The siege of Sarajevo ran from April 1992 to February 1996. Of the estimated 10,000 civilians who died 1,500 were children; 56,000 people were wounded. Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic were the architects of the brutal blockade, a purposeful act of genocide intended to force out or kill Sarajevo’s Muslims. Milosevic died in 2006 while on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity. Karadzic, captured in 2008, remains on trial for war crimes in The Hague. Mladic was arrested in May 2011, nearly sixteen years after the war ended. He will stand trial before the same UN war crimes tribunal.
Twenty years on, the legacy of the siege of Sarajevo and the wider war in Bosnia is political instability, a problem compounded by simmering ethnic tensions and the threat of violence from Islamist militants. Bosnia today is a country that lives between war and peace, its past closely held. The story that follows describes Sarajevo in the first week of July 1992, when the nature of the city’s future—then as now—was unfolding but not wholly clear.
One of the Norwegian guys on the other side of the truck popped his head up trying to find out where the shots were coming from. The rest of us were lying flat on our backs in the truck bed, waiting to hear the crack of another round from the Serb sniper.
July 2, 1992 was comfortably warm in Sarajevo. White clouds rolled across a deeply blue sky, wide and open at the airport. It felt good to be out in the sun after the overnight flight from Amsterdam, trapped inside the metal cargo hold of a C-130. We dangled from strap seats on the ride across Europe, barrel-shaped earplugs jammed in as far as possible to cut the engine clatter. “Put them in tight,” an airman said when we boarded. “It gets pretty noisy.”
The Norwegian Air Force had flown us into Sarajevo airport the night before—eight or so Norwegian journalists, a Newsweek photographer, a three-person ABC-TV crew and me, the foreign editor at USA Today—along with three American doctors and 16 tons of medicine donated by AmeriCares, a Connecticut-based international relief agency. Our arrival brought the first American medical aid to the city, which had been cut off from the outside world since May when Bosnian Serb militiamen took over rooms in the upper floors of the city’s Holiday Inn.
Gunmen shot unarmed protesters in the streets below, murdering four and injuring several others. Not long afterwards, Bosnian Serb militiamen joined units of the former Yugoslav Army and began to shell Sarajevo from the surrounding hills. Serb snipers shot civilians as they walked downtown. They blocked roads into the city and closed the airport, demanded a separate Serb Republic and threatened to “purify” Sarajevo of its Muslim population. By July 1992 the city’s 380,000 residents were running short of food, medicine, electricity, and gasoline. Most telephones did not work; water had to be boiled. Sarajevo, a warzone without frontlines, fell into a ceasefire of sorts on June 30 when Serb militias stopped shelling the airport, even as they continued to shell the city.
We stumbled from the belly of the C-130 moments after it landed in Sarajevo, unsteady from long hours rattling around the cargo bin. The tarmac was crowded with UN soldiers, French TV people, British newspaper hacks, freelance photographers, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour and her camerawoman, Margaret Moth. The fearless Moth, who died of cancer in 2010, was shot through the jaw three weeks later as she rode down Sniper Alley to the airport in a van clearly marked with the letters “T” and “V.” At least five people were killed that day and 30 others wounded.
A scrum of equipment-laden journalists descended on us as we walked off the plane. I pulled my reporter’s notebook from a back pocket and circled the pack, joining it from behind. We interviewed the AmeriCares staffers I had flown in with and Maj. Gen. Lewis MacKenzie, the Canadian who ran the UN Protection Force in Sarajevo, called UNPROFOR in the prolix jargon of the United Nations. Gunshots reverberated in the distance. Everyone else seemed to ignore them.
“It’s never safe in Sarajevo,” MacKenzie told us on the tarmac of Aerodrom Sarajevo. “Not under these conditions. There is still indirect fire that comes from outside the [airport] perimeter.”
Downtown Sarajevo took heavy shelling two days ago, he said. Five journalists had been killed in Bosnia since April when the war began, three in Sarajevo. Five civilians had been shot and killed by snipers two days before I arrived. The Bosnian Public Health Ministry reported 6,716 people wounded in the city since April 1992 and 1,359 people killed.
When the interviews on the tarmac ended, reporters discussed the story among themselves, trying to figure out how much of what they had just heard mattered, something they would rarely do in the US. Many wore flak jackets that carried heavy ceramic plates inside and were lined with Kevlar to protect their upper bodies.
