Exposing Genocide...For What?
Newsday's Roy Gutman won a Pulitzer for his coverage of carnage in the former Yugoslavia. But he is outraged by how long it has taken the world to do something about it.
By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an AJR senior contributing writer.
Roy Gutman, 49, was sitting in his editor's office when he learned he had won the Pulitzer Prize. The veteran Newsday reporter had already won a string of prizes for his coverage of the brutal conflict among Serbs, Croats and Muslims in the former Yugoslavia.
Yet, for Gutman, winning the Pulitzer was bittersweet.
He had been covering the Balkans for Newsday since early 1991 and, in a ground-breaking August 2, 1992, story, was the first journalist to report the human slaughter in Serb-run "death camps." Gutman was also the first to use Nazi-era imagery of concentration camps and villagers deported in cattle cars to emphasize the horror of the situation. Other articles documented mass rapes, torture and savagery related to "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The gut-wrenching detail of Gutman's reporting focused international attention on the war and forced the news media to take a harder look.
In response to Gutman's reports, human rights organizations like the Red Cross also headed to the region. The United States began providing humanitarian aid to Bosnia and demanded that the United Nations form a war crimes commission, which it did. Information from some of the Newsday articles was often cited as a source in State Department atrocity reports sent to the U.N. commission.
Almost immediately after his August 2 "death camp" report appeared, the Serbs moved some prison camps deeper into Serbian-held territory, away from prying outsiders. Within weeks, thousands of prisoners were released. Sylvana Foa, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, is among those who credits Gutman's reporting with saving lives. "Roy Gutman freed at least 6,000 men who would still be in detention today," Foa says.
Honoring Gutman's work, the judges for the 1992 Heywood Broun Award wrote: "What might have been the impact if a reporter as persistent and courageous as Roy Gutman had exposed the conditions in Nazi concentration camps in the early stages of World War II?"
Gutman, however, remains dissatisfied with the sluggish response; he says the reluctance of western governments to intervene has led to "enormous frustration." Nonetheless, he continues his critical reporting, recently filing a scathing story reporting the ineffectiveness of the U.N. War Crimes Commission in holding war criminals accountable.
In a recent interview for AJR with reporter Sherry Ricchiardi, who has also covered the Balkan war extensively, Gutman reflected on his decision to move away from "objectivity" and toward reporting that focused on human suffering. He also recalled the formidable obstacles he faced as he meticulously documented the horrors despite the lies, distortions and staged events routinely used by the Serbs.
In late April, after collecting the Pulitzer, the Heywood Broun Award, the Polk Award, the National Headliner Award, the Overseas Press Club Award and the $25,000 Selden Ring Award in Investigative Reporting, Gutman returned to the former Yugoslavia.
Sherry Ricchiardi: What has been your greatest reward in reporting this story?
Roy Gutman: Oh, there is no question. It is the knowledge, which I acquired a few months later [after his August 2, 1992, story was published], that the story on the camps really did lead to the release of thousands of prisoners. There is simply nothing that compares to that.
Not even winning the Pulitzer Prize?
Well, the Pulitzer really is quite a stunning honor; but no, it doesn't compare. One of my greatest thrills was when I went to Karlovac [a Croatian city that serves as a clearinghouse for Bosnian refugees] after the first group of prisoners got out of the camps. I sat down with them, and they began telling me their stories. The people coming out had been through absolute hell. I was just so relieved they were out and that others would be freed.
You often placed yourself in great danger to document the atrocities. Where did this commitment come from?
Well, I'm Jewish, and yes, the Holocaust is something I believe must never happen again. Somewhere, back in my first thoughts about going into journalism, I considered that maybe if reporters had been out there to issue warnings at the time, they could have stopped it. And, maybe that's the way to stop the killing in Bosnia now. But I never expected I would be the warning system for some other ethnic group.
I've always felt that the best journalism was not advocacy journalism but simply the straightforward reporting of extraordinary information that reflects unacceptable practices or behavior. The reporting of it in the straightest possible way should alert people, and exposing it should stop it. That is the great let-down for all of us who have been covering Bosnia. This hasn't proven true.
