Covering Kosovo's Carnage  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   January/February 1999

Covering Kosovo's Carnage   

The brutal conflict in the Serbian province presents daunting challenges for journalists, while Internet connections offer new opportunities.

By Don North
     

Related reading:
   » Cracking Down
   » Following the War on the Web

JOURNALISTS COVERING THE CIVIL WAR in Lebanon in the 1980s used to grumble that to be a war correspondent in Beirut was to have your story on page six and your obituary on page 12. Now war correspondents are saying the same thing about covering Kosovo.

Clashes in this southernmost province of Serbia, between ethnic Albanian guerrillas and Serb police and army units, have created a massive refugee problem. About a quarter-million ethnic Albanians have fled to save their lives. It's as nasty and tragic a conflict as any I have covered, and I've reported on 14 wars, revolutions and uprisings since covering Vietnam for ABC News in the late '60s.

Although journalists report that the conflict could draw in neighboring Macedonia and Albania, as well as Turkey and Greece, Kosovo rarely makes page one in most U.S. newspapers. It doesn't help that Kosovo is so small--about the size of Connecticut, with a population of fewer than 2 million.

Yet to cover the conflict, journalists take numerous risks, often confronting gunfire without the benefit of armored vehicles or flak vests, or finding soldiers' fists in their faces for toting cameras to document the news.

But with this war, many correspondents are discovering they can cover at least the verbal volleys from a distance. With the warring factions posting official statements on their World Wide Web sites, Kosovo may become the first major conflict to be fought, in part, on the Internet.

The flip side of the impact of new technology is that disinformation can be more easily spread to the public by policymakers. The filter of the experienced journalist can be bypassed.

IN KOSOVO, SERB POLICE AND ARMY checkpoints are scattered every few miles along major highways. If an attack on a village is under way, journalists and observers are not allowed through. They must find other routes--side roads or dirt trails--into an area of conflict. That means taking roads that could be mined by either side. For a few rolls of film or seconds of video of distant smoke from burning homes, journalists risk their lives.

Violence hits indiscriminately. In mid-September, a Canadian diplomat, a military officer and an interpreter traveling in an armored car passed through a Serb checkpoint and headed into territory near Donje Obrinje controlled by the Albanian guerrillas, the Kosovo Liberation Army. The car hit a mine buried in the road. It blew off a rear wheel and flipped the vehicle on its side. As the Canadians crawled from the wreckage, KLA fighters opened up with heavy automatic weapons fire, aiming at Serb police positions. The assault kept rescuers away for four hours.

The Canadians were lucky to be traveling in an armored car. Journalists often are not so fortunate. Only the big, deep-pocketed news organizations can afford to send their staffs out in armored vehicles. During my three weeks last year of covering Kosovo as an independent journalist, I drove more than 2,000 miles in an old Volkswagen.

If you can't get an armored car, at least you should have a flak vest. But the Serbs and the KLA make it difficult for journalists to hang on to them.

A hundred bucks will buy a vest that can stop small-caliber bullets and shrapnel. Every Serb police officer or soldier wears one in Kosovo. But most KLA guerrillas don't have vests, and the Serbs want to keep it that way. Early in the conflict, the KLA confiscated flak vests from visiting journalists. Now the Serbs will not let journalists through a checkpoint wearing a flak vest that the guerrillas could steal.

Cameras also create problems. Serb soldiers, innately suspicious of journalists, will not permit their photos to be taken. If you see one in the newspaper, it probably has been taken secretly with a very long lens. In late August, while I was visiting and videotaping an impressive old Serbian Orthodox monastery near the city of Pec, a company of young Serb soldiers arrived at the historic church. I continued to videotape the church, the Patriarchate of Pec, until a large hand appeared in my lens. It was the last thing I saw before Serbian officers wrestled the camera from me and seized the tape.

When traveling with the KLA guerrillas, cameras are often forbidden, mainly because tapes can easily be confiscated by the Serbs at one of the dozens of checkpoints a journalist must go through.

To travel in Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians make up about 90 percent of the population, you'd better have an Albanian translator. He or she also must speak passable Serbian to get you through checkpoints guarded by Serbian police and soldiers. There, they demand that each journalist produce press credentials issued by the Serb government in Pristina, Kosovo's capital.

But it's the Albanian translator who takes the heat for speaking less-than-perfect Serbian to Serb police. After one particularly nasty session at a checkpoint, I asked my interpreter what the police said to him. ``Well, Don," my translator cautiously answered, ``the police were explaining what unnatural sex acts they would perform on my mother."

Being a translator for journalists is hazardous, paying 150 deutsche marks a day. That's equal to about $90 in U.S. currency--fairly standard pay for translators in most countries, but a princely sum for those working in Kosovo.

