Bosnian man in cemetery (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)
A Bosnian man searches for the name of a killed relative amongst gravestones of victims (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

When my older brother and I were kids, around ages 10 and 6, we would gather with our friends by a small river on the other side of the fence of our grade school. When the sun went down we’d scour the neighbourhood, collecting empty aerosol cans and building small piles of them by the riverside. Later, when our parents weren’t around, we lit our treasures and ran as fast as we could into the nearby bushes. When the cans exploded they sounded like thunder blasting through the sky, powerful enough to jolt anyone passing by on the street.

Our childhood days were endlessly exciting. We spent the spring and summer running around grassy, open fields and crossing cold, fast-flowing rivers in which I’d hop on my brother’s back, my bare feet bobbing in and out of the water. We loved searching through deep, quiet forests and swimming in calm, clear waters, slipping on clay stones all the way back home; muddy and tired, with satisfied grins on our faces. It was near perfect.

And it would not last.

The end came in the waning days of the spring of 1992. It came when tanks punched through mountain valleys. It came when soldiers marched past my school, my forest hideout, my home. It came when the sounds of explosions no longer signaled a bunch of mischievous kids giggling behind bushes, but real death and injury. And it came when the river, my water wonderland, carried bits of grenade and other armaments from battles upstream to us. The water was no longer a fresh, cleansing tonic, but a river of misery and sorrow that often ran ash-grey and, if you believed the propaganda, ran thick with the blood of civilians.

I was born in Bosnia in 1984. My father is a Bosnian Serb, and my mother a Bosnian Croat. Which technically makes me a Serbo-Croatian Bosnian and, now, also a Canadian. Both my parents worked as teachers, which gave us a certain amount of prestige and a respectable income in what was then Yugoslavia; a communist federation which comprised Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and two autonomous regions in Serbia, Vojvodina and Kosovo. It was a federation of handcuffed nationalities, full of tensions and hidden fears that would erupt in the years following the 1980 death of the country’s president for life, Josip Broz Tito. In his time, Tito was viewed by many as not only the country’s liberator, but also as a kind of holy man in an atheist dictatorship. In every classroom, hospital and government office, as in our family home, there was a framed photograph of Tito. His story and his legacy, my parents would later learn, are littered with cover-ups, secrets and murder.

“Back in those days,” says my mother, “we heard stories of people simply disappearing into thin air for having a negative viewpoint on Tito’s government. It was one party, one man and one god. No alternatives.” Following his death, the country introduced a nine-member presidency rotation. Then, in quick succession, came the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Soviet empire, Slovenian independence and a referendum on Bosnian independence, which was boycotted by Bosnian Serbs. On the other hand, Bosnian Muslims and Croats voted in favour, prompting local Serbs to occupy Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo. Hostilities escalated and spread to other areas in the country, including the region where I lived.

It didn’t take long before my mother began to receive repeated death threats from her 14-and 15-year-old students because of her ethnicity. They warned that bombs would be thrown at our house if she didn’t give them the grades they wanted. Fearing for our safety as explosions and gunfire in the hills carried on night after night, my mother fled our hometown of Šibošnica, just outside of Tuzla, taking my brother and me with her. My father stayed behind to pack our belongings.

In 1991 the first wave of residents escaped, unfortunately we were not among them. They were lucky enough to take most of their possessions with them. We had stayed far longer, despite my mother’s protests to my father, who was counting on it all being over soon. But once the tanks’ presence became permanent and the whistling of the grenades were more frequent, our mother had seen and heard enough. One night as darkness fell, she and a family friend led us through a forest to my grandparents’ house in Tuzla, 30 kilometres away. We would stay there for a month before fleeing to Croatia.

We were the last family to leave Šibošnica. Later our hometown would become the setting for a prisoner exchange—a desolate place where government officials would come to barter for members of their community. It is estimated that of the near 4.5 million people inhabiting Bosnia in 1992, more than 100, 000 of them were killed in the war; though even today the statistics and death tolls remain disputed and it is presumed there are many undiscovered graves. But no matter the exact number, the conflict involving Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia would lead to the highest death toll in Europe since World War Two.

