War in the Balkans: Serbia's man tries to win over Beirut

War in the Balkans: Diplomacy
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BELGRADE'S MAN in Beirut has a lonely job. When Muslim demonstrators gather outside his embassy, he invites their leaders in for coffee and a chat. When he held a press conference after the start of Nato's air bombardment of Yugoslavia, a bearded man from the Hizbollah's "Manar" television station turned up early, leaned across Velibor Dulovic's desk, stared at him meaningfully and asked quietly: "Why are you killing Muslims in Kosovo?"

Serbia's cause is a hard sell in the Muslim world, but Belgrade sent a tough man to run its embassy in Lebanon. Before Beirut, Ambassador Dulovic manned the fort in Sudan, Libya, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. He has met Saddam Hussein, sat on a cheap Iranian carpet at the foot of Ayatollah Khomeini and been wounded in Afghanistan; President Najibullah (later to be ceremonially strung up in Kabul) dropped by the Russian hospital to check on his leg wound. Not long before the latest Balkan war, Ambassador Dulovic even called on Sayed Mohamed Fadlallah, one of the Hizbollah's most prominent clerics, to discuss Islam.

So what did he say to the man from "Manar" television? "I replied calmly that it's not true, that in Kosovo we are fighting the extremists of the KLA and that Kosovo is part of Serbia," Mr Dulovic says. "He didn't know much about what's going on. When I meet these people, I tell them that in the Koran, it says that if you hear false information, you must not accept it until you have checked it." Mr Dulovic quotes the relevant Koranic verse in Arabic. The Arab media, he says, confuse Bosnia with Kosovo, "portraying the war as sectarian as a trap to persuade the Arab countries to underwrite the cost of military actions".

I have to disagree with the ambassador. I suspect the Arabs have a pretty shrewd idea of what is going on in Kosovo - but their fury at the United States for its hypocrisy in the Middle East outweighs their compassion for the Kosovo Albanian refugees.

Mr Dulovic agrees that the Lebanese are well-informed. "They experienced similar religious and ethnic problems as us and they understand very well," he says. "Why don't they take sides? I have a feeling they are afraid that if some of them take the side of the [Orthodox] Christians, it may provoke Muslims here - and vice versa."

Mr Dulovic is 65, close to retirement, his white hair dominating Lee Marvin features and a low voice which sometimes betrays a cruel sense of humour. He might have walked out of a Graham Greene novel. Dulovic's Arabic is fluent, his family history a catalogue of Serb suffering; born in Pristina of a Montenegrin family which was almost annihilated in the First World War, his father was driven from Kosovo in Hitler's later "ethnic cleansing" of the province - a fact which he assiduously recalls for Muslim visitors - and Dulovic grew up in German-occupied Belgrade. He studied languages and diplomacy while his brother became a journalist in Yugoslavia. When he was Tito's head of protocol, there must have been times when he wished he had been in journalism.

"When your queen came to Yugoslavia in 1972, it was the first time a head of state was allowed to fly in her own aircraft within Yugoslavia. She asked to fly to Dubrovnik but the weather was bad there, so we agreed she would go to Montenegro instead. So imagine the scene: I am at the airport with all the local officials to greet her. We are all standing beside the runway. A hotel is booked for a banquet for Queen Elizabeth. The plane comes out of the sky - and then suddenly climbs again and flies away. The weather had cleared over Dubrovnik and the pilot had decided to take her there. And all these officials were standing at the airport watching her disappear."

There was less protocol in Iran. "I met Khomeini with some other diplomats in 1986 in a very, very modest room," Mr Dulovic remembers. "He was sitting on an old sofa with a blue cover and the light was a single bulb without insulation. We were all sitting on the floor on cheap Iranian carpets. Khomeini was explaining the situation of the war with Iraq and the role of Islam. But he was looking above us - we could not catch his sight. He did not look at us. He was not living on earth - and he behaved as if he was not living on earth."

It has not all been so ethereal. Asked to run protocol at the last non- aligned Belgrade summit in 1989, Dulovic was appalled to hear that Colonel Gaddafi planned to arrive with six camels and two horses. "Can you believe this? Six camels. Well fortunately, the camels were already in trucks so we were able to get them driven off the planes. Later, we found Gaddafi was milking them on the lawn of the villa we gave him because he liked fresh milk in the morning. Then he wanted to ride through the Belgrade streets to the non-aligned conference on one of his horses. To this I had to say no." The camels ended up in Belgrade zoo. The horses went home to Tripoli.

Mr Dulovic has huge hands and they both slapped on to his right knee when he recalled the United Nations party in a Kabul garden that put him in hospital. "We were arranging to play tennis and a `Muhajedin' rocket exploded close to us. There was a German who was hit - it killed three people and wounded another 29 - and then I realised that a piece of metal had gone into my knee. I had three operations and now I have the bit of rocket - the missile was made under US licence in Egypt - and I have made it into a keyholder."

The Russians sent a fraternal delegation round to the Yugoslav embassy here on the first day of Nato's bombing. "Then the day before yesterday, the Chinese ambassador sent me a gift. Two Chinese guys came round from his embassy. They brought me half a sheep and a box of apples. I wonder if this was for me or humanitarian assistance for Yugoslavia." This is a joke. But Dulovic's face loses its smile very quickly. "I would have preferred they had given me rockets," he says.