Skip to main content

The Political Unrest in the Balkans.

Steve Erlanger is the Central Europe and Balkans Bureau Chief for The New York Times. He reports from Prague, Czech Republic on the aftermath of the NATO bombings in Yugoslavia. During the war, he filed reports from Belgrade.


Other segments from the episode on July 15, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 15, 1999: Interview with Steve Erlanger; Review of Von Freeman and Ed Peterson's album "Von & Ed."


Date: JULY 15, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 071501np.217
Head: A Journalist's Account of the War in the Balkans
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.

Opposition to the Milosevic government has been mounting in Yugoslavia since the end of the Kosovo war last month. This week, thousands of protesters in Belgrade signed petitions calling for Slobodan Milosevic's resignation.

Yesterday, Montenegro began talks with Belgrade requesting autonomy. And earlier this week UN war crimes prosecutor Louise Arbour said she and her team of forensic experts may have collected enough evidence to add genocide to the war crimes charges Milosevic already faces.

Steve Erlanger has been covering the war and its aftermath for "The New York Times". He's their bureau chief for Central Europe and the Balkans. He was in Serbia and Kosovo throughout the NATO bombing. He's been on leave from Belgrade for the past 11 days and returns tomorrow.

I spoke to Steve Erlanger this morning from his office in Prague about the political unrest in the Balkans and how people there are adjusting to peacetime. I asked him to describe the mood in Belgrade when he left.

STEVE ERLANGER, CENTRAL EUROPE AND BALKANS BUREAU CHIEF, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, there is a lot of unfocused anger, a degree of shame also, about the loss of the war in Kosovo. In a way what bothered people more was how quickly it all ended. They thought it was going fairly well. People were tired of the bombing in Belgrade, to be sure, and they were getting tired of having, you know, no water and no electricity.

But the army seemed very much kind of undefeated. So, it ended in this very mixed way that made some people very angry and surprised some people. But the anger is pretty unfocused.

BOGAEV: They felt they were sold out quickly?

ERLANGER: Well, they felt in a way that for the result that was achieved it just wasn't clear to them that 80 days of bombing were worth the price, I think that's certainly one thing. Two, the government really didn't prepare them for such a quick capitulation and that's what it felt like to some people.

That the sort of government propaganda system, which is pretty good, had basically been pushing the line that things were going pretty well and people were full of solidarity. And, you know, to a great degree some of that was true.

I mean, that was certainly true of the army. When I was in Kosovo talking to people in the army, or even in Serbia when they would come home on leave, I found very little kind of defeatist talk. I mean, I thought they were doing pretty well.

But in the end, I think most people decided that Milosevic picked the moment that would probably best preserve his own power. And that it became clear once the Russians had joined with NATO in setting peace terms that there was very little real reason for Serbia to keep fighting, that the deal was likely not to get very much better.

And that Serbia was very much unlikely to be able to shoot down more NATO planes, and NATO seemed to be willing to bomb for even more months. So, it became a kind of giving in to the inevitable. That that had nonetheless created among many people, who after all, have now experienced their fourth loss in a war in the last 10 years or so, just a degree of kind of anger and despair -- Kosovo matters a lot to the Serbs.

BOGAEV: Apart from the protests; when you left, did the city feel as if it had come back to life?

ERLANGER: Oh, yeah. But, you know, it was a very funny thing in Belgrade. I mean, it's a very cosmopolitan place, and the bombing in a way was so routinized (ph). I mean, there was never any bombing of Belgrade, really, during the day because NATO was being careful.

And people in a funny way began to trust NATO's accuracy. So that, you know, NATO wasn't really hitting civilian areas except once in a while by accident. And when it happened it was very tragic, but, you know, during the daytime, you know, Belgrade moved around; people went to restaurants; there were these rock concerts.

You would hear planes go over, but no one seemed terribly afraid. People got used to that very quickly. But about four o'clock at night things began to close down and -- in preparation for raids that were likely to come that evening.