Within days following our hasty retreat from Sibosnica, tensions rose from all sides, resulting in the closure of borders and preventing my father from reuniting with us. Phone calls were rare and letters travelled slowly, usually through UN representatives my father knew. It would be two years before we saw him again. He spent those years teaching with a few of his former colleagues in a makeshift school near our hometown. He was often accused of being a spy because of his open and vocal disdain for the war and his reluctance to blame one ethnicity for what had happened. He visited old friends, both Croatian and Serbian, and wasn’t afraid to travel on foot across mountains and through military blockades—despite being constantly scrutinized for his actions and often held at gunpoint. He was once directed to walk through a forest, only to find out later it was a trap and that he had walked through a minefield. But he never gave in to fear and never gave up on his ideals. Today when he recalls those times he recoils with a kind of sadness I haven’t seen in him before.

When my family finally arrived in Canada from Croatia in 1996, the group of church sponsors—who fronted money for our plane tickets and found us a small house to live in—were surprised that my mother and 12-year-old me were not covered by veils like the Balkan women they often saw on TV prior to our arrival. We faced weeks of demoralizing integration into the western world, like watching the sponsors show us how to flush the toilet, make coffee, and turn on household appliances—all of which we knew full well how to do. Then came the unnecessary lessons in grocery
shopping and banking. We took English lessons at the local community centre to overcome the language barrier in an attempt to put our lives back together.

We turned out to be pretty regular citizens. My parents took jobs as line workers at the local Green Giant, and I entered Grade 7 at St. Pius X Catholic Elementary School in Tecumseh, a small town outside of Windsor, Ontario. At the time I just wanted to be a regular kid and leave the past behind. Being in Canada was the first time I had felt safe since leaving Bosnia and I didn’t want anyone to know where I came from and why. I was embarrassed of my roots, of my parents’ thick accents, of being different from everyone else. I certainly didn’t know much about what happened politically in Bosnia, or who was to blame for the war, and I didn’t think too much about the pictures shown on TV of the continuing warfare going on back home: the Srebrenica (a Bosnian Muslim town) massacres, where a UN report estimated as many as 7,000 men and boys were executed; the constant shots of rural Muslim women wearing traditional garments; the streams of people walking down dirt roads, following horse-drawn carriages; dirty children crying; corpses by the roadside.

For years I pushed those memories to the back of my mind. But as a 2011teen I started to think more about my past, my present, and all those pictures from Bosnia and other Balkan regions that influenced how Canadians saw my family and our homeland. By age 16 I was developing an interest in journalism, informed in part by wanting to fully understand why and how everything got so bad so quickly. I also wanted to understand this: why my younger self blamed Canadian media for failing to fully expose the Bosnian horror.

Shortly after my arrival at Ryerson University to study journalism, my mother mailed me an envelope filled with letters. They were not a secret. I knew my father had corresponded with my mother during the war in addition to the smaller notes he sent me. But at the time I never really understood what my mother read and why she always cried when she read them. When I finally got to see the letters, I noticed the many passages smeared by her tears. They were passed down to me like a treasured piece of jewellery or a photo album. They are all we have of the past. I read all 30 in one night and wept. The trove of letters became one more thing that fuelled my desire to know everything: how the war affected local and national media in Bosnia and other Balkan regions; how it affected international media trying to get news out; how it affected Canadian journalists trying to uncover the truth behind the war; and how it affected my family. My parents were heartbroken and angry, sometimes explosively so, from the years of lugging their lives around to keeping us safe. My father, in particular, still feels the pain of betrayal. The country he had so loved and believed in did not exist anymore. He had believed in Tito’s Yugoslavia. And in a moment, everything had fallen to pieces.

