DATE May 10, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Author Orville Schell discusses his new book, "Virtual
Tibet," and the West's perception of Tibet
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Tibet has captured the imagination of Westerners for centuries. It's been
seen as the unreachable city, shrouded in mystery on the rooftop of the world;
a sacred place where monks can transcend the trappings of the physical world
and oracles can foresee the future. Since the '50s, much of Tibetan culture
has been destroyed by the Chinese occupation. My guest, Orville Schell, has
written a new book called "Virtual Tibet," about the place of Tibet in the
collective Western imagination and the fantasy versions that have been created
in our pop culture. Schell is a China scholar. He's also the dean of the
Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. I
asked him what the manifestations of Tibet were in American pop culture when
he started his book.
Professor ORVILLE SCHELL (Author, "Virtual Tibet"): When I started the book,
Hollywood was just beginning to gear up to do a number of films on Tibet.
There was "Seven Years in Tibet" and the story of Heinrich Harrer's seven
years in Lhasa during the war; Martin Scorsese was gearing up to do the story
of the Dalai Lama's early life in "Kundun." There were many documentaries
being made. Even Steven Seagal was playing an action pic. And I sort of
picked up on this and I thought, `Oh, this is interesting. It looks like
we're going to go through another sort of incarnation of the West's
fascination with this mysterious and interesting place.' And I thought,
`Well, I'm interested in Tibet, too, but maybe what I should try to cover is
not Tibet itself but this--our version of Tibet, what I like to call virtual
Tibet, and to try to look at it through these movies and through other aspects
of its manifestation, if you will, in popular culture and politics.'
GROSS: Why? To see what we want from a place like Tibet? What did you want
to do by looking at this virtual Tibet?
Prof. SCHELL: Well, I was very fascinated in Tibet myself, and I had fallen
under its spell as a young boy when I first read Heinrich Harrer's "Seven
Years in Tibet," which came out in the early '50s and, you know, this
wonderful story of adventure about this Austrian mountain climber who'd been
arrested by the Brits during the war, escaped from prison camp in India,
climbed over the Himalayas and spent two years making his way through
tremendously arduous circumstances to Lhasa, where he became the tutor to
Dalai Lama. And this created, for me, too, a sort of a childhood vision of
this marvelously detached other place that was tucked behind the Himalayas.
So I had been inoculated at an early age, like many people, with the idea of
Tibet. So--and, of course, I've had a longtime interest in China and I think
it's fair to say that what China has done to Tibet, its occupation, is one of
the great tragedies of this century. So there was sort of a double pale for
me. There was, one, the fantasy of this place and, two, then there was the
tragedy of Tibet and this incredibly intractable issue, which seems to brook
all efforts to resolve it, between China and Tibet and, indeed, Tibet's place
in the whole panoply of problems that China runs into in trying to become a
respectable power integrated into the world community.
GROSS: Why don't you place us briefly--when did China invade Tibet?
Prof. SCHELL: Well, in 1949 when the Communists took over the mainland. Mao
Tse-tung had Deng Xiaoping, who was in a military command adjacent to Tibet,
start to occupy the eastern regions and ultimately march all the way to Lhasa.
And it must be said that after that, almost every monastery in Tibet was
destroyed. But, indeed, the same thing happened in China. There was this
very violent militant reaction against traditional culture and it extended to
Tibet, which, of course, was the paradigm of traditional culture. And then in
1959, after an interregnum where there was a certain amount of cooperation
between China and the government of the Dalai Lama, things heated up again.
There was a rebellion and the Dalai Lama fled to India, where he has lived in
exile in Dharamsala ever since.
GROSS: Tibet has become an important place for Hollywood, not just because of
movies that Hollywood has made about Tibet, but also because a lot of
Hollywood stars have become very interested in Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai
Lama; particularly, of course, Richard Gere, who's been a Buddhist for about
25 years. And I think the Dalai Lama has even been to Hollywood functions.
Why do you think that the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism is making such an
impact on celebrities now?
