What took you to Serbia and Bosnia in the first place?
It started over a bottle of Ouzo on this crazy beach in Greece. I was training these stringers for Voice of America teaching them video. This guy Rade Rankovic who is in this story, was one of my students. We got along great -- we played basketball, we talked, and he introduced me to what was happening in the Balkans. Rade was so mysterious and dark, and full of nuance, and he had been fighting against Milosevic for years. He told me about his boss, this gutsy journalist, Slavko Curuvija, who was assassinated by Milosevic. This is what the Nightline story I did was about.
Nightline's executive producer was open enough to let me pursue it. He covered my ticket out there and enough to stay in really bad hotels for a couple of months, and I just hung out. This was in November 1999. I ended up getting arrested for basically hanging out with these students who were trying to overthrow Milosevic and the police interrogated me for a couple days. It was definitely an experience.
When you went back to the region a second time to report, did you know what story you were after?
I feel these places are so underreported so the most important thing for me was to talk to a breadth of people and get a real on-the-ground feeling for what their reality is. Then I came across this Radical Party in Serbia and wanted to share how scary they were with the world, and at the same time show that in these countries, the younger generation really wants to move on. They were not part of this war. And they have their own vision of the future.
It's never what do I think is the most marketable story -- I have a very bad business sense -- I just get hooked into something that feeds my fascination and pays my rent.
Why do you think the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic -- basically the two most wanted war criminals in Europe -- are still at large 10 years after the war has ended?
It's strange, I was looking online and reading about what's going on in the region and I read that Karadzic is about to be turned in, that they are closing in on him, and there's a deal being worked out, etc, etc, and then I looked at the date and it was 2001. I won't say his capture won't happen because people have been turned in, but everyone is glossing over the fact that in Serbia the party on the rise is this ultra-nationalistic Radical Party.
At the beginning of your story for FRONTLINE/World, when you return to Belgrade, you say you're surprised by this rise in nationalism and that something had gone terribly wrong since you were last there. What did go wrong?
If you walk around downtown Belgrade, you notice that the buildings bombed by NATO are still in the same state. It's in defiance of NATO, but also it's a little bit of inattention.
The pinnacle of the U.S. foreign policy establishment once focused on this area; but now, how much aid is going there and how much attention is being paid to the area? The whole war on terror has let this sleeping giant lie there and old feelings are beginning to creep back. What makes me nervous is that everyone is saying that it's OK. They're saying, "So what if the radicals are the largest party in parliament? There's this other shaky coalition of parties that will hold things together and are cooperating with the West."
There's an undercurrent of people who think war criminals and gangsters are national heroes. Maybe it's just too risky to turn in Karadzic. I mean, look at Zoran Djindjic [the reformist former prime minister of Serbia who was assassinated in 2003], he took the risk and he's dead. I was talking to Orville Schell [the dean of U.C. Berkeley's School of Journalism], and he said in his very wry way, "Why don't they just do some kind of "rendition" with these people? They do it all the time with terrorist suspects. Why don't they just swoop in if they know where they are? Who cares if the Serbians and Bosnians are inept? Just go in and get them."
Is that what you think?
No, and that's not really what Orville was suggesting either. He was just pointing out the hypocrisy. For terrorists we do renditions. For Serbian war criminals we don't. In the Balkans it's a total double standard. That's what people in the region think. The reporter on the Bosnian show 60 Minutes said to me very clearly that he didn't think George Bush even knew who Radovan Karadzic was. That was a powerful quote for me. Bush's attention is clearly not on this region.
There seems to be a great deal of denial or refusal to accept responsibility for the war, even after the Srebrenica massacre tapes were released by The Hague. And a poll among Serbs earlier this year reported that less than half of those asked believed that the massacre took place. What reactions did you encounter?
There are definitely people who think it didn't happen. Or they think the people who perpetrated these massacres are heroes. In the story, you see graffiti that says "Mladic the hero," and "Karadzic the hero." The reality is there are many thousands of people in Serbia who feel that way. And that's scary.
Why do you think these sentiments prevail?
I think it's racism. Racism is like a disease -- it gets spread around. The Serbs suffered during the war. They suffered in Croatia; there was ethnic cleansing of Serbs. And Serbs suffered in Kosovo too. It creates a cycle of retribution; many Serbs feel angry and they are totally pissed at NATO. They feel there is a global conspiracy against them so then these "heroes" still at large are seen as standing up for their people, raising these grievances.
Is there any part of the story you didn't get to tell?
In some ways, I wish the story could be longer because I do have lots of interviews with people who talk at length about the massacres and reveal something of the national psyche.
From an intellectual viewpoint, people would say it took the French, who collaborated with the Germans during the occupation in World War II, a long time to deal with their duplicity and what had happened. I am paraphrasing someone now who was in the Djindjic government -- but he told me that there would be films, there would be plays, there would be books, there would be works of art about this period, about what the Serbs and others did. It is the slow process of accepting responsibility.
Amongst the young people who stood up against Milosevic, the general reaction was "Of course Srebrenica happened. The people who did it are monsters and it's crazy that they do not apologize for it at all." But the younger people also don't want to apologize for it because they say they were fighting against the leader of their own country and that it wasn't their thing to be sorry about. The students I got to know just weren't interested in the war. They were interested in music and movies; they thought the war was ridiculous.
What about the people of Sarajevo? Was the mood very different there from that in Belgrade?
Many people in Sarajevo don't have much sympathy or patience for people in Belgrade. They say of the Serbs, "You think you're hip and you think you're concerned about this but you let this horrible siege go on for years. Did you really fight against it and how could you not stop what was going on here?"
How well has the city recovered since the war?
Well, beyond the rebuilt city center, there is still a lot of damage to buildings and homes. But Sarajevo is such an open city -- it has the most avant garde artists, it's so beautiful and historic and people are very sweet and the food is amazing. My wife was there with me at the end of the trip and it turned into a great vacation. I highly recommend Bosnia. I say this to people and they say, "Bosnia?"
One of my fears with these stories is that the place gets lost, and I really try to communicate a love of the place when I am doing this because it's so easy to just focus on the dark side. I want people to be aware of the dangers that exist there but I ultimately feel optimistic about the region. I do think the ties between the younger generations of these countries are coming back and the European Union is really what drives people there.
They know they are out of step with Europe, and people in Serbia in particular feel that if they have some vision for the future it is to be part of the European Union in the next 10 years. People in Bosnia feel more lost. They'd like to be in the European Union but know that they have this completely crazy political arrangement imposed by the Dayton Peace settlement, there's so much corruption there, there are war criminals running around. They're like, "Well, maybe 20 to 30 years from now, we'll be ready. We'll see."