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.
As the war in Ukraine enters its second month, images of the devastation of cities such as Mariupol and Kharkiv or shells being fired into apartment blocks in Kyiv are stark reminders that we cannot take peace in Europe for granted. The war has received significant media coverage. The international press corps, based in various cities across Ukraine, try to make sense of what is happening on the ground in a fast-moving conflict which have already had far-reaching consequences for European security, though the full extent of these are not yet known.
A turning point in journalistic practice
This month also marks thirty years since the beginning of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the siege of Sarajevo, during which the city was militarily encircled and subjected to daily sniping, mortaring and shelling, first by the the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and subsequently by the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS). The siege, which was not formally lifted on 29 February 1996 (four years after Bosnia’s independence referendum) lasted 1,425 days, making it the longest siege in modern history. More than 11,000 people were killed and many of the city’s most important cultural institutions, historical monuments, sporting venues and the wider social and economic infrastructure were destroyed or seriously damaged. Ordinary citizens, already suffering the privations caused by no gas, electricity or water and limited food supplies were subject not only to indiscriminate shelling but were deliberately targeted by snipers.
The siege of Sarajevo became worldwide news. The international media portrayed it as a compelling struggle between the lightly-armed defenders of a city encircled by the might of the VRS. And this in a city that had, just eight years before, hosted the Winter Olympics. For those foreign correspondents who reported from Sarajevo during the siege, it became the most important story of their careers. While a number of experienced journalists, such as the BBC’s Martin Bell and the Pulitzer Prize-winning John F Burns of the New York Times, made significant contributions, a younger generation of correspondents and photojournalists such as Christiane Amanpour, Allan Little, Remy Ourdan, Ron Haviv, Paul Lowe and Gary Knight, among others, made their names documenting the war in Bosnia and the siege of Sarajevo.
The siege marked important shifts in the practice of journalism. Digital technology began to change the way they worked; the use of armoured cars, flak jackets and helmets became more widespread; live satellite broadcasts became more commonplace. There was also a demonstration of remarkable solidarity between journalists in the form of the ‘Sarajevo Agency Pool’ (SAP), which facilitated the sharing of footage so that TV crews, in particular, could limit their exposure to unnecessary risk.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of reporting on the siege of Sarajevo was, however, the relatively rapid development of the journalistic infrastructure that facilitated the work of foreign correspondents. Between April and June 1992, there were foreign journalists in the city, but they were based either in small hotels or private apartments in Sarajevo or at the Hotel Bosna in Ilidža, where the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) had established their first satellite feed point, until they were forced to evacuate in mid-May 1992. As a consequence, there were only a small number of foreign reporters and photojournalists in Sarajevo throughout much of the following month.
There was little in the way of any reporting infrastructure, though one would emerge and consolidate in summer of 1992. Indeed, by July 1992 buildings such as the Holiday Inn, the Sarajevo TV station – where the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) established a satellite feed point – the PTT building where UN briefings took place, and the city’s airport from where journalists could fly in and out of Sarajevo, had become part of a vital infrastructure that journalists used to send their daily reports on developments within the besieged city.
Getting in and out of Sarajevo was fraught with danger. Those attempting to do so went by car via either the Pale-Lukavica road (and then across the exposed airport runway) or the Kiseljak-Ilidža road (both of which presented significant hazards and numerous checkpoints to navigate) or, later, the Mount Igman road. However, after the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) had taken control of the airport, journalists could access the city more easily. Once in possession of a UN press pass, they could fly directly into Sarajevo via UN aid flights – sardonically dubbed as ‘Maybe Airlines’ – from Zagreb and Split in Croatia or Ancona in Italy. Flying into the city, usually on a Hercules C-130, involved a ‘Khe Sanh approach’, a technique developed by the US Air Force during the Vietnam War in which the plane would nosedive into a sharp descent and level off just before landing.