Prof. SCHELL: Well, I think each gets something out of it. You know, the
celebrities are really questing for some sort of spiritual meaning in a
certain sense. I mean, celebrities are in the very center of this vortex of,
you know, commerce and money and business and deal-making. And I think many
of their lives lack a certain sort of spiritual quotient. The Dalai Lama, on
the other hand, I mean, he's looking for salvation for his people. And one
can hardly fault him for, you know, taking every opportunity to write a little
larger the story of what's happened to Tibet and Tibetans, and so he is--you
know, finds it compelling to go to Hollywood, to have these rich and powerful
people who have access to the media speak on his behalf and buddy up with him.
But there is a kind of a paradox involved because, historically speaking, one
of the reasons we've always loved the Dalai Lama and been so fascinated with
him, this sort of God-King notion is that he has been aloof. He has been
unapproachable. He has been tucked away in Lhasa and we couldn't get access
to him. And if there's anything that drives people to frantic levels of
enthrallment in Hollywood, it's, you know, not being able to get access to
Well, so here he is in Hollywood going to fund-raisers, which, as I say, one
can hardly fault him for doing, but at the same time, that sort of ineffable,
spiritual, aloof quality that has made him so interesting to people is, in
some sense, diminished. So he's kind of walking a really tricky tightrope
between too much availability and no availability, which is certainly bad for
his cause because his only avenue of appeal--he has no country, he has no
ambassadors, he isn't in the UN, so the only thing he can do is to be one man
making pleas to get exposure through the media.
GROSS: The West has idealized Tibet as a Shangri-La--you know, a utopian,
spiritual society. On the opposite side, we have China, which has not only,
you know, invaded Tibet and destroyed most of the temples there and imprisoned
many of the Buddhists there, but China has also described Tibet as a feudal
system, where the Dalai Lama ruled over exploited serfs. Is there any truth
at all to the Chinese point of view of Tibet having been a feudal system?
Prof. SCHELL: Yes. I mean, I think one would have to say that the old
system, even though people adored the lord Buddha and were held in a kind of
a--society was stable. There are not a lot of examples of rebellion and it
did function in a way, but, yes, the estates that were the fundamental kind of
building block of Tibetan society were controlled both by the monasteries and
by the aristocrats and ordinary Tibetans were in a serflike status, working on
these estates. And that's why when China looked up there and, having been
through the process of land reform itself, of liberating peasants and taking
land from the landlords and giving it to the peasants, they thought, `Well,
here's another good opportunity for us to bring Marxist-Leninist-Maoist
liberation theology to an even more benighted place.' And--I mean, this is
part of--the Western vision has a hard time incorporating the old society, the
brutal aspects of the old society in its new sort of veneration of what Tibet
was, and we look back very nostalgically at the way it was and like to
overlook the fact that it did have some tremendously unequal, exploitative
and, indeed, unjust aspects to it.
GROSS: My guest is Orville Schell and he's written extensively about China.
His new book is called "Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-La from the
Himalayas to Hollywood."
The geography of Tibet, as you point out, contributed to making Tibet so
mysterious and isolated, because it's surrounded by mountains. It's very hard
to get to. At the same time, Tibet wanted to remain isolated. Why did it
want to remain isolated for so long?
Prof. SCHELL: Well, it was a combination of Tibet not really knowing what
was in the outside world and feeling quite sufficient unto itself. Tibetans
were pretty content just to stay home, but it so happened that Tibet itself
became the object of the sort of exploratory curiosity of the West. And this
is a very sort of different cultural aspect that is a hallmark of Tibetan
society and culture and I think a part that makes us rather intrigued because
we are so inquisitive. We are so Promethean. We are so eager to conquer, to
explore, to reach out. And the West had colonies, the West had explorers, the
West had wars and Tibet was just sitting there quietly alone at home minding
its own business. And there was a--you know, it did intrigue us. It was the
antithesis of everything that we felt, and, you know, particularly in the '30s
as Europe and the West headed towards apocalypse and war.
Frank Capra's movie "Lost Horizon" came out and enshrined forever the notion
of Shangri-La in popular culture; one of the most powerful utopian mythologies
I think that we've had during this century. And it basically bespoke of a
place where people didn't get old, they didn't get sick, where everything was
peaceful and civilized and it was an intoxicating dream for the West, heading
into the nightmare of World War II.