And certainly once the power went, and with power, much of the water, people's lives got kind of very focused on supplies and where they would wash and things like that. And yet downtown there really was the (unintelligible) of ordinary life.

There was a lot of celebration in Belgrade when the war ended. I mean, and it made some people very uncomfortable. I was actually in Kosovo when the war formally ended; when sort of NATO formally said it would no longer bomb.

And there was some resentment, I must say, in Kosovo at the celebration in Belgrade. Because there was a feeling in Kosovo among the Serbs and certainly among the soldiers that the reason Milosevic capitulated was that the soft people of the capital couldn't live without power and water for more than a few days.

BOGAEV: The UN war crimes prosecutor, Louise Arbour, visited Kosovo for the first time this week. She's accompanied by forensic experts in an effort to gather evidence of war crimes that would stand up in court. She said it was a possibility that Milosevic could be charged with genocide on top of other war crimes charges.

Now, you've seen some of these sites, the mass graves. What's your assessment of the viability of the evidence?

ERLANGER: Well, this is a very difficult question because I'm not a lawyer, first of all. And second of all, genocide, I think, is a word much misused. I mean, it does have a legal definition, which I couldn't give you off the top of my head.

But usually when I think of genocide I think of the Holocaust. And whatever happened in Kosovo, it wasn't the Holocaust. I mean, Albanians were not exterminated as a race. And a lot will depend, I think, in an odd way no matter how horrible each site, I think the scale in the end will matter. And we still don't have a very good idea of the size of the death toll.

And the stories are horrible, but it's also true that there was a war there. I mean, there was something called the Kosovo Liberation Army that was actually trying to fight the Serbs and killing Serb policemen and military. And this doesn't, you know, try to defend the way this war happened. Please don't misunderstand me.

But it wasn't altogether always a question of rounding up civilians and murdering them simply because they were Albanians. I think one has to be very careful, and we have to let the investigators do their work. There was a sort of military tactic to some of what went on in Kosovo, but the scale actually matters.

I mean, some American officials like William Cohen have talked of hundreds of thousands of deaths, which everybody now agrees is way too high and was propaganda from the American side. A British junior officer has floated a figure of 10,000 civilians dead in Kosovo.

And that probably seems closer to the truth, though he's not too sure of his evidence; no one else is either. But I think somewhere between, you know, 6,000 and 10,000 is the real figure, though it could be more.

I mean, we really don't know and no one that I talked to in Kosovo, and I've talked to them since too, seems to have a very clear idea yet. And I do think scale matters. For instance, in the Bosnian War the massacre at Srebrenica people think as many as 6,000 people died from that single massacre.

So, just to put the thing in scale, I think is important. And it's an important part of the question of genocide. Simply moving people out of a province isn't genocide. Genocide has to do with the extermination of a people. And I must say, in my own mind it's not clear.

BOGAEV: I know you're monitoring the situation in Serbia from your bureau in Prague. Do you have any sense of what kind of play Louise Arbour's visit is getting among the official media in Belgrade?

ERLANGER: It's not getting very much. I mean, what happens, you know, Louise Arbour was always considered a sort of enemy of the Serb regime. And they never let her into Kosovo. I mean, because the Serb argument was that her purview didn't reach into Yugoslavia itself, right?

Since Kosovo is, at least by law, a part of Serbia and hence a part of Yugoslavia. The Belgrade position was this was an internal affair and not a subject for Louise Arbour's court. Now, with the entry of NATO troops into Kosovo it was very easy for her to come.

And Washington and NATO had always argued that her purview did include Kosovo. So, she could come and the Serbs had no say in the matter. So, in general, the Serb reaction to charges of genocide and war crimes has been kind of aggressive and mixed.

But in the general population, when you talk to Serbs, there is a great deal more shame than I think other people credit them for. In other words, information was quite scarce because the media was censored, that's true. But a lot of Serbs also knew something terrible was going on in Kosovo.

And though they felt that the KLA had done terrible things too, many of them do recognize that what their own forces did went beyond the pale. The big question is how one turns that sense of shame, which can turn into defensiveness also, into political change.

