Journalist reports as evidence of crimes

Journalist reports as evidence of crimes

Although foreign reporters did not succeed in making the world stop the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, they did produce enough evidentiary material for war criminals some day to be brought to justice. Zrinka Bralo writes about reporting from wartime Sarajevo.

I spent the first days of the siege of Sarajevo mostly in the hallways of my building with neighbors, under candlelight and with clouds of smoke while there were still cigarettes. In shock, fear and eerie uncertainty, we listened to the thunder of shells and discussed which direction they were coming from and where they were falling. I would silently think of the people I knew in different parts of town and in times of lull unsuccessfully try to find out by telephone if they were all right.

After a couple of weeks, power blackouts started. When we ate everything from our thawed freezers, food began running out too. Neighbors shared all they had with each other in the hallways, but towards the end of May even that was reduced to one small meal a day. For me life became vertical (up and down the high-rise building) as I was still recovering from an illness and did not yet have enough strength to run into the outside world in view of a sniper who operated outside the entrance to the building. Then the telephone stopped working. One day my colleague from the radio Merdijana Šuvalija, who had already started working for Sky News, ran into the hallway. She did not manage to return home under the shelling so she came to sleep over. I found out from her that foreign journalists were arriving in town and needed interpreters.

Escape from the smoke-filled hallway

The next morning I managed to get to the radio and television building and on the radio I

found my editor Boro Kontić. Youth Program no longer existed, but as I knew some English Boro sent me to the international department to help interpret for foreign journalists together with Zoka Stevanović. My mother shuddered at the thought of my running under sniper fire and shelling to the RTV building every day, especially when my neighbor Saša Lazarević who had also worked with foreign journalists was killed on 20 June. But there was no return into the smoke-filled hallways for me.

It is difficult to describe the mixture of fear and anxiety caused by the general disaster that befell us with the feeling of excitement that I was finally doing something useful. Foreign journalists brought hope that we were not forgotten. Their energy in running after shells and editing footage until late in the night was contagious. At that time the BBC had already brought its satellite antenna to the UNPROFOR headquarters because video reports could not be sent out of Sarajevo, partly due to destroyed transmitters and partly due to the collapse of the Yugoslav Radio and Television system. Arnout Van Linden and Sky News were the only foreign crew in the city for a while and they sent footage from Pale which was the equivalent of a miracle.

Zrinka Bralo, journalist of former Radio Sarajevo Youth Program, lives in London where she has been the director of an organization for the rights of minorities, immigrants and refugees in Great Britain for the past ten years. During the war in Sarajevo she worked for the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), where she had an opportunity to work with leading international war reporters.

Within a couple of days, more than 20 foreign crews arrived in Sarajevo. I was working my head off because other than several crews such as CNN, BBC and ITV none of the others had interpreters and I did not go home for days at a time. By then, that had become normal for most colleagues working in the RTV building.

One of the reasons for the return of foreign crews to Sarajevo lies in the fact that a Eurovision crew with satellite equipment for sending video reports from Sarajevo arrived in the city on 26 June. In short, Eurovision is made up of all European public services and the function of the news department, in situations when that is needed, is to provide members with technical services in the field and to coordinate news exchange for media organizations that are not in the field.

Zrinka Bralo, EBU feedpoint, June 1993

My job was to help three American engineers create conditions in 24 hours at the RTV building for sending reports, live calling and satellite news exchange for foreign journalists. Eurovision chose RTV Sarajevo as its base, but their news coordination operation was independent and agencies such as Visnews (part of today’s Reuters) and Worldwide Television News (WTN) produced news in the field for their exchange.

The coordinator’s job was to describe and sell news during exchange to editors in European centers and if enough of them are interested in the news, a film is transmitted at a designated time (five times a day) when all centers receive satellite signal. All these details were completely unfamiliar to me at the time and I had to learn everything while running around the building with our engineers and their foreign counterparts looking for the safest place for the satellite antenna and laying hundreds of meters of video and audio cable to an improvised studio in an office on the second floor. No one in the crew slept at all the first night although some offices in the building had been converted into rooms for them.


Mitterrand in Sarajevo

The next morning I found out why the Eurovision coordinator had notified me to organize entry into the building and escort for very important guests. French President Francois Mitterrand landed at Sarajevo Airport on 28 June and after meeting with Alija Izetbegovic, together with General McKenzie, he came to make a direct call to the First TV Channel in France from the Eurovision feedpoint set up during the night. It was all totally surreal to me. One day in a cloud of smoke under heavy shelling in the hallway – the next day with Mitterrand and around 100 war reporters from all over the world.

I had no time to be confused or to rejoice at the opening of the airport. The news machine left me no room for sentimentality, fear or confusion. That day, we did not eat anything until our first break between a live report I think for some British news channel at 10 p.m. and a live report for ABC at 1 a.m. During the day, in-between reports and live calls for TV stations in Spain, France, Britain, Germany, Turkey, United States, Canada, Austria, Italy,  Holland, every once in a while Peđa Kojović, who was working for Visnews, and Edina Bećirević, who was working for Worldwide Television News (WTN), would one after the other run to the feedpoint with an international producer, Faridoun Hemani, to send the latest footage of the visit to the rest of the world which did not have reporters in Sarajevo. The footage, together with cameramen from the South African Republic, was usually made by the legendary Hare and Čenga (Muharem Osmanagić and Šemsudin Čengić). It is hard to describe the feeling of adrenalin that day, but that whole media circus made me think at least a couple of times that day – this is it, it’s over. I have a mitigating circumstance – I was young and inexperienced.


