The Serb lady who cleans my room in this two-star hotel with five-star pretensions wasn't her usual cheery self Wednesday morning.
Desperately groping for words in English, German, and Serb, and with graphic sign language, she managed to ask the questions everyone here wants answered:
"Will they hit the city?"
"Will my children be safe?"
With no previous experience, and only the rumor mill and the overheated rhetoric of their politicians to go by, ordinary people here wait in an air of palpable tension for Â… they know not what.
That the NATO targets will be military, not civilian, is not something they really know, or would believe even if they did. And, given that the U.S. strikes against mud-huts the CIA helped build in Afghanistan involved one missile hitting Pakistan, maybe they aren't so paranoid after all.
Ethnic Albanians are the most fatalistic, taking the attitude that whatever happens to them, "at least," as one man said, "the Serbs are going to get it, too."
Whatever else the threat of NATO air strikes may or may not do to the diplomatic process, one thing they have already done is unite Serbs. Even those who openly despise Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic and everything he stands for agree with his defiance of the West over Kosovo.
Behind the bravado and stubbornness lies a single conviction, and it is one with which NATO will be hard-pressed to counter or ignore: Yugoslavia is a sovereign nation, with internationally recognized borders, and what it is doing in Kosovo falls within those confines. Foreigners need not apply for participation.
That translates into an increasingly ugly mood in a place where civility is a veneer at the best of times. Foreigners, especially the press, and most especially TV, are prime targets of Serb anger. Flushed with nationalism and their new-found spirit of united defiance, soldiers and police routinely make obscene gestures when they spot press vehicles. Our thin defense used to be the white, often armored, Landrovers we drive, with "TV" taped in large letters on the side. Now they single us out as targets.
While videotaping the distribution of .S.-donated food aid in a ruined ethnic Albanian town, we were accosted by a passing police patrol. To illustrate that everything is useful to refugees, cameraman Paul Douglas and soundman Phil Sparks were taping people warming themselves around a fire they had made out of empty aid boxes.
The policeman took our tape at gunpoint, saying we would use the pictures to claim it was a burning house. That we had merely to drive down any road to see real houses burning didn't seem to occur to him. We got the tape back, but only after a tense quarter of an hour and a threat to follow him to his base and speak to his commander. He wasn't impressed by our claims that we had local accreditation and Serb press cards.
Accreditation for Kosovo, which consists of a sheet of paper with names, jobs, and passport numbers of those travelling together, used to be obtained in a jolly session over coffee in an office in central Pristina. This time, it was a case of being herded together in one corner of the entrance to the ministry building by a fuming minor functionary, and then a slow procession, two by two, into an office for the paper process.
Journalists are also now required to report to a local police station, where an unsmiling official checks entry visas against a list that has been forwarded from Belgrade. The bureaucracy of the old police state that was Yugoslavia still functions immaculately.
The police roadblocks are now at the edge of Pristina, and it's a crap shoot as to whether or not you can find one that will let you through. A British TV crew who slipped out early one morning spent more than an hour having to argue and talk their way back in at the end of the day. Other crews have had tape seized, and one reportedly had a camera smashed.
What will happen with air strikes is constant subject of speculation. One thing everyone agrees on: If we are allowed onto the streets and into the countryside, being out there is not going to be fun.
And will NATO air power make any difference? Oh, yes. Serbs and ethnic Albanians alike agree it will almost certainly make for open season for retribution.
The professed aim is to "save" the ethnic Albanians from the violence being visited upon the by Serb security forces. How cruise missiles and smart bombs are supposed to keep hate-filled nationalists from killing people in isolated villages is something the military planners have yet to explain, however.
And even if it does, the way things are going here, you're unlikely to see many pictures of it.
Reported by Allen Pizzey