By Harry Keaney
An Irish-born journalist, Peter Finn of the Washington Post, was among the first Western reporters to be arrested, questioned and expelled from Yugoslavia last week.
Finn, who is 36 and a Dublin native who grew up in County Roscommon, was staying in the Hyatt Hotel in the capital city, Belgrade, when he heard a knock on his bedroom door early last Thursday morning.
"Basically what happened was that the Serbian police came to the hotel room at 4 a.m. and arrested me. Two plainclothes guys told me to pack my stuff. Myself and another journalist, Mark Phillips of CBS, were taken downstairs, told to pay our bill and then we were put in the back of a Yugo car and driven away," Finn told the Echo in an interview from the Hungarian capital, Budapest, on Friday afternoon, while on his way to Frankfurt, Germany.
When Finn and Phillips were arrested, Belgrade was in a blackout, a scene Finn that described as "pretty frightening" because the police didn’t say what they were doing and "we were told not to talk."
"They held us for eight hours in the station on benches, didn’t give us water or anything," Finn said. "Then these other senior guys came in and interrogated us for about 20 minutes, maybe half an hour, asking us what stories we had done on Kosovo, who we had spoken to, etc., etc. Another two hours on the bench and then at 1 o’clock they put us in the back of a police wagon and drove us to the Croatian border and told us not to come back to Yugoslavia."
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Finn told his own newspaper that he was questioned by three police officers and a translator who asked him where in Kosovo he had been, what stories he had written, what was his opinion of the crisis, which other journalists he knew and whether he was religious.
"I told them I knew nothing about the practices of other journalists," Finn said.
The police also copied down all the names and numbers in Finn’s notebook.
Asked if he thought he might have been taken away and shot, he replied, "Everything runs through your head. At that moment you think of every eventuality."
From Budapest, Finn traveled to Albania "to go up to the border with Kosovo." He said he would be unable to enter Kosovo because Serbian authorities had canceled his passport. "Even if they opened up Kosovo, I could not get in because I am now essentially persona non grata," he said.
An order issued by the Serbian information minister said that journalists of foreign public media from countries that took part or allowed their territories to be "used in NATO aggression on our country" would be expelled.
Finn’s father was a member of the Gárda Síochana in Ireland, the family living wherever their father was stationed. Finn himself lived in Galway; in Elphin, Co. Roscommon, and in Roscommon Town, where he attended the Christian Brothers School and sat for his leaving certificate.
After graduating from University College, Dublin, he attended Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York.
He is now the Washington Post’s central Europe correspondent, based in Warsaw.
Finn’s colleague, Mark Phillips, said he heard a knock on his hotel bedroom door about 3 a.m. and peered through the peephole to see a hotel clerk, who said, in English, "Room Service."
"I said, ‘I didn’t order room service,’ and a gruff voice next to the clerk said, ‘State security police. Open up,’ " Phillips said.
Having been ordered to pack up, Phillips asked where he was going but was told, "No questions, this is war."
With journalists expelled, Finn said the fear was that the Serbs would take their fury out on ordinary Kosovars, a fear, which, at least according to current reports of mass killings, rape and destruction, seems not to have been misplaced.
After expulsion from Yugoslavia, Albania is probably the next best place for Western reporters seeking the truth about what is currently happening in Kosovo. An immediate source of firsthand information is the exodus of ethnic Albanian refugees now escaping the war-torn province.
Like Northern Ireland, the war over Kosovo has a long and convoluted history, extending back 610 years when Ottoman Turks defeated the Serbs outside Pristina, the Kosovo capital. Kosovo is at the heart of Serb nationalism and therein lies the kernel of what is now happening in Yugoslavia and Albania.
The sound of Serb policemen knocking on Peter Finn’s bedroom door last week was merely another eerie echo from a 600-year simmering cauldron of history that has again boiled over.