “I have some special news,” and Gul Agha walked off to a corner of the room with him. He returned and pulled out a pack of Benson & Hedges for a cigarette break. The commotion continued. An old man approached and leaned forward to hug him; a soldier marched forward in large goose steps and saluted him; a man in a wheelchair rolled front and center. The healthy, the lame, the young, the old—the gathering was biblical in its scope, and in the end, it was too much for Gul Agha, who began sobbing.
“This is my happiest day,” he said between tears that were wiped away with a handkerchief. “I am with my people. I will never have such a day again. For seven years I was in Pakistan. I could not come to my country. Now I will do everything for the nation. I will work for the people.”
It is impossible to enter into another person’s mind, especially if that person is an Afghan warlord, but I think Gul Agha meant what he said—or at the least, he meant it at the moment he said it. His emotions are as large as his girth, and sadness and generosity are not foreign lands to him. But how long will his determination to do good last?
If he becomes a decent leader, it would be a surprising twist in a life full of surprises. He was born into poverty, like most Afghans; his father, who ran a restaurant outside Kandahar, named him Shafeeq. He was not a good student, though he did show an early aptitude for violence. He always carried a knife, according to one of his classmates.
When Gul Agha began fighting under his father he took on his current name, which means “flower.” When his father was poisoned, Gul Agha took on greater responsibilities and added a new name—Shirzai, which means “son of lion.”
But what is on the mind of the lion’s offspring? The United States military would seem to be interested in that question. Special Forces soldiers are never far from Gul Agha’s side—you glimpse them, from time to time, meeting him in back rooms of the palace. And he appears to enjoy their proximity, because America is all-powerful in Afghanistan, at least for now.
Following the American line, Gul Agha says he favors a United Nations peacekeeping force and supports the notion of disarmament, though it is clear he would prefer that weapons be seized from soldiers who are not his own. He knows that there are too many armed men in Afghanistan and that something needs to be done, soon, to prevent a return of pre-Taliban chaos.
That night at the palace, after the tears and the crowd had subsided, I asked Gul Agha why anyone should believe that his new rule will be any less bloody and corrupt than it was the last time, between 1992 and 1994.
“It will never happen again,” he said. “The people of Afghanistan need to reconstruct their country for the future. We will never do what we did in 1992. All my commanders have promised me on the Holy Koran that they will never do evil again. They will work together.”
But the country is already falling apart. The roads between Kandahar and Kabul and Herat are dangerous once again; there are robberies and killings that, under the Taliban, had ceased. Discipline among soldiers is eroding; when I visited a small unit of Gul Agha’s fighters one day, and their commander was away, the fighters demanded money, and I sensed violence in their illiterate minds. I made a quick retreat. Across Afghanistan, bored fighters are a payday away from pillaging.
The destruction of the Taliban has made the United States a safer country, but the same cannot be said for Afghanistan.
In the early days of the Bosnian War, Colin Powell, who at the time chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came to the conclusion that stopping the fighting would require the use of 250,000 troops. Then-President George Bush took his advice to heart and, fearing another Vietnam, opted to keep U.S. troops at home, safe and sound. Powell’s estimate seemed reasonable because the fighting in Bosnia was vicious, and under the Powell Doctrine, the U.S. government, when intervening abroad, would rely on the military equivalent of a sledgehammer, never a chisel. You can’t miss with a sledgehammer, Powell believed.
In Washington, few politicians challenged Powell’s judgment. The headlines from Bosnia told stark tales of torture, executions, concentration camps, and sieges. Bosnia was in the grip of genocide, and genocide, as everyone knows, is a massive and infernal machine-Evil and Apocalypse entwined-and it cannot be defeated on the cheap. Americans tend to equate the face of genocide with Adolf Hitler, not Radovan Karadzic. If you want to defeat Hitlerian evil, you must, it follows, amass the forces of D-Day and have a great generation on hand to storm the beaches (or mountains or deserts or jungles, as the case may be). Understandably, few politicians wished to send untold numbers of GIs to an obscure and violent country where it was hard to figure out who was committing genocide against whom and where American blood would seep into soil that contained no oil.
If you were in Bosnia at the time, as I was, the situation would not have appeared so fuzzy. You might have wondered, as I did, where Powell was planning to put all those troops, and what they would do. Genocide is a strange animal; it is monstrous, but not a monster. I met and occasionally shared a glass of brandy with more than a few war criminals in Bosnia, and I learned that these were not brave men and women, and that their numbers were not so immense. Many of the atrocities in the war were committed by paramilitary squads drawn heavily from Serbia’s underworld; these soldiers-I use the word with great caution-were excellent killers of civilians and takers of whatever loot they could find, but they would not have fared well against an army, which, at the beginning of the war, the newly independent Bosnian government did not have. That is why the Serbs were able to seize so much territory at the start-they faced no organized opposition. Once it took shape, Bosnia’s army found itself fighting an uphill battle and suffering from an international arms embargo that starved it of the weapons it needed to mount offensives (or defensives).
The siege of Sarajevo was maintained by heavy weapons and lazy soldiers like Dragisa, who made a point of not volunteering his last name when I visited him in the fall of 1992 at his place of work, a fortified machine-gun nest in the hills above the Bosnian capital. His job, and the job of the three soldiers he worked with, was to fire occasionally at the Sarajevans below them. Their aim was to terrify as much as kill. Return fire was infrequent, more a nuisance than a threat. Dragisa, who had a middle-aged paunch, possessed the high ground as well as a big gun and was surrounded by folded coils of ammunition that evoked the image of a pit of lazy snakes. He made himself comfortable in a cozy bunker with a stove. He was a bully, not a fighter. A few miles up the road from his lair, I visited one of his leaders, Biljana Plavsic. Plavsic is now on trial at The Hague as an architect of Bosnia’s genocide, but in 1992 she operated out of a hotel at the Jahorina ski resort, which was closed for business because of the war. After walking down a maze of empty corridors, I found her alone in a small office, shivering in a winter jacket. There was no heat, no electricity. This was no Berchtesgaden.
That is what Bosnia’s genocide looked like from the inside-cowardly and pathetic. This truth had the misfortune of going against conventional wisdom and political convenience, and so it was ignored or disbelieved for far too long. “The Serbs are not ten-foot-tall headhunters who would fight to the last drop of blood,” an American diplomat in Zagreb told me one day. “Why don’t we bomb targets in Bosnia and Serbia? My God, what are we paying $200 billion a year for-what is our military for? If you define our army as a force that won’t risk taking casualties, then we don’t have an army. We have Boy Scouts.” A few hours later, the diplomat called and asked that I not use the quote, even though, as he knew, I would not cite his name. He was afraid that Powell would figure out who was behind the swipe and exact some form of bureaucratic revenge. It was dangerous for American officials in the Balkans to bring inconvenient facts to the attention of their superiors back home.
Genocide is a fearsome word, evoking a phenomenon nearly biblical in its fury; we should not be surprised that politicians retreat in its presence. How can a few thousand GIs defeat it? Would not their weapons be like spears against a tidal wave? But we should not feel helpless in the search for the DNA of genocide and ways to defeat it. Genocide is a policy, not a monster. It is implemented, often imperfectly, by men and women, not Goliaths. With skill and luck, it can be defeated by military intervention. Not always, but sometimes. The genocides of the 1990s in Bosnia and Rwanda succeeded not because they were unstoppable, but because international opposition was almost nonexistent. In Washington, defeating genocide was less important than getting it off the front page, even if that meant letting genocide succeed.
There was another route. The conflict in Afghanistan presented American policymakers with all of the obstacles that stopped them in their tracks in Bosnia: an apparently fearsome opponent (the Taliban, which wasn’t so fearsome once the fighting began); a potentially slippery slope beginning with limited intervention (which wasn’t so slippery in Afghanistan, because, as of this writing, there appears little prospect of long-term military action); and geographical terrain that was unfavorable to the weapons and warriors of a superpower (yet the rugged Afghan mountains did not protect the Taliban from destruction). If we could crush the Taliban in Afghanistan, we could have crushed the Serbs in Bosnia. The missing factor, in the Balkans, was quite simply the desire to fight that war.
Among soldiers, defeat lingers longer than victory because it involves a loss of pride and a loss of lives on a mission that failed. These failures stain the mind forever, like dye on a shroud. That has been the case with the generation of officers who fought in Vietnam and who decided that the next time they were called upon to do violence in a distant land, they would make sure they had all the resources needed to win. Colin Powell, an Army major in Vietnam during the heaviest fighting there, turned those sentiments into national policy when, as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993, he formulated his eponymous doctrine. Distilled to its essence, the Powell Doctrine calls on civilian leaders to do two things in considering war-provide the military with a clear mission and give the military whatever resources it deems necessary to carry it out. Here is how, in a PBS interview that aired in January 1996, Powell described his preference for “decisive force” in a foreign engagement: “If this is important enough to go to war for, we’re going to do it in a way that there’s no question what the outcome will be, and we’re going to do it by [using] the force necessary to take the initiative away from [the] enemy and impose [our] will upon him. If you’re not serious enough to do that, then you ought to think twice about going to war.”
In the winter of 1992, as he fended off demands for U.S. military action in Bosnia, Powell described the flip side of his doctrine. “If force is used imprecisely or out of frustration rather than clear analysis, the situation can be made worse,” he wrote in a Foreign Affairs article entitled “U.S. Forces: Challenges Ahead.” “We should always be skeptical,” he continued, “when so-called experts suggest that all a particular crisis calls for is a little surgical bombing or a limited attack. When the ‘surgery’ is over and the desired result is not obtained, a new set of experts then comes forward with talk of just a little escalation-more bombs, more men and women, more force. History has not been kind to this approach to war-making. In fact, this approach has been tragic.”
In the war on Iraq, Bush the Elder’s administration provided a clear mission-liberate Kuwait-and authorized the decisive force requested by the Pentagon. Powell was thus able to stand before journalists on January 23, 1991, and announce with the confidence of a general who had a half-million troops preparing to attack, “Here’s our plan for the Iraqi Army: We’re going to cut it off, then we’re going to kill it.” When the dust settled after the hundred-hour ground war, the Iraqi Army had not been killed. Enough of it remained to keep Saddam Hussein in power. But the Iraqi Army had been forced from Kuwait, and the loss of American life was slight. Powell was a hero, hailed as a visionary who knew when and how to fight.
Bosnia was everything Iraq was not, or so it seemed. The threat to U.S. security was not apparent. How could a country that most Americans had never heard of become, all of a sudden, so important that we should shed blood for it? In Washington, Slobodan Milosevic was not viewed as a Balkan Saddam or even a Balkan Mussolini. In fact, there was no shortage of American officials treating him as a respectable statesman. Even if Milosevic was guilty of war crimes that threatened our national interest-a big “if” at the time-what should our intervention seek to achieve: a cessation of fighting, a withdrawal of Serb forces from Bosnia, or the downfall of Milosevic? Powell sensed a quagmire. In an October 8, 1992 New York Times opinion piece entitled “Why Generals Get Nervous,” he did not hide his disdain for reporters whose dispatches indicated a need for American action. “We have learned the lessons of history,” he wrote, “even if some journalists have not.”
But journalists were not the only ones who failed to genuflect before the lessons of history that Powell worshipped. In the crucial first year of the Bosnian War, Madeleine Albright, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was the principal advocate for intervention within the Clinton administration. She was not afraid to speak her mind to Powell, asking him, during one contentious meeting, “What’s the point in having this superb military you are always talking about if we can’t use it?” This was an accusation, and as Powell recalled in his 1995 autobiography, “I thought I would have an aneurysm.”
Powell cherished the warning from George Santayana that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But Powell turned the warning into dogma, failing to realize that the future may not resemble the past, and yesterday’s lessons may not solve tomorrow’s problems. Albright realized this. The daughter of a Czech diplomat who fled to America as the Second World War began, she knew a genocide when she saw it, and she knew the genocide in Bosnia could be stopped, if only the men with stars on their shoulders could look at Bosnia without seeing Vietnam.
The Bosnian Serb Army consisted of approximately fifty thousand soldiers, according to most estimates. They were a less-than-awesome force, not for any lack of armaments-they had adequate stocks of small weapons, mortars, artillery and tanks-but for their training and morale. The army was an ad hoc collection of new conscripts and veterans of the Yugoslav National Army. For the most part, they had not fought to capture the territory they held in Bosnia. They pretty much took what they wanted in the first weeks of the war, when there was no organized opposition to the paramilitary death squads that were the shock troops of genocide. Until the final months of the war, little territory changed hands. Serbs held about 70 percent of the country almost from start to finish. Their principal strategy was not to attack, but to bomb and besiege and wait for the other side to surrender. It was an effective strategy.
General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military leader who has since been indicted for war crimes, had a sufficient number of loyalists to lead his troops, but the troops themselves were reluctant to stick their necks out. Except for the early days of the war, there were no queues at recruiting outposts in Serb-held territory; instead, there were roadside checkpoints to prevent fighting-age males from escaping to Serbia. Although the vast majority of Serbs in Bosnia supported the war, few wanted to die for the cause; they had no stomach for close combat against people who could defend themselves.
I learned this lesson in Banja Luka, the largest city under Serb control. On a hot afternoon in the summer of 1992, I came across a teenager named Boris. His blond hair was tied into a ponytail and he wore the sort of small-lensed glasses worn by John Lennon; for all I knew, Boris was a Beatles fan, too. The war was not six months old, but already Boris had no appetite for it. “The Serb people are being seduced,” he told me. “They don’t know what is happening. They see what they want to see, or what others want them to see.”
But Boris was no dissident. He would turn eighteen soon, draft age, and when I asked what he would do he didn’t need to think about it. “I will go to the army,” he replied. “It’s better than jail.” I don’t know what happened to Boris, but it seems unlikely that he would have stepped forward when a call went out in his unit for volunteers for dangerous missions. He was not unusual. There were kids like Boris throughout the Bosnian Serb Army, kids who would much rather watch MTV than risk their lives in a war that was destroying a way of life that had been quite agreeable to them.
There was a Wizard-of-Oz quality to the Serb military machine-look behind the curtain and you will not find the ten-foot tall monsters you expect. This state of affairs was illustrated, vividly, in the winter of 1992, when I visited the town of Rogatica, a choke point of the four-year Serb siege of Gorazde, where thousands were killed by the shells or the cold or the lack of food. Gorazde suffered a shortage of everything but ways to die. I was traveling with two British colleagues, and because we didn’t have passes to be in the area, the commander at Rogatica greeted us by threatening to shoot us. We received the usual anti-NATO, anti-Muslim spiel, then were invited to his office, where the ashtray consisted of a spent artillery shell. One of us said something that enraged the commander and he proceeded to blow up again, grabbing my notebook and ripping pages from it.
After threatening, again, to kill us, he quieted down and apologized for his behavior. He returned my notebook. We talked some more and then accepted his invitation for a meal in his canteen. Over bowls of bean soup, he complained about his hard life on the frontline, telling me that his unit seemed to be forgotten by higher-ups, that he was bored, and that he hadn’t had sex for ages. He asked when we had last had sex. An uncomfortable silence prevailed. When schmoozing with frontline soldiers, I prefer to offer appropriate answers rather than accurate ones, if the two happen to vary. But I did not know the appropriate answer in this case, and neither did my colleagues. Our interpreter volunteered that he had had sex with his girlfriend a few days earlier. This revelation cheered the commander. He liked being in the presence of someone who had carnal knowledge that was not months old.
I mention this incident only because the commander was a losing figure. Yes, he would not hesitate to order another round of shelling of Gorazde, but he seemed more interested in his own well-being and self-pity than anything else. Ho Chi Minh would have booted his fat ass out of the army. If Powell imagined Vietcong-like resistance and fortitude in the hills of Bosnia, I wish he could have been with me in Rogatica. Defeating these bullies would not have required massive intervention; in reality, the military equivalent of a nudge would have done the job, and eventually did.
Bosnia’s government did not need foreign troops to fight its war; it had plenty of troops of its own, more than 100,000. It needed weapons. As the wars began in the former Yugoslavia, the United Nations imposed a weapons embargo on all sides in the disintegrating country, and this strategy played into Bosnian Serb hands, because they had ample stockpiles of armaments and a vibrant weapons industry in Serbia to resupply them. The newly formed Bosnian Army, however, had few weapons and no factories. It was surrounded by Serbia and Croatia (a part-time ally, part-time enemy) and resorted, in dire moments, to handmade mortars.
How could the UN refuse to protect the Bosnians and prohibit them from purchasing weapons to protect themselves? The rationale for arms embargoes is that if you starve a conflict of weapons, the fighting will stop or slow down, even if there is leakage due to black-market deals. In Bosnia, the rationale did not hold, because one side, which started the war, had plenty of weapons, and the other side, which had few weapons and did not want or expect a war, was being slaughtered. (About two hundred thousand people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the war, according to an estimate used by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.) The embargo was immoral because it abetted genocide. It nonetheless suited the U.S. and its allies on the Security Council because they wished for the fighting to cease as soon as possible, and the embargo meant the Bosnians had to accept whatever terms the stronger Serbs demanded. The Bosnians needed to realize they could not win the war, and the best way to make them realize that was to make sure they could not acquire weapons that might enable them to win. It was the kind of realpolitik that brings great satisfaction to the Henry Kissingers of our world, and to the Colin Powells.
To better understand the unfortunate logic of the situation, imagine a lopsided boxing match in which the losing boxer has one hand tied behind his back and pleads with a spectator to free the tied hand. The spectator, who just wants the bloody spectacle to end, balks at the request and urges the boxer to take a fall.
The metaphor is a simplification but useful to keep in mind. Different experts provide different opinions on the effect of arming the Bosnians. My view, which is not a minority one, is that lifting the embargo-and, going a step further, providing the Bosnians with weapons-would have stopped the genocide and enabled the Bosnians to retake territory seized by Serbs in the first weeks of the war. After all, the Serbs were not great or even good fighters. When Croatia re-armed and, in 1995, retook a swath of territory that had been held by ethnic Serbs since 1991, the Serbs hardly bothered to fight. They ran. When NATO bombed the Bosnian Serbs in 1995, they caved in after two weeks. In the following years, when troops of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization made occasional arrests of Bosnian Serb war criminals, there were no revenge killings of NATO personnel. Notice a pattern?
It’s important to remember, too, that the provision of weapons to Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, by Russia and the United States, played a key role-along with the U.S. bombing campaign-in giving Northern Alliance fighters the edge they needed to roll over the Taliban.
But what if the Bosnians committed atrocities with the weapons we supplied or allowed them to be supplied with? Would we have then become accomplices to their revenge killings? This was a frequently heard objection, and it had some validity. In 1995, when Croatia reconquered the Krajina region, the scene was not pretty; ethnic Serbs who had lived there for centuries were so terrified that they fled to Serbia, and many who stayed behind were brutalized or killed by vengeful Croats. In 1999, when NATO’s bombing campaign led to the withdrawal of Serb military forces from Kosovo, ethnic Albanians celebrated by “cleansing” Serb civilians who had not retreated; this retaliation was an embarrassment for the Western countries that had ended Serb barbarism, only to see it replaced by an Albanian variant.
Would the same pattern have occurred in Bosnia? I strongly doubt it. The Croatian troops who attacked in 1995 were fighting on behalf of a government that was every bit as nationalist and thuggish as the Serbian regime led by Slobodan Milosevic. The Kosovo Liberation Army, responsible for the killings of Serbs, was a generally disreputable assemblage of young men who wanted to purge every Serb from Kosovo; most Albanians in Kosovo shared their goal.
Bosnia was different. The Bosnian Army, despite the cruelties inflicted on civilians it was trying to protect, did not engage in systematic killing sprees when it managed to retake slivers of territory. Did atrocities occur? Yes. Were they widespread? No. The majority of Bosnia’s Muslims did not wish to live in an ethnically pure state. To be sure, revenge killings would have occurred if their army had retaken Serb-held territory, but not, I believe, on a significant level. If we demand that an army be atrocity-free to merit international support, then no army including, our own, could ever meet that criterion. In Afghanistan, we have had no trouble looking the other way as Northern Alliance soldiers executed Taliban or al Qaeda fighters.
Skeptics also argued that lifting the embargo would not have been enough. The United States, they said, would have needed to train the Bosnians to use the new weapons, and as everyone knows, military trainers are the first step on the slippery slope to full-scale intervention. This argument is no sturdier than a two-legged table. The warfare in Bosnia was primitive. The Bosnian Army needed simple materiel, such as anti-tank guns, mortars and artillery pieces, as well as ammunition. Little training or assembly would have been required by outsiders. The Bosnians were not in the market for smart bombs.
Pentagon and administration officials talked up a geopolitical doomsday in which lifting the embargo would spark a much broader conflict, because Milosevic might send the Yugoslav National Army into Bosnia to defend Serbs, or perhaps the Russians would become involved, leading to a U.S.-Russia face-off in the Balkans. This scenario was paraded around like a strategic missing link, and it, too, was lacking in reality. As subsequent events showed in Croatia and Bosnia, Milosevic did not send in his troops to defend Serbs once they were attacked by stronger forces. And in 1999, when NATO bombed Serbia, the Russians stood aside, grumbling.
For the sake of argument, let us assume that maintaining the embargo was a wise policy. What other options were available, short of dispatching 250,000 troops? For three years, the Clinton administration and its European allies insisted that bombing could not end the war. David Owen, lead negotiator for the European Union, memorably accused pro-intervention editorialists of being “laptop bombardiers.” But by the summer of 1995, Serb behavior in Bosnia became too odious for Western leaders to overlook any longer-the “safe haven” of Srebrenica had been stormed by Serb troops, who massacred thousands of prisoners and took UN peacekeepers hostage. Shortly after, a Serb mortar attack killed thirty-eight people in Sarajevo. A NATO bombing campaign was begun. It was a limited affair, with just thirty-five hundred sorties on Serb targets in Bosnia over eleven days; when compared to NATO’s seventy-eight-day bombing of Serbia in 1999 with more than thirty-eight thousand sorties, the campaign in Bosnia is revealed as a mild slap. Even so, it worked, with no lives lost by the Western alliance. The Serbs swiftly agreed to a peace conference, held in Dayton, Ohio, that ended the war, although on terms that, it turned out, were unduly generous to the architects of the genocide.
To this day, many opponents of bombing insist they were right. The bombing worked in 1995, they say, because the Serbs were weaker, militarily, than they had been in previous years. This is true, but that only means the mild campaign in 1995 would have needed to be a bit stronger if it had taken place in earlier years. How much stronger? Impossible to say, of course, but the degradation of the Bosnian Serb Army was a slow-moving affair; the army that crumbled under NATO’s bombs in 1995 wasn’t that different from the army that existed in the first year or two of the war. Dragisa, the Serb with the big gun in the hills above Sarajevo, was not much of a warrior in 1992, nor was the commander in Rogatica.
Opponents of bombing also note that NATO’s attack coincided with a summer offensive by Croatian and Bosnian troops that swept through northwestern Bosnia, threatening to overrun Banja Luka. Would the bombing have succeeded without that ground threat? The ground offensive certainly helped drive the Serbs to Dayton, but again, in its absence NATO had much more to throw at the Serbs from the air. In any event, once the Serbs became pinned down by NATO’s warplanes, a ground offensive against them could have begun at any time during the war. From the first day, an aerial blitz by NATO would have tipped the conflict in favor of the Bosnian side, forcing the Serbs to retreat, militarily and diplomatically. The crucial role of the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan is a perfect illustration of the extent to which our Air Force can turn the tide of a foreign conflict.
The United States did not need to use its ground troops to stop the genocide. But what if it had? Our GIs would not have objected. Many foreign soldiers in Bosnia were dismayed because they had to stand aside as genocide unfolded before them. For all but the final stage of the war, the feeble UN peacekeeping force had strict orders to use its weapons only in self-defense; its mission was restricted to helping deliver relief supplies.
In the first winter of the four-year siege of Sarajevo, a cosmopolitan city that had hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984, I met Richard Roth, a sergeant in the 82nd Airborne and a farm boy from Maquoketa, Iowa. The Clinton administration opted, in the early years of the Bosnian war, to limit to a handful the number of U.S. soldiers in the United Nations Protection Force, and as far as I could tell, Roth was the only uniformed GI in Bosnia’s capital, where he worked as a communications specialist at the residence of the UN commander. I sensed, as we talked in a reception room at the commander’s villa, that Roth’s bosses at the Pentagon would not have been satisfied with what he was saying.
“Everybody but the Serbs hopes the Americans will get involved,” Roth said as we sipped tea from porcelain cups, which rattled on their saucers when a shell landed nearby. “I think the Serbs are the bad guys, but that’s not the UN’s position. I know we shouldn’t go sticking our noses everywhere, but this is too close to our NATO allies to sit back and do nothing.” Because there were no other American soldiers based in Sarajevo at the time, Sergeant Roth got a lot of attention when he walked around the city in his uniform, with an American flag on his sleeve. Everyone wanted to know, why doesn’t America do something? I think he knew the sad answer but he shrugged it off, telling me, in the caustic way that grunts in Vietnam handled queries about the morass they knew they were in, “I’m not paid to think.” Our cups rattled as another shell hit its target nearby.
Most men and women don’t join the armed forces because the pay is good or the food delicious. They join for other reasons, including a dose of altruism. They believe that maybe they will have the opportunity to represent their country on a just mission that will save lives. They are not afraid to put their lives on the line. They are not Boy Scouts, although their timid leaders treated them as such in the Balkans.
Why are America’s leaders reluctant to intervene except in the most obvious, national-security-threatening situations, as in the Gulf War? The Vietnam precedent plays a paramount role, of course. So, too, does the story of American intervention in Lebanon, where, in 1983, 241 U.S. soldiers who had been sent to Beirut as peacekeepers were killed in a suicide-bomb attack. More recently, the killing in 1993 of eighteen U.S. soldiers in Somalia pretty much eliminated any appetite Bill Clinton might have had for using the world’s strongest military for anything beyond oil-protection duty.
The lessons of Vietnam should not be forgotten, nor should those of Lebanon and Somalia. But one of the lessons politicians and generals drew from those debacles-that the American public has no tolerance for sacrificing GIs overseas-is wrong. Those missions were a political mess, and the deaths were close to pointless. Americans understood that. If a mission is honorable or if Americans believe it is honorable, they will support it. That was the case in the Gulf War, as it was when NATO finally bombed Serb targets in Bosnia in 1995, and four years later, when NATO bombed Serbia. And that was rousingly the case when the Bush administration started its war on the Taliban.
The 1948 Convention on the Prevention of Genocide requires signatories to punish genocide when it occurs. This convention puts a special burden on the United States, the world’s “indispensable nation,” as Madeleine Albright liked to say in her secretary of state days. Of course not every genocide can be stopped with a modest dose of military intervention, and it would be unfair to demand that the United States sacrifice as many lives as it takes to stop mass murder in country X or Y. There are limits to what the United States can do, and limits to what the United States should be expected to do.
What are those limits?
In the spring of 1994, as the genocide in Bosnia progressed like a plow digging into the earth, and as a new and worse genocide began in Rwanda, President Clinton’s national security adviser, Anthony Lake, who had the most famous conscience in an administration famous for its famous consciences, explained that the U.S. government was not, unfortunately, in a position to stop the bloodbaths that were staining our television screens.
“When I wake up every morning and look at the headlines and the stories and the images on television of these conflicts, I want to work to end every conflict,” he said. “I want to work to save every child out there. And I know the president does, and I know the American people do. But neither we nor the international community have the resources nor the mandate to do so. So we have to make distinctions. We have to ask the hard questions about where and when we can intervene. And the reality is that we cannot often solve other people’s problems.”
Lake’s heart may have been in the right place, but his mind was not. The cowardice of other nations should not be an excuse for our own. As Lake was murderously slow in realizing, the U.S. government could have solved the problems in Bosnia and Rwanda at acceptable rather than extravagant costs, in political and military terms. Regarding Rwanda, just ask Romeo Dallaire.
In October 1993, Dallaire, a lieutenant general in the Canadian Army, was sent to Kigali, Rwanda, to command a lightly armed UN peacekeeping force of twenty-five hundred soldiers that was overseeing a fragile peace accord between the Hutu-dominated government and the rebel Tutsi army. General Dallaire sensed, early on, that Rwanda was slouching toward genocide. In fact, he had hard information from a senior official inside the Hutu Power movement that a mass extermination was being planned. The informant told Dallaire that lists of human targets were being drawn up, death squads were being trained and deployed, and provocations to start the killing were imminent. On January 11, 1994, three months before the genocide began, Dallaire sent a coded cable to his superior at the United Nations, Kofi Annan, who at the time was head of peacekeeping, and now is secretary general.
The cable outlined the informant’s story and requested permission, as a first step, to raid a Hutu arms cache. Dallaire also asked permission to provide protection to the informant. The response from Annan came quickly: The UN forces in Kigali were to do nothing more than oversee the disintegrating peace accord. Raiding arms caches and protecting informers was out of the question. “We wish to stress,” Annan’s cable concluded, “that the overriding consideration is the need to avoid entering into a course of action that might lead to the use of force and unanticipated repercussions.”
It is understandable that Annan, or anyone, would hesitate to intervene before genocide occurs. Perhaps Dallaire was over-reacting, as commanders in the field might do. Perhaps the Hutus would pull back from the brink on their own accord, without the UN’s firing a shot (which, who knows, could make matters worse, not better). It is difficult to sift the false alarms from the real ones. But the UN, like the Security Council members that decide its policies, has what seems to be a standing rule (or should we say a sitting rule?) to dither until blood begins to stain the carpets along the East River and at Foggy Bottom. Often the best and only chance to stop genocide is before the violence becomes widespread; we must be ready to act early and quickly, especially, as was the case in Rwanda, when the required acts are modest.
But Annan and the Security Council did worse than that. Once ten Belgian peacekeepers were massacred by Hutu extremists on the first day of the genocide, April 7, the Security Council decided to withdraw its force from the country, even though Dallaire urged the opposite course, insisting that with more troops, and a mandate to use them in combat, the violence could be stopped. The U.S. government played a key role in keeping the UN out of Rwanda’s genocide. Dallaire has said, on many occasions, that he would have needed just three battalions to “break the embryo of genocide.” In 1998, the Carnegie Commission assembled a blue-ribbon military panel to examine his claim. The panel consisted of more than a dozen senior military officials, including a half dozen U.S. generals.
