From AJR, June 1999 issue
Searching for Truth in the Balkans
Fact by Fact, detail by detail, Western journalists meticulously reconstructs the horrors of Kosovo.
By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an AJR senior contributing writer.
RAYS OF AMBER SUNLIGHT SWALLOW the morning mist and prayers from ancient mosques echo through the bazaar as Philip Smucker pulls on his denim jacket and begins the prowl for news in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. The killing field of Kosovo is just a 30-minute drive away. It might as well be on Mars.
Smucker, like others covering the Balkan war, knows that crossing into the terror zone for proof of gang rape, mass execution and medieval torture, the worst in Europe since the Nazi era, could be fodder for a Pulitzer Prize. It also could be a death sentence. NATO pilots and members of the media top the Serbs' most-wanted list.
The veteran stringer for publications such as U.S. News & World Report and London's Daily Telegraph had a snub-nose machine gun jammed into his belly when he was ordered out of Yugoslavia after NATO airstrikes began March 24. His passport was stamped "permanently invalid." Serb authorities used a state-run newspaper to brand him "the Balkan bureau chief for the CIA."
But the race for breaking news in the bloody Balkans is on, and that means pursuing tips or just gut instincts into dark, dangerous places. A mantra was resonating among the press corps here: Find a way into Kosovo--the shadowy province from which unconfirmed reports were emanating that murder and sexual torture were common fare.
Smucker's day begins at the breakfast buffet in the Continental Hotel, a Casablanca-type hangout in Skopje where six reporters have been known to jam into a single room at night, some sleeping on the floor and in the bathtub. A 1970s Communist holdover with voluminous plastic chandeliers and Lilliputian elevators that creak at a snail's pace, the hotel quickly gained notoriety as a "hub for hacks" when the international press corps swarmed into town.
The NATO press office is on the second floor, and the dimly lighted bar quickly became a hotbed for story tips, sometimes gleaned by eavesdropping on seasoned road warriors who have returned after deadline. The message board in the lobby links the working press to shared rides into neighboring Albania, satellite phone rentals and other necessities: "Wanted: translator, female, for work/fun. Call Charlie in #313."
While schmoozing with peers that mid-April morning, Smucker begins sniffing out rumors of a death march--refugees frozen in a blinding blizzard as they traversed a perilous mountain pass into Macedonia, further proof of the frenzied attempts to escape savagery by Serbian paramilitaries.
If true, it would be a potent snapshot of the victims' plight, fleeing one hellhole into another. If he finds survivors, he might have an exclusive. And Smucker has a backup plan: If all else fails, he will attempt to locate the pass through the jagged snowy peaks and, if no Serbian authorities are in the vicinity, go in search of bodies on the Serb side of the mountain.
"If the coast was clear, I would do it. If it's true they are freezing along [the escape route], that's a big story," the reporter says, during a breakneck drive toward the town of Tetovo in pursuit of eyewitnesses.
Smucker glances at the mountain, rumored to be strewn with bodies, as he steers his weather-beaten 1989 Volkswagen Golf around cavernous potholes, then crawls along maddeningly behind a tractor pulling a load of manure. A 6 p.m. deadline looms for the first filing to London, and for the moment, the reporter, adrenaline pumping, forgets that he, like most of the press corps in the Balkans, is operating with severe handicaps.
The hard evidence of slaughter and forced exile of ethnic Albanians--the heart and soul of the unfolding drama--remains locked behind Serbian lines in a province about the size of Connecticut.
JOURNAISTS USE WORDS like "frustrated," "outraged" and "pissed off" to describe how it feels to be banned by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic from covering one of the great news events of the century. As of early May, only a handful had made it inside.
Adding to their angst is the barrage of misinformation cranked out by the Serb media. There's also constant spin from NATO and other political factions. The end result: blurred lines between propaganda and real news in a region where reporters are often prevented from doing their own detective work.
Disgruntled correspondents quickly nicknamed this conflict the "hearsay war," replete with stories that included the phrase "it cannot be independently confirmed."
Back in the newsroom, foreign editors beg for new angles and whine about being "refugeed out." That leaves some, like columnist and correspondent at large Matthew Fisher of the Toronto Sun, feeling "totally hopeless." "It's like there's a great big fence [around the story], and we're trapped on the outside," says Fisher, who is covering his 14th armed conflict.
Others, like Carlotta Gall, who is covering the war for the New York Times, took the offensive. Typecast by colleagues as the "Christiane Amanpour of print," Gall in mid-April talked of attempting to wheedle her way past Serb patrols. She also began cultivating sources within the Kosovo Liberation Army.
As of early May, only a chosen few, like Paul Watson of the Los Angeles Times and Brent Sadler of CNN, had been allowed to regularly report from inside Yugoslavia. CNN constantly warned viewers that its crews were not allowed to videotape without Serb permission and that travel outside Belgrade was restricted.
CNN's "soft on Serb" reports, as many regarded them, sometimes drew a chorus of boos and became the butt of jokes when aired on a TV set up for the press in the Continental Hotel lounge. Journalists sarcastically dismissed the insiders as "part of Belgrade's circus, part of the dog and pony show."
(Eason Jordon, president of international networks and global newsgathering for CNN, says the network has not compromised journalistic principles, but rather is attempting to provide a more balanced view by reporting from inside Yugoslavia.)
Life is different for those on the outside. On a chilly, rainy April morning at a mudhole called Blace on the Kosovo border, thousands more ethnic Albanians are being herded out of trains into Macedonia. Among the throng of media gathered at the edge of the forbidden territory are two competing Pulitzer Prize winners, Roy Gutman of Newsday and David Rohde of the New York Times, both veterans of Balkan war coverage.
