Sarajevo Agency Pool

Sarajevo Agency Pool

Working as a Youth Program journalist when war broke out, Zoran Stevanović describes his experience as a war reporter.

I returned from vacation and entered war. Everything seemed so simple. One Monday you are in California, sitting in a café and sipping an espresso in the middle of Santa Monica, and next Monday you are outside the Assembly building in Sarajevo shouting ‘Peace, brother, peace”. Afterwards, when everything became complicated, returning from vacation in the United States directly into war seemed to have happened to someone else.

When war broke out, I was working as journalist for the Youth Program. In mid-April 1992, all radio programs in Sarajevo drowned into one. We no longer needed the First, Second, Third, or Youth Program. Everything was – 24 hours, war live on air.

For volunteers, i.e. for us who did not have full-time jobs with Radio Sarajevo, there was no work after that, so I looked for a job with Reuters TV. I became a producer. My job was to collect information and video material in and around the city and often attend press conferences, usually at UN-controlled Sarajevo Airport. For the same reason, I also went frequently to Pale, the military and political seat of the Bosnian Serbs, Army of the Republika Srpska, which fired on us and systematically worked, as their general put it, on “driving us crazy”. A lot of paperwork awaited us there to get filming permits, as well as constant reprimands: why don’t we film the war and victims of war on their side too.

I lived and worked in a TV pool set up by Reuters and WTN. All other foreign television companies based in Sarajevo were also members of the pool. It was too dangerous and there was no need for competition and thus the Sarajevo Agency Pool was created. It was an interesting place not just for professional learning, but also for working with remarkable, smart and weird characters.

In the picture from left to right: Ron Bagnulo, SAP Coordinator; Zoran Stevanović, Reuters TV Producer; Yervant der Partogh, SAP cameraman; Aris Terzić, Reuters TV Producer.

Martin Bell was wounded on assignment (shot in the stomach) near the Energoinvest building. His first words were to cameraman Nigel: “Shoot me, Nigel, shoot me”. He later explained that the video could serve as proof for insurance companies that he really was wearing a bullet-proof vest under a traditional white jacket. That was the rule and requirement of all insurance companies. Martin Bell taught me that you should wear a bullet-proof vest under your clothes – so they cannot see it. If a sniper sees you wearing a bullet-proof vest, claimed Bell, he always goes for a head shot. I conveyed my experience to CNN colleagues in Iraq and Pakistan many years later.

What most affected me during my work was, on one hand, filming the destruction and killing of my city and, on the other, explaining to the still confused foreigners, journalists and desk editors, what was actually happening here. We spent hours discussing if they should use terms such as “Muslim forces”, “Serb forces” and “Croat forces” in their reports. I gave up when BBC doyen Martin Bell asked how he can explain in two and a half minutes to his mostly uniformed viewers what is happening here while showing a flag of the B-H Army in front of the RTV Sarajevo building, an HVO flag flying in Stup just a kilometer away, or a Serb flag flying several hundred meters away on Kasindolska Street.

In search of “news”, I was in danger every day. Naturally, we moved toward sites of shell explosions and fighting. I was arrested multiple times by all armed units in the region, but I felt privileged compared to all civilians. Its majesty the Accreditation, with Reuters written on it, enabled me to move around all territories, to enter any institution, as well as any plane that was bringing humanitarian aid to Sarajevo and returning into a better future, empty. Just that knowledge, the possibility to choose, to leave, at that time was enough in some strange way for my inner peace. Not to speak of the fact that I was never hungry and that I regularly had access to nicotine and alcohol. These two things were very important in besieged Sarajevo.

Zoran Stevanović in front of a wall in Titova Street, Sarajevo.

Sometimes my many years of work for Youth Radio enabled me to pass through checkpoints. I was not even aware I was so well-know, but at almost every checkpoint it was like a password: “Look, it’s Zoka from Youth Radio! What’s up, buddy”?

Occasionally, the recognition resulted in some weird situations, to say the least. While filming a funeral at Kovači in January 1993, as snow was falling on the coffins, covering them slowly but systematically, I didn’t notice that everyone had squatted down and started to say a prayer. Realizing that only I was standing, I squatted too, turned my palms upward and started repeating the only thing I knew: “Bismiallah Rahman i Rahim”. I was snapped out of my attempt to blend into the surroundings by a voice that said: “Which God are you praying to, my Zoran?” The words came from a B-H Army soldier, who seemed young and had probably been my listener in better times. We looked at each other silently, while words of prayer resounded around us melodiously. I felt caught in an act and he seemed to regret “exposing” me. Approaching me after the funeral, with a handshake, he just said shortly: “Good-bye Zoka”, and I just said “See ya”. I don’t know why, but that picture is engraved in my brain and will remain there for as long as I have it, I mean the brain.

