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Quest Launched for Reporter's Freedom as He Paces Behind Bars in Bosnian Serb Jail

(Page 3 of 4)



Most family members flew to Dayton on Friday afternoon. Plans for the two editors and Lee Rohde were made late, and they missed the last flight from Boston to Dayton. They landed in Cincinnati instead, and drove to a hotel near the base, arriving at 2 Saturday morning.

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Five to 15

On Saturday, Nov. 4, Rohde became fully aware of the scope of US efforts on his behalf.

He was in his cell, bored, when a guard fetched him at around 6 in the evening, and they headed off for a nearby police station.

Along the way, the guard turned to Rohde and said, ''you, 15 days is only your first sentence. That was your sentence for changing the documents. No one has sentenced you yet for taking the pictures. You will go back to court and will be serving five to 15 years for espionage.''

Rohde was taken aback, but replied with only ''I am not a spy.'' He thought that perhaps the guard was just playing with his mind.

At the police station, it became clear that the purpose of the trip was to place a phone call. Rohde could see the Bosnian Serbs trying to dial a 202 number in the United States - Washington. Excited, he started plotting out what he should say. But the line didn't work.

They piled back in a car and drove to the local office of the International Red Cross. Rohde had never been happier to see relief workers in his life.

He strode up the stairs and introduced himself to the first person he saw. The woman looked at him as if he were a ghost.

At that point, Rohde had been missing for almost a week, and some Westerners in Bosnia were beginning to think he was dead. This Red Cross worker was probably among them.

As his guard negotiated a phone call, she kept nervously quizzing Rohde about his condition. ''Are you alright?'' she asked, ''Where are they holding you?''

She was stunned to learn that Rohde was in a prison a short drive away. ''How are they treating you?''

''I'm fine,'' replied Rohde. ''I just don't know what's going on.''

First call

The call went through. David picked up the phone, and said hello.

''David, this is John Menzies,'' said the man on the other end of the line. ''I'm here with your brother Lee, your father, your sister, Laura, and your brother Erik.''

''Oh God, no,'' thought Rohde, ''What's going on?'' John Menzies, after all, was the US ambassador to Bosnia. He - David Rohde - must have become a very big problem for the government. And what was his family doing in the room? It must have cost them all a fortune to make the trip.

The journalist gave a two-minute burst transmission of what had happened to him, and then the family got on the phone - first his brother Lee, then his sister, who cried, and Erik, and his father, whose voice shook.

When it was over, Rohde was confident that it was now only a matter of time before he was released. But now he knew what his desire to expose the breadth of Bosnian Serb atrocities had put his family through.

He felt about 3 centimeters tall.

'You're going to go home'

On Sunday, Rohde was in his cell, half asleep and staring at the wall, when a guard came and said he had visitors. He met them in the warden's office: a small contingent of US and UN officials who had driven up from Sarajevo in an armored car through blizzard conditions. They brought him books, a case of military MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), and mixed news.

''We're going to get you out, you're going to go home,'' one told the imprisoned journalist. ''I can't tell you when.''

Rohde had hoped for instant release, or at least a firm date. His cellmates had told him that Bosnian Serb justice was indeed linear - you could finish an initial sentence, then be dragged back in court, tried on further charges, and land back in jail. An espionage trial remained a possibility.

At least he now had some diversions. Opening the first MRE was an adventure for the entire cell, and Rohde was excited to finally have a taste of America, though the M&M chocolate candies were old and stale.

He devoured the books as well. The officials from Sarajevo probably had brought all the books they had.

But reading John Grisham's ''The Chamber'' - a novel of justice gone wrong - Rohde was amused to find out that death row inmates in Mississippi were allotted more living space than he had.