[Witness to Genocide: Conversation with Roy Gutman, correspondent, Newsday, winner of the Pultizer Prize; 4/10 97 by Harry Kreisler]
Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
Welcome to a "Conversation with History." I'm Harry Kreisler of the
Institute of International Studies. Our guest is Roy Gutman, a correspondent
with Newsday. Roy won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for his reporting on Bosnia.
Roy, welcome to Berkeley.
Tell us a little about your background. Where were you educated?
I grew up in Hartford, Connecticut. I went to Haverford College, studied
history, and then I went to the London School of Economics and did a degree
in international relations.
Did you plan to become a journalist or did you just become one?
Somewhere during college I decided that this was a field that needed me, or
that I needed it. I wasn't sure which. I felt that if you had a lot of
expertise, there was a need for well-educated reporters.
And what period are we talking about?
I graduated from college in '66. And somewhere about halfway through college
I just had the bug bite me on newspapering.
At the early stage of your career had you decided that you wanted to go into
national security as a field?
IGutman with Adolf von Thadden, Nationalist Party leader, Germany; September 9, 1969, Hannover]
an image of myself as "our man in somewhere," you know, the correspondent
out in the field, somewhere in Eastern Europe. I really thought East/Central
Europe was the place I wanted to be. It was communist then. It was
repressive. I thought things were going to change one day and I wanted to
get the feel of it before it happened.
Did you study the right things, looking back now, when you were in college
and graduate school?
Probably not. But you know, sometimes it's just getting the discipline of
study that's the important thing in college. I studied British medieval
history as my major focus at Haverford. And at London I specialized in
Russian and Chinese politics. I mean, those were all very useful and they
give you a method of approach. It left me totally unqualified to start
journalism, or over-qualified, because the academic approach is not the
journalistic approach. It took several years to overcome my handicap, but
then later it became immensely useful.
Clarify that difference between academics and journalists.
Well, academics study abstract things and they use time and materials to
produce almost a perfect version of what happened, a very nicely shaded and
presented version. Journalists, they say, do the first cut of history
(sometimes it's not even that), but the deadlines make it almost impossible
to do it well enough to get a complete view. I once did a book, about 10
years ago, on Latin America. I had been very careful in my daily reporting,
so I went back over my daily reporting when I was doing the book and I
discovered that maybe one time in ten my stories had it absolutely right, I
actually had all the factors where they should be. So that gives you a kind
of humility. You realize that journalism is a very limited field. You're out
there first, you can do a lot, you can really get a feel of events, and yet
you don't have it down right.
But this time urgency allows you to explicate an issue so that the
information is more relevant for the public.
Well, if something is going on, the public wants to know about it. Somehow
our editors get the feeling that we should be writing about it and so they
say, "Well, there's a slot. We have space for a story." Or they send you out
to do something. And you have to fill it. You hope you fill it with relevant
and timely and actually important material, but sometimes you can't because
at 6:00 the gong sounds and if you don't have the story in, they have to
take somebody else's story, a wire story. So there's a real limit.
Reporting on East - West Relations
Did you plan to go directly into national security and the communist
In a way I did. Although I was working summers during college at the
Hartford Times, I really started working in Germany for UPI. It was 1968, a
month or two before the invasion of Czechoslovakia, so from that moment
there was almost nothing but major national security issues. And then I
stayed on in Germany. It was the time, especially after the Prague invasion,
that everybody in Europe was saying that we've got to make sure this doesn't
happen again. So the Germans, being the people in the middle, and Willy
Brandt, being then the chancellor, had this idea that they had to reach out
to the communist side, and he started ostpolitik. I was one of the very few
reporters there -- maybe it's just because of the training; this is where
the training and the education came in -- who was fascinated by that
diplomatic process. Every element of it. I was curious about how the Germans
were doing it, and they were so open. It's a very open society anyway and a
fairly open government. I was able to become a real expert on ostpolitik at
that point. That got me very much into national security issues, because
what the Germans were doing wasn't necessarily what the Americans wanted
them to do. And what did the Russians want to get out of it? What did the
peoples of Eastern Europe want to get out of it?
We should remind our audience that this was the last phase of the Cold War,
in which both superpowers had concluded that the world was getting a little
too dangerous because of the escalating arms race. Especially the Europeans
were concerned. Brandt was defining a policy of reaching out so that Germany
could become a broker between the superpowers, or at least help ensure the
stability that everybody wanted.
What he did was brilliant in a way. It was timely. It made a difference. It
led to what the Germans called entspannung, what the French call détente. A
relaxing of tensions. That led, in the course of the mid-'70s, to the
Helsinki Agreement, which at the time was scorned by conservatives in the
United States. It was regarded so badly there that they didn't even turn it
into a treaty. It was a final act which is just sort of a signed document.