After arrival at the airport, journalists had to travel down the treacherous airport road onto what became known as ‘Sniper Alley’, the main artery into Sarajevo. Numerous journalists were either killed or seriously injured taking this route, including David Kaplan, the ABC senior news producer, who was fatally wounded by a sniper’s bullet on August 13, 1992, minutes after arriving in Sarajevo and the CNN camerawoman, Margaret Moth, who was seriously injured on Sniper Alley on July 23, 1992. Both were travelling in ‘soft-skin’ vehicles, which afforded little or no protection. By the late summer of 1992, a greater number of journalists were acquiring armoured cars, which were increasingly regarded as necessary for operating within a besieged city.
The majority of journalists were based in the Holiday Inn, which became the home for many foreign correspondents and TV crews (with a few notable exceptions – the Associated Press were, for example, based in the Hotel Belvedere in Višnjik) and a crucial networking node. The hotel, which had been the temporary base for Radovan Karadžić and the leadership of the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), had been closed after April 6, 1992, when SDS snipers fired shots into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators assembled outside the Bosnian parliament before the hotel was stormed by Bosnian special forces. The interior of the building was badly damaged by the events of that day, but by late May 1992 what remained of the hotel’s staff returned to work to prepare for its re-opening in late June.
The Holiday Inn was no haven for its wartime guests, most of whom were journalists. It was dangerously exposed to mortar and sniper fire and located not only within siege lines but directly facing the front line. Many parts of the building were exposed to sniper fire, the lobby windows were no more than dangling shards of glass or open spaces covered with tarpaulin, and virtually every window on the building had been damaged by gunfire. Nevertheless, by July 1992, the Holiday Inn had emerged as a crucial communications hub for foreign journalists and the local staff – translators, fixers, and drivers – that worked with them. While life there was not necessarily a comfortable one, the guests did not suffer the daily privations experienced by the citizens of Sarajevo. The hotel had an underground car park where vehicles could be safely kept, and it provided food, a relatively stable supply of water and generators to ensure a near-constant source of electricity.
Like the Holiday Inn, the Sarajevo TV building was also a vital part of the infrastructure used by the foreign press corps. Built in the 1970’s but extended in advance of the 1984 Winter Olympics, this large grey concrete structure was among the least aesthetically pleasing, though one of the most solidly constructed, buildings in the city. Throughout April and May 1992, the TV station was the home primarily for Radio Television of Bosnia and Herzegovina (RTV-BiH). But after the EBU evacuated their base at the Hotel Ilidža in May 1992, a small EBU ‘special operations team’ returned to Sarajevo in June and established a new satellite feed point in the TV station. This became a critical part of the journalistic infrastructure, where TV crews, radio journalists and print journalists would all send their footage by satellite or dictate reports using satellite phones.
The TV station was considered one of the most secure buildings in the city and its robust construction meant that it could withstand the shelling and mortar attacks that it regularly endured better than most buildings in Sarajevo. It remained, throughout the siege, a hugely important part of the reporting infrastructure, without which television images of what was happening in the city could not have been as widely disseminated to international audiences.
Nonsense at 9 p.m.
The Postal, Telegraph and Telephone (PTT) building, where the UN held their press briefings, was also an important part of the broader infrastructure used by journalists. One of the daily rituals of the foreign press corps in Sarajevo was to attend these daily briefings, dubbed the ‘Nine O’ Clock Follies’. They were often rather fractious affairs, with gathered journalists sometimes critical of the role of the UN. Briefings for the press were also held at the Bosnian Presidency building, and this, too, became one of the key places for journalists to garner information.
This journalistic infrastructure ensured that the story of the siege of Sarajevo, both in terms of military developments and the experiences of the citizens, could continue to be conveyed to worldwide audiences. Creating it was a significant logistical and technological endeavour undertaken in the most challenging of circumstances. The repurposing of key buildings in the city as places where the media could gather official information or use communications equipment to file copy or transmit images, the increasing use of armoured vehicles to navigate more safely within the city and a genuine commitment to the story all combined to ensure that the siege remained, albeit only periodically, on the international news agenda until it was lifted in February 1996.
(The author is a Professor of History at De Montfort University in the UK. He is the author of ‘Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn: On the Frontline of Politics and War’ and co-author of ‘War Hotels’ (with Abdallah El Binni) and ‘Reporting the Siege of Sarajevo’ (with Paul Lowe).