Review of ‘Reporting the Siege of Sarajevo’

Book:  Reporting the Siege of Sarajevo: Kenneth Morrison: Bloomsbury Academic by  Kenneth Morrison, Paul Lowe (2021)
Review by Gordana Knezevic:

Gordana Knezevic was the deputy editor-in-chief of Sarajevo daily newspaper ‘Oslobodjenje’ during the siege of Sarajevo (1992-1995). Following the war, she relocated to Toronto, Canada, where she worked for Reuters (1999-2007), and later Radio Free Europe (2007-2018) in Prague, where she was Balkan Service director.

The First Draft of History

In 1987, as I prepared to take up the post of Middle East correspondent for my newspaper, ‘Oslobodjenje’, I knew that I was headed for a ‘troubled’ part of the world. Although based in Cairo, I would occasionally be called upon to report from one of the regional ‘hotspots’, such as Gaza or Lebanon. What I could not imagine then was that just over four years later, upon my return home, the war would come to me, to my country, to my city, Sarajevo. As I walked around the streets of Beirut, photographing the rubble, the charred skeletons of cars, and the windowless buildings, it seemed to me like the world turned upside down. I was appalled by the horror, by the devastation wrought by war, but I was no less astonished by the ways in which the residents of Beirut had learned to adapt to their surroundings, to live in what seemed to me then impossible conditions. The journalist in me was drawn to “study this hell”, as I wrote in a letter to my husband. At the time I noted that “although destroyed, Beirut has a soul”. 

As Yugoslavia disintegrated rapidly in 1990-1991, the prospect of my own country becoming ‘another Lebanon’ seemed ever more likely. However, even as late as October 1990, as my MEA (Middle East Airlines) flight made its low approach into Beirut airport, and I was struck by the greenish-blue oasis of the Summerland hotel against the canvas of the bombed-out city, it was hard to imagine that looming catastrophe. It was still unthinkable that the only way into Sarajevo would be aboard one of the UN aid flights (nicknamed ‘Maybe Airlines’), that the scorched landscape would be my city, with its own war hotel, the Holiday Inn, built for the 1984 Winter Olympics, serving as a base for the foreign press corps.

If the war in Bosnia had its heroes, then they were the foreign correspondents. It is therefore surprising that the first book about the media coverage of the conflict, by Kenneth Morrison and Paul Lowe, has just been published (Bloomsbury, 2021), 26 years following the end of the siege of Sarajevo. The cover photo is more than telling, showing a woman carrying a child and running across the street to evade the snipers. It captures the essence of a war waged primarily against civilians.

It was precisely that aspect of the war—the merciless destruction of a European capital city at the end of the twentieth century, the privations suffered by its trapped citizens of all ethnicities (Muslims, Serbs, Croats and others), all equally exposed to shelling by the Serb forces in the surrounding hills—that made it so compelling for both veteran journalists and the many junior reporters, some barely out of journalism school, as Morrison and Lowe point out.

John F. Burns, one of the seasoned reporters, who won one of his two Pulitzers for his reporting from Bosnia for the New York Times, waged two wars at once—against his cancer, and for the truth about the war in Bosnia. Following chemotherapy treatment in the US he “could barely walk from one side of the room to the other”. Persuaded to return for one more assignment, he found that “the former Yugoslavia, and particularly Sarajevo, was my recovery ward”. Whenever I think of him, I picture him with his notepad and pencil, like a schoolboy, the simple tools with which he brought the truth about the siege of Sarajevo—as a war against civilians—to the front pages of the Times

The siege of Sarajevo was “a very defining experience” for a whole generation of journalists and war correspondents, according to BBC’s Allan Little. As Morrison and Lowe detail in their book, the Bosnian war played a pivotal role in transformations in journalistic practice, and it took place in the context of wider changes, such as the transition from analog to digital technology, and the arrival of the 24-hour news cycle. But it was the nature of the war that led many to question some fundamental tenets of our profession—not least the notion of ‘objective’ reporting. Little notes that although he had “reported from a lot of wars … this one I stayed with for longer and committed myself to more fully than any other”. It was “the rank injustice of the siege that was so hard to bear”, in the words of The Observer’sCharlotte Eagar, echoed by many of her colleagues. Professional commitment and a desire to bear witness to war crimes was compounded by a feeling of solidarity with those who lived through the siege—among the normally highly competitive foreign press corps, and with the ordinary citizens of Sarajevo.

That sense of injustice, and the international community’s failure to stop the slaughter drove many journalists to hold their own politicians to account. Christiane Amanpour’s impassioned berating of US president Bill Clinton live on air in May 1994 is a famous example of this. Although the exchange itself is recounted in the book, I remember Christiane’s preparation for the ‘Global Forum with President Clinton’, and I sat next to her in the Sarajevo TV studio from where she joined the live broadcast. It was afternoon in Atlanta and late night in Sarajevo. Amanpour had spent the whole week collecting and writing down questions from Sarajevans in her notebook, stopping by our newspaper office among other places. In the end, frustrated by Clinton’s equivocations, she ended up not using any of the questions, but instead proceeded to lecture the US president on the difficult situation in the city, and his administration’s lack of a clear policy. I will never forget the image of Clinton, seated in CNN’s Atlanta studio, looking up at the giant projection of Christiane Amanpour above. Afterwards, she was afraid that she had been too emotional about the plight of civilians in Sarajevo, but her career in fact continued on its upward trajectory. 

