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The Bombing in Belgrade.

Correspondent for the New York Times, Steve Erlanger. He's been filing from Belgrade since the NATO bombing began. He'll discuss life in the city, and the likelihood of negotiating a settlement with Milosevic.


Other segments from the episode on May 19, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 19, 1999: Interview with Steve Erlanger; Review of the film "The Phantom Menace."


Date: MAY 19, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 051901np.217
Head: Life in Belgrade During the NATO Bombing
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

NATO has been bombing Serbia since the end of March. Steve Erlanger (ph) has been in Serbia throughout the bombing covering the war for the "New York Times." He's also the "Times'" former diplomatic correspondent and has served as Moscow bureau chief, Bangkok bureau chief, and South Asian correspondent.

Today, Russia's special Balkans envoy, Viktor Chernomyrdin (ph), arrived in Belgrade to discuss the latest peace proposal with President Milosevic. Early this morning, before Chernomyrdin's arrival, we called Steve Erlanger in Belgrade to discuss the war and his experiences covering it.

First, I asked him to describe where he was speaking from.

STEVE ERLANGER, "NEW YORK TIMES" REPORTER: Well, at the moment, I'm in my hotel room in Belgrade, capital of Yugoslavia and a town which has been under NATO bombing off and on since March 24.

GROSS: What do you see from out your window? Do you see like a bombed out city, or is the view from your window still relatively intact?

ERLANGER: Oh, most of the city is relatively intact. But one can see from my window a very tall, very bombed building that NATO has hit twice with cruise missiles, which was the old Communist Party headquarters under Tito and, you know, which had the headquarters of President Milosevic's party and his wife's party, and transmitters of his daughters radio and television station, and the radio and television station of some of his prime allies.

So that was a big target. But when they hit it, it was really loud.

GROSS: You were in hotel of the time?

ERLANGER: Yes, asleep, or trying to sleep.

GROSS: Describe what it sounded like.

ERLANGER: Well, first you hear, you know, the cruise missiles going over the roof. Because I was awakened the first time, I happened to be up filing the second time.

And there's a kind of whirring, chugging sound. Then, it's hard to describe it. There's an enormous concussion noise. You fill a little bit like the top of your head is coming off. The floor shakes. The windows rattle. You're hoping they don't break.

And they are loud enough that, you know, what I try to do is, you know, when it's this close, is to get between, put the bed between me in the window just in case because flying glass is probably the biggest danger. But this building is about 400 yards away.

GROSS: That seems pretty close, actually.

ERLANGER: It is very close, you know. This is why, you know, when people argue that being under bombing is no reason for anyone to flee, it feels like a bit of the joke.

GROSS: You know, the main story in your paper, the "New York Times," today is that NATO is saying that the Serbs are fearing a land war and that they are digging in along the borders of Macedonia and Albania along the likely attack routes, and that the Serbs are mining and fortifying the border. Are you hearing or seeing anything that makes you think that a ground war is more likely now or that the Serbs are doing any more to prepare for a ground war than they were few weeks ago?

ERLANGER: Frankly, no. I mean, they have been preparing, you know, their territorial defenses - and they regard Kosovo as part of their territory - for months now, even last summer. And when the international verifiers of the OSCE pulled out just before the bombing started in March, they continued to mine those roads of the likely invasion route up from Macedonia and Albania.

You know, this is a country that under Tito was between the blocks and had been preparing for a sort of partisan war against whomever might invade for 40 years, 50 years. They expected it I think to come from Russia, not from the West.

But the tradition of territorial self-defense is very real here. And the army has, you know, dug in for 40 years. But it certainly has been accelerating those preparations. But I don't think they've accelerated them recently. I mean, this is just part of defending Kosovo against possible invasion. And whether they believe a ground invasion is coming or not, any army would prepare for one in any case.

GROSS: It's a conscript army in Serbia. Do you have any way of measuring what the morale is from your conversations with people in Serbia?

ERLANGER: Well, I do have some sense. You know, and I've been in Kosovo as well for a week and spoke to some soldiers there too. I mean, nobody enjoys being bombed.

In Kosovo, which is the main point, the army is pretty well dispersed. I mean, they've accomplished a lot of what they wanted to against Kosovo Liberation Army and did it in ways that, you know, could be quite horrible, particularly when you combine what the army did with especially with what the police did.

