Room With a View
The violence and horror of this conflict reaches the world from the media’s headquarters somewhere in a hotel window in Sarajevo.
In the summer of 1991, the president of Slovenia declared the Independence in Ljubljana’s central square. Carlos Santos Pereira, writing for Público, was the only Portuguese reporter in the location.
But Serbia doesn’t accept the Independence of Slovenia, and eventually the conflict breaks. The USA claims that the conflict is a European problem. The EEC [CEE] intervenes and sends on June 28th a troika of foreign affairs ministers to Belgrade and Zagreb. The federal Government decrees a cease-fire that is violated on that same day. On June 29th, EEC’s troika (formed by the diplomacy heads of Holland, Italy and Luxembourg) forces the countries to sign a new cease-fire agreement. EEC wanted the suspension on the independences of Croatia and Slovenia, besides the retreat of Serbian troops.
The Slovenian, who didn’t benefit from that agreement and that felt that Europe’s public opinion wasn’t in its favor, were the first to restart the confrontations. But something odd was happening. Portuguese journalists in Ljubljana quickly started to understand that the war as staged. There were gunshots occasionally and several barricades, but they couldn’t see conflicts.
Later, the EEC allows the countries to reach an agreement at the Brioni Island, where Slovenians and Croatians accept a three month moratorium over their declaration of independence in exchange for the end of hostilities. The Brioni Agreement didn’t represent the triumph of the European diplomacy, but instead the start of a war.
THE BEGINNING OF THE CONFLICT
In July of 1991, the war between Serbia and Croatia burts. The federal army no longer wanted to expand Yugoslavia’s boarders, but to protect the Serbian communities spread across the Federation. Serbs from Krajina didn’t want independence as Croatia wanted, and the two sides come into collision course.
On August 26th, the ethnic cleansing in Croatia starts, from the Serbian side. José Pedro Castanheira, from Expresso, saw Croatians surrounding the quarters of the Yugoslavian federal army in Zagreb, as well as the city’s preparation for the army. “The city lives in a permanent alarm. The mood was of true panic, due to the possibility of a tank attack. “
On September 17th, the first bombing started in Zagreb coming from the federal aviation.
“Coming from the dark, unknown from where and where to, a Mig 21 flies over the city in a low altitude. In broad center, it surpasses the sound barrier, causing the traditional boom that the surprise, the dark, the silence and the fear ruling multiplies by a thousand. The antiaircraft defense strikes back in several directions” - José Pedro Castanheira, Expresso.
The war for the independence of Croatia would last four long years. Maria João Carvalho, a freelance reporter, would make several chronicles for RTP: “The Guard patrols the city and tries to detect special cetnik shooters in windows and terraces from buildings in the center. All citizens were warned to be alert for suspicious movements and to contact the police. It is known that, until Monday, Zagreb will be attacked. With the quarters controlled by the federal army and the southern battalions forcing their way into the city, Croatians are tense and suspect everything”.
THE CONFLICT AGGRAVATES
In November, with the aggravation of the situation, Artur Albarran and Godofredo Guedes, special envoys from RTP, arrive in Zagreb.
“Both sides accuse of inhumane behaviors, massacres and other violations of the Geneva Convention […] The worst is that both are right, because the situation here, in Yugoslavia [an explosion is heard] is out of any type of… certainly out of any military ethics”.
In 1992, Carlos Santos Pereira, now a RTP reporter, moves to Bosnia-Herzegovina to cover two days of referendum that decided the independence or the remaining in the Yugoslavian Federation.
“A hesitant affluence of the electorate to the urns and a small number of incidents registered, here is the balance of the first hours of this referendum in Bosnia-Herzegovina”. – RTP, February 29th.
“As the sun hid for hours behind the mountains, a long whisper ran across Bosnia-Herzegoina (…) The terrible proof of this referendum about the independence seems already overcome without the ethnic violence explosion that many feared”. – RTP, March 1st.
