profile 22 Feb 13

Dessa Trevisan, Legendary Times Correspondent, Dies

Yugoslav-born journalist covered some of the most stirring events in Eastern Europe during the Cold War and later crossed swords with Slobodan Milosevic’s government at some personal cost.

Marcus Tanner

The doyenne of the Belgrade press corps in the 1980s and early 1990s, a trenchant critic of Slobodan Milosevic and one of the last links to the world of the prewar Yugoslav monarchy has died in London aged 88.

Dessa Trevisan, born Pavlovic, had a turbulent childhood, witnessing some of the most traumatic events in 20th-century Yugoslavia. The child of wealthy parents - her father was Serbian and her mother Croatian - her early years were privileged. Living in both Zagreb and Belgrade, she was a childhood playmate of the future King Petar of Yugoslavia.

But, as she entered her teens, storm clouds gathered. Her family had to flee Zagreb by train on the eve of the Ustashe takeover in 1941, circumstances that left her with a lasting distaste for Croatian nationalism.

A few years later, the Communist takeover of Yugoslavia resulted in more traumas. Most of the family’s assets were now confiscated, her father was thrown in jail, and Trevisan blamed her brother’s subsequent suicide on the persecution to which he and other members of the old bourgeoisie were subjected in the harsh world of the 1940s and 1950s.

In spite of bitter feelings about the Communist system, Trevisan never lost her fascination with the land of her birth. Having left Yugoslavia to marry the British journalist Eric Bourne, she began returning as a British national, working for the London Times.

One of her early scoops was reporting on President Tito’s marriage to then willowy and highly attractive Croatian Serb, called Jovanka, whom Trevisan remembered as a demure and graceful figure in the early days of her marriage.

The following 30 years saw Trevisan at the high point of her career as a roving reporter in Eastern Europe, breaking stories about Romania’s bid to become more independent of the Soviet Union, the rise and fall of the Czech experiment in Socialism with a Human Face and the Solidarity movement in Poland.

Trevisan - the name came from her last Italian husband - returned to care for her mother in Belgrade in the 1980s, after which she was permanently based in the Yugoslav capital.

There she became a familiar figure, running a sort of informal political salon by day in the restaurant of the international press centre in the company of her immaculately coiffed mother and holding court at night with groups of fellow journalists and diplomats over platters of roast goose in the Writers Club in Francuska street.

While Trevisan relished the cut and thrust of Serbian politics and earthy Balkan-style discussions about sex and life in general, her permanent return to Yugoslavia in her sixties was not easy.

She had to cope with the fact that her adored mother no longer knew who she was, was convinced she was living in Austria-Hungary at some point in the 1900s, and she had a habit of bursting into loud refrains of the Croatian song “Hrvatska nije propala dok mi zivimo” , [“Croatia shall not fall while we live”] as a result of which she and Dessa were once thrown out of a taxi.

While Trevisan coped with her mother’s mental decline, she found herself at odds with the new wave of Serbian nationalism under Slobodan Milosevic, which she detested and was convinced would led the whole country into an abyss.

Her views of the Kosovo conflict were, in fact, more nuanced than many people realised, and she regarded the rise of the Kosovo Albanians with some misgiving. But she was convinced that Milosevic’s aggressive tactics in the then province were disastrous, as a result of which she fell out with most of her closest Serbian friends, including the theatre director, Mira Trailovic.

For its part, the regime regarded her as a traitor to Serbia, and she felt besieged at her Palmoticeva flat, where she sometimes received death threats and was once shot at in the street.

While Trevisan had no patience for Franjo Tudjman and his soft-soaping of the Ustashe regime in Croatia, she was equally vehemently opposed to Milosevic’s tactics there as well.

The looting of Serb-occupied areas of Croatia especially disgusted her and she exploded with rage during the height of the war in Croatia when a waiter at the Writers Club made the mistake of trying to serve her wine from the occupied eastern districts around Vukovar.

“What’s this?” she exclaimed, examining the bottle with a ferocious glare. “Wine from Ilok? STOLEN! How DARE you serve me stolen wine!” she roared. The waiter disappeared back to the wine cellar with the offending bottle and returned with something less controversial.

Though privately worried about her safety and that of her vulnerable mother, she refused to moderate her criticism, interrupting government press conferences with acerbic questions and, when she was unable to take the microphone, muttering loud asides, or simply, “Ha!”.

She briefed every foreign visitor and diplomat she met against Milosevic, and when she felt was not getting through, would silence dissent with the phrase: “Look! I know these people!” She was an ardent champion of Milosevic’s then main opponent, Vuk Draskovic.

Unable to force her out through intimidation, the regime eventually got rid of her by withdrawing her accreditation, as a result of which she retired in 1993 to London, permanently handing the Times baton to Tim Judah, her colleague there for some years.

A new life in London did not bring peace, however. For all her detestation of the Milosevic regime, and the high cost her opposition brought her personally, she could not forgive her adopted country for its role in the bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999, perhaps because it brought back memories of the bombing she had witnessed in 1941.

As a result, she shook the dust of London off her feet and moved to Montenegro, where the spent the remaining years of her life until she became ill. Quixotic and sometimes exasperating, she will be remembered for her love of life and great generosity.

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