But, you know, they're not traveling in huge numbers on the roads. The roads are being bombed very heavily. You see army all over the place. They're dispersed in civilian houses. They've got tanks hidden in haystacks, in garages.

The army in the field, you know, a lot of it isn't moving very far. It's in trenches, you know, which would protect it even from anti-personnel weapons.

I mean, I'm sure the Army is being hit very hard. But you know, the thing about Milosevic is that he has built a lot of his power on the police. And he downgraded the army. And in a way, this has been a great boom for the army because they have felt that they actually have a mission now, which is to defend the country. And their status in the society has gone way up.

And they do feel patriotic. They should be allowed the same sort of patriotism that other countries feel. And they believe that, you know, part of their job is to defend the country against outside intervention.

So their mood is pretty good. I mean, the army I believe would like this to end. I mean, I think we are moving slowly toward a negotiated settlement rather than toward a ground war. But you know, and the army would be happy to have that be the case.

And I think most people in the army believe that, you know, there's no way they could defeat NATO anyway. I mean, it's a very small country. But having stood up to what they think was an egregious effort by the outside world to intervene in internal sovereign affairs, there's a kind of moral victory there also.

GROSS: Yeah, you've been reporting that Milosevic might be ready to negotiate. What's leading you to that conclusion?

ERLANGER: Well, any number of things. But I mean, lately there have also been public statements by Yugoslav officials, foreign ministry officials, yesterday who spoke about how the group of eight sets the principles for a good basis on which to negotiate an end to the war.

If anything, people have been telling me that Milosevic is impatient, that the Russian envoy, Viktor Chernomyrdin, is taking so long to come to Belgrade. There's some resentment that he seems to be, you know, needing to talk more to the Chinese and to the Americans than to Milosevic himself.

So they're interested in a deal. They'd like the bombing to stop. But at the same time, it's been made very clear to me for it to work quickly, Milosevic must feel that it at least looks like a negotiation rather than some sort of capitulation and that if the choice now is to accept this draft or have the bombing to continue he's likely to reject it on principle just as he rejected Rambouillet on principle when the choice was capitulate or get bombed in the first place.

I mean, politically he is in trouble if he, you know, is perceived to be simply giving in after all of this, you know, bombing and frankly all of this blood. But if he can put it into a circumstance where Chernomyrdin is coming and he listens to Milosevic, and Milosevic has things to say to Chernomyrdin and Chernomyrdin goes back, and there's some sense that, you know, there's movement and a negotiation, then people tell me he and the rest of the country are quite ready to put an end to this.

GROSS: My guest is Steven Erlanger. He's joining us by phone from Belgrade where he's been reporting on the war in Serbia for the "New York Times."

Was Belgrade bombed last night?

ERLANGER: The outskirts of it were. And one of the suburbs, there was a big fuel depo that NATO keeps hitting. They're sort of destroying the fuel tanks one by one.

I talked actually to a friend who lives out there and he said, "Thank God the tank was pretty much empty." So there was a big explosion and a secondary explosion, but not such a big secondary explosion that he lost all of his windows.

So, yeah, I mean, last night actually the weather was pretty bad and NATO cancelled most of its strikes. But there was some around Belgrade.

GROSS: Is there - are there a lot of like fumes in the air from the fuel tanks that are being bombed?

ERLANGER: In parts of the town, particularly Ponchovo (ph), which is where one of Yugoslavia's two refineries were. Now the refinery has been completely destroyed. The other one is in Niche (ph), and that's also true. But there are still fuel tanks that they're sort of hitting.

There's a lot of worry here that ecological poisons, my general view is, you know, if we're not being hit by the bombs we can worry about the environment later. I mean, I'll put one danger ahead of the other.

GROSS: You've been in Serbia since the bombing began over 50 days ago. How has the city changed from just before the air war?

ERLANGER: Well, it's an interesting point. I mean, let me talk about mood, first of all, because the physical changes are obvious to anyone who sort of looks at television. There are significant buildings that have been bombed. And some of them, you know, are quite wrecked and ugly.

But, you know, this hasn't been a carpet bombing like World War II. I mean, you don't have huge amounts of the city destroyed. And NATO has actually been pretty accurate. It's made a lot of mistakes and killed quite a lot of people. But in general, it has been very accurate. And I believe it has tried to be very accurate.

But the mood, you know, war isn't a steady state. Nothing stays the same. And the early euphoria, you know, the kind of "we're together," the battle of Britain, you know, "we can resist the bombing," I mean, that's faded. People are very tried.

