Teslic: Mr. Mayor, voice of the aggrieved

After two days Vid says he might be able to get us to the front.

Jah, jah.

Well, it may be jah, old man, but if experience is any guide, it's gonna be a big fat nah. Serb, Croat, Muslim--when it comes to journalists, especially journalists taking pictures, the buggers are all paranoid in the extreme, even unarmed soldiers in scenes of no conceivable military significance. Anyhow, Vid goes to work on it, while Janko and Jovo do the same. But nothing comes through. Meanwhile, I'm slumped in the living room, watching the Perpetual TV, that fountain of dreams, saying, "Look, we are a great country in the center of world affairs. Look, we raise hogs and saw wood. Behold the treasures of our ancient culture. Yes, everyday things are getting better." And once they're off the midday pep talk, they're back on the Maps--the maps that Vid, too, is forever dragging out, to the point that it's already a running joke, with me, and soon even Goran, screaming, "No, please!! Not the maps again!!! "

Slowly-- microscopically slow-- the TV inches up the territory that thousands died for, so slowly you can feel the bumps of the cameraman's heart as the camera moves up to the north, then slowly around to the east, then back south again. But wait, did you miss that, here it is again .

And when at last the camera pulls back, what have the Serbs won? It looks like a length of drooping intestine, logistically ridiculous, strategically vulnerable and economically insupportable.

Then Vid returns. Great excitement! Okay, he can't get us on the front, but guess what? He's got us an interview with the mayor of Teslic! Tomorrow! 9 a.m.!

Our lesson in Holy War

The next morning we're fifteen minutes late, but Vid doesn't seem particularly distressed, nor is the mayor's pretty secretary, bundled in a sweater at her little desk in the freezing hallway, outside the mayor's gre

at paneled door.

She buzzes the mayor, peeps through the door, then bustles around while Vid spruces up his long, blue coat and nicely-cut Italian suit. To my surprise, the mayor does not retaliate by keeping us waiting. No, the tall doors open and here he is, far younger than I'd have guessed, perhaps forty and robustly good-looking. Wearing an open-collared shirt and plaid jacket, the mayor seizes Vid's hand, then turns to me with a welcoming, measuring bounce, rising on the toes of his black loafers, "America, good, good." So saying, he ushers us into his high-ceilinged chambers, to a long meeting table that connects in a "T" with its own large desk, behind which presides the Serb double-headed eagle and a color picture of the dark-haired leader of the Bosnian Serbs, indicted war criminal, Dr. Radovan Karadzic.

This wakes me up. No, I realize, this is not just a humble, civil meeting. And perhaps I've underestimated the affable mayor. As he takes his chair, the mayor's body and his hands, like his papers, are all perfectly centered, his small pink fingers in a tight steeple that ends just below his smile. Poor Goran is understandably nervous. For fifteen, the kid's incredibly cool and self-assured and his English is improving daily, yet even he knows he's out of his depth here. There are issues that Goran doesn't need to be in the middle of, especially with his parents, and we've had no luck finding the old English professor of Zlatan's, the one who was supposed to be expecting my call. Like his guidance on travel, much has changed since Zlatan left Teslic three years ago.

But the mayor is gracious, ready to help us. He tells his secretary to summon his own English translator, then waits while she finishes with our coffee orders. We wait and we smile. We watch the smoke curl, the mayor and I, and then something stuns me. Right there, by the mayor's elbow, a magazine with an ample brunette on the cover. In a sheer, fur-trimmed teddy.

Out in full view on his desk? Impossible. No, it's too perfect, a Serb official conducting an interview with Karadzic at his back and a smut-book at his side, lined up with all his other sensitive official business. Why, it's almost diabolical. If I say what I see, then I negate the whole story, for who would believe such a thing? And how do I know what I'm really seeing? I can't read Cyrillic, and I don't dare look again, not when the mayor's smiling at me, not two feet from my face. And how do I know it's not, say, the Cyrillic edition of Cosmopolitan that just came in the mail for his wife?

"I'm sorry I'm late."

It's the mayor's translator, Marta, and she, too, stops me, though in a profoundly different way. Marta's a tiny, willowy, plain-faced young woman, worn out but pretty in her way, with eyes that stare out with a kind of melancholy that I've never seen in actual life, and certainly not in anyone so young. If anything, Marta's the kind of poor creature that you expect to see everywhere, though in fact you never do, owing as much to the resilience of the Balkan women, as to their beauty and flair for make-up, as to the human miracle of disguise and self-preservation.

She has soft, dark, transparent bags under her eyes, and the most delicate hands, hands that tremble as she takes off her soft, woolen tam-o-shanter glistening with drops of melted snow. What happened to her? I wonder. It's not just a case of nerves, it's the kind of melancholy that today seems extinct, visible only in dark and staring pictures of long-dead girls--I mean the kind of women whom Freud saw, women with titanic philandering fathers and invisible mothers who gave live birth to seven, then became mouthless invalids, dying for years before they finally drowned under the covers . Also, there's Marta's voice, the way she almost talks into her chest, with the stifled quiet of very obscure old books.