Serb journalists trying to report events in Kosovo face additional challenges. Moving outside Pristina and beyond the police and army checkpoints on major roads, they are in dangerous territory.

On August 21, Djuro Slavuj, an enterprising Serb journalist for Radio Pristina, and driver Ranko Perenic disappeared while covering the conflict around Orahovac in southern Kosovo, where Serb forces were mopping up KLA units. Serb officials at the Pristina Media Center believe the two were kidnapped by the KLA. If this proves true, it would be the first serious attack on Serb journalists by KLA members. (Two months later, Nebojsa Radosevic and Vladimir Dobricic, journalists for the Yugoslav state news agency, disappeared. The two were released by the KLA in late November.) Ethnic Albanian journalists have been frequent targets of attacks by Serb police since the Kosovo conflict began.

Many of us dispatched e-mails in August to the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York, asking for help in drawing attention to the disappearance of Slavuj and Perenic.

Ann K. Cooper, executive director of CPJ, responded with an August 26 letter to the political spokesman for the KLA. In it, Cooper asked for an investigation into the disappearance of the reporter and driver. ``We remind you that if Slavuj and Perenic have been subjected to involuntary detention or assault, such conduct violates international norms guaranteeing the rights of journalists to freely and safely practice their profession," Cooper wrote.

IN THE BALKAN WARS, KILLING YOUR enemies isn't enough. They must also be mutilated and stripped of any dignity in the eyes of those who loved them. It's a practice that has not changed since the days of Turkish warrior Hurshid Pasha. I was reminded of this while driving south from Belgrade to my assignment in Kosovo. I passed through the Serb city of Nis and paused at the Church of St. Nicholas, which has been converted from a mosque.

There stands the infamous Skull Tower. Following the Battle of Cegar in 1809, the victorious Pasha built a tower. Into the wet cement he sealed 952 severed heads of Christian Serb enemies. Sixty skulls still can be seen, grinning sardonically through the ages.

Now the job of cataloguing brutalities in Kosovo has largely been assigned to the press or the Internet. Albanians lead journalists to the bloody sites where whole families and villages have been murdered and mutilated in suspected Serb police actions. In Gornje Obrinje on September 26, 21 Albanians from one family were executed, following the killings of Serb policemen near the village. Photos of the bloody scene and the victims, some babies, appeared on the Web site of the Albanian-language daily Koha Ditore within hours of the crime.

When Serbs were the apparent victims in late August, the Pristina Media Center, run by Serb journalists, quickly arranged transportation for journalists to a captured KLA base in Klecka. On August 30, journalists were shown the charred remains of 22 Serbs, including women and children allegedly tortured and shot by a KLA firing squad. Their bodies had been burned in a kiln. The photos were posted on the media center's Web site the same day.

Both sides usually deny responsibility for the atrocities.

The truth, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has said publicly, is that both sides have committed heinous crimes against civilians in Kosovo. But, Annan has said, the majority have been committed by Serb security forces.

Until the Hague tribunal on Bosnia, war crimes were largely unpunished in the Balkans, and terror as theater to intimidate the survivors was a tradition for its warriors.

Soldiers' intimidation of journalists appears to continue to discourage reporting.

Reacting to a report in late August that 10 civilians were being held hostage in a village in western Kosovo, I cautiously drove up to an army checkpoint outside the village and asked permission to proceed. An amiable Serb soldier who spoke reasonable English said he had no objection.

At that moment, sounds of a firefight reverberated from the direction of the village. The soldier and his buddies warned that ``terrorists" might be attacking, and it might be too dangerous to proceed. Although it seemed strange that none of the dozen or so soldiers at the checkpoint took cover or even seemed interested in a possible KLA attack, I heeded their warning and left.

I later came to believe that the Serb soldiers had radioed troops closer to the village to shoot off some rounds to keep nosy journalists away.

EVEN THOUGH IT IS DIFFICULT TO GET to the front lines, with the Internet there's no shortage of information--and propaganda. It used to be that warriors on both sides of a conflict--grunts and generals, politicians and diplomats--made their cases through the war correspondent, who sifted the facts from the spin. Now combatants often try to bypass the press, communicating their information and viewpoints directly to the world via the Internet.

In Kosovo, policymakers who used to brush off journalists with ``no comment" now say ``check my Web site." Dozens of sites have a point of view on the Kosovo conflict.

Internet coffeehouses are growing in popularity and Internet chat rooms now provide an ongoing exchange between Albanians and Serbs.

A student in Belgrade told me Serbs don't protest by confronting police in the streets anymore. By way of the Internet, they keep up a flow of information not available through the state-controlled media.