You know, now everybody just wants to know when it's going to end. There are rock concerts, you know, every day because they're almost stuck having them. But the number of people going to them has been dwindling.

You know, the people have lost electricity off and on here due to NATO bombing. They've lost water off and on. I mean, they've lost their bridges. They're worried about the roads. There's very little gasoline. A lot of people are out of work. There's not a lot of money. I mean, there's stuff in the shops. But some it is quite expensive.

There's smuggling going on from Romania. So stuff is sort of coming in. But, you know, with an ordinary income, life is hard. And people are tired of it.

That's not to say they're about to capitulate. But, you know, they just ask every foreigner they say, you know, "Really, when is this going to end, and what does NATO want? And when do you think it's going to end? And what do you hear about Chernomyrdin? And what do you hear about this or that?"

I mean, there's kind of a drum beat of exhaustion. But I'm not sure exhaustion is the same as capitulation.

GROSS: Well, it sounds like in addition to everybody being exhausted and afraid, they're also bored and depressed.

ERLANGER: Well, war is very boring, actually. You know, I mean, this is one of those great, interesting secrets. I mean, if you live in a city that's being bombed, it means that generally at night there's nothing open. And when things are open, there's nobody there.

So there are still some restaurants. And, you know, once in a while I'll have the time to go out to one. And you know, you go out with some friends. And very often, you're the only people from there.

And to save electricity because of all the damage to the power supply, they've shut off street lamps again. It's very dark out there. And every once in a while, there's a big boom. And you look at the horizon. And it's no longer even startling or pretty. It just kind of feels frightening.

Still there is some of that. And kids, you know, kids can't go out at night. The nightclubs aren't really open. This early period where everyone was going down into the shelters is pretty much over. People tend to not bother to do that anymore.

But there's kind of nowhere to go. So they sit at home and talk a lot on the phone. And they burn up the phone lines. A lot of people get on the Internet. They watch a lot of bad TV, you know. And there's nowhere for kids to go. So in that sense, you know, life is kind of boring.

GROSS: My guest is Steve Erlanger, who is speaking to us from Belgrade, where he is covering the war for the "New York Times."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Steven Erlanger. And he's reporting from Serbia for the "New York Times."

How does NATO look to the people who you've been speaking to in Belgrade? Give us a sense of what the picture of NATO is from that point of view.

ERLANGER: Well, people are still kind of puzzled, I must say. They don't know a lot about Kosovo here. They haven't been told a lot about Kosovo. It's very hard to get Serbs to discuss it, ordinary Serbs.

Now, some Serbs are quite ashamed of what's happened there. Even if they don't know very much about it, they kind of know enough. And there is a kind of anti-Americanism. But it's very unusual here. And I don't think it's very deep.

I think, you know, after the war ends, you know, the Serbs will be almost as pro-American as they were before in an odd way. They've very pro-Italian. They say, "Ciao." They drink espresso. They really see themselves as European people.

And there is, you know, some puzzlement, which is partly defensive and perhaps partly self-delusionary about why they're being bombed. And there is sort of mostly a hope that it will be over soon. A lot of people say, "Well, if NATO wants Milosevic, they know his address. Why don't they just bomb him and leave the rest of us alone?" You know?

But people will also get quite angry over the bombing of the bridges and the electrical systems. I mean, they feel that the bridges have nothing to do with the war effort. They feel NATO to some degree is being cruel, is actually targeting civilians because NATO is frustrated because it's gone on so long and it's not really accomplishing its aims.

They fear that it could get worse, you know. But in an odd way, they still want to be very much part of Europe. And what most people are most afraid of is that the war and the aftermath of the war will isolate them even further than the last eight years of sanctions have done. People feel a little powerless.

GROSS: NATO says that it's trying to bomb only military targets. Is the distinction between military and civilian targets getting a little blurry?

ERLANGER: Well, I think it has gotten blurry. It is not clear to me that cutting off the electricity from Novi Sad, which is a city to the north of Belgrade, has much to do with the war effort in Kosovo.

Now, I may be wrong. Maybe that's unsophisticated. Maybe, you know, the war is actually being directed from Novisad. But I very much doubt it.