My father’s sister, Vesna, is who opened up the next set of gates for me. The last time I saw her was during my visit to Bosnia in 2008. We took a drive through the central part of the country, crossing into Serbian territory to visit some relatives. I remember trying to read the road signs in Cyrillic, while aunt Vesna and my parents laughed on. The script was taught to me in Grade 1, but it was a struggle to remember it then and still is today.

As we drove on, she started to ask me questions of what I remembered from the early days. I said not much, though I could recall spending some nights on the floor and keeping away from windows. I told her I was embarrassed I didn’t know how it all happened. In her tender, professor’s voice, she began to tell me of details such as the invasion of Tuzla, how the civilians took up arms and stood against the tanks, how the death tolls kept rising and the food supplies depleting.

There is one night I did remember quite clearly. We had spent a few nights at aunt Vesna’s in the month before heading to Croatia. When the first bomb exploded, it sent thunder and debris all the way up to the 10th floor, where we had been sleeping soundly in her apartment. There was immediate panic, broken glass and sirens wailing madly. The other tenants piled out of their units in their pyjamas, people’s worried faces running step by step, in a row, down to the basement, staying away from the windows. In the large, underground bomb shelter, the beds squeaked, and the thin grey, military blankets barely covered the metal mesh underneath. Aunt Vesna’s only son Jasmin, my brother and I played cards as the building shook, and the echoes of worried parents pervaded the night.

About 80 kilometres away, the civilians in the capital, Sarajevo, saw worse atrocities. Sarajevans were under constant attack from the surrounding hills. Canadian journalist and CBC RADIO As It Happens host Carol Off was in the Balkans during that time and in her 2001 book, published well after the war’s end, The Lion, the Fox and the Eagle, she writes about a particular gruesome scene and the impact it had on civilians:

“In Sarajevo, the assault began with an attack on passengers of a streetcar in the centre of the city. By noon, the convoy of Serb soldiers rolled through the downtown area toward the presidency building, and in the late afternoon, the Serb nationalist forces blew up the main post office and telephone exchange in the heart of the city. This deliberate act of sabotage, planned well in advance as a divisionary tactic, managed to take out most of the phones in the city, cutting off residents from a crucial lifeline. From this day forward, the people of Sarajevo would have little information from other parts of the country and the outside world, and it would come to have a powerful psychological effect on them. They would freeze, starve and be bombed to death over the next four years, all in a state of primitive isolation.”

Near the top of my long list of things to discover: In a Balkans blanketed by censorship and propaganda, were there any journalistic heroes? The answer: not many, which makes the story of Kemal Kurspahic´ and his staff so remarkable. He was editor-in-chief of OSLOBOđJENJE, the Bosnian daily in Sarajevo. Throughout the war and afterward, OSLOBOđJENJE, which means “liberation,” has been internationally praised as the voice of ethnic and religious tolerance amid ravages of conflict and received numerous awards. Kurspahic´’s 2003 book, Prime Time Crime: Balkan Media in War and Peace, speaks directly about the struggles local journalists faced: “Covering the war in their own city and country presented Bosnian journalists with the ultimate personal and professional challenge. On a personal level, regardless of whether they were Muslim or Serb, Croat or Jew, they experienced the same terror. Their apartment buildings and neighbourhoods were shelled from Serb artillery positions in the hills surrounding the city; their families were deprived of basic needs, from bread and milk to water and electricity; and yet they never blamed the ‘Serbs’ because many Serbs suffered the same as they did. On a professional level, they still wanted to publish a daily with their editorial office building under constant artillery and machine-gun fire, without newsprint, without water or electricity, and without a phone/fax line to communicate or a kiosk to sell their papers.”

By the war’s end, five OSLOBOđJENJE staffers were dead and 20 were wounded in the line of duty. Despite the odds, the newspaper managed to publish an issue every day during the three-and-a-half-year onslaught.