But what they did was they set up human rights as a central element of
future stability. When East Europeans read this, and as I said it's a signed
document, people in these small countries and in Russia took it very
seriously whether we did or not. That is what led, very basically over the
course of a decade, to the revolution, the peaceful revolution in Eastern
Europe, which is one of the miracles of our time or any time. It's one of
the greatest events that I think we're likely to see for a very long time.
This Helsinki process became a way to institutionalize human rights concerns
within the various states in the Soviet empire.
Yes. If you take Czechoslovakia as it was known then, Václav Havel, who's
now president, and other intellectuals founded something called Charter 77.
It was based on the Helsinki charter. And they started campaigning for the
principles of freedom of expression, free movement, free access to
information, and they would get arrested. Then they would go back again and
say, "Well, Helsinki says the following." The same thing happened in Russia,
and the same thing happened almost everywhere in Eastern Europe. So they
created throughout the educated class a knowledge that these principles are
acceptable and are accepted and are worth fighting for. They fought for
them, basically, by giving up their own freedom to a good extent. So the
east revolution started at that point. We know what happened when the Wall
came down. It didn't just start in 1989. It really started in the mid-'70s.
Laying down these institutions made the end result possible.
Then American conservatives saw this for what it was, and they got rather
interested in it and in different administrations, including the Reagan
administration, started trying to elaborate on it. They had meetings every
three or four years. This is one of the untold stories of modern times,
because the peaceful revolutions were such a success that everybody's sort
of forgotten. We've gone on to other things. These peaceful movements
developed during Democratic and Republican administrations. They produced a
body of principles and agreements that today are, in a sense, as good a
charter as we could have of the international system.
The Helsinki Agreement
Looking back at your work at that time, were you picking up on this? In
other words, are you satisfied with the way that you covered it? Did you
realize the implications that you're now describing?
Well, I had the good fortune of working for Reuters early, about 1971, and
about a year or two after I went to work for them in Bonn, Germany, they
asked me to go to Belgrade, Yugoslavia, to be their bureau chief. I went
there and found it a fascinating place, not quite east, not quite west,
rather independent minded, a rather complicated story unto itself.
But somewhere near the end of my term the Helsinki negotiators had a
parliamentary session in Belgrade. I covered it. This is where I really
learned about the contents of the agreement and what they were trying to
accomplish. I realized that this was major. They have Basket 3, they called
it, the Helsinki process, which assured various rights. The one that
concerned me, because I was a journalist and because I felt that what we
were doing was important, was the freedom of movement for journalists,
freedom of access, freedom of visas for journalists. I reported this in some
depth and Reuters gave it a good play.
Now, interestingly enough, a few months later Reuters asked me to go to
Moscow as their deputy bureau chief. I was quite willing to go, though I
hated to leave Yugoslavia because I had been really almost smitten by it.
They wanted me to go, and it was such an important post that I said "Of
course." But the Russians turned me down for a visa. They didn't explain
why. So, having this intimate knowledge of the process and how it was
unfolding, I went to Reuters and I said, "Well, under this Helsinki
Agreement," which was just at that time being finalized and signed, "I am
supposed to have a visa to go anywhere I need to that you want to send me
to." So they made a protest at Helsinki as it was being completed. They
tried to deliver a letter to Andrei Gromyko, who was then the Foreign
Minister. I had really primed them for this, I had given them all the data,
all the reasons to act and all the background, and I don't think they would
have known it otherwise. Gromyko wouldn't receive the letter so they
published it on the wire. The Russians replied and they published another
reply, back and forth.
Anyway, for all times (in the communist era) I was banned from Russia, but
the principle was established within Reuters that they weren't going to take
this anymore. They'd been kicked around and their people had been
blackballed and had been slandered and physically assaulted at times. So we
established the principle within my own organization that this was not going
to be, and for ten years they didn't have a problem after that.
Basically it was luck and circumstance. I just happened to be there and I
used it, and they used it, and we established the principle. Now it's harder
to turn people down. I wouldn't say it doesn't happen, I get turned down
once in a while, but people put up a fuss and it happens rarely.
Why do you think the Soviets didn't want you? Was it this background of
experience, did they know about that?
Well, I'd be flattered if that was the reason. It's funny; they would come
out and do interviews, they would have a local correspondent who might have
been a KGB man come to my apartment and talk to me about my background. Did
I have relatives there? Why did I learn Russian in college? Why was I so
fascinated by the Soviet Union? Well, I mean, we were all fascinated by it
at that time.
It was probably more because of the coverage I did out of Yugoslavia at that
time. This was a place that East and West were competing over. I reported
about the Russian side and I also reported about the American side. Being an
American working for a British-based agency sort of gave me a feeling that I
didn't belong to anybody and I could just do my job.