“The hypothetical force described by General Dallaire-at least five thousand strong-could have made a significant difference in Rwanda,” the report concluded. “A window of opportunity for employment of such a force extended roughly from about April 7 to April 21, 1994, when the political leaders of the violence were still susceptible to international influence. The rapid introduction of robust combat forces, authorized to seize at one time critical points throughout the country, would have changed the political calculations of the participants. The opportunity existed to prevent the killing-and to put the negotiations back on track.”
It would be wrong, however, to condemn the U.S. government for failing to stop the genocide in Rwanda or the one in Bosnia. The situation was more shameful than that. The government failed to attempt to stop the genocides. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that President Clinton wished the killings would finish as quickly as possible, on any terms. For hardly the first time, the quick solution was preferred to the just solution, even though the just solution could be reached at an acceptable cost.
The blind spot at the Pentagon was exceptionally broad. In his occasionally candid memoir, Waging Modern War, published in 2001, General Wesley Clark, who commanded NATO forces during the bombing of Serbia in 1999, recalled that once he got involved in Bosnian issues in the summer of 1994, “I became increasingly concerned about our staff’s lack of experience with the situation on the ground. No one had been there personally.” The Pentagon brass received CIA reports and diplomatic cables, Clark wrote, and perused CNN and the Washington Post, but had not bothered to send anyone of importance to Bosnia to figure out, from a military perspective, what was happening there and what could be done.
In this way, the lesson of the genocides of the 1990s are not much different from the lesson of Vietnam: our political and military leaders can be so out of touch with on-the-ground reality-even if, as was the case in Vietnam, they have plenty of people on the ground-that they are 100 percent wrong in their analysis of what can be done. The delusions are visceral. In Vietnam, the White House wanted to defeat a communist insurrection and persuaded itself that this was possible to do, even though, in reality, it wasn’t. In Bosnia, the White House and Pentagon feared that stopping genocide might become a quagmire involving massive intervention, and persuaded itself that this was the case.
It is not surprising that General Powell, long before he became Secretary of State Powell, threw around inflated force estimates in the early 1990s. He understood less about Bosnia, and what was needed to stop genocide there, than Sergeant Roth from Maquoketa, Iowa. Powell made the mistake of treating a genocidal policy as an unbeatable monster.
The United States Special Forces have had many fine days in Afghanistan of late, but yesterday was not one of their best, at least not in Kandahar.
The Taliban surrendered their spiritual capital a week ago, and now the city’s dusty streets have become an occasional parade ground for an impressive-looking assortment of broad-shouldered, tight-lipped American soldiers who zoom around in Toyota 4x4s—which, until recently, were the preferred mode of transport for Taliban soldiers. Unfortunately, these men from America (I haven’t spotted any women) are reluctant to tell you what military unit they are from, or what they are doing here, or much at all, except a pleasantry or two through gritted teeth. They live in odd places here. For the first few days they were based at a compound that housed Mullah Mohammed Omar until he fled, and now the shy GIs are living in a courtyard behind the headquarters of Gul Agha, the new warlord—excuse me, governor—of Kandahar province.
You never know what might turn up on the streets here, so I paid attention when, driving down one of the main arteries today, past donkey carts and beggars and audio shops doing booming business in music tapes, I noticed a convoy of nearly a half-dozen serious-looking vehicles heading toward me; as they raced by, I realized that the heavily armed men in the back of a jeep and two 4x4s were not Afghan military rabble, nor the usual Special Forces fellows in desert fatigues; these guys wore rugby shirts and black fleece jackets and had bandanas over their faces, like bandits, and they had enough high-tech firepower to capture Fort Knox. As it turned out, the guys in the Toyotas were American, and those in the jeep were British.
I ordered my driver to make a u-turn, and although the commandos had a jump on me, I was able to catch up because, as I neared them, they happened to swipe an Afghan on a motorcycle, sending him spinning onto the dirt shoulder. To their credit, the oddly clad Special Forces guys pulled over while their Afghan escorts sorted things out. Several cars of journalists also pulled up, and this made the men with M-16s, sniper scopes, and pistols strapped to their legs and under their arms somewhat uncomfortable because we milled about asking polite questions, and they stared back at us in silence. Accustomed to stealth, they were stranded like turtles on their backs.
The U.S. soldiers here—no more than 50 in the city itself, though a huge contingent of marines has just arrived on its outskirts—are under orders not to give any interviews, which is unfortunate because they are taking part in a mission that has been, from a military perspective, an astounding success; in less than two months the Taliban and al-Qaeda have been crushed. These men would be written up as heroes if only they would open their mouths and tell us a bit of what they’ve been up to; we of course have other ways of finding out, but it would be so much better if we didn’t have to rely on Afghan soldiers and commanders and civilians whose economy with the truth is exceedingly economical.
As it is, the most you get out of these guys is a polite “No photos, please,” followed, if the photos continue, by a less polite, “I told you, no photos.” They don’t have to warn you a third time. This makes for an upside-down situation, because most Afghans are now delighted to talk, and happy enough to have their pictures taken. In a way, the photo-shy, press-shy Americans are picking up where the photo-shy, press-shy Taliban left off.
After matters were straightened out with the stunned motorcyclist—his brush with the Special Forces yielded only scrapes and bruises—the nearly silent men from America and Britain roared off again, heading out of town. After a few miles, their second encounter with indignity struck: One of the 4x4s got a flat tire. They pulled into a two-pump gas station and performed a task they likely had not been trained for by the Pentagon. They changed the tire. Several journalists gathered around, keeping a respectful distance, along with a crowd of Afghans who took it in stride; they have seen much in their aggrieved lifetimes, so the sight of a half-dozen real-life Rambos performing the work of grease monkeys did not seem to faze them.
The silence was awkward, but what do you say to a Special Forces or Delta Force soldier as he undergoes the humiliation of changing a tire under the gaze of a dozen journalists and Afghan peasants? I thought I had the right question, which I asked to a commando who was standing guard over his colleague who was squatting on the ground, jacking up the Toyota.
“Do you see any humor in this situation?”
“Not really,” he replied.
I’m pretty sure I saw a smile under his bandana.
After ten minutes the tire was changed and the vehicles roared off. I followed for about ten more miles, wondering where they might be going—they were heading west, in the direction of Mullah Omar’s hometown—but the sun was setting and if I went any further I might have had to return to Kandahar in the dark, which would be unwise, as the country is not secure after dusk. So I turned around as the mysterious Americans and Brits sped deeper into the desert, toward the obscurity of an Afghan night.
It was, I suppose, just a matter of time until the Taliban imported a media circus.
About nine days ago the Afghan ambassador in Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, who was his regime’s principal spokesman to the outside world, was instructed by Islamabad to cease his well-attended, anti-American press conferences, held in the yard of his embassy. Losing not only the ground war but the public relations war, the Taliban’s leaders are fighting back on at least the latter front, which is why I now find myself camping out among more than 100 reporters who were just granted, almost overnight, an honor that, for now, may be more sought-after in the world of journalism than a Pulitzer Prize—a visa to enter the decreasing portion of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan that is controlled by the men in black turbans.
For the moment we have been allowed no further than Spin Boldak, a surprisingly bustling town that is about five miles from the Pakistani border and 60 miles from Kandahar, the Taliban spiritual homeland that could soon pass into anti-Taliban hands. There are no proper hotels in Spin Boldak, or, I suppose, improper ones, so the authorities have herded the pack into a brick-walled compound run by the Foreign Ministry. It has a small, single-story building with a few offices, plus an unfinished brick building and a yard and lots of dust. It is upon this unpromising earth that Camp Taliban has come to life.
The best plots have been taken by CNN and the BBC, because they arrived yesterday, a day ahead of everyone else, thanks to their connections. CNN has the best setup, attracting admiring remarks even from a BBC correspondent, who nodded toward his rival’s yellow-and-white walk-in tent, which has enough electronic gear and workspace to run a spaceshot, and said, “My God, those people have an Internet cafe.” The BBC are no slouches, though—their corner of the yard looks like an Everest base camp, with pods of spiffy tents circled around shiny new cooking gear. The Beeb will not go hungry tonight.
Everyone else lives more humbly, some in tents, many sleeping under the stars. It’s quite crowded; you can’t take more than a few steps without tripping over a working or napping journalist, or a satellite dish, or Taliban soldier. They are a friendly lot, the Taliban, at least for now; they pose for pictures with their weapons when asked, and they lend a hand if you’re having trouble starting up your generator, and they gawk like kids at your telecommunications gizmos.
They want to please. When it emerged that my tent was being pitched in their prayer area, the Talibs quickly agreed to pray elsewhere. We’re quite a show, and I mean that literally, because scores of youths hang over the wall staring at us, and some are perched in nearby trees for unobstructed vantage points, like Afghan owls.
The circus exists for a purpose, though—to spread the views of a regime that refuses to go gently into the Central Asian night. This became clear when I interviewed a Taliban official in the compound. We went through the usual questions and answers about the declining health of his regime—he insisted that reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated—and I asked about the calendar on his wall. The calendar featured a colorful picture of the giant Buddha at Bamian being blown up. “We can’t make an image of God with our own hands,” he explained. “So we destroyed it. This is the order of Allah.” The caption over the picture declared, “This is an historic picture.”
And you need only walk a few hundred yards from Camp Taliban to realize, if you need a reminder, that the circus in Spin Boldak is a small sideshow. Spread over the desert plain, and whipped by sandstorms that occasionally yield small twisters of dust, is a sprawling refugee camp that grows every day, like an animal that feeds on desperation. The refugees—who have fled the American-led bombing campaign—live in pitiful conditions, with little water, few toilets, miserable food, and paltry help from the Taliban regime or the international community. Local officials aren’t sure of the number of refugees at this camp, which is so new it does not have a name; there appear to be tens of thousands, living in makeshift tents as far as the eye can see on the desert horizon.
Taliban officials quickly arranged a visit to the camp today and let us loose; we were quite free to talk with whom we wanted, about what we wanted. The stories were tragically similar—innocent people forced to flee their homes because of bombs being dropped in a war they did not wish for. The dissemination of this message would appear to be one of the reasons the Taliban invited us into their tottering realm. There was supposed to be a press conference today by a senior official from Kandahar, but that didn’t materialize. Nobody minded, because the Talibs might ask us to clear out once the press conference is held, and we would like to stay as long as possible. Camp Taliban and the country around it are intriguing and unique entities, and our visas are good for a week. They might outlive the Taliban.
Nusrat motions for me to follow him through the crowd. The situation is hectic, and I hesitate, even though Nusrat was a guerrilla commander in Afghanistan who fought the Red Army for a decade, facing far worse than the assemblage of widows and orphans before us.
We are at Shamshatoo, located on a series of dusty, rolling hills in northern Pakistan. Shamshatoo looks like an ancient city; aside from the Toyota pickups and colorful burkas worn by women, everything is a biblical brown, the shade of baked earth older than life. But looks deceive. The houses and walls are made of dried mud, and none are more than two years old. More than 55,000 souls live at Shamshatoo, though in official terms they are not residents but refugees, the homeless of the world for whom we are supposed to care in our caring moments.
Nusrat, who like many Afghans uses only one name, is chatting with me in an unfinished school building when a subordinate arrives with alarming news—a Malaysian relief group is distributing aid nearby. Nusrat is a malek, one of the leaders of the Shamshatoo refugee camp, and he had not been told of the distribution. It is an affront to his prestige as well as a threat to security; the surest way to create a riot among refugees is to hand out food.
The relief group is operating from the courtyard of a house that is enclosed by an eight-foot mud wall, and for the lucky few who shove their way inside, the prize is a slip of green paper that entitles them, at a future date, to a package of food to celebrate Ramadan, the holy month.
The recipients are supposed to be the camp’s neediest, which is why hundreds of women and children and old men mob the house, waving their ration cards like traders in a commodity pit. A man who works for the relief group sits on the wall, above the entrance, and he has a stick with which he whacks the heads of refugees he finds annoying; his stick connects with a turban, from which a puff of dust rises.
“What is happening here?” an old man asks Nusrat, who stands to the side like a scout reconnoitering his target. Nusrat’s life in the camp is an extension of his life in Afghanistan. As before, he faces hard odds in a war to ensure the survival of his people. This is another skirmish.
“Please, be calm, and trust in Allah,” he says.
“Nusrat,” the old man pleads, “please help me.”
“Don’t worry, I am with you.”
He moves in. Refugees have begun thrusting their ration cards at me because I am a foreigner and foreigners provide aid. It seems wise, after a moment’s reflection, to stay close to the former guerrilla leader who overcame the mines and missiles of a superpower. The crowd parts, and the man with the stick checks his swing as we squeeze inside.
“You are not doing this the right way,” Nusrat tells Mateen, a relief official presiding over the bedlam. “You can’t come into the camp, take over a house and start this work without informing us. There is chaos here.”
“It’s not compulsory to inform everyone,” Mateen replies.
Nusrat’s glare could melt a machine gun. He is handsome and fierce in a central-casting way, and you know, without his having to tell you, that your life will be easier if he is not your enemy.
“Open the door,” he orders a man at the gate. “These are widows outside, and you must respect them.”
Refugees have begun scaling the walls. Instead of helping the needy, relief workers grab shanks of firewood and hit the gate-crashers who are not obviously feeble; the truly feeble are merely threatened. A dog in the courtyard howls fearfully, hens squawk and scramble underfoot, a boy serves tea to the V.I.P.‘s, dust rises from the trampled ground and Nusrat shouts angrily, “Don’t beat the widows!”
Shamshatoo is a strange beast. It has a corruptible police force headed by a Pakistani administrator who leaves day-to-day affairs to Nusrat and three other maleks (the term dates from the colonial era, when the British used it for local administrators). Each malek presides over a section of the camp, though Nusrat is first among equals. They rose to their positions through an informal process that involved gaining the respect of fellow refugees, Pakistani administrators and foreign relief agencies. They are stronger than the earth, which is necessary in their unforgiving job because there are not enough resources for everyone and the maleks are presumed by many to be stealing the bounty of aid that the world is presumed to be supplying to Shamshatoo.
Nusrat is half deity, half scapegoat.
“When these people go back to their homes, they will blame me,” he says as we walk away, our path occasionally blocked by the neediest of the needy, begging for help. “Maybe they will pray for my destruction.”
Actually, not everyone will ask Allah to smite Nusrat. Scarcity is a dominant feature of refugee camps, but the scarcity is not shared equally; the camps are not classless societies. They have an economic hierarchy, as in a city or prison or any place where a clot of people live and die together. The best way to understand their social metaphysics is to imagine a real-life mixture of “Lord of the Flies” and “Atlas Shrugged,” with a few themes from “The Grapes of Wrath” thrown in.
Throughout the world, more than 20 million people live in refugee camps, and few of them are going home anytime soon. For example, more than two million Afghans live in Pakistan, some for more than 20 years. They arrived in generations of exodus: fleeing the 1979 Soviet invasion, fleeing civil war after the Soviets withdrew in 1989, fleeing the 1996 Taliban takeover, fleeing the drought since 1998 and, now, fleeing the United States attack.
In the social structures of the camps, the rules of the outside world are not suspended, just adapted. If you were a village elder back home, you will likely fulfill the same role in a camp, because villagers often flee together. Even if they don’t, they tend to reassemble, over time, in the camps. For an individual or family, the tribe is security, and security is sustenance.
The notion that refugee camps are complex societies becomes clear when I meet Jacques Franquin, emergency coordinator in Peshawar for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Franquin, who is setting up 15 new refugee camps, is surrounded by the accouterments of life in the field, U.N.-style: the driveway outside his office is packed with white S.U.V.‘s, and his desks are laden with enough computers and phones to run a war. But the most intriguing item I notice is a blueprint.
The blueprint, for a new camp close to the Afghan border, does not show row after row of tents ringed by fences. Rather, the camp is divided into sections in which refugees will pitch their tents in whatever configuration they wish: close together, with space for a communal garden, or evenly apart, with a bit of private space for each family. If it appears that they will be staying for a long time, they will be encouraged to build mud huts.
“We are planning a marketplace here,” Franquin says, putting his finger in the center of the map. “We know it is necessary. These people are not in a jail. We are trying to create the social fabric of a society, as in a town, by planning schools and bakeries and more. Here we will have a community of 10,000 people. We know we will need at least four mosques.”
The popular image of refugee camps is simplistic—rows of white tents filled with miserable, helpless people waiting to be fed by American or European relief workers. That is often the case at camps hurriedly assembled in emergencies, though in truth most relief workers are drawn from the local population. When the Western media rush off to a fresh disaster, the refugees usually remain behind, and once the shock of dislocation passes, the camps begin a metamorphosis.
There are more than 100 camps in Pakistan, though U.N. officials often refer to them as villages. Most camps have been around for more than a year or two, so only a few, like Shamshatoo, still distribute free food. Distributions of food are like training wheels for a camp: after a while, as refugees find jobs inside or outside the camps, the donated sacks of wheat and tins of cooking oil disappear. Other subsidized services, like health and education, continue indefinitely. The U.N.H.C.R. budget for Pakistan for 2001 is $18.4 million, but that covers only part of the costs; the U.N. World Food Program pays for food distributions; and private relief groups offer a variety of supplies and services, like building materials, well digging and job training.
That is why Shamshatoo is beginning to look like an established refugee community, like the one a few miles away known as “old Shamshatoo,” which has existed for 15 years. Shamshatoo—the new one—already has 41 secular and religious schools, four health clinics, more than a dozen bakeries, a number of mosques and more than 200 wells.
The camp, which began in December 1999 with 156 families, includes virtually every ethnic group of Afghanistan, with the largest at the camp being Tajiks, followed by Pashtuns. Most are from the drought exodus, so they are not deeply politicized. Still, the ethnic tensions that existed back home are carried into exile; disputes over access to wells is a constant sore spot; and it is the job of Nusrat, who is Pashtun, and his fellow maleks and sub-maleks to smooth things over. They usually succeed, because life does go on; there is a birth or wedding almost every day, as well as funerals.
“When people are put in a survival situation, they become imaginative,” Franquin says. “Refugees need to find solutions in order to survive. But especially with Afghans, they react quite quickly. So if you plan a camp well, you will see a quick development, and it’s fascinating.”
Franquin has an unusual ability to detect, and become enthusiastic about, a camp that moves from abject misery to ordinary misery. In this way, he is not unlike a neurologist who draws satisfaction when a stroke victim recovers some of his faculties. Shamshatoo would fit into the category of ordinary misery. It is not nearly as hellish as Jalozai, a nearby camp where Afghans live under tents made of plastic sheets and in sanitary conditions below appalling. Shamshatoo is home not only to wretchedness but also to hope, as I learned in its bazaar.
The heart of Shamshatoo is a nameless crossroads of nameless roads. More than a hundred merchants have opened shops along the dirt intersection, though none of the shops have signs because signs are luxuries. Several open-air restaurants serve spicy rice and beef kebabs, and stores offer lanterns and vegetables and soft drinks and lumber and bolts of cloth. Until recently, there was an embroidery shop that also sold cosmetics. That shop closed not because business was bad—it was quite good—but because it was looted when its owner went home for an evening meal.
A foreigner stands out in the bazaar, which is why Amin Ullah approaches me in the shade of a vegetable stand. He says his family makes carpets and offers to show me their loom. We walk down a dusty street, then into a narrow alley, then through the gate of a walled-in home that has, in its courtyard, flowers growing from plastic buckets that hang from beams over a patio. Pathways in the courtyard are lined with bricks, and I notice several young trees—pleasant status symbols in a camp with little greenery.
The loom is in the shade, and sitting before it are four of Amin’s siblings, weaving with their nimble hands. There are Samim, 15, and Mubaraz, 14, Shabistan, 9, and Tamim, 8. Amin, 18, no longer works the loom because his hands have become too large. Although his younger siblings work 12 hours a day (except on the days when they go to school), two months of communal labor is required for a rug that fetches 6,000 rupees, about $95.
The loom is an altar of child labor, and the family is lucky to have it. Notions that prevail in the developed world—that 8-year-olds should not work, especially not in conditions that can damage their eyes and lungs—are reversed in a camp. A child who is not working is a mouth to feed, and although aid groups distribute food at Shamshatoo, it is not enough. Young children are economic assets that wise families seek to maximize.
The Ullahs are the flip side of the widows and orphans and disabled who make it impossible for Nusrat to walk through the bazaar without being harangued. The carpet business has enabled the family to diversify and open a vegetable stand run by Amin and his older brother, Humayun. Thanks to their carpet income, they could spare 5,000 rupees to buy the lumber and bricks to build a shop.
Of course, 5,000 rupees may not seem like much—it is barely $80—but within the camp it is a fortune. The Ullahs are, socially speaking, camp millionaires. Their modest but steady income allows them to eat well, sleep with a roof over their heads, have shade in their backyard and hope for their future. They are better off, even, than a merchant I met who sells cloth in the bazaar and earns about $1 a day. He is able to buy meat every week or two for his family (aid agencies do not distribute meat), and thanks to the occasional kebabs, his family is far likelier to remain healthy than families without meat.
These apparently small distinctions mean the difference between life and death. A family that can build a mud hut is a rung above a family that lives in a tent. The family with two goats is better off than the family with two hens, and that family is better off than the one with no hens at all. The pecking order is influenced by the length of time a family has lived in the camp. Basically, the more recently you have arrived, the harder your life is. The best-located tents or huts are already taken, as are the jobs. And because your exodus has likely drained your finances, you have not had a chance to accumulate funds to buy a goat or start a business. You are at rock bottom.
The situation for new arrivals is especially pitiful these days because the Pakistani government is reluctant to let the U.N.H.C.R. register and distribute food to them. The government fears that tales of relative plenty will only encourage more refugees to come. Washington, itself worried about the public-relations disaster of a huge influx of desperate refugees, has not pushed particularly hard for Pakistan to change its policy.
It is difficult to say how many newly arrived refugees there are at Shamshatoo. There appear to be many, but because they could be deported if they are found, they keep a low profile, staying with friends or relatives or strangers who are poor themselves but help out nonetheless. U.N. officials in Peshawar call them the invisibles, though it is not hard to find them because the U.N. estimates their size at 130,000 and growing every minute.
A group of them lives in the courtyard of a mud compound just around the corner from the Ullahs. The group consists of four families that fled Kabul after selling all their belongings to finance their exodus—principally, bus fares, bribes for border guards and fees for the smugglers who led them across. By the time the group of 24 arrived at Shamshatoo, they had nothing left, and their hardened elder, Sadiq Ghulam, wanted to strangle the world.
“How are we going to live here?” he asks as we speak in the only shaded space available in the courtyard—behind an outhouse. “We have no money, no food. Where are we going to stay? There is no bombing here, but we will starve. If I had known that I would be humiliated in this way, I would have chosen to die in Kabul. We are not responsible for the acts committed in America. We are ordinary people; we are not terrorists. Why are we being treated like this?”
As bleak as things may look to Sadiq Ghulam, his situation is no more than typical and for many refugees, like the Ullahs, purely temporary. Amin explains that his family arrived in Pakistan more than a year ago after fleeing their hometown north of Kabul. Because they knew how to make rugs, they struck a deal with a merchant who lent them a loom and yarn in exchange for the right to purchase their carpets at a discount. “Other people here waste time,” he says, “but we have a plan.”
And they live well, relatively speaking. They have electricity, which is a luxury that the family must pay for, and their dwelling consists of several tidy rooms. The main room, where the family takes its meals and receives visitors, is covered with Afghan carpets and pillows and has a cozy feel. When I stop by the house on my last day in the camp, Amin and his industrious brothers are at work again—building a new room.
Another emergency walks into Nusrat’s life. This time it is a dispute between an old man and his nephew, who happens to be married to the old man’s daughter. (This occurs among Afghans.) The nephew/son-in-law is beating his wife, and for Afghans this is not a matter to be handled by the police but by a Solomon figure. That would be Nusrat.
“My son-in-law is mad,” Aman Ullah explains. (Ullah is a common name in these parts.) “Every day he is fighting with his wife, and I am worried about her, so please convince him to leave our house because if not, maybe he will kill me or I will kill him.”
Aman sits on a mat with Nusrat in the unfinished school, which is serving, until it opens, as Nusrat’s office. The old man is about 55, but that counts as aged among a people with one of the lowest life expectancies in the world. Nusrat calls him baba, the Pashto term for a respected elder.
“Don’t worry, baba,” he begins. “We have suffered for the last 30 years. That’s why your nephew has mental problems.”
There is no mention of punishing the nephew, Wase Ullah; this isn’t done in Afghan culture. But Wase is refusing to leave Aman’s house. Nusrat’s solution is simple: Wase should move into a room that will be built onto the back of the house with a separate entrance.
It is a wise idea, but it must be sold to a violent and psychologically unstable man. Nusrat walks with Aman to the house, which is like many others in the camp—surrounded by mud walls, with two rooms and two U.N.-issued tents in the backyard. The house has the good fortune of being located downhill from a well, so the runoff flows through a channel into the yard, which is filled with rows of corn and other vegetables.
Aman loses no time in taking the high ground.
“Why are you beating your wife?” he asks Wase. “Yesterday when you started beating her, she fainted, and when you left the house, we were left to take care of her.”
Wase, a tall and lean man with a look in his eyes that tells you to stay away, loses no time in taking the low ground. “She is my wife, and that is my own business. If I want to kill her, if I want to beat her, that is my affair.”
Nusrat’s offer will not suffice.
“I need two rooms,” Wase says. “One is not enough.”
The guy is trying everyone’s patience, but Nusrat does not lose his cool. He has a way with people that is unrelenting yet soothing. He lectures Wase while holding his hand. He makes threats and quotes the Koran, but Wase continues to resist.
“If you don’t accept this offer, we will try something else that you won’t like,” Nusrat warns.
This is his way of saying, “I’m making an offer you can’t refuse.” Wase catches on.
“I’ll agree with you because you are a respected man in this camp. I accept your decision.”
And then, suddenly, Wase and Aman are hugging.
For Nusrat, a small disaster has been avoided for people who live amid a large disaster with no apparent end.
“Wase has a mental problem, but everyone suffers from such problems,” he says afterward. “If I became angry with them, who would take care of them? There is no one who isn’t injured by the war. Some have injuries you can see; others have injuries you can’t see, that are inside. If their problems don’t get solved, they will fight and get hurt. So I must look after them. That’s my duty.”
Bashir Ahmed Zai’s life was ruined, like so many others, by an artillery shell. It fell on a Kabul marketplace in 1997. Bashir heard the explosion, and because he is a doctor, he rushed to the scene. He was surprised to find his girlfriend’s mother and brother among the panicked crowd.
“What’s happened?” he asked.
He saw his girlfriend lying on the bloodied ground. He knelt and shouted her name. No response. He shouted again. No response. He wiped away the blood on her face and shouted her name once more. Nothing. He pulled off the scarf that was around his neck and covered her with it. The woman he planned to spend the rest of his life with was dead.
It hadn’t mattered that Bashir and his girlfriend despised the Taliban, which had recently seized Kabul. The shell that killed her was fired by soldiers led by Ahmed Shah Masoud, whose anti-Taliban forces had no concern whether their random ordnance killed civilians. Mayhem they wanted; mayhem they caused.
This was the last straw for Bashir. He had already quit the hospital where he had worked, because the Taliban fired the women who worked alongside him, including his girlfriend, who was also a doctor, and they had ordered him to grow a beard. Bashir is a good Muslim, but he doesn’t need anyone to tell him how to be a good Muslim.
Bashir’s life now revolves around Shamshatoo, where he manages a small pharmacy that has a tiny examination room in the back. It is a rudimentary setup. When a man was rushed into the pharmacy with a high fever, the initial treatment consisted of pouring water on his chest and pointing a fan at him. If the patients can pay, and not all can, they offer rupee notes that have passed through so many soiled hands they feel like wastepaper, slippery to the touch.
In a way, Bashir’s lot is worse than that of most refugees at Shamshatoo because he has fallen further. Bashir was born into the bourgeoisie. His father was a successful businessman who loved to entertain foreigners at his home. They had a big house in Kabul, where they lived during the warm months, and another in Jalalabad, where they lived in the winter.
But refugee life is a leveler. Cultural sophistication and higher education reap few benefits. Indeed, if you are a successful professional, you will most likely become an unsuccessful refugee. For example, Pakistan does not recognize Afghan medical degrees. Outside of the camps, Bashir has no marketable skill, and inside the camps, his skills yield only a small income because the most valuable medical commodity at Shamshatoo is not a doctor’s advice—aid groups run four health clinics - but drugs.
Worse, the political rivalries of Kabul followed Bashir into the refugee world. Because of his family’s prominence, gunmen tried to kill him on two occasions, so he moved with his family into a rented home outside Shamshatoo. There are 40 members of the family living in the home—13 adults and 27 children—and they have less than $100 in pooled income each month.
Bashir is unfailingly kind, but his smile is unsteady, as if it were rusty from lack of use. I ask what makes him happy.
“The only thing that gives me pleasure is the thought of leaving this place,” he says.
Nusrat does not want to leave, not yet. he was born and raised near Jalalabad, in a village where his father and grandfather were the equivalent of local aristocracy. Leading his people is a right and, Nusrat maintains, an obligation. That is why, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, he headed for the mountains and took command of more than a thousand mujahedeen.
Once the Soviets withdrew, mujahedeen groups began fighting among themselves and then with the Taliban, and Nusrat wanted no part of it. But a commander of his stature could not fade away.
“I didn’t leave Afghanistan out of fear,” he tells me one day over a lunch of meat in oily water, accompanied by a limp tomato salad and yogurt. “I wasn’t afraid of the Taliban. But I wanted to be neutral, and that was impossible. The fighting was not a holy war. It was a war between commanders, and they were fighting over stones. So I left the country.”
Nusrat has four young children and would like the eldest to become a doctor, but he says this is just a dream. He could probably make it come true, however, because there are better camps than Shamshatoo, and with his intelligence and stature, he might be able to live in Peshawar itself, as the most successful refugees do. These are the merchants and smugglers and warlords-turned-smugglers, some quite wealthy, who have graduated from the camps and live in mansions with marble floors and immaculate S.U.V.‘s parked in front.
