College Issue: War College

A front-line report from Sarajevo by an undergraduate journalist who dropped out to cover the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina

A Bosnian soldier surveys the destroyed church in Stup, on the road between Sarajevo and the airport, on March 23, 1993. Credit: VINCENT AMALVY/AFP/Getty

AT THE LAST BOSNIAN CHECKPOINT on my way out of Sarajevo, I stop my Walkman and change tapes. I always have one tape primed for this part of the journey. I push my headphones down around the back of my neck, pick up my dark blue helmet – a gift from Newsweek – off the passenger seat next to me and put it on. I tighten the chin strap and put the earpieces on the headphones up against my ears, under the straps. I let the seat back a little, just to have a little more of me behind the false protection of the door. I turn on the tape, tap my finger to two or three beats on the hard ceramic chest plate of my bulletproof jacket and give a thumbs up to the always friendly Bosnian police. They sit in an old newspaper stand that has huge slabs of concrete leaned up against it to stop shrapnel. We are at the end of a Sarajevo nowhere-industrial zone.

I let out a breath and note that once again I am sweating. "What am I doing here?" I think to myself. It is difficult to imagine a place more deserving of this kind of thought. "What happened to Santa Barbara, lectures three days a week, ex-girlfriends, surfing, the smelly office of my college newspaper?" But those thoughts are fleeting – recollections of a world too far away to be real. I drop the clutch, pass the tank traps made from steel girders and make a left onto the Road.

Strictly speaking it is called Branko Bujic alley. But to the journalists it is known as the Airport Road. Really, it is the Road to Hell. Other than a handful of satellite telephones, the Airport Road is the only thing connecting Sarajevo, a city of 448,000 people and two dozen journalists, with the other 6 billion people in the world. Most of the time I forget there is a connection at all. Between Sarajevo and the rest of the world are a few thousand Serb nationalists who have been bombing the city since April of 1992. They keep me and the rest of the press corps in business. Without those crazed Serbs, Sarajevo would be only one of a long list of forgotten Olympic sites. But there would also be a lot more people who still have arms and legs – still have mothers, brothers and boyfriends.

First gear is short in my beat-up, rented red Renault 18. In Sarajevo my four-door Renault is considered "soft," meaning that it won't stop bullets or shell fragments. Most journalists who make this trip use "hard," bulletproof, vehicles like Land Rovers. I couldn't afford $100 a day for a proper Hertz. I give the car-owner's family food, and they let me use it. (Also, the Avis-Hertz crowd wants a $15,000 to $20,000 deposit from journalists these days – it seems that the life span of rental cars here is particularly short.) In my Renault, Bondo fills the holes that a mortar made one day when it was parked.

My foot is all the way to the floor as I shift into second gear fifty yards down the Road. There are a few mortar scars on the pavement. The crater from mortar rounds and the shrapnel flying outward make indenta-tions that look like gray flowers blooming on the road. Up ahead an overpass stretches out of sight.

To my left is Sarajevo – Bosnian held – and to my right is the front line of the siege and destroyed industrial buildings and then the suburbs held by rebel Serbs. Until I reach the overpass, I'm relatively safe – once I start going up, like everyone else on this road, I'm pretty much fair game. I've taped TV (the accepted shorthand for press) on all the windows because it can't hurt, but driving as fast as physically possible is the best protection.

Protection is an odd word here. On Christmas Day, I talked with my mom on the BBC satellite phone at the bargain rate of twenty dollars per minute. I told her how the halls of the hotel are below freezing because there are so many artillery holes in the building, how we have electricity only sporadically and how there is so little water that an alarm goes out among the press corps when it comes on. Still, she wanted to know "Is it safe there?" What can you tell your mother on a satellite phone from a place like Sarajevo, where every exit from the hotel is covered by snipers and rooms simply disappear during heavy barrages? I told her it was very safe inside the hotel – which itself is a lie, though if your window has not been blown out and you close your curtains, the sound of artillery in the early morning hours sounds remarkably like crashing waves. My first few mornings back in Sarajevo this last time, I woke up thinking I was camping out at the beach.

I move the car into the center of the road – there has been very little traffic here these last ten months – and speed past the tank traps and onto the overpass. I'm in the top of third gear and well on my way to the high point of the overpass. There is absolutely no cover here, and anyone for a half mile around has a totally clear shot with plenty of time to lead my car. Off to the side is a shot-up, half-blown-apart road sign advertising distances to various cities in kilometers. The sign is a throwback to a time before distances were measured in risk.