Of course, journalists and government officials use the Internet, too. Serb journalists last spring established the Pristina Media Center in the Grand Hotel in the capital city. There's a well-stocked bar, CNN from satellite, phones and faxes, and translations of the local press. Ten deutsche marks, or about $6 in U.S. currency, get you Internet access for an hour.

In wars gone by, competing news agencies would go to great lengths to keep track of their rivals' efforts. Now, by punching up an Internet search engine, Reuters reporters can read what their Associated Press competitors filed that day. The Washington Post can read what the New York Times is reporting about Kosovo within hours of the story being sent.

Staffers at the media center help to circulate the stories. Each morning, all major news agency stories on Kosovo are found on the Web and copied for reporters. Even stories unfavorable to the Serb government are distributed.

If a reporter needs a sound bite, the media center director will relay the Serb government's position at the drop of a press card. Official Serb positions can be found at www.mediacentar.org.

A few blocks from the Pristina Media Center is the rival Kosovo Information Center, run by the Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova and his party, the Democratic League of Kosovo, or LDK. Here, too, you can read a daily flow of press releases and tap into its Web site, at www.kosova.com.

Perhaps more influential in shaping public opinion in the Albanian community is Koha Ditore, found on the Internet at www.kohaditore.com. The daily paper editorially supports Kosovo independence but covers all sides of the conflict. Koha Ditore's offices have become a first stop in Pristina for journalists and diplomats trying to sort through the confusion.

An editor, Dukagjin Gurani, says the press in Yugoslavia never had a tradition of presenting facts, only viewpoints. ``Now, people in Kosovo say our paper is not patriotic, because we are objective," Gurani says. ``At Koha Ditore, we feel that the highest form of patriotism is objectivity."

Koha Ditore relies on a vast network of stringers throughout Kosovo who report Serb military movements and detailed accounts of actions by both sides. These reports are quickly published on the paper's Web site.

But the most important source of fair journalism throughout the former Yugoslavia may be the independent Belgrade-based radio news organization B92. (See ``Cracking Down," page 40.) When Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic pulled the plug on B92's broadcasts during the fall 1996 student demonstrations in Belgrade, the radio station took to the Internet, at http://b92eng.opennet.org.

Although its broadcasts returned to the air, a digital seed had been planted. Now the Net is the core of its newsgathering activities. B92's twice-daily news report on the Web is the most complete and objective reporting available on the Kosovo conflict, often days ahead of the international press.

But this speed of news delivery doesn't work to a reporter's advantage when authorities are claiming a story is grossly flawed. Just ask Erich Rathfelder of the German newspaper Die Tageszeitung.

Pristina Media Center Director Radovan Urosevic says he advised Rathfelder he should leave the country shortly after an August 5 story was published in Vienna and Berlin. Serb reaction to the story was so negative, Urosevic said, that he ``advised [Rathfelder] he was in great danger and that I could not protect him from angry Serb citizens." Rathfelder took the director's advice and left Pristina, Urosevic said.

The reporter's story--bounced around the world on the Internet--alleged that more than 500 Albanian civilians had been dumped by the Serbs into mass graves at a landfill at the edge of Orahovac. But police in Orahovac and diplomatic observers dispatched there said only several dozen bodies had been buried. Serb officials said they belonged to KLA fighters who had been killed in a battle there.

The Serb explanation was rushed onto the Internet, too.

A VOICE CARRYING GROWING INFLUENCE in Kosovo comes not from a journalistic enterprise, but from a holy man toiling in a 663-year-old Serbian Orthodox monastery. The Rev. Sava Janjic has stepped up his criticism of Milosevic in recent months.

As the monks in medieval monasteries once pioneered the use of the printing press, Janjic, working in this monastery in Decani near the Albanian border, is finding new ways to use computer technology during war.

During the heaviest fighting near Decani last May, as his brothers raised the volume of chanting to overcome the sound of automatic weapons fire outside, Janjic started bombarding the Internet with e-mails to journalists, politicians and diplomats. He also posted thoughts calling for peace on a Serbian Orthodox Diocese Web site, www.decani.yunet.com.

Though living in a centuries-old structure, adorned with artwork illustrating the life of Christ, Janjic is thoroughly modern. Rising at about 1 a.m. to take advantage of the best Internet connections, the 33-year-old monk prays and then surfs the Net, bookmarking relevant stories from a wide variety of sources.

``It's nice to live in a medieval setting as we monks do, but that does not mean we are prepared to accept a medieval mentality," Janjic says. ``The Internet enables me to speak from the pulpit of my keyboard."

With their crackdowns against the media, Milosevic and his soldiers may be keeping war correspondents from covering some of the conflict firsthand. But they haven't stopped the flow of information or exchange of ideas over the Internet--from journalists, monks and others with a stake in the outcome.

###