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Thursday, 5 October, 2000, 14:58 GMT 15:58 UK
Exiled from Yugoslavia
Opposition rally in Cacak
Protests continue as the BBC is expelled
By Belgrade correspondent Jacky Rowland

It was three days before the Yugoslav elections and I reckoned it was safe to disappear to the hairdresser's for an hour. Wrong. I'd just got under the dryer when my mobile telephone rang. It was a call from the information ministry. The minister, Goran Matic, wanted to see me at the army press centre in half an hour. I had to drop everything in order to be there.

An evil media war was being waged against Yugoslavia

Goran Matic, Information Minister
The ballroom at the press centre was filling up with people, many of them in military uniform. So why had I been invited?

All became clear when Goran Matic took the microphone.

"An evil media war was being waged against Yugoslavia," he said.

"[It is] more dangerous than the Nato bombing campaign. And in this very room I can see the BBC correspondent, Jacky Rowland, who says the elections are already over and the opposition has won," he intoned with theatrical flourish.

I accosted him afterwards, pushing my way through the army officers and the waiters proffering trays of drinks.

Jacky Rowland
Jacky Rowland has lived in Belgrade for last two years
"I think you may have to leave Yugoslavia," Mr Matic said, with a cold smile to match his cold blue eyes. "But you will come to see me tomorrow and I will decide then."

The following day, the minister received me at his new television station. I entered his office warily - for months a rumour had been circulating that I was having an affair with him. All my research suggested that the source of this rumour was none other than Mr Matic himself.

"Where would you like to be on election night?" he asked me.

"Er, in Belgrade?" I replied, hopefully.

"OK, you can stay," he said. So I did.

Election day

On election day a couple of my staff arrived late at the office. They'd been trying to vote, but the queues at the polling stations were too long, so they'd given up.

"Go back and vote!" I urged them. "It doesn't matter how long you have to wait, I'll manage without you."

Within an hour of the polls closing it was clear which way the vote had gone. Slobodan Milosevic's supporters had rather optimistically organised a victory concert on Republic Square.

Jacky Rowland
Jacky Rowland has lived in Belgrade for last two years
But from the flags and the banners filling the square, it was clear that the crowd had voted for his opponent, Vojislav Kostunica.

Unofficial results from the political parties confirmed this picture. Even the figures from President Milosevic's one-time ally, the ultranationalist politician, Vojislav Seselj, put the opposition challenger in the lead.

Mr Seselj is a slippery character, but he has a reputation for producing accurate figures at election times.

The overwhelming verdict against Mr Milosevic created an upset at the Electoral Commission which took two whole days to come out with official results.

Vojislav Kostunica
Vojislav Kostunica: On a roll
Mr Kostunica had beaten the President by a convincing margin, but he didn't have the magical 50% needed to win outright.

There would have to be a second round of voting.

I got straight onto the phone to one of the Information Minister's flunkies. Would Mr Matic care to give me an interview on how they planned to improve on Mr Milosevic's performance? I inquired.

Mr Matic, I learned, would not be giving any interviews in the foreseeable future.

Belgrade rumour mill

With government ministers going to ground, the rumours started flying about the whereabouts of President Milosevic and his family.

"Save Serbia and kill yourself" protesters say to Milosevic
The first I heard was when I was just about to make a live broadcast from the television station. My mobile phone rang - it was a spooky friend of mine, calling from Brussels.

In his distinctive American accent he told me that Mrs Milosevic and her son had fled to Moscow, and that another plane was on its way to Belgrade to collect the president himself.

The next story came from a lounge lizard friend in Belgrade. He'd heard that Mrs Milosevic had had a nervous breakdown and had been taken to hospital.

Vojislav Kostunica was on a roll. He confidently told his supporters there would be no second round: the opposition would boycott it. Words spoken in haste which he would regret later.

Milosevic's wife was rumoured to have suffered a breakdown
As it became clear that the government would not give in to popular pressure, Mr Kostunica confessed to Western diplomats that the opposition would take part in a second round - if that was the only way of putting an end to Mr Milosevic.

Then the information ministry issued an ominous statement. Certain Western journalists, it said, had been twisting the words of Yugoslav citizens, despite earlier warnings. I took this as a direct message from the minister to me.

Sure enough, the next day we had a tip-off from a well-placed source. When I visited the police station to renew my visa, the source warned, I would be expelled. Which is exactly what happened: I was given 48 hours to leave the country.

So we packed. The boxes and suitcases piled up in the hallway of my flat - I'd accumulated a lot in the two years I'd spent in Belgrade.

Weeping Serb friends came to my home to say good-bye. "We don't know what the country is coming to," they wailed.

I tried to comfort them. "I'll be back," I said. "I'll be back so quickly it'll be as if I never left." When the time came to leave, one of my drivers collected me and my rucksack. We drove out of Belgrade for the last time, the fountain, the parliament building with its rampant horse statutes, the television offices. My exile had begun.

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