Since this war began almost two years ago, thirty-one journalists have been killed. More than a hundred have been wounded. (In twenty years of war in Vietnam, forty-five journalists were killed.) The Serbians have made it clear that they care very little for journalistic immunity. I turn the steering wheel back and forth and alter my speed slightly in the hopes of making it just a tiny bit more difficult for anyone trying to blow my head off. I try to contract the vertebrae in my spine, shrinking myself like a frightened turtle into my bulletproof flak jacket with its heavy ceramic plates.

The flak jacket – another gift from Newsweek, valued at about $1500 – is one of the more curious items in my new journalist's travel kit. When I used to go surfing in Mexico for a week, I would pack things like toilet paper and sunscreen. Now I carry body armor and painkillers. The jacket, with a high "combat" collar, weighs somewhere around twenty-five pounds. The plates, I am told, will stop AK rounds and shrapnel but not sniper bullets or heavy machine-gun fire. A pulldown flap protects my testicles. In the end I figure my Walkman is better protection because those who do these types of activities are probably just going to shoot me through the helmet anyway. At least with Public Enemy pumping me up I feel safe.

At the high point of the overpass, the road turns to the right. I am doing better than three times what is left of the posted speed limit, and the car resists. But it is a matter of balance here, and I regularly drive at the brink of losing control in my efforts to make shooting at me as difficult as possible.

Some journalists are more afraid of car accidents. Not me. I would always drive full out, but usually the car fails me. To my left the twisted remnants of the local newspaper building stand like a skeleton against the mountains – a seven-story structure hit by so many artillery, tank and mortar shells that it is impossible to discern from looking at it what it used to be.

I am leaving Sarajevo to buy supplies: gasoline, coffee, cigarettes, toilet paper. I used to make the forty-five-minute drive to Kiseljak every three or so days, but now I stretch it out for two weeks at a time. Every time I leave, I think I won't come back. I was home for the first time in nearly a year last month. I went from Thanksgiving in California with Mexican food and surfing to New York and five days later back to Sarajevo on a rush assignment for Newsweek. I had one day to get in and one day to report and write – far too little time, but that is hardly unusual. My first assignment was under similar circumstances in Sarajevo last February. I had come to Croatia late in November 1991. I was taking a quarter off my environmental-studies and black-studies double major at the University of California at Santa Barbara and was Eurailing around Europe writing for the paper at UCSB, The Daily Nexus. I had decided to take the rest of the year off and join some UCSB friends who had started an English-language paper in Prague. But before I got started in Prague, by chance I met the Paris bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. He told me if he were a young, ambitious reporter looking to become a foreign correspondent, he would go to Yugoslavia as a freelancer, writing for anyone and anything that would publish my work. It sounded good to me, quite romantic and heroic. I pictured myself sitting, leaning against a battle-scarred concrete wall, a hail of bullets sailing inches over my head, and scribbling in my notebook. On the edge of death and writing about it.

Then the seasoned veteran told the naive young kid a few gruesome tales of wounded colleagues and all the hacks – that's what the correspondents call themselves – who have been killed and forgotten by everyone but family and fellow reporters. Death and maiming, when applied to myself, sounded rather unromantic.

Some of the guardrails on the bridge have disap-peared. This is the most exposed point on my route but not the most treacherous. I have to brake a little as I start down, making my way all the way over to the left shoulder, cutting through gravel and pieces of road sign and jogging hard right around the destroyed cargo container that lies on its side over three fourths of the roadway. I slip past it on the soft shoulder at about sixty kilos per hour with maybe a few feet on either side, barely keeping control of the car.

In October of 1991, after weeks of sleeping in train stations and youth hostels, I got bored. In Madrid, I decided it was either the Arctic Circle in Norway and Sweden or Yugoslavia. I did the Arctic Circle – saw the northern lights and hiked around in the snow with two other tourists – but got bored again, and a few weeks later I was on a totally empty train for Zagreb, Croatia. It was the end of November then and close to the height of the war there. Zagreb in late 1991 looked just as I imagine Saigon had in the early Seventies. I spent a week pretending to be a reporter, lodging with a family and hanging out at the Intercontinental, a seventeen-story hotel that housed much of the foreign press. The lobby was impressively fortified by a massive wall of sandbags. This was a place where I thought I could never get bored, and more important, it was a place where I could try to be a foreign correspondent.

