Bosnian Serb Officials Hold and Interrogate Monitor Reporter

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

Recommended: Default

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.

"I'm a journalist, I'm a journalist," he insisted. "I'm just trying to take pictures of this beautiful lake and mountain."

A half hour later, the police roared up, three of them. Rohde thought that maybe this was a good sign. The first 15 minutes is the most dangerous time for Western journalists taken in the world's war zones; once they're delivered to higher-ups, they generally survive. Then the cops spotted Rohde's jacket, borrowed from a friend in Sarajevo. Those small, pointed objects in a pocket on the sleeve - were they bullets? They grabbed the journalist's arm and began forcing the objects out, as if they were secret weapons.

"They're pen caps! They're pen caps!" said Rohde. The police laughed.

'How stupid do you think Serbian people are?'

Marko looked at the American in front of him and laughed. "How stupid do you think Serbian people are?" he asked.

The radio played its Serbian music softly in the background while David Rohde's confidence collapsed. He'd developed, he thought, a kind of camaraderie with the cops who had brought him to this police station in nearby Zvornik. After the shock of capture wore off, they had seemed to believe he was nothing but a stupid American sizing up the reddish, pollution-tinged lake behind the dam. But they had not let him go, and now this man in a worn leather jacket and nondescript pants was waving away his story like so much smoke.

His name was Marko, and he seemed to be the station's second in command. Unfortunately, he also seemed to be a skilled investigator.

Communist leftovers

The room was an artifact from the communist era. A filing cabinet still bore a label listing it as the property of the prewar Tito regime. The door was padded, a favorite sound-deadening technique of communist secret police. Eventually the pattern of tacks holding the padding burned itself into Rohde's memory.

Marko began to pick Rohde's story apart. If he was a photographer, why did he have the detailed maps? What did the marks on the maps mean? Why did he have tattered identity papers from Muslim refugees? Why were those papers hidden in the pages of his rental car manual? What was on his cassette tapes?

Someone listened to the tapes. A guard came into the room - "Just music, just music," he said. That was the last the reporter saw of his Walkman, and his recordings - bands like Green Day and Cowboy Junkies. Perhaps xylophone music was not every Serb's favorite.

Still, Rohde did not break until they were leaving for the night. He was to go to a local hotel; Marko would hold his car and his passport. As he rose, Marko said "We will develop the film tonight, and we will see, Mr. David, what you have been doing."

There were no lake pictures on the film. Instead, there were shots of abandoned shoes, clothing, and the sad detritus of massacre sites. These pictures, developed, would prove Rohde had been lying. At the top of the stairs, he pulled Marko aside and admitted that he had been searching for mass graves.

"All right, you're still going to the hotel," Marko said, "but I want you to write out for me where you went and what you saw. Most of all, I want you to write down the names of the Muslims who told you about these massacres - and where are they now."

A four-star meal?

The hotel wasn't bad, considering what Rohde had expected. Marko allowed him dinner in the dining room, almost as if he were a tourist. But that night he couldn't sleep. He considered fleeing through the window and making for the river. But it was cold, and Rohde still hoped the whole incident would somehow be dismissed and he could drive across the bridge over the Drina tomorrow, a free man.

He wrote out his statement at 3 in the morning. It was a careful concoction of half-truths designed to protect his sources and himself. He made up names for Bosnian Muslims who had helped him; the rest of his cover story was that he had learned the positions of massacre sites openly, at the end of a US official's press conference. But it was the statement's first line that got him in trouble: "I changed the date on my press accreditation."

He'd altered his press pass in the first place because it was unthinkable that the Bosnian Serbs would openly allow him on their territory. They had blocked all free access to the area around Srebrenica since it fell in July. Rohde had already found one possible massacre site, near the village of Nova Kosaba, in August. His story about it had earned him many enemies in Pale, the Bosnian Serbs headquarters 13 miles from Sarajevo. He admitted the forgery because he figured it was likely that Marko would call the press officials in Pale. If he admitted the truth, he didn't think the altered dates would be as large a problem.

He was wrong.

On Tuesday Marko took one look at the statement, and the espionage theme began. Only a CIA agent would forge documents in such a manner. Only a CIA agent would have Rohde's map; only a CIA agent would be able to read it.

The Monitor journalist laughed. "What, the CIA is going to send in an American in daylight, in a car with Austrian plates, a guy who doesn't speak any Serbian?" he asked.

It made no impression. First Marko said Rohde was CIA. Next, he was on a mission from the Muslims to blow up the dam and flood the area with polluted water. Finally, he was a NATO officer, perhaps mapping the dam as a prelude to its destruction by a bomb.

Rohde argued the truth: He was a journalist in search of evidence of war crimes. When he'd set out from Sarajevo on his clandestine mission, barely 24 hours earlier, he'd thought that if his real identity and purpose were discovered he would be instantly shot. Instead Marko was looking for a larger conspiracy.

Near the end of the day a balding guard leaned in Rohde's direction. He spoke a little English. "Spying is a crime. Spying is a crime," he said, shaking his head. "You're going to jail for 10 years."