GROSS: In 1904, there was a British mission that was sent to Tibet to try to
prevent Tibet from opening relations with Russia. And the force was sent off
by the British viceroy in India. It was led by Colonel Francis Younghusband.
He set off from India to Lhasa with, you say, about a thousand British and
Indian troops. They had guns; the Tibetans didn't. What were the results of
this in Tibet?
Prof. SCHELL: Well, the Younghusband expedition was a very sorry episode in
British imperial history. The British were fearful that Tibet, Lhasa, would
unite with the czarist government in Russia. And so they sent this
expedition. They battled their way through Tibet, killing thousands of
Tibetans, and they reached Lhasa and forced the Tibetans to sign an accord.
And what was really strange about this trip was that, as the soldiers are on
their way up, they're writing all of these diaries about Tibet and the
enormous sense of expectation at at last being the first people in a hundred
years to reach Lhasa is overpowering. They're so excited at the prospect of
getting to the heart of this mysterium. And, in fact, when they get there,
they see the Potala, the winter palace of the Dalai Lama on Red Hill, and they
were extraordinarily excited. But when they get into Lhasa itself, they find
it rather grubby and rundown and a lot of mangy dogs running in the street and
they find that the Tibetan theocracy is not quite as exalted in terms of
spiritual calories as they'd imagined; that it's, you know, quite bureaucratic
and sometimes quite oppressive. And they leave quite dispirited, but the fact
was that they did leave lots of accounts and it didn't dim the West's passion
for Tibet and the West's eagerness to imbue it with mythic kinds of
And then, of course, the mountain climbers came into the scene and...
GROSS: Yeah. The mountain climbers came looking for adventure?
Prof. SCHELL: Well, you know, Europe used to loathe mountains, but around
the 18th, 19th centuries, suddenly as landscape painting became interesting to
people and naturalism began to become more intriguing. You began to get a new
appreciation of mountains, not just as formidable and ugly and cold, but as
beautiful and pure and almost religious in significance. But, alas, the
British had no mountains. Their mountains, such as they were, were north of
India in the Himalayas. So they began to imbue the Himalayas with a whole
mysticism of its own, and mountain climbers then began to seek to conquer some
of these Himalayan peaks and you get lots of very, very purple--some of it
very good writing, actually, about the majesty of the Himalayas and the beauty
of the mountains, their purity and this, too, imbued Tibet with a more kind of
sacred quality than ever before. So this is a new element that got added to
some of the old ideas of Tibet as being just a spiritually dense and important
place. Suddenly it became a natural landscape that was very interesting to
Europeans and that added a whole new dimension which continues on today with
our fascination with Mt. Everest and our fascination with heights as being,
you know, close to heaven, close to God.
GROSS: My guest is Orville Schell, author of "Virtual Tibet." We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Orville Schell, author of "Virtual Tibet." Now the book
that got you interested in Tibet was "Seven Years in Tibet," by Heinrich
Harrer, the book that was made into a film a few years ago starring Brad Pitt.
You actually went to the set of the Brad Pitt movie. What was it about the
book that you loved?
Prof. SCHELL: Well, I think what I liked about the book was that it's a
great adventure story for a young boy. You know, Heinrich Harrer is two years
eluding bandits and eluding the militia of the Tibetan government and then
reaching this forbidden city at last and being taken in by this mysterious
God-King and becoming his friend. He was only a teen-ager then, the Dalai
Lama, and Auschneider(ph) and Harrer--Auschneider was Harrer's partner--were
just young men. So that did kind of, I think, plant the seed of a place that
had great magic and mystery for me. And so when I heard that "Seven Years in
Tibet" was being made, I thought, `Well, let's have a look.' And, indeed, I
was able to go down to Argentina, where they rebuilt Lhasa in the Andes. They
couldn't get to Tibet and the Indian government was so frightened of China's
reaction because this subject of Tibet is so sensitive that they wouldn't let
them shoot in Ladakh, where there are many Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. So
there, down on the Andes, Lhasa sprang forth full-blown, like, you know,
Athena out of the head of Zeus.