The Russians, at a certain point, were sponsoring a kind of a rebellion
against Tito in the ideological sphere. There was a supposed party that was
founded underground. It wasn't real, but the Tito regime put them on trial
and I reported every detail lovingly, because it was quite a story. That was
a great story. And I was on my own. It was risky, in a sense, because my
sources were limited; but I trusted them. One day I reported that the
Yugoslavs were so upset with the Russian interference in their internal
affairs that they were welcoming the departure of the man who was then the
chargé d'affairs, as well as the Hungarian ambassador and the Czech
ambassador. I got this from government sources. I think it was true. But the
next thing that happened was that everybody changed their plans. They had
all planned to leave on a routine rotation and now suddenly they stopped.
So this is the thing: a wire agency in a small country, if you report things
carefully and accurately and in a timely way, is a big rock falling on a
small pond. That kind of story upset a lot of people, and when it came time
to review my visa, in Directorate 7 (or whatever it was) of the KGB, they
looked through all of the material they said "No, no, we don't want him. He
has ruined more careers, this guy." I assume it was something bureaucratic
like that. But you never know.
Alongside this Helsinki process was another process which was the world of
throw-weights, deterrents, arms control, and those kinds of accommodations.
You reported on that also.
I did. I wound up in limbo for at least a year in London, which is not the
worst place to be in limbo of Reuters, but being on a big desk, for a
working reporter, is sort of death in installments. I had a chance to come
to Washington for Reuters. After a few months I got assigned to the State
Department. It was the beginning of the Carter administration, which was a
very activist administration, and in their own way they wanted to deal with
the issues of tension with the Soviet Union. I wound up covering for about
five years non-stop the negotiations over SALT II and START I.
Now it's interesting: when I was at the London School of Economics they had
a man named Hedley Bull and several others who were teaching strategic
studies and the whole issue of deterrence, mutually assured destruction, and
other concepts. So if I think back to my LSE days, that was an area where I
had a smattering of information, and later I focused on it and dug into it
in depth. They also had, in my LSE days, a man named Karl Popper, a
brilliant man on scientific method, and I'd sat in on his lectures. They had
a man named Harry Johnson, one of the great economists who was dealing at
that time with issues like currency values. He defined a subject that
American academia really wasn't up on that much. I found everything that I
learned, every one of these subjects, at some later point became of value.
Clearly, Hedley Bull's lectures on strategic balance and the reading I did
prepared me mentally for what I was going to cover.
You wrote a book on America's policy in Central America. Tell us a little
about that and what you concluded.
I started covering Central America under protest, basically. My own
predisposition was Europe: I just felt that this is where big wars break
out, this is the area where we're now in a Cold War, this really matters,
and Central America is just a sideshow. But in the Reagan administration
they turned it into the main show. It was strange. It was bizarre. So my
editor said, "Well, you've got to cover it." By this time I had joined
Newsday. And so I went to El Salvador, I went to Nicaragua, I toured the
region, and I felt that it really was an interesting thing: what is going on
in this sideshow? I couldn't quite understand why the Americans were backing
a military movement against Nicaragua, the Contras, when they probably could
have, in time, won elections and done this whole thing peacefully. So I
started reporting it.
I came up with the questions, I didn't have the answers, and I did a series
of articles for the newspaper. I said, "I want to do more. I think I really
want to continue with this subject," and they said, "Well, we think we've
had enough." So then somebody said, "Why don't you do a book?" I spent
almost two years researching it. It was called Banana Diplomacy. There, as I
mentioned earlier, I went over all of my own stories and discovered how
lacking they had been, and I tried to reconstitute the process. What was the
decision-making, the Washington story? How did we get into this? What were
we doing? And I found myself really fascinated by process. It was really a
dramatic story. The book didn't become a best seller, but it was well
reviewed. The interesting thing I discovered in doing this was that it was
possible to talk to both sides. I went to the Contras. I met them all. I
asked them to tell me the history of what they were doing. I went to the
Sandinistas. I sat down with all of them. And so I went back and forth, back
and forth, and I assembled a story that way. Afterwards both sides told me
that they thought it was the best thing attempted in that area.
What was the interplay between what was actually happening in the field
versus the way Washington was conceptualizing it?
Well, you know, in the Reagan administration they had a system where the
president didn't always have his mind completely made up but he sort of knew
where he would like to come down. So he would basically let everybody do
their thing until somebody protested. And so Casey, the head of the CIA --
And an old OSS man.
An old OSS man, a guy who just loved these derring-do exploits, discovered
(because somebody told him) that there was a movement there who were
anticommunist, anti-Sandinista, and willing to fight. This must have
appealed to the OSS in him. So he basically gave a wink and a nod and let
the thing happen. It was not decided. It was not agreed on. Political
operatives, some of Jesse Helms' deputies, went out there and gave signals
To fund a counter-revolutionary --
It wasn't to fund it, it was to get it started and say "Hey, we are behind
you. You guys start up and we'll find the money to follow." So that's how it
started. Casey took money that he shouldn't have, without authority, and
created it. All of a sudden the administration and the government of the
United States, in a sense, had a stake in something. Only then did they tell
Congress what they were doing. They never told Congress honestly.