In the following day, the reporter tells us that guerrillas would hatch: “On nightfall, Sarajevo is a ghost city. A deep and heavy silence is lived, constantly interrupted by the gunshots and bursts of machine guns that are heard from several points of the city, the fear arrived in Sarajevo and everybody expects the worst for this night”. – Santos Pereira, RTP, March 2nd.
The referendum, which had been boycotted by the Serbs, confirmed the will of Muslims and Croatians to move away from Yugoslavia. But the Serbs would declare war on Abril of 1992.
THE MEDIA “HEADQUARTERS”
In Sarajevo, the Holiday Inn hotel became the media “headquarters”. “In that place you weren’t going to war, war would come to you”, states Martin Bell, BBC correspondent.
On May 2nd, 1992, the president of Bosnia, Alija Izetbegovic, returned from Portugal after a failed negotiations sessions with EEC.
In broad Bosnian newscast the news anchor interviewed, live, the president. “I think I was kidnaped”, confessed Alija Izetbegovic to the presenter. Then, negotiation moments between the anchor and the general of the Yugoslavian army followed, live on television.
In the following years, several Portuguese journalists reported the horrors of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
“The constant crackle of machine guns, the roar of cannons, the fear and the uncertainty set the rhythm of the hours in Sarajevo” - Carlos Santos Pereira, RTP, July 13th 1992.
“Inside the city [Mostar], the smell of powder and burn is intense. Bursts and automatic weapon shoots were heard, not very far” - Henrique Vasconcelos, RTP, June 16th 1992.
“Completely devastated houses, entire families without a roof over their heads, corpses pilled” - Ana Leal, Rádio Comercial, August of 1992.
“Since events in what used to be Yugoslavia seem to have no impact whatsoever on the safety of our homes and families […] we have remained remarkably untouched, unmoved, by what is, indisputably, a gigantic human tragedy”, challenged the ABC reporter, Ted Koppel.
The situation became harder to ignore and Bill Clinton faced uncomfortable questions.
Penny Marshall, from ITN, and Ed Vulliamy, from The Observer, showed the world the Omarska and Trnopolje camps.
Quickly, the journalists present in Sarajevo became targets in the middle of the war between Bosnians and Serbs.
“The Portuguese television car here in Sarajevo was attacked. We’ve narrowly escaped” - Pinto Amaral, Telejornal, RTP, September 1st, 1992.
“The Holiday Inn, where the majority of journalists stays, was bombed all night and this morning. The reason for that is that snipers hide there and, therefore, despite of the agreement between the three forces of not bombing it, it is daily struck” - Maria João Carvalho, Rádio Renascença, August 28th, 1992.
“In the evening, snipers await the journalists outside BBC’s ‘office’, with gunshots and grenades” - Maria João Carvalho, Diário de Notícias, August 30th, 1992.
And the war images kept on spreading worldwide.
On February 5th of 1994, Sarajevo’s market was bombed by the Serbs, in broad square filled with people. In full CNN effect, the attack’s shocking images disclosed by the media would trigger NATO’s action, supported by the government of the USA.
On March 9th of 1995, The New York Times published an article that blamed the Serbs for 90% of the war crimes. A tendency that the media seemed to have reflected. The coverage of the war in Bosnia was criticized for being biased, confusing and unclear in the explanation of the conflict’s origin.
In 1995, Bosnia-Herzegovina was bombed by NATO. “The UNO [ONU] threatens to continue military actions if Serbs and Bosnians do not retreat from ‘safety zones’”, Diário de Notícias wrote on August 31st, 1995.
On November 1st, the Americans were able to gather the presidents of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia at the negotiations’ table. The Dayton Agreement was signed and marked the end of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The tensions at the Balkans were attenuated, but wouldn’t be settled…
In 2007, several Bosnian artists erected a statue of a food can in Sarajevo, in an ironic homage gesture to the humanitarian aid given by the Europeans during the war.