And they flew in a hundred and fifty Tibetans, including many elderly monks
from around the world. And when they arrived on the set of the Jokong(ph),
the most sacred, spiritual--it's a monastery, sort of a cathedral. It's hard
to describe exactly what it is in Western terms, but when they arrived at that
set, they felt as if they had arrived back home. And many of them hadn't been
to Tibet since 1959, when they fled. And they literally fell down, prostrated
themselves before this set; some weeping and others feeling tremendously
emotional with this kind of very curious homecoming. And then, ultimately,
they had a ceremony to bless the set.
GROSS: You make a lovely comparison in the book to Brad Pitt and Tibet in the
sense of how Brad Pitt has been kind of romanticized and all the fantasies
that his fans project onto him being so similar to how people have fantasized
so much about Tibet. I mean, one's just like a person, an actor, and the
other is Tibet, but still, I like that comparison.
Prof. SCHELL: When I was down in Argentina--you know, it sounds a little
corny to say, but there really was a feeling that, if that set, that virtual
set of Lhasa, had a God-King, it was Brad Pitt. I mean, he was not always
around. He was sort of aloof. He was hidden. I was told I couldn't see him,
I couldn't speak to him. The PR people said that if, in fact, I ran into him
on the set, I was in no circumstances to make a lunge at him and try to make
contact, so, for me, there did build up a kind of a counter-mythology of this
Hollywood God-King on his virtual Tibetan set. And I did see him down there,
but I didn't approach him and, ultimately, was able to interview him and, I
mean, I felt a little bit like Sir Francis Younghusband entering Lhasa. I
mean, it was a--Well, how to put it?--a bit of a disappointment to finally
meet this incarnation of the real Brad Pitt and to ask his views on Tibet and
his film, and they weren't that interesting. And so there was a kind of a
mythology there that was punctured and it kind of highlighted for me the ways
in which we do build up mythologies around people and places that are not
accessible and we can make of them what we will. And we do.
GROSS: Well, one thing I really admired about Brad Pitt when you interviewed
him is that, although his answers weren't necessarily, you know, very
interesting or revealing, he did make a point of saying, `I'm not a historian.
I'm not a politician. You know, there's a limit to what I know or can tell
you about Tibet. There's a limit to my opinions on Tibet.' I was glad at
least that he wasn't pretending to know a lot more than he did and pretending
to have wisdom that he didn't have.
Prof. SCHELL: Yeah. He was a nice person. And he said, you know, `Listen,
I'm just a guy who puts on makeup.' I mean, he wasn't trying to be very
oracular. And anyway, the film people had said it wouldn't do to say too much
because China at that point had been making big trouble against both
production companies by saying that they might be cut off and excommunicated
from the land of the living in China. Because, suddenly, China realized that
these films were like real offensive. Hollywood was sort of entering into the
whole arena of foreign policy and these films were going to have a fairly
substantial effect on how the outside world saw Tibet and saw China. So the
film companies didn't want a whole lot of politics heaped into the PR tours
and the junkets that actors and actresses were being asked to undertake by the
company. So they were trying to stay away from politics. But it was--yes,
Brad Pitt, when I finally met him, was an ordinary mortal, not a God-King.
GROSS: Orville Schell is the author of "Virtual Tibet." He'll be back 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.
Back with Orville Schell, author of "Virtual Tibet: Searching for
Shangri-La From the Himalayas to Hollywood." It's about the place of Tibet
in the West's collective imagination. Schell is the author of several books
about China, has written for The New Yorker and The Atlantic and is the dean
of the graduate school of journalism at the University of California at
Now while you were writing your book "Virtual Tibet," there was a new
development that was revealed about the author of "Seven Years in Tibet,"
Heinrich Harrer. And there was an Austrian journalist who revealed that
Harrer had been a Nazi, he'd been a member of the storm troopers. What impact
did that have on you as a great fan of his book "Seven Years in Tibet"?
