This article was first published in the Oslobođenje special edition to mark 30 years since the start of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Download it here.
I went to Sarajevo for the first time in June 1992. I had been in Belgrade, where someone (I don’t remember who) told me I should contact a friend of hers, Gordana Knežević, when I got to Sarajevo. I did, and I stayed with her and her husband Ivo for several days. I was very impressed with them. I had spent time in Serbia and Croatia, where I found many people thinking of themselves exclusively in national terms, as Serbs or Croats, but Gordana and Ivo were different. Gordana was a Serb, Ivo a Croat, and many of their friends were Muslim or still called themselves Yugoslavs, but those identities didn’t seem to matter. I soon realised this was a common pattern in Sarajevo, and it made me realise that whether this cosmopolitan idea could survive in the midst of nationalist thinking was what made the struggle over Sarajevo relevant to the broader world. This was the story I wanted to tell, and I wanted to tell it in a personal way, with human characters.
Through Gordana, I saw how Oslobođenje symbolised this Sarajevo idea. The paper had a multiethnic staff and as an enterprise it was committed to multiethnic life. Beyond that, it also symbolised the perseverance and resilience of the Sarajevo people, because the staff refused to give in to the war. With great courage and effort, they managed to publish their paper every day, even after their building was bombed. That’s when I realised I could tell the Sarajevo story by telling the Oslobođenje story, using the people who worked there and their private struggles and challenges to represent the broader Sarajevo experience.
The first person I met was Gordana. Through her, I met Kemal Kurspahić, the editor-in-chief, and other editors: Fahro Memić, Rasim Ćerimagić, Adil Hajrić and Zlatko Dizdarević; Columnists Vlado Mrkić, Mehmed Halilović, Gojko Berić; reporters Senka Kurtović, Emir Habul, Vedo Spahović, Džeilana Pečanin, Vlado Štaka, Tomo Počanić and others. I also became friends with other people in Sarajevo, including Miro Tadić, Zdravko Grebo, Senada Kreso, Nedžad Imamović, Boris Knežević, Mirza Hajrić, and my grumpy driver, whom I remember only as “Smajo.” I know most of these people are no longer in Sarajevo, but in almost every case they stayed throughout the war, because they believed in Bosnia and they believed in Sarajevo.
Kemal was the guiding star of the Oslobođenje community. He, more than anyone, was able to articulate the principles that Oslobođenje stood for and the historical and political context in which it had developed. Like Gordana, he was in an interethnic marriage. He was Muslim and his wife Vesna was a Serb. Of all the people I knew in wartime Sarajevo, he was the most cheerful and upbeat. He played an extremely important role in maintaining the morale of the staff and persuading them that their communal work and the daily production of their paper was a cause worth their commitment.
There are two categories of reporters in war zones, and their missions are quite different. There are journalists who report for the United States or other countries not directly involved in the war (like my wife Martha Raddatz who is currently in Ukraine as a correspondent for ABC Television). Their responsibility is to communicate to the rest of the world what is going on in the war zone, to make it comprehensible, and to get people to care about what is happening there. That is incredibly important work, and they need to be encouraged. This was myself and other foreign reporters in Sarajevo.
There are also the journalists who are from the actual countries involved in the war. In Sarajevo, these were my colleagues at Oslobođenje. Their work may be even more important, but their mission is different. The people of Sarajevo knew the reality of war all too well. They did not need someone to explain it to them or tell them why it was important. The role of local journalists in a war zone is to connect the people on the front line – fighters, aid workers, diplomats, etc. – with the people they are serving. The people need to know that someone is fighting for them. These local journalists are like front-line fighters themselves. They may not carry weapons, but they have the responsibility of maintaining the morale of the local population, which in wartime may be just as important as fighting the enemy.
I would like to think that the experience from the Oslobođenje Newspaper helped them. My book came out a long time ago, and I don’t know how many people now reporting from Ukraine are aware of the Oslobođenje story. I know some are. But I think the story I tell of the Oslobođenje journalists is one that should resonate with other war reporters, whether foreign or local, because the essential experience is the same, and the lessons that I drew from Oslobođenje would apply in similar situations.