It's a queer, disembodied voice to be grafted onto the mayor's, and she's extremely nervous. Marta's hand trembles as she phrases my first question--not that it much matters what I ask. As I soon discover with the mayor, every question gets a speech. Listening, Marta nods and nods, then she translates:

"The mayor says our national disappointment looks out at the world in sheer disbelief. We look out at the lies that have been said about us. The first lie is that Serbia starts the war in the former Yugoslavia. The second is that we Serbs are a warrior people with no education or culture. In fact, we have many educated people here, and in Teslic especially. Unfortunately, we didn't have much political experience. Or much experience with the press. And what Americans absolutely don't understand is the psychology of this war. Because this is a Holy War brought on by the Turk."

"How can the world be mad at us?"

"But Mr. Mayor," I say, "the so-called Muslims that I've met, well, they smoke, they drink, they eat pork. They've never set foot in a mosque and even used to celebrate Christmas. They seem like pretty unlikely candidates for a Holy War."

"Well, then you've met bad Muslims. Let's hope you never meet the Mujahadeen."

Touche, he smiles, and Vid laughs heartily. More cigarettes are lit. Martha's shaking. And, I see, it's pointless. But just when I've decided to let the clock run out, the mayor has a big question for me:

"Why do the Americans have such a problem with us?"

Well, I sit there dumbstruck. It's the question we hear everywhere, and from far less calculating people than the mayor. We hear it from people who are hurt, genuinely hurt, that their allies in World War II, the Great Country that stood up to Quadaffi and Saddam Hussein and the Global Islamic Menace--that of all countries, America could be so gullible as to swallow these lies about the Serbs as butchers and war criminals.

Well, I sit up. I blink. Here, while I'm loathing myself for being stuck in this ridiculous situation, with no personal history in this war--well, here, perhaps, is the one question that I canrespond to with any authority. "Mr. Mayor, I ask, do you really think it's just America who has problems with the Serbs? I mean, for four years, you've had the English, the French, the Canadian and Dutch U.N. peacekeepers, just to name a few. You've had U.N. peacekeepers, and people from humanitarian aid groups and news organizations from around the world. And you know, sir, they all seem to have pretty much the same problems with the Serbs in this war. Oh, sure, there have been other outrages, especially from the Croats. But I think the Serbs had better face one thing, Mr. Mayor. It's not just America that has problems with the Serbs. America's just reflecting what the world is saying. And when many, many fairly impartial people are all saying the same thing, well, how do you explain that?"

Marta's really shaken now, but she translates. The mayor refolds his hands. Unflappable as ever, he smiles: "But please, how can the world be mad at us? Personally, I don't think the Serbs won or lost this war. In fact, we lost a great percentage of our territory. And why? Because we respected the rules too much. That's right. If we didn't respect the rules, we would have won this war. Easily."

"But sir, what rules? I mean, I just came from Tuzla. And just last May--what just seven or eight months ago?-- the Serbs fired a shell on the marketplace. Seventy-some people were killed and hundreds were wounded."

"Yes, of course, I know about that incident," replies the mayor. "But you see, this again is a lie. That grenade did not come from us. The Turks fired that grenade on themselves. That's right, and it wasn't the first time, either. Why? To gain sympathy, that's why. And it worked too. The Americans bombed us."

"And what about Sarajevo? The massacre in the marketplace?"

"That was different. There they trucked in dead bodies." It's amazing. It's as if the mayor has just blown an amazingly loathsome smoke ring, and there it wobbles, pungently, in the air. I just stare at him.

"Mr. Mayor, I've talked to journalists who were there minutes after the shell hit. War correspondents. They know fresh kills from blood poured on dead bodies."

Forget it. I thank the mayor for his time.

"Look," offers the mayor at last, "I'm not saying that we were perfect. Of course there were extremists. And imagine how you would feel if the Jews or the Greeks wanted their own state in the U.S.? Because that's what happened to us. The Turks want to take away our rights to live and work. Another Iran, that's what they wanted. And why? To spread Islam throughout the world."

You know, I always used to wonder how diplomats could shake hands with the likes of Saddam Hussein. Or, more to the point, how only last July, Dutch U.N. Commander Ton Karremans could be stupid or pragmatic or simply gutless enough to have his picture taken drinking a champagne toast with Serbian General Ratko Mladic, an indicted war criminal, around the time that Srebenica was falling. Well, now I know.

Yes, by God, I shook the mayor's hand. I thanked him for his time, and I took his miserable picture. And the mayor got nicer, too. Because who knows, maybe I am a complete idiot, and if he's nice, well, then I'll write nice things, like at the door when the mayor tells me that every day he's working for peace! Because in Teslic everybody has a place, and the Teslichers are glad IFOR is coming! Glad because Teslic is actually well-known as a tourist town dedicated to health. The Mayor looks at Vid, Did you show him our mineral baths?

Yes, I was slayed in the nice attack. Why, if I'd had to three-kiss the little bastard, I'd have done that, too--anything to get me out of there even a second faster.

How low will you go? Well first, you have to be there. And now, unfortunately, I know.

Copyright © 1996 Discovery Communications, Inc Photos: Standing head:Scott Peterson / Gamma Liaison; Bruce Duffy