Prof. SCHELL: Well, when I--I actually went to Austria to meet Harrer before
these revelations of his Nazi affiliations came out. And, you know, I found
him--I mean, it almost seemed to me that he had been interviewed so many times
that he was not only on automatic pilot, but he was sort of quoting his own
book rather than his own experience. It was a weird experience, and I felt as
if I didn't really kind of get to the heart of the matter.
Subsequently, when it was revealed that he had had this Nazi past, one began
to understand a little why he wasn't more reflective and introspective about
the whole experience. He wrote a very wonderful adventure book, but he didn't
really delve into his own, sort of, inner workings or his inner fascination
with Tibet or why he left Austria or didn't go back.
Prof. SCHELL: And, you know, it was a bit of a--it sort of besmirched the
whole dream of him as the archexplorer, you know, of an estimable quality
because behind in his past lurched this kind of dreadful Nazi past that had
been not acknowledged.
GROSS: You've met with the Dalai Lama. Many people who've met with him talk
about the impact it's had on them, being in the presence of this enlightened
spiritual leader. Did you feel a special presence that he had?
Prof. SCHELL: I think--you know, the Dalai Lama's really a wonderful person
in many ways. I do have great veneration for him. And I think the reason why
one feels all the more this power is that he constantly eschews the role of
God-King. He's constantly, sort of, almost self-denigrating himself and
trying to reduce himself to normal, kind of, mortal status. It's a very
ingratiating quality. And people have often remarked upon the fact that the
thing that makes him such a compelling person is that he seems to want nothing
but your happiness. And one can't say that so readily about many other
And, you know, the irony is that if one had to have an adversary, such as
China does, I mean, one could only dream of having an adversary like the Dalai
Lama, who is so reasonable and so, sort of, gracious and I think always
willing to try to see what it is that the other side if concerned about and
how to reconcile. He's a great reconciler. And the tragedy is that China
can't join, somehow, with this very compelling, very reasonable and practical
man. And that makes the tragedy of Tibet all the greater. Because here is
a--you know, a good leader with no country, whereas most countries have, you
know, a country but no leader.
But there's an opportunity here. And the fact that China cannot take it is a
kind of amazing--it's a source of huge frustration, I think, for the world at
large, for the Tibetans. And it's a great shame, because when he passes--and
he's now 64--the moment may pass when this extremely contentious and
sensitive issue could be joined in a way that might have a happy ending.
GROSS: You know, your book is about what the West has imagined Tibet to be,
and all the things that the West has projected onto Tibet, such as it's a
Shangri-La, it's a Utopia. China, which has, you know, occupied Tibet since
the '50s has destroyed so much of what was special and wonderful about Tibet.
But at the same time, I think by destroying it, it has made it even more
important to have these fantasies about Tibet because the real Tibet doesn't
exist anymore. And in that sense, there can't be an expedition that goes to
Tibet and is disappointed because we all know it's been destroyed by China.
So the Tibet that we revive in memory, there's no reality to contradict it
anymore. There's only history and memory.
Prof. SCHELL: Well, that's why Hollywood is so important in all of this.
You see--because in fact, the Tibet that we cared about, that we were
fascinated with when Heinrich Harrer went there was a Tibet that stopped in
the 1950s when China began to occupy it. And yet it's a kind of a testament
to the powerful yearning that we have to believe in this old place, that we go
on believing in it even though it isn't there anymore. And we believe in it
so deeply that having been denied it, we have to seek refuge in Hollywood
movies which we will recreate it in Argentina, or as in Martin Scorsese's case
And I think it does speak of, you know, a need for us as human beings to
believe that there is some place that has some real basis in the world, that
is--somehow it makes sense, some place where we can project our hopes and
yearnings for a society that works, that's humane, that's spiritual, that's
not subject to all the ambiguities of life as we know it. And this is a dream
that we, very reluctantly, will let go of. And that's why I think these
Hollywood movies were so important.
GROSS: Where do you see your role in all of this? Do you see yourself as the
realist, the person who is trying to perceive what Tibet really was?