And you know, a lot of Serbs feel this way too. I mean, there are a lot of bridges that have gone down, you know, that people wonder about. There are a lot of factories, electrical power plants that have been hit. You know, now how much that has to do with the war effort in Kosovo or, you know, or is it really about trying to drive the civilians crazy and see if they can cause a defeatist attitude and, you know, get people to agitate politically?

Now, that may be a perfectly good war aim. But it is not a war aim that you could really call military, as NATO insists all of its war aims are.

So I think it is blurry. It's not that they've run out of targets. But, you know, they're trying, at least it seems, to have an air campaign with a lot of different strands to it.

One of those strands is certainly to kill as many Yugoslav army people in Kosovo as possible. But one strand also seems to me in all fairness to be aimed at demoralizing and discomforting the civilian population.

GROSS: Do you think there are aspects of the war that NATO isn't reporting or is trying to spin for westerners?

ERLANGER: Well, of course. I mean, you know, as everyone knows, when the trumpet blows, all reason goes out through the trumpet. And you know NATO has a much more sophisticated propaganda operation than the Serbs do. And I believe, you know, NATO's version more than I believe the Serb version.

But NATO has been retailing stories that are one-source stories or one-refugee accounts that I wouldn't print unless I had confirmation. There has been a kind of demonization of Milosevic himself and of the Serbs generally that I think, you know, has discomforted me, certainly.

There's certain, you know, NATO has done itself I think no great benefit by denying things one day and having to admit that they were wrong two days later. It doesn't seem to me any shame for a western agency to say, "We are terribly sorry about these reports. And we're checking into them. And when we have firm information, we will tell you," and then waiting until they had firm information instead of, for example, the bombing of an ethnic Albanian convoy near Jokavitsa (ph).

You know, NATO denied it for two days. And then they said that the Serbs did it. And then they said all kinds of things. And in the end, they finally admitted that yes, they had done it and they hadn't meant to do it. Well, that's fine. I mean, I believe that version. But I think they've done themselves great harm with the Serbs too because the Serbs no longer believe much of what NATO says, I'm afraid, even when what NATO says is true.

GROSS: I know a lot of intellectuals from Belgrade have fled the country in the last few years. But for the intellectuals remaining there, do you find that they are in an odd position now? I'm speaking specifically of intellectuals who opposed the Milosevic government.

ERLANGER: Well, it's true of intellectuals. It's also particularly true of Democratic opposition politicians, you know. I mean, it's war time, and it's very - it's an odd time to start criticizing your army and your government, you know, when it's at war. You open yourself up to charges of treason, however unjustified.

And it's particularly awkward now because the Milosevic government was hardly a great liberal democratic government. And it has been repressing independent media anyway. So even if people are outspoken, they're having a hard time getting their message across.

Now, they can get it out through foreign media. But that doesn't always come back into Serbia very, very well.

GROSS: Steve Erlanger speaking to us from Belgrade where he's covering the war for the "New York Times."

Our interview was recorded early this morning. We'll hear more of it in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Let's continue the phone interview we recorded earlier today with Steve Erlanger, who is in Belgrade covering the war for the "New York Times." He's the "Times'" former Moscow bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent.

A few weeks ago at the beginning of the bombing, I interviewed somebody who I know you've interviewed. I've seen you quote him in your pieces, Alexi Gilas (ph), who is among other things a writer who writes op-ed pieces for Serbian as well as for several American publications. And you know, we were talking about the purging of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo and the people fleeing across the border into Macedonia.

And he was saying that, you know, he was convinced that they were fleeing to avoid the NATO bombs and that there wasn't an organized Serbian campaign of ethnic cleansing. At the same time, he seemed to be watching CNN and Europe's Sky News, which was reporting in great detail on the ethnic cleansing. And I was just trying to understand how someone of his intellectual abilities would so totally discount the reports of ethnic cleansing.

ERLANGER: Well, there are a lot of people who do look at western TV. You know, they have the Internet. And they have cable TV. And they have CNN. And they have Sky. And you know, frankly, there are days where CNN and Sky are kind of retailing stuff that isn't necessarily very well checked either.

And in general, I think the Serbs resent the emphasis on the refugees and unchecked refugee accounts, which you know, makes only perfect sense given the ease of reporting from outside Serbia and the difficulty of reporting from inside Serbia.

But there is this kind of intellectual disconnect. On the one hand, I think Serb intellectuals who are patriotic like Mr. Gilas do feel that, you know, the west has turned Serbia into a caricature of a nation, that they've confused Milosevic with the population, that they've attributed a form of race hatred to the population that doesn't exist.