There will be no military intervention, my friend

Along with working for Reuters, from time to time I ‘volunteered’ with the “United Bosnia” creative team, with Boro Kontić, Zlatko Sarajlija and Sejo Čamo, who produced the Dežurni mikrofon program on B-H Radio on Sundays.

The main topic, at least in the first summer of war, was military intervention. It seems I was gravely infected with that possibility and I was so sure that the “Sixth Fleet will not wait” that I bet 20 marks on it with a neighbor. At that time, in the Holiday Inn hotel where foreign journalists were based, over a Sarajevo beer from a canister, I was talking to New York Times journalist John F. Burns. And of course I argued in favor of military intervention. He listened to me like any honest journalist would carefully listen to his interlocutor, and then he said calmly, in a voice of authority that cuts through ice: “There will be no military intervention, my friend.”

He went on to support that with two million reasons, from upcoming presidential elections in America to the complication of such as operation, including a short course on the Vietnam War which even then was still a very painful memory for his compatriots.

But one of his arguments was telling. Namely, John Burns told me at the time that he had been an NYT correspondent from Beijing when George H. Bush (then American president) was the ambassador to China. John said he often played tennis with him and knew him well. John described Bush as not strong enough for that kind of decision, someone who was guided by public opinion polls, simply someone who was not determined enough for a serious decision such as military intervention. To illustrate, he said if it had not been for the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, who pushed him to intervene in Kuwait a couple of years earlier, he would have done nothing there, where American interests were much more important than in our country. He even told me in detail about a telephone conversation between Thatcher and Bush, from which I only remember the way he caricatured the British accent: “Geooorge, we must do this…”

A decade later, I met John Burns again in Baghdad. I was working for CNN and he was working for NYT of course. He was in the Green Zone (more than safe) and I was outside, in the so-called Red Zone (unsafe). He did not remember our conversation at all.

Power generator trauma


The war in Iraq, according to the vast majority of journalists, was much more dangerous than the Bosnian war. At that time, and let’s not deceive ourselves – today as well, there was a real danger of being caught by militants and easily ending up, as we called it, on a web page – being executed live.

In such conversations, this time with stronger liquor than Sarajevo beer tasting of gasoline, I argued that the Bosnian war was more dangerous. Namely, in Iraq going out into the field to film entailed unprecedented security measures and armed escort. It is true you were in danger then, but upon returning to the newsroom you were safe. Also, you had electricity, water, food, there were no snipers, and the chance of “only two exploding” was minimal. In the Bosnian war, such luxury did not exist. There was no newsroom where you felt safe, there was no electricity, water or food, and you could get killed practically any second. After all, in Baghdad power generators were used only when electricity went out, while in Sarajevo a power generator was the measure of all things. I cured my generator traumas by buying one several years after the war. I placed it in the basement of my house in Atlanta. I never turned it on, but as they say, let it sit there, it costs nothing.

In Baghdad everyone was very familiar with the situation and knew what they were getting themselves into. In Sarajevo it was possible for a Reuters cameraman who had worked in Bangkok until then to arrive with only basic information on where he was coming and what was happening here. The poor guy, let’s call him David, upon landing “vertically”, was sprayed with gunfire on the way from the airport to the television building, greeted with two mortar shells exploding on the Meša Selimović Boulevard, and entered the Reuters newsroom pale and frightened out of his wits. And he had just been in the city for 20 minutes.

First time in Kiseljak

You were safe only when you got out of besieged Sarajevo and went for example to Kiseljak. Once I spent at least 10 minutes explaining to my Reuters boss that I had actually never been to Kiseljak my whole life and that it would be my first time to go to the town which was around 30 kilometers from Sarajevo. At that time, in the eyes of foreign journalists, Kiseljak was Casablanca. An oasis of peace. As much food, electricity and water as you need.

