NEW YORK — On a cold January day, four reporters found a field with great bald patches of earth among the wild grasses and shrubbery on a hillside outside of Srebrenica in Bosnia. They hid their jeep, walked down, and immediately found the crown of a human skull. Yards away, part of a jawbone poked out of the earth.
They believed they had found one of the mass graves identified by intelligence sources. The field, near the town of Glogova, was just 100 yards from a main road filled with Bosnian Serb military and police. Up the hill, the reporters could hear people cutting wood in the forest.
Fearing they might be arrested at any moment, the four quickly scoured the area for more evidence. Then, after all agreed, one picked up the partial skull and the jawbone, put them in a burlap sack, and stashed it in the jeep.
"I was concerned there had already been tampering at the site," says Jonathan Landay of The Christian Science Monitor. "But it was only on the way back, once the adrenaline had drained away, that the ethical issues began to crystallize, and I wondered, 'Did we do the right thing?' "
Many reporters face similar quandaries: Does taking bones from such suspected mass-grave sites amount to tampering, or is it protecting evidence of what may be the worst atrocity in Europe since the Holocaust?
The story also illustrates the complexity of the ethical issues faced by reporters in a war zone, where traditional rules are suspended and moral imperatives are sometimes negotiated in a split second of danger. It is an environment that challenges the core of the individual, often pitting one's professional training against one's basic humanity.
"I've seen some journalists who've become stellar human beings," says Tom Squitieri, who has covered Bosnia for USA Today since 1992, "and others who've become the most loathsome creatures, taking advantage of people to cut corners to get their stories."
Mr. Squitieri says moral challenges of differing magnitudes crop up daily. Do you deliver messages for refugees who want to let a relative know that they're alive? Do you give in to a grandmother's pleading and smuggle out her granddaughter, knowing that if you don't, she may die? Do you intervene when a Bosnian Serb officer, standing just 10 feet away, beats a Muslim man with a beer bottle, then jabs the muzzle of his AK-47 into the man's chest and threatens to shoot?
'It was self-preservation'
"All the rules that you learn in journalism school are challenged and come under a lot of stress," says The Washington Post's Peter Maass, who chose not to intervene with the Serb officer and was thankful when the Muslim man's wife appeared and threw herself between her husband and the Serb. "I can't fool myself into believing it had anything to do with the rules [of journalistic objectivity]," he adds. "It just had to do with self-preservation."
Mr. Maass, who reported from Bosnia in 1992 and '93, says it was difficult for him to maintain the traditional journalistic distance and impossible to present the transgressions on each side in a manner that appeared to put them on equal footing.
"Any attempt to say, 'Yes, the Serbs are committing atrocities, but so are the Bosnians,' that kind of 'objectivity,' '' Maass says, "misrepresented the situation quite horribly and played right into the hands of the Serbs and governments like ours that did not want to get involved." He does not mind when his recent book, "Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War" (Alfred A. Knopf), is called "pro-Bosnian": "I assume that no journalist from the Second World War would be dishonored by being called 'pro-Jewish.' "
Last January, Sheila MacVicar of ABC News investigated one of the dozens of smaller mass graves believed to be a product of the "ethnic cleansing" of Bosnian Muslims that began in 1992. Twenty-three people had allegedly been gunned down in a desolate gully near the town of Ljolici when the Bosnian Serb Army overran it. The bodies reportedly had been buried nearby.
The Bosnian government had recaptured the area, which made it safe for villagers to return. Ms. MacVicar, accompanied by the father of a survivor, searched the site of the alleged executions in a driving snowstorm for an hour and a half and found nothing.
"You know from your reporting that the story that they told is likely true," MacVicar says. "But if you don't have proof, it's just an interesting story."
As the small group prepared to leave, they heard someone cough and saw several men standing on a ledge above them. One was the man's son, a survivor who had returned on his own that day, hoping to find the site of the grave.
He led them to the field where he believed the bodies were buried, and they found one section that was spongy. The men went back to the village and returned with pickaxes and shovels.
"Those people were worried the evidence of the crime that was done to them would be removed before any international investigator could arrive," MacVicar says. The territory was to be turned back to the Serbs in two days. She acknowledges that her presence influenced their decision to dig.
Almost immediately the men found a thick layer of lime in the rich, red soil. They dug deeper and found more lime, then a blanket. Beneath it were human remains in a blue jogging suit.
