War in Europe: Briefing with the enemy

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The Independent Online
At Nato's afternoon press conferences, defence correspondents and reporters from the British and American TV networks invariably get to pose the questions. But one discordant voice has stood out throughout the 39-day air campaign: that of Dubravka Savic from Belgrade's Vecher- nye Novosti, or Evening News.

Perhaps to demonstrate Nato's commitment to pluralism Jamie Shea, its chief spokesman, will usually invite a question from Yugoslavia's press representative. And, when he calls out the name "Mrs Savage" (as she points out, Ms Savic is, in fact, unmarried) the rest of the world's media sits back for a now familiar ritual.

It normally follows the pattern of this recent exchange.

Ms Savic: "Two nights after my question about the ecological catastrophe which threatened Belgrade, your military people targeted Baric which is a chemical factory 15km from the centre of Belgrade, very dangerous, as a new ecological catastrophe. Could you please comment on your targets?"

Mr Shea: "Well Mrs Savage, all that smoke and 500 burning villages and towns and cities in Kosovo can't be doing the upper atmosphere and ozone layer a great deal of good either and, of course, we also have, inside Kosovo, a scorched earth policy in terms of dead cattle, wasted land and disease coming from a number of unburied corpses which, too, is going to be a health hazard potentially for some time to come."

If we needed a reminder of the weirdness of the Balkan war, Ms Savic's presence at Nato headquarters in Brussels is a good one. The public is used to CNN and the BBC reporting from the scenes of allied bombing campaigns, from Tripoli via Baghdad to Belgrade, but things do not usually operate the other way around.While the Gulf War raged, Iraqi journalists never got within miles of General Norman Schwarzkopf.

This time a reporter from the country being bombed has been able to quiz the generals responsible, up to and including Nato's Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General Wesley Clark.

By her own admission, this has made Ms Savic an interesting figure in a polyglot press corps made up of a huge range of nationalities. "My colleagues here are curious", she says, "I feel a little bit like an exotic animal."

But she is not particularly impressed with the results of her journalistic endeavours. She cannot, she concedes, complain about Mr Shea's behaviour because "he is giving the opportunity to pose the question". But, she adds: "He uses the answers to say what he's obliged to. In fact there is not much point posing the questions when you get predictable answers." As for General Clark, she is not intimidated by the thought of questioning Nato's top general but finds the language he uses "cruel".

Sitting in Nato's cavernous, uniform-filled canteen, Ms Savic admits her paper was never part of the "independent press" but rejects the idea that she feels obliged to take the party line. Posted to Brussels four years ago, now, as one of just two Serbian journalists accredited to Nato headquarters, the experience of being here while her family are under bombardment in Belgrade has only reinforced an unrelenting criticism of the alliance.

Ms Savic thinks the Nato campaign is barbaric and rejects the idea that it is targeted against the regime rather than the Yugoslav people. The media shows a callous disregard of Serbian casualties and concentrates only on those afflicting the ethnic Albanian s she believes. As for the events perpetrated by Serb forces in Kosovo: she says she is unable to judge what is going on there.

"I am obsessed with war", she says, "I think about it all the time. When I wake up the first thing I do is switch on the news to see what has been hit. It is not easy because this is my country. Especially when we see film of missiles hitting targets and flames. I immediately imagine a picture from hell and think how many people lived or worked there".

If Nato is directing more effort than ever to its media campaign, it has had little success in convincing Ms Savic. Indeed she is trying to return to Belgrade shortly and the best she can say of her assignment at Brussels is that no one has been rude. "People are civilised," she says, "it's the normal way here. People are polite because Nato is a polite organisation. It even apologises when it kills civilians."