And that's the problem for the Belgrade opposition right now.

BOGAEV: I'm speaking with Steve Erlanger. He's the bureau chief for Central Europe and the Balkans for "The New York Times". He was in Serbia throughout the bombing covering the war for "The Times." We're talking with him from Prague, where he's been for the last 11 days. He's returning to Belgrade tomorrow. We're going to take a short break and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.


BOGAEV: We're back with Steve Erlanger. He covers the Balkans for "The New York Times."

You said that the question is how the opposition will mobilize the changing attitudes of Serbs and the people of Kosovo towards the Milosevic regime. Who is organizing the protests? Who's behind it?

ERLANGER: Well, this is part of the problem. You know, the opposition is basically weak, and its own motives are questioned sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly by both the regime and by many people. There was a lot of disappointment in the winter of 1996-'97 when hundreds of thousands of Serbs turned out for 80 days in demonstrations against Milosevic.

And they were led, those demonstrations -- these two people emerged. A guy named Zoran Djindjic and a guy named Vuk Draskovic. And they were together united in a group called Zyedno (ph), which means "together."

And they forced through the regime to at least recognize their electoral victories in a number of municipalities. But as soon as that happened they started feuding with each other. Zyedno broke apart. They remained terrible enemies.

And that is part of what defines the difficulty of the opposition to Milosevic. As I said, there's a lot of very unfocused anger at the regime, you know, at the defeat of 10 years of destruction, of isolation, of a sense among young people that there's no future, of the immigration of some of the brightest people.

All that's happened under Milosevic, and at the same time Djindjic and Draskovic still are fighting each other to try to lead this opposition. And that's what's going on now. Sometimes I think Draskovic, who is going to lead a big demonstration -- he hopes it will be big -- on Saturday. And I'm going back there tomorrow.

This demonstration, one wonders, it seems to be as much aimed at Djindjic -- at defeating Djindjic -- and showing that he, Draskovic, should be the leader of the opposition, as it is aimed at the Milosevic regime. Which Mr. Draskovic actually took part in until the middle of the war.

BOGAEV: All reports point to the fact that the opposition groups have to unite to oust Milosevic. From what you're saying it sounds like the -- not a likely prospect.

ERLANGER: It's very difficult. I mean, Draskovic is a very mercurial figure. I mean, he does have a real taste for power. He was part of the Milosevic government. He was fired from the Milosevic government in part because he said some very sensible things in criticism of the regime and urging the war to be settled.

And a lot of people thought what he said made a lot of sense. And in fact he is, I believe, more popular among the population than any other opposition figure. At the same time, he's not really trusted by anybody. He's not trusted by the West. He's not trusted by his potential allies who used to be his allies.

And there is the sense people have that if Milosevic made him just a good enough offer that he'd go back into the government quite happily. In fact, there had been some talk that Milosevic would put together a transitional regime to kind of stave off calls for further change, making Draskovic Prime Minister.

But in the end he decided not to do that. I suspect he doesn't trust Draskovic either. So, you have this very sort of basically charismatic figure, but one who changes his mind quite a lot; who's both part of the opposition and part of the ruling elite. And no one's really sure where he's coming down, even now.

BOGAEV: How about the protesters? Before the war it was -- the opposition to Milosevic was mainly made up of intellectuals. Is it a broader based movement now?

ERLANGER: Well, I mean, there are a lot of people who are angry at Milosevic, but they've been angry at Milosevic for a long time. I mean, in the last election Milosevic didn't get much more than 20 percent of the vote anyway.

It's just -- it's a pretty solid 20 percent, and compared to the rest of the field he kind of looks like a titan. I mean, people like strong leadership in Serbia. It's sort of sad that that's, you know, this sort of Slavic love for a strong hand that we know from Russia.

And the Democrats are kind of considered a little effete and a little too intellectual and too urban and they speak too many foreign languages. And the problem they've also been having is that, you know, they are basically calling for the same sort of change that Western countries want in Serbia, and Western countries just fought a war against Serbia.