Meanwhile the State Department had a different perspective, which was that
this could be dealt with through diplomatic means. But the people who were
in favor of the Contras had the president's ear so much, and the president
sort of liked this kind of thing, he just got sold on it. He was told that
these were patriots and so on, and he liked that sort of thing. So that's
how it happens. It wasn't the diabolical plot that a lot of people thought
it was. Something was there and it was presented and the president said,
"Hmm, I think I'll go with that," and nobody really put up enough of a fuss.
And my God, it just caused them no end of embarrassment, and it was
counterproductive in many, many ways.
At the end of the day, do you know what resolved Nicaragua? The elections.
They had free and fair elections and people decided that the Sandinistas
couldn't manage the economy, which was always the case, and people do vote
with their pocketbooks at the end of the day if there's a fair race. So
that's what made the difference. The Contras just caused a lot of
destruction, a lot of war, and tremendous soul-searching and battling in
End of the Cold War
When it was all over and the Wall came down, were you surprised that it
happened so suddenly?
While I was writing Banana Diplomacy I was continuing to travel with
Secretary of State George Shultz, and basically he put aside that aspect of
Central America. He was interested in El Salvador, but Nicaragua, he just
decided that it was not worth the fight. He put all of his energies into
dealing with the Soviet Union, arms control, and other issues. He saw the
chance and, give the man credit: he really got it right. I traveled with him
on several of his trips there, and on one of them I decided that I would to
talk to the [Soviet] institute that deals with Latin America.
When you were in Russia.
Yes. I sat down and I had the most terrific talk with several people from
the institute. They told me basically that they didn't think Russia had much
of a stake in Nicaragua or in most of Latin America. They were curious about
what on earth Reagan was up to. Why was he acting as if this was a mortal
threat to the United States? The Russians didn't care.
I found that to be so fascinating that I went around to the other institutes
on the next trip. One of the institutes I went to was the Institute for the
Study of Europe. There I sat down with some brilliant men, whose names I
don't have at the top of my head. I asked them (Gorbachev was in by this
time), what are you guys going to do about Berlin? What are you going to do
about Germany? And they told me basically that they had the same attitude
toward Germany that they had toward Nicaragua, which is quite astonishing.
That was, "We don't see that we have the most vital stake in keeping our
troops there and holding on."
It takes a while, when you hear something like that, for it to percolate
through your brain and to figure out what that really means. I came back
from that trip and I sat down and wrote a memo to my editors and I said, "It
is possible that the Russians will withdraw from Germany, that they will let
the eastern empire go, that the end of Gorbachev's perestroika is going to
be the liberation of Eastern Europe and also the end of communism." They
probably thought my memo was off the wall, but I was convinced to the pores
of my skin that this was true. Often in our business, if you are far ahead
of something (and this was months ahead, maybe even a year ahead), it's
dangerous because you get very frustrated, nobody takes you seriously. Then
you have to watch for it to unfold and try somehow to get into it.
How did this experience of doing the Cold War beat prepare you for the new
world that we've entered in which you've played a leading role as a
reporter? What lessons were you left with at the end of the Cold War that
have applicability to the new world you are covering?
Well I really can't think of a lot, quite honestly.
It's a whole new game.
It is a whole new game. I found the Helsinki process so interesting in the
way that we in the West and they in the East managed to find a common
language and a common way of dealing with things. It was probably accidental
that it happened. It was just somebody trying to cover the differences in
Western policy. It may have come out of Brandt's ostpolitik. I think the
Germans were in a good way responsible for it. Each of the Western countries
brought something to bear in that equation, and that was pretty impressive.
I came away with the illusion, as did so many people, that there was a place
called "Europe," that Europeans had an idea of how to manage security issues
and that we the United States were a very helpful outsider, but we were
basically a non-European power. This was a complete illusion. I was
completely wrong on that, as were so many other people.
Professionally and technically, and especially after doing my Central
America book, the one thing I developed was a kind of detachment from my own
work to the extent of realizing that you work extremely hard to get the
story right on the day it happened, and then you really have to keep on
revisiting it even if you're not doing a book, even if you don't have a
formal excuse. If you have a question about something, just go back again
and again and again and finally get it fixed in your mind what really
happened. Then you've got a point of reference. I developed that technique
in my own strange way.
Now the deformation, as the East Europeans call it, that developed in the
course of covering the U.S. government was that I tended to rely on the
government or sources, or dissidents, or people just outside of it for a lot
of my information. This was also a great mistake, because when real events
happen like the fall of the Wall, like the end of communism, like the
liberation of the East European states, the government doesn't know what to
do. The government is a bunch of bureaucrats who operate on a concept of
what the world was and has been but not what it is and is about to be. That
was the Cold War era: it was an era when everything was definable,
describable, and knowable; when you thought your government was doing its
job because they were working. That ended in 1989.