The authors express some ambivalence about what they refer to as the “journalism of attachment”. Certainly, the Bosnian war, and the siege of Sarajevo in particular, raised some perennial questions about the notion of journalistic objectivity. But being objective is not the same as being neutral, a tenet perhaps more readily acceptable today, in the era of fake news and false equivalences. The former US president Donald Trump’s attempt to normalize a white nationalist neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville—and the killing of a counterprotester—by suggesting that there were “some very fine people on both sides”, reminds me of Canadian UN general Lewis MacKenzie’s assertion the Bosnian conflict was between “three serial killers”, distinguished only by the number of their victims. Indeed, to Morrison and Lowe’s credit, their book includes some eloquent rebuttals of this kind of false moral equivalence. “To have stuck then to the neutral view might have served the notional ends of impartiality, but not of fairness, or of truth”, according to John Burns. “There are still those”, he adds “particularly among Serb nationalists … who condemn reporters of the time for having enlisted in the cause of the Bosnian Muslims, as though we had made a choice of our champions, and our villains, without troubling ourselves with the facts”. As CNN’s Christiane Amanpour explains, after witnessing “the heroic resistance of a population under siege and shelling and sniping for nearly four years”, and watching “men, women and children … casually targeted in the crosshairs of the sniper’s rifle, blown apart by mortar shells when they went to collect water, bread, fuel or even heading to school”, she “didn’t believe there was much ambiguity there”. The journalist’s duty was to be “truthful, not neutral.” Objectivity, notes Amanpour, “means getting all sides of the story, but it does not mean that you treat all sides equally”.

One aspect of the story of the role of the foreign press reporting of the siege that is not directly addressed in the book, and which I can speak to, is the impact it had on us local journalists. Just listening to Kurt Schork of Reuters, or John Burns interrogating UN spokesmen at press briefings was like another school of journalism for us. It emboldened us to be no less probing and assertive. Moreover, their presence, their commitment to the story of Sarajevo’s suffering even at the risk of their lives meant a great deal to us. My newspaper managed to keep publishing throughout the war, even after our building was reduced to rubble by Serb shelling, but the presence of the foreign journalists gave meaning to our efforts. If Sarajevo was so important to John Burns, Allan Little, Christiane Amanpour, and many others, then it had to be doubly important for us, who were journalists as well as residents of the city. They were helping us by their mere presence in Sarajevo, more than they were perhaps aware.

One of Kurt Schork’s most memorable despatches from Sarajevo, which made his name as a journalist, was the story of Admira and Bosko, the star-crossed lovers killed while trying to escape from the besieged city across no-man’s land. After Kurt himself was killed on assignment in Sierra Leone in 2000, half of his ashes were buried next to the young couple’s grave, at Sarajevo’s Lav cemetery. That was also the cemetery where he had attended and reported on many funerals, including those of young children killed by sniper fire, mentioned by Morrison and Lowe. Kurt’s family thus acknowledged the special place that Sarajevo had been for him, and the feeling was mutual. Sarajevo showed its gratitude to Kurt for bringing the story of the city’s suffering to the outside world in such a powerful fashion. The road on which the Sarajevo International Airport sits today bears his name, and so all new arrivals drive into the city down Kurt Schork’s avenue. 

Several foreign and local journalists were killed by sniper fire and shelling, mostly during the first summer of the war (1992). Many others were so affected by the “physical, emotional and psychological strain” of covering the siege, or so disillusioned by their governments’ failure to act that they left journalism to work for NGOs or human rights organisations. Many forged an enduring bond with Sarajevo, and kept returning to the city long after the war was over. Although it came far too late, when NATO finally intervened in Bosnia, in 1995, it was at least partly in response to public pressure after years of the foreign journalists’ bearing witness to the suffering of Bosnia and Sarajevo. For us, the residents of the city, the foreign journalists’ commitment to keeping a truthful record of the death and destruction, the suffering, but also the spirited resistance of ordinary Sarajevans, had an inestimable value. As bitter as we felt towards the Western governments for their failure to stop the killing, the presence of our colleagues made us feel that we had not been abandoned to our fate entirely.

If journalism is the first draft of history, then the first draft of the history of the siege of Sarajevo was truly exemplary thanks to the protagonists of Morrison and Lowe’s ground-breaking book—the foreign correspondents. But the war in Bosnia, and the siege of Sarajevo, was not only a compelling story in its own right. As an event it stands at the crossroads of broader geopolitical shifts (end of the Cold War era), historical transitions (end of the twentieth century), and changes in the practice of journalism. The authors should be commended for being the first to address the topic of the reporting of the siege, which was in many ways the crucible of these epochal changes.