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Who's making the news in Bosnia?

In Britain and America, all of this year's media prizes for international reporting have been won by journalists covering the war in Bosnia. The award-winning stories about 'death camps', 'ethnic cleansing' and 'rape camps' have helped to turn international public opinion against the Serbs and in favour of Western intervention.
Joan Phillips has consistently criticised media coverage of the war in Yugoslavia. She went back to Bosnia to investigate two stories which raise questions about the way in which that war is being reported. One is about a British mercenary fighting with the Muslims in Bosnia. The other is about an American journalist who has just won a Pulitzer prize for his stories about Serbian atrocities

Robert Loftus, a British mercenary, first went to Bosnia in September 1992 to fight with the Muslims, because he believed media reports blaming the Serbs for all that was happening there. Ironically, the tables were turned once Loftus arrived in Bosnia. He became a source of stories about Serbian atrocities for any journalist who would listen. From his position behind the Muslim front lines near Tuzla in north-east Bosnia, the British mercenary seems to have shot off his mouth more than his 7.62mm weapon.

Loftus liked telling stories so much that he kept an extensive diary detailing his activities and his links with various foreign journalists. The diary was found by Serbian soldiers after a battle with the Muslims on Mount Majevica. The story of the British mercenary and his Western media contacts became a major news item in Serbia.

According to the Serbian news agency, Tanjug, Robert 'Lofthouse', from Nottingham, England, was captured in January by Serbian forces on Mount Majevica, where he had been fighting as a mercenary with the Muslim Bosnian defence force (the Serbs got the misspelling of Loftus' name from an envelope addressed to him in Nottingham). They claimed that Loftus had been passing black propaganda to various Western news agencies.

Predictably, the British Foreign Office is saying little about the Loftus affair. Officials were keen to suggest, however, that Loftus was not a mercenary, but a humanitarian relief worker. However, aid workers do not generally carry automatic weapons.

The Tanjug story is contradicted by the fact that Loftus turned up in Britain in April. He had been wounded in the head, but not captured by the Serbs. Instead, it would seem that they found his diary, the envelope, photos and other personal effects, presumably abandoned in a disorderly retreat by the Muslims with whom Loftus was fighting.

Loftus' return to England was presaged in his diary. Among the final entries, there is a reference to 'some unfinished business in Nottingham':

'I ran from the mistake I made because of shame. But having come close to death several times has made me think that life is too precious to run away from and come what may I will answer to my peers for my stupidity.' (6 November 1992)

Loftus was running away from the police. Having returned to Nottingham in April, he then disappeared again. At the time of writing, his whereabouts are unknown.

There's a lot that remains murky about the Loftus story. But there are some things of which we can be certain. Robert Loftus was a mercenary who passed on hearsay stories about Serbian atrocities to Western journalists.

Loftus admits in his diary that he was a mercenary, receiving money for fighting with the Muslims. He records in his diary that he had contact with Western journalists. And his diary reveals that he had no hard evidence for his atrocity stories.

'Well it's back to the front line again', begins the first entry in the diary, 'cleaning weapon and getting ready to say hello to the Chetniks [in the Muslim or Croat usage, a derogatory term for any Serb] with a full clip....I am once again stuck on an unknown hill surrounded by Omir's men whom I have nicknamed the wild bunch. They are guys who hate the Chetniks very badly. They carry Kalashnikovs and grenades and once they get tanked up on the local brew, slivovich [sic], they start shouting, waving their weapons about and in between spitting a lot they shout "motherfucking Chetniks"' (24 September 1992).

Behind lines

Most of the entries describe the mind-numbing routine of camp life, which revolved around eating (macaroni), drinking, farting, smoking, spitting, playing poker and sleeping. Since he didn't speak Serbo-Croat, Loftus was even more bored than the others (he kept saying he would have to learn the 'Bosnian' language, which shows how little he did learn). His days off were spent drinking: 'As usual on my leaves I got pissed on the local brew and as usual woke up with a hangover.' (1 October 1992) All in all, between the bouts of boredom and the drinking binges, Loftus was living in an atmosphere ripe for story-telling and rumour-mongering.