“The Ikar canned beef is remembered by the people of Sarajevo with disgust. Cats and dogs did not want to eat it and people had to”, stated Dunja Blazevic, from Sarajevo’s Center of Contemporary Art. Europe failed here, and kept on failing in Kosovo.
THE KOSOVO CRISIS
Tension in Kosovo had dated back from long before, when the country started being populated by an Albanian majority, instead of the Serbs, who considered the region the cradle of Serbia.
In September of 1991, the Albanians organized a clandestine referendum approving the creation of the Republic of Kosovo. There was no turning back. The KLA [UÇK], the Kosovo Liberation Army, would rebel against the Serbian authorities in the territory, through several attacks between 1996 and 1998.
Pedro Cruz, special envoy from TSF, arrived in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, in June of 1998. The reporter noted:
"The Serbs are increasingly losing more control of the situation, they only control the main roads, everything goes to secondary roads, so who dominates everything are the Albanian rebels that patrol, control, have checkpoints on all roads”.
“It is possible to already see the circulation of heavily armed military vehicles and with many soldiers inside, which means that the Yugoslavian army starts now to enter this game that, until now, had only been between the police and the KLA [UÇK] “.
The images of entire villages being burned down, of thousands of civilians living in the forests covered the media around the world. The international opinion grew towards the intervention, in order to avoid Kosovo becoming a new Bosnia.
The Gornje Obrinje massacre was one of the conflict’s critical points that generated media attention. On October 12th, NATO intervened, making an ultimatum to Belgrade so that Serbian troops retreated from Kosovo.
However, NATO’s agreement didn’t contemplate the independence of Kosovo, neither the KLA [UÇK] action. While Serbs retreated from Kosovo, the KLA [UÇK] retaliated and provoked the troops in a way that these would do atrocities that would lead to a military intervention from NATO. The Serbs fell in that trap and the conflict reignited with a new intensity.
After several months of negotiations, Serbia didn’t follow the conditions imposed by NATO. On March 24th, 1999, NATO started the “Operation Allied Force”, bombing the main Serbian military points. The first Serbian retaliation had as target the western journalists. All reporters present in Kosovo were expelled from the territory. In 1999, new NATO attacks, this time in Belgrade.
NATO’s bombings would extend until June of 1999. Several journalists covered the conflict from Belgrade.
José Rodrigues dos Santos reported the first bombing to the Serbian capital for RTP: “I felt the night lighting up with a very strong light. I looked at the window. I saw the remains of an orangey white flash decreasing and, after, a second after, I felt a detonation so strong, (…) that I had to shrink in fear that the windows would break”.
“NATO promised an unprecedented wave of bombings, and fulfilled it. The explosions of NATO’s bombs and missiles, and the frenetic crackling of the Serbian anti-aircraft witnessed it well this night, in Belgrade”. – Santos Pereira, Telejornal, RTP, April 7th, 1999.
“A series of violent explosions woke me up and must have awaken everyone here in Belgrade. (…) This was one of the most violent nights here in Belgrade, and I have already a month of war here”. – Aurélio Faria, SIC, April 22nd, 1999.
“It started the deafening traffic of aircrafts that aren’t seen, of travelling bullets and of the muffled noises of the antiaircraft” - Pedro Rosa Mendes, Público, May 21st, 1999.
During the most part of the war, Serbian authorities denied access to Kosovo to the majority of journalists. When it was allowed to do the coverage, this had to be done under official supervision.
On June 9th, 1999, it was signed a peace agreement between Yugoslavia and NATO. Only three Portuguese reporters remained in Belgrade. “The capital of Yugoslavia excites in relief, but there is an anger in the air”, wrote Pedro Rosa Mendes for Público.
A big part of the information available to western journalists came from NATO, one of the main actors. Thus, there were doubts about the angle approached by the media. Even before the end of the conflict, The Independent questioned NATO’s role in media coverage.
In 2001, Slobodan Miloševic, the man who ruled Yugoslavia during the war in the Balkans, was accused of crimes against the Humanity by the International Criminal Court of the UNO. Yugoslavia was dissolved in March of 2002.