MONTENEGRO May 1999
NATO’s bombing campaign of Serbia in 1999, left the tiny province of Montenegro in an unenviable position. Technically still part of a disintegrating Yugoslavia, most of its citizens wanted independence. The police were loyal to Montenegro, yet the army took its orders from Belgrade. Navigating through the pitfalls was hazardous.
We were on our way north to the dreary town of Pljevlja, a heartland of support for President Milosevic, where the mayor has just introduced war-time ration cards to stop hoarding.
Our driver was a flaming hennaed redhead called Snow White. We had chosen her because she managed to lay her hands on her husband’s navy blue Mercedes for the day, meaning we had a better chance of being waved through the road blocks en route.
It looked like a government car.
The journey was long and twisting, through the Yugoslav mountains – curving, dank tunnels, deadly canyons and fast-flowing rivers.
No wonder Nato’s dithering about ground troops. These were not the deserts of the Gulf, but mountains for ambush, from where Tito’s guerrillas pinned down and destroyed German armoured columns. Yugoslav troops say they will do the same with Nato.
The Mercedes worked a dream, sweeping past queues of cars pulled over, until a soldier in camouflage uniform stepped out, his hand up and Snow White hit the brakes.
He got in the back seat and Dalia, our interpreter, said: ‘We have to take him with us to Prijepolje just up the road to check in with the police.’
This was both good and bad news. In Montenegro, the police support the pro-West semi-autonomous government, which is why they let us in through the Croatian border. The army, though, whose writ still runs, backs Milosevic – so being picked up by the army and handed over to police should have been OK.
We are arrested
Shop windows along Prijepolje’s little riverside high street were smashed, the glass still broken on the pavement. Higher up, the windows of the police station were shattered too.
Then Dalia exclaimed in English: ‘Why has he taken us to Serbia?’
She disappeared into the police station for more than an hour. Then we were summoned.
‘You are deep inside Serbian territory,’ said the officer, flicking through my passport. ‘You have entered illegally. You will be put on trial and punished. After our investigation the charges might include espionage.’
I pointed to the soldier who had stopped us: ‘But he brought us here.’
Both Snow White and Dalia started up in Serbo-Croat, with the policeman and the soldier, a marathon mayhem of a Balkan discussion, until Snow White let out a little scream and put her hand over her face.
‘Oh, my God, I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I was trying to take a shortcut.’
For a moment I felt like a Nato officer, whose cruise missile had gone astray because of an inaccurate map.
We were taken upstairs to be interviewed by the intelligence police, different ones who kept coming in and out of the room with documents.
The only picture on the wall was of a line of backsides of half-naked calendar girls. The flourescent light was broken, but fixed with a single naked bulb, dangling from it. An ashtray, stuffed with old butts, half covered the sign banning smoking, and an old Olivetti typewriter was in the centre of the desk. A breeze through the broken window blew a single piece of carbon paper onto the floor.
‘Perhaps we could call the Mayor of Pljevlja and explain why we’re missing our appointment,’ I suggested after about another hour.
Dalia translated, then said: ‘All the phone lines are down. Even the mobiles. Nato bombed the town yesterday. They hit the bridge, the telephone exchange and a sports stadium. That’s why the windows are broken. British planes were involved and civilians were killed.’
All deadpan – just like the policeman had said it.
Ian Cartwright, our cameraman, glanced at Snow White: ‘Not only has she taken us to Serbia. She’s got us to a town that’s just been bombed.’
In many other situations like this, I’ve threatened and cajoled. The British Embassy, the BBC, trade, the media – all are weapons of persuasion.
But here, there was no embassy, trade, our captors had already been demonized by the media and my own government was bombing them.
‘You know, hundreds of years ago when the British were eating off wood, the Serbian nation was eating with silver cutlery,’ said one of the men. I thought he would expand the thought, but he resumed studying my passport.
All the time Dalia and Snow White were chatting to them and after about four hours the first one smiled.
‘They know we made a genuine mistake,’ said Dalia.
‘So they’re letting us go. Maybe it’s because the phone lines are down and they can’t call Belgrade.’
Suddenly we were all getting up and shaking hands.
‘How come,’ I ventured, ‘there are no signs telling people when they_re in Serbia, like between Essex and Suffolk or England and Scotland.’
‘Oh,’ said the head intelligence officer, handing me my passport. ‘We don’t have the sort of problem you have in Great Britain with Scotland and other places. Here we are all Yugoslavs, all the same, united people.’