The next phase of your career focused on the collapse of Yugoslavia and the
Bosnian war, which led to your reports for Newsday on that struggle, for
which you won the Pulitzer Prize. You published a collection of your pieces
called A Witness to Genocide. How did the Bosnia story come about? You had
been in Yugoslavia. You wound up there again? Or were you on special
Well, one little bridge there. In 1989 the newspaper asked me to go to
Europe. Maybe they finally read my memo. Or probably didn't. I had learned
German. I had this idea (this was part of my obsession from college) that
German was an important language, that Germany was the center of Europe, and
that if I wanted to know Eastern Europe I really should know German and
Germany. So one of my editors, for some reason unknown (and I doubt that it
was my memo) said, "We need to open our office in Germany," and they asked
me. He was there in 1989 for a conference and he asked, "Would you go?" And
I had said "No." I said, "I know what's coming and this is not a job for a
married man." But my wife finally agreed and we set up. We covered,
basically, the revolutions in the east. Now I hadn't been back to Yugoslavia
since 1975, except in 1991 at the end of the Gulf War (which I was covering
for the paper when I was based in Germany), when an editor called and said,
"What's going on in Yugoslavia?" I called some friends from 15 years earlier
and they said, "You'd better come here and look for yourself." They couldn't
tell me. So I called the editor and said, "I can't do a story off the top of
my head, I'd better go and investigate." Well, I went there and I still
couldn't figure it out.
This would have been what year?
This was '91.
Tito was dead?
Tito died in 1980, and Milosevic, the Serbian leader, came to power in 1987.
They say that he was the first man who recognized the fact that Tito really
had died, and started acting on that basis. The nationalist movement was
already started; he took the reins in his hands from about 1987. So in 1991,
Serb nationalism had developed to a very great extent, but so had Croatian
nationalism and so had Slovenian nationalism. Each of the republics of what
was then Yugoslavia had its own complete set of politics and dynamics.
So I went around from one republic to another; I went to Bosnia. Bosnia was
a combination of Serbs, Croats, and Muslims with nobody having the majority,
the Muslims being the largest of the groups. Bosnia, therefore, had a
special dynamic which was three times as complicated as any other republic.
So I went and I toured the place. At one point I went to Knin in Krajina,
which is in the Serb part of Croatia. I took a taxi from Sarajevo and I went
up there. Men were blocking the roads with logs, and I thought "This is a
sign of war." Why do I say that? Because those roads were the key for
Croatia to link the Zagoria part in Central Europe with the Dalmatian part
of Croatia on the Adriatic. But it was so hard to tell the story. Then the
war started up in June of '91, and for the entire rest of 1991 I tried, as a
reporter, to cover the story of the war between Serbia and Croatia. But
there was very little interest in the United States.
We should explain that with Tito's death and the fall of communism, the iron
fist and the ideology that was the glue holding the country together fell
apart, and the regions and the different nationalities then began to be
concerned about their own futures. The Serbs came to dominate what was the
old Yugoslav Federation and the armed forces there. They then began to take
actions in the name of Serbian nationalism, which then led various regions
to declare themselves independent. The Europeans recognized Croatia and
Slovenia and then, in essence, the war began. If that's a short, fair
Thank you, that spares me. Bosnia was the problem case because it combined
all the nationalities. It was in the center of the country. They couldn't
easily declare independence because a third of the population was Serb, but
they couldn't stay with Serbia. By this time, by 1992, Croatia and Slovenia
had separated. Bosnia couldn't stay with Serbia because the Serbs would
dominate non-Serbs in Bosnia, and this was not just Serbs, this was extreme
nationalist Serbs who had kind of a übermensch mentality that "We are the
bosses and we're going to run everybody else." So that was also intolerable.
Your book is called Witness to Genocide. Just briefly enumerate the kinds of
atrocities that you began to uncover in your dispatches to Newsday.
Concentration camps. Rape camps where women were held and raped,
systematically and for a very long time. Sometimes two or three months. The
destruction of the culture. Attacks on mosques -- destruction of every
mosque in the country -- on schools, libraries, as well as the normal
destruction in war. Attacks on refugees. Have I left anything out? Those are
the kinds of things. These are crimes, defined under international
conventions, crimes against humanity or war crimes.