You know, they will say that 40 percent of the population of Serbia is non-Serb, which is true. And they will say there's very little understanding in the west of historical and mythical importance of Kosovo to Serbia, and even of the history of Kosovo in the last 20 years.

And you know, these are arguments. I'm not sort of necessarily saying they're right or wrong. But this is the kind of debate that you have with people. At the same time, you know, there are a lot of Serbs who feel that, you know, what has happened in Kosovo is deeply, morally wrong and are ashamed about it and are very eager for the war to end to try to in a democratic way get rid of President Milosevic.

So you know, it's a society like other societies. And in war, you know, the west can't expect the same kind of soul-searching that it could expect in peace time. It's too dangerous for a lot of people.

A friend of mine named Slovko Jeruvia (ph), who is an independent publisher and who, you know, had a kind of checkered history but was trying to do decent journalism here, was murdered, you know, a week into the war. And most people understood that. He was assassinated right in front of his apartment.

And it was understood as a clear message. You know, he had been accused of wanting NATO to bomb, which was not true, and of kind of pushing western values on a country at war with the west. So one has to be careful.

Now that's a kind of debate that's starting again because people are beginning to look past the war and are trying to position themselves, even in the opposition. But you know, I find it, you know, as a person who's tried to cover a lot of parts of the world, very dispiriting to have my own country, and you know, I believe the United States, you know, is a country of free speech and generally liberal values, to have people writing about the Serbs as if they were the Nazis, you know. I mean, the Serbs are not exterminating Albanians as a race.

They're doing horrible things. There are war crimes. People should be prosecuted. Don't misunderstand me. But, I mean, Milosevic is not Adolf Hitler. And you know, the reality on the ground is complicated. And it is not always the way NATO portrays it. It is certainly nothing like the way the Serbs usually portray it.

GROSS: Joining us by phone from Belgrade is Steve Erlanger, who has been reporting for the "New York Times" on the war in Serbia.

Now, you've been on trips led by the Yugoslav army. And their goal was top show journalists the damage caused by NATO bombings. But you say what really stood out were the signs of ethnic cleansing.

You wrote, "The most overpowering impression, even on a trip controlled by an army at war, was of an organized campaign to evict Albanians from large parts of Kosovo and to burn down their businesses and homes." And you described the letters and symbols painted on doorways to indicate that a family or business was Serb and should be spared.

These journeys must have been very, well, almost surreal for you.

ERLANGER: Well, they are surreal. I mean, covering a war is surreal anyway because, you know, war is not a normal condition. And people don't always behave normally. So simply reporting on a war is by itself a kind of almost out-of-body experience.

But you know, when you have an army that is trying to obviously show you only certain things, it is sometimes torn between its goals. And this particular trip was a long bus trip into Kosovo.

I was amazed that they even let us do it, to go look at this ethnic Albanian convoy near Jokavitsa, which is rather deep southwestern Kosovo near Prizren (ph), which had been I believe accidentally but without question bombed and strafed and shelled by NATO warplanes. And about 75 ethnic Albanians died. And NATO had been denying that they were doing it.

So the Yugoslav army did actually bring a double-decker busload of inquisitive western journalists down there. And though it banned people taking pictures out of the windows, in the meantime, it couldn't stop us from looking out the windows and reflecting upon what we knew and putting it in the context of what we'd seen in Bosnia and in other parts of Kosovo.

I had been in Kosovo a lot since the beginning of this year anyway and had spent a lot of time there in January and February and March before this bombing war started. So I had a pretty good idea of what it looked like beforehand. And the contrast was rather chilling in this sort of unfortunately depressingly familiar way.

So their goal, which was to get, you know, us to see this horrible scene near Jokavitsa and to get NATO to admit what it had done, which they succeeded in doing, you know, meant that their other goal, which is to keep Kosovo as deeply hidden as possible, couldn't be met. And as they weighed one against the other, I'm not sure, you know, they made the right choice.

GROSS: Now, I imagine you were not in a position to ask the soldiers escorting you on this tour, "What about all these signs of ethnic cleansing? What do you have to say about that?"

ERLANGER: Well, one did, actually. I mean, you know, because some of these so-called soldiers are actually journalists who are in the army now, you know, who had even volunteered to work in the army press center. And you know, they don't always know, obviously, what it's about.

