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The Voice of Belgrade Has U.S. Accent

CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Nebojsa Vujovic lived in Washington for years. He denies Kosovo atrocities, points to civilian casualties.

May 28, 1999|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — When NATO bombs wrecked civilian homes in a southern Serbian town last month, Nebojsa Vujovic made the four-hour road trip from this capital to face TV cameras in the rubble where 10 people died.

His tone was measured, his face like stone, his English fluent. Denouncing what he called "the latest NATO aggressive bestiality against civilians," Vujovic scored another point in his country's propaganda war against the 19-nation alliance.

Belgrade's objective is to persuade the world and its own citizens that ordinary people in Yugoslavia--and not the government of President Slobodan Milosevic--are the real victims of the 2-month-old Western air assault on the Balkan nation.

It is a campaign that Vujovic, a 41-year-old lawyer-turned-diplomat, is well equipped to lead.

He knows the enemy well, having worked for nine years in Washington. He was the Yugoslav Embassy's charge d'affaires when his government broke diplomatic relations with the United States on March 25 to protest the bombing.

U.S. authorities took away the embassy's keys, and four days later Vujovic was on a plane to Budapest, Hungary. A week after traveling overland to Belgrade with his family, he was named Foreign Ministry spokesman--his country's answer to Jamie Shea.

Like Shea, the British-born NATO official whose daily televised briefings from Brussels make him the voice of the allied offensive, Vujovic is articulate, deeply committed to his side's cause and visible to viewers around the world.

Unlike his rival, Vujovic lives in harm's way. When the North Atlantic Treaty Organization struck two abandoned army buildings in central Belgrade last month, the blasts shattered windows in the Foreign Ministry, where he works, and killed a policeman standing guard outside.

This distinction may explain the plaintive edge to Vujovic's daily spin on the battle over Kosovo--the province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic, where NATO is backing the ethnic Albanian majority's fight for autonomy.

"Remember the Latin saying: Audi alteram partem. Listen to the other side," the spokesman said in an interview. "We are competing against a factory of lies of the Pinocchio type. We're trying to speak out, to tell our story."

Vujovic counters widespread accounts of Yugoslav atrocities in Kosovo--he flatly denies them all--with details of civilian casualties from NATO bombing throughout Yugoslavia.

By Belgrade's count, more than 1,200 civilians have been killed by the bombs--many as a result of what NATO calls pilot error, others in deliberate strikes at facilities such as the Serbian state television studios.

Vujovic has stepped forward to wring maximum propaganda value from each such incident, sometimes rushing to the scene of shattered buildings.

While he makes the debatable claim that all NATO's killing is deliberate, he is careful not to overstate the number of victims of each strike or even resort to estimates.

"I'm not going to be the one caught lying," he said.

Vujovic's credibility is being tested in other ways. Two days after the spokesman declared that freedom for three captured U.S. soldiers was "not on the agenda," Milosevic surprised everyone by sending them home with the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Standing by as the soldiers boarded a bus for Croatia, Vujovic spun the event as a "goodwill gesture of our firm commitment to reach a political solution."

It is war, however, that feeds the most acerbic exchanges with Shea.

Take the April 23 bombing of the television studios, which killed 16 employees, including journalists. Shea said the TV network is "supporting the power structure and war propaganda machine of Mr. Milosevic."

Vujovic countered that NATO "wants to silence us and become the monopoly channel . . . so when Jamie Shea claims that we have concentration camps in Kosovo, we cannot say it's a lie."

In fact, Vujovic's voice is as loud as ever. Hundreds of Western journalists here cover his pronouncements; hundreds outside Yugoslavia call his ministry seeking visas to come cover the war.

When ABC News anchor Ted Koppel sought visas for himself and his crew, including a makeup artist, Vujovic pointedly reminded him that Jelica Munitlak, 27, the woman who made up the faces appearing on Serbian TV, was killed in the bombing.

"Was ABC ever bombed for telling lies?" he asked.

The bombs that dictate Vujovic's work have caused upheaval in the lives of his wife and two children.

In March, his 13-year-old daughter was playing Lady Macbeth on stage at Westland Junior High in Bethesda, Md. Now she roller-skates with friends to one of Belgrade's bridges over the Sava River to join symbolic "human shield" demonstrations against the bombing.

His son, who lived 9 of his 11 years in Washington, has had more trouble adjusting. Other kids taunt him for speaking Serbo-Croatian with an American accent.

"They call him names," Vujovic said. "They call him an American. Some do it jokingly, but some are angry. They get angrier with each bomb that falls."

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