Another hero: Vehid Gunic´, former journalist for Radio Sarajevo, later Radio-Television Sarajevo, who lost his wife Fatima. She died along with four students after a bomb blast at a local school, an explosion that wounded 23 others. Gunic´ points out that Sarajevo didn’t experience the kind of censorship seen elsewhere in the region. “I spoke about what I saw with my own eyes, and heard with my own ears,” he says. “[But] the flow of information was very limited because we were in a blockade: there was no electricity, communication by telephone or communication with the station’s journalists who were on the scene. There were no media representatives in the newly formed Bosnian army, so we did what we could with the limited resources at hand.”

Outside of Sarajevo, though, what other voices were trying to cut through censorship and propaganda? Consider Radio B92, an independent station located in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. From 1991 to 1998, Aleksandar Vasovic´, now with Reuters’ Belgrade office, had faced numerous threats from the government of Slobodan Miloševic´ while he was reporting for Radio B92. He says there was censorship among the regime-controlled media on all sides, but that independent media was much freer because they would pay the price—fines imposed by censors—to stay free. Though there were times when a payout was not an option: “Radio B92 was shut down twice,” he says, “the first time on March 9, 1991, during anti-Miloševic´ protests; the second time on March 24, 1999, when the police came in and took over the station. We were all fired.”

In his 2002 book, Guerilla Radio: Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio and Serbia’s Underground Resistance, journalist and author Matthew Collin writes about the tactics used by Radio B92 reporters to show their listeners a side of the war they may have not been seeing or hearing: “B92 wanted to drag the war into Belgrade’s living rooms, to expose the bloody truth about what Miloševic´ and his cronies were really doing. It established links with like-minded radio stations such as Studio 99 in Sarajevo, Radio 101 in Zagreb and Radio Student in Ljubljana to transmit collaborative programs and on-the-spot reports from the other (now former) Yugoslav republics.”

In 1998, while the media situation in Serbia was still tense and strictly government-controlled, the country was trying to clean up its post-war image. After being forced out of Radio B92, Vasovic´ began working full-time for The Associated Press. He recalls the day Serbian journalist and independent news publisher Slavko C´uruvija was gunned down in the streets of Belgrade on April 11, 1999, Serbian Orthodox Easter. Vasovic´ knew C´uruvija well and happened to pass him on the street, he recalls, mere minutes before he was killed: “Every journalist who was working for an independent media outlet was worried and scared because no one knew who would be next.”

“Radio B92 assumed even greater importance as the regime extended its media blackout,” writes Collin. “It was beginning to reach out beyond its fashionable urban liberal audience and become a source of information for all those opposed to Miloševic´. Aware of this, the state began to jam its signal.”

Why, though, was Radio B92 allowed to operate for so long? Adrienne van Heteren, currently a project manager for the bbc World Service Trust but held two senior positions at B92 during the war, wrote: “The radio station was broadcasting illegally as its initial one-year local licence had expired. This secret was a ticking time bomb. Although B92 had positioned itself firmly in the heart of the anti-war scene in Belgrade…it was considered to be of little threat to the authorities because its signal was relatively weak, confined to Belgrade and not even clear in all parts of the city. It was assumed that as long as it was small the authorities would not bother with it. Besides, the authorities were more than happy to use B92’s existence to show the world that they were not that bad.”

Finally, to get a citizen’s view on the propaganda that filled official publications and broadcast outlets, I talked to my cousin Jasmin, who grew up in Tuzla and is now in his 30s. He remembers things much better than I do, like the constant hunger pangs, the sirens and the television broadcasts.

“Journalism during war time was complicated,” he says, “because the country was divided into three parts, and sadly there were three versions of propaganda. There were so many unimaginable lies.” Jasmin’s neutrality stems from the same place as my own. He
is a child of an ethnically mixed marriage; a Bosnian Muslim father and a Bosnian Serb mother, and he never gave in to growing nationalism.

“Here’s an example,” he says, “of what journalists on the Serb side were saying at the beginning of the war. News came out that 5000 Serbs were imprisoned on our soccer field, where in fact you couldn’t even fit that many people. Other reports stated there were corpses floating down the river Jala, a tiny river about a half a meter deep. That was the kind of propaganda that we heard daily.”