In Bosnia, their problem was that they couldn't really be independent and
they also couldn't stay with Serbia. So what do they do? They turned to the
European community and asked, "Would you guide us? If we make a decision
would you support it?" So the European community came up with a process
which recommended that they hold a referendum. It's a very European
solution. They used to do this after World War I as well, which led straight
into war. So they held a referendum and roughly 66 percent of Bosnians voted
for independence. The Serbs all boycotted, the 33 percent. The outcome was
that the moment they were recognized by the European Community and by the
United States, April 6th or 8th of 1992, was the moment that the Serbs
started shooting at Sarajevo and attacking cities up and down the Drina
So you were suddenly the eye witness to the destruction of the civilizing
idea of Europe, in a way. All of the lessons learned at the end of World War
II were being unlearned right before your eyes.
Well, first of all I wasn't there in April. I was there in March when they
had the referendum. Just by coincidence I was in the region and I went in
for the day. Frankly, there was so little interest in the Croatian war and
the Bosnian war at the beginning that those of us who thought that this was
the most important thing happening in Europe, because I came to that
conclusion during the Croatian war, were frustrated that nobody wanted the
story. It was not just my newspaper but the American press in general. So it
was a very frustrating time. When the Bosnian war started, same thing. I
could hardly interest them. But by the summer of 1992 people could see, just
from the siege of Sarajevo alone, that the people meant something. The
Serbs, in attacking a capital and burning down a library for example, this
really was no holds barred.
So I went back, and by accident to a good degree, I wound up going to north
Bosnia, to Banja Luka. It's the mainly Serb city in the north. It's a place
where there was no war. But I knew, because I had already made this tour the
previous year and I was very familiar with the thinking there, that this was
going to be the place where the intellectual authors of the war were going
to operate. Now it wasn't quite right; I may have gone there for the wrong
reasons. I called somebody there and I said, "What's going on? I heard that
there's ethnic cleansing." I didn't even know what the term really meant,
nobody did. The man I called was a Muslim who was the head of the Muslim
Party of Democratic Action and he said, "Please, in the name of God, come
here. There are terrible things going on. People are being deported in
cattle cars. There are other things." He didn't mention the camps. When
somebody says that to you, if you can go safely, or you hope with safety,
you just get on the next bus. The road opened up, and the buses were just
starting up. I was on the first bus into Banja Luka. I discovered these
things -- well, "discovered" them -- !
The Muslims and the Croats gave me their side of the story. Together they
were maybe not quite 50 percent of the population; the Serbs had the
majority, I think, in Banja Luka. Then I went to the authorities and I asked
them what was going on. And then I went back to the people who were being
victimized, and back and forth. Finally I determined it was true, that these
cattle-car deportations were going on. Then the next thing I heard about was
camps. So I went to the authorities and said, "I've heard some terrible
things about camps, can you take me to these camps?" And they said, "Yeah,
okay. You're the first visitor. We're happy to have you and we'll take you."
They asked which one did I want to go to, and I said Omarska, and they
thought about it and said that maybe they could do it. But they didn't take
These were old mines, iron mines?
In this case, Omarska is an iron ore mine.
Did you feel a moral outrage as you saw this and began reporting it?
You know, outrage is sort of the wrong word. I would say white rage. But a
totally contained rage. If you wind up in the middle of something like that
and you have a tip that it's true, you check it out, you go back and forth,
you convince yourself that it's true. Your number one concern on earth is
getting the full story, getting out of there, and getting the story out. You
don't have time for emotions. You really just simply concentrate on what
Now they didn't take me to Omarska. They took me to a place called Manjaca,
the day the Red Cross was visiting. I had a photographer along, a brilliant
guy, and he managed, despite the fact that he had men with dogs on him, he
was surrounded all the time, to get some superb photographs which just
showed the degradation that they were subjecting Muslim prisoners to. So his
pictures plus my story, it was powerful stuff. And frankly, I didn't have
time for emotions. I just wanted to get the story out, that was my only
concern, you know: I've gotten this story out, what's the next story? Well
the next story was Omarska, because I said to them, "Now would you take me
to Omarska?" They said, "Maybe we will," and then they changed their minds
and said, "No, we can't guarantee your safety." So I started collecting
stories on Omarska, both while I was there in Banja Luka and after I went to
Zagreb when I found refugees. In other words, I just got very determined.
Belated International Response
As the story began to emerge, the most remarkable thing was the non-response
of the great powers, both the U.S. in the Bush and Clinton administrations,
and the Europeans. How do you account for that, once the story was out, the
images were out, and it was very clear what was going on?
I was in the field then so I had hardly a clue, but I did know something
even then. I knew that if I was coming upon this and I was discovering and
researching it and I was trying to beat the drum, then clearly they had made
a decision in advance to close their eyes in Washington. In fact, after my
first visit to Banja Luka, I did a story about Omarska, even though I hadn't
visited it, based on second-hand information, and I labeled it as such.
Because I felt, "My God, here I am, I'm the first person here, I'm convinced
this is true. I've proven every other element of the story that I heard,
here's the one I can't prove because I can't go there. But boy it sure
raises big questions." Then we sent it around the Bush administration. My
colleagues from Newsday in Washington got it to the Secretary of State
himself, because my colleague was on his plane. They got it to the CIA, to
the White House, members of Congress. I called. I sent it everywhere. Two
weeks later, nobody ever called me back.