From this point on the road it is a straight run to a UN checkpoint set up along what is probably the most dangerous regular commute in the universe. It is perfect UN logic as I have come to understand it – making people stop on a road like this to have their ID card checked. I approach the white French armored personnel carrier, accelerating until the very last possible moment, then slamming on my brakes. On either side of me is the most devastated moonscape of a battlefield to be found anywhere. It is not like these buildings and cars were blown to pieces by bombers; they have been chipped away chunk by chunk with tens of thousands of bullets, mortars and artillery shells. The Serbs have put a lot of work into this, and you have to admire them for their determination.

After a six-week trip back to the States, through a combination of name-dropping, luck and perseverance, I managed to convince Newsweek that it should let me call it from Zagreb and offer it a story. The editor in New York, whose name I was given by a guy who had been a freelancer in Korea, didn't ask me if I was a junior in college, and I neglected to mention it.

The first thing I wrote in Yugoslavia was a story for Newsweek's international edition about a referendum in a former Yugoslav republic that no one had ever heard about before and whose name I could not pronounce or spell – Bosnia-Herzegovina. In selling the idea, I had told the Newsweek correspondent in Bonn that there could be a war there or something along those lines. But other than that I didn't know anything except for what I read in a British newspaper story I had found. Three days later I had a story in Newsweek and was having ten or so drunken Serbs pointing guns at me from behind a barricade at five in the morning. I told my translator to yell to them that we – I was with another green journalist from UPI – were reporters and that we just wanted to talk. That's what journalists in the movies I had seen did in similar situations, and I saw no reason why it shouldn't work here. The Serbs, apparently, had seen different movies and started making all kinds of menacing sounds and movements. The translator then said something to the effect that they were going to kill us if we didn't leave. I will not forget the feeling of taking a long walk with these drunken Serb nationalists pointing assault rifles at our backs.

The quarter mile of road leading up to the UN checkpoint is littered with spent bullets and tank shell casings. Every structure on both sides of the road is completely destroyed. During the summer there were a couple of bodies lying in the high grass to one side of the road. Neither the reporters nor the UN staff knows if they are still there or not. This is a no man's land, where a journalist can easily lose a leg because a gunman of unknown affiliation opens up on the car from the roadside, or one can die because a sniper fires through the rear of a car and into his back.

At the armored personnel carrier I am forced to come to a complete stop while the French UN soldier with his baby blue helmet gets out and checks to see that I have the proper UN identity card. I zigzag through the UN checkpoint, running the engine up as high as it will go, trying to build up enough speed to make it a challenge to hit me.

TUNA IS DEAD.

There are six or seven of us – grown men, aside from me, between ages thirty and forty-eight – stand-ing around in a dark hallway in January. The only light comes from one dim emergency light, the kind that goes on when there is a power failure. We are on the tenth and top floor of one of Sarajevo's tallest buildings and most attractive targets – the green and yellow Holiday Inn. Conveniently located on sniper alley and just a few hundred yards north of an active hillside battlefield, the hotel makes covering a war easy for its guests. When the fighting is heavy, we don't even need to leave the building except to count dead civilians. Because the Serbs control the hill across from the hotel, their positions are just about level with the Holiday Inn's top floors. They could hit it with a good wrist rocket. But when you have mortars, tanks, how-itzers and sniper rifles, who needs wrist rockets? Only hacks who are new to Sarajevo take rooms on the south side.

The lobby and the hallways of the hotel are always below freezing now. There are too many artillery holes in the building and too little fuel to keep it warm. Electricity is sporadic, and water is a few gallons every week, when we are lucky. I flush my toilet every two or three days, or I find a destroyed room with an intact bathroom. The one reassuring thing about the hotel is that all the waiters still wear tuxedos with green Holiday Inn name tags. Recently, the management opened a customer-service desk in the subzero temperatures of the lobby. I called once and complained about the racket the boys across the street were making, but nothing was done.

The Yugo press corps, particularly the Sarajevo regulars, are as eccentric a bunch of hacks as is to be found anywhere. Foreign correspondents in general are strange types, but the ones who are willing to spend weeks or months on end in a place like Sarajevo are still another breed. In many ways a twenty-two-year-old surfer with sideburns from California fits in perfectly with the rest of the oddballs who call the Holiday Inn their home.

