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EDITIONS
Saturday, 7 October, 2000, 11:06 GMT 12:06 UK
The revolution seen from hiding
Police firing teargas as crowds gather in front of the parliament building
Huge crowds storm the parliament building
By Belgrade correspondent Jacky Rowland

I have got a confession to make. I gave the impression that I had left Belgrade, but I did not.

A week ago, late at night, I let the heavy metal door of the BBC office close behind me. I stood in the dark on the landing, my satellite phone in one hand, my laptop in the other, and a small rucksack over my shoulder with enough clothes to keep me going for a few days.


It was only then that I realised I was witnessing history in the making

Jacky Rowland
The old rickety lift was out of order again, so I walked down the four flights of stairs to the street. I had taken this route numerous times in the past few days, walking to and from the offices of state-run television.

But the walk this night was different. At any moment, my friend Milos would pull up alongside me in a borrowed car, I would jump in, and we would drive away.

It all happened very quickly.

We drove off, past the Yugoslav parliament building with its splendid horse statues, then turned right.

Jacky Rowland
Jacky Rowland: Back in action
Milos decided to take a circuitous route, through the rich residential district of Dedinje. These leafy, discreet streets were home to President Slobodan Milosevic, as well as foreign diplomats and nouveaux riches businessmen. By now it became clear that we were not being tailed.

Finally we made our way to the suburb where I would be hiding.

For the next four days I spent most of the time sleeping, and working out my explanation if and when the police came to arrest me.

"My expulsion was illegal," I would protest. "It was a political decision taken by people who are no longer the legitimate authorities in Yugoslavia."

I did not think it would wash somehow.

Disguised

I finally decided to venture out of the flat on Thursday, when the opposition had called a mass protest to coincide with its deadline for Mr Milosevic to resign.

I went incognito, of course. Milos and his girlfriend, Irena, gave me a pair of dark glasses and a black hat which I pulled low to cover my hair.

My face had become quite well-known in Belgrade in recent days, reporting on events for BBC World television.

Protesters set fire to the state television station
Protesters set fire to the state television station
The three of us hitched a lift to Slavija Square which was as far as we could go by car. Demonstrators had set up roadblocks and were turning back the traffic.

We started walking in the direction of the parliament building, my black hat pulled down firmly over my ears.

Within moments I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was my friend, Vlad, smiling at me. "Shhh!" I hissed, "I'm under cover."

With the parliament building just round the corner, I caught the first whiff of tear gas. People ahead of us were turning back, but we carried on.

Then we saw two clouds of smoke: one white - that was the tear gas - the other black. Something was on fire.

We turned the corner and there it was, the parliament building surrounded in billowing smoke.

It was only then that I realised I was witnessing history in the making.

It was time to break cover, I needed to get to a phone.

I ran through the streets with Milos and Irena, the crackle of gunfire somewhere not far away.

Secret police shake hands with demonstrators
The secret police come over to the side of the demonstrators
We turned another corner and saw a row of armoured vehicles crossing Slavija Square.

We dived into a doorway, but the tanks were not heading in our direction. They were going up towards the main boulevard, the parliament building and state-run television.

We came to some offices of the United Nations. Milos talked his way past the security guard and I dashed into an empty room.

Within moments I was back on air, much to the surprise of colleagues in London who thought I had left the country.

Inferno

Then we went back onto the streets. I ran ahead of Milos and Irena, and found myself right in front of the television building which by now was an inferno. Through the broken windows I could see chairs and tables on fire.

People were running away from the building, carrying off computer equipment. "It's a trophy," one man cried, a video recorder tucked under his arm.

And the trophies got better. In the park opposite the burning parliament building, I met a man carrying a ceremonial chair over his head. Was it from the parliament? You bet it was.

Running down a side street thick with black smoke, we passed the main police station.

It was besieged by protesters, about 100 of them. They were kicking at the doors and windows, some people emerged carrying police helmets and riot shields.

Finally we made it to my office. For the next three hours I barely moved from my desk, the phone clamped to my ear and people running in and out of my room with information.

Trashed

We left the office late at night and started the long walk back to the flat. At the corner we passed Scandal, a vulgar perfume shop belonging to Mr Milosevic's son, Marko.

There wasn't a shard of glass left in the window, or a bottle of perfume left in the shop. The place was trashed.

I the impartial and objective reporter surprised myself, punching a fist into the air and shouting, "Yes!" Irena was dancing along beside me.

I have lived in Belgrade for two years. This is my city and the people around me on the streets were, in a way, my people.

That night I shared their joy, their emotion, and their hopes for the future.


At The Hague

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07 Oct 00 | Europe
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