I stood near the plane that had brought us to Sarajevo and watched NATO soldiers unload its 16 tons of medicine. It emptied quickly, the boxed pallets sliding off on rails fixed to the floor of the plane. Its cargo gone, the C-130 immediately turned and rolled onto the runway, lifting into the sky. I watched the plane until I could no longer see it. I was startled that it simply unloaded and left. I glanced at the wooded hills that surrounded the airport and back at the scarred, worn airport buildings behind me. The tarmac was emptying. The reporters and AmeriCares staffers I had arrived with were yards away, talking. I could hear what the military guys called small arms fire around the perimeter of the airport. It sounded close.
“It’s over there, in Dobrinja,” a French TV cameraman had told me, vaguely waving to a nearby suburb adjacent to the airport. I held a small duffel bag in one hand; my portable Tandy RadioShack computer was slung over my shoulder. I had been in Sarajevo just over an hour. “Jesus,” I muttered. “What have I done?”
AmeriCares told the reporters it had brought from Washington that we would accompany its staffers and doctors in UN armored personnel carriers (APCs) as they cared for patients and distributed medicine. This was the story I expected to write. I would stay a couple of days, file a cover piece about the good work AmeriCares and the doctors were doing, then fly to Western Europe and home to DC.
But UNPROFOR declined to ferry us around in hard-sided vehicles. The docs and the AmeriCares staffers could ride in the APCs; the journalists were on their own. I understood the point, but it made our lives difficult. No taxis operated in Sarajevo. Walking anywhere meant asking to get shot.
After much wrangling between UNPROFOR and an AmeriCares guy named Drew Hannah, UN soldiers agreed to drive us to the Holiday Inn in the open 2.5 ton military truck that we now occupied. And so we waited near the first of several militia checkpoints that led into the city. It was three hours or so after MacKenzie had told us the city was dangerous. Now I counted rifle shots from the back of our open truck as it squatted near the edge of the airport.
We calmly discussed how many times we had heard the sharp snap of rifle fire—”What was that, three?”—that sounds like nothing else. We feigned composure. Our truck was the last vehicle in a string of small, white UN APCs and trucks carrying recently arrived supplies. The metal truck bed was warm from the sun and it felt comfortable lying in the back, looking into a perfect summer sky. I had been leaning against the truck’s slat-boarded sides when the first shot fired overhead. I wondered how a sniper could not hit a 5,000-pound vehicle standing dead still.
I had never been shot at before but was oddly unworried. I heard the high-pitched sizzle of the passing bullets, followed a beat later by the crack of rifle fire from the distant hills. I knew the punctuation of rifle shots was real and that I should be concerned but I could not hold that idea in my head.
War was wholly outside my experience. I had reported briefly from places that most people would avoid: the West Bank during the first Intifada, Belfast during riots on the twentieth anniversary of the arrival of British troops and Karlovac, Croatia, in 1991 during the beginning of the war there. Serb militias had begun to shell the town while I was interviewing people, the artillery shells clocking closer and closer from across one of the city’s four rivers. Reporting trips from East Germany just before the Berlin Wall fell and from Prague just afterwards had brought an anxious moment or two, but no one had shot at me before.
I was exhilarated; worse, I could not process the reality around me.
A photographer named Bill Foley was lying next to me on the floor of the truck. Nearby was Nancy Cohen, part of an ABC-TV crew; both had flown in with me from Amsterdam the night before.
“Nobody was scared,” Cohen recalled 19 years later, “but people were nervous. One guy—I think it was one of the Norwegians—was making anti-Semitic jokes” and people laughed. “People were trying to ease the tension,” said Cohen, who is Jewish and who did not laugh as she related the incident. I worried that I may have also laughed but was too embarrassed to ask Cohen; she was too polite to mention it.
Foley had covered the war in Lebanon a decade earlier for the Associated Press and had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1983 for his photos of the Sabra refugee camp massacre in Beirut. During the course of his career he had been shot at, beaten up and shelled. When the sniper fire sailed overhead I think I was telling him how surprised I was by the soft kiss the four-engine C-130 had planted on the runway as we landed. I was expecting the harsh jolt of a jet and had looked out the window to make sure we were on the ground, so softly had we touched down.
At the first shot people looked around, uncertain. Foley was lying on the truck bed by the time I understood what had happened and dropped down. No one was hurt. Foley’s voice was level as we discussed our sniper predicament.
“This is worse than Beirut,” he said after a bit, looking into the sky.
“This is worse than Beirut?”
“Yeah. You can’t really tell where it’s coming from.”
Foley would stay in Sarajevo for two days or so.
