My first email of the first day after the election of Barack Obama as president came from Serbia.
Its sender is a longtime colleague, a Serbian journalist I met right before the U.S. air war in her country in 1999. She’d been at Columbia University on a journalism fellowship when the bombs started to fall on Belgrade.
“Congratulations on getting rid of your own Milosevic,” her message read. “Of course, I also congratulate you for electing such a promising new president! I feel such a relief and can imagine how you must feel. Hopefully this is a beginning of a new era for all of us.”
Although Katarina despised Slobodan Milosevic’s totalitarian rule, whose hallmark was the suffocation of the independent press, she came to the Committee to Protect Journalists, where I worked at the time, for help in getting back into the cauldron from which she was at a safe distance.
Crazy? Some might think so, but she had the journalist’s instinct to bear witness to the events unfolding in her country, and was willing to risk arrest if she returned to Belgrade, where Milosevic was threatening to imprison all journalists who were outside the country when the war started for treason.
Katarina got back into Serbia, using a dangerous overland route that evaded Milosevic’s thugs. Once there, she continued to write vivid eyewitness accounts of the crisis in her country for readers around the world. She chronicled the rise of Otpor, a Serbian grass-roots youth movement that helped to bring down Milosevic.
So she’s a person who knows a thing or two about failed leaders and change from the ground up. And for years, we’ve had a lively email conversation about the parallels and contrasts between our countries, as the United States and Serbia have lived through attacks from the air, the costs of war, the failures of government, and the possibilities for positive change in her society and mine.
Yesterday, Americans showed the rest of the world that we can transform our political landscape. And the world is surely watching America’s sea change. I heard that news from Serbia today.