Wednesday, January 23, 2013

"Sarajevo Daily" by Tom Gjelten [4]

Chapter 2: A Time of Change

This chapter explains the changes at Oslobodjenje as it morphed from a party-line Communist party mouthpiece to a genuine, independent news organization which was the most respected paper in Yugoslavia (according to a poll of fellow journalists), and the third-most popular in the country as well. When the war broke out in Sarajevo in April of 1992, the paper had not only broken free of party control, it had also set itself up as independent of all three nationalist parties in the republic when elections were held.

Much of the background in this chapter is familiar, but interwoven in the context of the decline of Communism, the development of nationalist politics in the republics, the rise of Slobodan Milosevic, the increasing radicalization of Serbia and ethnic Serbs, and the outbreak of hostilities in Croatia we are also introduced to head editor Kemal Kurspahic, assistant editor Ljiljana Smajlovic, and reporter Vlado Mrkic. Kurspahic, a secular Muslim, had risen up to the top of the paper, and had led the move away from being a party organ to a professional, objective newspaper modeled on the American papers he had encountered while stationed in New York. Mrkic, an ethnic Serb, is a reporter's reporter--he abandoned a presumably more prestigious or lucrative job as editor because it didn't suit him and had returned to doing what he did best--going out after a story on his own.

Smajlovic, who like the other two was a product of the old system but relished the opportunity to do "real journalism" once it became possible, ultimately chose to leave Sarajevo when she found she couldn't be fully objective; while she didn't support the nationalist program, she found that she also could not stomach the idea of leading a struggle against "her" people--the Bosnian Serbs. Her parents had been devout Communists, but her mother turned around and embraced the Serb nationalist program. Ljiljana couldn't go that far; but she also couldn't bear to stay at Oslobodjenje. The moment of truth came in Croatia, when she was investigating Croat reports that Serbs had burned a local village. She was sure that the story was propaganda. When she discovered that the story was true, she found that she simply couldn't report the truth. Caught between her genuine disdain for ethnic violence and her new found ethnic loyalties, she left. Surely, many other Serbs who fled Sarajevo, or otherwise  implicitly sided with "their" people experienced a similar dynamic.

The chapter ends with Ljiljana explaining that she realized that she was in the war, not outside of it; this statement parallels Gjelten's own observations earlier in the chapter that people in Sarajevo felt that the turmoil in Kosovo and the war in Croatia didn't really concern them directly. Just as Ljiljana discovered that nationalism could shatter her sense of remove, so would  the people of Sarajevo learn that their proud heritage of cosmopolitan tolerance was vulnerable.


Anonymous said...

Did Ljiljana Smailovic explain how she reconciled her desire to do "real journalism" with her inability to bring herself to report the truth? I don't want to trivialise the moral dilemma she saw herself facing but it's not easy to understand a "real journalist" choosing concealment over the truth.

Kirk Johnson said...

I suspect we'll learn more about Ljiljana as the book progresses. It did seem (and this is my own interpretation, not Gjelten's words) that she was making a distinction between "facts" which made her uncomfortable versus some vague idea of a larger "truth" which is relative, if that makes sense.