Emir Suljagic was not yet working as a journalist when he and his family fled their small Bosnian village for nearby Srebrenica in 1994. But that’s where he first learned about the power of the press. As the war in Bosnia made headlines in the United States, Suljagic, a Muslim, and his family sought refuge in Srebrenica, which the United Nations had declared a “safe haven” and vowed to protect from Serbian invaders. Suljagic met his first American newspaper reporter shortly after his family arrived in Srebrenica. “He came in all haughty and walking around, asking people, ‘Do you think the enclave is viable?’ All they had is a handful of rice. They didn’t even understand the meaning of his words.” Suljagic said the cocky reporter’s coverage missed the opportunity to make Americans aware of the atrocities that were being planned for Srebrenica. Less than a year after the reporter’s visit, 15,000 Serbian troops overpowered the 150 Dutch UN peacekeepers, murdering an estimated 7,500 Muslim men and boys in what has been called the worst case of genocide in Europe since World War II. Suljagic’s father, grandfather and uncle all were killed. Still, Suljagic and other reporters from the Balkans were grateful for the Western press – even though the foreigners didn’t always get the details right and sometimes didn’t understand the local culture. Local journalists were technologically ill-equipped to share the news of their war with the world, and many are convinced that the international community would not have intervened for peace without the coverage of their American and European counterparts. It troubles Suljagic that outsiders largely ignored the story of the Srebrenica atrocities until thousands were dead. It troubles him, too, that more have not stayed behind to cover the war’s aftermath: rebuilding of decimated cities, disarming of land mines, relocating people who left their homes. Suljagic points to David Rohde, formerly of the Christian Science Monitor, as a positive example. Rohde, now at The New York Times, was arrested by Serbs after he sneaked into their territory to confirm the existence of mass graves. His reporting proved that Muslim civilians – not Bosnian soldiers – were massacred at Srebrenica. “Foreign journalists had a responsibility,” said Suljagic, who joined the staff of the Bosnian magazine Dani in 1996. “They knew their word could actually be heard on the outside and have an influence on the outside.”
Among the Western press, nobody had more of that influence than CNN. Chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour’s influence achieved mythical proportions among the television, radio and print journalists in the trenches of Bosnia and Croatia. “She had all this equipment, all this fuss following her,” said Dario Topic, editor of the Croatian newspaper Osjecki Dom. “She would come in and get the flash news. … Belgrade only attacked when Christiane Amanpour’s cameras were on.” Svetozar Sarkanjac heard many tall tales about the famous television reporter as he covered the war and its aftermath for Croatian newspaper Novi List. There was the time in 1996 when American peacekeeping forces were said to have built a pontoon bridge over a roaring river just so Amanpour and her crew could get their equipment across. Then there was the rumor that Arkan, leader of the Serbian paramilitary group the Tigers, tracked her down in Belgrade, threatening to kidnap or kill her if the CNN crew did not leave immediately. Sarkanjac later heard that the special forces had transported Amanpour to safety. “None of the reporters from here had such logistics, such backup,” he said. Amanpour said she really didn’t, either. “The story you heard was not even remotely true,” she said. No one ever built a pontoon bridge over a river for her or anyone else from CNN. And although Arkan did threaten her, “I certainly was not transported anywhere by anyone’s special forces,” she said. Amanpour said she was not a celebrity and did not feel like one, although she was well-known in the region. But some of the locals considered her and her western colleagues as such. And they envied the technology and resources of their western counterparts. Dragan Ogurlic, who also covered the war for Novi List, remembers being envious of the foreigners as he wrote stories on a typewriter or made a dangerous five-, 10- or 15-hour trip from the front lines to the office to deliver old-fashioned film. “They were really well-equipped,” he said, shaking his head in amazement at the memory. “They had everything: Humvees, satellites, translators, flak jackets, helmets.” The one advantage native journalists had was knowledge. On more than one occasion, American television reporters announced to their audiences that they were “live in Bosnia-Herzegovina” when in fact they were standing on Croatian soil. Some reporters from the Balkans are more forgiving than others of such errors. Tena Perisin, a reporter for the Croatian television station HTV, sometimes worked as a translator for foreign journalists on her days off. On one of those occasions, she and an American radio reporter interviewed a Muslim man about dissention in his village. Well into the conversation, they learned that the man’s family had been victimized by a renegade group of Muslims, not by the Serbs. “(The radio reporter) told me later, ‘I’m so sorry for him, but there’s just not a place for him in our story,’” Perisin said. “If things are too complicated, there’s just no interest. Americans like to have two sides, a good guy and a bad guy.” Sarkanjac said he isn’t certain American audiences got the big picture about what was going on in the Balkans. Sometimes foreign reporters gave up looking for villages that couldn’t be found on a map. Sometimes they didn’t have time to learn the history of a region. “They made mistakes sometimes,” he said. “But they didn’t do it deliberately. It was not a normal war. It was complicated. You had to know each village, who lives in each village, and the situation before the war. You must know these things to be objective and true. If I’m from the United States, I don’t know.” As the walled town of Zadar came under heavy attack by Serbian forces, local reporters lived in underground tunnels without electricity or running water. HTV cameraman Marco Anzulovic faults some American and European journalists for leaving. “When the shelling began, (many foreign journalists) put all their equipment in the car and left. I stayed because it was the city I grew up in,” said Anzulovic. “When the alarms started, the civilians went to their cellars, and we went to the front.” Zadar-based newspaper reporter Davoua Mezic spent her nights in bomb shelters, her days on the battlefield, for more than five years. She had only one brief reprieve: a three-day trip to see relatives in the untouched coastal town of Split over Christmas in 1991. Meanwhile, foreign journalists had volunteered to come to the war zone and could leave for good any time they chose. “They came and stayed a few days – maybe 10 days – and then left the city. I stayed here with no electricity, no hot water,” Mezic said. “They could go back to normal life, and I had to stay here.” Like most local journalists who found themselves on the front lines, Mezic, whose pre-war beat was the culture and commerce of the Adriatic Sea, had not covered war until it invaded her home. She and her colleagues credit Western reporters with showing them the ropes. For example, Mezic believes she would have walked right over a land mine in a dusty road had an Italian cameraman not pointed it out to her. Many said the foreign journalists’ greatest achievement, though, was to shine the world spotlight on the Balkan conflict. Slobodan Stajic, an editor with the Sarajevo-based newspaper Oslobodjenje, believes that without the international press, the war would not have ended as soon as it did. “America is a powerful country. Their reporters helped the truth get out there,” he said. “People sent aid, and ultimately the Dayton peace accords were signed.”
Gina Barton is a reporter for The Indianapolis Star. She visited Bosnia and Croatia with a group of international reporting students from Indiana University.