The snow was still coming down, and it was getting dark. They reburied what they had found and left. MacVicar immediately reported the site to the British authorities who were in charge of the area for the NATO-led Implementation Force (IFOR).
"If you have evidence of a crime, it really doesn't matter what your role is, whether you're a reporter, a fireman, a doctor, or a lawyer," MacVicar says, "you have an obligation as a human being and a citizen to report that crime. It's difficult in a situation where you can be accused of being partisan, but I don't think that mitigates the obligation."
Shortly after MacVicar reported the find, IFOR publicly criticized the incident and, without naming her, suggested she had done something wrong.
"We've encouraged media who've come across such situations not to tamper with or encourage tampering with any sites," says Capt. Mark Van Dyke, an IFOR spokesman. "That site should be preserved and the International War Crimes Tribunal should be allowed to document it before any type of unearthing is carried out."
The four reporters who discovered the Glogova site faced a different problem. They were the first Western reporters to arrive in Srebrenica after the United Nations "safe area" fell to Serb forces in July 1995 after UN forces failed to defend it.
Tens of thousands of Muslim refugees subsequently fled the city. Five thousand remain unaccounted for. The International Committee of the Red Cross says 3,000 were executed by the Bosnian Serb Army. Their remains are thought to be in mass graves like the one at Glogova.
For many people, like Columbia University journalism professor James Carey, such sites are sacred places, made "holy by the horror of what happened there." They also contain evidence for war-crimes investigators.
Yet Mr. Landay and the others decided almost instinctively to remove evidence. They tampered with the grave. But from their perspective, it was done to protect it from being destroyed. They also felt the need to prove the existence of yet another possible mass grave to a skeptical international community that was balking at sending soldiers to protect such sites.
"I had seen accusations leveled ... saying the bones that had been seen at other mass-grave sites were animal bones," says Massimo Calabresi, the Central Europe bureau chief for Time magazine who was with Landay at Glogova. "That was another reason for taking those bones out."
Mr. Calabresi, Landay, and the others made a sketch of the field and indicated on it exactly where they had found the remains. They turned over the map and the bones to the International War Crimes Tribunal, which was notified within 24 hours.
"In this case, it strikes me as an almost civic act," says Carey of the reporters' decision to remove the bones. "It was not self-serving; it was the decent thing to do."
David Rohde, the Monitor correspondent who brought out the first concrete evidence of mass graves in August 1995, is painfully aware that his reporting may have caused the Bosnian Serbs to begin to tamper with a site that could tie Bosnian Serb leaders directly to the massacres.
"But I thought that exposing the breadth of what had happened there ... would hopefully create pressure to get the War Crimes Tribunal in there," says Mr. Rohde, who recently won a Pulitzer and several other major awards for his reporting.
Crossing an ethical line
Rohde said the gravity of the alleged massacres forced him to be extremely cautious, strict, and detailed in his reporting. He relied on as much concrete evidence as he could obtain. Yet last October, after hearing reports that Bosnian Serbs had tampered with the sites, he knowingly crossed an ethical line to find out if it was true.
Ever since Rohde's initial stories ran in August, the Bosnian Serb authorities had refused to renew his press credentials. He alone decided to alter the date on his old press pass.
"It was the only time I did something like that, but I thought not doing it would be the equivalent of waiting for Adolf Hitler to issue reporters visas to investigate rumors of a death camp around Dachau," he says. "There was no other way to get there."
Rohde was subsequently arrested and held for 10 days.
The International War Crimes Tribunal now intends to exhume approximately 20 sites, according to a spokesman, who adds that information provided by Rhode and other reporters has been extremely helpful.
"Our common purpose is to expose the truth and to reconstitute a jigsaw puzzle and a chain of events," as well as to identify war criminals and bring them to trial, says Christian Chartier, the tribunal spokesman,
But many reporters who have pushed their own ethical limits to tell the story are increasingly concerned the tribunal's work could be stalled by the international community. NATO officials have finally agreed to monitor the alleged mass-grave sites, but not closely enough to prevent further tampering, some reporters say.
"Whether it's right or wrong," Rohde says, "US troops are also not actively trying to arrest [indicted war criminals]. So, yes, I think it's a very serious possibility that these crimes may go unpunished."