So, a lot -- there is a lot of anti-Milosevic feeling. There's a lot of desire for things to be different. What we don't have is a clear mandate for any one person to go make that change. And I fear most people think that Milosevic will defend his position as best he can; particularly so long as the army and the police hold together.

And that it will probably take violence for him to be thrown overboard. I'm not sure it can be done peacefully. And it's not clear to me that people are going to march into guns. Now, what we'll have to see, they marched peacefully, as I said, in the winter of '96 and '97 for 80 days. And Milosevic managed to split them.

I think the defeat in Kosovo means a lot. I mean, it means that Milosevic's position is much weaker than it was then, but it is not finished yet. And without a clear alternative, it is likely that change will come internally with some crony of Milosevic coming to power on a sort of Indonesian model. As it will come with a Caecescu (ph) overthrow, revolt; Milosevic and his wife strung up from a gasoline station like Mussolini.

I mean, you know, one -- anything could happen. But it seems to me right now that we've got months yet to run and it's too early to say that Milosevic is finished, though he's clearly on the ropes I think.

BOGAEV: What did people you talked to in Belgrade and in the villages of Kosovo think of the likelihood of more violence? Do they fear civil war?

ERLANGER: Well, Kosovo in a way has become almost a sort of different story. I mean, I think, you know, there is there, at least, a real concern about instability and chaos. NATO is only slowly establishing control. There aren't enough police there.

The KLA and the Albanians, though many of them have good reason to be quite angry, have basically been able to push out even innocent Serbs under the eyes of NATO. Now, one could say all Serbs deserve it, but NATO's intentions certainly were to be fair to all the communities living inside Kosovo and to try to protect the innocent.

So, that hasn't happened. So, there's a lot of nervousness in Kosovo just separate. In Belgrade there's a lot of talk about civil war, but there's a lot of talk about a lot of things. I don't see it yet. I mean, I don't see people, you know, marching on Belgrade with guns or marching into the face of the police. I don't see the police breaking yet.

It could happen, particularly as the autumn comes and the winter comes and isolation continues. And there's less electricity and nothing's changing. But it's a very fluid set of circumstances.

And there's -- we keep coming back to the problem of leadership. The opposition is a loose collection of small parties full of kind of very selfish leaders who don't like to cooperate with one another. Who think they should all be the messiah. Who seem really incapable of pulling together a lot of popular support.

I mean, I'm very struck that there was one electrician for a television station, really a technician in the town of Leskovac, who put together his own protest tape. And more people turned out in Leskovac about that than turned out in Chachak (ph), which is run by the opposition, for an opposition rally.

Now, that has to tell you something. This may all change down the road, but for the moment it's an indication people are angry. But they're not necessarily willing to come out because this or that politician asked them to come out.

BOGAEV: Steve Erlanger is "The New York Times" bureau chief for Central Europe and the Balkans. We'll hear more of our discussion in the second half of the show.

I'm Barbara Bogaev and this is FRESH AIR.


BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev.

We're continuing our interview with Steve Erlanger, "The New York Times" bureau chief for Central Europe and the Balkans. He was stationed in Belgrade throughout the NATO bombing campaign. We talked with him this morning from his office in Prague, where he's been on leave for the past 11 days. He returns to Belgrade tomorrow.

Steve, much of your reporting in the aftermath of the war was on the experiences of returning refugees facing the evidence, memories of murder. Of people having literally to clean the blood from the walls of their burned or looted homes.

What affect has your contact with these people had on you?

ERLANGER: Well, the whole experience has been blistering. I think that's probably the best word to use. I mean, I've covered wars before, and I covered the Chechen war from inside Chechnya. And I must say in terms of physical horror that war was worse, but it was inside Russia. And, you know, we were trying to protect President Yeltsin and we certainly weren't going to bomb Moscow over it.

This war is very personal. It really is a terribly ancient conflict. It didn't happen yesterday. It didn't start yesterday between two tribes, really, who have very little in common culturally or ethnically -- the Albanians and the Serbs -- over the same piece of land.

