Searching for Truth in the Balkans
By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (email@example.com) is an AJR senior contributing writer.
BECAUSE THEY ARE SHUT OUT of the real action, journalists sometimes have to turn to extreme measures to get an inside scoop--accompanying KLA rebels into battle, for instance, or slipping into a refugee camp mysteriously sealed off by the Macedonian police. A few have trekked over mountain passes to the Kosovo border for a glimpse inside.
Stein J. Bjorge, a Norwegian photojournalist, wandered into a minefield as he attempted to sneak across the border to film Kosovars being terrorized by Serbs on the other side. As three Serb gunmen spotted him and took aim, Bjorge quickly headed back. On the way, he met a Macedonian border patrol officer who told him the area he escaped through was mined, says the staff photographer for the Evening Post, a large Oslo daily. He emerged unhurt, although he still has nightmares about the experience.
It has become an obsession, says Bjorge, to see firsthand the horror so many are talking about.
Perhaps that's what drove the New York Times' Gall, who, with laser-beam sharpness, set her sights on getting back into Yugoslavia. At breakfast one day in mid-April, she pored over a map of the region, then headed to her cluttered room to pack a laptop, a mobile phone, an extra pair of jeans and a sheepskin coat.
Gall held a much sought-after treasure, bona fide press credentials from Belgrade. But, like most others, she was expelled after the NATO attacks began. Was she optimistic she could talk her way back in? "I will get to the border and try," she said at the time.
On March 25, the second day of the NATO bombings, Gall exited Pristina's Grand Hotel in Kosovo just as Brent Sadler's CNN vehicle was being firebombed by rampaging Serbs. "We could see the flames as we drove away," she says. Earlier, her translator, half Albanian, had been beaten. A CNN staffer had been slapped around.
"In Kosovo, the Serbs are ready to do harm to you as a journalist in a way that is very shocking and personal. There's uncontrolled rage and aggression," says the reporter, who once worked for the Moscow Times. Still, she was willing to place herself back under Serb control. Being female, she believed, might provide some protection.
"There is something even about nasty Serbs that holds them back from hitting a woman. No women [in the press corps] got beaten up," Gall says. She reasoned that fighters relish talking to female reporters, who are not viewed as a threat, while they are tempted to show off and test the wills of other men.
Do the persistent reports of rape coming out of Kosovo concern her? "I'm not worried," she says. "I speak Russian to the Serbs, and it does instantly mellow them." And then there's always her mother's 1970s-vintage sheepskin coat, which she also has carried to such dangerous venues as Chechnya.
Hauling the coat out of the closet, she notes, "When you go up and interview soldiers wearing these curly cuffs and curly collar, you look like a sweet, young thing, not threatening, just a girl," says Gall, who is writing her Kosovo memoirs for Vogue magazine.
There is an underlying notion that the axiom "you're only as good as your last story" drives some on assignment in the Balkans to risk danger. USA Today's Kelley admits that he stayed up nights agonizing over what he could file that no one else had.
Finally, hobnobbing with KLA volunteers in seedy pizza parlors and bars in strange and dark places paid dividends (see "Suicide Mission,").
"We are trained to distrust and to check everything out for ourselves. Here, that mostly has been impossible," Kelley says.
But not everyone is straining for a trip to the other side of the border. An American TV producer states emphatically: "I'm not taking a bullet for my boss just to get a story. I'm not going to be a cowboy and risk my life."
AT TIMES, THE GENEROSITY of journalists stands out like a beacon in the squalid refugee camps where women wash clothes in muddy ditches and children play in piles of garbage. One afternoon, a mob swarmed around the Toronto Sun's Fisher, a hulk of a man nicknamed "the Happy Buddha."
The columnist was passing around his cell phone so refugees could inform relatives that they were alive. Several TV networks happened onto the scene and beamed his act of kindness around the world.
Similarly, a long line formed at the back of an NBC van when correspondent Fredricka Whitfield and her crew offered use of their mobile phone so refugees could call their families. "We have agreed that, if we have to, we will pay for it out of our own pockets," Whitfield says.
Like many journalists, Veronique Pasquier, a correspondent for 24 Heures, a daily newspaper in Switzerland, accepted scraps of paper with phone numbers scribbled on them from refugees, then contacted relatives. "They are so desperate, and it is such a small thing they ask," she says.
Alejandra Martins of BBC World Service lent her cell phone to refugees so they could contact their families. "What the hell. It's a human being who needs help," says the broadcast journalist, who had been trailing a mother and two children from camp to camp to personalize the refugees' ordeal. Like many others, Martins longs for a look inside Kosovo. "Nobody is telling the story of those left behind," she says. "Nobody knows their fate."
At times, journalists would tuck cameras or notebooks away and carry bundles for exhausted refugees, often the elderly or the infirm, as they climbed off buses and stumbled into long registration lines.