Croatians and Bosnians made their own outlandish claims.

One of the many aspects of my search that I kept wondering about was why it took as long as it did for the carnage and destruction to reach international media. And also: Who were the journalists who helped tell the world about it?

One of the first foreign correspondents on the ground in Bosnia was Roy Gutman, reporting forNewsday at the time. Gutman, now Baghdad bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers in Washington, D.C., won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing the concentration camps and other methods of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. In April 2010 Gutman was honoured with a key to the city of Sarajevo.

“The official Bosnian Serb propaganda had nothing to do with reality,” he says. Those early stories that were emerging out of Bosnia “began to shine a light on how destructive the situation really was, and also unravelled some of the untold tales local media were unable to cover.”

“When I went to visit the Serbian military in Banja Luka [a Bosnian city bordering Croatia, with a large population of Bosnian Serbs] and asked for a briefing, the information they gave me seemed like something from a possible script written for radio,” Gutman says. “Some elements in it were preposterous. Serbian officials accused Bosnian Muslims of setting up concentration camps and organizing the systematic rape of Serbian women, when Muslims had neither the power nor the resources to do so. It took me hours to determine that enough of it was a big lie that it cast doubts on everything they told me.” And the headline on his eventual August 2, 1992 Newsday article read: “Death camps: Survivors tell of captivity, mass slaughters in Bosnia,” a story about Serbian-led concentration camps.

New York Times reporter David Rohde was another prominent journalist on the scene, then reporting for the Christian Science Monitor. Rohde was following a developing story that led him to the borders, where the Croats were driving the Bosnian Serbs out of Krajina. He eventually discovered the graves in Srebrenica. His stories were graphic and heartbreaking, especially the scene in Srebrenica when the excavation of the massive graves began.

Rohde would go on to write about this gruesome atrocity, including the discovery that in these graves were young Bosnian Muslim boys who were led out of their schools, blindfolded and executed on the spot. It was in front of a school that two of the mass graves were found. To corroborate his evidence, Rohde tracked down the survivors and after hundreds of interviews, which proved nearly identical eyewitness accounts, his story checked out. Rohde was the only journalist on this story, and after his piece ran in the Monitor in August 1995, the world took notice, bringing among others, cnn’s Christiane Amnapour, who reported out of Vehid Gunic´’s Radio Television Sarajevo. Still, increased international coverage did not immediately help to bring an end to hostilities. That would come, but not before more death and tragedy.

“Not only myself, and not only the local journalists,” says Gunic´, “but everyone felt that the war would come to an end only with some kind of U.S. intervention. Sadly, that came too late. We naïvely believed that America would stop the war, but they didn’t; not as quickly as we were expecting. Because of the slow progression of the U.S., and the world for that matter, Bosnia saw a kind of devastation that the modern world couldn’t even imagine, and I had hoped that after the first broadcast by famed reporter, Christiane Amnapour…that the war would end. But it didn’t.”

Paul Knox, one of The Globe and Mail‘s international affairs writers at the time, wrote about Bosnia from Toronto. He says that other than the complexities that come with reporting about a country and not physically being there, it was difficult to get a sense of the bigger picture of former Yugoslavia.

“There definitely was a feeling at this point that it was a kind of an impenetrable story, and the feeling out there among Canadians, among the audience, was that it was really hard to figure out,” says Knox. “The roadmap was really complicated. I mean you start out with six republics, six constituents, or entities of the former Yugoslavia, that’s tough to begin with. Then it turns out that one of them has three different ethnic identities in it, two of which are also names of other republics. It turns out that the Bosnian Serbs to a certain point don’t have the same interests as the Serbs in Belgrade.” But, Knox adds that nothing is impossible if a journalist works hard enough to try and understand it.