“I was shooting for Newsweek, which basically said they wanted the AmeriCares trip and after that they were not interested,” said Foley. “So I was not especially interested in staying for a week or two and getting shot and working for nobody.
“What I remember most, the most incredible thing, was the Washington ABC guys trying to rip a tire off this car in a side street right off Sniper Alley,” he told me in a June 2011 telephone interview. “They didn’t have the right tools. I was sitting in the back of their van telling them we needed to go and they kept telling me it was a great tire. The car had been shot up and the inside was full of what appeared to be blood. It looked like it was blood, but I’m guessing.
“The car was not in bad shape, except for the bullet holes and the blood. And so after about 25 minutes of them trying to wrestle this tire off the car they gave up. Meanwhile bullets are ricocheting off the building across the street. So they didn’t steal the tire and we got into the hotel finally.”
That first day in Sarajevo, our convoy drove back to the airport terminal after the sniper stopped shooting. We ate pre-packaged “meals ready to eat” in an empty hangar. French paratroopers commandeered one side of the hangar and drank red wine with their hot food. Some 125 French paratroops now guarded the airport. They looked tough and they acted tough and they ignored questions in English.
All of us from the truck were upbeat and talked fast and laughed at anything out of the ordinary, waiting for the afternoon’s adrenaline to drain through our bodies. Like the young Winston Churchill, we were flush with the exhilaration of having been “shot at without result.”
I slept fitfully that night on a pile of oil-stained cardboard I found in a corner of the hangar, happy to be off the cold concrete floor. Despite the warm day, the night proved cool and I shivered in a cotton sweater and short-sleeved shirt. Earlier, a French military press officer let me use his satellite phone to call my newspaper. The sat phone, the size of a small desk, had worked perfectly. I called when most editors were at a news meeting and the copy aide who answered the phone put me on hold for long minutes before I could stop her. The press officer fidgeted, eager to close down the phone and go eat. I dictated a brief story about the arrival of the first American aid and promised to call again as soon as I could. I had doubts about when that would be and had already started to worry about delivering the cover story I had pitched.
I walked around the airport afterwards, staying close to buildings when I could; I avoided time in the open. I found a camouflage-patterned flak jacket just outside an open C-130 that was parked on the tarmac. No one was around. I tried it on. It fit and I walked off wearing it. Most of the foreign reporters who had been in Sarajevo for a while seemed to wear the bulky vests with ceramic plates inside that weighed 30 or so pounds and provided actual protection. No one from the AmeriCares plane had brought any protective gear.
Inside the hangar one of the AmeriCares staffers asked where I had gotten the jacket. I told him.
“No plates?” he asked.
“No plates,” I said.
He poked the soft front of the vest with an index finger. The vest was colored in brown and tan and green camouflage and strapped together with Velcro.
“It’s better than nothing,” he said.
“Yeah. That’s what I thought.” We both knew it probably wasn’t.
I wore my found flak jacket everywhere in Sarajevo, from the time I woke up until I went to bed. I considered wearing it in bed but gave that up after briefly trying out the idea. It fit snugly and made me feel safer. I hoped it marked me as an experienced guy who knew his way around a city at war. I didn’t believe that, however, and was pretty sure no one else did either. Still, I wore the vest.
I stayed in Sarajevo for five days, marking time that “seemed like forever,” as Foley put it almost two decades later. “The place was no tourist city, I’ll tell you,” he said. “Basically for me it was sort of a dream. I remember thinking, ‘Where is Fellini directing this?’”
On Friday, July 3, the morning after my night in the hangar, on my second day in Sarajevo, we fell to work in our separate ways. The journalists I flew in with were eager to get into the city. I began by trying to hitch a ride downtown from anyone with a car. The ABC crew was loading its gear onto a van. They were headed for the local TV station, Sarajevo TV, where they would spend a long night living through a shelling; the station was a constant Serb target. They clearly had no room in their truck but sounded apologetic about leaving me at the airport. Asking for rides was a tricky business. The day before, when it had become clear we would not be allowed to ride in hard-sided UNPROFOR vehicles, I had asked Blaine Harden of The Washington Post for a lift. He was talking to another man, a photographer.
I introduced myself and asked, “You guys going to the Holiday Inn? Can I get a lift?”
“Can’t do it,” Harden said. “Sorry. No room in the car.” He turned away. I stopped him with another question.
“Can I walk into town? How far is it anyway?”
Harden turned back and looked at me.