I mean, in that sense it probably has, you know, it's more akin to the Palestinians and the Israelis even though in some ways that's only a post-World War II phenomenon. And Kosovo and the Balkans have always had kind of cycles where one side's been up and one side's been down.

And neither side has ever been very good at compromise. I mean, in the Balkans it really has been, and in Kosovo certainly, I rule you or you rule me. Nobody's been very good at sharing sovereignty. This is a Western notion, this is what we're trying to impose on people now. If there are any Serbs left to protect inside Kosovo.

It is not a notion that's very interesting right now to either the Albanians or to the Serbs. So, dealing with the kind of personal nature of this is very important. It's a bit like Northern Ireland, each death in a way is one person shooting another person. It's not really the sense of, you know, one bomb hits lots of people and they die.

So, the stories are wrenching, and I found them very, very moving. There's one day in particular, I mean, and I had been, you know, doing this war for over three months and had seen, you know, the bomb damage both inside Serbia and inside Kosovo. And I'd seen blown-up people from both sides and shot people from both sides.

And I had gotten to Pec in Western Kosovo before NATO arrived. It was early in the morning before the first Italian troops arrived in Pec. And Pec is a destroyed city. It looks like post-apocalyptic place. And every Albanian residence had been burned or looted.

And I had gone down a sort of devastated street -- the place was nearly empty of people of any kind because the Serbs were fleeing; a few old people huddling around amid the rubble. And this old lady I saw down at the end of a street who sort of called me in and kissed my hand. I was the first foreigner that she had seen.

And she took me and my Albanian interpreter inside her squalid little place and began to talk about her life and what the Serbs had done to her. And then showed me the spot where the Serbs had cut the throat of her son.

And so there's a very extraordinary kind of moment and we went outside finally, and then she took me across the street to another burned house and showed me new graves in the garden that had just been the result of Serb murders of Albanians only two days before.

And then I went to the Pec patriarchic, now that's Serb Orthodox monastery. It's kind of like the Vatican. And talked to a Serbian Orthodox priest about what had happened in Pec. And some Serbs were huddling inside the monastery fearing for their lives.

He had his black kosic, long black beard, sort of nice looking fellow -- in tears, afraid for his life. I asked him if the Kosovo Liberation Army had yet appeared in Pec, and he looked at me with sort of staring eyes and said, "you get into a car with any Albanian civilian and you will find them."

And then I began to ask him about families and what had happened to families. And he admitted some shame and horror at what he'd seen. And then I asked about his own children, and he began to cry openly, brokenly; gave me their names and ages and said he was afraid he would never see them again.

So, this was, you know, all in the space of about three hours. And the theme of tragedy, of history, coming down and beating people on top of the head cutting short lives of all kinds. The sort of nature of fear which eats everything inside people.

I mean, this is what war does, and this is what this very personal war does. And it had its impact on me.

BOGAEV: Talking to returned refugees, has it been your experience that it's a recurring theme that the true violence and the overwhelming number of Serb atrocities began with the NATO bombing? Is the blame placed on NATO?

ERLANGER: I think there is complicity. The blame has to be in Belgrade. The moral responsibility is in Belgrade. The question one asks oneself and, you know, in general is true. That is the burden of my reporting, that after March 24 when the bombing started the real atrocities began.

Now, that's not to say there wasn't fighting before and certainly people were being pushed out of their homes before. But something cracked in the Serbs, or the bombing was the go-ahead for what seems by its scale to have been a rather planned effort to drive the civilians out of villages and to go after the KLA in the most brutal fashion possible.

And there's no question that happened once the bombing started. The real question in my mind is, was this war necessary? Was there a diplomatic solution possible? Did the West negotiate in good faith?

Did it understand what Kosovo meant to the Serbs? Did it understand what Kosovo meant to Milosevic and his own political life, also? Did NATO -- was it prepared for the war? Were there any tents on the border? Did it have a plan for the war? Did it even want the war?

Even worse, why did it take 80 days to win the war against a country of 10 million people that couldn't even shoot back? How many people died because NATO took so long to finish the war? Was it a mistake to rule out ground troops? Would it have been better to have the ground troops in place before the bombing started?