There was nothing to add to the truth

This pace continued more or less until the end of 1992 when the whole media contingent moved to Somalia. International journalists arrived in Sarajevo on UN planes every day and Eurovision was their first stop, especially after telephone lines stopped working. There they would find out what was going on and where everything was in the city and they would immediately reserve time slots for sending their reports. A typical work day in these first months would start at 6 a.m. with live reports for German and British morning programs and end around 2 a.m. after live reports for American news. On average, 4-6 reports were sent per hour. Foreign crews changed every couple of weeks, but there were always at least 20 of them, very often two or three competing TV or radio stations from one country.

CNN, RAI and France’s TV 2 at EBU feedpoint in Sarajevo

Over time the responsibility of a couple of us local fixers and translators developed into jobs of producers and logistical staff, although the foreign producers always had the last say because they were careful to keep their distance so as not to be accused of bias. As a local, I was useful to them, but by the nature of things biased. That did not affect me too much because there was nothing to add to the truth. Sometimes they did not let me watch footage of casualties so I would not be traumatized, but that same footage was shown so many times every day in all the reports that it was simply impossible to avoid it. Sometimes I watched footage of some parts of the city which I had not visited since the beginning of the war and which I could no longer recognize.

A typical work day in these first months would start at 6 a.m. with live reports for German and British morning programs and end around 2 a.m. after live reports for American news. On average, 4-6 reports were sent per hour. Foreign crews changed every couple of weeks, but there were always at least 20 of them.

In a very short time I had to learn a new, war English – words you never learn in school, nor can you find in pop songs. Most reports – and I saw and heard nearly everything that went into the world from Sarajevo – talked about destruction of the city, human casualties, queues for water or bread, and occasionally political events. Most reporters were experienced professionals, such as Martin Bell, Alan Little, or Jeremy Bowen from the BBC; Edward Stourton who reported for ITN from Sarajevo at the beginning of the war. The reporter for CNN in those first days of the siege, before the arrival of Christiane Amanpour, was a young journalist, Jackie Shymanski.

News as an exceptionally profitable business

At the beginning, young and know-it-all freelancers would come by chance and they were a danger to themselves and to everyone around them because they were not aware of the danger that lurked at every corner. After the wounding of CNN camerawoman Margaret Moth and killing of ABC producer David Kaplan in the summer of 1992, the young and inexperienced stopped coming. Life for foreign reporters was just as dangerous as for Sarajevans, so they started cooperating and sharing material. As a result, there was nothing that beginners and freelancers could sell as exclusive news. That summer everyone started wearing heavy bullet-proof vests, without which they soon could not enter Sarajevo on UN planes. One of the more experienced reporters complained to me that he was embarrassed to be walking around Sarajevo wearing armor and filming children in the street, but he had to wear it for insurance.

I could easily romanticize war reporting which I saw first-hand because humanity and objectivity without neutrality, which were present in most reports from Sarajevo, restored my hope in the outer world. But I also saw first-hand that news, especially news that was very hard to come by in that period, was and still is an exceptionally lucrative business. The business side of news is rarely talked about, but that realization was a true professional and cultural shock for me at the time. But the foreign journalists who came to Sarajevo, many of whom are still my dear friends today, and a couple of whom I can say certainly saved my life and my mental health, operated in the framework of a system that was ruled by the market and profit and news production was no exception.

I saw first-hand that news, especially news that was very hard to come by in that period, was and still is an exceptionally lucrative business. The business side of news is rarely talked about, but that realization was a true professional and cultural shock for me at the time.

To me, market-driven cruelty in news production became crystal clear during the Olympic Games in Spain and in that context it was very easy to go to the opposite extreme and view war reporting with cynicism. During the opening of the Olympics, Spanish TV brought Kindže (great Sarajevan basketball player who played in Spain) to our small improvised studio and he answered questions from Barcelona live in besieged Sarajevo in perfect Spanish.

However, on the day the Olympic Games were closed, few public services in Europe were interested in footage of evacuation of children from the Ljubica Ivezić orphanage in Sarajevo. The next morning we found out that two-year-old Vedrana Glavaš and 14-month-old Roki Sulejmanović had been killed by sniper fire near the Oslobođenje building as they were tied with bed sheets to their bus seats during the evacuation. If Jeremy Bowen did not happen to be in Sarajevo and make a report for the BBC, most other European networks would not have been interested in carrying the news although Hare and Čenga had filmed the children’s farewell and the agencies had made a report. Few of us could imagine then that in January 2011 Jeremy Bowen would testify in the Radovan Karadžić trial and present the report on the killing of Vedrana and Roki as evidentiary material on war crimes and violence against Sarajevo.

Although over time I lost my initial enthusiasm that media and journalists can make a difference through their reports, I did not end up with a cynical stand - 20 years later I think that war reporting was not in vain after all. Although foreign reporters did not succeed in changing public opinion in the world toward stopping the violence against Bosnia and Sarajevo, they did produce enough evidentiary material for war criminals some day to be brought to justice.