But that isn’t Nusrat’s way. “These people want me to help them,” he says. “If life is hard for me, it is Allah’s will. I like my people, so I feel good doing this work. You ask if I would feel better quitting this job. The answer is no.”
I ask how old he is. This can be a tricky question for Afghans, partly because a large portion of them are illiterate, partly because they have had more important things to keep track of. Nusrat is not illiterate, but he can only guess at his age, which he estimates as 40.
“For the last 20 years, we haven’t been able to celebrate our birthdays,” he explains. “We have seen only bombing. If you ask about guns and mines and jets and missiles, we can tell you a lot. But our birthdays we don’t remember.”
And where might he be in five years?
“If there is peace, we will be in Afghanistan,” he says. “If there is war, we will be here.”
Emroz Khan destroys for a living. He dismantles car engines, slicing them open with a sledgehammer and a crooked chisel, prying apart the cylinders, tearing out pistons, dislodging screws and bolts and throwing the metal entrails into a pile that will be sold for scrap. He is 21 and has been doing this sort of work for 10 years, 12 hours a day, six days a week, earning $1.25 a day.
His hands and arms are gnarled works of body art, stained a rich black like fresh asphalt and ribboned with scars. As dusk falls on Cinema Road, where Emroz works in a shop that is so poor it has no name or sign, he rolls up his sleeve and asks me to put my finger along a bulge on his forearm; it feels as hard as iron. It is iron, a stretch of pipe he drove into his body by mistake. He cannot afford to pay a doctor to take it out.
“I’ve had it for three years,” he says.
He opens his left palm and places two fingers alongside what looks like a crease, then pulls apart the crease to reveal a two-inch gash that runs an inch deep. I hadn’t noticed it because the raw flesh was covered with grease, like the rest of his palm and arm. The wound is two years old.
“We work like donkeys,” Emroz says. “That’s what our life is like. It is the life of animals.”
Javaid Khan watched with apprehension. Javaid, who is 17, began chopping up engines three months ago, when he dropped out of school because he could no longer pay the fees. He is new at this work, so he earns just $2.50 a week. His hands and arms have not yet been mauled, but it will happen. A hospital is nearby, and Javaid wishes he could be one of the clean-cut medical sales reps he sees in the neighborhood. “I do not have the education,” he acknowledges. “It makes me sad to think about it.”
There is much sadness on Cinema Road, so named because of the movie theaters at the bottom of the street. A few feet from the shop where Javaid works, children who don’t know their ages (they look 5 or 6) sift through the scraps of the scrap merchants; one of them squats on the ground and pounds the remains of a light socket, hoping to find a morsel of tin or copper. A few dozen yards farther down the road, boys who might be 10 or 11 clean out goat intestines that have been discarded by a slaughterhouse; the intestines, once dried, can be turned into ersatz leather. The boys reek of offal.
If you want to understand why the world no longer feels terribly safe, you would do well to stroll down Cinema Road. You would hear the chants of the muezzin, the shouts of peddlers selling bruised bananas, the heavings of buses so overloaded that passengers ride on roofs and the cries of mutilated beggars pleading for a few rupees. You would taste curry and dust on your tongue at the same moment, and you would feel heat and energy in the air; at night, you would hear gunfire. The sights and sounds would make you think you had walked into a third-world “Blade Runner,” exhilarating and grotesque. And all around, you would notice young men for whom life is abuse. The population of Peshawar reflects the population of Pakistan as a whole—63 percent are under the age of 25. To varying degrees, that holds true for the Middle East, too; everywhere you look in Cairo or Amman or Gaza or Baghdad or Damascus or Tehran, you see young men. You need not visit these cities to know this; just look closely at the crowds in a protest or funeral; the faces are young, very young. And they are very angry.
Television often distorts matters, and that’s the case with the crowd scenes. Most young men in Pakistan are not burning effigies of President Bush or fighting riot police. Their anger is only loosely articulated, often because they are struggling to survive and cannot afford the luxury of taking an afternoon off to join a demonstration. But the young men you see on television and the ones you don’t see belong to the same deprived generation.
They live where globalization is not working or not working well enough. They believe, or can be led to believe, that America—or their pro-America government, if they live under one—is to blame for their misery. Many are adrift, cut off from their social foundations. Perhaps they moved into the city from dying villages, or were driven there by war or famine. There is no going back for them, yet in the city there is not much going forward; the movement tends to be downward. As they fall, they grab hold of whatever they can, and sometimes it is the violent ideas of religious extremists.
Peshawar, one of the oldest cities in Asia, was conquered by Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, and the Sikhs and the Afghans, and, in the 19th century, the British. The conquering ceased when Pakistan was born in 1947, but the city remained the gateway to the Khyber Pass and to Afghanistan. That was a curse, because 22 years ago Afghanistan entered an era of warfare that has yet to end. Nearly half of Peshawar’s two million inhabitants are refugees, most of them living in camps that are several degrees below squalid. The local economy revolves around smuggling—of guns and ammunition, of VCR’s and televisions, of heroin and hashish.
Aziz ul Rahman is a product of Peshawar. He is 18, a vocational-school dropout. He has a job at a tire shop, where he works in the mornings. In the afternoons he studies the Koran at a madrassah, or religious school. The one he attends is of the extreme variety, as most are these days. I meet him at a protest, in the Khyber Bazaar, that was organized by a pro-Taliban religious party.
“The American leaders are very cruel to Muslims, so that is why I am taking part in the demonstration today,” he says, politely, as we stand in a shaded alley to get out of the noise and heat. “I hear that the Americans are not doing anything good in Palestine or Bosnia or Chechnya. They are being cruel to Muslims.”
In the background, the speaker of the moment is inciting the crowd against Pakistan’s military regime, which is backing Washington’s anti-terror campaign. “The generals are stupid,” he shouts. Then, like a rock star inviting crowd participation, he calls out, “Generals!” and the crowd roars back, “Stupid!” They are quick learners.
Aziz wants to get back to the demo, so we part ways after a half-hour. He did not fall into religious extremism by choice; his preferred path, of becoming an engineer, was closed off by poverty. This is common in Pakistan. Poor families do their best to send a son to school, but in the end they cannot manage. The son will get a backbreaking job of some sort or, in some cases, keep the donkey’s life at bay by enrolling at a madrassah, most of which offer free tuition, room and board. And that’s where they learn that it is honorable to blow yourself up amid a crowd of infidels and that the greatest glory in life is to die in a jihad.
Politically-engaged youths are a minority, the tip of the iceberg. They are the ones whose anger you see, whose danger you sense. But the upset of Peshawar’s youth is manifested in many ways; in, for example, visits to graveyards, where, among the newly dead and the long-dead, they sit on bamboo mats and sing about their despair as they smoke hashish.
The Pinza Piran cemetery is a shrine of sorts, holding the remains of five famous elders. If you wish to pay your respects, you take off your shoes and walk into a tiled yard, where tinsel hangs from trees and incense burns next to the burial mounds. You say a prayer, give a few rupees to beggars as you leave and walk across the dirt road to a large yard from which musky smoke is issuing.
Nearly 100 men lounge around, most of them in their late teens or 20’s, though some are in their 40’s and 50’s. They sit in groups of four or five, passing around cigarettes spiked with Afghan hash. Some share pipes, known as chilum, which resemble small hookahs, and their bowls are filled with chunks of hash that throw off smoke and flames like a campfire. A man sitting near me says, “You have your bars, we have ours.”
Unless someone is singing, there is little noise. Some of the youths are too drugged to do more than slump against a tree. Others, emaciated looking, are lying down, glassy-eyed; these are the heroin addicts, wasting toward death. There is a man with a tame bird on his shoulder and another with dreadlocks, which are rare in Pakistan.
The best hash, known as tirra, costs about 35 cents for 10 grams. Smoking hashish is against the law, but because Islam does not condemn hash as strongly and explicitly as alcohol, it has become the drug of choice. There is nothing secretive about the activities at Pinza Piran; the police ignore it, especially if 50 rupees (about 80 cents) are slipped into their palms when they nose around.
I sit next to a youth, Malik, who says he is a student at a technical college. He also says that he is forming his own political party, that he has 450 followers across the country and that he is in discussions with Saudis who might provide financial support. He pulls a two-inch thick set of worn business cards from his pocket; evidence, he says, of his network of contacts. He is stoned and perhaps mad, but he echoes public opinion when I ask why he wants to become a politician: “Because all of our leaders are corrupt, and we have to get rid of them.”
Usually someone is playing the rabab, a traditional stringed instrument, and someone is singing, usually a plaintive song about an aching love. There are no women at these gatherings, as the women of Peshawar tend to spend their lives at home, donning a burqa if they venture outside. That is why posters of the uncovered faces of Indian starlets draw eager stares from men as they pass by on the street. The segregation of the sexes is deeply ingrained, but it’s not easy to live with, as the lyrics of one love song I heard indicated:
“Show me your face/Show me your face/Where are you?/Where are you?”
In the many circles of hell that exist for young men in Pakistan, the lowest is found at Dabaray Ghara, on the outskirts of Peshawar. It is an expanse of pits, dug out of the sunbaked earth, in which several thousand men, mostly refugees from Afghanistan, make bricks. It is the hardest of labor because it takes place outdoors, no matter how hot or cold, pays next to nothing and is, literally, backbreaking.
You see children as young as 4 or 5 in the pits, except they are not playing. They are making bricks. There are few men beyond the age of 30 or so. Horses carry bricks from one pit to another, and they do so without being led; they walk back and forth on dusty paths, too tired or too hopeless to imagine trotting away to freedom.
It is the humans, though, who suffer the most. Bakhtiar Khan began working in the pits when he was 10. He is now 25 or 26. He isn’t sure, because nobody keeps close track; time passes, that is all. He works from 5 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon, making 1,000 bricks a day, six days a week, earning a few dollars a week. He is thin, he wears no shirt or shoes and he cannot believe a foreigner is asking about his life.
“Life is cruel,” he says. “You can see for yourself. You wear nice clothes and are healthy. But look at us. We have no clothes to wear and we are not healthy. Your question is amazing.”
The situation is worse than it appears, because the youths at Dabaray Ghara carry an invisible burden. They don’t earn enough to live on, so they must borrow, especially when there is a wedding or funeral. They borrow from the men who own the pits, but the interest rates are so high, and their wages so low, that they have no hope of paying back the loans. Bakhtiar and his friends are only vaguely aware that they are indentured slaves.
They are illiterate, and the world of politics is beyond their grasp. In a sense, this is encouraging, because they have no time for polemics or protests. Yet it is discouraging too, because they can be led to rally behind any person or idea that promises to improve their lot.
“I don’t have the knowledge to blame a government,” Bakhtiar says, as a dozen work mates gather around, squatting in the bottom of a pit. “I don’t know about politics, but for our problems, I blame the world community. All humans should be equal, but we are not. You ask me who is to blame. You find out who is to blame.”
He is not without hunches.
“We arrived from Afghanistan 15 years ago. Since then I blame America, because it used to support us, but now it leaves us in a place like this. So if someone is fighting a jihad against America, I would support them. But if America is willing to help us, we support that, too.”
In Peshawar, even the lucky are damned. Ihsan u-Din is enrolled at a civil engineering college. Before that, he attended a private school. His brothers and sisters are enrolled in school, too, thanks to their father’s steady income. Ihsan speaks good English, and he has the ultimate luxury in Pakistan—pocket money, which is why I ran into him at a video parlor.
Ihsan is in the first year of a five-year engineering program. Compared with Emroz and the brick makers, and most youths here, Ihsan has it good. But there’s a catch. Pakistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. Even with a degree, it’s very hard to get an engineering job. You need connections and money. Ihsan’s family doesn’t have enough of either.
“It is a game of money,” he explains. “Even if you are a good engineer, you will not get a positive response when you apply, unless you pay. This has been the truth for 20 years. It hasn’t changed.”
Did I say there was a catch to his life? Actually, there are two. The second one is this: Ihsan’s father is in the United Arab Emirates, where he works as a taxi driver earning infinitely more than he could in Pakistan. He sends money to his family so that his children can eat well and go to school. But Ihsan’s father does not earn enough money to buy a plane ticket home once a year, or once every two years—or hardly ever.
“I have not seen my father for eight years,” Ihsan said. “Is that right? He sends pictures and calls. But we don’t want calls. We want to see him. That is the problem of my country. My father is far from me.”
They might not be separated for long. Ihsan is thinking of leaving school and joining his father in the U.A.E., where he can drive a taxi, if he’s lucky. That’s the best he can hope for—not to work in his country as an engineer but to drive a cab in a foreign land. It may not be the U.A.E.
“America is such a fine place,” Ihsan says.
Haroon Bilour has the answers. a lawyer who serves on the town council, Bilour reels off statistics like a computer spitting out mathematical equations. Nearly half of the city is without running water. Away from the main roads, which are in horrible shape, there are few paved roads. The majority of the city’s inhabitants live below the poverty level. They have run their miserable infrastructure right into the ground.
“Peshawar has suffered rather than benefited from globalization,” Bilour says, sitting on a couch in his office. He has bolted the door, because the flow of assistants and colleagues and needy citizens cannot be halted otherwise. “No aid package or special package of any kind has been provided by the world at large, or by the government of Pakistan. This is a very sorry state.”
For Bilour, the answer to Peshawar’s problems comes down to one issue: schools. Building them and ensuring that parents can afford to enroll their children. Not counting refugees, only 52 percent of the city’s school-age children attend school, and of those, nearly one-third attend madrassahs. If the city had the infrastructure to encourage investment and create jobs, and if it had more schools to neutralize the madrassahs, youths might not be tempted to spend their days chanting “Death to America.”
But Bilour is a realist. He knows how reluctant politicians in the West are to lower tariffs, ease quotas or raise foreign aid, even though, currently, foreign aid accounts for only a tiny fraction of government spending. He also knows that the government in Islamabad is unlikely to be much help; corruption is endemic, and a large portion of state revenues go into military spending. So as the United States begins fighting a war that has Afghanistan as its target, Bilour, whose city is the traditional gateway to Afghanistan, is not in a joyous mood.
“We are not against our territory being used for the war against terrorism,” he says. “We fear only that Peshawar will be ignored again. We are petrified that we will have to shelter more refugees, that there will be more bomb blasts here and that we will have no help from the world community. If we are again asked to make sacrifices for the West, we must be able to show our young generation that we can get schools and hospitals and a properly developed city.”
“I am not hopeful.”
A commander in the Hezbul Mujahadeen, a band of Islamic militants, Kiramat Ullah loves to fight, loves to watch videos of fighting, loves to listen to songs about fighting and would be honored to die in battle against American soldiers. When I visited his militia’s provincial headquarters outside Peshawar, a battered stereo was playing a tune that included these lines: “The way of jihad/Is the way of success/The way of jihad/Is the way of the Koran.”
Military training is not conducted at the compound; that happens at secret installations. But reminders of what these men do are quite public. Outside the militia’s office, walls are painted with a two-story list of fighters killed in action in Kashmir and Afghanistan. Inside, I sat on the floor with Kiramat in a spartan room, across from a locker with a sticker that said “Fighting is the way of Allah.”
The atmosphere seemed a bit heavy, so I asked about his hobbies. Did he enjoy cricket, a national sport in Pakistan?
“No,” he said in English. “Jihad.”
There is no shortage of Afghans or Pakistanis who say they are willing to fight American soldiers, and perhaps they all mean it, but Kiramat is the genuine jihad article. For the past 15 years, he has been a holy warrior, first in Afghanistan, against the Soviets, and then in Kashmir, against the Indians. As we sipped green tea, he was awaiting his marching orders, hoping to be dispatched to Afghanistan.
“We would be very happy if America would attack Afghanistan,” he said, “because now all Muslims are divided. If America attacked, it would unite the Muslim world.”
Kiramat is a short man with a thick beard and the physique of an oak tree: it does not matter how big or strong you are; you would not want to mess with him. The fact that he is alive and well after so many years of guerrilla warfare tells you what you need to know. The man knows his business.
Still in search of soft details, I asked what he most enjoyed doing. I thought he might mention spending time with his two children.
“I like jihad the most, when it’s at its peak,” he replied.
“When we start fighting and bullets are flying and we are firing at the enemy and they are crying out and in trouble, and when some of my men are being injured and becoming martyrs. That is the peak. We don’t enjoy sitting around.”
Swimmers love to swim, actors love to act, and as Kiramat reminded me, fighters love to fight. If his actions were not so deadly, it might be tempting to describe his devotion to jihad as childlike in its intensity. This thought occurred to me after the militia’s head of religious instruction, Inayat Ullah, gently tugged my sleeve.
“Excuse me,” he said in good English. “Can you arrange for me to meet your President Bush? Only five minutes needed.”
He was not joking. I said I was not in a position to make such arrangements. He pressed ahead. Might I have Bush’s phone number or e-mail address? He assured me his intentions were not ill. He had a dream the night before in which Allah told him to persuade Bush to embrace Islam. “That would solve the problem,” Inayat explained.
Our discussion moved to other subjects, and several young men came along who wanted to talk with the foreign visitor. Although the militia’s fighters are revved up to fight American soldiers, they are thoroughly civil with noncombatants.
When it was time to leave, Inayat returned to my side. “Excuse me,” he said. “But where does Mr. Clinton live now?”
The following day, when the photographer I am working with returned to the Hezbul Mujahadeen compound, he was told that Kiramat had departed. The reason was simple.
Nawaf Alhazmi, one of the suspected Sept. 11 hijackers, left behind a letter that outlined last-minute things he should do and think about, such as not forgetting his passport and ensuring he was not being followed. The letter, according to the FBI, also included these lines: “Keep a very open mind, keep a very open heart of what you are to face. You will be entering paradise. You will be entering the happiest life, everlasting life.”
It has become unfortunately common for suicide bombers to state, in eerie before-death videos that are released after an explosion kills dozens on an Israeli street, that they are looking forward to their fatal missions because they know they will reach paradise. That is questionable. The Quran forbids suicide and the killing of innocent people, so it’s more than likely that the 19 men who murdered more than 6,000 civilians last month will wake up in the last place they expected to be—hell.
But the question remains—why do Islamic suicide bombers believe they will go to paradise, and why are they so eager to go there? These questions are easy to explore in Peshawar, where it is hard to say a prayer without being overheard by a mullah. Peshawar, a conservative city in Muslim Pakistan, is near the Afghan border and gave birth to the Taliban’s ideas. Many Taliban leaders were trained at local madrasahs, or religious schools.
My exploration began by driving onto the manicured grounds of Peshawar University, which was built by the British during the days of the raj and still has a colonial feel. Students were playing cricket at dusk, and the campus atmosphere was more Oxford than Pakistan. I stopped at the white-washed residence of professor Qibla Ayaz, a leading Islamic scholar, and we were soon joined by professor Maraj ul Islam, whose expertise involves the interpretation of paradise.
Over tea and sweets, the Quranic discussion began. Paradise is explained quite vividly in suras (or chapters) 55 and 56 of the Quran, which note that those who enter paradise will enjoy “abundant fruits, unforbidden, never-ending.” There will be “gushing fountains” and everyone “shall recline on jeweled couches face to face, and there shall wait on them immortal youths with bowls and ewers and a cup of purest wine.”
Wine? Islam forbids alcohol, but only in the earthly life. In paradise, alcohol is no problem at all. It is available not simply for the asking, but for the mere thinking. If you think you want a glass of wine, or anything at all, you shall have it. And that is not the only item forbidden in this life yet plentiful in paradise.
“Therein are bashful virgins whom neither man nor jinnee will have touched before ... virgins as fair as corals and rubies,” states sura 55. A few lines later, we are reminded of “virgins chaste and fair ... they shall recline on green cushions and fine carpets.”
When I asked professor ul Islam, who has a doctorate from Leeds University, what the usefulness of these virgins might be for a male resident of paradise, he patted my forearm in a friendly way and said, “You will know when you get there.” His laughter was abundant; I got the joke.
But why does Allah offer luxuries in paradise that are sinful on earth? Free sex, alcohol, bejeweled furniture—paradise would seem a strangely un-Islamic place.
“You are put to the test in this world,” professor Ayaz explained. “If you pass, there are no bans in the next world. It is free.” He went on: “What is the meaning of life? Is life a big house, a good job, a comfortable bank balance? Muslims who believe in their faith are not trying to have a comfortable life here. They are trying to please Allah.” An eternally comfortable life will come in paradise, which is the payoff for the hard times required by Allah on this side of the great divide.
Professor Ayaz raised, without prompting, the question of a typical suicide bomber.
“What is the force that leads him to this act, leaving his family and friends? It is because he is convinced he is going to paradise.”
Professor Ayaz does not believe suicide bombers, such as those responsible for the attacks in New York and Washington, will wake up in a roomful of virgins. Because those men committed suicide and killed innocents, they are going to hell. Professor ul Islam agreed but downplayed paradise as a motivating factor. He noted the presence in our world of suicide attackers who aren’t paradise-besotted Muslims—the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, as well as the fanatics who shoot up post offices or fast-food restaurants in the United States. “They don’t do it for wine,” Professor ul Islam said. That’s certainly true, but the allure of paradise cannot be ignored. If it’s not important, why would bombers mention it?
In search of more answers, I drove a few miles down the road from professor Ayaz’s house, which is surrounded by a tranquil garden, to another universe, filled with tumult, smog, poverty, laughter, and anger. This is the main bazaar of Peshawar, where beggars and peddlers and cars and donkeys are in a war of noises. I visited a mosque presided over by Movlana Fazle Ahad, a mullah who is also a leader of the Sipah-e-Sahaba, a political party that strongly supports the Taliban. The mullah sat on a rug in a sparse room of the mosque, which doubles as a madrasah, and explained the most important aspect of paradise.
“Jihad”—holy war—“is the way of Allah, fighting against people who are harming Muslims,” he said. “In the Quran, Allah says that jihad is the best way for entering paradise.” There are many ways of doing a jihad, he noted, such as donating money to the cause, but the best method, he said, is to risk and lose your life in battle.
“The West is very materialistic, and people believe only in this world, with all its luxuries,” Fazle Ahad continued. “They have no faith in the next life. But my students are very aware and confident of the next life. Because they are my students, they know about the reward of paradise in a jihad. They are not afraid.”
Fazle Ahad noted the injunction against killing innocents and condemned the World Trade Center attacks as atrocities. But in his view, suicide bombing, if committed properly, is Islamic. For example, he believes the suicide bombers in Israel aim to kill soldiers and that civilian casualties are collateral damage of an unfortunate nature, but not paradise-nullifying.
“It is my hope that [the Palestinian bombers] are going to paradise because they are on a jihad, working for Allah,” he said. “They are defending Islam and Muslims, so they must go to paradise.”
Nearly 50 boys attend Fazle Ahad’s madrasah, all of them from Afghanistan, and a dozen of them were sitting outside the room where the mullah and I were meeting. They were studying the Quran, which is, typically, the only subject at madrasahs. No social studies, no foreign languages or current events, just the Quran, constantly. The mullah’s interpretation prevails.
Just as life is not easy for most people in Pakistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, life is not easy for Fazle Ahad’s students. They sleep on a hard floor in a room that is unheated in winter and without air conditioning in the summer. They have no contact with females. The food they eat is not in paradise-like proportions. There are no chubby students at the madrasah, and their clothes are a few threads from threadbare.
I sat down with the pupils. Atta Ullah, who is 19 and was born in a village near the Afghan city of Jalalabad, offered me what he believes to be the most important bit of information about paradise: “It is for those who go on a jihad, and if they are killed, they will go to paradise.” And what happens up there? “Life in paradise is whatever you want it to be—you can have all the fruit you want, all the beautiful women you want. All of these things are available in paradise.”
Looking around the sparse mosque, and noticing a pile of cast-off bread that seemed likely to compose the midday meal, I could understand the attraction of paradise, and I feared the malleability of the students’ minds. That evening, reading the Quran, I noticed, in sura 56, the following lines about Muslims who go to hell: “They shall dwell amidst scorching winds and seething water, in the shade of pitch-black smoke.”
If you happen to need ball bearings in Peshawar, Abdul Sattar Shah is your man. He runs a shop in the Khyber Bazaar that, as his business card states, “deals in all kind of Ball Bearings, Roller Bearings, Needle Roller Bearings, Bearing Blocks”—and the list goes on. Sattar Shah is particularly busy these days because he is also finishing his studies at Peshawar University, where he majors in accounting and organizes protest marches that warn that American attacks against Afghanistan will provoke a jihad.
Sattar Shah sits before me, sipping sweet tea and speaking in a soft voice that cannot compete, at moments, with the street cacophony a few feet away—horns honking, peddlers shouting, horses whinnying, beggars pleading, merchants arguing, hammers smashing. He is the general secretary of Peshawar’s branch of the Islami Jamaat Tulba, a nationwide student group that wishes to see Islamic law imposed in Pakistan and finds much to admire in the example of Afghanistan.
His position is clear: the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were acts of terrorism, but before the United States can claim the right to retaliate against Osama bin Laden or the Taliban, it must prove they were responsible. Without such proof, Sattar Shah says that his group, which is the student wing of a leading religious party, will have little choice but to embark on a holy war. “We will do it, as we did it against the Russians,” he says.
Satter Shah is joined in his cluttered shop by several friends, all of them speaking Pashtu, which is the language of the Pashtun ethnic group that lives on both sides of the Pakistani-Afghan border. When I ask whether they are beginning military training for the jihad that might be in their futures, they roll their eyes like New Yorkers asked for directions to Carnegie Hall.
“Everyone is prepared,” Sattar Shah says. “We all have weapons, and we know how to use them.”
He possesses a pistol and an AK-47. I ask whether they are at home or at his shop. I have misunderstood.
“At home and in my shop,” he says.
After American retaliation, especially one in which American soldiers are based in Pakistan, it might be difficult to persuade Satter Shah to leave his weapons where they are, because he is not inclined to believe bin Laden is the guilty party. He wonders how one man, dashing from one hideout to another in the mountains of Afghanistan, could engineer such a sophisticated attack. A government must be responsible, Satter Shah says, and he knows which one.
“Israel did the attack,” he confides. “The Jews just want to create a split between the United States and Palestinians, and they want to defame the reputation of all Muslims.” His view is commonplace in impoverished Pakistan, where fundamentalism is on the rise; a widespread reluctance to regard bin Laden as a terrorist dovetails with a longstanding enmity toward Israel.
Tea is followed by Pepsi. The shop is suffused with almost as much bewilderment as dust, of which there is an ample layer on the stacks of ball bearings that entomb us. There is little sense of fear among my hosts; Afghanistan is not just a graveyard but a graveyard of imperial dreams, and they are surprised that America would start a war there. As one of them notes, “What’s left to ruin?”
America sounds like a dangerous place. I don’t know for sure, because I was in Macedonia when the World Trade Center was attacked, and I have been in Pakistan since then. But friends in New York, where I live, have e-mailed me about gas masks being scooped up like truffles and antidotes to anthrax becoming popular, too. I have heard about a guy who bought an inflatable raft so that if Manhattan is attacked he can paddle to safety across the Hudson River.
It is easy, from the great distance in miles and affluence that separates Peshawar from Manhattan, to regard this behavior as an overreaction by a pampered society. But I did not inhale burning steel on Sept. 11, I did not see people jumping to their deaths from 100 floors high, and I did not need to fear that perhaps another plane was heading toward the building in which I stood. The America I know—land of comfort and abundance and security—will not be the America I return to.
It therefore feels odd to be warned by friends and family that I am in a dangerous place and should come home. The e-mails and phone calls have been constant because, it seems, there’s a belief that if America has become a much more dangerous place, the rest of the world, and especially countries that are at the center of America’s war on terrorism, must be exponentially more dangerous.
But life has not become appreciably more perilous for Pakistanis, just harder, because business is bad for all but the translators and hotels whose services are under great demand by the army of foreign journalists that has invaded. Nobody is stocking up on whatever defenses might be available against germ or chemical warfare; there is no need to, and no money for it. Osama Bin Laden’s men are not waging a jihad against Pakistan, after all; for some of them, if news reports are correct, Pakistan is a refuge rather than a target.
When people look over their shoulder here, it’s because they’re worried about being run over by an out-of-control taxi. If I get on a Pakistan International Airline flight filled with Muslims, I feel no fear and have no cause for fear, other than the food. But I saw on CNN that passengers on a commercial flight in America refused to board unless several Arab passengers were barred from the plane. That’s fear.
Of course there are new dangers here; perhaps the Taliban will make good on its threat to attack Pakistan if it supports a U.S. offensive, or perhaps anti-government protests will get out of hand and some people will get killed in the crossfire. But these dangers are quite small compared to the everyday dangers that already exist. Even for me, the ordinary hazards of working in Pakistan feel much greater than whatever new hazards I might face as an American journalist in a Muslim nation that is none too happy with America’s campaign against the mullahs in Kabul.
Let me offer an example. As I write these words, I am in considerable peril. I am in the backseat of a Honda sedan that has a cracked windshield and no seatbelts and a driver who is tired, as the masses tend to be here, because they must work long hours to earn enough to survive. We are driving from Islamabad to Peshawar. It is a three-hour trip, and is our return journey after a 6 a.m. start in Peshawar, and we are on a frightfully imperfect road without a hard shoulder or, in most places, a soft one. We must pass overcrowded buses whose worn tires are a pebble away from bursting. There are donkey carts that take up road space, too, and motorized rickshaws and pedestrians darting across our path like hares on a plain (Pakistan is too poor for overpasses or crosswalks on most roads).
Accidents are beyond frequent. If the unfortunate event occurs, there is no emergency medical team to deliver lifesaving treatment before rushing you to a nearby hospital; you will be thrown into another car and driven to a hospital that is unlikely to be nearby, and unlikely to save your life, and perhaps the car that is taking you there will get into an accident, too. It happens.
A few minutes after I wrote the lines you have just read, my car passed one of those overcrowded buses I mentioned before, though this one had jackknifed and was lying on its side, splayed across the road like a metal carcass. I have no idea how many people were killed or injured, and I am unlikely to read about it in tomorrow’s paper, because an accident of that sort is too ordinary. It is not news; it is life.