This will be recorded as the first genocide in history where journalists were reporting it as it was actually happening and governments didn't stop it. It's outrageous and hypocritical.
How do you cope with the let-down?
Oh God, it's been the ultimate frustration. Not that journalists should prescribe what governments should do. But, I've never seen anything quite as paralyzed as this. The Bush administration gave away the show last year. After the media broke the story, everybody expected the U.S. government to flush it out. Instead, their agenda seemed to be to conceal it. After a while, they realized they couldn't because it was so bad. The paralysis of governments gave the "ethnic cleansers" the green light. The press makes a splash and draws attention to the problem, but it really can't do the follow-up. Only governments can.
Why did the Bush administration choose this head-in-the-sand approach in light of the strong evidence?
It was an election year. Bush didn't want to engage in anything else that could go wrong. So, instead of dealing with it, they denied it.
In mid-August, [then-Acting Secretary of State Lawrence] Eagleburger said that he had seen many reports from the camps, and there was no evidence of systematic killing but that conditions were unpleasant. What an incredible statement! There already were witnesses from Bosnia in Washington testifying to Congress. Their statements were being sent to the State Department. I went ballistic but I couldn't do anything until I found more witnesses.
What do you think about U.S. military intervention in Bosnia?
The most solid assessment I have heard, I was talking to Kemal Kursphic, the editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje. He said that a combination of air strikes and lifting of the arms embargo would turn the tide in Bosnia and allow the Bosnian government to regain control of their territory. It would not be overnight, but eventually. He said the Vance-Owen plan to send in troops to impose an unjust peace would take 50,000 men, 10 years and would become a quagmire. I think that's a pretty sober assessment.
Was saving lives actually part of your reporting agenda?
Well, not exactly. I don't think journalists ever expect that we can save lives. Obviously, who wouldn't if they could?
The night before the [August 2] story came out, I talked with an editor and said there were elements that if I had my druthers I would like to do more checking on. But that would take time, and I was totally convinced the whole thing [reports about the camps] was true. I also was convinced that we would save lives, and if we didn't run it, more people would die.
Remember the famous Kitty Genovese case in New York? [She was stabbed to death in 1964 as onlookers did nothing to help.] Well, that was one of those things that shaped my mind long, long ago. We can't watch passively while people are being killed in front of us. There are higher requirements. As a reporter, you can't simply sit there and report passively. You've got to do everything in your power to stop these things, and exposing it is one of the best ways to do it.
But doesn't that mean you have to step away from the basic tenet of objectivity?
I hate to be too personal, but one of the things I read after college was [former CBS News President] Fred Friendly's account of his years with Edward R. Murrow. I just went to the library today to get the quote.
It was after Murrow had done "Harvest of Shame" about migrant workers. And here's how Friendly put it: "Though objectivity is part of responsible reporting, all arguments, as Murrow had said, are not equal. Two sides of the migrant workers' plight could not counterbalance each other and no reporter with a conscience could end such a report without letting the viewer know how he felt. As Murrow once asked, 'Would you give equal time to Judas Iscariot or Simon Legree?' "
Some issues simply are not equally balanced and we can't give the impression that for every argument on one side, there is an equal one on the other side. I don't believe the fairness doctrine applies equally to victims and perpetrators. If you know who is doing what to whom, yes, you've got to give them the right of reply, but you don't owe them equal time.
So many journalists seemed to take the middle ground in reporting this war. They fell back on calling it an "ethnic conflict." How did you ferret out the various factions?
My reporting led me to believe that ultimately this was Serbian aggression; a simple case of conquest. Historically, the Serbs have never had a claim to the west side of the Drina River [Bosnia-Herzegovina]. It is much more clear-cut than people admit.
The important and most difficult thing is making sure you know where all the arguments are. In this particular conflict, it took tremendous effort. For me, it took six months the previous year . And my conclusion was the same as the EC [European Community] monitors and others who have been thoughtful about it. [Author and Nazi concentration camp survivor] Simon Wiesenthal himself calls it genocide, as do many others, including some in the State Department. But many reporters who came in to cover this war didn't take the time to get their compasses straight.