That said, Canadian reporters were making efforts to cover the war in the Balkans. In June 1993, CBC Television broadcast one of the first in-depth reports in North America which exposed the Srebrenica massacre. And according to news outlets around the country, CBC Off also did terrific work throughout the late 1990s in her coverage of the post-war reconstruction of the Balkans, and Yugoslavia’s war crimes trials.

Canadian journalist Scott Taylor also reported from the Balkans and was there at the start of the war. Taylor is a former soldier who in 1988 founded Esprit de Corps, a military magazine with coverage that includes exposed crime and corruption in the Canadian Forces. His oppositional view intrigued me. As I spoke with Taylor, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he wanted me to really understand his side. This may be partly because he has been scrutinized in the media for being a so-called Serb supporter of which there are only a few, as most people view the Serbian side as the aggressors in the war and rarely the victims. He holds that while all sides have committed crimes, the faults of the Croatian media are largely underreported.

“It was a terrible disconnect between the facts,” he says. “The Croatians were quite quick to jump on the public relations bandwagon. They knew how to woo the foreign media. You were taken into a press office in Zagreb, and outside there was a whole bunch of bricks with names on them and the women there were always crying and lighting candles, which made a great photo opportunity.But there was no way to verify that each brick was somebody that was massacred by the Serbs. And in my subsequent visits I saw the same two ladies crying at the same spot. The first connection people had to the war, they were already being set up visually.”

Another issue, he explains, is that most journalists went to the capitals without branching outside to gain different perspectives. But both Rohde and Gutman did, and it was the reason they found the new information that no one had known about before. Yes, they filed their stories from the capitals, such as Sarajevo and Zagreb, because they had to; but they did travel to the outskirts and the villages, much like Taylor himself.

As for Taylor being a supporter of Serbs, he says he merely wants to present some balance to what’s out there. “Of course Serbs killed people. Yes there were mass graves. Yes they shot people, but they also got shot. And that’s the difference. How do you possibly present that?”

I eventually began to see that the lack of coverage, or accurate media coverage, wasn’t the fault of the Canadian media as my younger self believed. The story is complicated, and I realized how difficult it is summarize this war—any war for that matter. There are always complicated factors, and there are many sides to every story. There are victims and there are aggressors. There are newspaper headlines, journalists to be interviewed and history books written and then rewritten. There are angry people, profiteers and graves. There are always so many graves. And though I have learned a lot during this search, there is still so much I don’t know and a lifetime ahead to discover more. If I decide to…

The last time I was in Tuzla, in 2008, I walked through town with my parents, trying to remember more about what it was like when I was a child. My parents told stories of their youth as their hands were grazing walls as if each brick held a memory. When we entered the town square they noticed a new marble monument called Kapija (The Gate) with a quote engraved on it in large black letters: “Here we do not live only to live, here we do not die only to die, here we die, only to live.” It is a memorial site for a massacre in the middle of the downtown square, where my parents once flirted over Turkish coffees, running late for their lectures and curfews. At night the restaurant patios in the square are jammed with young people, but in wartime, fear kept most people inside their homes or bomb shelters. As the war was winding down, young people felt safe going out again and trickled into the town square, meeting friends and trying to catch a breath in the chaos. On May 25, 1995, at around 9 p.m., a grenade was fired into the crowd killing 71 people. Most were between the ages of 18 and 25. More than 200 others were wounded in the attack. We visited the rows of graves up on a small hill, reading the names and ages written on the headstones and fighting back tears. We didn’t visit our family home, which is just minutes outside of the city. We heard it was riddled with bullets and that the grass had overgrown. Old friends had told us it was a sad scene. I’m going back this summer, not to look at the house in which the picture of president for life Tito probably still hangs (I don’t think I’m ready for that), but to stand by that small river and just be there for a little while, remembering how things once were when we were just kids, picking up scraps of aerosol cans on the shore waiting for them to explode.

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About the author

Vesna Plazačić was the Visuals Editor for the Summer 2011 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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