That’s just the beginning of the everyday dangers of life in Pakistan or any country that shares its impoverished lot. Hepatitis contracted from food; tuberculosis from the infected man who coughs as you talk with him, HIV from recycled needles at clinics, cancer or other diseases caused by the immense and incredible amounts of pollution in the air and in the earth and in the water. You don’t inhale smog in Peshawar as much as you chew it, cancerous particle by cancerous particle.
So is it dangerous for an American journalist here? Yes, but not much more dangerous than three weeks ago or three years ago. It’s entirely possible that anti-American riots will break out if the United States attacks Afghanistan, but I don’t plan on getting too close to that; there is other work to do, other dangers to worry about.
The headbands were flimsy, just strips of white cloth tied across demonstrators’ foreheads with slogans written in black ink. The most popular slogan was “Long Live Osama,” though others said “Death to America” and—simplicity itself—“Jihad.”
The headgear was worn Friday at an anti-U.S. rally in Peshawar, the chaotic Pakistani city in the shadow of the Khyber Pass and within shelling reach of Afghanistan (a relevant measure of distance because the Taliban have threatened to attack Pakistan if it supports U.S. military action). The men with the headbands were followers of Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a pro-Taliban politician here, and several thousand of them marched through the city’s central bazaar, assembling at a square underneath an “Always Coca-Cola” billboard.
The jihad slogans were familiar. Much newer was the theory propounded by Fazlur Rehman: that the assaults against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were the work of Israel. Fazlur Rehman, wearing a yellow turban, told the crowd that 4,000 Jews who worked in the Trade Center did not show up on the fateful Tuesday because they were tipped off about the imminent destruction of their workplace. “Osama is an individual who doesn’t have the resources to arrange this attack,” he shouted from the roof of a red truck. “Israel is behind it.”
A few minutes later, an effigy of President Bush was torched, partly for the benefit of foreign TV crews: It’s their money shot. Despite the fiery headbands and flaming president, the crowd was well-mannered, especially with foreign journalists. Curiously, Bush’s heart was marked by a Yankees “NY” emblem; perhaps the effigy designer was a Mets fan.
Although the Israel-destroyed-the-World-Trade-Center theory is absurd, most people I speak to in Pakistan believe it. It’s not just the headband rabble who sense the hand of the Mossad at work. I even heard the conspiracy theory during a visit to the posh Islamabad home of Ijzal ul-Haq, vice president of a major political party. As it happens, Ijzal ul-Haq is also the son of Pakistan’s late military dictator Zia ul-Haq; an oil portrait of the old man hangs a few feet from the front door.
Ijzal, who was educated at Southern Illinois University and worked for Bank of America for more than a decade, believes a government had to be involved because the attacks were too sophisticated for the likes of Osama Bin Laden. I asked which governments might have been responsible.
“It is just a wild guess,” he replied. “It could be somebody who wants to take revenge on the Muslims.”
“Could be. They’re taking full advantage of it. They want to totally alienate the Palestinians from the rest of the world. ... Time will tell, but the people who are being targeted are not behind it.”
Here’s the truly curious thing: Ijzal, like many the-Mossad-may-have-done-it Pakistanis, isn’t howling about the injustice of a potential U.S. attack on innocent Afghanistan. Like everyone else, he knows Pakistan faces a stark choice—stand with the Taliban and share their fate or side with America and enjoy the benefits thereof. It’s not much of a choice, actually. Few Pakistanis will miss the Taliban regime, often viewed as an embarrassment to Islam and to Pakistan, which supported the mullahs in Kabul and Kandahar until a week ago.
As a result, Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who came to power in a 1999 coup, may survive the crisis. He has offered Pakistani airspace to U.S. military flights, as well as intelligence information and unspecified “logistical” help, which could mean hosting U.S. troops. So far, public opposition has not gotten out of hand. The demo I attended disbanded with the calm of a low-scoring game between NFL cellar teams. Tempers will be hotter if the U.S. attacks Afghanistan, but Pakistan’s police and military know how to use their batons and rifles.
The first political payoff for Gen. Musharraf came over the weekend, when the Bush administration announced it was lifting sanctions imposed on Pakistan and India when both exploded nuclear weapons. Gen. Musharraf will likely reap more rewards in the weeks and months to come; he undoubtedly hopes for a tilt in Pakistan’s favor over the perpetual crisis in Indian-ruled Kashmir. For the moment, it’s hard to hear a bad word in diplomatic circles about Pakistan’s somber military ruler. “The government is working a hell of a lot better than it was before the coup,” an approving diplomat told me the other day. “Musharraf is pretty darn good. He’s doing the right things, though it’s unfortunate that he happens to be a general and that he was put in power through a coup.”
This is the new New World Order, and the fact that our man in Islamabad wears a khaki uniform and overturned an elected government (though not a very effective one) is of little import. For now, democratization in Pakistan takes a back seat to security for America. That’s likely justified for a while, so don’t expect to hear any lectures from Washington about the need for ending military rule in Pakistan. On the other hand, if you listen closely you may hear quite a bit from Pakistan about the Mossad’s role in attacking the heart of American capitalism.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2001
At the main gate to the U.S. military base outside Skopje, Army soldiers in full battle gear offer visitors a crisp salute and an even crisper shout of their squad’s motto—“Strike To Kill.”
The motto predates the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as do the abundant coils of barbed wire and cement barricades around the base, which is home to several hundred U.S. soldiers and has a basketball court, a cappuccino bar, a chapel, a gym, and a mobile Burger King. Security has been raised in other ways because Camp Able Sentry, like other U.S. military facilities, is now on Threatcon Delta, the highest level of alert. The biggest changes have little to do with security, though, and may not be apparent unless you happen to share a mess hall table with a pair of Special Forces soldiers, as I did today. Then you realize how much the world is changing.
“What needs to happen is that lives need to be put at risk,” Capt. Thomas Thliveris told me. “What I mean by that is people in uniform are in uniform for a reason, and our national leadership should not be afraid, because of public reaction, to use us in the way we are trained to be used, and can be used.”
It’s always pleasant, as a journalist, to meet soldiers who speak their minds. In other times, members of the Special Forces might say only the sorts of things their commanders might wish them to say, or they might say nothing at all. But that was in another era, when a portion of Wall Street was not a smoldering mountain of rubble and corpses.
Capt. Donald Schurr spoke up.
“The first thing is that we accepted risk when we joined, but the political leadership has not had the courage to accept that soldiers will lose their lives. That needs to end. And the second thing is—you can apply any word you want—but let’s use assassination. There is a presidential directive which prevents the U.S. government or its operatives from targeting anybody in particular. That’s because we want to be the good guys, and we are the good guys; fair play and all that stuff. But there is a time when you must target those fellas. We have the capability to do that. But we haven’t been able to do anything because we have our gloves on. That needs to change.”
The wide-screen television in the mess hall was tuned to CNN. I heard the phrase “thousands of dead are feared.” The television was filled with unnatural images that my brain has been reluctant to assimilate: planes disappearing into the glassy flanks of the World Trade towers, followed by fireballs at 100 stories. I hope I can get used to seeing these images, but I also hope I never get used to them.
The conversation had begun with Capt. Schurr—a tall, muscular soldier who doesn’t need a Special Forces patch on his sleeve for you to know that he is not to be trifled with—recalling the scenes of men and women jumping from the burning towers. He said it made him emotional. He cried. When I asked what the emotion and tears meant, he said, slowly, “It ... is ...anger.” Each word was delivered with the force of a punch.
“As the president said, this was an act of war,” Capt. Thliveris noted. He glared at me, an Ali-versus-Frazier glare. “This may not be politically correct, but I don’t want justice here.” His glare did the impossible—it became more intense. “These people do not need to be brought to justice or apprehended. They need to be killed. That’s what you do to your enemy in war—you destroy him. And this is a war.”
This was one of those interviews in which it doesn’t matter what the journalist asks. These men knew what they wanted to say and were going to say it no matter what. I noted that they are members of the Special Forces. Would they wish to be choppered into the mountains of Afghanistan?
“I want to be the first person out the door,” Capt. Schurr shot back. “I’m ready to go. I think to a man every soldier is prepared to do that, and anxious to do that.”
When I sat down at their table the men from the Special Forces told me they would need to leave after 10 minutes. The 10 minutes was up. They grabbed their assault rifles and donned their combat gear—helmets and flak jackets—and strode away, ready for war.
Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2001
Night was falling as I introduced myself to four college students in Macedonia Square, in the center of Skopje. What was their reaction to the catastrophe in America?
Ivo, who is 18 years old and studying to be a doctor, was the first to respond, largely because he spoke the best English, thanks to the year he lived in England. The attacks are sad, he said, a tragedy. But then he got to the heart of the matter, not only for him but for many Macedonians who resent what they regard as American support for ethnic Albanian rebels.
“Now you have experienced what terrorism is like,” Ivo said. “Now you can understand what terrorism does, and you should do something about it, especially in Macedonia. You should condemn the Albanians. It’s clear you’re helping them. Even a child knows that.”
His friends nodded their heads in agreement. The rebels are terrorists, they believe, killing civilians and policemen, yet America coddles them, even supplying them with weapons (a popular belief). Maybe, the students added, the assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon will serve as a wake-up call. “Terrorists have never attacked America with this much devastation,” Ivo noted. “America now should see what terrorism is really about and stop it everywhere.”
The feelings of Ivo and his friends are not unusual. There is no satisfaction in Skopje about the attacks on America—none of the grotesque spectacles, seen on television, of Palestinians and Libyans celebrating the attacks. The expressions of condolence here are sincere, but there is, underneath it all, a strong belief that America has imposed its will on the Balkans in ways that are neither wise nor fair and that America should not be surprised that its actions overseas have brought deadly results to the homeland. The same belief exists in Serbia, which experienced a 78-day U.S.-led bombing campaign in 1999, and it exists among nationalists in Croatia who resent U.S. pressure to extradite war criminals to the Hague.
The sourness surfaces not just in the talk of ordinary citizens but in media commentaries, too. All you need to do is pick up today’s issue of New Macedonia, a pro-government paper. “The attempt by western countries to treat Albanian terrorists as human rights fighters gave them a clear field for seven months of terror against Macedonians,” the main commentary states. “The difference between yesterday’s attacks on the United States and the attacks of Albanian terrorists in Macedonia is just in the capacity and power of their action.” In other words, Now you know how we feel.
Anti-Americanism in the Balkans is far from murderous, as it is among Islamic extremists in the Middle East, but it is serious enough to have prompted the evacuation this summer of nonessential personnel from the U.S. Embassy here. If you want to know the consequences of America’s unpopularity, you only need to call 011 389-2 116-180, the Embassy’s number in Skopje. If you press 5 for the options in English, the first words you hear are the following: “To report the death, hospitalization, or arrest of an American citizen, press 3.”
Monday, Sept. 10, 2001
“Hi, my name is Josh.”
This was not what I expected to overhear in Brodec, a mountain village where ethnic Albanian rebels were handing in their weapons to NATO troops. The greeting came from a chubby rebel wearing combat pants and a black T-shirt with the red-and-black insignia of the rebel army, whose initials in Albanian are UCK. His greeting was directed at an American G.I. near me.
“Uh, hi,” the G.I. replied, warily. “I’m, uh, Mark.”
“I lived in the U.S. for 17 years,” Josh continued, delighted to have found someone to speak English with. “I love America.”
“Of course I am.”
Josh Balazhi, as it happens, was born in Macedonia and emigrated to Chicago in his teens, winding up in the restaurant business. He returned to Macedonia six months ago to fight with the rebels in the hills above Tetovo.
Mark, an Army intelligence officer who asked—ordered, actually—that I not disclose his full name, had a video camera that he pointed at his new friend from the UCK.
“Hello America,” Josh waved.
Strange, but not the strangest scene in rebel territory on Sunday. For the past few weeks NATO soldiers have been collecting rebel weapons, and Brodec is the latest collection site. The Macedonian government has pledged, as its part of an ultra-shaky peace deal, to expand political rights for Albanians. This is supposed to end their war.
It was a slow day in the farmhouse basement where French soldiers registered the day’s catch, sitting behind desks like warehouse clerks. Nearly half of the dozen or so rifles I saw on the dirt floor were hunting weapons with wood stocks, dusty and neglected and quite old; it was hard to imagine they posed a serious threat to even the lamest of wildlife, let alone soldiers.
A Swedish journalist looked at the sorry items on display and said, laughing, “This must be the village museum.” Krale Spancevski, a member of Macedonia’s parliament who choppered into Brodec as an observer, just shook his head. “These guns are not from this war,” he said. “Maybe from the Chinese revolution. Maybe from the first Balkan war.”
That was in 1912.
The sights and sounds of Brodec convinced me that Macedonia needs fewer war correspondents and more film critics. The weapons-collection program is, in many respects, a big-budget production that would be better appreciated, and better analyzed, by journalists accustomed to the world of make-believe. NATO has even given the 30-day program a somewhat catchy title—Operation Essential Harvest.
NATO hopes to collect 3,300 weapons, which is widely believed to represent a modest portion of what the UCK possesses. The problem, as NATO knows, is that the UCK will not surrender a meaningful portion of its arsenal. So the U.S.-led alliance is pretending disarmament is occurring and pressing the rebels and government to find a way, in the coming weeks and months, to not resume fighting. What’s being wished for is a military version of the placebo effect.
This provides for bitter amusement in the parlors of Skopje. Darko Mitrevski is a film producer who has the wry sense of humor common among unlucky intellectuals in the unlucky hotspots of the Balkans—notably Sarajevo and Belgrade, and now Skopje. Darko was dressed in trendy black at his elegant office when I visited the other day with Ed Joseph, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. The discussion turned, inevitably, to weapons collection.
“It’s Disarmament—The Movie,” Ed suggested. “But don’t blame NATO. It’s the deal they’ve got.”
“Perhaps,” Darko countered. “But the parody of disarmament shouldn’t be so obvious. I could do it much better. It’s a very badly directed production.”
In a way, Operation Essential Harvest is an upside-down version of Wag the Dog. Instead of directors and actors producing a phony war, generals and soldiers are producing a phony disarmament. It’s an odd thing for generals to do, but even odder is the prospect it may do some temporary good by keeping the guns silent for a bit longer.
At least it is inspiring better productions. The other day I attended a mock weapons collection in front of the run-down parliament in Skopje. It involved several thousand ironic Macedonians poking fun at NATO by piling their “weapons” onto the street, which was closed to traffic. The asphalt was littered with water guns, toy pistols, model planes, paper gliders, watermelons with fuses, slingshots, cardboard swords, and so on. I noticed a man holding an unrolled condom above his head; I asked a student what that was about, and I was told, “Defensive weapon.” The condom was tossed onto the pile.
Of course the situation in Macedonia is not a joke. Many people have been killed, and many more will be killed if the fighting resumes once Operation Essential Harvest finishes its run. Outside the farmhouse in Brodec, I asked Josh, the friendly rebel, whether he would return to Chicago soon. He said he hopes so but doesn’t know for sure. I then asked how to spell his last name. He gave me the Albanian spelling, Balazhi; the Americanized version, he noted, is Belushi.
“You know, I’m related to John Belushi,” he said, smiling.
I could not tell whether he was serious or pretending.
When Bob Stewart, who commanded the first regiment of British peacekeepers in Bosnia, was asked by the BBC for his reaction to the extradition of Slobodan Milosevic, he responded with one joyous word: “Hallelujah.”
Across Europe and America, similar words of thanks — and astonishment — were whispered and shouted by people who did not expect the former Serbian leader to wind up at The Hague so soon after being toppled from power. Yet there he is, behind bars at the United Nations detention center, with a coffee maker in his cell and a war-crimes trial in his future.
The time has come, in other words, to look beyond Mr. Milosevic. The trial’s usefulness will not be to determine his guilt or innocence — even a legal dream team will have a hard time getting him off the hook — but to educate Serbs about the crimes he masterminded in their name and with their support. For Serbia, extraditing Mr. Milosevic may be easier than accepting the truth.
Serbs have been notably reluctant to admit they were the authors, not the victims, of war crimes. Taking responsibility for these deeds is a condition of reconciliation between Serbs and their onetime enemies. The new Serbian government, under Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, recently began the process of deprogramming. It has publicized the discovery in Serbia of mass graves of Kosovars murdered by Mr. Milosevic’s security forces.
But that candor may have had less to do with Mr. Djindjic’s yearning for truth than with his desire to weaken opposition to Mr. Milosevic’s extradition, thus clearing the way for an infusion of Western aid.
With Mr. Milosevic at The Hague, Serbs may be tempted to think, “Out of sight, out of mind.” Most Serbs view the United Nations tribunal as biased, noting that Franjo Tudjman, the late Croatian president, was never indicted, although he was clearly guilty of war crimes in Bosnia.
As a result, Serbs have all but ignored The Hague trials so far. Western governments need to improve the tribunal’s profile and credibility in Serbia.
They need to provide the funds, and apply whatever pressure is needed, to ensure that Mr. Milosevic’s trial is broadcast on television and radio in Serbia. They also need to provide Serb journalists with the financial resources to travel to The Hague to cover the trial, which is likely to be lengthy.
To the extent it’s possible, the goal is to ensure that the verdict is accepted by Serbs. Every effort should be made to include Serb judges on the panel of international jurists who will determine Mr. Milosevic’s fate. And if security concerns can be met, part of the trial might even be held in Serbia.
There is ample reason for supporters of global justice to whisper “hallelujah” this weekend, but Slobodan Milosevic’s extradition is just a first step. Serbia is only beginning its reckoning with history; deadly and durable myths must be destroyed.
In 1993, connoisseurs of government dithering heard Warren Christopher utter a delightful phrase that reflected his befuddlement with the war in Bosnia. The conflict, the secretary of state confessed, was a “problem from hell.” What he meant, of course, was that he hadn’t a clue what to do about it.
In the Bosnian war, Muslims were the victims of genocide at the hands and knives and AK-47s of Serbs and Croats. But was it in the national interest of the United States to intervene in a morally repugnant conflict that did not appear to threaten our national security? That was the problem from hell, and until the NATO alliance began to rupture in discord, creating an unmistakeable threat to our interests, the famous consciences in the Clinton administration couldn’t make up their famous minds.
Now along comes Macedonia, where U.S. troops defused a standoff on Monday by escorting Albanian rebels out of harm’s way, at the request of the government in Skopje; even so, an anti-American riot erupted in the capital. Will the White House refuse the next time a request is made for military assistance? President Bush made a pro forma statement this week that he wouldn’t rule out the use of force, but his administration hasn’t been shy about looking down its realpolitik nose at the Clinton crew’s adventures in the Balkans—they’ve made it clear they don’t want any of their own. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted in a widely-circulated memorandum earlier this year, “It is easier to get into something than to get out of it.” (No prizes for guessing which part of the world he was referring to.)
But Messrs. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Powell would be misreading history—and the present—if they treat Macedonia as another moral quagmire in which the U.S. should not muddy its political or military boots. Despite outward appearances, Macedonia isn’t Bosnia or Kosovo. In fact, it’s the kind of pure geopolitical play the Bush team professes to be perfectly suited to master. They should be drooling at the opportunity to prove their expertise.
The administration has made a point of saying it plans to conduct foreign policy the old-fashioned way, based on a classic definition of national interests that banishes moral considerations to the inky pages of The Nation. But guess what—the Macedonian crisis does not involve the grand moral dilemmas (or even minor moral dilemmas) that caused so many headaches and humiliations for the Clinton team, whose ineptitude, especially in Bosnia, was matched only by its hypocrisy.
From the start of the Bosnian crisis the United States faced a threat to its national interests—the Clinton administration just failed to realize it. Without intervention of some sort, the war was going to fester so badly that Western Europe and NATO would begin to rot. Instead the U.S. focused on whether or not the moral arguments for intervening—that genocide was being committed, that the genocide was unprovoked, and that the victims of the genocide stood for Western values of tolerance and diversity—were true and cause enough to get involved. After three years of dithering and several hundred thousand deaths, the Clinton administration finally figured it out. Later, with Madeleine Albright in charge at Foggy Bottom and eager to give the supremely immoral Milosevic the comeuppance he deserved, the White House organized NATO’s bombing of Serbia, which had increased its repression in Kosovo. After 78 days Milosevic agreed to withdraw his forces from Kosovo, and almost immediately Kosovars began cleansing Serbs who remained behind. We had not, it turned out, rescued angels.
The Bush administration does not want to be a global moral cop. Given the Clinton administration’s nightmarish experience in the Balkans, that’s understandable. But it’s not a reason to ignore Macedonia, where there is no moral call to action—no genocide, no horrible dictator, no white-hatted or black-hatted factions. It’s true that the Albanians have not enjoyed their deserved share of political rights, but that hardly justifies their guerilla uprising. The Slavs, who form the majority of Macedonia’s population, have been derelict in giving the Albanians their rightful slice of power, but they have not instituted any Milosevic-style repression. By Balkan standards, the situation is uncomplicated.
There is, however, a valid geopolitical reason to become engaged, because the fighting, muted so far, could spiral into all-out civil war. That would mean another wave of refugees in the Balkans, and it could mean the involvement of troops from neighboring countries that have historical ties to Macedonia and territorial designs on it—Bulgaria, Albania, Serbia, Greece, and even Turkey. The nightmare scenario, which is unlikely but possible, is that one foreign country will get involved—say, Albania—and that others will follow, like wolves to a twitching carcass. The involvement of Greece and Turkey would be particularly disastrous because both are NATO members and longtime adversaries. “Macedonia is in real danger of destruction,” wrote Richard Holbrooke and Jeane Kirkpatrick, the former U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations, in a recent Washington Post column. “Macedonia’s descent into civil war would call into question national borders across the Balkans, reward forces of violence across the region, and even create tensions within the [NATO] alliance.” Henry Kissinger’s maid could figure out that it’s in our national interests to prevent this from happening in Europe.
So far the European Union has spearheaded mediation efforts, with the Bush Administration happily taking a back seat, professing confidence the EU can do the job, and that it is the EU’s job to do. That’s wrong. The EU failed to head off the previous wars in ex-Yugoslavia, and its current effort does not have bright prospects. It’s not time, and it may never be time, to send the 82nd Airborne to Macedonia, but it’s past time for an aggressive U.S. diplomatic push to defuse the conflict. If the smug Bush crew continues to believe that the Macedonia crisis does not threaten our national interests, they may soon be confronted with a very real problem from hell.
The headquarters of Telecom Somalia is filled with the sights and sounds of Mogadishu-style success. Customers pour through the entrance, funneling past machine-gun positions that flank the front doors. After a pat-down by security guards, who take temporary possession of any guns and knives, they enter the lobby and line up at the appropriate counters to pay their bills or order new service. Clocks on a wall display the time in New York, Paris, London, Sydney, and Karachi—reminders of an outside world that has pretty much left Somalia for dead. Computer keyboards clatter as workers punch in information. Customers chat and argue with one another in a gregarious manner that makes the lobby feel like a town square—all the more so if a goat that’s being herded down the street happens to stray inside.
Telecom Somalia is the largest company in Mogadishu. It has 700 employees, and it offers some of the best and cheapest phone service in Africa. It also provides a clue to the possible resuscitation of the world’s most famous failed state. In 1995, when the international community decided to wash its hands of Somalia and the last United Nations peacekeepers left the country, Mogadishu was a Hobbesian horror show. It remains a miserable and unstable place, a city where taxi drivers ruin their own vehicles, denting the body work and smashing the windows, so that thieves will not bother to steal them. But it is less dismal than it used to be, and better times may be on the way, owing to a new generation of businessmen who are determined to bring the lawless capital back to life.
Prime among the city’s entrepreneurial leaders is Abdulaziz Sheikh, the chief executive of Telecom Somalia. When I visited him last summer, in a small office on the fourth floor of the company’s headquarters, he was being blasted by a hurricane-force air-conditioner that nearly drowned out the constantly ringing phones on his desk. “You need to be here twenty-four hours a day,” he said, explaining that he lives as well as works on the premises. Sheikh had the running-on-fumes look of a campaign chairman in a never-ending race, but at least he appeared to be winning. Anyone can walk into the lobby of his building, plunk down a $100 deposit, and leave with a late-model Nokia that works throughout the city, in valleys as well as on hilltops, at all hours. Caller ID, call waiting, conference calling, and call forwarding are available. There are two other cellular-phone firms in town, and the three recently entered into a joint venture and created the first local Internet-service provider. Not all battles here are resolved by murder.
Mogadishu also has new radio and television stations (one night I watched the Somali equivalent of Larry King Live, in which the moderator and his guest, one of the city’s leading Islamic clerics, fielded questions from callers), along with computer schools and an airport that serves several airlines (although these fly the sorts of airplanes that Americans see only in museums). The city’s Bekara market offers everything from toilet paper, Maalox, and Colgate toothpaste to Viagra, sarongs, blank passports (stolen from the Foreign Ministry a decade ago), and assault rifles. The international delivery company DHL has an office in Mogadishu, where its methods can be unorthodox: if a client has an urgent package that cannot wait for a scheduled flight out of the country, the company will dispatch it on one of the many planes that arrive illegally from Kenya every day bearing khat, a narcotic leaf that is chewed like tobacco but has the effect of cocaine.
Mogadishu has the closest thing to an Ayn Rand-style economy that the world has ever seen—no bureaucracy or regulation at all. The city has had no government since 1991, when the much despised President Mohammed Siad Barre was overthrown; his regime was replaced not by another one but by civil war. The northern regions of Somaliland and Puntland have stabilized under autonomous governments, but southern Somalia, with Mogadishu at its core, has remained a Mad Max zone carved up by warlords for whom fighting seems as necessary as oxygen. The prospect of stability is a curious miracle, not simply because the kind of business development that is happening tends to require the presence of a government, but because the very absence of a government may have helped to nurture an African oddity—a lean and efficient business sector that does not feed at a public trough controlled by corrupt officials.
Similarly, the lack of large-scale (and often corrupting) foreign aid might have benefits as well as drawbacks. Somali investors are making things happen, not waiting for them to happen. For example, on the outskirts of town, on a plot of land the size of several football fields and surrounded by twenty-foot-high walls, workers recently completed a $2 million bottling plant. Everyone refers to it as “the Pepsi factory,” even though Pepsi is not involved. The project’s investors say the plant will become a Pepsi factory: they figure that if they begin producing soft drinks, Pepsi or some other international company will want to get in on the market.
Many of the larger companies in Mogadishu, including the bottling plant, have issued shares, although there is of course no stock exchange or financial authority of any sort in the city. Everything is based on trust, and so far it has worked, owing to Somalia’s tightly woven clan networks: everyone knows everyone else, so it’s less likely that an unknown con man will pull off a scam. In view of Somalia’s history, this ad hoc stock market is not as implausible as it may sound. Until a century ago, when Italy and Britain divided what is present-day Somalia into colonial fiefdoms, Somalis got along quite well without a state, relying on systems that still exist: informal codes of honor and a means of resolving disputes, even violent ones, through mediation by clan elders.
Of course, the lack of a government poses problems, especially with respect to the warlords. Sheikh and his fellow businessmen have kept them at bay by paying them protection money and by forming their own militias. Those manning the machine guns outside Telecom Somalia are employees of the company, and when the firm’s linemen go out to lay new cables (they used to string overhead lines, but those got shot up by stray gunfire), they, too, are protected by company gunmen.
All of this is costly, so the business leaders have taken steps to bring about a new government—one that will keep its hands out of their pockets and focus on providing security and public services. The process began two years ago, when Sheikh and other entrepreneurs got fed up with the blight of checkpoints, at which everyone was required to pay small tributes to armed teenagers affiliated with various warlords. The businessmen decided collectively to fund a militia to get rid of the checkpoints, resulting in an armed force that is overseen by the city’s Islamic clerics. Having succeeded in its main mission, the militia now serves as an informal sort of police force, patrolling the streets in an effort to stop petty crime.
With the checkpoints gone and the warlords weakened by the loss of a key source of income, the business elite is bankrolling a transitional government that was appointed at a peace conference last August. The government does not yet control much more than the heavily guarded buildings that are its temporary headquarters, but it has begun deploying its own policemen in some parts of the city. The businessmen are pooling their company security forces to bolster the government and are trying to lure the warlords’ gunmen to its side with cash incentives. In February one of the leading warlords, Mohamed Qanyareh, agreed to support the government in exchange for ministerial posts for himself and his allies.
If the business community succeeds in returning Mogadishu to something resembling normalcy, it will have shown that a failed state, or at least its capital city, can get back on its feet without much help from the outside world. This would constitute not an argument against outside intervention but, rather, a lesson that intervention doesn’t have to be of the UN-led, billion-dollar variety.
Before leaving the city I met with Hussein Abdullahi, a well-educated businessman who fled Mogadishu in 1991 and wound up in Toronto, driving a taxi. Three years ago, during a return visit, he was struck by the fact that his Somali friends were living better at home than he was in Canada, at the bottom of the immigrant ladder. He decided to move back and now manages a thriving pasta factory, a bread factory, and a medical clinic. Sipping an ice-cold Coke in his office, Abdullahi offered to share a secret that, he promised, could make me rich. A chubby man with a beatific smile, he leaned forward conspiratorially.
“Everything is possible in Mogadishu now, everything,” he said. “If you have the money and the knowledge, you can do whatever you want. It is virgin here.”
Perhaps so, but only in the way of scorched earth.
“I represent the Mitterrand name,” the former French president’s son said unhappily as we lunched not long ago at Les Comediens, a Paris restaurant near his lawyer’s office. Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, 54, who has the long cheeks and gravelly voice of his father, spends a lot of time with his lawyer these days—enduring an investigation by the government over which his father, the late Francois Mitterrand, once presided like a king.
For much of his father’s tenure, Jean-Christophe headed the “Cellule Africaine,” overseeing France’s murky relations with its former colonies in Africa. His nickname, “Father Told Me,” referred to the phrase he reportedly invoked to remind visitors of his unique access to the sphinx-like president. But his father died of cancer in 1996, and French prosecutors have become far less deferential since. So it was that, on December 1, a team of French policemen barged into Jean-Christophe’s bedroom at dawn, stood by while he dressed, and seized financial documents, appointment books, party invitations, and anything else that might relate to illegal weapons-trafficking in Africa. “There’s a lot of madness in France now,” Mitterrand muses. “There have been a lot of political affairs, you know.”
