Risk & Redemption

The Story Behind A View Of Bosnia

From Arthur Kent’s Risk and Redemption: Surviving the Network News Wars:

From Arthur Kent’s Risk and Redemption: Surviving the Network News Wars:

It was autumn, 1992. I was on my way to the Balkans--almost. Just one thing was missing. No one wanted to rent, much less loan, a camera with the price tag of a Ferrari to a correspondent hell-bent for Sarajevo - even if I could find insurance, which I could not.  (A firm backed by Lloyds of London wanted 50 per cent of the value of the camera up front for only six week's damage-and-loss coverage in Bosnia.)

In the end, I bought a beautiful French-made Aaton XTR, slightly used, with enough accessories to push the price up to $50,000. I fell in love with the machine. It was finely balanced, and when I shot a test roll of film it felt just like a purring black cat on my shoulder.
*          *            *
It was a dull Friday morning in central Bosnia when we got word of a story just up the road. Muslim families were said to be fleeing advancing Bosnian Serb forces who had captured Jajce, about forty miles northwest of the splendid historic town of Travnik, the previous day. But getting out to meet the refugees with my camera meant driving straight into a free-fire zone at Turbe, where gunmen from all three warring communities, Serb, Muslim and Croat, held positions in the hills. Milosh and Mladen, my guides, who had brought me all the way from Zagreb through Split, hadn't signed up for this kind of jeopardy.

A local teacher named Stjepan Lozic, a Croat, stepped forward. He didn't know how to drive, but he could show me the way to the front. He knew the hills well. And there was word, he said, of a temporary ceasefire to let the refugees pass.

"Terrific," I groaned, steering the Lada up the shell-cratered road. "Another ceasefire."

I had learned a few weeks earlier while travelling on the other side of the conflict with Serb gunmen how worrisome an agreed cessation of violence in the Balkans can be.  We had just taken the high mountain trail around Muslim-held Sarajevo.  The besieged city looked painfully vulnerable in the natural bowl formed by the Serb-controlled heights.

Svetlana and Nele had some friends they wanted me to meet. Svetlana, a sultry brunette with a .32 revolver tucked in her jeans, and Nele, her boyfriend, who drove the bullet-holed Volkswagen Golf with a Heckler and Koch machine-gun on his lap, were intimates of Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadjic. They'd been chosen by the president's office to expose this visiting filmmaker to their side of the war.

"We Serbs were so stupid," Svetlana told me. "All the while the Muslims were arming, we hoped for peace. We took to arms much too late."

Inconsistent with the evidence, I thought: as well as helping themselves to most of the former Yugoslav army's arsenal, the Bosnian Serbs had the support of Serbia proper, from whose capital, Belgrade, I had been flown into Bosnia. The Bosnian Serbs had trained thousands of heavy weapons on Sarajevo and had hammered the city mercilessly since the spring of 1992. Their forces had steamrollered much of the countryside, subjecting more than two million people of Muslim and Croat heritage to "ethnic cleansing." I told Svetlana her people hadn't much of the look of the underdog about them.

"Propaganda," she said. "Everyone is against us. You will see."

Svetlana's "friends" were Serb guerrilla fighters, so-called "Chetniks," a reference to the guardian-warriors of ancient Serb kings. I felt that old rubbery sensation in my knees, the one I get when things are about to get serious: the Chetniks looked like a cross between a motorcycle gang and seasoned combat veterans. Most of them, like their armor-plated jeeps and trucks, were liberally decorated with bullet scars. I was introduced to the group's leader, Vaske Vidivic, a wiry, limping man with sad black eyes and a straggly Chetnik beard.

"You can come with us if you like," he told me in a quiet voice. "But if they catch you with us, they will kill you."

"They" were the local Muslim forces, who were holed up in a little village nearby. There was, at that moment, a ceasefire in effect. But as soon as we approached the front-line positions in Vaske's pickup-turned-war-wagon, I found myself filming a uniformed Serb teenager spraying the place with a belt-fed machine-gun.

"Ceasefire?" I said.

"Listen," Vaske said through Svetlana. There was no return fire. "We're just keeping them awake," Vaske smiled.

"Ceasefire," I gathered, meant an absence of all-out assault by any one party against another. Exchanging the odd shell or machine-gun burst was allowed; just hold back on the blitzkrieg.

We were driving back from the front through a so-called secured area when the semantics lesson took a more chilling turn. I'd climbed back into the Golf with Nele and Svetlana. We were in a little convoy:  Vaske was leading in the war-wagon, and between us and Vaske was a compact with a two-tone green camouflage paint-job, driven by a lanky young sharpshooter named Damir. Vaske's sixteen-year-old daughter Sandra sat beside Damir in the passenger seat.

As we crawled along a dirt trail between two farmhouses, the world came to a standstill. Damir's windshield went suddenly white, and big chunks of glass broke away. Sparks splashed off the rear bodywork and then we heard it--a loud long burst of rifle fire. Damir twisted, smashed at the remains of his windshield with his rifle.

"Sniper," Svetlana breathed heavily.

I lifted my camera, rolled film and sunk deep in my seat, pointing the lens forward. I realized our cars weren't moving. We'd come to a dead stop in the sniper's trap.

"Move!" I shouted. But Nele sat motionless at the wheel. He had a pained expression, as if bracing for something. Like me, he fully expected to be shot in an instant or two.