So that was evidence that they didn't care. Why didn't they care? The only
thing I can think of is that we were in a new era. In the Cold War era,
Yugoslavia was a place of strategic contest between the United States and
the Soviet Union. And post - Cold War, I think they felt it didn't matter,
that it would have to find its own way, that they'd have a revolution in
time and good for them. That's one reason.
Another reason is that the Serbs really did appear, especially on paper, to
have such superiority that they were going to take it quickly, and it would
be over with. That we could close our eyes and in a blink it would be over.
It was a total misconception by the Americans, by the Serbs, and by
everybody. In fact, the Serbs went to Yazov, the Russian Defense Minister,
and they asked him before or midway through the Croatian war, "Will the West
intervene?" Yazov went to (I'm not sure if it was Cheney or whoever was the
American at that time) and asked, "What are you going to do?" He got an
assurance that the Americans were going to do nothing. In other words, they
had a green light at that point.
Now, why did they decide not to do anything? As I say, one reason is the end
of the Cold War, the other is that there is, among the American military to
this day, a fear that getting involved in a war in a country that has
mountains ("We do deserts, we don't do mountains," that's what Colin Powell
said), getting involved in a war like that is a quagmire, that no matter
what's happening, it's Vietnam all over again. So when Bush asked for
military advice as these things were going on, he was told by Colin Powell,
"400,000 troops, 10 years, and we'll never get out of there." I mean an
absolute exaggeration, a total misreading of the politics. Almost willful
ignorance of the facts.
Bush was also not somebody who eagerly sent men into battle. You know, in
the Iraq war, where there was every justification from the American national
interest perspective to go in, Margaret Thatcher said she had to convince
him. She said George was going wobbly.
The final reason is this was an election year. Bush felt, I suppose with
some reason, that getting involved in a military exploit where you don't
quite know what the hell is going on (I mean it was confusing), was not a
great idea. But the real truth is that if they had done all their homework,
if they had tasked the CIA, the intelligence agencies in general, the State
Department, and said, "Use all your resources to find out what's going on;
not that we want to get involved but we want to be on top of this in case we
ever should," they would have figured out, as I did, that genocide was going
on. But I think that for political reasons they didn't do that.
Okay, that's the explanation at one level, the level of the great powers. Is
it possible to help us understand what was going on on the ground? What was
driving the Serbs and these peoples as they turned on each other? Well,
partly the Croats and the Bosnians were defending themselves against the
Serbs. But was this a surprise to you? And what explains the ferocity, the
emergence of evil in a sense, in this new, post - Cold War context?
Well I came away thinking that it basically had a strategic military content
at its heart, which was that in the Croatia war the previous year, the Serbs
had taken control of a large section of Croatia, called Krajina, with the
capital of Knin. But they had no secure military strategic route to reach it
from Serbia. And they needed it because this was really far away, a couple
hundred miles away.
And they were concerned about protecting Serbs in that region.
Yes, those Serbs who had now declared their independence of Croatia and were
running an absolute militant state. So the army very easily could talk
itself into carving a corridor, especially after Bosnia declared
independence, across northern Bosnia to link up Belgrade with Banja Luka and
Knin. I learned that they were going to do this the previous year, five
months before the war broke out. I just went to Banja Luka, I got briefed by
the Serbs there, and they said, "We're probably going to need this
territory." I said, "Wait a minute, this is populated (as far as I knew) by
non-Serbs, predominately Muslims and Croats. How are you going to do it?
This means war. This means total war." And the mayor of Banja Luka said to
me, "Well, not if everybody's clever." He really didn't have an answer. Well
it was total war. And that's where the ethnic cleansing (a euphemism for
genocide) basically began. It was along that corridor. That's where the
concentration camps were set up. Everywhere along there. In places where
there was fighting, like in Brcko, in places where there was no fighting,
like Banja Luka. And the killing, the raping, it all went on all along that
corridor. So start with the military concept, and that helps you explain how
it starts. Then you have to look at what happened once they did that. There
was no resistance, the Bosnians were not at all prepared. The Serbs saw that
they could roll over the country. What does a military do when it discovers
that? It carries on and they expand their territory. Very quickly they had
two-thirds of the country. They were going for Sarajevo. They were basically
going for broke. So that is my understanding. What amazes me is that I
figured this out as a journalist just by looking at the map and using logic.
The American government, for the longest time, didn't seem to recognize
So it sounds like "see no evil, hear no evil," I don't know about "speak no
evil" in this particular case because the politicians were making promises
about what we would do, or threatening to do things, at least during the
campaign, which they didn't do anything about.