Loftus spent most of his time well behind the Muslim lines. His diary records no instance of him being involved in direct fighting. Instead, the Muslim commanders kept him back in camp, where he soaked up his comrades' tales from the front. One of his commanding officers, Rasmir, told Loftus what his role would be:

'Rasmir sat me down and told me the reason why he wants me to stay alive. He said as a Westerner I will be able to tell the truth about the war in Tuzla and the surrounding battle areas....For the first time in my life I have a purpose. No more wasted years.' (22 October 1992)

Loftus was happy to be used as part of the Muslim propaganda effort. As his diary makes clear, the 'truth' about the war that Loftus told to any journalist who would listen came from behind one side's lines and was based on hearsay rather than hard evidence.

Loftus may have had reasons other than a desire to help his Muslim friends to pass on dirt about the Serbs to Western journalists. He was always broke; a mercenary's pay didn't go far. His days off were spent on the phone to Barclays Bank in Nottingham trying to transfer money to the Bank of Tuzla, and scrounging hotel rooms, food, drinks and cigarettes (he wasn't impressed by the local brand, 'Karona', which he got in his rations).

Perhaps thinking that passing on information would pay better, or at least earn him a few free drinks, Loftus began to contact Western journalists. On 24 September he says his leave 'was spent mostly having a good drink, but I did meet the Doc again and she let me use her phone to call London, BBC, and the States - a photo-journalist called Josie Nieves.'

On 27 September, Loftus says, 'we had a talk about the Chets using CS gas. I must try and get the news to England for the press. I wonder if they know about this "new" Chetnik tactic'. There is no evidence that the Serbs or anybody else have used gas in Yugoslavia. But the poison gas story did appear in the Western press and on TV in September 1992. It is an example of how camp fire rumours can be transformed into fact by a loquacious mercenary like Loftus.

'I was thrilled'

Loftus clearly fancied himself as a reporter. He asked his contact in Tuzla, 'Mr Smiles', 'if I could try my hand at journalism' (13 October). His diary is full of anti-Serbian stories, written like tabloid news reports. 'The Chetniks have butchered women, children and the old', he writes on 14 October. 'They have raped young girls and are torturing and killing people who are in concentration camps.' Loftus substantiated none of these stories. They were based on rumour, not on direct evidence from eyewitnesses, never mind anything Loftus himself had seen. They are the kind of stories that always accompany war, collected in his camp and in the barracks and bars of Tuzla.

Loftus wanted people in the West to hear his version of what the Serbs were doing. He was busy writing letters, sending photographs and phoning journalists. One of the reporters he contacted was an American, Roy Gutman.

On Tuesday 13 October, Loftus notes having 'phoned Roy Gutman journalist for Newsday' while on leave the previous day. Gutman is mentioned again on 15 October:

'Remember to find Mr Tanovic's phone number/Zagreb Roy Gutman-re-Marlboro + whiskey'

The other reference to Gutman in the exercise book is on the inside cover of the back page, where his name appears next to a table of four figures (presumably deutschmarks) totalling 950.

Gutman is US Newsday's European bureau chief, who has just won America's top press award, a Pulitzer Prize, for his reporting of the war in Bosnia and Croatia. Gutman's stories about Serbian 'ethnic cleansing', 'death camps' and 'mass rape' have established his reputation as one of America's leading journalists.

In Serbia, however, Gutman's name has been dragged through the mud since allegations about his supposed relationship with Loftus were first broadcast by the Serbs.

When the Serbian military authorities in Banja Luka obtained Loftus' diary, they eagerly publicised the fact that the British mercenary had been in contact with the American reporter. (Indeed, they went further, making outlandish charges against Gutman for which there is no evidence.)

Gutman admits that he spoke to Loftus on the telephone several times. He is matter of fact about his name appearing in Loftus' diary: 'My name gets mentioned in many places. I give my card to lots of people. I haven't got a problem with people phoning me.'

When Gutman first went to Tuzla, in the summer of 1992, there were no journalists there to speak of. He left his card with a lot of people and asked them to keep in touch. Somebody must have given Gutman's card to Loftus after the mercenary arrived in Tuzla in September.