“Look,” he said, “you can’t walk anywhere around here. If you walk anywhere you’ll get shot.” He strode off. Ten minutes later I saw Harden leave with his photographer in a car, its back seat empty. Still, I was glad for the good advice.
A photographer whose name I believe was Sebastian agreed to take me to Sarajevo in his battered Audi. I can’t recall his full name. He was a still man who worked for one of the British news agencies, but after 19 years I was unable to track him down. He wore a black flak jacket with a three-shot rip pattern across the back, compliments, he said, of a ricochet while he was shooting in Dobrinja.
He had been in Sarajevo for weeks and was self-assured. At the checkpoints he said little but accorded the right mix of swagger and respect to the teenager militia members wielding automatic weapons.
I never spoke at a checkpoint and slid below the car window when we drove down Vojvode Putnika, the four-lane boulevard better known as Sniper Alley. Sebastian slumped in his seat and looked through the steering wheel as he pushed the car’s speed up over 90 mph. The road was surprisingly open and smooth in places. Sniper Alley was also littered with the twisted metal carcasses of cars and trucks. Downed light poles stuck out awkwardly into the street and garbage flowed over the tops of metal dumpsters. Paper and glass were strewn across the road. Intersections worried me. Serb gunmen had pushed dumpsters and the empty hulks of vehicles into the middle of some intersections, forcing drivers to slow down. Intersections became choke points that afforded snipers a better chance to kill people.
We heard the crack of sniper fire several times on our way downtown, the most nerve-wracking just before the entrance to the Holiday Inn, a 13-story, mustard-colored cube. It was a wreck. Several of the top floors on the side that faced Parliament lay in ruins, the building’s interior walls exposed to the outside. The hotel’s façade was pockmarked by bullet holes, as were all the buildings along Sniper Alley.
“The hotel made the Commodore in Beirut look like heaven,” said Foley. “It was dark and gloomy and scary. The hotel was Dante’s ninth circle in the Inferno or something.” All but a few of the hotel’s windows had been shot out and boarded up. The hotel’s power came and went, but there was water and food and good service; the beds were clean.
The last few yards before the hotel were the most dangerous. Snipers shot at any vehicles that approached the building. Driving into its underground garage became a high-speed run in tight spaces, tires squealing. On the way into the hotel I stepped around a deep burgundy stain that had soaked into the concrete near the hotel steps. The clerk at the registration desk told us a ricochet had struck a photographer the day before as he left the hotel.
“But he is all right,” the clerk said. “Not this time.” He smiled at his own joke; no one else did.
During my time in Sarajevo, a Bosnian fighter dashed to the tenth floor, firing his weapon at a Serb gunman in a building some 300 yards away. Hotel employees coaxed him out. That same week a mortar round landed on the eighth floor, turning much of it into plaster rubble. Hallways on the upper floors were littered with glass shards. Manager Dinko Coric estimated the 330-room hotel had been struck by hundreds of Serb shells by the first week of July, leaving about 100 rooms available for guests. As far as I could tell, journalists were the only paying customers. Most wore flak jackets all the time in the lobby. I never saw a Sarajevan wear body armor.
Everyone seemed to constantly smoke cigarettes; most of us drank a lot in the evening. One or two of the hotel’s two-story lobby windows held glass; the rest were boarded up with plywood. I usually sat away from the glass windows but sometimes forgot until they rattled in their frames when a mortar struck nearby.
The journalists were not loud or rowdy; they acted calm and mostly drank and ate and talked quietly while the war pounded away outside. Few flinched when a mortar exploded near the hotel. It was expected behavior; to act otherwise would have been intemperate, a genuflection to the emotional strain that everyone held inside. Neither the journalists nor the Holiday Inn staff acknowledged the city’s chaos; to do so would bring its misery inside the hotel to fester. And then there would be nowhere to go.
The journalists I met acted unperturbed by Sarajevo’s violence and the unmentioned stress it evoked. They professed a profound belief in fate. I met no one—soldier, journalist or city resident—who said that God was keeping him or her safe. The people I talked to seemed to believe in one sure and central fact: living in Sarajevo meant pretending that its quirky, meaningless danger could be avoided, that somehow it was understandable and could be navigated if the rules were carefully followed. No one ever mentioned the obvious, that there were no rules.
I once lived in Skopje, Macedonia, for a month assessing journalism-training programs. I had trouble figuring out how to make local telephone calls and asked my landlord for help.
“Look,” he said, “it’s easy” and explained in detail that all three local cell phone companies had different local area codes. I had to punch in the local codes first. There was also a fourth local code for calls outside the city but inside the country.
