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Americans With Family in Serbia Turn to Phone for News, Comfort

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Walking up Michigan Avenue, a cell phone pressed to his ear, Dusan Menicanin looked like just another businessman getting some work done on his lunch hour. Except he wasn’t calling a client or the office.

He was calling Belgrade.

“I’m talking to my brother,” Menicanin said, covering the mouthpiece with his hand, during a recent long-distance call to the Yugoslav and Serbian capital. “He’s in--how do you say?--a hiding place. A shelter. A bomb shelter.”

With many Western journalists expelled from Yugoslavia, Serbian television being heavily censored and NATO officials releasing few details about the ongoing military strikes against Yugoslavia for its warfare in Kosovo, Americans with relatives in the torn region--both Serb and ethnic Albanian--are receiving much of their news by telephone.

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It is difficult to get through, sometimes requiring a hundred tries to reach Belgrade, relatives say, and all but impossible to call less-developed Kosovo. Connections are occasionally severed after an audible bomb blast.

But, especially for the 300,000 ethnic Serbs in Chicago, most of whom oppose the NATO campaign, the phone is considered the most reliable source of information--and comfort--during a military strike in a land increasingly cut off from much of the Western world.

Since the bombing began a week ago, telephone traffic from the United States to the region has doubled, said MCI WorldCom spokesman Brad Burns.

Menicanin, a 45-year-old contractor, has a system of two calls a day for checking on his brother Dragan and his family.

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He makes the first call about 2 p.m. local time--9 p.m. in Belgrade--usually reaching Dragan on his own cell phone as the family settles into the damp basement of a downtown building with about 150 other people. He calls back at 11 p.m. local time, when the sun is rising and the bombardment ebbing in Yugoslavia.

“You call at 11 o’clock to see who survived,” Menicanin said.

“The siren is going off. It’s night,” Menicanin whispered this recent day, still cradling the phone. “But everyone’s OK.”

The calls are expensive, sometimes several dollars a minute, depending on the time of day--and, once connected, the Americans sometimes stay on for hours, not wanting to lose the connection.

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“I can’t afford it,” said Debbie, a Serbian American who asked that her last name not be used. “But I have to call.”

Debbie, a 50-year-old waitress who works the 5 p.m.-to-5 a.m. shift at an all-night diner here, was at a rally this week to protest the airstrikes. She reached into her purse and retrieved a fistful of telephone receipts for calls she had made since the bombing began to a brother and sister in the town of Indjija, outside Belgrade.

Paid in cash, one receipt was for $242, another for $300, another for $433.66.

“I’ve talked to them two times today already,” Debbie said. “They’re at home now. They say they’re not going to hide anymore. They say: ‘If we die, we die. We’re not going back in the shelters.’ ”

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Skeptical of Western media reports, ethnic Serbs in the U.S. have found telephone contact--and the Internet--to be the best way to compare information and keep tabs on the mood of the country, as well as to check on family and friends.

“Serbs shot down five NATO planes, not one,” insisted a man at the rally. “Everyone in Belgrade says that.”

In an Internet chat room, a 22-year-old from Belgrade wrote, “The mood is fantastic,” before heading off to one of the daily protest rock concerts in the capital.

For ethnic Albanians, most of whom support the airstrikes, reaching loved ones in Kosovo has always been difficult. Since the first days of the airstrikes, getting a call through to the Serbian province has become all but impossible, they say, and the region has virtually no Internet service.

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“As soon as I learned about the bombing, I called my brother-in-law,” Ismael Selimi, a 37-year-old tailor, said Tuesday. “I call every day. It never works. I don’t know anything--where they are, if they’re OK.”

Getting a call through to neighboring Albania, Macedonia and the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro, to which tens of thousands of Kosovo Albanians are fleeing, is difficult but possible. So, many ethnic Albanians in America try to keep tabs on family by calling there to find out who arrived in the latest refugee convoys.

Several of Selimi’s family members made it to the Macedonian town of Krcove. But his brother-in-law and other relatives never arrived, he said.

Makfrete, a 19-year-old ethnic Albanian who asked that her last name not be used, has been keeping track of the crisis by calling her sister, Florie, 17, who was visiting family in the Macedonian town of Tetovo when the airstrikes began.

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She can’t get through during the daytime here, but the phone lines begin to open up about 1 a.m.

“When I called my sister yesterday, they had 18 refugees from Kosovo in the house,” Makfrete said.

“Some of them in the house are children without moms or dads. Their moms and dads were killed. My sister said she’s seen so much, it won’t matter if she comes back to United States, she won’t forget. She said she just wants to die.”

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John Beckham of The Times’ Chicago Bureau contributed to this report.


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