'The guy called me out of the blue', recalls Gutman. 'And to tell you the truth I was thrilled when he phoned.' Loftus was eager to make media contacts, and Gutman, keen to keep in touch with what was happening in places like Tuzla, was pleased to have a local contact.

'I told him the main thing he should do was to try to get information out of Tuzla about what was happening there', says Gutman about his initial contact with Loftus. 'I also told him that unfortunately I wouldn't be able to use it. There's no way that I could take something from Tuzla from somebody who is not an official and who I didn't know anything about.'

Gutman says he took one tip from Loftus about a poison gas leak from a factory in Tuzla, and checked it out with other sources. In the end, says Gutman, 'I learned that nothing had happened. We know that Tuzla is sitting on a bomb, a chlorine bomb, but in this instance nothing happened'.

There is no evidence that Gutman used any information from Loftus for his stories. The Newsday reporter also denies that he paid Loftus money. What about the sums printed alongside his name in the back of Loftus' diary? 'I have no idea why that would be there', Gutman told me. 'You can check my bank statements if you want.'

Gutman says that he would not take unsubstantiated information from an unreliable source like Loftus. So what were the sources for his stories about Serbian atrocities?

Gutman was the first American journalist to accuse the Serbs of running 'death camps' for Muslims and Croats in Bosnia. In early August 1992, one of Gutman's reports appeared on the front page of New York's Newsday under the headline 'Death camps'.

This was a very serious charge for a journalist to make. We were being asked to accept that the Serbs were operating camps in which they were systematically exterminating people. Through the use of the term 'death camp', Gutman was inviting comparisons with the camps run by the Nazis during the Second World War, in which six million Jews were slaughtered. Indeed, in some of his articles Gutman made direct comparisons between the activities of the Serbs and the Nazis.

The evidence

The allegation made by Gutman and other Western journalists that the Serbs were running Nazi-style death camps in Bosnia caused an international outcry and helped to polarise world opinion against the Serbs. The publication of these stories led to calls by the US government for a war crimes investigation and punitive action against Serbia.

What was the evidence on which Gutman based his 'death camp' stories? When he spoke to me in April, the Newsday reporter insisted that the Serbs were lying when they accused him of writing horror stories about places he had never even visited. The Serbs were referring to Gutman's stories about Serbian camps at Omarska and Trnopolje near Banja Luka in northern Bosnia. In fact, as Gutman says, he did visit Omarska and Trnopolje. But not until September, after he had written his first 'death camp' stories.

When Gutman first went to Banja Luka in July 1992, most journalists were spending their time behind Muslim lines in Sarajevo. The Serbs in Banja Luka were flattered to receive a visit from a top US reporter. They offered him every assistance. Indeed, it was they who suggested that Gutman visit the prison camp at Manjaca with a delegation from the International Red Cross.

Gutman's 'death camps' accusation did not appear in the story he wrote for Newsday about Manjaca, but he did evoke the Nazi experience: 'Manjaca is one of a string of new detention facilities, which an American embassy official in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, routinely refers to as "concentration camps". It is another example of the human rights abuses now exploding to a dimension unseen in Europe since the Nazi Third Reich.' (Newsday, 19 July 1992) The opinions of US diplomats, reached from the vantage point of their hotel rooms in Belgrade, are here presented as evidence that the Serbs were running Nazi-style camps in the war zones of Bosnia.

In the same edition of Newsday, Gutman wrote a story about Omarska, another camp near Banja Luka which he had not visited, but which he nevertheless felt confident about calling a 'death camp': 'There are mounting indications that Omarska, a town near this capital of Serb-conquered north Bosnia, houses a death camp where Serb authorities, with the backing of the army, have taken thousands of Muslims. Hepatitis is reportedly epidemic, and other diseases are spreading rapidly. The witness quoted the camp commander as warning the inmates that they will never leave it alive. The reports could not be independently confirmed.' (Newsday, 19 July 1992)

These hearsay reports could not be independently confirmed, Gutman admits, yet they are used nevertheless to support the contention that Omarska was a death camp. Gutman had not spoken to the witness quoted, but got his information second hand from an official of the Muslim relief agency, Merhamet.

