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Sarajevo Newspaper Keeps Presses Rolling Despite Sniper Fire

STAFFERS live in an atomic bomb shelter, shells have set their building ablaze four times and pulverized most of it, Serbian snipers keep what remains under fire, and some of the worst fighting in Sarajevo rages just around the block.

But the presses roll on at what was the main newspaper of Bosnia-Herzegovina after five months of war.

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"Oslobodjenje is the only commodity in Sarajevo that you can still buy every day," says the editor-in-chief, Kemal Kurspahic.

But with only 4,000 four-page issues produced daily, it is a shadow of its former prize-winning, 50,000-copy-a-day self. And even that has required enormous sacrifice and improvisation.

It has also cost human lives. At least two staffers have died, and two reporters have been missing for months, while other employees have been wounded.

Mr. Kurspahic spent two months in a hospital recovering from a broken leg sustained in a 70-mile-per-hour collision with a police car in June as he was returning to his office from downtown.

"Everyone drives crazily because of the snipers," Kurspahic says, lying on his couch as gunfire crackles outside his home.

Oslobodjene, or "Liberation," produced by a publishing house of the same name, was immensely proud of its modern, multimillion-dollar, glass-fronted headquarters on the western edge of the city. Today, half the tower lies in a mountain of concrete rubble and scrap metal, while the other is a steel shell gutted by four separate fires ignited by Serb artillery rounds launched by forces entrenched in shell-ravaged buildings 100 yards away. The area is one of the city's fiercest combat zones.

Kurspahic says the paper has been targeted because its staff of Muslim Slavs, Croats, and moderate Serbs represents in microcosm the newly independent, multiethnic state the Serbian extremists aim to destroy. "Oslobodjenje symbolizes ... multiethnic, multicultural, multireligious Bosnia," says Kurspahic. "You have an almost ideal ethnic picture in Oslobodjenje. They hate us for that."

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At least 30 Serbs work as reporters among a staff of about 100, down from a prewar workforce of 1,000. They include Gordona Knezevic, who has been acting as editor in chief while Kurspahic recovers from his accident.

Like the other Serbs, Knezevic says she has received numerous death threats and has sent her two children abroad. But she continues working "because I know what we mean to this city." Hazardous commute

Because of the hazardous commute to the headquarters, reporters are either based at a downtown office or in their homes and deliver stories by fax. They also sell the newspaper, because its kiosks are all closed or destroyed.

Although Sarajevo is cut off from telephone links to the world and most of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Oslobodjene still receives copy from reporters in several towns via ham-radio operators.

It published stories from last week's London peace conference. Knezevic, who covered the talks, faxed her stories to Vienna. From there, they were sent by satellite telephone to a fax in the Bosnian presidency building in Sarajevo. "I didn't have a way to check if they were received in Sarajevo," she says. "When I came back, I found that only half my stories reached the newspaper."

Editors, production personnel, and printers based in the headquarters have been divided into three shifts, each of which spends a week living and working in the war-ravaged building to minimize the risks of commuting.

The editorial and production staffs work in two above-ground floors of the annex building as long as conditions are safe. When they come under attack, they pick up their things and head deep underground to the atomic bomb shelter that also serves as their living quarters.

The Yugoslav Army-built shelter is protected by a massive steel blast door and lined with cots. A telephone and fax machine have been installed. Dank basement

The shelter reeks of mildew because water has leaked into it from holes blown in the building above. Mithat Plivcic, a news editor, says that mosquitoes have bred in the water. "They kept me up until four this morning," he complains.

In the subbasement above the shelter are the newspaper's printing presses, which are powered by an underground generator.

Oslobodjene can continue operating only as long as it has paper, which is now limited to high-quality supplies that had been used to produce children's books. "We don't have reserves of paper for longer than two more weeks," Kurspahic says.

A Paris-based organization, Reporters Without Borders, has donated 40 tons of newsprint, while 20 more tons have been given by an Austrian newspaper and two Slovenian companies.

But the supplies cannot be delivered to Sarajevo because the only way through the Serb blockade is by United Nations convoys. They are restricted to humanitarian assistance.

Kurspahic expressed indignation over UN officials' refusal to make an exception for Oslobodjenje's newsprint. "I consider the newspaper broadly part of the humanitarian needs of Sarajevo. It is something that people need. It provides a feeling that something still works here."

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