These are all perfectly legitimate questions which I think in a democratic society must be asked, and which our officials need to begin to answer. It's not enough to say horrible things happened, hence the war was just.

Many of the horrible things happened once the war began. And NATO is incapable of stopping those horrible things from the air. It actually made them worse. NATO was never going to lose this war, but there is a very real question over whether the way it was fought created more deaths and more pain and more misery than would have been necessary through a diplomatic solution of another kind.

Those, to me, are legitimate questions.

BOGAEV: Another journalist, Eve Ann Prentice (ph), who we interviewed on this program, said that after she had seen areas in Kosovo after the war that were most heavily bombed; she thought that once that area was opened up to the massive television coverage and the world at large saw those pictures, that they would feel that there was more that could have been done by NATO to avoid civilian casualties.

Do -- what's your feeling about, I guess, an international NATO backlash?

ERLANGER: Well, I think NATO as a military went to extraordinary efforts to avoid civilian casualties. Civilian casualties are inevitable. You can't fight a war without them. You know, at the same time it's very intriguing to me, though we don't have real figures, but I believe more Serbian civilians died in NATO bombing attacks than Serbian military in Kosovo.

Now, again, hard to prove. But my own suspicion is that 1,200 to 1,400 civilians died in NATO accidents. And because basically Serb troops had done a lot of what they'd wanted to do and were pretty dug in and were not moving on the roads in great numbers probably, you know, 2,000, 3,000 at the most military casualties, not all of them dead.

So, you know, those are serious questions. But I do think NATO really did go out of its way not to throw bombs around indiscriminately. There were very few "dumb" bombs used, mostly bombs used were guided bombs. There were tragedies -- there were terrible tragedies.

I mean, I was one of the first on the scene of this train that had been rocketed in a town called Gerdolica (ph). It had been rocketed twice. And both times I believe by accident. I don't think the pilot went after the train, but it was horrible nonetheless. The pilot was going after a bridge.

So, I don't sort of buy into this notion that NATO is indiscriminate. I do believe there was something odd about this war. NATO didn't really mean it to be a war. It was more like a police action from the sky. And there was this incredible disconnect which made me morally queasy between the rhetoric of Washington and London in particular, i.e. the "Hitler of the Balkans" and the willingness of the governments to commit men and resources to defeat this evil.

If it was so evil, surely it was worth a few American lives to stop it. But not from Washington's point of view. I mean, the thing they seem proudest of is that no American troops died in combat. And Clinton seems most relieved never having had to use American ground troops.

But, you know, then if that's true I think one has to be much more careful about calling things Nazi-like and Hitler-like, if one wants to keep one's self-respect at least as a government.

BOGAEV: My guest is "New York Times" reporter Steve Erlanger. We'll be back with more after the break.

This is FRESH AIR.


BOGAEV: My guest is Steve Erlanger. He's the bureau chief for Central Europe and the Balkans for "The New York Times".

Where do things stand now with the demilitarization of the dissolution of the Kosovo Liberation Army -- the KLA?

ERLANGER: Well, it's very slow. I mean, you always have this basic logical difficulty whereby NATO turn the KLA into allies. It actually happened before the war at Rambouillet, as they became diplomatic allies. And yet the whole Western position contradicted the KLA's clear ambition, which was to have an independent Kosovo.

So, inevitably there's a clash of goals here. I mean, NATO is trying, at least it says it, and I believe it's trying, to put together a peaceful multiethnic Kosovo where all the citizens of that province can live in democracy and security and peace. That's the noble aim.

It's going to take quite a while and it's going to take a lot of troops and they're going to have sit there for quite a long time. Now, the KLA has been willing to, you know, demilitarize. That's not the same as disarm.

I mean, the KLA never had a lot of military equipment. I mean, it wasn't an army to speak of. It didn't have a lot heavy equipment. It didn't have howitzers. It didn't have tanks. It didn't even have armored personnel carriers.

