Remembering Sarajevo: A Reunion of Journalists 20 Years Later

PHOTO: A Bosnian special forces soldier returns fire in downtown Sarajevo as he and civilians come under fire from Serbian snipers April 6, 1992. The Serb extremists were shooting from the roof of a hotel at a peace demonstration of some of 30,000 people PlayMike Persson/AFP/Getty Images
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The flight into Sarajevo this time was so different from the first nearly 20 years ago. From the window of the Airbus I can see the foothills of Mt. Igman and across the plain the mountain peaks where the Serbs forces had placed their big guns that were to inflict so much damage on this city.

On my first flight I had sat huddled in the back of a French C130 wearing my flak jacket and an ill fitting helmet. My overstuffed duffle bag that I squeezed under my legs was full of medical gear and food supplies for my colleagues. As we were taxing and the crew opened the back door to a blast of frigid air snipers opened fired on the plane. The pilot decided he would not stop to off-load the needed supplies, but he slowed enough for us to jump and run for the cover of the makeshift U.N. terminal. What was I doing here, I remember thinking.

I was a green producer for ABC News. I had covered the military intervention in Somalia, but this was my first civil war with constant daily battles. Over the next 44 months I would come often to Sarajevo, and over the next 20 years I would cover many, many more wars. But what I saw and learned in the Bosnia war is a big part of who I am professionally. I "earned my wings" there, along with many young colleagues from around world who covered the most deadly conflict in Europe since World War II.

So last year when an assorted bunch of those journalists decided to hold an anniversary reunion, I knew I had to go and see how the city had changed; to reconnect with old friends; and to try and find those people we had reported on during the siege.

On April 5, 1992, as tens of thousands gathered in the center of the city to protest what would be the break from Yugoslavia, snipers fired into the crowd killing randomly. Within days the city would split into ethnic neighborhoods. There were a mass exodus of Croats, Serbs and Muslims from their mixed neighborhoods into enclaves.

The country would fracture too. The front lines were formed and were numerous. By the time the conflict ended nearly 250,000 would die in Bosnia and millions were displaced.

The journalism group is meeting at the Holiday Inn of course. Originally built to accommodate Olympic visitors, the hotel would become a journalist hub during the war. Tracer fire often bounced around the atrium lobby. The hotel is situated just across from where the Serb snipers had their positions. There was daily, deadly running of the gauntlet to and from the hotel.

Today we are joking whether we should still walk up the emergency stairs or whether to ask the hotel to turn off the power for our reunion to recreate the atmosphere of those days. I thought about bringing a jar of mustard and Tabasco sauce, like the ones stashed in my duffle bag that first day. They were an important staple to supplement to the dreary fare that the formally attired hotel waiters presented each night.

My first story was how the residents were preparing for the brutal winter. My correspondent Hilary Brown and I watched an old man try to scratch tree roots from the frozen earth along sniper alley. I would produce dozens of more stories in the coming months each more startling than the last; many with true local heroes.

Of course a good deal of the journalists who were here, including many from ABC News, couldn't make it. And not every Bosnian I spoke to thought it was correct to hold an anniversary for something that is still a nightmare for many. But this is not a celebration. It's a commemoration for them -- and maybe for us too.

Friday the city has organized an open air concert. There will be 11, 541 empty chairs set up on Marshall Tito Boulevard, the main thoroughfare through the city which was better known as part of sniper alley during the siege. Each chair is for a person killed during those 44 months. The city's current residents will gather around on the sidewalks to listen to the performance of songs written by composers living in the city during that time.

I walk pass the hospital where I stood for hours years ago and watched people ferry the wounded from fierce rounds of shelling to the emergency room. Any car that had fuel would arrive at high speed to avoid being a target, then hurriedly off-load in the driveway outside. The front and back seats and even the trunk were full of wounded. On more than one occasion the driver brought the victim in and then raced back to his car to bring an arm, leg, or worse that had been blasted off. I also remember the brave pregnant women often delivering early from stress to small infants who are now the generation I see sipping coffee at the old town cafes.

