INTO BOSNIA'S KILLING FIELDS
After 10 days in captivity, reporter returns from Bosnia to tell his story
ON a cold gray Tuesday in late October, David Rohde reached the limit of his endurance. Since his capture by Bosnian Serb police three days earlier, The Christian Science Monitor reporter had been herded at gunpoint, threatened with death, and forced to stand through the night while a guard toyed ominously with handcuffs. After 48 hours of questioning with virtually no sleep, he had been given one hour to admit he was a spy. Otherwise, the police said vaguely, ''He will come for you.''Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
''He'' was a man Rohde had last seen playing with a knife, who asked the interrogator when Rohde was going to be sent to a prisoner-of-war camp.
''I just flipped out,'' Rohde remembers. Left with a guard who seemed sympathetic, he began sobbing, disoriented with fear.
''I don't care,'' Rohde told the guard in broken Serbian. ''I'll say anything. If I just keep saying I'm not a spy, they're going to shoot me.''
The guard leaned over a battered desk that was the only real furniture in the tiny interrogation room.''I know you're a journalist. Don't say you're a spy,'' he whispered. ''They won't free you. You'll have a big, big problem.''
With that hurried advice from a man who was supposed to be his jailer, Rohde was pulled back from the brink, and perhaps from a bullet. ''That guy saved my life,'' says Rohde, now safely back in America. ''No doubt in my mind.''
Journalists aren't supposed to become part of the news they cover. David Rohde did, through no choice of his own. When he drove out of Sarajevo in a rented red Citroen on Oct. 29, he was in search of one of the biggest stories yet to come out of the brutal Bosnian war: evidence that rebel Bosnian Serb soldiers had carried out the worst massacre in Europe since the Holocaust. He found such evidence - and also a sharp-eyed security officer with a rifle and a dog.
Rohde was held in an isolated police station for five days, then dispatched to prison like a thief. Threatened with espionage charges and possible execution, he was released only after blunt threats from high US officials and a massive international pressure campaign.
His full story, related in a four-hour monologue, is one of ambition and moral choice, comedy and danger, paranoia and obsession. Most of all it is about the agony of a war that has raged for years and killed thousands of people, yet for many in the West remains dimly seen lightning in the distance.
Some of Rohde's captors treated him cruelly. Many did not - and seemed themselves ordinary men imprisoned in a war of others' making. ''It sounds ridiculous and trite,'' Rohde says, ''but I think that if you can get rid of the extremists and stabilize the situation for a while, these people can live together in peace.''
Danger and opportunity
In person David Rohde does not look like a war crimes correspondent. Quiet, intense, and usually clad in khakis, he instead resembles an apprentice architect or a college instructor on the verge of tenure. He came to the Monitor in 1994, after stints at ABC News and the Philadelphia Inquirer, and impressed superiors with his seriousness and dedication. In October 1994, he was offered a plum post - coverage of the corner of Europe that used to be Yugoslavia.
To reporters, the Balkans conflict is this generation's Vietnam. That means it is an assignment of great danger and correspondingly great opportunity. Years of tragic war have produced human stories that grip the heart: a Sarajevo cellist playing on a street corner, defying snipers to stop his Bach; a hollow-eyed Bosnian Serb guerrilla recounting techniques for slitting throats; children playing in the rubble of what was once the Yugoslav national library. The fighting has also exacted a journalistic toll. More than 40 news professionals have died covering fighting in the Balkans.
Pressure and proximity have made the international press corps in the Balkans close-knit, yet competitive. When Rohde entered this world he did not stay unknown for long.
In the late summer of 1995 he landed a valuable prize: a pass into Bosnian Serb-held territory. The Bosnian Serbs, self-styled rulers of the ''Republic of Srpska,'' are often accused by the West of being the main villains in Bosnia's dismemberment; they have returned this charge with a sullen suspicion that can bloom into paranoia about Western plots. They admit few US reporters, and tightly control where reporters go and whom they interview. Rohde may have received his pass simply because he had not yet had the opportunity to annoy them.