No sleep

As time passed, Rohde decided that his guards were an accurate cross-section of Bosnian Serb males. A majority were normal and almost friendly. They assured him he would eventually be released, let him watch dubbed 1970s Bill Cosby movies on TV in the station chief's office, and worried whether he was cold. A minority of guards were hostile. A few - the young, balding guard among them - seemed to enjoy taunting him.

Early Monday evening, Marko turned to Rohde as he left for the day and said, "We shall see, Mr. David. We shall see."

Minutes later, the balding guard told Rohde, "You are not going to sleep tonight." He didn't smile.

At first the American thought he was kidding. Late that night, after losing three straight games of chess, Rohde was sitting in a chair in the office, his head beginning to nod. "Sit up!" the bald guard growled. "You're not going to sleep."

The guard stood behind Rohde's chair, playing with a pair of handcuffs. "Spying is a crime," he said.

Rohde blew up. He loosed a stream of sarcasm in English - "Duh, like I'm really a spy, I just drive in from Vienna in my foreign rental car, duh." His guards just looked at each other. The balding one ordered: "Stand up."

They made him stand in the middle of the room through the night, staring at the floor. At four in the morning, the shift changed. Friendlier guards arrived. They let Rohde sleep, but only for two precious hours. Soon the interrogation started all over again.

All day Tuesday Marko picked again at Rohde's story. He was forced to cycle through his statement over and over, from memory, desperately trying to remember the names he'd made up. Numb with fatigue, he began to stumble.

"You have one hour, Mr. David," Marko said that afternoon, "to answer the three important questions: What is your rank? Who is your commander in the CIA? And what is your mission?"

Otherwise, Marko threatened, Rohde would be turned over to a guard who Rohde thought had just asked when the American was going to be sent to a notorious Bosnian Serb prison camp.

It was the lowest point of Rohde's captivity. His defenses weakened by lack of sleep and a constant dull fear, he broke down and cried. He considered admitting to espionage - but with Marko out of the room, a young guard leaned over the desk and whispered that he believed Rohde was a journalist and shouldn't admit to more. If not for that advice, Rohde might have given Marko what he wanted. Instead, he began to overdo his crying by blubbering on purpose. He decided it would only enhance the picture of him as a sniveling reporter, as opposed to a trained and hardened spy.

Boston efforts

Faye Bowers, Rohde's editor at Monitor headquarters in Boston, arrived at work at 4 a.m. so she could make calls to the Balkans. By Tuesday, David had been missing for 72 hours, and she was becoming more worried. She'd learned about his trip into Bosnian Serb territory from a computer message he had left her, and from one of Rohde's friends in Sarajevo. She'd put out feelers with the State Department and called David's brother, Lee, in New Hampshire on Monday. So far, no one in the world seemed to know where he was.

Bowers called an experienced reporter in Belgrade and asked for help. She told the reporter of Rohde's disappearance. Disconcertingly, the reporter began to cry. She knew the stories David had written, and knew the kind of people that probably had him in their grip.

But the reporter also promised to help. Shortly thereafter, she called back with a bit of news: The Bosnian Serbs did have Rohde, and the US Embassy in Serbia proper knew it. Immediately, Bowers called the Belgrade Embassy, where a US diplomat denied the story. "Ms. Bowers, that's absolutely false," he said.

At this point, Rohde's editor was terrified. She continued making calls to colleagues of Rohde in the Balkans, as well as State Department and UN officials. Other Monitor editors jumped in and began calling the International Red Cross, and anyone else they thought could help. By the end of the day, the paper's senior staff decided to issue a press release on David's disappearance. At this point, they decided, publicity was their best hope.

'Deported' from Bangkok

Back in Bosnian Serb territory, Marko and Rohde battled through the rest of the week. The reporter would stride up and down the small room, repeating his story over and over, denying that he was a CIA agent in the control of anybody. Communication was difficult, as Marko's English was far from perfect, and Rohde's Serbian was little better. At one point in their mental struggle, after perusing Rohde's passport, Marko said "Ah, Mr. David, this is not the first time you have entered a country illegally!"

"What do you mean?" Rohde asked.

"Right here," said Marko, "I see here you were thrown out of Bangkok."

Rohde looked at the passport stamp in question. "No, that says 'departed'!" he said, "Not 'deported'! They're different words!"

On Thursday, Marko allowed Rohde to return to the hotel for a shower. On Monday, the last time he'd been there, the reporter had almost caught the eye of a passing international relief worker he knew. This time his guards marched him directly through the lobby into a hallway, making sure that as few people as possible saw the reporter's return. Rohde thought this was not a good sign. No one in America knew where he was, he thought, and the Serbs wanted to keep it that way. He could be killed and his death blamed on combat, or the Muslims.

The shower, the first he'd had in days, was a bit of normalcy. He relaxed, and almost cried again. This time he wasn't faking his emotion.

*Tomorrow: prison , then release.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...