Gutman won his Pulitzer for exposing Serb-run concentration camps in Bosnia; Rohde won his for documenting the murder of Muslim men after the fall of Srebrenica. Now they once again are wading into waves of human wreckage.
During his hunt for evidence in Bosnia, Rohde, then with the Christian Science Monitor, was imprisoned by the Serbs, accused of being a spy and interrogated for three days without sleep. Yet, over breakfast in Skopje, he vows, "I'll definitely try to get in [to Kosovo]. It's very sad; the similarities are all there."
MUCH OF THE PRESS CORPS in the Balkans operates on a basic premise: In the experiences of the exiles lies the truth. Like investigators for the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, journalists are often dependent on the word of survivors to explore what British Prime Minister Tony Blair has labeled a "slaughterhouse."
At times, says Rohde, interviewers have to be "bastards and assholes," asking rude questions and making rude demands in pursuit of accuracy. "You have to push them with, `What kind of trees were around the soccer field where the men were shot? What did the buildings look like? How far from the river were you?' " he says, illustrating how he once grilled the survivor of a mass execution in Bosnia.
As he pressed for details to corroborate the incident, the man finally shouted, " `Fuck you, I don't want to talk.' " But before it was over, Rohde had another important piece of the puzzle.
He says prodding refugees to tell their stories over and over again to elicit concrete details is critical to getting at the truth.
The reporter once challenged a Muslim describing being shot by Serbs to lift up his shirt and show his wounds, which, reluctantly, he did. "Sometimes, you just feel terrible," Rohde says.
Just as in Bosnia, journalists on the "survivors beat" here strain for ways to sort out fact from fiction, reality from the bleary recollections of people who have been terrorized out of normal existence. How, for instance, did Jack Kelley of USA Today know his sources spoke the truth when they described a Serb gunman beating out the brains of a 15-year-old boy?
Following are excerpts from Kelley's page one story that ran April 12:
In Shkabaj, the witnesses say, the soldiers fired several shots into the crowd and over their heads. Six were wounded and fell to the ground, including a 6-year-old girl named Naxhije. The others were herded into a large circle.
After demanding money, jewelry and passports, the soldiers--using a bullhorn painted with a red star, the sign of the Yugoslav army--called out the names of nearly 100 men.... The men were forced into the back of four Yugoslav Army trucks and taken to a police station. There, police sprayed their hands with a colorless chemical. If it turned their hand orange, Serb police said it was proof the men had fired a weapon within the last 36 hours.
"There were eight men whose hands turned orange," says Muhamed Ameti, a 62-year-old refugee at the Brazda camp. "Two of them fought with police. They shot one in front of us. Then two police held the other man's head--he was 15 years old--flat against the registration table as a third man hit him repeatedly with the butt of a gun. His blood splattered the walls. His brains came out on the table. I saw it. They made us watch."
Kelley says he is "150 percent sure this account is accurate." He cites the fact that refugees in different camps, several miles apart, provided identical names of the victims and precise details, such as scars and other physical attributes of the Serb soldiers who they said carried out the killings. They all mentioned the spraying of hands. Nevertheless, Kelley's story also carried a warning that the account could not be independently confirmed.
This kind of reporting, he says, takes extraordinary patience. Of more than 80 interviews with refugees in four camps, Kelley used quotes from only three for an anecdote that led the story excerpted above. He bagged the rest, he says, because he couldn't corroborate details. "Even if I believed it was true, I couldn't take the chance," says the seasoned war reporter.
In a nightly ritual at the Continental, after stories have been filed and editors have signaled approval, journalists gather to drink lukewarm beer and fiery local brandy, or to eat greasy mystery meat at the $13-a-person buffet. Often, their conversation dwells on the tedium of their reporting, the grueling, painstaking process of gathering grisly information.
They describe the strategies they use for ferreting out truth: collecting meticulous detail from multiple sources; tedious scene reconstruction; immersion, such as days spent among exiled Kosovars; the search for nuance or any evidence of restraint.
Rohde offers an example of a believable account: A massacre survivor, he says, described how he hid beneath the wiggling bodies of the wounded, cursing and praying for them to die as fast as possible so Serbian soldiers would stop firing bullets into the pile. "A lot of it is a gut sense of whether the person standing in front of you is telling the truth or not," he says. A less credible account was delivered by a man who told of being knocked out by an artillery blast and waking up to find 500 dead bodies, all with their throats slashed by the Serbs. To Rohde, it was a no-brainer: "Then why wasn't his throat cut?"
Reporters on the scene tend to require at least three sources for confirmation and to build layers of detail. Many operate on the theory that when refugees first escape, their personal accounts of the horror are so visceral and real they carefully avoid devaluing them by embellishment.
They might, for instance, tell of a sympathetic Serb guard who whispered that they should hide before an execution took place. In one case, refugees described how some women, but not all, were robbed of their jewelry. Another group was careful to note that the mosque in their village had not been blown up.
Helen Kennedy of the New York Daily News says she sometimes pushes people to exaggerate--saying such things as "Are you sure you only saw three dead?"--in an effort to make sure they are sticking to what they actually saw. "If they were making it up, they would embellish. They don't," she says. "And I'm not filing `can't be verified' in my copy. I just write, `This is what they're saying.' "
The pressure is different for 24-hour networks like Fox News Channel. The biggest challenge, according to producer Juan Carlos Van Meek, is attempting to find fresh angles in a drama that, as far as refugees were concerned, had peaked. "You've got to feed the beast, and that means live commitments and packages, which makes for long days," the producer says. "New York is waking up and you have to do live shots. It wears on you. It becomes a grind."