My first encounter with Kiseljak in October 1992 was like something from the “Twilight Zone”. I was half-expecting a gentleman in a black suit to enter the scene and say: “This is Zoran and he thinks he is in Kiseljak, but he is actually in the Twilight Zone”. After passing all checkpoints, after a few bends Kiseljak comes into view. People are strolling leisurely in the streets, walking in the middle, not next to walls. There is an abundance of everything and everything is open. Working. As I was driving around the streets of Kiseljak in wonder, at one point I passed by a Golf 2 with a ‘Driver training school’ sign. The “L” sign was regularly on the car. Inside were a driver and an instructor. I watched in disbelief as the Golf passed by me in Kiseljak, just 30 kilometers or so from total hell.

A little later I sat down in a restaurant and ordered almost everything they had on the menu. They had it all. Later, gorged and digesting all that food, I fell asleep next to a warm stove in the BBC newsroom. Never had life seemed as beautiful as that day in Kiseljak.

The other day I was explaining to a film director from Los Angeles how Sarajevo residents had become experts in weapons during the war. He looked at me, completely confused, as I was saying that just three months into the siege of Sarajevo everyone knew if a 75mm or a 125mm (shell) had exploded, if it was a tank or a mortar, whether gunfire was coming from an anti-aircraft machine gun or howitzer. Unfortunately, forced by the circumstances, we had all become knowledgeable in weapons.


How can journalists be protected in war?

The Bosnian war was hard from the point of view of journalists. Unfortunately, it always took a journalist being killed before news organizations got serious and provided their war reporters with adequate gear and conditions. An ABC producer was killed on the airport road while riding in a regular, so-called soft van, after which everyone got armored bullet-proof vehicles. Until just before the end of the war, CNN had the worst kind of this machine.

In Pakistan it was not until Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl was killed that we all got armed escort and, as the guys up think, our work became easier.

To me, that posed a greater danger than protection. Thanks to my dark looks (black hair, black eyes, dark skin complexion), unshaven and with prayer beads in my hand, according to my Iraqi colleagues I could visit every village in the country on foot, including Felluga. But as soon as a former SAS guy takes position next to me, being a two-meter, blue-eyed Scandinavian with a machine-gun, bullet-proof vest and Motorola, he sends everyone the message that they should kill off the dark-skinned, unshaven idiot with prayer beads in his hand, in other words me. I must be someone important if he is protecting me and not leaving my side. And I am just a regular producer who must shoot a story and send it to Atlanta before prime time or prepare a live shot.

Until war broke out in my country, I did not know much about television, its dynamics, gathering information, broadcasting, selection, etc. During my work in Sarajevo in the agency pool in 1992/1993, I learned a lot of these things. Production work, how to shoot with a camera, Beta editing, all the way to easier editorial work.

Zoran Stevanović at SAP editing console

When you work for foreigners you can learn a lot because they are enthusiastic and willing to help. But it seems that the experience of war reporting was just one small part of the truth about TV. Two years later, when I came to CNN Atlanta on my first day of work, I looked around in confusion: the editing room seemed like a NASA center to me.

Luckily, there were some familiar faces around me, dear friends I had met during the Bosnian war. From Christiane Amanpour, Tracy Eiks to David Rust, a cameraman who followed the Latin saying “Omnia mea mecum porto” – I carry all my things with me – and actually carried around all his gear weighing hundreds of kilograms. The amount that David Rust hauled with him was often a source of local jokes at CNN. The words of Srđan, a CNN producer in Sarajevo, still echo in my mind, telling David “Screw you and your gear” as he was explaining that for a simple short interview scheduled in the B-H Presidential Palace he had to carry around 200 kg of gear. There is a journalism museum in Washington and one whole floor is devoted to the Bosnian war. More than half of the exhibits were brought there by David Rust. All his gear has finally found a safe place.

As CNN kept airing its promotional clip that year, 1992: “This is CNN, this is the hub, this is the news center…”, on one of those days when there was no gunfire we made a parody of it. Everyone appeared in it except me and that is a joke I have only now realized: Ron, Sean, Edina, Peđa, Hare, Čenga, Nino, Jacky, Mark (CNN), as well as the EBU team: Piere, Zrinka, Eddie.

Today, after years of not working in journalism, I am in contact with many people I met during the war. I am good friends with many of them and when we meet we don’t like to talk much about our Bosnian experience. We start telling everyday gossip from our news organizations and end with football.

Zoran Stevanović and Paul Marchand

But we always remember Paul Marchand, Kurt Schork and many other war reporters who are now gone and we drink in their name.