And there was generosity on the other side. Sometimes, apricot juice in a small plastic cup, an orange or a cookie would be offered to the muddy, dust-covered reporters when they entered a camp. "Kindness from people who have nothing," observes Pasquier.
Did journalists cross the line by offering help to victims and becoming emotionally involved? "That's just bullshit," says Kennedy of the Daily News. "If you don't feel [the misery], you are a lousy person and a lousy journalist. At times, I was weeping as I was filing. It's not just me. I have heard of NATO soldiers breaking down."
In March 1998, Nancy Motta, of Italy's Olympia Photo Agency, covered the aftermath in the village of Prekaz. There, Serb forces had killed more than 50 ethnic Albanians, about 20 of them members of the Adem Jashari family--men, women and children. Jashari was suspected of being a KLA leader. Motta saw the bloody, mangled bodies, she said, and became dedicated to documenting the horror so "the world would not forget."
"Sometimes I stop taking pictures and just mix with the people," the photographer says. "I just put my cameras aside and cry."
THE UBIQUITOUS MOBILE phone has made a major difference in the flow of information out of the Balkans. The technology is affordable and widely available--cell phones can be rented at Zurich and other airports on the way into the war zone. They provide 24-hour access to newsrooms, to NATO officials and other sources, and to fellow journalists on the hunt for news.
It was common to see correspondents standing at the edge of the Kosovo border as refugees streamed across, phoning editors back in the U.S. with up-to-the-minute assessments of how newsworthy the story might be.
In April, Kennedy's cell phone enabled her to instantly flesh out a local angle. During a visit to the border as refugees were streaming across, Kennedy and a competitor from the New York Post heard a woman who had just jumped off a bus shout, "I want to make a statement. My son is from New York. Can someone call my children?" Both reporters scribbled down her son's number.
As Kennedy tells it, the moment the Post reporter was out of sight, she dialed the son in New York to deliver the news that his mother was alive. During the interview, the son excused himself to take call waiting. The New York Post was on the other line.
"It was amazing," says Kennedy, who sat in the bar at the Grand Hotel in Skopje one evening and dialed her own mother in New York. "Hi, Mom. I just want you to know that I'm still alive," said the reporter, who was covering her first armed conflict.
IN SKOPJE, THE HUNT for news usually begins around 7 a.m. when hotels open their breakfast nooks. Journalists circulate from table to table reciting a now-familiar litany: "Hey, man, what you doing today?" "I don't know yet. How about you?" "Heard anything about the Apaches coming in?" "No, have you?" ###
The rules of the game: Never give out your secrets. Seek, but never provide, real information. Always beat the competition.
It is during such a hunt that Philip Smucker embarks on the trail of frozen bodies. When the reporter arrives in Tetovo, bordered by mountains, he learns that two bodies have been found--an adult female and a 5-year-old girl. And yes, there are survivors, including the dead woman's 14-year-old daughter.
The trail takes him to a taxi stand to interview the leader of a search party that had retrieved the bodies, then to a furniture shop where relatives would bring the girl and two uncles who survived the trek. Finally, Smucker, through a translator, begins the verification process.
First he questions the men: How many started the climb? How many survived? Why did they choose a dangerous route over a mountain known to be one of the Balkans' snowiest? What time of night did the blizzard hit?
Slowly, the death scene is reconstructed. Then the reporter turns to the girl, Shejnore, her frostbitten feet swathed in bandages. In a slow, faint voice, the teenager tells how she cradled her dying mother in her lap as, delirious and slipping into unconsciousness, the mother groped for the warmth of a fire fueled by their last possessions.
The second group, including the girl's father, 10-year-old brother and two adult sisters, fell behind in the snowstorm and disappeared. Shejnore remembers her mother screaming, "We are losing our family." Then comes the kicker: The girl's mother was desperate to escape, the uncles said, because she was terrified her daughters would be raped if she didn't get them out of Kosovo.
Smucker has his story. Before departing, he leaves 100 German marks to buy flowers for the mother's funeral and heads to file from the Internet Cafˇ in Skopje. The story runs on the front of the Daily Telegraph and is carried in Newsday, the Washington Times, the Houston Chronicle and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The next morning, as Smucker sips coffee at the Continental, colleagues come up to say, "Nice going, man," as word about his story spreads. But, there is no braggadocio, no high fives. "There's no joy in hearing this kind of epic tale of tragedy," Smucker says. "It's not the kind of thing that makes you happy."
Finding the survivors helps put off the decision to cross into Kosovo, at least for another 24-hour news cycle. But there are still 60 known missing along the mountain pass, women and children, frozen to death, or maybe starving and hanging on.
When colleagues ask where he is heading that day, Smucker doesn't say.
Two weeks later, Smucker at last makes it into Kosovo.