Return to Sarajevo
by Allan Little
|Laptop bombardiers' is what David Owen used to call them, not
hiding the irritation which he shared with the rest of the international political and 'humanitarian' establishment at the way in which some foreign
correspondents, with their professional but 'non-neutral' reporting on the war
in Bosnia-Herzegovina, managed to derail the best laid diplomatic designs. The
BBC's Allan Little stands out among even these outstanding reporters, not only
because of his consistently passionate and engaged reporting, but also because
he is one of the two authors of The Death of Yugoslavia. After a three-year
stint in the Balkans, he spent two years in South Africa and is now set to go to
Moscow. However, as he told the Sarajevo fortnightly Dani, his condition for
taking up this new assignment was that he be permitted to report twice annually
from Sarajevo as well.
You have spent many years in Bosnia reporting on the war. You can remember a
particular story or event that, with the advantage of hindsight, best
illustrates the nature of that war?
All the journalists who had spent more than a few days in Bosnia used to quarrel
constantly with their editorial colleagues in, say, London who were covering the
political and diplomatic aspects of the war, developments in Geneva, Bonn or
London. We would try to correct what we considered was a wrong perception of the
war: for instance, that it was a tribal war between Muslims, Serbs and Croats.
We tried to explain to the world that this was a war between two different kinds
of political aspiration: the goal of a xenophobic and ethno-fascist national pu-
rity, on the one hand; the desire to live as a modern, European, civic and non-ethnically determined community based on respect for human rights, on the other.
One day I met three men in their twenties from Grbavica. They were Serbs fighting in the ranks of the Bosnian army, who had been friends from the first year
of primary school. I met them at the start of 1993, and they explained to me
what had happened on 2 May 1992, when the Bosnian Serb army descended from the
hills and immediately opened an office in an apartment block. It then issued a
proclamation that all Serbs between the ages of 18 and, I think, 45 had to report for military service within seven days. At that moment my interlocutors decided, each independently from the others, to flee Grbavica and cross the river
[to the government-held city centre], since they did not wish to wage war
against their city. They saw themselves as Bosnians, as Sarajevans, and they
spoke about it to me in a highly articulate and moving manner. During our
conversation I discovered that there was a fourth member of their group, nicknamed Coro, who had remained on the other sÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ
ide because he could not leave his
widowed mother. He was, of course, drafted into the Serb army. 'So you are enemies now', I commented, but they responded: 'That's impossible, we aren't enemies and never will be. He's there for personal reasons, we're here because
that was our decision. One day, when this is over, we shall again be Sarajevans
and friends.' I thought this was a good illustration of the nature of the war
and the way in which it was choreographed and waged against the natural instincts of the Bosnian people. We are dealing here with another wrong perception
of the Western world - that this kind of behaviour is part of the Bosnians' culture, that they have spent centuries fighting each other, and all that rubbish.
We reporters kept saying that this was not true, that unlike most Europeans the
Bosnians have lived together for centuries and Bosnia's history is marked by
only a few periods of conflict and civil war, as a rule started by outside powers.
The journalist's advantage consists precisely in encountering people and
witnessing events whereby the real situation is most starkly illustrated.
Absolutely. Six months later I found myself in Grbavica. A young soldier wearing
a white armband was allocated to me as my guide. He talked to me about the
mujahedeen, about how the mujahedeen had destroyed his school and his home, and
how a huge wall should be erected in the middle of Sarajevo, so that the part of
Sarajevo belonging to the Serbs would be separated from the territory illegally
occupied by the mujahedeen. It was the usual Serb propaganda. He took me to his
mother's flat in one of the high-rise apartment blocks facing the Museum, the
Holiday Inn and the Parliament. I met his mother as well, we stood on the bal-
cony of the house and I asked him where he had done his JNA service. He told me
he had not been drafted because he was shortsighted. Then I realized who he re-
ally was and said to him (I am inventing the name): 'But you must be Boris?'.
He was astonished that I should know his name and accused me of being a spy.
'No, I'm not a spy', I told him, 'but I've met your three friends.' Then I told
him their names. He fell silent and suddenly the war rhetoric was gone. He told
me he wanted to show me something. He took me three floors up, to the 14th
floor, and there he confided to me that the flat below was not theirs; that it
used to belong to a doctor who had left - a Muslim, of course. The flat to which
he had now brought me was completely destroyed by machine-gun fire; it contained
only a sofa on which there lay a bundle of letters and postcards. He showed them
to me and it turned out that these were the letters his friends had sent him
while they were doing their military service. I realized that he kept re-reading
those letters. He asked me if I could bring his friends to see him. I told him
not to be absurd, he must know quite well it was impossible since they were
fighting on the other side. I suggested instead that he go with me to see
them, but he said that was impossible too. I offered to tape a message from him
to his friends. The message was very restrained, of course - you know, along the
lines of: 'Where are you, what's going on, look after yourselves.' Then he
switched off the tape recorder, fell silent for a long while, switched it on
again and said: 'I only want to say that I love you. That's all.'