Within weeks, Gutman had accused the Serbs of operating 'death camps' at Brcko and other places, in addition to Omarska. As well as being carried by Newsday and picked up by CNN, his stories were published in the British Guardian and other papers.

Animal feed

On 5 August, Gutman was interviewed from Zagreb by a Canadian radio programme, The Journal. Asked to elaborate on his 'death camp' reports, Gutman did not back off from the idea: 'I think in at least two cases, one could speak of death camps, that is to say, a detention centre where people are sent with the intention that they will not come out alive. I've reported about two of them. One is called Omarska, the other one is at Brcko. I've interviewed several people who were at Omarska and one who was at Brcko, and I came away with the conclusion that these really were death camps.'

What were the facts on which Gutman based his Brcko and Omarska stories, run in the Guardian on 5 and 6 August?

On the basis of one testimony from an alleged former inmate of Brcko, Gutman named Brcko as a death camp, and the Guardian used the same emotive expression without quotation marks in a headline to Gutman's story (see 'Survivors tell of Serb death camps', Guardian, 5 August 1992). According to Gutman's eyewitness to the alleged slaughter at Brcko, Alija Lujinovic, after killing 90 per cent of the 1500 prisoners at the camp, the Serbs rounded up the townspeople, and made the surviving prisoners drive them to a plant where they were cremated for animal feed. Lujinovic said he witnessed the murder and mutilation of male prisoners and the gang rape of women. This single testimony was backed up in Gutman's account by a highly partisan source - the Bosnian Muslim government's Commission on War Crimes - which claims that 3000 people were killed in Brcko during a six-week killing spree by the Serbs.

There are two main sources for Gutman's stories from Omarska. The first is a Muslim man who asked to be identified as 'Meho', who alleged that armed Serbian guards executed prisoners in groups of 10 to 15 every few days. '"They would take them to a nearby lake"', said Meho. '"You'd hear a volley of rifles. And they'd never come back."' Meho's allegations were backed up in Gutman's article by speculation from an official source, which does not help to establish the truth or otherwise of the allegations made. '"I think if these places are not death camps"', said Pierre Andre Conod, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation in Zagreb, '"we might have access to them"'.

A man who wanted to be known as 'Hujca' was Gutman's other source for his story about Omarska, which suggested that Serbs at the camp were engaged in 'slaughter on a huge scale'. According to Hujca, who said he was held in a warehouse at Omarska for 12 days in May 1992, Serbian guards killed Croat and Muslim prisoners by slitting their throats or shooting them through the mouth. Hujca admits that he 'did not witness the killings' himself, but on one occasion saw eight corpses covered with blankets. On other days those who had buried the dead told him what they had seen. Hujca had been a fighter with the Muslim Bosnian defence force, a source of many tales of Serbian atrocities.

Much surmise

Gutman also quotes another source who gave a hearsay account of how prisoners held in a huge open pit at Omarska were taken away by guards and never came back. This source was another member of the Bosnian Muslim defence force, Fahrudin Ganic, who had not been in the Omarska pit, but was repeating a story supposedly told to him by a 15-year old Muslim boy held in the pit for over a week in June 1992 (see 'Muslim held in packed warehouse adds to stories of systematic killings', Guardian, 6 August).

What does all this add up to? It adds up to two eyewitness accounts, two hearsay accounts and much surmise by Muslim and other officials.

We are being asked to accept the existence of death camps on the basis of Gutman's judgement of the truthfulness of his two eyewitnesses, Meho and Alija, and of the two hearsay accounts from Hujca and Ganic, the accuracy of which Gutman obviously could not test by talking to the burial crews who talked to Hujca or the young boy who talked to Ganic. In addition, Gutman's articles are peppered with comments by Muslim officials and Western relief agency sources which do not assist us in establishing whether these are truthful accounts.

All in all, we are being asked to believe an awful lot on the basis of very little evidence. The death camp stories are very thinly sourced. They are based on very few accounts from alleged survivors. They rely on hearsay and double hearsay. They are given the stamp of authority by speculation and surmise from officials.

Gutman is not guilty of lying. The Newsday reporter did not try to hide the fact that his stories were thinly sourced. He was careful to state his sources and did not try to make them look more impressive than they were.

