Roy Gutman Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Witness to Genocide: Conversation with Roy Gutman, correspondent, Newsday, winner of the Pulitzer Prize; 4/10 97 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by S. Beth Atkin

Page 6 of 8

Covering Bosnia

The next phase of your career focused on the collapse of Yugoslavia and the Bosnian war, which led to your reports for Newsday on that struggle, for which you won the Pulitzer Prize. You published a collection of your pieces called A Witness to Genocide. How did the Bosnia story come about? You had been in Yugoslavia. You wound up there again? Or were you on special assignment?

Well, one little bridge there. In 1989 the newspaper asked me to go to Europe. Maybe they finally read my memo. Or probably didn't. I had learned German. I had this idea (this was part of my obsession from college) that German was an important language, that Germany was the center of Europe, and that if I wanted to know Eastern Europe I really should know German and Germany. So one of my editors, for some reason unknown (and I doubt that it was my memo) said, "We need to open our office in Germany," and they asked me. He was there in 1989 for a conference and he asked, "Would you go?" And I had said "No." I said, "I know what's coming and this is not a job for a married man." But my wife finally agreed and we set up. We covered, basically, the revolutions in the east. Now I hadn't been back to Yugoslavia since 1975, except in 1991 at the end of the Gulf War (which I was covering for the paper when I was based in Germany), when an editor called and said, "What's going on in Yugoslavia?" I called some friends from 15 years earlier and they said, "You'd better come here and look for yourself." They couldn't tell me. So I called the editor and said, "I can't do a story off the top of my head, I'd better go and investigate." Well, I went there and I still couldn't figure it out.

This would have been what year?

This was '91.

Tito was dead?

Tito died in 1980, and Milosevic, the Serbian leader, came to power in 1987. They say that he was the first man who recognized the fact that Tito really had died, and started acting on that basis. The nationalist movement was already started; he took the reins in his hands from about 1987. So in 1991, Serb nationalism had developed to a very great extent, but so had Croatian nationalism and so had Slovenian nationalism. Each of the republics of what was then Yugoslavia had its own complete set of politics and dynamics.

So I went around from one republic to another; I went to Bosnia. Bosnia was a combination of Serbs, Croats, and Muslims with nobody having the majority, the Muslims being the largest of the groups. Bosnia, therefore, had a special dynamic which was three times as complicated as any other republic. So I went and I toured the place. At one point I went to Knin in Krajina, which is in the Serb part of Croatia. I took a taxi from Sarajevo and I went up there. Men were blocking the roads with logs, and I thought "This is a sign of war." Why do I say that? Because those roads were the key for Croatia to link the Zagoria part in Central Europe with the Dalmatian part of Croatia on the Adriatic. But it was so hard to tell the story. Then the war started up in June of '91, and for the entire rest of 1991 I tried, as a reporter, to cover the story of the war between Serbia and Croatia. But there was very little interest in the United States.

We should explain that with Tito's death and the fall of communism, the iron fist and the ideology that was the glue holding the country together fell apart, and the regions and the different nationalities then began to be concerned about their own futures. The Serbs came to dominate what was the old Yugoslav Federation and the armed forces there. They then began to take actions in the name of Serbian nationalism, which then led various regions to declare themselves independent. The Europeans recognized Croatia and Slovenia and then, in essence, the war began. If that's a short, fair summary.

Thank you, that spares me. Bosnia was the problem case because it combined all the nationalities. It was in the center of the country. They couldn't easily declare independence because a third of the population was Serb, but they couldn't stay with Serbia. By this time, by 1992, Croatia and Slovenia had separated. Bosnia couldn't stay with Serbia because the Serbs would dominate non-Serbs in Bosnia, and this was not just Serbs, this was extreme nationalist Serbs who had kind of a übermensch mentality that "We are the bosses and we're going to run everybody else." So that was also intolerable.

Your book is called Witness to Genocide. Just briefly enumerate the kinds of atrocities that you began to uncover in your dispatches to Newsday.

Concentration camps. Rape camps where women were held and raped, systematically and for a very long time. Sometimes two or three months. The destruction of the culture. Attacks on mosques -- destruction of every mosque in the country -- on schools, libraries, as well as the normal destruction in war. Attacks on refugees. Have I left anything out? Those are the kinds of things. These are crimes, defined under international conventions, crimes against humanity or war crimes.

