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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE warden escorted David Rohde to his cell and left. Scared, Rohde stood near the doorway, feeling the eyes of the room's five occupants upon him.

Hours ago, he'd thought he was on the verge of freedom. Now he seemed to have turned a corner in a Balkan maze and found bars instead of an exit.

Five days had passed since his capture by Bosnian Serbs. As far as Rohde was aware, no one he cared about knew where he was, and his family probably thought he was dead.

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''Hi, how are you,'' he said nervously in Serbian. ''I'm an American journalist. My name's David.''

One of the men turned toward him. ''Are you the American journalist?'' he asked.

''Yes,'' said Rohde.

''I just heard your brother on Voice of America,'' said the prisoner. ''He's trying to get you out.''

Rohde felt a rush of elation. His family knew he was alive.

Christian Science Monitor reporter David Rohde sneaked into Bosnian Serb territory in late October in search of evidence of war crimes.

Caught at a dam where Muslim civilians appeared to have been massacred, minutes from the end of his mission and a safe return, he was held by police convinced that no journalist would risk so dangerous a trip. Instead, they appeared sure that he was a spy.

The authorities of the self-styled ''Republic of Srpska,'' Rohde decided, were obsessed with sovereignty and respect for their laws.

This wasn't surprising in light of the fact that the outside world considers Srpska less a nation than an armed camp of usurpers.

After days of interrogation, Rohde was increasingly confident he would survive his ordeal. The problem was that somehow, before this was over, he would have to satisfy his captors' desire for Bosnian Serb respect.

'Like a bird'

Still, his sentence was somewhat unexpected. On Friday, Nov. 3, Rohde was waiting in a small office in the Zvornik police station, a room he'd come to know all too well. His interrogator, Marko, was late.

When Marko finally arrived, around 3 in the afternoon, he was still wearing the clothes he'd had on all week - a short leather jacket and lavender pants - but he was carrying a thick volume Rohde hadn't seen before.

It was the criminal code of the Republic of Srpska. Marko sat at his desk, copying passages from the law book. Then he said the words Rohde had been waiting to hear through the long hours of his five-day Zvornik interrogation: ''I think, Mr. David, we are finished.''

Marko typed up his notes, handed them over for Rohde's signature, and rose to go. Rohde came with him.

''Mr. David, if you are lucky, tomorrow you will be like a bird,'' said Marko as they walked out the door. ''Be like a bird, and fly away.''

The judge's office was several buildings down the street. It resembled a courtroom about as much as Rohde looked like American actor Brad Pitt, but Rohde hoped it might be the place of his deliverance. A translator was already there, as was the guard who had collared Rohde near the village of Sahanici.

The Monitor journalist thanked the elderly man for not shooting him. The guard said it was no problem, that he had in fact been scared that Rohde would somehow kill him. The man's hair was combed, as if this appearance was an important moment in his life. He had bagged an American journalist - maybe even a spy - and seemed proud. Rohde decided he was a nice guy in spite of everything.

The judge was a woman. The court proceedings were relatively brief. Rohde was asked if he'd changed his accreditation to enter the territory. He said ''yes'' - he'd admitted that right off. He denied seeing signs prohibiting photography at the sites he'd visited. There'd been no fence around the dam at Sahanici, he said. He drove right in.

Nobody was talking about espionage. He must have finally convinced them that he didn't work for the CIA. ''I'm sorry,'' Rohde told the judge, ''I was just trying to find out the truth.''

''I will announce my decision in half an hour,'' the judge said.

The defendant and audience filed into the next room.

But judgment took longer than 30 minutes. An hour went by. ''It's got to be the firing squad,'' joked Marko. Everyone laughed.

Finally, Rohde was called back into the courtroom.

''David Rohde is found guilty,'' intoned the judge. ''He is hereby sentenced to 15 days in prison, minus six already served.''

This was bad. Rohde had thought he would spend one more night in custody, at most, and then fulfill his dream of freedom, driving back across the Drina.

''And all his personal possessions will be seized by the court,'' added the judge.

This was more than bad. What would he do about the car? It was a rental, a 1994 Citroen from an Austrian agency. The insurance wouldn't cover a car lost in Bosnia. Somebody would have to pay for it, and the Monitor journalist figured it would be him. He'd be the laughing stock of the Bosnia press corps.

Bijeljina bars

The prison was an hour north of Zvornik, on the grounds of an old factory in the city of Bijeljina. It was surrounded by a 10-foot wall of red cinder block, and as Rohde was ushered through its gates on Friday evening, he could see lit windows, bars, and group cells within.

The attitude of his guards, upon arrival, was a mixture of hostility and excitement. They couldn't believe they had an American.

As a political test, they asked him, ''What is the Drina River the border between?'' The correct answer, in their eyes, was ''The Republica Srpska and Serbia,'' not ''Bosnia and Serbia,'' as the rest of the world would answer.

They collected the journalist's possessions, giving him meticulous receipts. Such record-keeping was important to Bosnian Serb officials, Rohde had noticed. It was part of their obsession with respect for ''Srpskan'' law.

His cramped cell was about 10 feet by 20 feet, with six bunks and a heater in the corner. One bunk - his - was empty.

During Rohde's introduction, the cell ''director,'' a man named Slavko, who had been a director of a failed bank, got up and began to put extra blankets on the empty bed.

Happy that his family knew he was alive, Rohde began to think that prison might not be as bad as he had pictured it.

Room with a crew

His cellmates seemed sympathetic. Besides Slavko, there was Zenga, a young thief who'd been caught stealing crates of cigarettes; and Milan, a military policeman who had shot a man who attacked him with a knife after a traffic accident.

