My first thought, as I was just nodding off to sleep in my Belgrade hotel room, was, "Was that a knock on my door?" A second pounding - this one more firm - convinced me it was. I had a feeling I was about to live through a chapter in a bad Cold War spy novel. And I was.
"Room service," said the man in the hotel uniform as I peered through the door's eyepiece. "I didn't order room service," I said, already suspicious that this was "service" of a very different type.
In fact, it was "secret service."
"State security! Open door!" said the gruff voice, belonging to someone who was just out of my range of vision.
I opened the door, and two leather-jacket-clad officers of the Yugoslav state security apparatus burst into the room, flashing an official-looking badge and exposing automatic pistols stuck in their belts.
"You come with us," the more civil one said. "No questions. No telephone. This is war. You come," he added.
The other one just looked threatening and breathed out alcoholic fumes, always a bad sign. I got dressed, packed my bag, and was frog-marched down to the lobby.
They thrust two of us (myself and Peter Finn of The Washington Post, who also had been arrested) into the back of an unmarked Yugo, locked the doors, and sped off into Belgrade's dark night.
It was an unnerving ride. Only after about ten minutes, when we pulled up outside a police station at about 4 a.m., did I relax a little, thinking, at least, this was an official detainment.
Throughout the evening, armed gangs of irregulars had been cruising the hotel, accosting journalists and confiscating equipment. Being dragged off by any of those gangs could have had unpredictable consequences.
Even with the official security service's reputation for slapping first and asking questions later, I felt we were at least in official hands and were probably just going to be expelled from Yugoslavia instead of something worse.
|Read and Watch Mark Phillips' Gripping Account of a 1998 Massacre in Kosovo|
"We might have to take a few shots," Finn said. And there were times I thought we would.
For the next five hours, we were left to stew in isolation on hard benches in a corridor of what appeared to be the enforcement police offices of the Ministry of the Interior. Then the inquisition began.
Three obviously angry operatives of the security services grilled us individually.
"Do you have any guns?"
"Who did you talk to?"
"Who worked with you?"
"What have you been reporting?"
"How do you get your information?"
The questions, one after another, were designed, it seemed to me, to test whether our journalistic credentials were legitimate, whether we were connected with any opposition movements, whether we were spies.
With each answer, they became more frustrated. They wanted some target for their mounting anger, and I was the only one they had.
"Why are you attacking us, attacking civilization?" they kept asking, as if I were somehow an instrument of American foreign policy.
"I'm just a reporter," I kept saying, the journalistic equivalent of name, rank, and serial number.
At the most intense moment of the inquisition, the unhelpful wail of the air-raid siren went off over Belgrade. They looked at me with what I took to be increasing menace.
"You see what you're doing to us," they said.
"Why am I," the senior one asked, "someone who likes American rock music and wears jeans and Levis, so furious with you now?"
I said I could understand how he felt. But I was the wrong target for his anger.
"My work takes me to many war zones," I tried to reasonably suggest. "It's always tragic. But when I'm here, I'm exposed to the same risks as you."
It didn't seem that this had occurred to them before.
I don't know what convinced them that I was just an unwanted journalist and not an enemy of the state to be locked up. But they then plunked me back on the unforgiving bench (with which I'd developed an intimate relationship), and I waited a few more hours.
At about 2:30 in the afternoon, about 11 hours since that fateful knock on the door, Finn and I were unceremoniously dumped into the back of a locked, barred Serbian Militia van and driven off. Only a half hour later, we were told we were being taken to the Croatian frontier, where we were simply dumped.
A CBS employee from Zagreb, who had been thoughtfully dispatched to the border crossing in the hope I might show up there, arrived minutes later.
I had had a glimpse of the thick end of the Serb security truncheon. It had been raised agains me, but its infamous force had not been brought to bear in anger.
And I thought I had had a lucky day.
Reported by Mark Phillips©1999 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed