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In his dispatches from Kosovo, Times correspondent Paul Watson has reported the conflict from the ground up. From Day One he has been...A Witness to War

SUNDAY REPORT: Dispatch From Kosovo

June 20, 1999|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PRIZREN, Yugoslavia — Body Bag No. 4 had a rectangular plastic window near the top. Through it, I could see a child's head, turned a little to the right, mouth slightly open.

For some reason, when I saw the Kosovo Albanian boy's corpse on the floor of a morgue here, I thought of a space traveler, asleep in suspended animation, waiting to awake in a new world.

His lips were pressed against the window, which looked fogged, as if he were still breathing. I imagined his mind somewhere far away, carried off in a dream.

But his eyes were still, charred black by the inferno that had raged through the dirt lot where hundreds of refugees were camped when NATO bombed the village of Korisa on May 14.

I'd spent weeks looking at so many corpses like his and living with fear; now, for a few seconds, I just wanted him to be alive, to keep breathing long enough to see the end of a war that had made less sense than even his own senseless death.

As the only North American reporter in Kosovo for most of NATO's 78 days of airstrikes, I lived through a three-way war that, as most conflicts do, took truth as its first victim. At war's end, when I had expected to celebrate my own survival, I only felt more empty. Many of the answers I needed so badly--if only for the sake of justice and my own sanity--were obscured by the fog of war. I could find no heroes.

NATO called its devastating air war against Yugoslavia a "humanitarian intervention," a historic battle between good and evil to stop "ethnic cleansing" and return Kosovo Albanians to their homes. But from inside Kosovo, it rarely looked so pure and simple. It seemed more like calling in a plumber to fix a leak and watching him flood the house.

Many among Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority said they were willing to suffer Serbian reprisals if NATO bombed, as long as the alliance finished the job.

Just hours before the first explosion shook Pristina, the provincial capital, about 8 p.m. March 24, a senior aide to Ibrahim Rugova, once Kosovo's most revered ethnic Albanian leader, suggested that Serbian threats of mutilations and other reprisals might just be propaganda. In any case, he was certain that it didn't matter to those who might suffer.

"Now they feel that the moment they will be free is very near," Xhemail Mustafa, Rugova's spokesman, told me. "And they know they must pay a price to be free."

And so they would.

Media Told to Leave

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia lists seven alleged massacres in its May 24 indictment against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and four of his top officials and commanders. Six of those are said to have occurred after NATO began bombing.

Whether or not there was a grand plan behind the mass deportations and atrocities carried out against ethnic Albanians after the bombing started, Milosevic chose his opening target carefully. Foreign journalists were the first ordered out, probably to get rid of any witnesses.

I left Kosovo in an armored Land Rover in a column of expelled journalists that crossed into Macedonia the night of March 25. The next morning, taking advantage of conflicting signals from authorities about whether the expulsions remained valid, I drove back alone.

The few colleagues who knew what I was doing said I was insane. My wife understood that I had to go back. So I went.

It would probably take a psychiatrist to really understand why I felt compelled to return and offer Serbs an easy target for revenge against Westerners, but everyone has his own ghosts.

I wanted to know what was happening in Kosovo, even though I knew from experience that getting close enough to see a war doesn't mean that you will know the truth of it.

While covering more than a dozen wars and uprisings in countries like Somalia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Iraq and Indonesia, I developed a sort of war mantra to help ease the panic.

"Your fear is what they want," I keep repeating in my mind. "Do not give it to them."

I have said those words many times to myself in Kosovo, during the threats, the shelling and shooting, the bombing--and while looking into the cold eyes of the dead.

I saw my first scene of mass murder in Kosovo on Jan. 15--more than two months before the bombing started--in the village of Racak. Of the 40 corpses, one was of a 12-year-old boy. Most of the bodies didn't appear to have any wounds below the head, so it looked as if they had been executed. It was the first massacre for which Milosevic faces war crimes charges.

A couple of days later, I found a survivor hiding with dozens of others in a cave. The angry man told me that he had given up waiting for NATO to deliver on its repeated threats to bomb.

Having seen his dead relatives and neighbors in Racak, I thought that he was right to despise NATO for failing to intervene sooner. But the Racak massacre did steel the United States for action.

Once NATO did act, I wasn't so sure.

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