But some private conversations with them were, if not say revealing, were sort of interesting about states of mind and moods. And some of them were deeply troubled by what they had seen too, because they had heard rumors. They knew things, some terrible things, had happened down there. But it's quite extraordinary to see it.

And I also was incredibly fortunate, though I'd worked on it very hard, to be able to get to Kosovo on my own for a week, just about 10 days ago. And though the army brought me down there, I spent a week without army supervision in my own car, with my own gasoline, with my own translator, and moved basically freely through Kosovo. And I guess what I'm glad to say is that the judgments made out the bus window were I think verified when I had a chance to actually spend time in Prizren (ph), Petch (ph), Podjevo (ph), Pristina and various villages, when I had time to actually talk to Albanians in private, away from any Serb, and had time actually to talk to Serb officials in Kosovo, some of whom are terribly upset about what's happening and who believe that things are so broken there no western deal will ever fix them.

But you know, that was added to the picture. It also made me feel that the Yugoslavs were getting ready for some kind of settlement.

GROSS: My guest is Steve Erlanger, who is speaking to us from Belgrade, where he is covering the war for the "New York Times."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Steve Erlanger. And he's been reporting from Serbia on the war there. He's joining us by phone from Belgrade.

What are the Serb government rules that apply to you as a foreign journalist?

ERLANGER: It's very interesting. I mean, you know, it's not a very well organized, semi-authoritarian government. I guess that's what you'd call it.

Under war rules, you know, we have an army press card, which replaces any Yugoslav press card. We are not allowed to have, you know, particularly long stays here. We usually have to kind of get new stamps on our passports every 10, 20, 30 days.

We are not allowed to travel outside Belgrade without authorization from the army press center. Inside Belgrade, we're basically free to do whatever we want.

And as a writing journalist, who, you know, doesn't carry around a big television camera, I can be pretty quiet and careful. There is no censorship of what I've written. No one looks at anything I write before I send it out. No one has looked at any photographs I've taken before I've sent them out.

Television operates under somewhat stricter rules in the sense that, you know, they, even the places they can do stand-ups are limited by the army. And the army actually looks at all the tape before it goes out of the country, before it's transmitted. So they are really under a much sort of tighter kind of censorship than I feel I am because none of what I do is being bedded by anybody.

GROSS: Do they read your articles in the "Times" after they're published, Serb officials?

ERLANGER: Well, they do, I mean, kind of intermittently. You know, the Internet is there. And I've had lots of comments. But in general, you know, they I think had made a decision that they want the newspapers here. Though, in the beginning of the war there was an enormous struggle over who would stay and who would go, even inside the Serbian government. We were all expelled briefly, all the NATO country journalists.

But I think they decided that the paper should stay. And certainly, when I was - I try to keep a certain rules - naturally, I mean, I don't - I think it's wrong for journalists in a war to reveal strategic information, i.e. exactly where a tank might be hidden. I think that's wrong because that just shouldn't be done. But I've felt under no obligation not to describe in principle how the Yugoslav army is dispersed or how it's trying to operate the war, or indeed whatever I saw in Kosovo or whomever I talked to there.

You know, I've also tried because I think it's part of our obligation here to let Serb officials talk in the pages of the newspaper. It's a big newspaper. And we're covering all kinds of people.

And when Serb officials have something to say that I think is newsworthy, I try very much to make sure they're in the paper. And I think that has helped here in the sense that if the foreign minister has something to say, fine. Why shouldn't it be in the paper? And if the Serbs have a version of events, you know, if one puts it into context, you know, I tried to reflect it, you know, up to a point.

But again, I think part of our job is to show that war is of two sides, that in this war from the sky, which looks like, as everyone says, looks like some Nintendo game, there are real people who live underneath. And they have emotions and fears. And some of them are dying in quite horrible ways.

GROSS: What's your typical day like now? And if you could tell us, what are you going to do after we hang up? What's the rest of your day like going to be today?

ERLANGER: Well, this one is a strange one. I actually had to go to the police this morning to get my visa extended another 10 days. It's kind of routine, but never very pleasant. I don't like police stations very, very much for whatever reason.

There is a press conference, or supposed to be a press conference by a man named Goran Montic (ph), who is a minister without portfolio. Chernomyrdin is on his way here. So there will be Chernomyrdin to cover later.