We need not ask for the reaction on the other side, we can imagine what it must
have been. Or perhaps not?
It was not as I had expected it to be and what I suppose you expect as well.
That is because it was already the end of 1993, the worst period of the war, and
in the summer of that year everything changed. It was horrible. I played the
message to one of them, and he was tired, thin and looked ten years older than
the man I had been acquainted with. He told me: 'They'll never understand, he'll
never understand either, what their shells have done to us. I'm so traumatized
I can't sleep aÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ
ny more without a handful of sedatives.'
You were here during the worst days of the siege. How ever did you get into
The first time I managed to get in was in June 1992. I spent the first months of
the war in Croatia and Serbia trying to get into Sarajevo. In the end I and a
colleague of mine, a journalist from a British newspaper, came in across the
airport runway - the airport was then held by the Serbs. I had brought with me
some food from Belgrade, since I knew there was a shortage of food here. Within
three days all the food was gone, I had shared it all out. There was really
nothing to eat in Sarajevo in those days. We were housed in the Delegates' Club.
Why the Delegates Club?
That is a funny story. The journalists simply took over the Delegates' Club
building because they discovered it was empty. Before I got there, there were
already about thirty foreign correspondents living in it. The only person there
was the man who managed the Club, but the Bosnian government did not want to
charge us for the accommodation. However, there was no food. For ten days we
would drink a coffee in the morning, your strong Bosnian coffee full of grounds.
It was also always possible to find a contact for a good bottle of whisky. So it
was coffee in the morning, two or three glasses of whisky in the evening, and in
between nothing but water. Somehow I did not feel hungry. I lost a stone during
those eleven days, but I did not feel hungry. There was no food in the city,
simply no food whatsoever. Never before had I been in a part of the world where
there was no food at all. Everyone in the town was thin. I remember Gordana
Knezevic of Oslobodjenje saying that every person who weighed over 70 kilograms
must belong to either the fifth column or the mafia. Finally my colleague said
to me: 'Let's go to the UN mess in the PTT building and beg some food from
them.' Somehow we managed to get into the building, but once inside we were
stopped by a soldier. We told him we had come because we were terribly hungry.
He told us they were not there to feed journalists. I tried to preserve my dignity - after all I was a BBC man - but my colleague was so terribly hungry that
he started to beg with his hands. He was pleading with the soldier: 'Please,
we're starving, please, let us have at least one meal and I promise we'll never
come back.' The soldier's response was quite rational: 'Everyone in this city is
hungry.' I was thinking we should leave, this was disgusting, but in the end he
let us in. I remember the meal well: it was a fish and potato pie. We filled our
plates, it was self-service. After three mouthfuls I found I could not eat any
more. My stomach simply contracted. Perhaps it was also the feeling that it was
wrong to eat while all around you people were starving. It was a natural reaction, in my view.
I remember your battle to save the life of little Irma, the girl who had been
wounded and was dying in Sarajevo. Her fate became very important to you.
It was the time of the fall of Mount Igman, when the Serbs took Igman and things
got really bad for Sarajevo - when the noose was further tightened. The dilemma
among us journalists was as follows: should we concentrate on the wounded
child's story or on Igman? Some journalists were telling me I was over-reacting;
that mine was a typical Anglo-Saxon preoccupation; that the whole of Sarajevo,
all of Bosnia, was suffering - so why focus on a single life? However, I knew
two wonderful doctors, Edo Jagnjac and Vesna Cengic, who explained to me the
situation of the war casualties in Sarajevo. There were very few cases where the
wounded were so badly hurt that they could not be treated; but their condition
was worsening, because in the situation such as it was it was impossible to es-
tablish a proper diagnosis. This little girl Irma was one such case. In those
days 70 or 80 planes were landing daily at Sarajevo airport and returning empty.
She could have been treÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ
ated in any proper hospital, even in Split, yet without
treatment she was bound to die. Dr Jagnjac was trying to do something, he spent
five or six days trying, but everywhere he came up against a stone wall. UNHCR,
WHO, UNICEF, UNPROFOR - they all rejected responsibility. They would not even
visit the child in hospital, and the child was dying. They explained to me that
a commission had been set up by Mrs Ogata, made up of representatives from all
these organizations; but the commission met only every six weeks and one of its
members was in Cambodia. Imagine the absurdity - in Cambodia! They kept telling
Edo that the commission would meet in six weeks' time, while he was shouting
that the child would not survive those six weeks. In his despair he finally came
to us journalists, ran into me and simply dragged me to the former military hos-
pital. As soon as I saw the girl I knew that the only way was to go over the
heads of the bureaucrats. Some of my colleagues and I, who spent those days and
nights watching over Irma, were also motivated by a desire to lay bare the
behaviour of the world: the bureaucratic stance of all those international organizations, which also testified to the hypocrisy of the world they were representing here. I called in the camera team and the story was broadcast on BBC TV.