“You mean I have to dial a different local area code for Skopje depending on what phone company the guy I’m calling uses?”
He paused, digesting my English: “Yes.”
“Can I call Pristina?” I had spent the last 11 months in Kosovo and had friends there.
“You can’t call Kosovo.”
“But why?” Even as I asked I knew the answer.
“Politics,” my landlord said, smiling. Likely I looked annoyed, perhaps confused.
“This is not how it works in America?”
“No,” I said. “In a small city like Skopje there would be one local area code and you probably wouldn’t have to use it for a local call.”
“Yes,” said my landlord, smiling. “But these are not the rules here.”
My room at the Holiday Inn was on the sixth floor; oddly, the elevator worked the first time I went up. It did not always work, but it worked the first time. The hallway had no lights and the young man leading me cut his flashlight when we passed windows that faced outside. The room was clean and comfortable, the bed made up with sheets that smelled freshly laundered. He told me to always keep the curtains closed tight over the windows and to keep the lights off at night.
“Not use is good,” he said about the lights. I nodded and kept the room dark at night. The room looked like any in a Western hotel chain: one standard double bed, a desk, a TV that did not work, a bathroom and a wide set of windows across one side.
I sat on the floor that first night and watched bright tracer bullets cross silently from one hilltop to another. A deep indigo sky rode above the city’s unlit buildings, invisible in the darkness. I thought about sleeping in the bathtub and crawled in to see how it felt, but it was small and I was cramped and soon felt silly. I dropped onto my bed wearing my clothes and fell into a deep sleep.
The next morning after breakfast I walked around a floor that had been hit by mortars. Plastic tape stretched across one end of the hallway, which wrapped around a central atrium. I walked under the tape and down the hall and turned the doorknob on the first door I came to; it swung open smoothly. On the other side of the door, perhaps 10 feet away, the floor gave way to twisted rebar and concrete and then nothing. The outside wall was gone, open to the light rain and intermittent sunshine that washed through what had once been a hotel room. I walked the corridor and tried two more doors, each with a bit less floor between the hallway where I was standing and a sheer drop. I shut the third door and walked back the way I came, hugging the railing around the atrium.
A hotel employee approached me the next night as I sat in the lobby, going over my notes. He wanted to know if I spoke English and could I talk to this person on the phone. I had gone out reporting with two Canadian journalists to the city’s markets and earlier to Kosevo Hospital. We had driving directions from the front desk but got turned around and careened madly through city streets in an ordinary VW Golf the Canadians had somehow driven in from Split. We eventually found the hospital and the misery it held. I talked to doctors who did not know how three-month-old Kemal Karic, crying softly in his crib, had lost his right leg, other than to say it was shrapnel.
I talked to Bojana Petrovic, a cheerful 40-year-old who had looked out the window of her apartment building at 2 am on May 28, 1992, just as a mortar exploded. It hurtled shrapnel into her apartment, slicing off her left leg just below the knee and badly damaging her right hand. Only the index finger on her right hand remained intact; the other fingers were stumps, crusted with dried blood. Zlatka Arapovic, 26, made the mistake of leaving the basement of her apartment building because the water had come back on and she needed to fill some containers. Doctors said she would likely loose her leg from the mortar round that struck her building.
In June Ramiza Becirevic stepped into her backyard to feed her cat, Mickey. A mortar struck the yard; she was paralyzed from the waist down and about to go home. In 1992, the hospital treated 22,549 wounded patients, 62 a day, hospital officials said.
I was trying to figure out how to write a story from this hospital visit when I walked over and picked up the phone. Liane Hansen, a host of National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition,” was on the line. She wanted to interview the Washington Post’s Blaine Harden, who wasn’t around. She asked who I was. After I told her she interviewed me instead. She had spent long minutes trying to reach the Holiday Inn and was lucky to have gotten through. In our conversation, which was broadcast on NPR’s “Weekend Edition” on Sunday, July 5, 1992, she said she had “heard that there’s been a certain lull in the fighting. Can you confirm that from what’s going around where you are?”
“It depends where you are,” I told Hansen, who retired from NPR in 2011. “Where we are the fighting has increased. I’m at the Holiday Inn, which is pretty much in downtown. There was quite a bit of shelling and artillery and mortar fire last night. This morning there was quite a bit of sniper activity out in front of the hotel. And in fact, there was some firing from the hotel being exchanged with snipers across the street not too far away, perhaps 600 meters. Sniper fire in and around this building is fairly constant on and off during the day, and it increases at night. You can see tracer bullets going by kind of lighting up the sky at night, which makes for an interesting picture but not so safe.”