There are - I'm working on a story about opposition politicians here and the attack on them both from the government, but also their own attacks on each other because they're quite divided. And there are now confirmed reports of kind of, you know, "mothers against the war" kinds of rallies in some towns in Serbia, which we're trying to evaluate and check out. So it's actually going to be quite a busy day.

GROSS: When do you sleep? What's a good time to sleep when there's bombing at night?

ERLANGER: Well, in the beginning, one didn't sleep very much at all. I mean, it's a very odd thing. I have a hard time getting to sleep, I must say. Your brain starts to fry.

But I'm often, you know, with questions from the desk, whatever, try to be asleep by 2:00 in the morning. If the bombs are big, some of them have already hit by then. Sometimes they kind of wake you up. If they're right downtown, they want us to get up and actually write about them.

But, you know, the days when you had to get up to write about every bomb that went off are gone. There's a kind of boredom that hits even inside newspapers. The first time something goes fizzle and pop, it seems very, very new.

But you know, one tries to make sure one doesn't get jaded about it. You know, as has happened, you know, last week in this little Kosovo village called Korija (ph), you know, when NATO laser-guided bombs aimed at what they said was a military installation landed smack dab in the middle of 600 refugees, well, that's a story, you know. That's a lot of people dying for very sad reasons.

So you kind of burn it a bit on both ends. And after eight weeks, you know, I'm just trying to keep going. I think I can see distantly a negotiated end to this. And you know, we'll see if it actually happens. I mean, that's up to other people.

GROSS: I think your writing in the "Times" has really been excellent. And I'm wondering how you think exhaustion and being faced with this regular bombing is affecting your writing.

ERLANGER: Well, it's odd. I mean, there are stories I've really, really cared about. And I think those are the ones in the end that tend to be the best stories. I mean, they're the stories that move you the most.

You know, when you actually write them, the events that just, you know, you can picture them in your head. And half the battle is simply trying to get across to people who are very busy who are waking up the next morning with a cold black and white paper in front of them just what it was like to be in the midst of chaos, or tragedy, or tears, or criminal acts, or whatever it is you're trying to describe.

So, you know, that in a way is freeing. It's enthralling. It's why people are journalists. I mean, it's what we do.

GROSS: Well, one last question. It must be so strange to be an American journalist in Belgrade now and to face regular bombing from an alliance that your own country is part of.

ERLANGER: Well, it is strange. I mean, you just keep hoping that the precision munitions stay precision. You can't really think about it.

In Kosovo itself, it feels very, very, very dangerous because the planes are in the air all the time. You're constantly hearing this drum and rumble. It's, as I tried to write somewhere, it's like a drill in the brain. And you know, one has to every once in a while collect oneself and understand what the war is actually all about.

I mean, one could argue about whether it's accomplishing its aims. One could argue about whether it was well-planned. One could argue about all kinds of things. But you know, it's - in general, the Serb authorities have been very correct with me.

And even when people have been very angry, they've mostly restrained their anger and kept it from becoming personal. On the street sometimes, one has been attacked or actually yelled at. The scenes of great tragedy, sometimes people have just told me to go away, that they just don't want to look at an American face or hear an American voice. And I've tried to respect those views.

But in general, you know, even though NATO doesn't necessarily act like it's at war, the Yugoslavs feel they're at war. And you know, one is trying to do one's best even as a journalist from an aggressor country, as we're always being told, to reflect the reality of life here, which is, you know, more complicated I think than sometimes people think, and, you know, reflective of a European nation that has had a lot of tragedy itself, and which also it must be said has inflicted a great deal of tragedy on other people.

GROSS: Well, Steve Erlanger, I wish you good luck and safety. And I want to thank you very much for spending some time with us on the phone.

ERLANGER: Thank you.

GROSS: Steve Erlanger spoke to us from Belgrade where he's covering the war for the "New York Times." Our interview was recorded early this morning.

Coming up, a review of the new "Star Wars" movie which opened today. This is FRESH AIR.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, D.C.
Guest: Steve Erlanger
High: Correspondent for "The New York Times" Steve Erlanger. He's been filing from Belgrade since the NATO bombing began. He'll discuss life in the city and the likelihood of negotiating a settlement with Milosevic.
Spec: War; Europe; Lifestyle; Culture; Steve Erlanger

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Life in Belgrade During the NATO Bombing

Date: MAY 19, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 051902NP.217
Head: "The Phantom Menace"
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:50

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

GROSS: The new "Star Wars" movie opened today. In some cities, the first screening was at 12:01 a.m. Called "Episode One: The Phantom Menace," it's actually the prequel to the first "Star Wars" film.