The battle did not finish there?
During those days I lost all illusions regarding my own profession. The excuses
I heard from UNHCR were that there were forty wounded cases in addition to that
of Irma, forty identical cases, and no beds could be found for them anywhere in
the world. After the story had appeared on the TV, however, hundreds of hospi-
tals all over the world suddenly offered beds. The telephone switchboard at 10
Downing Street was jammed by calls from people asking John Major to help the
child. This was on a Sunday evening, and already by the Monday afternoon Douglas
Hurd was announcing the evacuation. At that moment 3,000 hospital beds had been
offered for the treatment of the little girl from Sarajevo. The story that there
were no beds simply enraged me, and I kept visiting all those organizations in
order to establish which of them was responsible for finding hospital beds some-
where in the world for the wounded of Sarajevo. It turned out that none of them
were. The answers I got were quite brazen. Nobody felt obliged to do anything.
We journalists simply insisted on this problem, desperately and obsessively. We
pressurized the UNHCR to give us the list of those forty wounded children who
were in the same position as Irma. It turned out that less than ten of them were
children, the rest were mainly former soldiers.
They did not wish to evacuate them?
Of course not. The British wanted 'sweet little children', although I knew that
according to the Geneva Convention a wounded and disarmed soldier was entitled
to the same treatment as a civilian. None of the other forty cases was liable to
die within a day or two. They needed treatment abroad, but not urgently. In
other words, all the excuses were absurd. There were no more cases like Irma.
But my editors in London were demanding that I find them more wounded children.
For them this was a 'good story'. I was furious and told them: 'What do you want
me to do? Take a machine-gun, go to the orphanage and shoot at the children so
that you can have a story?' The whole thing changed into what one of my colleagues called 'the supermarket of pity', a travesty of compassion. I realized
then that I had provided a fantastic opportunity for people who in no way deserved it to show a pity that they did not feel. I felt I was colluding with
them. I felt particularly disgusted and ashamed when the evacuation of the
wounded from the Kosevo hospital began, with all those TV teams with their
satellite dishes and enormous generators with unlimited supplies of fuel, while
in the hospital itself there was sufficient power only for emergency operations.
I was perfectly aware that my sÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ
ense of shame and disgust was quite irrational,
since from the very start our reporting on the war was important and meaningful.
I nevertheless felt that we were really colluding in a hypocritical game. It was
like being on a kind of safari.
Together with Financial Times correspondent Laura Silber, you wrote the book The Death of Yugoslavia. In contrast to
the majority of books and TV documentaries dealing with the break-up of Yu-
goslavia, your own book and the TV series it accompanied appear like serious,
scientific works. How did you go about it?
I was frequently accused of being biased, though I always rejected the charge. I
always replied that we were interested in the truth, that we were there to
register the dynamic of the war. It was obvious to me, and to everyone who knew
anything about the war and was interested in the truth about it, that it had
been choreographed in Belgrade from the start. The West, or at least most people
in the West, took three and a half years to realize this obvious fact. It was
clear to me already in 1991 that, even though crimes were committed on all
sides, they could not be compared and certainly not equalized. Once you unders-
tand this, it is impossible to buy the whole argument about 'moral equivalence'
- in other words, to adopt a position of so-called neutrality. I was interested
in objectivity not neutrality, and even less in a 'balanced approach'. By objec-
tivity I mean applying the same critical criteria when observing all sides - ap-
plying the same standards to all - not imposing an artificial balance. This war
taught me this more than anything else. It was a lesson on the nature of
journalism, about how to report from the spot at the moment when something is
happening. There is this incredible independent TV company called Brian Lapping
Associates, with wonderful people working for it: their work has helped redefine
the concept of documentary film. They made the greatest contribution to the contemporary history of the Bosnian war. They spent three years establishing the
structure of the series, determining the key events and the people who had taken
part in them. Then they established contact with all of those who had made the
key decisions and talked to them. This resulted in a series of long and intensive talks - around 200 interviews and 1,000 hours of testimony. We were allowed
access to the results of their research, so that we did not have to point at the
guilty - they did that themselves. The most important interview in the whole se-
ries was the one with Borislav Jovic. I kept asking myself why he was so open.
