From AJR, July/August 1999 issue
From the Battleground To the Suburbs
By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (email@example.com) is an AJR senior contributing writer.
KEMAL KURSPHIC EARNED A reputation as a hard-hitting, fearless editor during months of dodging snipers' bullets and artillery blasts in Sarajevo. His newspaper, Oslobodjenje, became a beacon of freedom amid the horror of war. Now the journalist has turned his expertise to suburbia, USA.
The circumstances couldn't be more extreme.
In Sarajevo, Kurspahic and his reporters braved mortar fire to document the massacre of civilians and the destruction of Bosnia's capital city. Today, he oversees a staff of 30 that covers suburban life for Connection Newspapers, a chain of 16 suburban Washington, D.C., weeklies with a combined circulation of 190,000.
Kurspahic is one of three managing editors for the chain and the editor of the McLean, Great Falls and Vienna, Virginia, papers. Many of his readers live in affluent neighborhoods where diplomatic license plates are common and gourmet shops offer caviar at $75 an ounce.
But one aspect of Kurspahic's career has not changed: The man named International Editor of the Year by World Press Review and a Nieman fellow at Harvard University still runs a prize-winning operation. In January, his staff took second place in the special project category of a Virginia Press Association contest. The topic: a three-part series on youth violence in and around schools.
Kurspahic, who left Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1994 and joined Connection Newspapers in early 1997, views the recognition from his American colleagues as a turning point. "There are certain standards you take with you wherever you go," the 52-year-old editor says. "I am very proud of what we accomplished."
The series, sparked by a murder at a local high school, included a survey of students on drug and alcohol use, vandalism, and fights at parties and on school grounds. Kurspahic describes the results as "shocking"--a high number of students said they had witnessed violence in or around their schools.
"We felt it was our duty to help the community face these realities," he says.
Mary Kimm, publisher of Connection Newspapers, calls Kurspahic "a miracle from heaven." "It is wonderful to have someone of his stature working with us," she says. "Whatever the challenges or problems, he never is fazed."
Kimm tells of a stormy day when lightning hit a transformer, cutting off electricity at deadline. "To me, it was the end of the world," she recalls. "To him, it was nothing."
During the bombardment of Sarajevo, the Oslobodjenje staff operated out of a makeshift newsroom in a bomb shelter after its 10-story office building had been reduced to rubble (see "Under the Gun," July/August 1994). By war's end, five staffers were dead and 25 wounded in the line of duty. The newspaper made journalistic history by publishing every day during the three-and-a-half-year onslaught.
When he arrived in the United States, Kurspahic moved his family into an apartment in McLean. And it was there that he spotted an ad in the classifieds for a community editor.
Kimm recalls the day she received his application: "Imagine how I felt when I saw, `International Editor of the Year,' and clips with his byline from the New York Times. I thought I had no chance of getting this guy," she says.
During the last year, Kurspahic has organized a forum on diversity in Fairfax County, coordinated a series on the most influential women in the area, and investigated mall culture and its effect on everyday life.
"In Sarajevo it was an issue of plain survival for my city, my family, my newspaper.... Here I deal with quality-of-life issues such as education, transportation and how to make our communities safer," he says.
Kurspahic's voice softens when he talks of his beloved Sarajevo, a city left in ruins. Each day, he pores over international editions of Oslobodjenje, which he receives by mail. He continues to write a weekly column called "Speaking Bosnian" for the newspaper he ran for six years. His themes often deal with ethnic and religious tolerance in a land scarred by hatred.
"Intellectually, I still am there," says the editor, who visited his homeland last summer.
It was fear for his sons' lives and livelihood that drove Kurspahic to leave Sarajevo. Mirza, 18, was co-captain of his soccer team at McLean High School last year and was named its most valuable player. Tarik, 25, graduated with honors from Salem State College in Massachusetts and works in the design department at Connection Newspapers.
As for the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, Kurspahic says, "I fully support it. It was long overdue."
He does have mixed feelings about NATO's destruction of Serbian TV, which he calls "an instrument of warmongering and hatred." Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic "used the media to silence any voice of tolerance. Their mission was to suppress the news," he says. "As a lifelong journalist, I share the pain of people who happened to be in that building when it was bombed. But I see it in the larger picture as part of the genocidal drive for domination that has left a bloody trail, including the killing of journalists."
In 1997, Kurspahic dedicated his book, "As Long as Sarajevo Exists," to the journalists who kept Oslobodjenje running under the "most terrible circumstances." Under his watch, the daily won the Freedom Award from media groups in Scandinavia, the Andrei Sakharov Award for Human Rights and the Nieman Foundation's Louis M. Lyons Award for conscience and integrity in journalism.
The editor deflects a question about whether he is longing to return to Bosnia. "As the saying goes, `all politics is local.' You live journalism where you find yourself," Kurspahic says. Then he heads to a news budget meeting with his reporters.