Prof. SCHELL: Well, you know, you might well ask why did I bother to write
this? You know, many people will feel a little bit unhappy that I looked at
the mythology in a certain sense, I suppose. You could say I do puncture it a
bit. I guess I wrote it because it is such a powerful myth. And I think in
some way that's very hard to describe, that when myths enter real negotiations
and real foreign policy conflicts, it makes it very difficult to solve these
For instance--I mean, the Chinese just get apoplectic when they're confronted
with this, sort of, dewy-eyed, you know, view of Tibet, which they view as a
kind of a hellhole which they've gone in and cleaned up. And they get very
angry and they feel very beset upon. And it makes it very difficult for them
to be in any posture where they could make concessions or where they could, I
think, imagine solving this problem in any way that would make sense to us.
So in a certain, I guess one could say that I can't think of many places that
are more fraught with this sort of imagined fantasy life, and yet where the
stakes of higher in terms of the real international problems, with real people
and real suffering and a terrible history of brutalization. And where will it
all end? I don't know. But I suspect that it's--you know, it can't easily be
solved unless we do get down to a kind of reality about it.
GROSS: Has Tibet had any impact on your spiritual life, if that's not too
personal a question to ask?
Prof. SCHELL: You know, being--spending four or five years on this book and
being around a lot of Tibetan Buddhists and American Buddhists, I must say
that I find, you know, Buddhism a very compelling set of beliefs. There have
been relatively few wars waged by Buddhists. There have been a few, but
relatively few. And it's a very persuasive and kind of a gentle sort of a
religion that's enacted many teachings by the Dalai Lama. And I do feel a
close, kindred spirit in many ways. And I think it has influenced me in many
ways. Just how, I'm not quite sure. But it isn't a supernatural religion.
It's more a kind of prescription of how to be and how to treat your fellow
beings with compassion and with respect. It's pretty simple in that respect.
And one would have to say that the Dalai Lama's a pretty good representation,
I think, of what it is he preaches.
GROSS: Orville Schell, he's the author of "Virtual Tibet: Searching for
Shangri-La From the Himalayas to Hollywood." He's also the dean of the
graduate school of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.
Coming up, the editor of Kosovo's leading Albanian newspaper. He just
received a democracy award.
This is FRESH AIR.
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Interview: Veton Surroi, publisher of Kosovo's leading Albanian
newspaper, discusses his attempts to keep the paper functioning
during the NATO bombing and despite being sought by Serbian police
TERRY GROSS, host:
Veton Surroi publishes the leading Albanian newspaper in Kosovo, called
Koha Dotire. Last year, as the Serbs drove Albanians out of Kosovo, Serbs
shut down the newspaper's offices. During the NATO bombing, Surroi chose to
remain in Kosovo. But he was a target of the Serb police, so he was forced
into hiding. Last week, he was in Washington to receive an award from the
National Endowment for Democracy, which is funded by the US Congress to help
strengthen democratic institutions around the world. We caught up with him by
phone from New York yesterday just before he flew back to Kosovo.
Last August, after ethnic Albanians returned to Kosovo, he wrote a piece
condemning Albanian revenge attacks against Serbs. I asked him to sum up what
Mr. VETON SURROI (Publisher, Koha Dotire): Well, my basic idea was the
Kosovars having gone through collective persecution, institutionalized
persecution, should not allow themselves to be repeating the act of--against
which these rose in the first place.
GROSS: What kind of reaction did that piece get?
Mr. SURROI: I think, in general, the every day man, the people on the
street, they greeted me on that. But, of course, there were people who
publicly denounced me as a traitor or as a sold soul or--I don't know what
other words they use--were threatening my life. But then, that's part of
the--I think, of a traumatized society's life.
GROSS: Now you stayed in Kosovo during the NATO bombing. Why did you stick
around? I think you probably could have gotten out.
Mr. SURROI: Well, I had a responsibility. I had signed the Rambouillet
Accords in Paris. That meant that I will be responsible for the effects of
that signature. And I knew I was quite aware that if the Serbs didn't sign,
that there would be a bombing campaign. I thought it was only right for me to
be there with the other people--with my staff and with people, in general.
In that hardest period of time, I had fought very much for the signature of
the Rambouillet Accords.
GROSS: And that was meant to create a peace, although it ended up with
Mr. SURROI: It was. But then, the--then Milosevic didn't want peace or
didn't want a peaceful settlement.
