When the small blue-and-white police car pulled up next to us in a parking lot in this central Serbian town, we knew that our smooth trip to Belgrade had suddenly turned rocky.
We were hoping to do a few quick street interviews here to get a sense of how people outside Belgrade--the capital of Yugoslavia and its larger republic, Serbia--were reacting to the NATO airstrikes on their country.
I was traveling with the Washington Post’s Rome correspondent, R. Jeffrey Smith, and Berlin-based Knight Ridder correspondent Lori Montgomery. We departed from Podgorica, the capital of Yugoslavia’s other republic, Montenegro, on Tuesday morning and headed toward Belgrade, which we had left last week when Yugoslav authorities issued an order expelling all journalists whose countries belong to NATO.
The blanket expulsion order was rescinded within a day or two, and some journalists had returned to Belgrade. We hoped to do the same. But we wanted to use the opportunity presented by the drive to write about the mood in the rest of Yugoslavia.
So we pulled into the parking lot in Uzice, about 75 miles southwest of Belgrade. Our Serbian translator bought some takeout hamburgers and chatted with the salesclerk, trying to get a sense of whether things were calm enough for us to safely interview local Serbs. She came back to the car and said it seemed OK.
But before we got out of the car, the police pulled up. Our translator was able to engage the officers in friendly, even laughter-filled, conversation. But after about 20 minutes, we were ordered to follow them to the police station.
For the next 6 1/2 hours of detention, we were never physically mistreated. But the atmosphere went back and forth between relaxation and high tension. Several officers were clearly angered by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s bombing campaign, but they seemed mainly concerned with handling our presence in a way that would not upset their superiors.
We worried for our translator’s safety when she was taken away for separate questioning. We were questioned only slightly ourselves, but our baggage was searched twice; some written materials were confiscated; and a computer expert was called in to try to look into our computer files. On my computer, at least, he succeeded in seeing some old stories.
Meanwhile, security agents at the police station were in contact with the general in Belgrade who under Yugoslavia’s state of war now controls visas. We were told he had given instructions that we be expelled.
During part of our detention, we were told not to use our mobile phones; at other times, there was no objection. We were able to get word out about our situation, together with the names of some of the more moderate officials in the Yugoslav government who realize that allowing foreign reporters into Belgrade provides an opportunity for the government of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to tell its side of the story--and for the voices of ordinary Serbs to be heard.
Efforts by our newspapers to get the expulsion order reversed led to a brief power struggle within the Belgrade government that lasted for at least an hour, with several high-level officials saying they were trying to get permission for us to continue.
At one point, there was the remarkable scene of three journalists and a translator, all with mobile phones, sitting in detention in the lobby of a police station and furiously working their contacts in the Belgrade government to reverse an order by the Yugoslav military. At another, word was passed to us through one of our editors in the U.S. that we would be allowed to proceed to the capital.
It was not to be, however. Half an hour after that seeming triumph, one of our key interrogators emerged and said our visas had been canceled, our press credentials for Yugoslavia had been revoked, and we were banned from the country for the next two years.
The only explanation we were given was that all visas and press credentials issued before NATO bombing began March 24 are no longer valid and that new visas and credentials approved by the military are required. We already knew that many correspondents with Yugoslav visas had been blocked in the previous two days from entering the country from Hungary, which recently joined NATO, even though other correspondents had been allowed to keep working in Belgrade.
We had hoped that we could reach Belgrade because we had entered Yugoslavia without trouble Saturday, at a crossing between Croatia and Montenegro. We got as far as we did because there is no tight border control between the Yugoslav republics of Montenegro and Serbia, and our press credentials were enough to get us through the only police checkpoint where anyone stopped us.
Late Tuesday evening, police escorted us to Yugoslavia’s border with Republika Srpska, the Serb-controlled portion of Bosnia-Herzegovina, where many hard-line Serbs harbor an intense dislike for Americans. Uncomfortable at the thought of staying in that area overnight, we continued for a few hours to the far more hospitable atmosphere of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital.
Our attempted journey to Belgrade was over.