A number of events have been organized for our visit. There will be a tour to the tunnel that smuggled out residents and smuggled in supplies. We heard often in those early years about the tunnel, but its secret was held tight. Towards the end of the war we received some video from friends who made it out that way. I wanted to see their path to relative safety that has now become a museum.

There is talk of a drive to Mt. Igman, the only way in and out of the city once the airport was closed for good by Serb guns. An American diplomat died on this treacherous road while trying to build a peace accord. I drove our vehicle into the city being shelled all around on more than one occasion, and I remember a terrifying solo run to rescue our ABC local producer when he was blasted off the road taking others out to safety.

Vedran Smailovic, the "cellist of Sarajevo," will play for journalists. His open air concerts at the National Library in all climates and during the grimmest days became the iconic photo that came to represent the residents' will.

A few journalists who made their names in this conflict will be back to give seminars, release new books, show old photos.

There will be a memorial service for those journalists who died there, and from those who went on to cover wars in other places because they felt they should after being eye witnesses to Bosnia. I will say a little prayer for an ABC News colleague, David Kaplan, who was killed by a sniper before I ever stepped foot in the city. I spoke to him from Belgrade before he boarded his flight in and he told me everything would be ok.

I have been bad about staying in touch with all the ABC local staff that stayed in their city while I came and went when it became too much to bear. Samira, Mirsad, Belmin, Faruk, and Maggie. Their bravery was astounding. I also want to see Bosa, the women who cleaned for us in our office in the battered television station. An ethnic Serb, she came to work even on the day her apartment took a direct hit into the living room, destroying everything. Amazingly no one in her family was seriously wounded, but she didn't want to risk losing her job, so she came to clean our coffee cups.

I drove past that television station on the way in from town and I made a mental note that I need to visit it. From the outside it remains a dreary, grey, hulking building. It too was pummeled by the big Serb guns. It took a direct hit one day while I was on the phone with New York about the daily offer for the evening news. The screech of the incoming projectile gave me just enough warning to dive under the desk I was working at before the loud explosion rattled the taped windows and brought parts of the ceiling down. Surprisingly the satellite phone line stayed connected the whole time, and my executive producer heard all of my expletives. It wasn't shrapnel but hot coffee that brought my shrieks. Other days we were not so lucky. The security man at the front door who greeted us each day took the full force of a blast.

Walking through the old town in the afternoon I had flashbacks of us on a rare trinket hunt when the only souvenir buyers were U.N. peacekeeping troops or journalists. Of course the city would have changed after 20 years of only oral fighting, but still the scars from those four years of constant shelling are ever present. We walked the whole way back from the Old Town to our hotel something that none of us ever dared do 20 years ago.

A famous local resident in an interview this week said that Bosnia has not gotten any better, that it was stuck in an ethnic tug of war. The country is split into two self governing parts, the Serbs on one side and the Croats and Bosniaks in an uncomfortable partnership in the other. A national government took over a year to form. Each of the country nine cantons has their own health and education systems. The economy is weak and the country has yet to fully recover from the brain drain of most of its best and brightest 20 years ago.

But those of us who saw Bosnia, and in particular Sarajevo, during its darkest days we are hopeful. I have traveled back here with my wife, Raffaella Menichini, who covered the war for an Italian paper and lived with a local family without the safety precautions we had, Hilary Brown and others with whom I met here. We will laugh and chat about old time through our "Cabbage and Caviar" dinner, where the dress code is black tie or combat gear.

We will argue that while maybe the Dayton Accords that Ambassador Richard Holbrook achieved by bullying the three sides into acceptance have not created a perfect, unified country, it has stopped the fighting.

And that we are here this weekend not to report on war and sadness, but to lift a glass to a job well done -- perhaps by us -- but for sure by the residents who have stayed through the siege and have helped to bring this beautiful city back.