She asked about the United Nations’ efforts to bring the fighting under control and how long the siege of Sarajevo might go on and the politics that were stalling negotiations. In reading the transcript of the interview I seemed to return to describing the suffering of ordinary people that I had seen, no matter what she asked me.
“People here do go out on occasion in certain parts of the city that are protected,” I said. “And you’ll see people walking down the streets—people trying to buy what food they can. It’s a very difficult proposition. You can only do it at certain times. There’s a curfew on, as you know, and by evening no one is on the streets. Everyone is off.
“And it’s a very difficult—and continuing difficulty for people to even get the basic necessities. Bread is delivered by the government. Milk comes less often, but milk is being delivered also to neighborhoods, perhaps twice a week. But by and large if you don’t have money saved up or you don’t have some sort of bartering system that you can tap into, you’re looking at a very difficult situation trying to find food and trying to find enough to keep your family alive.”
“Have you been to the hospitals?” Hansen asked.
“Yes, I have.”
“What have you seen?”
“It’s a gruesome sight. There are many cases of people, certainly, who have amputated limbs. People who’ve been hurt, mostly by mortar, although some people have been shot by sniper fire. There was—the worst scene is children who have been hurt. And I—I was there yesterday and saw many children who were injured and it’s a—a very difficult scene to—to observe. You see babies who are as young as three and four months old who have amputated limbs or have been badly burned by—by shells or by—who have been injured by sniper fire.”
I have not heard the tape of this interview and do not know if the transcript I read was edited. I noticed that in the middle of my answer I stopped using the first person singular to describe what I had witnessed. Instead I began saying “you” when describing injured children, as if someone else had seen what I had.
Occasionally I heard childish laughing in the streets of Sarajevo. Once I saw boys playing at war, shooting imaginary guns at each other. It reminded me of Belfast in the summer of 1989, when the twentieth anniversary of the arrival of British troops fostered riots in the city. A local Irishman was driving me through Catholic neighborhoods when we ventured down a street that was blocked at the end by a torched and ruined truck. Suddenly two masked figures ran from behind the van, carrying what looked like AK-47s. “Aw, Christ,” shouted the driver in a broad Irish accent, “it’s the fuckin’ IRA.”
He slammed the van in reverse, weaving around trash from the previous night’s rioting in an effort to reach the intersection at the top of the hill. I watched him drive, then looked back down the street to see if the men were running after us.
They were not. The armed men were boys of perhaps 10 or 12 who had pulled black balaclavas over their heads so that only their mouths and eyes were visible. Their AKs were sticks. My driver stopped the car and dropped his face into his hands; they were shaking. He lit a cigarette then turned us around and we drove off slowly, listening to the shouts of boys playing at war. Neither of us spoke for several minutes.
I saw Sebastian one last time when we later drove out to the airport together. We covered a story of some kind and as we headed for Sebastian’s car to leave for the hotel two men dressed like soldiers approached us. They said they had just arrived on a cargo plane from Denmark and that they were reporters for a Danish military newspaper and asked for a lift to the Holiday Inn. Both were in their early twenties and spoke good English.
We heard the distinctive, sharp sound of rifle fire shortly after we turned onto Sniper Alley. I sat in the front and slid down low; Sebastian told the others to do the same. A month after I left Sarajevo, an ABC producer named David Kaplan was shot and killed by a sniper, the bullet running up between the two, flat back doors of an armored vehicle labeled with the letters “T” and “V.” He was the first American journalist killed in Sarajevo. After that, journalists stopped taping “TV” to the sides of their cars as a way to invoke protection. Reporters soon began to use armored cars they had purchased or rented to get around. But July 1992 was still the early days of the siege; reporters had yet to fully learn that taping “TV” to the sides of cars offered a better target for snipers than it did protection.
I’m not certain how many times we were shot at during that trip in from the airport, probably not more than three or four. Buildings protected cars from snipers, leaving a limited amount of time and space to squeeze off a careful shot. I was oddly calm during the ride in, reminding myself there was nothing I could do except see this through, hoping the car ride was not my last.
I sat across from Sebastian. Our dark-colored Audi was clearly marked with the letters “TV” in foot-high white tape, stripped onto its doors. The Danes dressed like soldiers sat in the back. The larger and younger of the two, a full-faced lad in his early twenties, tapped the fingers of his right hand on the back of my seat, repeating the same phrase several times: “He’s driving too quick. He’s driving too quick.”