GROSS: So you were hoping to continue publishing the newspaper. What
happened at the newspaper during the bombing?
Mr. SURROI: Well, in the first night, the paramilitaries and the secret
police raided our newspaper, and they killed our guards. Later--a day
after, they burnt our printing press. So it was quite the desolate picture.
GROSS: Is that why you ended up going underground, in hiding?
Mr. SURROI: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: Where did you stay? What kind of people were willing to protect you?
Mr. SURROI: Oh, people who knew me and whom I necessarily didn't know. But
there was a wide sense of solidarity in those days.
GROSS: Did you have any close calls?
Mr. SURROI: I had several close calls. We were once surrounded by police in
the home where we were staying. And we were very fortunate that after some
hours, they decided that it was desolate, that it was deserted. And they got
caught in looting. Actually, we were very lucky that some of the forces were
more interested in looting than in anything else. So whenever they found
things they could steal, they were concentrated more on that.
GROSS: So the corruption of the Serb forces worked in your favor.
Mr. SURROI: It did, yes.
GROSS: You've said it before, that you realized at some point you were
endangering the lives of the families that were protecting you because they
would be more of a target as long as you were there. When you had that
realization, were you sorry that you had stayed?
Mr. SURROI: There was a mixed feeling because I thought that by staying, I
could be of some help. I soon realized that not only couldn't I help anything
or anybody, but that I actually was in a position in which I needed to be
helped. And that helpless situation, obviously, wasn't a good feeling.
Neither was it a good feeling that I was endangering other people by myself
staying. And so I was caught during a good period of the time thinking about
GROSS: How did you feel about the NATO bombing when you were in hiding? Did
you feel like NATO was attacking you or that NATO was attacking your enemy?
Mr. SURROI: Well, I felt that it was insufficiently attacking the enemy. I
thought the bombing should have been much harsher. It should have been
concentrated on strategic positions of the Serb society.
GROSS: I'm not sure if you've seen it, but Newsweek broke a story this week,
saying that the bombing did far less damage to Serb forces in Kosovo than was
reported, and that, in fact, the air campaign against the Serb military in
Kosovo was largely ineffective. Newsweek says that according to a suppressed
Air Force report obtained by Newsweek, the number of targets verifiably
destroyed was a tiny fraction of those claimed: 14 tanks, not 120; 18 armored
personnel carriers, not 220; 20 artillery pieces, not 450. What do you think
Mr. SURROI: I was aware of that situation during the war. And I thought,
actually, that once they started attacking the objects of strategic importance
to the society as a whole, then that would change Milosevic. To put things in
the more ironical mood, Mr. Milosevic thought that he would be endangered
once the average citizen--middle-class citizen didn't have electricity to have
his espresso or cappuccino on the terrace outside because they were spending
this war watching from terraces and parks.
GROSS: Milosevic thought that--What?--that people would give up much quicker.
Mr. SURROI: I think he would have given much quicker had there been a
decisive attack on Belgrade--on and around Belgrade.
GROSS: When the NATO bombing of Kosovo was over, what was it like for you to
get the newspaper running again? The newspaper was shut down by the Serbs
during the bombing. You say that the guard for the newspaper was killed.
What did it take to get the newspaper running?
Mr. SURROI: Well, the newspaper was running during the war, but from refugee
camps in Macedonia. Most of the stuff was evicted from Pristina. And once
out, they decided that they would continue publishing now as refugees. So it
was a rather smooth transition to get them back from the refugee position to
the office. Of course, we had to go through the very painful experience of
starting to get new equipment, although we were supported in those initial
stages by Western organizations.
And then we had to go through building the new printing press. But the most
important thing was that we had preserved our staff and that none of
journalists or producing staff was killed.
GROSS: My guest is Veton Surroi, publisher of Kosovo's leading Albanian
newspaper. More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Veton Surroi. He publishes the
leading Albanian newspaper in Kosovo. And he just received the democracy
award from the National Endowment for Democracy, which is a non-profit,
bipartisan organization funded by Congress, with the goal of assisting
organizations abroad working for democratic goals.