Our film critic John Powers is at the Cannes Film Festival. So we asked F.X. Feeney (ph), film critic for the "L.A. Weekly" to review the movie.

F.X. FEENEY, FILM CRITIC, "L.A. WEEKLY": After all the smoke has cleared, it may be that this latest installment in the "Star Wars" saga has been anticipated to death.

All over the country, otherwise reasonable people have camped out on sidewalks in front of movie theaters for a month-and-a-half just to be the first to see "Episode One." Most of these folks actually have lives, even jobs. Many have laptops. All have cell phones.

Their passion is a panorama of friendly American fanaticism. At the high end, we have a genuine religious impulse. "Star Wars" promotes an orderly sense of the universe in which good triumphs over evil, in which worlds end and begin, in which life and death have transcendent meaning. At the low end, it sparks a passion akin to baseball fever, delivering powerful, cliffhanging excitements to large masses of people on a reliable basis.

I'm no fanatic. But I'm a fan. And I had a great time at "The Phantom Menace." I just wish the screenplay had a fraction of the strength and ingenuity that went into the picture's dazzling visuals.

"Star Wars" has become such public property over the last two decades that anyone who has followed the films with any enthusiasm is going to show up with a private possibly better episode one already sketched out in their heads. In order to see this movie clearly, you have to check your own at the door.

The story centers around a special boy named Anakin Skywalker, who will grow up to be the father of Luke Skywalker, hero of the other series. Born into slavery on a Sahara-like planet, Anakin is discovered by the Jedi knights, members of a space-going elite who keep order in the galaxy.

The boy, played boy newcomer Jake Lloyd, is sweet-natured, but a walking epicenter for that mysterious phenomenon called "the force." So much untapped power is concentrated in him that when he gets brought before the elders of the high Jedi council, his existence is cause for alarm.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: You refer to the prophecy of the one who will bring balance to the force.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: You believe it's this boy?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I don't presume to...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: But you do. Revealed your opinion is.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I request the boy be tested, master.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Oh, trained as a Jedi, you request for him?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Finding him was the will of the force. I have no doubt of that.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Bring him before us then.


FEENEY: Now because this is not a sequel but a prequel, a chronicle of the saga's beginning, those of us who know our "Star Wars" movies already know that this sweet boy will also grow up to be the evil Darth Vader. But if you've never seen "Star Wars," you'd never guess that the Jedi are right to fear this boy.

We're never shown that he has an unstable or dangerous side. If he'd been a bit more of a rascal, more of a wisecracking rebel, we'd be able to guess his potential for ourselves. As it is, we only know what we're told.

The idea that an otherwise sweet kid could grow up to become an evil monster is a potent theme nowadays. George Lucas has always been a conscientious producer of morality tales. He has always seemed painfully aware that teen attitudes to violence may have been shaped by the cartoon painlessness of all those light sabers and asteroid-blasting attack ships that were the birthmarks of the first "Star Wars."

Here, he comes within reach of doing more, of exploring every child's infinite potential for evil and good. But sad to say, he shrinks away from this. Even so, he's attracted an outstanding ensemble of players: Liam Neeson, Samuel L. Jackson, Yoda puppeteer Frank Oz.

Ewan McGregor plays the role pioneered by Alec Guinness, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Natalie Portman is the teenaged queen of a paradisiacal planet. And Terrence Stamp (ph) is the besieged head of a galactic government.

Alas, they're all beautifully dressed up with precious little to do. With the fate of the universe at stake, there could have been some mighty operatic interactions, conflicts, misunderstandings, reconciliations, tragic good-byes, all the stuff that can bind you to a character and make you feel those unpredictable combinations of awe, pity and terror.

For all its eye-popping delights, a special opportunity has been lost with "Episode One." It cries out for those inward effects that give any story an afterlife in the imagination.

GROSS: F.X. Feeney writes about film for the "L.A. Weekly."

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, D.C.
Guest: F.X. Feeney
High: Guest film critic F.X. Feeney of the "LA Weekly" reviews the new Star Wars film, "The Phantom Menace."
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; Lifestyle; Culture; F.X. Feeney

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: "The Phantom Menace"
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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