I looked back at him. He was sitting upright on the edge of the seat, bouncing. “He has to drive fast,” I told him. “We might get shot if he doesn’t.” I patted the top of his hand twice, this young man I had just met. I thought later how odd this must have seemed, had he noticed. His older companion glanced out the window most of the time and said nothing.
No one got hurt as we drove downtown. In the safety of the hotel’s underground garage we stood around the car looking at each other, blowing air out loudly through our mouths. The younger of the two Danish soldiers looked pale and lost, his face soaked in sweat. Sebastian seemed relieved; he was matter-of-fact when he spoke. We crawled through a broken first-floor window to get into the hotel, the safest way to enter or exit the building.
I saw both Danes that night in the hotel lobby bar. We sat in a rounded, plastic-covered booth near the back wall. The younger man apologized for being afraid on the ride in. He told me they were part-time soldiers and both worked in civilian life as reporters for Danish newspapers. I told him everyone I had met in Sarajevo was afraid all the time.
“Look at people on the streets,” I said. “They run all hunched over when they go between buildings. They’re afraid. They go out because they have to. I’m afraid. All these people are afraid sometimes. What matters is what you do.” I was talking to myself as much as to the Danes, but I had been scared enough in other places to know that what I said was true. I refused to be a “hotel reporter,” of which there was at least one guy at the Holiday Inn, reporters who seemed to rarely leave the lobby but talked to a lot of people and somehow managed to file. I imparted my wisdom to the Danes because I needed to hear out loud what I had been thinking since arriving in the city days before.
On the same day I went to Kosevo Hospital I walked through the nearby Lion Cemetery where I met Danis Tanovic, who was 23 and videotaping the freshly dug graves in the cemetery with his friend, Emir Ceric. Tanovic is now an accomplished filmmaker. His 2001 film about the Bosnian war, called No Man’s Land, won 42 international awards, including an Academy Award for best foreign language film.
“I was talking to my girlfriend in Toronto,” Tanovic told me in July 1992, “and she was telling me she’ll be moving to a new apartment and I said, ‘Yeah?’ and then a grenade went off and I lost the phone. I haven’t talked to her since. I can’t tell what’s going on.
“My neighbor got out with a knife and killed my friend. Whenever buildings are burning, the firemen are shot. I don’t understand. I can’t explain it. Nobody has made a word yet for what is happening in Sarajevo. I was born here. I was supposed to be in Canada, studying. It’s like a bad dream.”
Tanovic wore a grenade tied to his belt. “So if they catch me I can destroy myself. I would take off this pin and explode it and take some of them with me. Maybe that is the best thing to do. I know what happened to my friend who was caught. He is missing for two months.
“We are all going to be killed soon, dead. Soon winter will come and what will we do then? Life is not the biggest thing in the world. If you lose your dignity, your pride, what do you have left?
“Sometimes it’s better not to live, you know?”
I saw the Danes the next morning. They had found a ride back out to the airport. We shook hands and said goodbye before I left for more reporting in the city.
A few months ago I found a photo taken by a Canadian TV cameraman named John Jackson, who had sent me the picture in September 1992 after we had both returned to Washington. The photo shows me standing in front of one of those small, white UN APCs that I was unable to ride in when I arrived in Sarajevo.
Our drive to the airport down Sniper Alley that had taken too long. Both Jackson and I had screamed at the driver, the TV team’s reporter, to push the underpowered VW bus faster. He was timid and unfamiliar with the gearbox; he shifted too fast and did not let the engine rev high enough before punching the van into another gear. Our driver lurched around the road debris, never traveling faster than 40 mph. From the back seat I screamed at him to drive faster or I would crawl up to the front and pull him out of the seat. Two others with me in the back were yelling just as frantically. All of us were certain we would get shot at, perhaps injured or killed on the way home because of a frightened, inexperienced driver.
I had traveled back and forth from the Holiday Inn to the airport two or three times covering stories. I worried about the irony of this last trip to the airport being my last trip anywhere. But no one shot at us, which was only slightly less stressful than if we’d had a close call.
At the airport we searched for a C-130 that was unloading its cargo and politely asked the airmen for a lift to wherever they were going, usually Zagreb or Frankfurt. If they had room they would often take reporters out; there was no other safe way to leave Sarajevo in July 1992.
Jackson’s note, which accompanied the photo he sent, was written in all caps, as if it were a script for a television news story:
“At last, I’m sending this photo off to you.