Was your home damaged during the bombing in Kosovo?
Mr. SURROI: It wasn't. My home was not damaged. I was, I think, lucky
because it became the local police headquarters for my neighborhood.
GROSS: The Serb police?
Mr. SURROI: The Serb police, yeah.
GROSS: Oh, that's pretty ironic.
Mr. SURROI: It is very ironic. And I think they had--when I went into my
home, I saw that they had packed most of the valuable things, which they had
looted until then, including spoons and forks and what have you, but they
couldn't take those away because they left in a hurry.
GROSS: Did the place feel different to you? Did it feel creepy knowing it
had been used as Serb police headquarters? And let's add here that the Serb
police were looking for you the whole time you were underground; you were one
of the targets.
Mr. SURROI: Yeah. It was funny when I saw my door and it had a sign on it
saying `Local police headquarters.' And when I entered, I saw the place in
turmoil, more or less, because they had been looking for objects of value, and
documents and things like that. So I saw, actually, the past 15 years of my
and my family's life spread there out on the floor, our pictures and the
things we had gone through.
GROSS: Do you have any idea why the Serb police chose your home as their
Mr. SURROI: I don't know. They looked for me the first night, and when they
didn't find me--it was a special police unit--they went away and they got a
good friend of mine, a lawyer, Bidum Konvenday(ph), and his two sons and they
took them out of Pristina and executed them on a road. I think it was
probably a sign of--assertion of their authority that they would be in my
apartment rather than in some other apartments.
GROSS: What is the UN presence like now in Kosovo?
Mr. SURROI: The UN presence is at its peak. It won't get much stronger. It
is an unprecedented operation and there are very fine people who are trying
with very few means to try to pretend to be an administration. They are
trying to install themselves in institutions, trying to create new
institutions. But that is, again, trying to create a virtual reality, a
reality of Kosovo being administered by a Tower of Babel.
GROSS: Doesn't sound like you have a lot of confidence.
Mr. SURROI: No, not at all. No. I don't see them having built an
administration, and I don't see that they will build one in the future. I
think there needs to be a redefinition of the mission in the sense of not
trying to build the administration by themselves but nurturing the process of
GROSS: What do you think the chances are of Kosovo actually getting its
independence? What do you think it will take to become totally independent of
Mr. SURROI: Well, I think it will take, as I said, a process of deepening the
democratic institution-building process, transforming the economy, trying to
create better relations with the neighbors and certainly trying to create a
tolerant society. And I think Kosovo should be measured by those yardsticks
and not by one or the other news story.
GROSS: Do you think you're making any progress toward becoming a more
Mr. SURROI: I don't think so, because a tolerant society can be created only
through institutions. It is not sufficient to rely on goodwill of the people
to try to create tolerance. If you don't have courts and if you don't have
rule of law, if you don't have a functioning economy, it's very difficult to
see how you can create a tolerant society.
GROSS: Is there no rule of law now? Are things pretty anarchic?
Mr. SURROI: Oh, I don't think there is a rule of law. There aren't laws,
there aren't courts, functioning courts, there aren't sufficient policemen.
It's quite far from being a society ruled by law.
GROSS: Is it chaotic?
Mr. SURROI: It's rather anarchic, yes.
GROSS: You did mention in one newspaper article that people are stopping at
Mr. SURROI: Well, this is the self-restraint of the society. The society
still behaves in its majority with the assumption that it has to respect some
rules, and these are built-in rules which people have gone through either
inside Kosovo or outside when they were refugees, and it shows a positive
predisposition of the Kosovar society to actually build a society of rule of
GROSS: Are you still threatened by the Serbs? Do you think that there are
still Serbs who are trying to get you?
Mr. SURROI: Well, I would suppose that Milosevic will try to keep tensions
high, but then I don't think that's the major concern. And I think the major
concern is how to stabilize the society, how to institutionalize the society
and not really keep worrying about this man who's well-known for evil.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. SURROI: Thank you.
GROSS: Veton Surroi publishes Kosovo's leading Albanian newspaper. Last
week, he received an award from the National Endowment for Democracy in
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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