Finally, the car shot forward and we were past the farmhouses. Ahead of us, Damir's car lurched to a stop, and he leapt out screaming in pain. I jumped free of the cars too, still filming but glancing all around for the gunmen I felt sure were following us.

But we were alone. When we arrived at a nearby Serb field hospital, we discovered that Damir had been lucky. He'd taken only two Kalashnikov bullets in the shoulder. Only two slugs out of the dozen or so that had ripped into his car.

Vaske just shrugged. "This is normal," he said. In Bosnia, even the combatant with the upper hand is a hunted man. Ceasefire or no ceasefire.
*          *            *
A few weeks after my adventure with the Serbs I found myself filming life and death on the Muslim/Croat side of the war. The smashed little crossroads village of Turbe was silent and looking very much like a battlefield where hostilities had come to an abrupt, unexplained and very temporary halt. I drove slowly through deserted streets and up a narrow valley road, my schoolteacher guide searching the autumn-colored hillsides for signs of trouble. Soon, the human cost of the war was trudging towards us.

Families on foot, families crammed into big old farm wagons drawn by tractors, families of three, four and even five generations, from infants to great-great-grandparents, were moving away from the battle that had claimed their villages around Jajce. Through the Aaton's viewfinder it looked like a sequence from a Second World War documentary, but in color. European families fleeing war with only a few blankets and belongings, and with ragged-looking soldiers, their own defeated army, slogging alongside.

It was the counterpoint to the aftermath of a battle I had filmed weeks earlier with the Serbs. The long, bloody clash at Bosanski Brod on the Sava River separating Bosnia from Croatia had been another big victory for regular Bosnian Serb forces over their combined Muslim and Croat adversaries. I had followed the young Serb soldiers as they made their way into the captured city. Now, a hundred miles to the west, I was witnessing the consequences of the battle that immediately followed Bosanski Brod.

Filming the mainly Muslim civilians and fighters, and with images from Serb-held territory already in the can, I was close to realizing the objective of my documentary--a brief profile of the warring parties and the nature of their conflict.

I'd been struck by a visual paradox: the people of the three communities are very much alike--in appearance, in the way they build their homes and arrange their villages. But behind subtle differences, like the frequently lighter skin tone and green eyes of Muslims, or the Cyrillic alphabet of the Serbs, there lurk divisions, deeply rooted in the past, of religion, language and custom. Divisions that had been played on by ruthless political and military leaders to create the hatred necessary to spark genocide. Blind, mad hatred.

That afternoon, driving back into Travnik, it felt good to return safely with fresh evidence of ethnic cleansing. I had accomplished something; I was active, fully operational once more as an independent journalist and filmmaker. Sure, it was a modest little project--one short documentary and a few TV news stories. But I was on the ground, contributing, if only as an individual, to one of the most challenging and important stories I had ever faced.

The weeks I spent in Bosnia greatly influenced my attitude towards the NBC case, which was proceeding in Los Angeles with early pre-trial motions. The war hadn't taken my mind off the scandal - my outrage at management's actions was still raw, close to the surface. But getting in touch with my reporting roots had thrown a sharper light on the journalistic aspects of the case. On the process of assignment. Safety in the field. Effective and responsible management of people and equipment. And most of all, on our duty to maintain professional codes of conduct. These issues were worth fighting for. More than ever, I felt eager to expose my adversaries in NBC management.

All around me in Bosnia were examples of the excellence we can achieve as reporters and photographers, as investigators, as recorders of history. And I don't mean examples set by foreign professionals. I mean people like the young women and men barely out of their teens who kept Sarajevo's television station on the air through the most vicious artillery bombardment seen in a European city since the Second World War. Like Harry and Changa (Muharem Osmanagic and Semsudin Cengic), the Sarajevo camera team who shot much of the terrifying close-quarter fighting in their home town. Every major network in the world used their footage, almost always without crediting them.

And right in central Travnik I met one of the best-known and loved home-grown cameramen of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. Tihomir Tunakovic, a young filmmaker from Zagreb, was photographing the refugees' arrival in Travnik for BBC News. A tall, striking figure with what looked like brand-new equipment--expensive gear he was clearly proud of; he'd earned the rig, and the nickname "Tuna," while shooting some of the most vivid combat visuals to come out of the 1991 war in Croatia. Now his reputation was growing in Bosnia. He grinned as we crossed paths on a crowded bridge. We shook hands.

"I heard there was someone here with a film camera," he said, examining my Aaton. "It's beautiful." He told me that he wanted to direct feature films one day.

We chatted for a while, then set off in separate directions--he to record videotape that would be fed to London next day by satellite for the daily news bulletins, me to gather more film for my longer-view documentary, which I'd hand-carry home to England and edit at the BBC.

It was the next day, as I reached a village sixty miles from Travnik, that I heard the news about Tuna on the BBC World Service. He'd been killed that morning when the clearly marked BBC armored vehicle he was driving was fired on northwest of Turbe. The same road I'd been filming on the morning before we'd met. The ceasefire had broken down. Or rather, it had held true to its promise of much more bloodshed to follow.

Tihomir was among at least thirty-two journalists killed in the former Yugoslavia between June 1991 and January 1993. Many more were to follow.

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