Let me tell you something. The most amazing thing to me was, when I wrote my
story about Omarska and I hadn't been there, I had two witnesses whom I
found in Zagreb. One had been from Omarska, one had been at the Luka camp at
the port in Brcko. And they told their stories. I spent more than a week
searching for refugees. They told their stories in a convincing way. The
newspaper put the headline "Death Camps" on the story and it's justified
because of the killing there. It had a thunderclap effect. It had an effect
in Bosnia. It had an effect in Europe. It had an effect in the United
States. And the effect in Bosnia was that the Serbs closed down the camps,
and actually people were freed. It's the most amazing thing ever. In Europe
it just sort of stunned people, but nobody knew what to do. The European
intelligence services may or may not have had this information. They should
have had it from refugees. They really should have. It's unbelievable that
they didn't have the same information I did.
Somebody at the State Department heard me speak on NPR the afternoon after
the story appeared and looked up the files and discovered that they had
something on it, and the next day the State Department confirmed the story.
And this was another headline. Then the smart guys on the seventh floor as
they say, where the Secretary of State is, looked at this and said, "We've
just confirmed something, people are going to ask us where have you been all
this time? Why are you confirming a news report? We are the United States of
America." And so the next day they retracted it. "We were overtaken by
events. This statement is inoperative." And then back and forth, back and
forth. Finally weeks later they said they asked the CIA to look up all the
information and the CIA said they didn't have anything on it because they
hadn't been questioning refugees. Then some people quit in the State
Department in protest, a guy named George Kenney, over the fact that they
weren't even searching. And then they started interviewing refugees and
about three months later they confirmed the damn thing. I didn't feel good
about this at all.
Conclusion: Norms and Values
I hear a common link between our discussion of the Cold War and your
discussion now, and that is that norms and values matter. That the Helsinki
process, surprisingly, represented the institutionalization of human rights
in Eastern Europe, and that maybe on the American side we didn't realize
that. Now I hear you saying that values and human rights norms mattered, and
obviously that was what was driving you, but there was a political
indifference both in Washington and in Europe. So there is a common link. I
guess one of your concerns now is to see that those norms are understood by
recording the story so that this doesn't happen again.
You know, you don't necessarily know what your norms are or your values are.
You try them out in different circumstances and you discover them. But
anybody in the postwar generation will feel that the Holocaust was supposed
to be a one-time event, that it could not happen again, that it should not
happen in Europe, that we couldn't let this sort of thing go on, and that if
we the reporters don't report it then it could go on. So we all have this
obligation. It goes without saying in a way. Crime, massive crimes by
states, upset the world environment. Besides the crime itself and the
victims, look what it does to world order.
[Gutman interviews refugees from Zepa; July 1995 in Zenica.]
But here we are in a new era where nobody knew what the order was. George
Bush talked about the "new world order," but there was no world order. So I
guess through the coverage of these crimes I began to think that war crimes
is really a very important category of events and that we ought to know more
about it. I never used the term in any of my coverage, "war crimes." I
didn't use the word "genocide" in my coverage, ever. My editors were real
sticklers. We have to have a source for every statement, every judgment.
When I came to do the book I put together my articles and I thought about
what had I been through here. What does it add up to? And it added up to
genocide. So I'm now trying, with the help of colleagues, to look at this
question of what is a war crime. Can we as journalists cover it without
naming it? Would it help if we knew the definition under international law,
so that at least we could guide the public by saying "The Geneva Conventions
say that if you destroy a mosque, unless it's being used for attack on a
military force, that's a war crime." I didn't know that at the time, and I
think we could benefit from that knowledge.
Theestioning Vojislav Seselj after a campaign rally in Prijedor, September 1996.]
are not out there, in the sense that our governments are not telling us what
they are, and yet here's a preexisting set of norms, international treaties
and conventions. We the press have a need, we the media have a need, to find
some norm to refer the public and ourselves to so that we know what we're
reporting. Maybe there's something we should be doing.
One final question. How would you advise a would-be journalist starting out
to prepare for covering this new world?
Good luck. I think area studies is probably one important way to go. You've
got to master European history. There is no other way. You must know where
we came from, or how we have our system. It doesn't have to be the Middle
Ages, it doesn't have to be the Magna Carta, but at least modern European
history through this Helsinki process. Get that down. You'll have a sense of
norms, let us say. Then focus on regions. Look for one region that you think
will be important in five or ten years, where you can make your mark. Learn
the languages and then be prepared. Realize the limits of journalism but go
back to your stories again and again. Just keep at it. You know, everybody
has these chances. They come to you as a journalist when you least expect
it. But you'll be ready then.
Mr. Gutman, thank you very much for being here today and for this
fascinating account of your Cold War beat and then the Bosnia beat for which
you won the Pulitzer Prize. Thank you very much, and thank YOU very much for
joining us for this "Conversation with History."
(c) Copyright 1997, Regents of the University of California
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