How did you cut to the heart of it?
Unlike many of my colleagues, I did spend more time with the Serbs, reporting them and watching them, rather than spending time with the victims in Sarajevo who were being shot at from a long distance. I wanted to get inside the machine, and I made a lot of effort to do that. If you weren't in the thick of it where they actually were doing the cleansing and running the camps, you could hardly discern the truth. When I could see how clear it was, it drove me on.
So, spending time with the Serbs convinced you they were mainly to blame?
Absolutely, because I would ask them to take me someplace and they would say, "No, we can't guarantee your safety." Or they would give me a briefing in which I would know they were lying. Often, I could prove them to be lying within minutes of them telling me something.
At the same time, the other sides, for the most part, were giving me information that I would verify. So, there was no big deal. It was not a difficult choice.
How did you penetrate the smokescreen of disinformation?
Frankly, sifting through the BS is a tremendous problem. The big lie really is the Serbs' specialty. They will take anything and reverse it to make it look like positive propaganda. They can show the scene of atrocities against Muslims and describe it as atrocities against Serbs. It happens all the time. All the sides do some of this, but not to the same extent.
How do you prepare to handle lies?
It's like a lawyer preparing a case or like what we traditionally do in investigative journalism. You have to collect everything you can, put the entire story together, then go to the other side for comment. You've got to have all your ducks lined up, then you simply confront them with your evidence. When they try to mislead, you are well-placed. Often, in one way or another, you can get the information confirmed.
When I know someone is lying, I try to call them on it in a polite, amusing way if possible. You don't get on your high horse. If that doesn't work, you might have to be forceful. For instance, I had an interview with the chief of police in Banja Luka, a Serbian-stronghold. The Muslims had provided a casualty list of around 30,000 to 40,000, including many massacres and camp deaths. Some of the information was specific, with names and towns. I showed him the list and said, "This is their total. Why don't you tell me what you have as a total?"
The police chief said, "I don't have a total. We don't keep figures." I said, "Wait a minute. You're the chief of police. You should have figures. If you don't give me what you have, I am forced to rely on information provided by the other side."
He replied, "I advise you not to do that. You can wait until after the war and we'll give you our figures." The police chief then offered a compliment: "You're a good investigator," he said. Here's a guy complimenting a reporter for trying to collect information he won't confirm or deny, and which I, in fact, know he's trying to cover up. It was very bizarre.
Did you have any last minute doubts about running the August 2 death camp story?
I didn't feel I was out on a limb, but still, it could have been wrong. And, if it had been wrong, someone would have won a prize for disproving it. I had enough signs, 10 to 12 circumstantial signs, plus live witnesses, plus the encouragement of many institutions off-the-record, plus the feeling of the atmosphere, plus trying to get to the camps and being turned away. This was the worst genocide in Europe since the Holocaust, so I didn't feel I could treat it lightly.
But, in the August 2 story, you used terms like "concentration camp" and "systematic slaughter" that drew criticism from some of your colleagues. How could you be sure you weren't overstating the horror?
This had been building up for months. The story I wrote just before the one on the camps, the story out of Manjaca, was one example. The trail was heating up. Having gone to Manjaca and seeing how prisoners were treated in the supposed POW camp, and discovering that they actually were beating people every night, that people were dying at the time when Serbian officials were saying nobody was dying – well, it was right out of a stage set.
Then I was hearing the rumors about Omarska, which was a real death camp, and I was being told by the Serbs that I couldn't go there. If anything convinced me that something was terribly wrong, that was it. I went back to Germany and had these anguishing days and weeks when I felt that all of it was true but I couldn't prove it. It was one of the worst periods I could ever imagine.
When was that?
It lasted from mid-July 1992 until the story broke in early August. I never felt such inner pressure or stress. I just felt miserable, like I was carrying this great burden.
What finally broke the August 2 story?