Was he perhaps stupid? Just like Karadzic, who permitted ITN to film the
concentration camps. I now think I know why they did it. Perhaps, in part at
least, because they thought they had done nothing wrong.
Because they were so confident in the final outcome?
Exactly. They were perfectly self-confident, arrogantly self-confident, and the
world was proving them right. They thought they would get away with it and for a
long time they did indeed succeed in getting away with it. The world kept giving
them the green light. Another part of it was that these were little men who
wanted to have their place in history. That is why you frequently hear them say-
ing 'I', 'I said', 'Slobodan Milosevic and I', 'no one else, just Slobo and
Has the documentation collected and used in the making of the series and the
book been submitted to The Hague Tribunal?
I only know that all that material is in the public domain, since all the videos
and transcripts have been deposited in the library of the London School of Economics.
It is interesting that a change seems to have taken place, coinciding with the
arrival in power of Chirac and Blair. To what extent has Western policy towards
Bosnia since 1995 been due to changes of leadership?
Not really at all. I cannot speak of Chirac and France, but I know that so far
as British policyÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ
is concerned, there has been a kind of continuity in regard to
Bosnia. There are nevertheless certain important differences: the Tories, for
example, were unwilling to sign the convention on banning anti-personnel mines,
which the Labour Party has done. Labour has also promoted the minister for
overseas development to the cabinet, and I see a greater emphasis in international policy on aid to Africa and Asia.
Do you think if the Tories had remained in power, they would have given real
support to the Tribunal?
No, they never did and I do not think they ever would have done. But in order to
understand British policy, you have to bear in mind that continuity. There is an
anecdote that illustrates it well. Queen Victoria once asked her foreign secretary if the United Kingdom had permanent friends, to which he replied: 'No, Your
Majesty, only permanent interests.'
We Bosnians have been aware all along that partition of Bosnia was the foundation stone of British policy. Would it be too naive to ask what kind of permanent interests demand the creation of permanent political and social instability
in the Balkans?
That is the question I ask myself and to which I have no answer, except that
perhaps they believe that partitioning Bosnia would stabilize the region. I won-
der why such short-sightedness. Anybody with a modicum of knowledge of Bosnia
must realize that if Republika Srpska were allowed to secede or even separate de
facto, the Croats in Herzegovina would demand the same. This would leave an
unviable ghetto in the middle, which could not survive; so the whole region
would become characterized by poverty and conflict. This is why I think that
Bosnia's rehabilitation is of the greatest importance. But the fact remains that
there are still two sides here, one favouring integration and the other parti-
tion. Until this conflict is solved there will be no real peace. I am astonished
by the fact that the whole world wants to believe that Dayton has resolved this
conflict, when it has not. An international consensus that turns Biljana Plavsic
into a moderate politician must be wrong. Perhaps I am being unfair and she really is now ready to allow the return of Bosniaks to Foca or Visegrad; but I
cannot imagine a situation in which from Banja Luka she could ensure that such
an order would be obeyed. What, for example, would be the mayor of Foca's re-
sponse? Plavsic controls only a small part of the country. So the essence of
the problem is not so much whether she or people like her are ready to honour
the Accord, but whether they can enforce it. This is the main barrier to peace
and will remain so unless and until the situation changes.
During your time in Bosnia you have met many leaders, soldiers and ordinary people. Is there someone who stands out as a person worthy of special respect or
We met many truly awful individuals, so it is difficult to make that choice. But
what really makes me sick is the attitude I frequently encounter in Great Britain, which is that this was a war without heroes. My own experience, on the contrary, was that heroism walked these streets every day, personified by ordinary
people who were capable of the most incredible feats in defending their own, in
trying to preserve their dignity, in telling the world: 'Look, we are not beasts
released from a cage; we are not all the same; we are 20th-century Europeans and
if we do not behave accordingly we shall lose the war regardless of the military
outcome.' This is the heroism which in my view deserves the greatest admiration.
I remember the end of the war, when Sarajevo had had enough of TV teams and
journalists. I was driving towards the TV station too fast, much too fast. Sud-
denly a boy on a bicycle appeared in front of my car and I hit him. I stopped
the car and saw him get up and dust himself off. I thought: 'Oh, my God, now I'm
in trouble. People will be angry with me and my arrogance, for driving like a
ddenly the boy's father turned up and told me not to worry: he had
seen it all and had already warned his son several times not to ride his bicycle
so carelessly. He comforted me by saying it was not my fault and that the boy
was unhurt. This is what I call incredible human generosity. These people saw in
me a person, not a representative of a world that had not by any means been gen-
erous to them. Of course, we met with hostility as well, but in the great major-
ity of cases Bosnia, the whole of Bosnia, remains for me an example of great
generosity and goodness, present even during the most difficult moments.
Translated from Dani, 5 January 1998