Indeed, France’s newest fashion is corruption. It’s impossible to read a newspaper or watch television without coming across news that another politician or businessman has been arrested or questioned about (select one or more of the following): bribery, fraud, perjury, theft, tax evasion, abuse of influence, and so on. Once upon a time, the French gazed at the scandals across the Atlantic and muttered about Americans’ puritanical desire to punish politicians for typical human frailties. The French were far more sophisticated; they regarded their tolerance for political mischief as a sign of maturity.
The current wave of corruption scandals, however, serves notice that the French are, once more, following the path charted by their cultural nemesis. The reporters of Le Monde appear to be taking orders from Bob Woodward, and the folks at the Palais de Justice look like Ken Starrs on the Seine. Even the terminology is Americanized: The scandal that embroils Jean-Christophe is called “Angolagate.”
The call to account might have begun two decades ago if Francois Mitterrand, elected in 1981 as the first socialist president of the Fifth Republic, had honored campaign promises to govern in a more democratic, more transparent fashion than his conservative predecessors. But he quickly adopted their imperial style. Fourteen years passed. By the time Mitterrand left office in 1995, the grand questions of past decades—the cold war, Franco-German relations—had been settled. The behind-closed-doors privileges the political elite had enjoyed, almost as emergency powers during decades of threats to French interests, real and perceived, seemed unnecessary. It was time for France to become a normal country, and that meant, among other things, that politicians would not be treated as untouchable mandarins. The current division of power—a conservative president and socialist prime minister—hastened matters by diluting any single party’s political control over prosecutors.
This turn of events has not been welcomed at the Palais de l’Elysée, where President Jacques Chirac refuses to answer prosecutors’ questions about the Boss Tweed way in which he conducted himself as mayor of Paris. (A former aide accused Chirac of being present during the handover of a suitcase filled with $700,000 in kickbacks; Chirac dismissed the charge as “an abracadabra tale.”) Chirac’s handpicked successor at City Hall, now former Mayor Jean Tiberi, is being probed for arranging kickbacks, doling out city-owned apartments to friends and family, and placing political supporters on voting rolls even though they didn’t live in the city or, in some cases, were dead.
But these scandals are stale baguettes compared with the trial of Roland Dumas, former foreign minister and former president of the Constitutional Court. The 78-year-old was tried earlier this year for allegedly accepting bribes, including handmade shoes and antique statues, from his younger mistress, Christine Deviers-Joncour, who was on the payroll of Elf, a state-owned oil company. At the heart of the case—a verdict is expected in May—is the accusation that Dumas arranged the lucrative Elf job, which included several million dollars in salary, bonuses, and expenses, even though, according to prosecutors, Deviers-Joncour didn’t do much except sleep with her minister.
Dumas has denied the charges, telling the judge, with great indignation, “You cannot buy a statesman with a pair of shoes.” He threatened unspecified measures of revenge against “certain prosecutors” and suggested one of them had been a Nazi. His petulance is understandable: In the good old days, who would have cared if a minister placed his mistress on a government payroll?
And, just when it seemed things couldn’t get any juicier, Alfred Sirven, a top Elf official who allegedly funneled the money to Dumas’s mistress, was nabbed in a Philippine villa with a Filipina girlfriend several decades his junior. When police burst in, Sirven opened his cell phone, extracted its microchip, and swallowed it. With developments like that, France’s TV news has started sounding like an outlandish soap opera in which viewers learn what suave Roland really promised to mistress Christine, who is mad at Alfred for not defending her honor. As the woman who cut my hair one day remarked, “It’s really like `Dallas,’ isn’t it?” Watergate was dull by comparison.
Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, however, has not enjoyed the show. Three weeks after police ruined his sleep, he was arrested, driven to a nineteenth-century prison, and thrown into a cell next to a Nazi-era war criminal. He remained there for three weeks, until his mother paid his $725,000 bail (“ransom,” she called it). His alleged crime was splashed across the front page of virtually every French newspaper: that he accepted $1.8 million from a shadowy arms merchant for facilitating an illegal deal in which $563 million in weaponry was sold to Angola. Mitterrand says the payments were for consultations on an oil deal.
As Mitterrand progressed from one course to another during our leisurely lunch, sipping his way through several glasses of Bordeaux, he recalled his first encounter with the prosecutor who signed his arrest warrant.
“Name of father?” the prosecutor asked.
“There are sixty million people in France who know the answer!” Mitterrand’s lawyer objected.
The prosecutor said nothing as he typed into his computer: “F-R-A-N-C-O-I-S.”
I asked Mitterrand what went through his mind as he was shipped off to jail.
“Nothing,” he replied. “You are in shock.”
If all goes as planned, at 3:37 tomorrow morning a new space age will dawn. At that moment, a Russian capsule will bear into the blue sky and beyond the strangest cosmonaut of all time—a balding, 60-year-old businessman from Los Angeles who is paying a cool $20 million for his seat. Once just another bored multimillionaire, Dennis Tito has opened his considerable checkbook and is now hours away from achieving his childhood dream of looking down on Earth from 250 miles up in the heavens.
Tito would have preferred to purchase a seat on the space shuttle—living and training in Russia has not been much fun—but NASA was not interested. Since the Challenger disaster in 1986, NASA has banned sending “ordinary” people into space. The agency decided that for safety reasons only bona fide astronauts, the anointed ones with years of specialized training and testing at Johnson Space Center, would be sent to the heavens. But the Russian space program’s dire need for cash made Tito’s personal fortune the new right stuff for space travel. Despite NASA’s best efforts, the Russians refused to let America’s space bureaucrats decide who could fly on Russian capsules, thereby clearing Dennis Tito for the ride of his life.
What NASA still doesn’t seem to understand is that Tito’s trip is the best thing that could happen to it. Assuming he doesn’t push the wrong buttons or open any hatches during his visit to the International Space Station, Tito will show that NASA’s stodgy policy is a self-defeating anachronism, as outdated as an all-male golf club.
It’s easy to bemoan the notion of space tourists (where is the nobility in hawking seats on rockets?) but government funding for space exploration is not terribly generous these days, and public support for it is rather soft. Space tourism offers the prospect of injecting much-needed funds into the American and Russian space programs, as well as generating public interest and enthusiasm. It’s true that the prospect of multimillionaires flying into space may not be all that exciting for very long, but it’s only the beginning. James Cameron, the director of Titanic, has reportedly talked with the Russians about hopping aboard a Soyuz, and Mark Burnett, the creator of “Survivor,” wants to produce a game show in which the winner will be shot into the cosmos (the winner, not the loser). Somehow I think those sorts of stunts will get a lot more people interested in space than another run-of-the-mill resupply mission. And once the cost of such trips comes down—the laws of supply and demand operate in zero G—it won’t be just the mega-millionaires who can afford such jaunts but, perhaps, the millionaire next door, too; it would only be a matter of time before Dan Rather is wrestling Tom Brokaw for the honor of doing a live shot from space.
What’s remarkable, of course, is that it’s the Russians who are leading the way in commercializing space travel. They’ve stolen the risk-taking spirit that drove NASA and inspired the American public during the race to the moon: its sense of daring, its heroic astronauts, its willingness to try the unimaginable and suffer the occasional failure. Compare NASA’s anal culture—which is, of course, a product of America’s cosseted, tamper-proof mood these days—to Russia’s improvisational one. The recently deceased Mir space station was mocked, in its final years, for its considerable malfunctions, including a near-fatal fire and collision. The station nevertheless stayed aloft for 15 years. Its longevity is a considerable triumph, one we can attribute to cosmonauts who were masters at doing repairs on the fly and didn’t mind living in a leaky spaceship (the station oozed fluids on its inside and lost air through tiny punctures).
Necessity has turned the ever-adaptable Russians into avatars of orbital capitalism. Years ago they began selling advertising space on the sides of their rockets, and cosmonauts filmed commercials on Mir for, among others, an Israeli milk company and Omega, the watch company. They also unfurled, during a spacewalk, a replica of a giant Pepsi can made of nylon. And back on Earth, their bosses considered sending two actors to Mir to make a movie about a lone cosmonaut who refuses to return to Earth and is lured home by a female cosmonaut sent to fetch him; to the eternal regret of film buffs around the world, the project fell through for lack of funding.
NASA should take note. It ought to begin sending non-astronauts into space, though not just the filthy rich. Want to rouse public interest in space exploration? Why not have a national lottery, with the winner getting a round trip ticket to space? Why not send a writer up there, somebody like Tom Clancy, or J.K. Rowling, or me? If James Cameron wants to make a movie in space, NASA would be wise to help the directorial king of the world become king of the universe.
Sure, Tito had his share of problems in getting the Russians to accept his money. Initially he was supposed to fly to Mir, but the aging station became too costly and erratic and was deorbited before he could visit it. So Tito and the Russians changed their focus to flying him on a weeklong Soyuz mission to the ISS. After much wrangling—Tito was required, last week, to sign a contract in which he pledged to pay NASA for any damage he might cause on the station—and assuming clear skies over the launch pad in Kazakhstan tonight, Tito’s dream will come true. His timing is perfect; it is, after all, 2001.
All too often the American government has, in its handling of Balkan affairs, pursued a policy of “Do as I say and not as I do.”
Last week Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was on the receiving end of this treatment during his visit to Washington. The Bush administration is threatening to cut off a $100 million aid package and block World Bank and International Monetary Fund support for Belgrade if the authorities there do not arrest Slobodan Milosevic before March 31.
The idea is that Belgrade’s new leaders must abide by the international community’s norms of behavior if they hope to reap the benefits of being in the international community, and this means arresting Milosevic, the recently deposed strongman who has been indicted for war crimes by the U.N. tribunal in The Hague.
There is nothing wrong with the U.S. threat itself—Milosevic should be arrested, and the authorities in Belgrade, particularly Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, a democratic nationalist, appear to need a kick in the pants. But so does the Bush administration. The U.S. government, in the past decade, has a spotty record of honoring its commitments and obligations in the Balkans, and this has contributed to the region’s continuing instability. Bashing Yugoslavia’s new leaders, though useful, is less important in many ways than upholding the standards of integrity that we expect them—and others—to uphold.
In 1992 the first Bush administration went through the motions of condemning the Serb-led attack on Bosnia but did nothing to counteract it. The problem was handed off to the Clinton administration, which dishonored itself, as the war raged on, by making eloquent protestations and promising vigorous action and then doing little except blaming its European allies for dithering—as, for example, when U.N.-protected safe havens were overrun by Serb forces. There was a war room in the Clinton campaign but not, for a crucial few years, in the Clinton White House.
A U.S-led bombing campaign ended the war in 1995, but the peacekeeping force, spearheaded by U.S. troops, shied away from arresting indicted war criminals, including Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader whose whereabouts were not impossible to determine. (And, lest we forget, Milosevic’s crimes were amply documented at the time, but the White House treated him as a statesman, thereby bolstering his grip on power in Belgrade.)
A modest number of arrests have taken place in Bosnia since those early days, but it’s been a halfhearted effort, and the continued divisions there stem, in part, from the influence of men and women who should have been sent to The Hague years ago.
The same reluctance to do the hard work on the ground has hobbled the U.S.-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo. Ethnic Albanian extremists have intimidated and killed Serbs, just as Serbs effectively have taken control of a northern slice of the province and divided the city of Mitrovica.
Why has this happened? As in Bosnia, aggressive policing could expose the peacekeepers to greater danger, and the United States, which calls the shots, does not want any casualties.
Of greatest urgency, ethnic Albanian extremists in Macedonia have taken up arms against the democratically elected government, and much of the rebels’ supplies and some of their manpower comes from Kosovo. Stopping the flow of men and materiel is difficult and dangerous, but when NATO took control of Kosovo, it accepted the responsibility for making sure the province would not be used as a staging ground for terrorism or insurrection.
There is a new administration in Washington and, with it, the possibility that these obligations will be met. Whether President Bush likes it or not, the U.S. government is a key player in the Balkans. Just as the Serbs need to do the right thing, the Bush administration must do its job, too. If there’s one lesson that should have been learned in the past decade, it is that pointing fingers or telling others what to do is not going to bring about a Balkan endgame.
The Daily Californian is doing it again, bless its soul.
The newspaper at the University of California at Berkeley has always had a Madonna-like ability to reinvent itself, remaining relevant and controversial long after its presumed zenith. The Daily Cal found itself in the middle of a new controversy last week after it published a full-page advertisement against reparations for slavery. The ad, written by leftist-turned-right-wing-agitator David Horowitz, was titled, “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery Is a Bad Idea—and Racist Too.”
It didn’t go over well. Protesters representing minority groups showed up at the Daily Cal offices and demanded an apology; they also confiscated whatever copies of the offending issue they could find. The incident was so heated that the police showed up. The next day the paper published a front-page apology and a lengthy explanation from its editor, who said the ad should not have run.
But this political seppuku only sparked another round of objections, this time from people who said the paper shouldn’t have apologized, because the ad was an expression of free speech (albeit paid for, at a cost of $1,200). The controversy has revived the familiar debate: Should speech, whether free or paid for, be limited at a college paper because it might be inflammatory, or racist, or repulsive?
All of this takes me back to 1983, when I was on the paper’s Senior Editorial Board and we had to decide whether to run a recruiting ad from the Central Intelligence Agency. The paper had refused such ads for many years, but the political climate was changing, and the paper was in dire financial straits. We needed the money.
After much debate along familiar lines, somebody suggested a brilliant compromise—we should run the ad with a prominent disclaimer, of the sort that appears on packs of cigarettes. It would say something like, “The Central Intelligence Agency is an organization that has been involved in the assassination of foreign leaders, the overturning of democratically-elected governments, and the training of right-wing death squads in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.” This way, the CIA would get its ad, we could take their money with clear consciences, and the language majors would find out that the agency was looking for a few good spies to perform work of a potentially unsavory nature.
In the end, we refused the ad, for what I remember were unfortunate doctrinaire reasons. I may have been responsible for some of those reasons, since, as co-editor of the editorial page, I was the enforcer of the faith, whatever it happened to be. We did, however, accept ads from the National Security Agency—I suppose because we thought they hadn’t actually killed anyone. Consistency clearly wasn’t our strong point. If you wanted ponderous thinking from no-nonsense strivers, you would have done better to swallow a No-Doz and consult the pages of the Stanford Daily or Harvard Crimson.
The CIA fuss wasn’t the only controversy at the time; in fact, it was a trifle compared to the Dos Equis uproar. The beer company had paid for color inserts that featured Hooters-ish females in tight shorts and tighter shirts—hardly the picture of womanhood that many of our highly-educated readers wished to see. A petition that ended up being several feet long was gathered on Sproul Plaza and then presented to the paper’s editors; some of the petition-bearers were carrying copies of the offending insert, aflame.
We issued the sort of abject apology that today’s Daily Cal editors issued for the slavery ad. I would not equate the two ads, though. A tasteless beer insert is planets apart, in its free speech implications, from an inflammatory political statement. You can check out the ad at Horowitz’s website and decide for yourself whether it should have run; you can read the apology, at the Daily Cal website, from the paper’s editor, too.
It’s easy to understand why many people view the ad as racist—it’s certainly provocative, as it was intended to be. It is also intellectually sloppy, to an extent that discredits its author. Some of what Horowitz writes makes sense, some is utter nonsense—all of which argues in favor of running his screed.
One of the lessons I learned after I graduated from Berkeley is that unaired prejudices tend to fester and can, one day, burst in ugly ways. The war in Bosnia, which I covered, is a case in point. Much of the nationalist fury in the Balkans, especially on the Serb side, stemmed from the manipulation of grudges that were not allowed to surface during Tito’s long rule. Just as truths were suppressed—the truths about which ethnic groups were and were not victims in World War II and before—so too were lies suppressed. Nothing was proved or disproved, and as a result, terrifying wars were fought on the basis of myths.
Enforced silence is an inadequate defense against prejudice and discord. A better strategy is to let everyone say what they think in a civil way. To be sure, Horowitz’s ad wasn’t especially civil, and the paper might have requested that he tone down his incendiary language. But by letting people air controversial views you at least discover who and what you’re up against, and can begin to figure out a way to bring the truth to those who need it.
All of which makes the ongoing controversy around the Daily Cal a positive event. The ad, the protests, the apology, the protests against the apology, and who knows what will come next—it amounts to a valuable debate on issues that deserve a public hearing. I learned from the controversies during my days at the Daily Cal, and enjoyed them; I hope the same holds true for the current group of besieged editors.
Just beware of the beer ads.
In Belgrade, you don’t need to be paranoid, but it helps. It’s late October, and I’m sipping an espresso at the Window Café, along Knez Mihailova, the city’s main shopping street, with Sasha Mirkovic, the general manager of B-92, an independent radio station that had the annoying habit of exposing the lies of Slobodan Milosevic’s government. Outside the café, the city is laced with remnants of the euphoria that greeted the downfall of Milosevic’s regime just a few weeks earlier. The government was washed away by a wave of protesters, many of whom found their way to the city center on October 5 by following a bulldozer as it cleared a path through police roadblocks. A few yards from where Mirkovic and I sit, street vendors are selling postcards of the famous bulldozer—now a political icon with treads—and they are selling copies of a CD of popular protest songs with a torn campaign poster of Milosevic on the cover, under the title “He’s Finished.”
Mirkovic is telling me about B-92, checking his watch, running his hand through his dark hair (which is not far from a crew cut), and asking the waiter to turn down the music. He suddenly stops and points to his cell phone, which he has placed on the table between us. Whenever Mirkovic had face-to-face conversations with sources or friends during the Milosevic era, he tells me, he not only turned off his cell phone but removed its battery. “It’s not paranoia,” says the stocky 33-year-old in the weary, know-it-all tone of a mechanic describing what’s wrong with a car. “If you don’t take out the battery, even though the phone is turned off, your conversation can be listened to.” Detaching the battery to illustrate, he adds: “People are still doing this, even though Milosevic is gone.”
I thought this was strange—another example of the suspicion that fills the Balkans with enough conspiracy theories to keep Oliver Stone busy for years—but other Serb journalists were telling me the same thing, assuring me, usually at the outset of our conversations, that they are not being paranoid. But none of them could explain how a switched-off cell phone could transmit their conversations to government snoops.
When I return to New York, I call Jeff Schlanger, chief operating officer of the security-services group at Kroll Associates, the global investigative company. Schlanger begins the conversation by reminding me of a simple fact: “A cell phone is a listening device.” He explains that technicians can reconfigure a phone to transmit a conversation even though its owner has turned it off. The trick, he explains, is to make the phone appear as though it’s been turned off when it is actually on. When I ask Schlanger what could be done to thwart this mischief, he suggests detaching the cell phone’s battery.
For quite some time, being an independent journalist in Serbia required a range of skills that edged into the realms of spycraft and diplomacy. That’s because the struggle for power in Serbia centered on information, not politics, and Mirkovic’s station was at the center of this war. B-92—which stands for Belgrade 92, its original frequency—began operating in 1989 as a low-wattage radio station for young people, but it quickly evolved, under Mirkovic’s boss, editor in chief Veran Matic, into the Serbian capital’s most influential source of honest and live news about the wars that were tearing apart the former Yugoslavia and about the government lies that were fueling the nationalist madness.
Milosevic made sure that the state-owned media, especially Radio Television Serbia (RTS), broadcast his nationalist propaganda at all times; the station was staffed by loyalists who heaped praise upon the politicians, including Milosevic, who was later indicted for war crimes by the United Nations tribunal in The Hague. While leaders of the police and army were making deals with the opposition in the weeks before Milosevic was ousted, the ever loyal men and women of RTS pumped out increasingly strident propaganda, and they didn’t stop until a mob stormed their headquarters on October 5 and set it on fire.
Milosevic understood that if you can brainwash your people, you don’t need to arrest them. He understood a corollary lesson, too—a regime that draws its power from propaganda rather than terror faces its greatest threat from independent journalists who have the desire and the means to expose its lies. Milosevic never banned any opposition party and rarely arrested politicians who opposed him; he did, however, force the closure of radio and television stations he didn’t like, and he didn’t hesitate to throw journalists into jail. They were the enemy, and 18 months before he was removed from power, Milosevic showed how much he feared B-92, the pillar of Serbia’s independent media, by trying to shut it down.
His failure to fully silence B-92 was emblematic of the war he fought—and, ultimately, lost—to control the hearts and minds of ordinary Serbs. B-92 outmaneuvered and outlasted Milosevic because it had truth on its side and a clever, dedicated staff, but it also had another asset—financial assistance from the United States government, which realized that in today’s world, an undesirable dictator can be undermined with accurate information as well as smart bombs.
It was April 2, 1999, and Sasha Mirkovic knew it was going to be a bad day at the office when he saw the police cars parked outside the Dom Omladine building. Dom Omladine is Belgrade’s center for young people, who like to drink coffee in the ground-floor café, surf the Internet on the first floor, or shoot pool in the basement. The building is also the headquarters for B-92, and when Mirkovic, one of its founders, walked past the news kiosk outside the building on that day, he prepared himself for the worst. The NATO alliance had recently launched the first wave of air strikes in its 78-day bombing of Yugoslavia, and Milosevic was cracking down on dissent. Mirkovic had already taken the precaution of deleting sensitive e-mail messages from his computer and slipping out of B-92’s office with documents that detailed the financial assistance the station received from foreign donors. Although B-92 acknowledged having accepted assistance from nonprofit groups outside the country, it never disclosed the dollar amounts—which appear to have been in the millions—or the donors themselves. And in the hands of Milosevic’s propaganda machine, those details could easily be used to tie B-92 to the NATO governments that were preparing to turn the country into rubble.
Mirkovic took the elevator to his sixth-floor office; it was 8:30 in the morning, and he had arrived early to conduct a phone interview with a foreign television network. Before the interview could begin, a security guard told him there were visitors outside. He stepped into the corridor and faced two plainclothes law-enforcement officials who flashed their IDs and said they were taking over the station. Behind them were four uniformed policemen, and behind them were half a dozen men in black leather jackets who looked as though they had seen too many Terminator movies.
The only B-92 staff on the sixth floor apart from Mirkovic were a security guard and a cleaning woman. It was not much of a match, especially since Mirkovic’s backpack was stuffed with some of the financial documents the police probably wanted. Stalling for time, Mirkovic asked the security guard to summon the cleaning lady, because, he said, he had her bag. When she appeared a minute later, squeezing through the leather jackets, Mirkovic casually handed her his backpack, and without missing a beat, she carried it to safety.
“When I went back into my office, a guy was already sitting in my chair,” Mirkovic tells me, smiling. “The guy was asking, ‘Where are the documents? Where are the folders?’”
Mirkovic refused to tell him and was tossed out of the office. He went downstairs and met with B-92 staffers who had gathered at the café on the ground floor. They decided that if they couldn’t have the station, they wouldn’t let the government have it, either.
The station’s engineers logged on to the computer terminals in the lobby of Dom Omladine and hacked their way into the B-92 computer system. They deleted whatever they could find—not just financial information but even audio files that contained the jingles that identified the station to its listeners. When the government reopened B-92, the following Monday, most of the staff showed up ostensibly to interview for their old jobs and pledge their loyalty to a new management. But they were in fact there to cause as much havoc as possible. Disc jockeys filched as many CDs as they could lay their hands on. Technicians, asked to show their skills or just show how the systems worked, logged on to the computers and deleted files. The station’s music director managed covertly to stick a screwdriver into an electrical outlet, shorting the station’s wiring and causing everything to crash.
Regardless, the state-run B-92 went back on the air several days later, with a new staff that hadn’t a clue about the alternative music the station used to play. They thought Radiohead was a tape cleaner of some sort. More important, their news broadcasts were the usual Milosevic drivel. The station was a fake, and listeners knew it; few tuned in. That was a victory of sorts for the station’s former staff, but they still confronted a basic question: What do we do now to get the truth onto the airwaves?
Sasha Mirkovic has the crisp, let’s-not-waste-a-second demeanor of a young dotcom executive, which is unusual in Belgrade. His mind even operates in a digital way, clicking from one subject to another so quickly that I find it necessary, on occasion, to ask him to slow down and explain something before clicking to another subject. He got his start in broadcasting as a disc jockey, which seems to have trained him to dread silence. Our encounter at the Window Café is a classic illustration of Mirkovic’s manic lifestyle, as he talks on his cell phone (he quickly reattached the battery after his demonstration) and jots reminders in his leatherbound datebook, which tracks his multiple appointments with diplomats, politicians, and journalists. A natural-born organizer, Mirkovic even keeps a list of every movie he has seen (he’s a film buff; there are several thousand titles on the list). I suggest that his life seems a bit frenetic. “It would be worse if I had a normal life and didn’t do anything against this regime,” he replies. “One of the main reasons I was doing this job at B-92 was because I could not live in this country without acting against this regime. That was the meaning of my life. But I was also thinking, of the people who left the country, One of us is making a mistake, them or me.”
In the early 1990s, B-92 occupied the same cultural ground in Serbia as Rolling Stone did in America in the 1960s; one of B-92’s slogans was “Trust no one, not even us.” Under the guidance of Veran Matic, its editor in chief, B-92 soon evolved beyond the alternative realm and organized get-out-the-vote campaigns while disseminating news not only about the wars that were taking place in Croatia and Bosnia but also about Serbia’s economic free fall. As Milosevic’s grip on Serbia’s media tightened through the 1990s, B-92 became the most influential antidote to government propaganda.
In late 1996, Milosevic’s Socialist Party stumbled in municipal elections but refused to cede control of the city halls it lost; nightly demonstrations ensued, and one of the first things the government did, hoping to short-circuit the protests, was ban B-92’s broadcasts, which had spread the word about the growing agitation. But the station’s journalists began broadcasting on the Internet, and their reports were bounced back into Serbia on shortwave broadcasts of the BBC and Radio Free Europe. Milosevic, who still cared about his international reputation, relented, letting the station resume its broadcasts and eventually letting the opposition take control of the city halls it had won.
This was the beginning of the end for Milosevic because it led to a blossoming of independent media outside Belgrade, where city councils ran their own radio and television stations and controlled licensing for new ones. These city-run stations parroted the government’s line while Milosevic’s Socialist Party was in charge, but that changed once the opposition took over. Mirkovic and Matic used this opening to establish a network of independent stations outside Belgrade that broadcast reports by the team at B-92. It was called the Association of Independent Electronic Media (ANEM is the acronym for the Serbian name for the group).
The members of ANEM—eventually 33 radio stations and 17 television stations—were shoestring operations; many used homemade transmitters. But even shoestring outfits need money, and this posed a problem for ANEM. Businesses were reluctant to advertise on antigovernment stations, and the country’s economy was in ruins, so there was no way that even a pro-Milosevic station could survive on advertising revenue alone.
This is where the U.S. government stepped in. Since the early 1990s, the independent media in Serbia had received modest support from a handful of private donors, including the Open Society Institute, funded by financier George Soros to promote democracy in places such as Serbia. After the 1996 municipal elections, the U.S. and its European allies became aware of two facts—that Milosevic was not an unstoppable force of nature and that his control over voters could be weakened by the work of the independent media. So the White House and its allies in Europe decided to funnel financial support not only to prodemocracy forces in Serbia—including opposition parties and student groups—but also to the media. This was a new approach: In the days of the cold war, programs that were designed to bring down foreign governments tended to involve covert support for coup makers or rebel factions. Serbia, however, had opposition parties and independent media, and they could topple the regime democratically if given the means.
“Support for the independent media and the democratic forces was crucial,” notes Jim Hooper, a former U.S. State Department expert on Yugoslavia and, until recently, executive director of the Balkan Action Council, a think tank that often criticized U.S. policy. “It was one of the elements without which Milosevic wouldn’t have been overthrown.” Some of the other key factors, Hooper believes, were the bombing of Yugoslavia, which weakened popular support for Milosevic, and international sanctions, which isolated the country.
By 2000, the U.S. was budgeting more than $25 million for democracy-building programs in Serbia, and nearly half of that was devoted to civil-society development, which included media-related projects, says Don Pressley, an assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Pressley tells me that a “substantial portion” of the media funding went to ANEM, though the exact amount is not forthcoming from Washington or Belgrade. U.S. officials say the problem is that their “partners” in Serbia do not wish to have the amounts publicized even now, because this could provide fodder for Serb nationalists who want to portray the anti-Milosevic uprising as having been made in the United States. “For a country in which 50 deutsche marks [about $25] is a lot of money, people would not understand these figures,” Mirkovic tells me.
Whatever the amount, the money was not wasted on expensive consultants or salaries for American expatriates, which often happens with U.S.-government-run foreign programs. This time, the funding went directly to local journalists, providing them with the resources to continue broadcasting.
“This can be done everywhere, and should be,” says John Fox, director of the Washington office of the Open Society Institute. “This can be done in all places, in Africa, in Asia, wherever there are independent journalists who are already taking risks, who are already showing the enterprise, and who already have credibility.”
In Serbia, it was the information age’s equivalent of a guerrilla war. Journalists who exchanged e-mail with foreign donors (and one another) used PGP, an encryption program, and instructed their foreign contacts not to fax sensitive documents because faxes are easy to intercept. Even nonsensitive faxes could cause trouble. The head of the Belgrade office of Norwegian People’s Aid, a nonprofit organization that quietly provided independent journalists with money and equipment—everything from transmitters and laptops to air conditioners—tells me of his horror at receiving a faxed invitation from the State Department to speak at a seminar it was organizing. The next day, the fax was leaked to the Serbian minister of information, who used it to portray the Norwegian group as an instrument of U.S. policy.
One of the point men in Belgrade for distributing U.S. aid is Dusan Masic, a former news editor at B-92 who has worked, since April, for the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX), a Washington-based nonprofit that is one of the principal channels for U.S. funding to independent media. When I meet with Masic in Belgrade, he is still operating in a quasi-fugitive manner, with no office or business cards. We get together at a café in downtown Belgrade, and he begins by asking wary questions about my background and this magazine.
His caution eases somewhat, but when I bring up the issue of U.S. financial aid, he smiles and says, “I can’t talk about that.” Still, I ask him which media outlets receive funding from IREX. He won’t say. How did he transfer the money into the country? He won’t say. He agrees, however, to disclose a trick of his unusual trade: Whenever he has a confidential, face-to-face talk with someone, he detaches the battery from his cell phone.