At one point, members of our Washington bureau called contacts all around the government and asked if they could check this thing out. No one in government ever replied. That made it all the worse. I thought, "Jesus, if we know there's a camp out there with prisoners kept in a pit, outdoors, baking in the sun, dying in the mud, then certainly the government should have an interest in stopping this."
I started making calls to Washington myself, then finally, I did a smart thing. I called my editor [Jeff Sommer] and said, "What the hell do we do? How do we cover this thing? I know it's there. All the signs point to it." Jeff said, "Maybe you ought to go back to the area."
In the meantime, I saw an Austrian press agency report about horror tales out of Brcko [a Serbian-occupied city where one of the camps was located]. Suspicion grew stronger by the minute that Serbian authorities were lying and that ethnic cleansing really amounted to wholesale slaughter.
Where did you go from there?
Well, if you develop a strong theory that something really is going on, then sooner or later, the penny drops into the slot and you realize: "There is a way I can do this. I can find survivors and reconstruct life in the camps." I began searching for survivors through the Bosnian Red Cross. From past interviews, I had come to believe that refugees were a very valid source of information. Up to this point, nobody had made a serious attempt to reconstruct events inside Bosnia.
Almost immediately, there was criticism back home on your use of Nazi-era images. How did that affect you?
At the time, I didn't even know about the criticism. My editors said I needed more victims, and they wanted more stories. I didn't want to stick around Zagreb [the Croatian capital] and defend my work. I felt it was up to other reporters to go in and find the story for themselves. I also wanted to get out of town because I was spending all my time giving interviews. But if you check the sequence of coverage in our paper, there were cases of Serbs organizing trains to deport whole villages; there were examples of massacres on bridges right in front of people. And, there were the camps. This was straight out of 1934 to 1938.
Truly, these scenes had not been recorded in Europe since the Nazi times. Pictures of the POW camp in Manjaca should have alerted the world to barbaric practices. To me, these camps were the institutional framework in which killing occurred. It was government-sponsored murder. There's no way to know the extent of it until we can get into Serbian-occupied areas and do the actual digging. l
Sherry Ricchiardi is a journalism professor at Indiana University. She has covered the war in the Balkans for several American newspapers and directs an International Media Fund Project in Croatia. She wrote about covering the Balkan conflict in our November 1992 issue.
ROY GUTMAN, NEWSDAY, August 2, 1992
Death camps: Survivors tell of captivity, mass slaughters in Bosnia
The Serb conquerors of northern Bosnia have established two concentration camps in which more than a thousand civilians have been executed or starved and thousands more are being held until they die, according to two recently released prisoners interviewed by New York Newsday...
In one concentration camp, a former iron-mining complex at Omarska in northwest Bosnia, more than a thousand Muslim and Croat civilians were held in metal cages, without sanitation, adequate food, exercise or access to the outside world, according to a former prisoner who asked to be identified only as "Meho." The prisoners at the camp, he said, include the entire political and cultural elite of the city of Prijedor. Armed Serbian guards executed prisoners in groups of 10 to 15 every few days, he said.
"They would come to a nearby lake. You'd hear a volley of rifles. And they'd never come back," said Meho...
In a second improvised camp, in a customs warehouse on the bank of the Sava River in the northeast Bosnian city of Brcko, 1,350 people were slaughtered between May 15 and mid-June, according to Alija Lujinovic, 53, a traffic engineer who was imprisoned at the camp. Guards at Brcko executed prisoners by slitting their throats or with firing squads, he said.
ROY GUTMAN, NEWSDAY, April 19, 1993
Rape camps: Evidence Serb leaders in Bosnia OK'd attacks
Using flashlights and torches of lighted paper, the Serb military police stole through the darkened indoor sports center in search of female victims.
Each night they selected 10 or more Muslim women. The men led them at gunpoint to a nearby house and raped them, witnesses and victims said. One 27-year-old woman told Newsday she was raped up to six times a night. Another woman was raped in the hall before the eyes of the others held there, witnesses said...
Partizan was but one of dozens of Serb rape camps in Bosnia – some are said to be still in operation – and it was prominently located, next door to the police station. Muslim women victims said they complained about the routine raping to the police, but police said they had no power to intervene.###