In Bosnia, their problem was that they couldn't really be independent and they also couldn't stay with Serbia. So what do they do? They turned to the European community and asked, "Would you guide us? If we make a decision would you support it?" So the European community came up with a process which recommended that they hold a referendum. It's a very European solution. They used to do this after World War I as well, which led straight into war. So they held a referendum and roughly 66 percent of Bosnians voted for independence. The Serbs all boycotted, the 33 percent. The outcome was that the moment they were recognized by the European Community and by the United States, April 6th or 8th of 1992, was the moment that the Serbs started shooting at Sarajevo and attacking cities up and down the Drina Valley.

So you were suddenly the eye witness to the destruction of the civilizing idea of Europe, in a way. All of the lessons learned at the end of World War II were being unlearned right before your eyes.

Well, first of all I wasn't there in April. I was there in March when they had the referendum. Just by coincidence I was in the region and I went in for the day. Frankly, there was so little interest in the Croatian war and the Bosnian war at the beginning that those of us who thought that this was the most important thing happening in Europe, because I came to that conclusion during the Croatian war, were frustrated that nobody wanted the story. It was not just my newspaper but the American press in general. So it was a very frustrating time. When the Bosnian war started, same thing. Gutman with a convoy across the war zone of Hercegovina, August 1992. Photograph by Andree Kaiser.I could hardly interest them. But by the summer of 1992 people could see, just from the siege of Sarajevo alone, that the people meant something. The Serbs, in attacking a capital and burning down a library for example, this really was no holds barred.

So I went back, and by accident to a good degree, I wound up going to north Bosnia, to Banja Luka. It's the mainly Serb city in the north. It's a place where there was no war. But I knew, because I had already made this tour the previous year and I was very familiar with the thinking there, that this was going to be the place where the intellectual authors of the war were going to operate. Now it wasn't quite right; I may have gone there for the wrong reasons. I called somebody there and I said, "What's going on? I heard that there's ethnic cleansing." I didn't even know what the term really meant, nobody did. The man I called was a Muslim who was the head of the Muslim Party of Democratic Action and he said, "Please, in the name of God, come here. There are terrible things going on. People are being deported in cattle cars. There are other things." He didn't mention the camps. When somebody says that to you, if you can go safely, or you hope with safety, you just get on the next bus. The road opened up, and the buses were just starting up. I was on the first bus into Banja Luka. I discovered these things -- well, "discovered" them -- !

The Muslims and the Croats gave me their side of the story. Together they were maybe not quite 50 percent of the population; the Serbs had the majority, I think, in Banja Luka. Then I went to the authorities and I asked them what was going on. And then I went back to the people who were being victimized, and back and forth. Finally I determined it was true, that these cattle-car deportations were going on. Then the next thing I heard about was camps. So I went to the authorities and said, "I've heard some terrible things about camps, can you take me to these camps?" And they said, "Yeah, okay. You're the first visitor. We're happy to have you and we'll take you." They asked which one did I want to go to, and I said Omarska, and they thought about it and said that maybe they could do it. But they didn't take me there.

These were old mines, iron mines?

In this case, Omarska is an iron ore mine.

Did you feel a moral outrage as you saw this and began reporting it?

You know, outrage is sort of the wrong word. I would say white rage. But a totally contained rage. If you wind up in the middle of something like that and you have a tip that it's true, you check it out, you go back and forth, you convince yourself that it's true. Your number one concern on earth is getting the full story, getting out of there, and getting the story out. You don't have time for emotions. You really just simply concentrate on what you're doing.

Now they didn't take me to Omarska. They took me to a place called Manjaca, the day the Red Cross was visiting. I had a photographer along, a brilliant guy, and he managed, despite the fact that he had men with dogs on him, he was surrounded all the time, to get some superb photographs which just showed the degradation that they were subjecting Muslim prisoners to. So his pictures plus my story, it was powerful stuff. And frankly, I didn't have time for emotions. I just wanted to get the story out, that was my only concern, you know: I've gotten this story out, what's the next story? Well the next story was Omarska, because I said to them, "Now would you take me to Omarska?" They said, "Maybe we will," and then they changed their minds and said, "No, we can't guarantee your safety." So I started collecting stories on Omarska, both while I was there in Banja Luka and after I went to Zagreb when I found refugees. In other words, I just got very determined.

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