Obtaining what amounts to full membership in the press corps here is a drawn-out process. It requires spending enough time under fire to be able to ignore pretty much everything except for when the hotel takes a direct hit – and even then it needs to be hit with something heavy. People who can't take being shelled – they don't have to like it, but some do – tend to have brief stays.

Around here, whom you work for is infinitely important. So when I first showed up and introduced myself – "Hi, I'm Joel Brand, and I don't work for anyone" – I wasn't exactly the most popular hack around. As any freelancer can explain, the key to success is getting a big name to place next to your own. In my first few months, in addition to not really working for anyone, I was so intolerably green that no one but the most desperate fellow freelancers could stand to travel with me.

When the fighting is very heavy around the hotel, a few of the hacks climb the stairs to the tenth floor, an incredible vantage point. It is also terrifying wandering around in a partially destroyed hotel in complete darkness, listening to the sounds of a not-so-distant battle.

Bob Simpson from BBC Radio and I are in room 1025 arguing on this particular night. The room's win-dow was blown out during some previous performance, and it is cold inside. We, along with a half-dozen other journalists in neighboring rooms, are watching the artillery flashes, tracer fire and burning buildings of a battle on a hill a quarter mile away. Bob, who's forty-eight, is the archetype of the jaded foreign correspondent. (He got very angry with me later that night, after dinner, when everyone else had gone to bed except the two of us and Yervant der Parthogh, a Worldwide Television News cameraman. I called him a war corre-spondent. "I'm not here to get killed like the rest of you," Bob said, his words stumbling across the table at me. He took Tuna's death rather hard.)

Bob and I are arguing about whether or not the Serb snipers have infrared scopes. I don't buy it, but it is an unsettling possibility for two cowards standing in a picture window just a few hundred yards from an area frequented by Serb snipers.

Outside, the small-arms fire is dying down, and the flash-boom of artillery has almost ceased, so Bob and I decide we should go back into the hall. Bob mumbles something about my being a young fool (we are actually good friends) when a flash of light blinds me and something explodes so close it seems to be in the room. I jump backward, almost flying out the open window. In panic I mentally check to see if I have been hit. Then Bob starts laughing. I'm in shock. I can't figure out why he is laughing. I calm a bit, and he tells me he stepped on a loose light bulb. Scaring the living shit out of me is the funniest thing he has done in quite some time, apparently.

I recover my senses, curse his mother, and we go out into the hallway. The others are coming out of neighboring rooms. A conversation starts, and while I'm listening, I suddenly realize I am standing in a darkened Holiday Inn hallway just shooting the breeze with a bunch of grown men wearing body armor and helmets like we were in a bar after work. I am not sure how exactly I got to this point in my life, and I lose track of the conversation, retracing my path to make sure this is not some big mistake. I come back when I hear Kurt Schork, the resident Reuters correspondent, diplomatically ask Yervant, "Did you know this guy who was hurt today?" Kurt knows Tuna is dead, chewed up, actually, but takes a slow approach to avoid upsetting Yervant if he was close to him.

Tuna was a freelance BBC cameraman whose name sounded like Tuna. His real name was Tihomir Tunukovic, but no one could ever pronounce it. That afternoon, we heard, the twenty-five-year-old was killed by a couple of Serbian antiaircraft rounds in central Bosnia. A soldier once explained to me that an antiaircraft bullet in the center of my torso would make a hole big enough to pass a watermelon through. Tuna was in a clearly marked "hard" BBC Land Rover, but it didn't do him much good. I never met the guy and don't want to ride the fame of knowing yet another dead journalist.

"Who?" Yervant says, turning to face Kurt. The tension of the moment is interrupted from the darkness down the hall. "Tuna is dead," an unseen voice blurts out from down the darkened hall. There is a pause. "And we can't find his fucking fiancée to tell her," says the approaching hack with anger in his voice. There is another pause while David Mills, a freelance TV producer, emerges into the dim light and Yervant turns his head toward the floor. "Bummer, man," a voice says. For a few moments we all just stand around in silence, shifting our feet, waiting for what is next. Then one person changes the subject completely, the talk resumes, more subdued than before, and we all troop back down the darkened stairs to the restaurant to eat dinner and drink wine.