The man with a smuggled-in shortwave radio was in prison for doctoring a friend's car-ownership papers. The fifth and youngest member of the group was half-Serb and half-

Muslim, 18 years old. He'd been arrested for possession of 300 marijuana cigarettes and was a big fan of the rock group Pink Floyd.

In the days to come it would become clear that for Rohde, the problem with prison was the inactivity. The nervous reporter needed something to do with his energy; he was the kind of person who measured rooms not so much in feet as in paces.

But prisoners were allowed outside for exercise only 30 minutes a day. It was perhaps the fastest 30 minutes Rohde had ever experienced in his life.

And the food - liquid with rice mush, liquid with bean mush, liquid with potato mush - was awful. Rohde became convinced that the prisoner's leftovers, dumped into a large bucket, were fed directly to pigs.

Boston goes to Dayton

By now the Monitor's phone lines in Boston were jammed with calls about Rohde. Faye Bowers, David's editor, plus the international editor, Clayton Jones, and senior editors, kept in touch with the UN, the State Department in Washington, and individual US embassies overseas. Meanwhile, the media continued clamoring for information.

Rohde's family was set up in an office just off the newsroom, making calls to their political contacts and anyone else they felt would pay attention or could be useful. The problem was that the ad hoc David Rohde Action Team continually received conflicting information.

The UN said the Bosnian Serbs had David; the State Department wasn't sure. No one had seen David, or talked to him, or had any confirmation about his fate.

Late Friday afternoon, during a strategy session held in Editor David Cook's office, it was decided that Jones, Bowers, elder brother Lee Rohde, and other family members should fly to the Bosnian peace talks being held at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, just outside Dayton, Ohio. Proximity might make it easier to meet with - and pressure - the top US officials who dealt with the Balkans. Bosnian Serb officials were in Dayton as well.

If their efforts failed, the family could always hold a press conference outside the peace talk gates, ratcheting up media attention.

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.

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.

In the following days, prison life began to become almost routine. There was the morning's flurry of activity, then hours of sitting in the cell, reading, talking, lounging on the heater, or being taught yoga by his cellmates.

Rohde's Serbian began to improve. He and his cellmates joked whether the journalist, as the first US ''prisoner of war'' of the Bosnian conflict, would be honored with a stamp when he got home.

Their brief contact with Rohde via the phone call gave his family and editors an enormous lift. He was alive, and it didn't sound as if he'd been abused.

The official meeting they had had preceding the phone call, which included top US negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke and US Ambassador to Bosnia John Menzies, along with the highest ranking Bosnian Serb in Dayton, ''Vice President'' Nikola Koljevic, had also gone well.

At one point, Holbrooke, a man not known for his subtlety, had picked up and played with Koljevic's wool plaid fedora. ''Do you like this hat?'' Holbrooke had asked the Bosnian Serb leader. ''Maybe I should hold it hostage.''

Family pressure

Now they had to decide how hard to push. Should the family hold a press conference at the Dayton base gates, and go on TV? Would that annoy US officials?

''Pressure sometimes helps, and sometimes hurt,'' said one American diplomat, quietly. They decided to wait.

David's father, Harvey Rohde, wrote Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic a personal letter on stationary from the Dayton Radisson Inn. ''Please, please, in the name of God, release my son,'' he implored.

The US was leaning hard on Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, as well as Bosnian Serb leaders. Balkan politics is a tangled web, and Mr. Milosevic is widely considered to have great influence with Bosnian Serbs, with whom he has at least nominally severed ties of assistance.

Quietly, the US began warning Milosevic that the Bosnian peace talks themselves might be affected by Rohde's continued imprisonment.

''So long as Mr. Rohde's detention continues, it will necessarily distract us from our principal purpose and create a negative climate for our continuing work,'' US Secretary of State Warren Christopher wrote President Milosevic.

On Wednesday, Nov. 8, the guards came for Rohde at around 10 a.m. They took him out of the prison, to the fourth floor of a building he had not been in before. There, dressed in a military uniform, was Marko. ''Hello Mr. David,'' he said. ''You have appealed your sentence. I want to hear your story again.''

It had been five days since Rohde had repeated the half-true explanation of his adventures.

Still, he ground it out quickly, all the names perfect. The Bosnian Serbs wrote out a copy of what he had said, and admitted to, and the journalist signed it after arguing for a few minutes.

He saw a silver sedan pull up across the street.

Nothing happened for hours. Then a Bosnian Serb TV crew suddenly arrived, and Rohde was marched out onto the balcony and ''interviewed'' by Marko. Rohde was forced to repeat the story he had told Marko and say he had found no evidence of a massacre.

He was then led downstairs, through a door, and into the presence of people he had dreamed of for days: heavily armed soldiers wearing red berets. They were Serbian commandos from across the Drina River. They must have come to take him home.

The Serbians were polite, but they gave him the same ghost-look Rohde had received from the woman at the Red Cross.

As they headed downstairs, Rohde shook Marko's hand before he left - grateful that his treatment was decent, considering what it could have been. The man had done his best to crack Rohde's story, but he also said he had lost a brother in the bitter Bosnian war.

''I try to be human,'' Marko had said during lulls in the interrogations.

As they drove away, a Serbian told him that they had been forced to wait for two hours, without being told where the journalist was.

Finally, he said, he had told Rohde's Bosnian Serb captors that he would start shooting in 10 minutes. They could shoot back if they wanted, he said. That threat finally produced the prisoner.

''You know they wanted to kill you, don't you?'' said the Serbian.

As they drove across the Drina, Rohde looked down and wondered if what the Serb was saying was self-serving exaggeration - or true.

* Last in a three-part series. Parts One and Two ran on Nov. 17 and 20.

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