By the time B-92 was taken over by the Milosevic regime, in April 1999, the flow of foreign assistance was well under way, so resources were available to bring the station to life on the Internet and to allow its journalists to produce radio and television programs that could be shown on ANEM stations elsewhere in the country. B-92 was renamed B2-92 to differentiate it from the government-hijacked station on the FM dial, and it broadcast on a new website, freeb92.net.
It was not by chance that an English name was used for the site and that its content was translated into English. The site’s domestic impact was limited because few Serbs have the high-speed modems needed for real-time broadcasts, but with texts and programs in both English and Serbian, the site was a useful resource for journalists and diplomats outside Serbia, as well as an important PR tool for the station’s editorial team, which wanted to demonstrate to the outside world that they were still at work.
Security was a critical issue as the station went into its guerrilla mode; the NATO bombing in the spring of 1999 prompted Milosevic to declare martial law, giving his regime sweeping powers. Just a few days after the takeover, Slavko Curuvija, an independent publisher who was critical of Milosevic, was gunned down on a Belgrade street. The assassination was widely blamed on thugs working for the government, and independent journalists like Mirkovic took the warning to heart. Mirkovic attended Curuvija’s funeral and recalls, “Everybody was saying, ‘Take care; take care.’” Mirkovic went semiunderground, often staying with friends, and on the 50th day of the bombing, his boss Matic fled to Montenegro because of rumors he would be murdered. Mirkovic stayed behind, in sole control of the B2-92 team.
Once the bombing ended, in June 1999, the political atmosphere relaxed and the B2-92 team was able, from August, to broadcast on a Belgrade frequency controlled by a sympathetic opposition party. But in May 2000, when Milosevic initiated another media crackdown, B2-92 was yanked off the air again and returned to the Internet. It was not heard on the FM dial until Milosevic was deposed in October.
During the crackdowns in April 1999 and May 2000, B-92’s role as the principal outlet for honest and current news was assumed by a scrappy station, Radio Index, which was founded by Nenad Cekic, who had broken away from B-92 in a murky dispute in the early 1990s. Depending on whom you believe, Cekic was either fired or asked to resign for stealing equipment or cutting a deal with the government or opposing alleged corruption at the station—or for other reasons that neither he nor his detractors wish to mention. In any event, Index played second fiddle to B-92 throughout most of the 1990s until B-92 was forced off the air. Cekic kept his station on the air by, among other things, hiding one of its transmitters in an unfinished home on a hilltop above Belgrade. It seems that some of the independent media’s most bitter feuds are conducted between people who should be allies, and the Index and B-92 teams are no exception: They despise each other more than they appear to despise Milosevic.
“B-92 became popular in the West because of their self-promotion,” Cekic tells me in his smoke-filled office on the 17th floor of Belgrade’s tallest building. While we talk, he waves a pair of scissors in the air, saying, “I have a strong impression that your government wasted your money.”
Cekic notes that when Milosevic lost the first round of the presidential election on September 24, Index spread the word about the results and about Milosevic’s attempt to tilt the ballot-counting in his favor. In the subsequent ten days, which decided the future of Serbia, everyone relied on Index for up-to-date information. Cekic is acid in his assessment of B-92: “They were not around when the revolution happened. Oops.”
The two stations represent different cultural styles. B-92 was always cool and trendy, though perhaps a bit too highbrow for the working class. Index was downmarket, the New York Post of the Serbian radio world, playing top-40 hits and featuring, on its advertising posters, a woman’s scantily clad torso. Foreign donors were well aware of the differences, both cultural and political, between the two stations and brokered a truce after the local elections in 1996, persuading the B-92 team to bring Index into the ANEM network. But Cekic, arguing among other things that his station was a major player in the media world, demanded greater say within ANEM than Matic and Mirkovic wanted to give.
“We were not so happy because we knew Cekic,” Mirkovic tells me one day. “He really started to be destructive. He is telling these stories that we didn’t want to show him the books. But he is not the person who I am going to show books to. I show ANEM’s books to donors, and he can ask donors if he has questions. So we expelled him.”
Cekic’s bitterness is extreme, though it’s certainly true that his station was more influential than B-92 in the final months, perhaps even the final year or two, of Milosevic’s regime, thanks to Index’s ability to continue broadcasting. Despite this, ANEM received the bulk of foreign aid for the independent media, and little of it reached the coffers of Index, much to the dismay and rage of Cekic, who now faces the possible demise of his station due to lack of funds.
“They are not a news organization,” Cekic says of his nemesis. “They are a private group for collecting money. That must be recognized in the West. They are interested in money, not journalism.”
When I ask Mirkovic about these accusations, he initially says he doesn’t want to exchange insults—then proceeds, as we walk through town toward his office, to do precisely that. He accuses Cekic of collaborating with a fascist party that was part of Milosevic’s coalition government. “They were in a kind of deal with the Radical Party, especially with the minister of information, who protected them,” Mirkovic says. (Cekic denies it.)
We soon arrive at Mirkovic’s new office in a dull building above a pharmacy and grocery store in the center of town. There are a couple of desks and chairs, a poster for a Moby CD, several new computers, and, of course, a haze of cigarette smoke. “Do I look like a person who has a lot of money?” Mirkovic asks. “This is stupid, you know.”
It is a Monday evening three weeks after Milosevic was overthrown, and Sasha Mirkovic is heading from his office to a reception at the Turkish Embassy. This is a big part of his life now: schmoozing with diplomats and politicians and businessmen. The corridors of power are wide-open, and they are crowded with friends, not enemies. Mirkovic walks up Kneza Milosha, a boulevard that is a visual reminder of Serbia’s recent history. At its lower stretch lie the ruins of the Defense Ministry and Army Headquarters, bombed by NATO in 1999. Farther along the boulevard is a looted office of the political party controlled by Milosevic’s much-despised wife; the office was attacked and destroyed in the uprising in October, and the graffiti on its walls reads, in English, “Freedom! Revolution!”
As Mirkovic walks by, he passes the head of the U.N. office in Belgrade; they exchange warm greetings. The city remains in a celebratory mood. Inside the embassy, several waiters recognize Mirkovic—who, amid the suited diplomats and politicians, is wearing a T-shirt under a frayed sweater—and they congratulate him on regaining control of B-92 after the long blackout that began in April 1999…a lifetime ago, it seems. Mirkovic scans the room and notices two ministers of the new government; they are friends of his from the University of Belgrade.
An acquaintance approaches him and mentions that a businessman is coming to Belgrade to find a publishing partner for Serbian editions of Playboy and Cosmopolitan. Would B-92, which published several political books in recent years, be interested?
The long-range plan is to turn B-92 and ANEM into self-supporting media companies producing provocative programs that the state-controlled media, now slavishly loyal to the new president, Vojislav Kostunica, will shy away from and that most commercial stations will shun in favor of sitcoms and soap operas. In November, B-92 broadcast a 30-minute NPR documentary about war crimes committed by Serb soldiers in Kosovo—precisely the sort of program that other media outlets even now wouldn’t touch. Mirkovic hopes that B-92’s hallmark radio program, Catharsis, which delved into issues of war and guilt, will be expanded into a television program, and he’s hard at work putting together a new television studio for a nightly news broadcast.
Matic and Mirkovic do not expect foreign donors to remain generous for much longer now that Milosevic is a private citizen living in a villa surrounded by high walls in a posh suburb of Belgrade. Although their foreign donors may not realize that the removal of Milosevic does not mean the full advent of democracy and openness, Serbia is no longer as crisis-ridden as it used to be, and the kindness of strangers is unlikely to linger.
ANEM and B-92 need to stand on their own commercial feet, and already ANEM—with Mirkovic as vice-president—has acquired the rights to broadcast NBA games. ANEM is also negotiating with MTV to broadcast its music programs.
Mirkovic does not bother to detach the battery from his cell phone before replying to his acquaintance’s query.
“Playboy? Cosmopolitan?” he says. “Sure, I’ll meet with the guy.”
The main exhibition hall in Belgrade is a visual curiosity. A concrete-and-glass dome designed during the Tito era by an architect of great imagination, the hall looks like a flying saucer that somehow landed in the Balkans. It was an appropriate setting for Serbia’s annual book fair, held late last October—an event that had a decidedly out-of-body quality. The fair’s official theme, chosen before pro-democracy protesters ousted Slobodan Milosevic from power, was “2000 Years of Christianity,” but the real theme, of course, was the startling events of the previous three weeks.
For Serbian writers the lifting of political tyranny has brought a new and different tyranny: that of the marketplace. Nowhere was this more evident than at the signing booth manned by Vladimir Arsenijevic, one of the country’s most critically acclaimed writers. In 1994 Arsenijevic burst onto the literary scene with In the Hold, a novel that tells the story of a young couple in Belgrade struggling against heroin addiction as they try to find meaning, or just a reason not to give up, in a nation of madness and murder. In the Hold is the sort of small masterpiece that tends to emerge from horrible times. It won the Nin prize, Yugoslavia’s most prestigious literary award, in 1995, and has been translated into eighteen languages. The book turned Arsenijevic into Serbia’s hottest young writer—its Dave Eggers, if you will, though a darker version, and without a movie contract.
At the fair Arsenijevic was plugging his new book, Mexico: War Diaries. I had imagined that he would draw a tremendous crowd: the book, which chronicles Arsenijevic’s experiences during the nato bombing of Yugoslavia and describes his friendship with an ethnic Albanian writer from Kosovo, had gotten excellent reviews. But when I stopped by his booth on the opening day of the fair, there was no signing going on; he had sold just half a dozen books in the previous four hours. Nearby, the Serbian translation of the newest Sidney Sheldon novel was selling briskly. Arsenijevic was a good sport about it all. “If normalcy means people reading Sidney Sheldon or Jackie Collins, that’s fair enough,” he said, shrugging.
It is an odd phenomenon that literature can be a casualty of liberation, but it’s one we’ve seen before. Consider what occurred in Central and Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union after the Berlin Wall collapsed, in 1989. Writers and artists who had sacrificed and achieved so much under communism became, almost overnight, nonpersons (unless, as in the case of Vaclav Havel, they became politicians). Profound books that had been passed from hand to hand, often at the risk of arrest, ended up in remainder bins from Prague to Moscow. Readers did not want to be reminded of the bad old days, and the advent of democracy brought people much else to entertain themselves with, including American best sellers, the Muzak of literature. In Moscow today it is much easier to find a book by Danielle Steel than one by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose books are often out of print.
Under a dictatorship—whether in Communist-era Eastern Europe or in apartheid-era South Africa or in an Argentina run by generals—the mere act of acquiring certain books becomes a form of social protest. Yugoslavia had been no exception, as I learned when I met with Mileta Prodanovic, a prominent writer and artist whose publisher had a booth not far from Arsenijevic’s. Prodanovic told me that many people had felt “humiliated in a psychological sense” by the hypernationalism and corruption that pervaded Serbian society under Milosevic. “You would enter a book shop and buy a book to prove to yourself that you were still an intellectual or still human,” he recalled. “I think this motive is going to disappear.”
As it does, the pursuit of economic success may well take its place. For prosperous members of the consumer society that Yugoslavia is destined to become, the acquisition of goods will be a priority. Among the middle-class intelligentsia, dinner conversations are much likelier to focus on the merits of vacationing in Florence or Nice than on the merits of a new play by Dusan Kovacevic, the country’s leading dramatist. For the large number of people who will have a difficult time in the economic transition under way in Yugoslavia (prices for food and other staples, kept low by Milosevic-era subsidies, have already shot up), the struggle to put bread and slivovitz on the table will no doubt become the dominant preoccupation. Understandably, few in such situations will want to read about their own hardships. Being poor is much less interesting˜even to poor people˜than being oppressed.
Oppression provides writers not only with a sympathetic, even determined, audience but also with compelling material. Normalcy represents unknown turf for authors accustomed to writing under, and about, tyranny. “You do get better inspiration when times are rough politically, and probably literature does come out with better works, because there are more questions at stake,” Arsenijevic explains. “You tend to question everything, down to very personal things. But when times are not rough, you just switch off part of your mind, in a way.”
Of course, I did not find any writer who mourned the passing of the Milosevic era. Kovacevic has spent more than a decade writing plays and screenplays—including the script for Underground, an award-winning 1995 film directed by Emir Kusturica—that chronicle his country’s agony. He’s had enough of it. He was in one of his notoriously acerbic, whiskey-drinking moods when we met at the book fair. “In the old system it was good to be a writer but horrible to be a citizen,” he remarked, pausing to enjoy the irony. “Now it’s time to have a change. A boring life—that’s my great wish.”
But does a mundane life have to mean a literature of the mundane—more Cheever than Kundera? In hindsight, the ebb of political literature in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union was somewhat predictable. Once communism fell, what more needed to be said about it? Communism was poison, and almost everyone knew it. In Serbia, though, the evil was nationalism, which is more a drug than a poison—and relapse is possible. Milosevic was ousted not because he led the country into four wars but because he lost the wars and brought economic ruin to his people. The atrocities committed in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo are infrequently mentioned in Belgrade—and for this reason Serbia’s writers, more than their counterparts in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, need to find a way to remind their compatriots of the evil in their past and the possibility that its roots live on. Selective amnesia is not unknown in the Balkans. As Prodanovic cautioned, “We are quick forgetters.”
Arsenijevic is keenly aware of this need, and of the difficulty that writers who try to address it will face. “People are not into huge ideas, like ten years ago,” he said. “They have matured: they don’t vote for demagogues and support them no matter what they do. But hardly anyone thinks of sorting out the relationships among the ethnic groups in Yugoslavia. That is a boring subject. What they want to think about is foreign goods.”
He believes that readers in Serbia will return to politically tinged literature one of these days. In the meantime, he has a backup plan. He recently decided that he didn’t like trying to earn his daily bread from writing, which is almost impossible in Serbia, even for him. So he got together with a group of friends and started a publishing house. He plans to write on the side, as he did before he became famous, when he paid his bills by being a short-order cook and a tour guide. His publishing house is called Rende, or “Grater”—a name he hopes will convey a certain edginess. Its first titles are Mexico: War Diaries and a book of poems by Arsenijevic’s Kosovar friend, Dzevdet Bajraj.
Publishing, of course, is a perilous commercial exercise in any country, let alone Serbia. Arsenijevic hopes to ensure Rende’s survival through an imprint called Org. The imprint has nothing to do with the dot-com world and everything to do with commercial smarts; a certain irony also applies. When I asked Arsenijevic what “Org” stands for, he replied, “Like orgy, orgasm.” The imprint’s first book, which Arsenijevic hopes to release soon, is a collection of pornographic poems by a violinist at the Belgrade Opera who is also a stripper. After that Arsenijevic would like to translate and publish Macho Sluts, by the California erotica writer Pat Califia. Instead of being crushed by the new market in Serbia, Arsenijevic hopes to master it. “The book is really well written and it’s, like, total porn,” he explained enthusiastically. “And the title translates really well into Serbian.”
The scent of revenge is in the air, and it smells a lot like beer.
Fans of the Red Star soccer team are pouring into a Belgrade stadium, where their squad will shortly face its archrival, Partizan. The last time these Serbian teams met, a fan was shot and killed with a flare gun.
A policeman frisks everyone at the entrance, checking for weapons, drugs, and alcohol, or any object that might be heaved at the players, such as the plastic bottle of mineral water in my pocket, which is confiscated. The ban on alcohol has, perversely, accelerated the drunkenness among the team’s hard-core fans, who are proud to be known as hooligans and wave British flags on occasion; they have consumed enough pregame beer to stay inebriated through the rest of the year.
Inside, the stadium is one part rave, one part Colosseum. Some kids light up fat joints (their marijuana comes from Albania), and the blissed-out, hyped-up behavior of others indicates that they are molecularly familiar with ecstasy and cocaine. The Red Star cheering section, where almost all the fans are male, feels like a Balkan frat party.
This let-the-good-times-roll ambience proves transitory, though. Fights break out, but of the tune-up variety, between Red Star fans who throw a few chemically laced punches before realizing they should save their best stuff for later on. The stadium begins to shake as the fans roar in unison at the Partizan cheering section at the other end of the stadium. Their shouts have a rolling, thunderous sound, like the battle cry of ancient Greeks at the gates of Troy, though with little of the Homeric dignity:
“Pussies and thieves! Pussies and thieves!”
“You’re choking/ You’re choking/ You’re choking/ On our dicks!”
The teams take to the field. Someone throws a red flare onto the pitch. It becomes clear in the coming minutes that flares are the preferred instruments for wreaking havoc at soccer games.
Alexander is a 26-year-old computer geek dressed in the team colors, red and white. He is mild-mannered for a Serbian soccer fan, and he is doing his best to explain what is going on.
“Is something like a civil war,” he says.
A yellow smoke bomb explodes among the Partizan fans, who, enraged, begin tearing up their seats and throwing them onto the track circling the field. Partizan is the visiting team, and this is no way for visitors to behave.
“We fuck your mother!” Red Star fans chant.
For most Serbs, violence is a member of the family. In the early nineties, the ethnic cleansing in Croatia and Bosnia was initiated by the Serbian warlord Zeljko “Arkan” Raznatovic-eventually indicted as a war criminal-who was also the leader of Red Star’s official (and feared) fan club; its nationalist hooligans were his fiercest soldiers. But in the past few years, instead of fighting on behalf of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, they turned against his regime, which had led the country into global isolation and economic misery. The first time most Serbs heard the opposition slogan, which roughly translates as “Slobo, kill yourself and save the nation,” was during Red Star games, when thousands of fans howled it with such in-your-face gusto that riot police tried to silence the troublemakers, wielding their batons like cleavers in an abattoir.
Nine days before this match, a popular rebellion ended Milosevic’s 13-year rule. His ouster has been cause for national celebration, but Red Star’s fans—who were among the frontline protesters storming the federal Parliament and other government strongholds—remain on the warpath because Partizan has been headed by Milosevic loyalists. Not all scores have been settled.
The game begins. Red Star controls the ball and moves toward the Partizan goal. Several flares are fired onto the field, in front of the goal, narrowly missing the players, who dribble around them as they blaze away, throwing off smoke and heat and light.
“Is something normal,” Alexander explains.
The Partizan fans are becoming frenzied. A small fire has started in their section, and now they are hurling their chairs onto the field in earnest, a hail of jagged edges. The Partizan captain, Sasa Ilic, jogs off the field and onto the track, trying to talk some sense into his fans, but they will not listen, and he retreats before he becomes the target of their fury.
The hooligans on both sides are like stallions smelling brood mares in the distance, snorting and pawing the ground. Partizan fans are the first ones to climb the fence meant to prevent them from reaching the field. They rush ahead, lobbing flares, and as they do so, Red Star fans climb over their fence and surge forward, into battle, wildly.
“You see, it starts,” Alexander says, a touch of awe in his voice.
Mayhem. Players and coaches from both teams sprint toward a tunnel that leads off the field to safety, dodging punches and kicks along the way. The tunnel is flanked by a gauntlet of Red Star hooligans, so Partizan players duck and wrap their arms around their heads to absorb the blows. The important thing is to keep moving, because if they fall, the hooligans will swarm over them, saying hello with steel-toed boots.
Alexander watches the riot from the stands. He is not a hooligan, though he has, like most members of the fan club, engaged in violence from time to time; it is unavoidable, he says, when the other side attacks. He knows that tonight’s game, just three minutes old, is over, and he doesn’t much like the spectacle now taking its place.
“This is bad, this is bad, the whole situation,” he whispers. It’s not clear whether he means the game or the state of the nation.
A new chant arises from the Red Star supporters.
“Let’s go, let’s go! Everyone attack!”
The home team does not lose riots. Red Star fans pour onto the field. Ilic, the Partizan captain, is a marked man; by the time he staggers to safety, he has several broken ribs. Ljubisa Tumbakovic, Partizan’s coach, is a few steps slower than his players, and he loses a couple of teeth in the maelstrom and flees the field with a nasty gash on his forehead. He will later tell reporters the riot was the worst moment of his career.
Once the teams have disappeared from the field, the hooligan-on-hooligan violence intensifies. Red Star supporters are beating the daylights out of injured Partizan fans who have fallen to the ground in fetal heaps. It is brutal stuff, one kick after another delivered to crumpled, sandbag bodies.
“Look, they are coming now, the blues,” Alexander says.
The police, known as the blues because of their uniforms, had been staunch defenders of Milosevic’s regime. They were staying out of the stadium because they didn’t want to incite the fans. But the fans got incited anyway, so the blues are wading into the Partizan section, which is being ripped apart. They club anyone within swinging distance-crowd control, Serbian style.
The blues, with helmets and shields, venture onto the field too, chasing Red Star fans from their wounded prey, and as the victorious hooligans return to their seats in the northern section of the stadium, they are cheered by their comrades. Some remove their shirts and raise their arms in triumph; they are young and muscled and bloodied and thrilled.
On the field, doctors and nurses in white coats treat the wounded, who are stretchered away. Dozens are hospitalized.
The field is clear. The police herd Partizan fans out of the stadium but hold back the Red Star contingent; if both sides exited at the same time, they would continue fighting outside. An announcer informs the crowd that the game has been canceled and tickets will be refunded at a later date.
After a half-hour, Red Star fans are allowed to leave. I ask Alexander and his friends whether they are going to have a drink somewhere. They are not. They are subdued, as is the rest of the departing crowd, which quietly walks past the garish house across the street from the stadium, where Arkan, the warlord who once led the fan club, used to live. Arkan was assassinated in Belgrade a year ago-a mob hit.
The thrill that everyone felt at the apex of the riot has faded. A sense of hollowness takes its place as fans realize they don’t have much to show for their efforts. In the coming days, Serbia’s soccer association will ban fans from Red Star and Partizan’s next two matches. The teams will play before empty stadiums.
The riot is like the wars Serbs fought in the past decade in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Croatia-convulsive, brutal, worthless. There are no more wars being fought now. But the culture of violence that Milosevic nourished has not been vanquished with his regime. The games go on.
By Karl Maier
Public Affairs. 327 pp. $26
Reviewed by Peter Maass
A book that begins with a taxi story usually begins colorfully. Karl Maier opens This House Has Fallen with a wild brawl that broke out when his taxi got caught in traffic in Port Harcourt, a hub of the oil industry in Nigeria. It was the sort of African gridlock in which exhaust fumes are more plentiful than oxygen, beggars wander from one car to another displaying withered limbs, and young boys hawk soft drinks. In such situations, the street becomes a mixture of suffocating market and freak show.
Maier’s driver was ordered by a policeman to move his taxi, but this was impossible because nothing was moving. So the policeman punched the driver, who then grabbed the cop by the throat, prompting the cop to swing back and reach for his revolver. The driver was not cowed. “I will kill you!” he screamed. “I will never forget your face!” The hostile parties were separated by soldiers standing nearby, the gridlock became ungridlocked, and everyone carried on with their tumultuous lives; it was just another day in Nigeria, another boiling point come and gone.
This House Has Fallen contains an exotic feast of vignettes of this sort about life in Nigeria, which is Africa’s most populous country. These lively scenes are the book’s strength but also its weakness. Maier recounts, for instance, a visit to the violent town of Wukari, where the notorious Mobile Police squads had come to be known as “Kill and Go” because of their utter brutality. He points out the curious fact that Nigeria’s air force has 10,000 men but fewer than 20 aircraft that can actually fly. And Nigeria, he notes, has earned at least $280 billion from oil exports since the discovery of oil in the 1950s, but much of this has been siphoned away by endlessly greedy officials; Nigeria has the unfortunate distinction of being known as the most corrupt country on the planet, and one of the poorest. “Almost the only time [Niger] delta people saw any impact of the oil was when it was spilled into the water in which they fished and bathed,” Maier writes after describing a journey down a polluted delta stream.
From 1986 to 1996, Maier covered Africa for the Independent, a British newspaper, and he has contributed to other publications, including The Washington Post. This is his third book on Africa, and he knows his subject well. He could not have chosen a better topic or a better time to write about it. Nigeria, like the rest of the continent, is at a crossroads. After suffering under a series of corrupt dictators, most of them generals, the country has, at last, a democratically elected leader, Olusegun Obasanjo, who can count on the support of Western governments—for whatever that’s worth these days. But as Maier notes, a collapse beckons. “The Nigerian state is like a battered and bruised elephant staggering toward an abyss with the ground crumbling under its feet,” he writes.
Nigeria is the sort of African country that Americans should care about—not only because of its enormous suffering and poverty but because of the enormous potential it possesses and the prospect, if the ground holds under its feet, that it could give a boost to the entire continent. It would be fortunate, then, if This House Has Fallen were the sort of book that could engage and educate a broad public, as for example David Remnick’s Lenin’s Tomb, about the fall of communism in Russia, did so well. In a sense, Nigeria, with its large population, vast natural resources and stunning corruption, is the Russia of Africa, but This House Has Fallen is hobbled by too many taxi-style tales to do it full justice. Foreign correspondents spend a lot of time in taxis, going to interviews or press conferences or lunches or whatever. Taxi drivers are colorful personalities—is there such a thing as a taxi driver without an opinion on everything?—so it can be quite easy to spice up an article or a book with them. But such stories are often a hint that the writer has been spending too much time on the move and not enough time in living rooms or in kitchens or in villages, getting to the essence of what life is like for people who don’t earn their living by the quarter-mile.
This House Has Fallen roams at top speed from one troubled town to another, from one pessimistic politician to another. This is useful in many ways, because Maier provides readers with a taste of what Nigeria offers in the way of tribalism, politics, religion and history. And he describes, quite well, the system of cronyism that has beggared the nation. Some of his profiles are scintillating; for example, he takes readers to the slums of Lagos, where a popular Pentecostal preacher, Temitope Balogun Joshua, heals writhing parishioners with shouts of “Fire all over de body!”
But what does it all mean? What keeps these people going in such miserable circumstances? Where is Nigeria heading? One wishes that Maier, who has written a good book, had spent more time sitting under a tree, thinking about what he saw or talking to Nigerians about it, rather than rushing off to the next appointment by taxi.
It is nearly lunchtime, and the phone rings.
A distant voice announces, “This is a call from His Excellency Hussein Aideed.”
I wait to be put through to His Excellency, whom I have been trying to reach for several weeks now. This has not been easy, because Hussein Aideed is a warlord in Somalia, and there have been reports of fighting around his headquarters; his phone lines have been dead and there have been rumors that he is too.
Aideed is alive, though he has apparently been reduced to placing his own phone calls; it turns out I am already talking to His Excellency. He says he would be willing to receive me in Mogadishu, but that he has a request. “Please bring me some magazines,” he asks. “Time. Also Fortune.”
He inquires about the presidential election. How is George W. Bush doing? Aideed is very interested in George W. Bush.
“I am a registered Republican,” he explains. “Did you know that?”
There are many types of warlords on the planet, but there is none like Hussein Aideed, who likes to dance the tango and the cha-cha and until four years ago was a public works clerk in West Covina, California, and a corporal in the Marine Corps Reserves. He had been sent to America in 1978, at the age of 16, by his father, General Mohammed Farah Aideed, who was then on his way to becoming the most powerful warlord in Somalia. When his father was killed, in 1996, Aideed junior returned to Somalia to take over the family business, which if it were a commercial enterprise could be described as undergoing a painful restructuring, beset by cutthroat competitors.
“Tell your friends and colleagues not to worry,” Aideed says, of a country so chaotic that Osama bin Laden is rumored to have considered moving his headquarters there, only to bail after deciding it wasn’t safe. “Tell them that you are just visiting another American in Africa.”
We talk some more about politics in America, then about politics in Africa, and this goes on for a good half hour, during which I come to the improbable conclusion that a warlord in Mogadishu may have more time on his hands than a freelance writer in New York. As the conversation nears its end he reminds me to bring him the magazines. I promise to bring many magazines. “Thank you, my brother,” says the reluctant warlord.
A week later Hussein Aideed and I are rumbling through Mogadishu in his Toyota Land Cruiser. We are traveling in traditional warlord fashion, which means the Land Cruiser is sandwiched between several “technicals”: trucks and pickups customized for urban warfare. One of them carries, in its flatbed, an anti-aircraft gun, which is handy in a city because it can shoot through walls. The technicals also carry a few dozen militiamen equipped with don’t-fuck-with-us stares and an arsenal of personal weapons to make sure you get the point. These bodyguards—I use the term loosely—are fond of chewing qat, a narcotic leaf that keeps them in a hopped-up, trigger-happy state.
It was men and boys like these, under the leadership of Aideed’s father, who humiliated the United States military in 1993 and changed the course of U.S. foreign policy. At that time Somalia was beset by anarchy and famine, so the United States spearheaded what many call the first humanitarian intervention of the post-Cold War era.
The mission began unraveling when 24 Pakistani peacekeepers were killed in an ambush that was blamed on the elder Aideed’s militia. The UN essentially declared war on him. wanted posters, dropped like confetti from UN helicopters, announced a reward for his capture. In a masterful display of chutzpah, Aideed offered a $1 million reward for the capture of the top UN official in Somalia. President Clinton sent the elite Delta Force to Mogadishu; it gave Aideed the code name Yogi the Bear.
On 3, 1993, Delta Force soldiers, along with Army Rangers, choppered to a building where Aideed’s deputies were meeting. Two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down and one of the pilots was captured. By the time the trapped U.S. soldiers were rescued the next morning, 18 of them had been killed; television viewers watched, repeatedly, the horrifying videotape of an American corpse being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.
The United States military, a $280 billion-a-year outfit, had been humiliated by a mob of doped-up gunmen. The Clinton administration had learned its lesson. When genocide got under way in Rwanda a year later, the White House not only refused to send U.S. troops there, it stood in the way of the United Nations reinforcing the few peacekeepers it had on the ground. When the U.S. joined the NATO bombing of Kosovo in 1999, the operational credo was quite simple: Not a single American soldier will die.
Somalia quickly fell off the map. This becomes clear as soon as I hit the streets of Mogadishu with Hussein Aideed. Beside the road are piles of garbage as large as houses. The streets are covered in sand and weeds. Most cars look like casualties from a demolition derby. Aideed, dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit and brown loafers, sits next to me in the Land Cruiser—the same one his father used—and points out noteworthy sights.