What it had was basically a civilian/peasant army with lots of kaloshnakovs (ph). Well, people in Kosovo have always had personal kaloshnakovs, and people from the KLA will be allowed to keep their personal kaloshnakovs. And the ones who have more than one hid, hid the other one in the barn.

And NATO is doing very little to take the guns away. What it is doing is it is asking the KLA not to wear its uniforms, not to wear its badges, not to march around as units, not to look like an army. In other words, to be as unmilitary as possible.

But not to disarm it, and that's, I think, a crucial distinction. That's one of the reasons the Serbs get nervous. Because there are a lot of guns in Kosovo and there are a lot of guns in the hands of, you know, perfectly sincere Albanian fighters who had good reason to be fighting, but who want an end which is independence which is not want the West wants. And who regard this NATO period as an interim period -- as a sort of interlude before their struggle for independence begins once again.

BOGAEV: You're in Prague now. You've been, what, on leave for 11 days? And are returning to Belgrade tomorrow. You were present all during the NATO bombing in Belgrade. Is it hard for you to go back? Are you still jumpy from your experiences?

ERLANGER: No, it's not so hard. I'm not really rested, I think that's the problem. I wrote, I think, almost everyday. I must have missed two or three days only in more than three months. And some days I wrote twice a day.

And I was in Kosovo as well under the bombing, and I went to Kosovo again as the war was ending. And I visited, you know, almost every place where NATO bombs fell on civilians by accident, and some of those things were pretty awful.

And it was very difficult, you know, managing the politics of being an American reporter in a country at which, you know, which was at war with America. That was also kind of an emotional -- an intellectual strain. Because one had to be sort of careful of the way one behaved in public.

It's not that you pulled your punches in your stories, particularly, though one always thinks about, you know, exactly what shouldn't get away with, But, you know, it was intellectually tiring too. So, it's been helpful to have a break, but, you know, I've been thinking about it quite a lot and talking to people quite a lot. It still enraptures me as a story. The story isn't finished.

I have a lot of friends in all sides of the conflict. I'm curious to see how they're doing. And I'm curious to kind of get back into the story.

BOGAEV: You're going back to Belgrade tomorrow, do you already have an agenda for your first story?

ERLANGER: Yeah. There is a demonstration that Vuk Draskovic has called on Saturday, and it's basically the first big demonstration that he's thrown his support behind. And it is intended, I think, to be a challenge to the other democratic oppositionist group called the Alliance for Change.

And it's something I want to go look at and try to judge and talk to him about it. And just begin to kind of get my own sense of where this is going to end.

BOGAEV: It's natural, I suppose now that the war is over, that much of the reporting you're doing on Serbia is political -- about the politics as opposed to the stories of how people adjust to peacetime, you know, the news moves on. But I imagine though you must very much identify with people who have trouble adjusting and getting over their wartime experience.

Is it hard to switch gears, to focus on the politics?

ERLANGER: Well, in a way yes and no. On some level it's kind of a relief. I mean, watching people in real turmoil in the midst of naked tragedy when they for the first time come to grips with the death of a loved one, whatever.

I mean, that pulls good journalism out of people. It's almost bound to, but you always have the problem of making tragedy stand for something. And I think, you know, and also of representing it in a way that doesn't sentimentalize it and that doesn't call too much attention to the writing. I mean, that lets the sort of episode and the people become real without the writer getting in the way.

And that's something I've cared about quite a lot. At the same time, it's something of a relief too, but also intellectually almost as interesting to talk to people about what happens now. I mean, there's a society which is in turmoil. There's a government which looks very weak. There's an opposition struggling to do the right thing, if it can figure out what that is.

There are lots of ambitious personalities at play. There's a lot of post-war trauma to explore and write about. And in Kosovo itself, there are lots of legal and moral issues that remain open as people begin to rebuild their lives.

So, there's a lot of good work to do, I think.

BOGAEV: Well, Steve, thanks very much for talking with me on FRESH AIR. And good luck returning to Belgrade.

ERLANGER: Well, thanks a lot.