“Not long after we returned from Sarajevo, we moved our office across town to 2030 M. St., and I only yesterday found your business card in a pile of my stuff.
“Maybe this photo can earn you a few points in the dangerous guy department. See you again sometime, hopefully in a less dangerous place.
I never saw Jackson again or any of the other people I had met in Sarajevo, with one exception.
I left the city on a NATO flight five days after arriving. It felt like many more. I dropped to my knees and kissed the airport tarmac at Zagreb after stepping off my second and last C-130 flight. A photographer who flew out with me did the same. We didn’t care how it looked. We laughed and made Pope jokes.
I felt giddy, surprised that the tension from always being alert had already started to ebb. The photographer, a lanky German in his middle twenties, said he’d been in Sarajevo for a month and would never go back. He told story after story on the short flight out, details and incidents tumbling one on top of another. I was too weary to keep track of what he was saying and mostly listened. I was certain he would return to Sarajevo once he tired of telling these tales.
The Zagreb airport terminal was small and tidy and filled with waiting people who read newspapers; sunshine streamed through windows that were made of glass and were whole. Bright-colored flowers lined sidewalks outside the main doors. The photographer and I shared a cab into the city. He got out in front of the Intercontinental Hotel where we shook hands goodbye.
I wrote a piece that appeared in the weekly Croatian news magazine Danas, which ran with a picture of me wearing my vest. I look slightly dazed in the photo, as if I had been in a recent car accident. After two days in Zagreb I bought a train ticket to Bucharest, Romania, to meet friends before flying home. I had taught journalism at the University of Bucharest as a Fulbright scholar from August the year before into early 1992 and I missed the city and my life there. I carried my vest with me, unwilling to leave it.
The train stopped soon after it crossed the border with Serbia. Customs officers boarded and walked through the cars, methodically checking passports. I had put the flak jacket on the overhead rack above my seat and the customs guy glanced up and saw it. He pointed to the flak jacket and asked me in Serbian if it was mine.
“Da,” I said, which more or less exhausted my Serbian.
He hunched his shoulders and opened his eyes wider.
“Sarajevo,” I told him.
“Sarajevo?” he repeated the city’s name, as if it were a question.
He motioned me to stand and follow him. We stepped off the train and walked alongside the carriage, our shoes crunching the gravel. Passengers hung out the windows smoking cigarettes, staring at us. They leaned on their forearms, fingers folded in a posture of prayer. It was hot and still, wherever it was that I was along the Serb/Croat border. The customs officer ushered me into a small room with a desk, a bench and a single window off to one side.
I told him in pidgin Serbian that I was an American journalist—“Novinar. Amerikanski novinar”—and repeated “Sarajevo,” pointing to my chest. In another context my verbless Serbian pantomime would be incoherent, but the customs officer seemed used to hearing people talk this way. I switched to English and added more details. I had my USA Today ID and American passport and visas for Serbia and Romania; I knew I might have to surrender my flak jacket. I didn’t care much. But if the train left without me I could be stuck wherever I was for a day or more.
After 10 minutes another man in uniform came into the room carrying my flak jacket and passport. He spoke serviceable English and asked why I was carrying the vest. I explained and shook a Marlboro out of my pack and put it in my mouth. When his face lit up, I pressed several cigarettes into his hand. They disappeared inside a jacket pocket.
The train had been idling for almost an hour when a conductor stuck his head in the door, apparently asking how long we were going to be. The customs man checked his watch and we finished our cigarettes. “Be careful,” he said, and handed me the vest.
Later, I stood in the passageway as the train pulled across Serbia to Novi Sad, smoking a cigarette. A young man approached and asked me in good English why I had been taken from the train. I explained. He looked surprised at the mention of Sarajevo.
“What was it like?” he asked.
“Bad,” I said, remembering that I was in Serbia and likely talking to a Serb. “Really, really bad.” He nodded soberly, his eyes bright with excitement. I walked back to my compartment before he could ask any more questions.
The siege of Sarajevo raged on almost four more years. I had chances to return during the war, but did not. I had discovered the outer edge of my limitations. I did not go back until 2000. By then the city had picked up its spent shell casings and begun to spackle the bullet-holes that scored every building façade.
The chaos of war had largely been replaced by the comfort of order. I stayed at the Holiday Inn and found it clean and running smoothly, its bed linen still fresh. I tried to find my room from 1992 but could not remember exactly which one it was. I recognized people who worked at the hotel. They greeted me warmly and pretended to remember me. No one wanted to talk about the siege. I soon stopped asking.