“This is the house where I grew up,” he says, gesturing at a stucco home that is only slightly ruined—in contrast to the mostly ruined houses nearby. He reminds me that in 1969 his father, then a fast-rising officer in the military, was jailed for six years on suspicion of plotting a coup against the country’s Marxist ruler, Mohammed Siad Barre, whose unpopularity was reflected in the nickname Big Mouth.
“I used to take food to him in the jail over there,” Aideed continues, pointing to a gutted building picked clean like a desert carcass—the condition of nearly every government building in town.
“This is the movie house where I used to go,” Aideed says, nodding toward a dilapidated cinema where he once watched Clint Eastwood pictures.
There are no stop signs, no police, no firemen, no public schools in Mogadishu—nothing that would hint at the existence of a controlling legal authority. The capital has been without a government for a decade, but it staggers along—there is DHL service, and cell phone coverage is quite good—under a system of regulated anarchy.
The regulators are warlords like Aideed—who doesn’t like the term. (“It is inaccurate,” he tells me.) The new millennium does not appear to promise much for his kind. Somalis are tired of fighting, and a recent peace conference has led to the creation of a new parliament and the naming of a president, Abdulkassim Salad Hassan, who is trying to gain enough support to do what no man has been able to do for the past decade: install a government amid the chaos.
A few years back the warlords could field thousands of fighters, but now their forces have dwindled to perhaps a few hundred fighters each. They are too weak to start new wars, but they can stand in the way of peace; one of President Hassan’s biggest obstacles is Aideed, who seems to be having a hard time deciding whether continued anarchy or peace would be better for his homeland. Most Somalis would prefer peace—and would like to see their warlords put on trial as war criminals.
Aideed and I are heading to a rally of his Habr Gedir clan. The rally is in an auditorium with gaping holes in its roof, and the sound system consists of a microphone and speaker hooked up to a car battery. There are several hundred people inside; when Aideed arrives the women start wailing and the men cheer. A dozen fighters form a glaring perimeter around Aideed, who sits on a plastic lawn chair at the front of the hall.
The meeting seems to have no end, as one person after another speaks, each prefacing his remarks with the salutation Allahu Akhbar: God is great. Aideed takes notes in a leather-bound planner he always carries, just as his father did. The last to speak, he keeps it brief. He talks about peace and reconciliation, which is what everyone talks about, but he derides the ongoing peace process, saying it will return to power the ministers from Big Mouth’s regime. The people listen and nod in agreement—unenthusiastically.
Aideed returns to his residence, an attractive whitewashed villa with bougainvillea blooming in the garden. A technical is parked outside, there are several guards at the gate, and doors lock behind him as he enters the living room. I mention that the clan meeting seemed rather long.
“That one was organized,” he says wearily. “If you go to the actual tribal meetings, it goes for hours and hours. If you give them half an hour and tell them, ‘Look, I have work to do,’ they will think it is an insult.
“It is not like the culture in America,” he continues. “They are not objective.”
America helped train Aideed for his current position. He had grown up in Somali military housing and as a teenager had spent a few months in the field with his father. But much of what he knows of warfare he learned as a corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, which he joined in 1987.
The situation in Somalia was deteriorating at that time. After leading the bid to topple Siad Barre, Aideed senior presided over the collapse of his country into factional conflict and famine. Things got so bad that he initially accepted the U.S.-led peacekeeping force that arrived in December 1992, a force that included a gung-ho translator named Hussein Aideed.
Corporal Aideed, making his first visit to his homeland in 14 years, lived as all Marines lived, eating MREs, drinking bottled water, and struggling to stay clean. Upon his arrival he hopped into a Humvee and drove to his father’s headquarters to say hello—only to be immediately disarmed by his father’s bodyguards.
His father, he says, was delighted to see him, pistol or no pistol. “He congratulated me on my position, on working for my country, the U.S. as well as Somalia.”
Corporal Aideed was pulled out in less than a month; the U.S. military brass realized it didn’t look good to employ the son of a warlord at HQ. But the corporal, who had earned two medals as a GI, made a good impression on his superiors.
“He was simply a good Marine,” Lieutenant General Robert Johnston, now retired, told me. “The notion that he would suddenly become a political warlord—I thought it was curious.”
Aideed returned to West Covina, where he counted potholes and kept tabs on the city’s water usage. He used his CompuServe account to troll the Internet for stories about Somalia, faxing the most interesting ones to his father. He was in West Covina when the U.S. military—his military—began trying to kill his father in concert with the UN. “It was an injustice and we knew it would fail,” Aideed told me.
Aideed returned to Somalia in 1995—after the UN had pulled out—so that his father could preside over Hussein’s first marriage. His father asked him to stay a while, to use his experience in the Marines to help reorganize his clan’s militia, which was trying to subdue Baidoa, a strategic city. Hussein subsequently led the militiamen who conquered Baidoa, wearing a Marine uniform into battle.
In July 1996, while driving to a battle in Mogadishu, his father was struck in the abdomen by a 12.7 mm bullet fired from an anti-aircraft gun. Hussein rushed back to Somalia from Kenya, where he had been doing a bit of diplomatic work for his pop. Roughly a week later, when General Aideed died, Hussein was on the front lines again, leading the militia.
The elders of the Habr Gedir clan had met in a panic to choose a new leader. The notion that they would select the kid from California seemed absurd. He was only 33 years old and he had spent all but a few months of his adult life in America. If one of the late general’s sons was to be chosen, Hassan, the eldest, seemed a better choice, as he was known to have a sharper mind and a few more years under his belt. But Hassan Aideed’s Somali roots weren’t deep either; he was, at the time, an aeronautical engineer in Orange County, California. Hussein was selected.
“I wanted to do what the old man wanted,” Aideed tells me. “I was not wanting, but seeing that the old man had not accomplished his mission, and he was hit by a bullet—it was a no-choice position but to accomplish and finish what he started.”
In West Covina, Aideed’s colleagues at city hall had no idea that the quiet fellow who diligently kept track of the water supply was the son of a warlord. “He was a good employee,” recalls Thomas Mayer, Aideed’s boss. “Did whatever you asked of him, did it well, but sort of kept to himself. He certainly did not impress us as a world leader.”
Hussein Aideed does not look the part, either. He has the smooth, youthful brown skin of Cassius Clay, and an innocent look on his face like an eager kid. He dresses in preppy outfits or stylish suits and sport jackets, and his shirts are pressed with military precision. His ties are made of silk.
“I cannot dress like Somalis,” he tells me. “I am not used to it. You are supposed to be an example, a model for the younger generation. They look at how their leader is.”
I have a chance to see the leader in action one day in his living room. A couple of Italians have come to discuss a business proposition: a fish factory, they say. Aideed, a shy man before he was nudged onto center stage, takes command of the conversation, alternating between rudimentary Italian and English as he discusses the perils of Islamic fundamentalism, among a dozen other topics—leaps of language and subject matter that leave his guests dizzy.
“I’ve been getting a headache trying to understand what this guy is talking about,” one of the Italians says, as Aideed adjourns upstairs with a Somali businessman who has accompanied the visitors. Aideed soon returns; the deal, whatever it concerns, appears to have been consummated.
Afterward I ask whether the meeting went well.
“With the European Union?” Aideed says. “The president is coming. These were just the delegates, up front, to check security. The president himself will come.”
One of the endearing things about Hussein Aideed is that he is an atrociously ineffective spinner of untruths. He so wants things to be true—he would love nothing more than to be visited by the president of the European Union—that he seems to feel that by saying something it might come to pass.
Warlords can dream too.
Aideed and I are on our way to a weed-choked patch of ground on the outskirts of town. Arriving at the end of the dirt road, Aideed steps out of the Land Cruiser and walks through a small gate, entering a yard in which several donkeys are foraging. A red shack with an aluminum sheet roof stands at the side.
Aideed pauses outside the shack, his bodyguards standing silently a few steps behind as their boss bows his head in prayer at the gravesite of his father. The remains are inside, encased in a modest, knee-high tomb made of white tiles. Aideed stands next to a Somali flag at one end of the tomb, closes his eyes, and says another prayer.
Afterward, outside a mosque, he talks of his plans to build a library at the spot, like an American presidential library, in honor of his father. “I feel very close to him here,” he says. “His spirit is with me. I come here every Friday and I come here every Sunday evening. It is the best of times. I have reconciliation with my father, one to one. I can send messages to him without saying words.”
I am told a few days later that Aideed downplayed the extent of his visits to the grave. He often sleeps overnight in the mosque, to be closer to his father—and, perhaps, further away from the morass of today’s Somalia.
It is a morass that has changed in some profound ways since his father’s time. In fact, a few weeks before my visit, Villa Somalia, Aideed’s political and military headquarters, was attacked. Aideed denies the assault took place, saying it is a rumor spread by his rivals. But when the boss is out of earshot, one of his aides confirms that the attackers were Aideed’s own militiamen, who were upset they had not been paid or provided with their regular allotment of qat.
When Aideed’s father was in the saddle, payment was not an issue. Men and boys flocked to fight on behalf of their clan. Those glory days have passed, as the gunmen have come to understand that such fighting was of little benefit to anyone but the warlords, who were living in delightful villas. And the businessmen who funneled money to the warlords, or were forced to do so, have come to realize, as the militias have decreased in size, that they can decline to make their tributes.
The result is that the warlords are in an exhausted stalemate. Violence continues in Mogadishu, though to a lesser extent than before; now it is related mostly to banditry. The last big battle, which took place in 1999, was a horrendous defeat for Aideed, who lost control of Baidoa.
Aideed’s problems are not confined to the military realm; he has significant woman trouble on his hands, too.
His first wife—four are permitted in Somali culture—lives in Southern California; she did not cheer her husband’s return to Mogadishu. Wife number two, who lives in Mogadishu and is the mother of Aideed’s 18-month-old daughter, did not get along with wife number three (now ex-wife number one), who lives in Cairo and gave birth several months ago to Aideed’s second daughter.
Aideed is, apparently, an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire. The dispute, he tells me, forced him to divorce wife number three.
“Is not a marriage problem,” he says, looking at his feet. “Is a between-the-women problem.”
Why divorce a woman who just gave birth to his child?
“I am very democratic,” Aideed says. “I still love her. I take care of the kid, the baby.”
But why the divorce?
“They are very young,” he offers. “Jealousy is normal for a woman. But there is not a big problem. If she likes to continue, we can have the marriage again. But this must come naturally.”
It occurs to me that Aideed has become the Rodney Dangerfield of warlords, beset not only by his rivals and his own militia but by his wives, too. Then he mentions that his wife in America is very independent.
“I don’t have independence,” he complains. “My life is run by the system here in Somalia.”
It is July 4, as it happens, and when I point this out Aideed nostalgically recounts the summer picnics he used to have in Southern California with his buddies from the Marines.
“I am very good at doing barbecues,” he says cheerfully. “Chicken and hamburgers and steak.”
I ask if he misses it.
“A lot,” he answers.
Several weeks later I am back in New York. It is a Friday, lunchtime. I call Aideed in Mogadishu. We exchange greetings, and I ask how things are going.
“Is beautiful, is calm,” he says.
I have come to expect optimism from him, even when things are not going well. On my last night in Mogadishu, Aideed’s men tussled with two rival groups, leaving a number of gunmen dead in the streets around my hotel. A few weeks later two of the city’s foreign aid workers were kidnapped by gunmen loyal to Osman Otto, a rival warlord.
“This is creating a signal that there is a problem still in Mogadishu,” Aideed says. He is working hard to fix the signal.
It is early evening there, and he has just taken off his tie, he tells me; as soon as his neighborhood’s generator is turned on—like everyone else, he has electricity only at night—he will tune in to CNN. The Republican convention has just ended, and he wants to hear more about Dick Cheney.
“I think as a vice president he will be superb,” Aideed says. “This year we are thinking it will be a very close race. This is what CNN was saying.”
He moves on, enthusiastically, to the freshest morsel of good news from Mogadishu.
“We now have the Internet! We are hoping it will start next month. I will encourage people to sign in, for them to learn.”
He hopes his fellow countrymen—Americans, in this case—will realize that things are looking up and help him rebuild Somalia.
“There are zero taxes here,” Aideed says. “I am sure there are a lot of computer geniuses who can do a lot here.”
BELGRADE, Serbia—Several days ago a Serbian law student told me, in excellent English, that he wanted to become a judge so that he could help clean up the corrupt legal system that is one of the poisonous legacies of Slobodan Milosevic. When our conversation turned to international politics, the student recounted a popular conspiracy theory: that Mr. Milosevic, who worked in New York as a banker before rising to power in his homeland, was a C.I.A. agent of some sort, carrying out a plan hatched in Washington to bring Serbia to its knees.
“I believe it,” the student said. “I think it is true.”
He was not pulling my leg. Mr. Milosevic is gone, but Serbia, though a changed country, is not changed in all ways. Many Serbs continue to possess a view of political reality that is imaginative in disturbing ways.
For 13 years under Mr. Milosevic’s rule, Serbs were bombarded with massive doses of propaganda that portrayed Serbia as the innocent victim of an international conspiracy. There was always someone else to blame for their problems or their crimes—and as the law student reminded me, many Serbs have even found someone to blame for Mr. Milosevic himself.
Serbs are showing little interest these days in accepting guilt for the crimes in the Balkans in the 1990’s. Most of the demands in Belgrade for putting Mr. Milosevic on trial relate to the enormous internal corruption that he, his family and a group of cronies are believed to be responsible for. And one comes across very few demands to judge him—although he has already been indicted by the United Nations tribunal in The Hague—for war crimes committed by troops under his direct or indirect control.
A war-crimes trial would implicate not just Mr. Milosevic or the front-line soldiers who served in Bosnia, Kosovo and Croatia, but the ordinary people in Serbia who supported the wars. For now, most Serbs prefer to continue to believe, as Mr. Milosevic’s broadcasts told them day after day, that their wars were defensive and that most atrocities were committed by the other sides—that, for example, Sarajevo was not under siege.
Although Yugoslavia is undergoing a whirlwind of welcome changes under Vojislav Kostunica, its new president, it appears unlikely that popular attitudes about recent history will change at anything more than a snail’s pace. Mr. Kostunica has made it clear that questions of guilt and innocence need to take a back seat, for the moment, to the urgent questions of stabilizing the country’s political system and economy. It is understandable that he would not want to take any action right now, but he is timid even when he talks about assessing blame.
On Sunday, during an unexpected visit to Bosnia, he tiptoed around the issue, saying that “an examination” should be made of what had happened and that, in the interim, he didn’t want to make “empty apologies.” The problem with this is that plenty of examinations have already been made of what happened, particularly in Bosnia, and they point an incriminating finger at the Serbian side.
Of course there should be no empty apologies; at the minimum, though, a symbolic one could be offered. Maybe not today, but sometime soon, Serbs need a moral version of shock therapy: they need to be confronted with what was done on their behalf, and they need to accept their share of the blame. Mr. Kostunica is not, fortunately, the kind of politician who would lead Yugoslavia into another war, but he doesn’t appear determined to lead Serbs into a rapid assessment of previous ones.
If history is any guide, Serbia’s rendezvous with truth is years away. Nations tend to be reluctant to face their guilt. It took several decades before the French were willing to acknowledge the scale of their collaboration with their Nazi occupiers in World War II. Many Japanese (if not most) refrain to this day from owning up to the full extent of crimes committed during their country’s brutal occupation of Korea and parts of China.
Like other nations with sins to atone for, Serbia will likely take its time.
Peter Maass: There was a revolution here in Belgrade on Oct. 5. Protesters stormed the federal Parliament, stormed the main television station, stormed the main police station, and then the next day you started as mayor of the city. What was your first day on the job like?
Milan Protic: It was a nut house. No one really knew what was going on. We still had in the back of our minds that something might happen to undermine what we had done the previous day. It was a combination of hope and fear and to some extent confusion, but hope was prevailing.
Q: The night before, you put yourself between the police and the protesters at the main police station when there was the possibility of some very serious bloodshed. That couldn’t have been a very comfortable position to be in.
A: Well, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. I found myself in a situation where the individual responsibility just popped at me. Since that police station is literally 50 feet away from where I live, I felt that it was my duty to go down there and intervene.
Q: On your first day you asked that people clean up their streets. How is that campaign going?
A: I wanted people to do something to ease all those emotions that exploded on Oct. 5. So the first thing I could think of was to call on them in the morning, because the city was so dirty—I mean, we had a revolution here—just to come out in the streets and do something absolutely normal and everyday, and the response was tremendous. I believe it helped relax the atmosphere in the city.
Q: You’ve also asked the citizens of Belgrade to return items they took when they stormed the Parliament and the television station and the police headquarters. Have you gotten things back?
A: Just this morning, five youngsters brought me an old clock from the federal Parliament. They called me last night and told me, “Well, you are the only person that we really trust, and we want you to take it back.” The other day I went to Studio B, the local Belgrade TV station, for an interview, and when I got there, two guys were standing there with a machine gun. A machine gun! They told me, “Well, we took this from the local police station, but we want to return it to you.”
Q: Why was one of your first mayoral orders to forbid parking in front of city hall?
A: This is a royal palace that became city hall. It is my duty to give that image back to this building. Having all these cars parked in front was really an ugly picture.
Q: You sound like Rudy Giuliani, the mayor of New York. Is it fair to say that you wouldn’t mind becoming known as the Rudy Giuliani of Belgrade?
A: I believe that I’ve got a long way to go, but it would be very nice. You have to admit, Rudy Giuliani is an institution. The general public, not only the citizens of New York, but the American public in general, when you say Giuliani, there’s no other Giuliani. That’s probably the top of a public career, that you’re identified as a person, as an individual.
Q: One of your individual constituents is a guy named Slobodan Milosevic, although it’s not clear whether he is here now. If he calls up to complain about garbage collection or low water pressure, is he going to get a helpful response from city hall?
A: Well, Slobodan Milosevic is a pretty common name in Serbia. There are many Slobodan Milosevices in the city. We should help each and every one of them, including the one that you’ve been referring to. I don’t know what his destiny is, but if he remains a free citizen of this city, he’s going to be treated like everyone else.
Q: You were a student and then taught history at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Is there anything you learned there that could possibly be of use in a place like Belgrade, in the position of mayor?
A: Two major things. The first one is how to be tolerant. How to listen to another guy yet keep my own opinion. And No. 2 is to be able to take personal responsibility. Something that we, living in Communism for so long, never learned.
Q: Are you a surfer?
A: No. I was going from Stanford to L.A., trying to find a school where I could study. I took Greyhound and I stopped in Santa Barbara, and just by chance I got the best offer.
Q: Are those cowboy boots that you’re wearing?
A: Yeah, sure. I’ve worn 501’s and cowboy boots since I was 16. I don’t want to change my image. Since I’m almost 6-foot-6 and I weigh something like 240 pounds, I can’t wear designer clothes.
Since 1998, the Internet site MP3.com has served as an on-line bazaar, where any garage band in the universe can offer up its music and wait for the accolades to pour in. More than half a million songs are posted on the site, but Joseph Wecker’s “Descramble” is not one of them. On September 11th, only four days after Wecker posted his song, and just after it topped the site’s folk-music chart, he received a terse E-mail from MP3 saying that his song was being pulled, because it had “either a song title or lyrics that are offensive or otherwise inappropriate.” This may seem surprising for a work whose lyrics don’t get much racier, or more intelligible, than “Retrieve byte 1 of KEY/XOR it with byte 85 of SEC/And store the result in t2.”
In fact, the lyrics of “Descramble” are passages from a controversial software code, known as DeCSS, that enables hackers to decrypt movie DVDs, copy them onto their computers, and, if they wish, share their pirated films with anyone on the Internet. The code, which was created a year ago by a fifteen-year-old computer whiz in Norway, drew immediate reprisals from the movie industry. The Motion Picture Association of America, fearing that DeCSS would be its Napster, sued web sites that posted the code; a firm that merely printed it on T-shirts was hit with a related lawsuit. In August, a federal judge in New York took Hollywood’s side, ruling that it was against the law to disseminate DeCSS on the web.
In the midst of the court case, Wecker, a twenty-two-year-old college student and computer programmer in Salt Lake City, came up with the idea to compose, record, and upload “Descramble,” a seven-and-a-half-minute recitation of the code accompanied by a gloomily strummed acoustic guitar. (Imagine Lou Reed singing a calculus textbook.) In this way, as Wecker saw it, the code would be protected by the First Amendment. “I thought it would be funny if I wrote a song with source code as lyrics, to make the point that source code is speech,” Wecker said the other day. “It’s like explaining to your neighbors how to take apart a toaster. It shouldn’t be illegal.”
Wecker"s favorite band is Radiohead; the name of his own band (which recently recorded a grungier version of “Descramble”) is Don’t Eat Pete. “I’m just your standard starving college student,” he explained by telephone. “But I’m not starving, because I own three Internet businesses, and they’re doing wonderfully.”
Within days of posting the song on his web site, Wecker got about ten downloads. “I thought that was awesome,” he says. The judge’s ruling against DeCSS, however, transformed “Descramble” from hacker joke to geek protest anthem. Wecker got thousands of downloads, so he decided to post the song on MP3, where the big time beckoned. “Everyone kept calling it the Bob Dylan song of the wired age,” Wecker says. “But I wrote it in a half hour during a lunch break.”
“Descramble” is not particularly easy to sing along to, nor is it really very stirring. It isn’t even especially good. But it is lucky. The best thing that can happen to a protest song is for it to be banned somewhere, and now Wecker has a hit. The song has been downloaded about sixty thousand times on his site alone and has been played on alternative and college radio stations. Wecker performed it on a television show in Canada. And nobody from the movie industry has tried to stop him. “We will not be suing this songwriter,” Mark Litvack, the vice-president of the M.P.A.A.‘s anti-piracy division, said.
Still, MP3, which likes to think of itself as a supporter of free speech, has made the premptive decision to ban the song. “It is a smart business move to stay within the letter of the law,” a spokesman for MP3 said, citing the judge’s August ruling. Wecker received a fuller explanation in an E-mail from another MP3 employee. “We’re sorta being sued by enough people right now,” the employee wrote. “I guess we’d like to keep out of court for a while, if that’s O.K.”
Wecker isn’t sure where he’ll go with “Descramble,” but, because the song uses only a quarter of the forbidden code, he’s got plenty of material left to work with. He said, “I have toyed with the idea of releasing an album.”
The tennis courts at Casa d’Italia, a country club in Mogadishu, have nourished several generations of players. First, there were the Italians who built the club and who controlled Somalia in the days of Mussolini; apparently, you had to develop a good backhand to be a good fascist. After Somalia gained independence in 1960 and took an ill-advised turn toward Marxism, Russian advisers arrived to offer pointers in building a socialist state, and they, too, found time to work on their ground strokes. Back then, Somalis rarely appeared on the courts except as ball boys. But today the regulars at Casa d’Italia are Somalis. After all, only a handful of foreigners remain in lawless Mogadishu, mostly Libyan and Egyptian diplomats, and they behave like hostages, rarely venturing outdoors.
At first glance, the tennis scene in Mogadishu appears another casualty of the decade-long civil war. Casa d’Italia’s two courts represent 66 percent of the functional playing surface left in town, and their condition is not what it could be. The unpainted cement courts are marred by cracks that spider from the walls to the nets, and players must take care to avoid the gouges left by direct mortar hits. The streets of Newark, New Jersey, are smoother. Casa d’Italia’s restaurant, which in its heyday boasted splendid penne and Chianti, served its last meal long ago. It is now a looted hulk of concrete and metal, its once immaculate grounds a refuge for goats. The surrounding neighborhood is an end-of-days panorama of war blight, filled with buildings that resemble construction skeletons picked clean by the ravages of battle and thievery. It evokes comparisons to Grozny or Sarajevo or Dresden, and, if one’s mind doesn’t make the connection, the occasional round of gunfire jogs the memory.
Even so, a miracle is taking place at Casa d’Italia: Tennis is on the upswing. At almost any time of day, a visitor will hear the sound of balls being swatted back and forth. The swatting is being done by a squad of youths under the tutelage of Mogadishu’s Pied Piper of tennis, Abdul Rahman Warsame, the 37-year-old deputy president of the Somali Tennis Federation. Thanks to the several thousand dollars in equipment that the International Tennis Federation sends to Mogadishu every year, Warsame oversees the instruction of about 40 youths, many of whom might otherwise occupy their hands with assault rifles. “I encourage young boys and young girls to learn tennis instead of wasting their time in the streets,” he told me. “It contributes to our people and our country.”
During the early and worst years of the fighting, play was impossible. When Mohammed Siad Barre, the dictator nicknamed “Big Mouth,” was overthrown in 1991, the coalition of clan warlords who defeated him decided that instead of setting up a new government, they would fight among themselves—which they did, quite tenaciously, causing mass starvation. In 1992, an American-led U.N. force hit the beaches. But after 18 U.S. soldiers were killed the following year in a botched raid on a warlord’s presumed lair—which led to the famous and humiliating spectacle of a GI’s corpse being dragged through the streets—the United States withdrew its contingent. Soon afterward, the remaining U.N. troops packed their bags, too, and the warlords were free to feast upon their suffering nation.
The fighting has tapered off in recent years, largely because of exhaustion, and this has allowed tennis enthusiasts to retake what’s left of Casa d’Italia. Soccer remains Somalia’s most popular sport by far, but Warsame is making sure tennis is not forgotten as Mogadishu tries to reassemble itself. The tennis federation pays “rent” to the local thugs so they won’t attack the players. There’s still occasional fighting in the neighborhood, which means the kids risk substantially more than pulled muscles when they take to the courts. But they still play—in an atmosphere several universes removed from the elite tennis camps that create the likes of Andre Agassi and Anna Kournikova. The afternoon I visited, a burst of gunfire interrupted my chat with Warsame. None of the kids so much as flinched. “It’s our daily life,” Warsame explained. “It’s normal.”
The star of Somali tennis is 18-year-old Abdisamad Hussein Jumale. He started playing six years ago but occasionally had to flee the courts under fire. When there was too much fighting around Casa d’Italia-which sits alongside the oft-disputed “green line” that separates north and south Mogadishu-Jumale practiced in a gym. When the fighting prevented him from leaving home, as it frequently did, he watched the same tennis video over and over. When I asked how many times he had seen it, he was speechless for a moment, then concluded, “Uncountable.” And when asked why he risked venturing onto the courts-his uncle, also a tennis fanatic, was killed while practicing-he shrugged and said, “I loved tennis too much.” Jumale does not own a racket; few players can afford one. Some actually practice without shoes. So he plays with a racket borrowed from the Somali Tennis Federation and shares it with anyone who needs it. As we talked courtside, one of his friends lifted it from his hands to hit a few shots. If someone needs his sneakers, he loans them, too. That’s the way things work.
When I visited, Jumale was practicing six hours a day, six days a week, training for this year’s Olympics. According to Warsame, Jumale had played in only one international tournament, in Nairobi, and lost his first-round match. Even so, the Somali Olympic Committee-the only national organization that has survived the fracturing of the country-was applying on his behalf for a wild-card invitation to Sydney. I couldn’t resist the temptation to rally with a potential Olympian, so I asked Jumale if he wouldn’t mind hitting a few balls with me, which he was glad to do. It quickly became apparent that Pete Sampras doesn’t have much to fear. But, then again, Sampras has never had to hit the ground, racket in hand, because somebody was shooting at him. Surely that should count for something.
Several weeks after my visit to Mogadishu, I learned that the International Tennis Federation had decided against granting Jumale one of its coveted wild cards. I felt sorry for him, but I suspect he won’t jump into the warm Indian Ocean and let the sharks devour him. After all, things are going a lot better in Mogadishu. The business sector is growing at a surprising clip-there’s even a DHL office in town-and a peace conference in Djibouti agreed in early August on a transitional parliament that will, if all goes according to plan, guide Somalia out of the abyss; the parliament has already chosen a new president.
Jumale could see it coming—in the survival, and renaissance, of Somali tennis. “People watch us and are surprised,” he told me. “They say it is a sign of the beginning of peace.”
Posted: Monday, Oct. 9, 2000, at 10:30 a.m. PT
It may not have been the polite thing to do, but I just gate-crashed a revolution. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was not in the mood to provide journalists with invitations, in the form of visas, as his judgment day neared, so I boarded a Swissair flight from Zurich to Belgrade and hoped for the best. The options included a) being arrested at the airport; b) being allowed into the country; or c) joining a Balkan version of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. If you guessed c), you would be correct.
I was among more than 60 foreign journalists who arrived at the airport on Friday, and the police had no idea what to do. A day earlier several hundred thousand demonstrators had marched through the streets and stormed the federal parliament building and the national TV station. Now the protesters were back in the streets again, the government was collapsing, and the airport cops didn’t know whether to imprison us or serve champagne.
So, they told us to wait in the lounge. An hour passed, then two. The police were waiting for instructions from the government, but it wasn’t clear whether Yugoslavia still had a government, or if it did, who was in charge of it. Most of us had cell phones, so frantic calls were made to people who might be able to liberate us. A colleague reached Zarko Korac, an ever-helpful opposition politician, and Korac promised to do what he could but explained, speaking on his cell phone, that at that moment he was leading a march of 100,000 people, so he really had his hands full.
Few foreign journalists were in the city, so nearly everyone at the airport was receiving calls from desperate editors. It didn’t seem to matter that our main source of information was listening to hourly bulletins on the BBC World Service. A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter was called by an editor at a TV network in New York. Could she interview him about the events in Belgrade? The reporter explained our out-of-touch predicament, but that posed no problem for the editor, who read him the latest wire reports and told him she would call back in a few minutes to hear him tell her what she had just told him. Elsewhere, a British correspondent was phoning in a convincing account of the events occurring in the city, a ramparts dispatch that could at any moment have been interrupted by an announcement about an arriving or departing flight.
After eight hours, we were released into the city, and when I arrived at my hotel and called a Serbian friend, the first thing he said was, “Did you hear the news? Milosevic resigned tonight.” It was well past midnight, and I headed for the city center, where the partying was still underway. There was dancing in the streets—I mean this literally—as strangers high-fived each other and friends embraced in group hugs, whirling around like tops. Everyone was happy and drunk, which seemed appropriate after a decade of four disastrous wars and international isolation.