BOGAEV: Steve Erlanger is "The New York Times" bureau chief for Central Europe and the Balkans.

This is FRESH AIR.

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

Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Washington, D.C.
Guest: Steve Erlanger
High: Steve Erlanger is the Central Europe and Balkans bureau chief for "The New York Times." He reports from Prague, Czech Republic on the aftermath of the NATO bombings in Yugoslavia. During the war he filed reports from Belgrade.
Spec: War; Violence; Refugees; Europe; World Affairs; Media; 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: A Journalist's Account of the War in the Balkans

Date: JULY 15, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 071502NP.217
Head: A Review of "Von & Ed"
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:50

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: Critic Kevin Whitehead says jazz fans from Amsterdam to Adelaide know who Von Freeman is. So do folks in Chicago where the tenor saxophonist is a hometown hero for his blues drenched tone and playful attitude.

But in most of the U.S. Kevin says Freeman isn't nearly as well known as he should be. He's recorded few albums, mostly for small labels, and until recently the 76-year-old turned down travel offers so he could look after his mother.

Kevin says to his ears, Von Freeman is one of the real jazz heroes of our time.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, JAZZ CRITIC: Von Freeman. That's from the CD, "Von & Ed," a two saxophone showdown from the Delmark label. There's nothing remotely fancy about it, just a long jam session on five tunes you've heard a million times. No matter.

Freeman is a genius is a with a tenor saxophone, and one way to get him going is to face him off with another tenor player. In this case, Ed Peterson, a fellow Chicagoan, now living in New Orleans. I like this loose studio session better than Von's other new CD, "Von Freeman's 75th Birthday Celebration." Which is really a club date by his son Chico Freeman's band with Pop sitting in.

Von Freeman at his best plays tenor with more wit and cunning than just about anybody. He has an oddly muted tone and a way of articulating every note in a very fast line. At least until the line accelerates into a blur too fast to follow. Then Von seems to crossover from bebop master to free jazz anarchist, and that ambiguity is a big part of his charm.

He has the damnedest way of going so far out on a limb, you figure this time he's got to fall.


WHITEHEAD: For Von Freeman, jazz is an opportunity to test your wits against yourself, your fellow musicians and your listeners. He loves to mess with other players on the bandstand, but he's never mean about it. The relaxed Chicago rhythm section on the CD "Von & Ed" suits him; that's pianist Willie Pickens (ph), bassist Brian Sandstrom (ph) and drummer Robert Shied (ph).

Von's sparring partner here, Ed Peterson, is a very good saxophone player who is obviously not intimidated. But hearing the two tenors back to back is a case study in generational differences in jazz, which as usual nowadays favors the old-timer.

On these quick exchanges Von's elusive approach is easy to pick out from Ed Peterson's hard and Coltrane-like delivery. Von goes first.


WHITEHEAD: Baby boom jazz musicians like the 40-ish Ed Peterson mostly learned to play by studying the specific choices their jazz heroes made. Von Freeman came up in the 1940s when every serious jazz musician aspired to develop a personal distinctive sound.

Yeah, but, Von has also had the advantage of growing over the long haul, getting more foxy as the decades roll by. You can bet that example is not lost on Ed Peterson. For now, he has our thanks for drawing Von out.

If you're in Chicago late on a Tuesday night, please go down to the New Apartment Lounge where Von hosts the weekly jam session. If you can't be there, this CD will have to do.

BOGAEV: Kevin Whitehead is the author of "New Dutch Swing." He reviewed the new CD "Von & Ed" on the Delmark label.

For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.

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

Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Washington, D.C.
Guest: Kevin Whitehead
High: Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews the new album "Von & Ed." It features tenor saxophonists Von Freeman with Ed Petersen. A CD Whitehead says showcases the generational differences in jazz between baby boomer Petersen and Freeman, who developed his style in the 1940's.
Spec: Entertainment; Music Industry; Lifestyle; Culture; Von Freeman; Ed Peterson; Kevin Whitehead

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: A Review of "Von & Ed"
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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue