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Bosnian Serb Officials Hold and Interrogate Monitor Reporter

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 20, 1995


THE man pointing the rifle advanced slowly down a slope of stones. He kept his aim steady, holding the firearm on his hip, and paid no attention to David Rohde's entreaties.

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"I'm lost, I'm lost, I'm sorry," yelled The Christian Science Monitor reporter, his hands in the air. This was a lie. Rohde knew exactly where he was, but he figured the truth - that he was an American journalist secretly searching for killing fields - would not be well received by his Bosnian Serb challenger. So he tried to look inoffensive, and made a move toward his rented Citroen.

It didn't work. The guard pulled the gun tight to his shoulder and sighted down the barrel. Rohde was deep inside territory he was not supposed to enter, carrying forged documents and suspicious maps, a camera filled with photos of a mass grave, and a borrowed coat on his back. A moment earlier he had been ready to photograph a human femur nearby. Now he did not know if he would live out the hour.

The guard kept coming. "Get away from the car!" he shouted, as Rohde tried to talk to him.

There was nothing the reporter could do. He was now in the hands of men who considered him an enemy. For the next 10 days he would be their prisoner, hidden from the world as his family and editors worked desperately to free him. At times he would be threatened with a 10-year jail term. At times he would find comradeship amid the danger.

Rohde had sneaked into this forbidden region in search of evidence that Bosnian Serb soldiers had massacred thousands of helpless Muslim civilians. Ironically, this mission, once admitted, did not seem to bother his captors. At least, it did not bother them nearly as much as the scenario they seemed to consider the stronger possibility: that this strange and foolish American was a spy.

He was questioned for hours on end in a room three strides long, Serbian xylophone music playing on a radio in the background. "Mr. David, these are the three important questions," his interrogator, Marko, said over and over again. "What is your rank? Who is your commander in the CIA? And what is your mission?"

'We should just shoot him'

As he was marched through the dimming Balkan afternoon toward a distant guardhouse, a rifle at his back, Rohde could not guess what awaited him. He was both scared and angry at himself. He had already visited one suspected mass grave site that day, Sunday, Oct. 29, and found grim evidence of murder: piles of coats, Muslim identity papers, a vast, newly dug field. But he was obsessed with capturing the breadth of the massacres. He'd been told of a second suspected massacre site in the vicinity, at a dam near the village of Sahanici, and he drove there knowing that reason dictated he turn around and escape. The relative safety of Serbia itself was only minutes away, across the Drina River. Now it seemed as far away as Jupiter's moons.

His captor was elderly and nervous. Except for the rifle he seemed about as threatening as a mall security guard. But he knew how to handle the gun, and after herding Rohde into the guardhouse, it became clear that he also knew how to conduct a search. He forced the journalist to kneel before him and slowly empty his pockets. The passport seemed in order; and a forged press pass that Rohde had used to enter the area excited no suspicion. Then the guard saw Rohde's map, a detailed, military-style photocopy with the grave sites highlighted. The situation began to go downhill.

The Bosnian Serb called for backup. Two teenagers - perhaps young soldiers - arrived, and Rohde couldn't tell which excited them more: his map or a fist full of Deutsche marks. They found film in his socks, stuffed there as part of a backup plan that had involved abandoning the car and swimming the Drina. The American's Serbian was far from perfect, but he was pretty sure one of the youngsters had said "We should just shoot him," and Rohde didn't like it.