The last act was played out on Saturday, when the newly elected federal parliament presided over the inauguration of Yugoslavia’s new president, Vojislav Kostunica. It was a peculiarly Serbian affair in which there were nearly as many bodyguards in attendance as politicians and journalists. The nastiest ones surrounded Vojislav Seselj, a 6 foot 5 inch redwood of a man who leads a party for which the gentlest description might be “fascist,” and who has been indicted for war crimes in the Hague. There were several indicted war criminals at the session and, likely, a sprinkling of unindicted ones. If you spend much time covering Serbia, you have to find some sort of equanimity in the company of these sorts of men. I have a soft spot for them, in the way, perhaps, that an infectious-disease specialist would be fascinated with samples of the smallpox virus.
Seselj’s bodyguards have the appearance of Sing Sing parolees on steroids. As he strode past with his posse forming a tight wedge around him, I didn’t stand a chance of getting more than a question in; I was, suddenly, the Sam Donaldson of the Balkans, shouting above the roar of the metaphysical rotors. I asked for his reaction to the overthrow of Milosevic, and he looked at me as though examining a piece of gum on the sole of his shoe.
“From which country?” he said.
“From America,” I replied.
“No,” he said.
I jumped out of the path of the wedge.
I had better luck with Zoran Djindjic, who is the head of the largest party in the opposition bloc that ousted Milosevic. Djindjic has nearly as many bodyguards as Seselj, but Djindjic’s boys, like their boss, are snappy dressers; they are Armani thugs. Like almost every other anti-Milosevic politician, he no longer cares about the former president. “He was my problem during the time he was president, and he was dangerous for our security, but now he is a pensioner and a private person and I am not interested,” Djindjic said.
It is a curious position, and I wanted to discuss it in greater depth, but after a few minutes, the boss gave his boys the signal, and I was politely but firmly nudged out of the way. Later, a friend who works in the opposition told me the following story about Djindjic’s bodyguards: On Thursday, when Belgrade erupted into revolution, my friend was with Djindjic at City Hall. Suddenly, four or five of his bodyguards came into the room with several canvas bags. They closed the door and unzipped the bags, which contained an arsenal of pistols, assault rifles, grenades, flak jackets, and enough ammunition to fight a war. They stuffed the weapons into their clothes, slinging the AK-47s around their backs, under their jackets, and strode out, like Serbian terminators. Not a word was exchanged. “I thought I was watching a movie,” my friend said.
Serbia, Serbia, Serbia. It’s good to be back. I feel sorry for colleagues of mine who, having just arrived here, are suddenly packing up. The lobby of the Hyatt Hotel was filled this morning with television gear being loaded onto airport vans. Much of the pack is rushing off to Israel and Lebanon, where there is talk of war.
I hope they have visas.
Posted: Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2000, at 12:30 p.m. PT
Isadora Sekulic is pissed off.
“These people are the worst sort of garbage,” she tells me.
We are sitting in her temporary office at Radio-Television Serbia, where she is running the newsroom of what was, for the past decade, the country’s principal outlet of nationalist and racist propaganda. Along with several other independent journalists, she has been sent to RTS by the country’s new government to ensure good behavior by the former mouthpiece of former President Slobodan Milosevic. So Sekulic, who was fired from RTS in a political purge during the early years of Milosevic’s rule, is surrounded by men and women she has despised for years, and now she despises them all the more, because instead of quitting or apologizing or attempting to continue their noxious programs—this would at least be consistent—they are sidling up to her and suggesting they always supported the opposition, and they are providing her with the names of colleagues who, they insist, were Milosevic’s real enforcers at the station.
“They were all working under the regime,” she scoffs. “They were liars, they were war mongers, they were dirty journalists—until four days ago. Now they are trying to tell me they are honest professionals.”
She glances outside her office, at the RTS journalists scurrying about, putting together an evening news program that they hope will please their new masters. I get the impression, from Sekulic’s grimace, that if she had a grenade she might roll it into the newsroom.
It was with a sense of curiosity that I visited RTS. I wanted to talk with the men and women who incited the hatred that caused four wars in the former Yugoslavia; first in Slovenia, then Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. They weren’t killers in the normal sense of the word, but they were responsible, at least in a moral way, for the killing that occurred. The questions that surround these people—what they did, why they did it, and how they explain it now—illuminate the murky intersection between human nature and state power. Why do people compromise themselves for the sake of an evil regime? These are questions that interest me, so I’m afraid today’s “Diary” is going to focus on them.
I began my sojourn at RTS with Marija Mitrovic, a leading journalist at the station.
“I am finished,” she said. “I am the face of the politics of Milosevic, and that is a problem now. People hate us, and I understand that.”
Mitrovic, a villanous yet frank lady, spent years reading news reports that glorified Milosevic and slandered the opposition. She has fared relatively well since Thursday, when anti-Milosevic protesters stormed RTS headquarters. She hasn’t, for example, been beaten by an angry mob, as happened to Milorad Komrakov, the editor in chief of RTS, nor has she been spat upon by protesters, as happened to anchor Staka Novkovic. Mitrovic continues to draw her paycheck, although she is too unpopular to appear on the airwaves any longer.
“Let me tell you, I think the Milosevic politics were wrong, and I wish that in the last few years I had said ‘No, I am leaving,’ ” Mitrovic continued. “Why I didn’t do that, I don’t know.”
Actually, I know one of the reasons why, as does everyone else in the country—the living was good. You could acquire a nice apartment if you worked at RTS, you had a reliable salary, and all you had to do in exchange was tell lies, day after day, that would lead to the deaths of several hundred thousand people. Mirkovic, who has the imperfectly dyed blond hair that is a hallmark of East European hairdressers, possesses a second home in Chicago and has pretty much kissed off her chances of continuing at RTS, so she says what many of her scurrying comrades refuse to say.
“My work here was a mistake, but more than that, it was damaging,” she said as a friend passed by and gripped her shoulder in a have-courage-we’ll-get-through-this way. “If I and my colleagues had worked the right way, Milosevic would have fallen a long time ago.”
But they didn’t, and he didn’t.
Natasha Mihailovich, who is in her 30s and, with her black clothes and leather jacket, would look at home in SoHo, is a bit less forthright. For the past five years, she has worked as a news editor at RTS, and when I met up with her, she was chain-smoking her way through the day after being told by one of her bosses that her services would not be needed for now. Mihailovich was furious because the editor who nudged her aside—trying, it seems, to please the station’s new managers by fingering her as a Milosevic diehard—was more compromised than she was. It was an odd defense, and it began with a phrase that I heard many times—“I was only doing my job.”
“In my heart I never agreed with the editorial policy, though every person at RTS was an exponent of Milosevic’s regime,” she said. “Every one of us could have quit at anytime.” She did not, and she says it was because she is a single mother with a son to provide for. I suggested that there were many ways a single mother could care for her child in Belgrade. Mihailovich replied that she did what she could to tone down her news dispatches. “I never used the worst phrases, like Clinton being a narco-terrorist. Never, never.”
I asked whether RTS was evil. There was a moment of silence.
“On Thursday, my mother called and asked me what happened in Belgrade,” she began. “I told her that RTS was attacked by protesters, and my mother said, ‘Yes, that’s good. Your company is evil.’ I told her that Milorad Komrakov had been beaten up. She asked me whether he was beaten to death. I told her no. My mother said he should have been beaten to death, because he is evil.”
“I think our company was doing evil things.”
“Does that mean you were doing evil things?” I asked.
“In that relation, yes. But we were only workers. I am not somebody who decided about news.”
Isadora Sekulic has been hearing much of this in recent days.
“It’s the old story,” she said, in a voice as thick as the cigarette smoke that hung in her chaotic office (and hangs throughout the Balkans). “That’s the story of the Second World War, of fascism, of Nazism. Nobody was in charge. How is that possible? No, it is not true. It is only their alibi. I think all of them should be punished.”
I suppose that’s why I am lingering in Serbia after the fall of Milosevic. Crime and punishment—an old story, endlessly fascinating.
Posted: Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2000, at 10:00 a.m. PT
I love the black market.
When I arrived in Belgrade I didn’t have a chip for my cell phone, and I needed one in a hurry. Normally, getting a chip for your cell phone can be quite a hassle in Serbia—you go to an office, you stand in line for several hours, and when you get to the front you are told that chips are not available until the next day or next week. If you arrive in the city on a Friday evening, as I did, you can pretty much forget about getting a chip until Monday at the earliest.
Unless, that is, you venture into the realm of the black market. I called a friend who I know to be capable of arranging such things. She made a call or two and soon phoned me back to let me know that she had located the required merchandise. It was in the possession of a woman who worked at a cell phone company. It is normal here for insiders to take advantage of the shortage of chips by acquiring a stock of their own and selling them for twice or three times as much as they would cost if you, the buyer/victim, went through the normal, slow-moving channels.
And so, late on Saturday night, after finishing my work, I got into a taxi with my interpreter and headed down a row of unremarkable apartment buildings. On an ill-lit corner ahead of us, an attractive blond woman in tight, dark clothes was waiting. We stopped in front of her, rolled down the window, and a brief conversation ensued in whispers, at the end of which, 100 German marks was handed, discreetly, to the lady in black, and she handed me a chip, discreetly. I snapped it into my cell phone—and presto, I am wired up. Mission accomplished.
The existence of a black market reflects a dysfunctional economy, and a dysfunctional economy is usually one in which many people are poor. In Belgrade, it’s not Third World poverty of the traditional sort but a strange version of genteel, Balkan poverty. Before Slobodan Milosevic came to power more than a decade ago, Yugoslavia was a relatively prosperous country, and Belgrade was a sophisticated, lively place. Four wars and international sanctions have ruined the economy, creating the inefficiencies and imbalances that have given life to a thriving black market.
All of which means that if you are a rich foreigner (at least in the eyes of Serbs), you can get whatever you want for a price that is a fortune to the locals but a bargain to you. And that’s how I ended up moving out of the Hyatt Hotel yesterday and into a delightful though quirky apartment in the center of town. It was, of course, a black-market transaction.
The Hyatt is nice but located across the Sava River from the center of Belgrade, so I told a friend, Ivan, that I wanted to find an apartment on the convenient side of the Sava. I know Ivan because a year ago, when he was in a financial pinch (a condition he shared with most of his countrymen), I stayed in his downtown apartment; he moved into a rented apartment that cost half as much as I was paying for his, and he pocketed the difference. (He also set off a fire in his rented accommodations after falling asleep smoking a cigarette, but that’s another story.) Ivan, who no longer smokes in bed and is in better financial condition at the moment, partly because I am employing him as my interpreter, made a few calls and announced, “I have found you a flat.”
The apartment is on Kneza Milosha, a major boulevard on which are located the defense ministry and army headquarters, which were flattened in the NATO bombing last year, and the foreign ministry, which my tax dollars helped destroy, too. It is an Ivan-style arrangement: The twentysomething woman who lives in the apartment has moved out and is staying with her parents. One of the nontraditional aspects of our rental agreement is that there is none—aside from a handshake and an exchange of 450 marks for a two-week stay, nothing else has been required. No contract, no security deposit, and I’m not sure the woman knows my last name.
It is a pity that one can do this only in places like Belgrade. Imagine, for a moment, that you could visit a wonderfully located apartment in Manhattan—let’s say a loft in Tribeca—and pay the owner less than $250 to get lost for two weeks. Alas, unless Milosevic figures out a way to ruin our economy as he has Serbia’s, it is unlikely to occur.
My new home is somewhat odd. It has no drapes at all, so everyone in the neighborhood can see what I’m up to, no matter where I am in the apartment, including the bathroom. At times I think I am participating in a Serbian version of “Big Brother,” though I have done my best to foil the game by stringing up a towel across the bathroom window. So far, no one has complained about me breaking the rules.
Another curious thing is that after opening the front door you have to walk under a low arch in the entrance hallway; the arch is narrow and has an odd overhang on its left side that can take your head off, so as a precaution I tend to duck when I walk into my new home. It’s a bit like the movie Being John Malkovich, in which John Cusack worked in an office that had ceilings no more than 5 feet high. The “Malkovich” metaphor is not entirely inappropriate for Belgrade, because I occasionally feel, especially after ducking under the arch, as though I am going through a crazy man’s portal.
I have wanted to ask the apartment owner about the drapes—why, dear Lord, are there none?—but I am hesitant to do so. I have spent a number of years living in this part of the world and learned that sometimes the explanations for strange things are stranger than the things themselves; you’re better off in the dark. At the moment, I quite like the apartment, although half of the illumination comes from bare light bulbs hanging from wires that descend from the ceiling in ways that would drive OSHA inspectors mad, and the dozen or so jugs of water under the sink indicate that I should prepare for hard times in the realm of running water. But instead of constant knocks on my door from hotel staff asking whether they can check the minibar/clean the room/turn down the bed, I am left in tranquility, listening, as I write this, to a rather accomplished pianist downstairs play a wonderful sonata.
So, the black market is treating me rather well, but I realize it exists only because the legal market is inefficient and corrupt, and for the sake of Serbia, I wish it were different. The ideal, though, would be an economic system in which you had a legal market that functioned well, as it does in America, and a black market alongside it. OK, I know that’s not possible, but getting phone chips late on Saturday nights, scoring a downtown apartment in a matter of minutes—I don’t think Kozmo.com can do that for me.
Posted: Thursday, Oct. 12, 2000, at 12:30 p.m. PT
Forget, for a moment, where you are and who you are. For a moment, you are a policeman in Belgrade who earns a modest salary, and although you may not be an opponent of the president you serve, whose name is Slobodan Milosevic, you are not an enthusiatic supporter, either. And at this moment, you are standing alongside a nervous group of fellow policemen on the steps of parliament, facing a crowd of several hundred thousand anti-Milosevic protesters who intend to storm the building, with or without your consent. One of those protesters, a burly gentleman from the notoriously anti-Milosevic city of Cacak, is just a few feet away and, fixing his eyes on you, he says, “This morning I kissed my family farewell. I hope you kissed your family farewell, too.”
He is willing to die for his cause. Are you?
This standoff was described in a local newspaper the other day; it was just one of many confrontations that occurred as Milosevic was swept from power last week, but it sticks in my mind because within it lies, I think, a key to understanding what it takes to bring down a dictator like Milosevic. The cop on the parliament steps—this is you, remember—must decide whether the crowd can be repulsed without much trouble, and if it can’t be repulsed so easily, he must decide whether he is willing to risk his life to defend the regime that signs his paycheck. The guy from Cacak, after all, is willing to go all the way. What do you do?
The police on the steps of parliament fired tear gas but gave up when it became clear, quite rapidly, that the tear gas only enraged the protesters, who regrouped for another assault. The sound that was heard on the steps of parliament, after the tear gas failed to settle things, was the clatter of riot shields and batons falling to the ground as the police ran away, some of them tearing off their uniforms so that they would not be beaten by the protesters. You would have been wise, were you a cop on those steps on Oct. 5 (rather than a reader of Slate on Oct. 12) to do the same.
There were, at last, enough protesters in Belgrade who were willing to go all the way, and after 10 years of Milosevic, neither the police nor the psychopaths who did the regime’s bloody work in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo were willing to put their lives on the line. Perhaps it has been several years since Slobo’s enforcers possessed this minimum level of fatal enthusiasm for him, but until last week they had not faced all-or-nothing protesters who, a few hours earlier, had kissed their families farewell. For the first time in Belgrade, the enforcers were up against Serbian kamikazes.
Who were these people? They were not the students and middle-class professionals who had marched against Milosevic, fruitlessly, for much of the past 10 years. Those protesters were out on the streets again last Thursday, of course, blowing their whistles and shaking their baby rattles and wearing their irreverent stickers (“Suck my dick, Slobo”). In the last decade, they had been the most well-behaved of protesters, so Gandhi-like in their nonviolent opposition that they might as well have worn sarongs. I do not want to suggest that they should have been violent or threatened violence; I just think it is interesting to note that they are a breed apart from the angry men of Cacak, who entered Belgrade as though entering the Colosseum in Rome. They even brought a bulldozer to crash through police roadblocks (which it did) and barrel into barricaded buildings (such as the headquarters of Radio-Television Serbia). The opposition movement had found its vanguard.
“I couldn’t go back to Cacak without winning,” said Velimir Ilic, the mayor of Cacak, in an interview published by Vreme, a longtime opposition magazine here. “It was a battle of all or nothing.”
They weren’t only from Cacak, though. There were several thousand Belgrade soccer fans in the vanguard, two of whom I met the other day. I’ll use their nicknames, Joca and Tima. They are supporters of a local team (“Please don’t call us hooligans,” Joca said), and they are known, with their buddies, for brawling not only with opposing fans, but with the police. As Joca explained, modestly, “We are always in favor of action. And last week, we were going to win or we would die.”
He told me they had come with Molotov cocktails and firearms. They used some of the former (parliament and RTS were set on fire) but none of the latter, which came as a surprise to them. “We now realize that some policemen abandoned their posts,” Joca said, and I sensed a bit of wistfulness in his voice. “We expected Romania, but we got Czechoslovakia.” In 1989, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown in a bloody uprising, whereas the regime in Czechoslovakia wilted away in the “Velvet Revolution” led by playwright Vaclav Havel. The Serbian uprising fits between the two—it was almost as peaceful as the Czech example, but the protesters in Serbia were prepared to shed blood, as occurred in Romania.
The key difference between Romania 1989 and Serbia 2000 is that the police in Belgrade—regular and secret—were not willing to kill their own people. Though some shots were fired, apparently by police, when demonstrators attacked RTS, nobody was killed by that gunfire. But the resolve of the police needed to be tested. The success of the pro-democracy forces last week depended on many things—hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, a withering of support within the regime itself—but it was also necessary to have a few thousand men who had kissed their families farewell in the morning.
And a bulldozer.
Posted: Friday, Oct. 13, 2000, at 9:30 a.m. PT
The waiter poured champagne, but we had no idea what to say as we raised our glasses in celebration of the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic. “Congratulations?” offered the advertising man across from me. “Happy New Year?” suggested the psychologist on my left. We were stumped—what is the appropriate toast for a successful revolution?
Everyone at the table laughed and said whatever seemed best—Congratulations, Happy New Year, Merry Christmas, too. We were at Verdi, a popular Italian restaurant, which had been reserved for a private party by a group of longtime friends—professors, artists, entrepreneurs, actors—who were resuming a custom of assembling en masse at a restaurant. The custom came to a gradual halt in the past decade as Milosevic turned Serbia into a depressing and oppressive place. “We used to do this all the time,” said the woman who invited me. “But then people started leaving the country, and the people who stayed had less money, and if you had a big assembly like this the police would become interested. So, we pretty much stopped.”
The diners floated from one table to the next, laughing and chatting as though this were a party after the Academy Awards and there were Oscars at every table. Many of the men kissed each other hello on the cheek, two times, a charmingly Balkan custom. After a few rounds of champagne, the waiters began serving red wine from Montenegro, and after that, somewhere around 11 p.m., the first course was served; I think my main course, pesto alla genovese, arrived on the table around midnight. It seemed, in its Old World way, a very Rebecca West evening. I realized that the social atomization that is a consequence of living under dictatorship was disappearing before my eyes.
The restaurant was filled with designer jackets and dresses, mostly from Italy, I believe. I was the worst-dressed. True, anyone who is reading this and knows me will say it was no surprise I was outdressed, but when I have dinner with friends in Manhattan, they infrequently wear ties, and if they are wearing jackets, it is because they have come directly from work. This gathering, on Tuesday evening, had begun at 9:30, so everyone had changed into proper dinner attire; the jacket I should have been wearing, from Barneys, was hanging in a closet 4,000 miles away.
The advertising man had just returned from Slovenia, where he had collected an award for a political ad that recently ran in Serbia. It was a spoof on laundry detergent commercials: A woman held up a T-shirt with a picture of Milosevic and complained that it was difficult to remove the ugly stain from the garment. The miracle product that would get rid of the stain was, of course, a vote for the opposition alliance trying to unseat Milosevic. On the night my dinner companion collected his award in Slovenia, which was the first Yugoslav republic to break away, Milosevic resigned. “There were a couple of Serbs at the ceremony, and we celebrated by crashing a party given by the Croats,” he said. In 1990 and 1991, Croatia fought a nasty war to extricate itself from Serb-led Yugoslavia. “They loved us,” he continued. “Fantastic evening.”
Zoran Djindjic, leader of the largest pro-democracy party, showed up halfway into the evening, said hello to a few friends, and then disappeared upstairs into a private dining room. There was laughter at the table when we noticed the policemen loitering outside and realized they were protecting Djindjic (who also had his personal retinue of bodyguards) rather than harassing him. I asked my companions how it felt to no longer be in the opposition, and they just laughed some more. “I have only one wish,” one of them said. “I want this country to become boring. Boring, boring, boring. We have had more than enough drama in the last 13 years.”
Of course these are the sorts of people who had been needled, on the day that Milosevic fell last week, by their hardier compatriots from the provinces. When a crowd from Cacak, a deeply anti-Milosevic city that regards Belgrade as filled with sissies, marched on the federal parliament, one of the slogans they shouted out was, roughly translated, “Greetings, Belgrade cunts! We’re going to show you how to make a revolution!”
Coarse language is an inherent feature of political and social discourse in Serbia, and it is shared by intellectuals and coal miners alike. The looted shop in the middle of Belgrade that belongs to Marko Milosevic, the dictator’s son, has a veritable dictionary of profane graffiti on display that includes, front and center, the ever-popular, “Suck your father’s dick.” Mothers do not shield their children’s eyes as they walk past.
The shuttered American embassy that is down the road from my apartment has provided a perfect tabula for the Chaucers of Serbia. “I fucked your auntie, Uncle Sam,” goes one—and the genius is that it rhymes in Serbian. When I called up my interpreter this morning to double-check that graffiti, he laughed and said it wasn’t even the best one at the embassy. Another one, which also rhymes in Serbian, goes, “Give me fellatio, American nation.”
I hope that nobody of Serbian heritage takes offense at my recitation of these oaths. I have learned, in writing about the Balkans for a decade, that Serbs can be touchy when they think they are being portrayed as an uncivilized people, and that is understandable. But I think the Serbian genius for imaginative oaths is a positive attribute. In America, you don’t hear much swearing in mainstream culture, and when you do, it’s usually run of the mill stuff—the F word, etc. Very dull. Is this restraint a hallmark of a civilized culture or an anal one? After all, Serbia is the kind of place where, at dinner, a university professor will admit that one of her favorite curses is “Fuck your grandmother on a rotten board,” but in Serbia you can also see a gentleman kiss a lady’s hand. And, as readers will hopefully recall, the sartorial barbarian at Verdi on Tuesday night was the American guest.
The dictator is reeling. After mesmerizing and manipulating his country for more than a decade, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is suddenly a wounded tyrant who could be toppled by one more blow from an opposition that is, for once, united and strong.
The beginning of the end for Milosevic—if that’s what it turns out to be—got under way last Sunday, when he was trounced in elections he was sure he would win. Even by his own count, he came up short. According to the official tally—a fabrication, most likely—Milosevic won 38 percent of the vote, while the main opposition candidate, Vojislav Kostunica, gained 48 percent. Those numbers, if true, would force a second round of voting Oct. 8 because neither candidate won an absolute majority.
The opposition will have none of that. According to its count—an accurate one, most likely—Kostunica won 52 percent of the vote, which gives him an outright victory. He is calling for Milosevic to step down. And that is why hundreds of thousands of Serbs are hollering “He’s finished!” in the streets of Belgrade, exulting in what they hope will be the political demise of a dictator whose stoking of nationalist passions sparked four wars in the past 10 years—in Slovenia (1991), Croatia (1991-1992), Bosnia (1992-1995) and Kosovo (1999).
Even so, if Milosevic, who caused the greatest wave of bloodshed in Europe since World War II, is heading for a long-awaited fall, the opposition will almost surely need to strike at him again.
Slobo (his nickname) is unlikely to forfeit office voluntarily, and his cronies and generals are unlikely to oust him until they are sure his cause is a lost one. But delivering a final blow is a task the opposition has failed to accomplish at several turning points in the last decade. And although its prospects have never been better, little is guaranteed when you are dealing with Milosevic, whose dark personal history includes the deaths, by suicide, of his mother and father.
He is ruthless. The wars he started killed several hundred thousand people, many of them civilians murdered in campaigns of terror that refreshed the Western world’s acquaintance with the old and miserable phrase “ethnic cleansing.” And he is brilliant.
In the past, Milosevic has gotten the better of the opposition by capitalizing on its disarray and his cleverness. The former is gone now, but not the latter. Although the Clinton administration prefers to equate Milosevic with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, who uses terror as much as wiliness to stay in power, the truth is that Milosevic is the Machiavelli of the Balkans.He uses the minimum amount of domestic force necessary to stay in power; outsmarting his opponents, rather than killing them, is his preferred modus operandi. You can count on your two hands the number of opposition activists who have been killed by Milosevic’s regime in the past decade.
When faced with surges in opposition activity, Milosevic often bides his time, letting protesters march—every night, if they wish, even for months—until they are too cold or tired or dispirited to continue. Occasionally he uses force—not enough to outrage the majority of citizens who prefer to stay on the sidelines, but enough to prevent the accumulation of a critical mass in the streets. At times he even gives in a little, offering a few crumbs of compromise that sate his opponents but leave him in power. It has been part of his genius that he knew the opposition’s needs and limits better than its own leaders did.
He has survived much of the world’s condemnation. He has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague for atrocities committed by his military forces in Kosovo, but remains free. And he survived the devastation of last year’s NATO bombing campaign, although it forced him to withdraw his armed forces from Kosovo and effectively cede control of the province to the United Nations. Yugoslavia, which consisted of six republics before its breakup began a decade ago, consists of only two republics now, Serbia and Montenegro—and Montenegro is pushing for independence too.
The underlying goal of the NATO campaign was to unseat Milosevic, whom the Clinton administration and its European allies view as the prime destabilizing force in the Balkans, which has seen little but war since he came to power. The United States and its European allies remain committed to that goal; in the past year, the U.S. government alone channeled $25 million to Yugoslavia’s independent media and opposition groups. And several European leaders last week spoke in support of the opposition, while Clinton urged Milosevic to accept the will of the people and step down.
Still, at the moment, there is little the outside world can do but hope the opposition plays its strong hand well.
Certainly the opposition is better led than before. One of the reasons the opposition failed to gather much more than 100,000 people into the streets on any given occasion in the past was because its leadership had been divided between two men, Vuk Draskovic and Zoran Djindjic, who hated each other more than they hated Milosevic. They crossed and double-crossed each other so much that they became, in essence, an asset to Milosevic.
Draskovic, an erratic firebrand and occasional nationalist, even cooperated with Milosevic at times, briefly becoming a minister in his government last year. He accused Djindjic of being a coward for fleeing to Montenegro during the NATO bombing campaign (Djindjic claimed Milosevic’s goons were plotting to kill him), but now Draskovic has retreated to Montenegro after two apparent assassination attempts against him. Djindjic is back in Belgrade, and was the campaign manager for Kostunica’s campaign.
Kostunica is a former law professor and minor politician who was virtually unknown until a few months ago. His lack of high-profile experience is regarded as a plus because he has not sullied himself with the sort of backstage intrigues that have hobbled other opposition leaders.
For once, the anti-Milosevic forces are united behind a man who puts his country’s interests ahead of his party’s. That is one reason why more than 200,000 people took to the streets on Wednesday night in the first major post-election gathering; that was nearly twice as many people as Draskovic or Djindjic ever managed to attract.
But what do those people and their strong new leader do next?
In 1996, when Milosevic’s ruling Socialist Party lost control of key cities in municipal elections but refused to honor the results, demonstrators took to the streets and stayed there for months, marching peacefully every night. Milosevic eventually gave in, partly, but he did everything he could to reduce the power and funding of the municipal councils, and he waited for the shaky opposition alliance to fall apart, which it did. He played his weak hand well, and as a result, his hold on the country was hardly affected.
And last year, after NATO’s bombing campaign shredded much of Serbia’s infrastructure, the opposition tried to mount a popular campaign against Milosevic. The protest marches, which demanded early elections and occurred nightly for several months, had a negligible impact. They drew fewer and fewer people, finally coming to a rather whimpering halt.
So it is not assured that marches, even when they’re 200,000-people strong, or the general strike the opposition has called for, will be sufficient to dislodge Milosevic. One of the strange ironies of Serbian politics is that although Serbs have been involved in four wars since 1990, they have been reluctant to shed any blood to dislodge the man who led them into these disastrous campaigns. Not all Serbs think the wars were ill-advised, but most realize Milosevic has led them into political and economic oblivion.
Wednesday night, Kostunica and other opposition figures reiterated their commendable intention to lead a peaceful movement to oust Milosevic. This is not just for the sake of principle. It’s practical, as well; too much provocation could unleash a rather nasty campaign of violence by Milosevic’s desperate regime. Too little, of course, could leave him in power.
And that’s the conundrum the opposition faces today, the same one it did a decade ago: Can a man of violence be defeated without violence?
A look at oil’s indelible impact on the countries that produce it and the people who possess it.
Dispatches from the war in Bosnia, published in 1996 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
He Was a Hacker for the NSA and He Was Willing to Talk. I Was Willing to Listen.
The Intercept | July 08, 2016
What It’s Like to Read the NSA’s Newspaper for Spies
The Intercept | May 09, 2016
Obama’s Gift to Trump: A Policy of Cracking Down on Journalists and Their Sources
The Intercept | April 11, 2016
What the Guilty Verdict of Radovan Karadzic Tells Us About War Crimes After 9/11
The Intercept | March 24, 2016
‘13 Hours’ Splashes Blood Across the Screen and Misses the Real Story of Benghazi
The Intercept | January 14, 2016
Homeland Goes Rogue Against the Espionage Act
The Intercept | November 10, 2015
Firing Blind: Flawed Intelligence and the Limits of Drone Technology
The Intercept | October 19, 2015
How the Makers of ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Seduced the CIA with Fake Earrings
The Intercept | September 09, 2015
The NSA Has An Advice Columnist. Seriously.
March 10, 2014
My New Job at First Look
February 06, 2014
The Snowden Interview
August 13, 2013
PGP Key for Peter Maass
July 29, 2013
On Leakers, Heroes and Traitors
June 18, 2013
Invasion: Diaries and Memories of War in Iraq
March 19, 2013
Invasion, the Kickstarter
February 05, 2013