Yet when these stories were published, there was a dramatic disparity between the emphasis given to the accusations of Serbian atrocities, and that given to the riders concerning thin sources. The banner headlines were about 'death camps', the sentences admitting that 'the reports could not be independently confirmed' were tucked away towards the end of the article.

Not the only one

On the basis of these stories, the world now believes that the Serbs were running death camps in Bosnia.

Gutman was not the only journalist to accuse the Serbs of running 'death camps'. In fact, the Newsday reporter is representative of a general trend in the coverage of the war in Bosnia.

In Britain, the 'death camp' story hit the front pages on 7 August, the day after ITN's Penny Marshall and Ian Williams filed their Bafta-award-winning reports from Omarska and Trnopolje, where they had seen some underfed prisoners, barbed wire and photos of beaten inmates. 'Belsen 92' accused the headlines in the Mirror and the Star, which said the Serbs had executed more than 17 000 Muslim and Croatian prisoners.

What are the facts about the Serbian camps in northern Bosnia? Nobody on the Serbian side ever claimed that these camps were holiday homes. As Nada Balban, the spokeswoman at Omarska pointed out to another prize-winning British journalist, Ed Vulliamy of the Guardian, 'No one is proud. There is shame here' (7 August). But nor did the Serbs accept that these were 'death camps'.

Manjaca was a prisoner-of-war camp run by the military authorities according to the Geneva Convention. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had access to the camp from the start. Critics of the camp may have been right to suggest that many of the 4000 prisoners had not been involved in the fighting, and were being held for prisoner exchange purposes; the same thing was happening to Serbs in Muslim and Croatian camps.

Trnopolje, run by the civil authorities, could not even be called a detention camp, never mind a death camp. Many of the inmates came to Trnopolje voluntarily to escape the fighting in nearby villages. Their relatives and friends from the local villages were allowed to bring them provisions, and some prisoners were even allowed to visit the village themselves to buy food. Many people who left Trnopolje later said they regretted it. Who ever heard of people saying that they wish they'd stayed in a 'death camp'?

Equal blame

Omarska, also run by the civil authorities, was an old iron mine and ore processing plant, where conditions were bad. The Serbs claim that Omarska was an 'investigation centre', where prisoners were interviewed to establish whether they should be sent to Manjaca or Trnopolje or put on trial.

After the storm about death camps had blown over, aid workers and former prisoners said that the attention focused on the camps had been misplaced. They claimed that most Muslims and Croats had been detained in small makeshift jails where the treatment of inmates ranged from mild to brutal. The Red Cross pointed out that although international condemnation had focused on the Serbs, the Croats and Muslims were running camps too and must share equal blame for abuses carried out against prisoners.

Prisoners at Manjaca, Omarska and Trnopolje did not get enough to eat. Some were beaten. And some were killed, no doubt. But none of this can make the 'death camp' charges stick. Anybody would think that the Serbs had invented prison camps, or that Western journalists had never heard of holding people prisoner in a war.

It is worth recalling that ITN was invited into Omarska and Trnopolje by the Serbs. If they had really been running 'death camps' would they have opened them up for inspection by the world's media? With hindsight, it appears that the Serbs allowed themselves to be set up over the camps story.

At Banja Luka, they are still seething at the way the Western media handled the story. 'Let me tell you the real story of Omarska and Trnopolje', said Captain Milos Solaja of the Serbian army press centre. 'The ICRC has proof that these were normal prisons. The whole world can say what they like, but the ICRC knows the truth. If you want to believe something, it doesn't matter if you have no evidence. The media had their own agenda before they set foot in Omarska.'

Three months later

Western reporting of the war has been so one-sided that ordinary Serbs do not believe that their story will ever be told. Some of them remember Roy Gutman for the stories he didn't write as well as those he did. In September 1992, Gutman visited the scene of a massacre of 17 Serbs in the village of Serdari near Banja Luka. When the Serbs later accused him of saying nothing about what he saw at Serdari, Gutman protested that a story about the massacre had appeared in Newsday - on 13 December.

Why did he wait almost three months to report a massacre of Serbian civilians in a place which he had visited? After all, he wasted no time before writing stories about Serbian atrocities in places he had not visited, on the basis of secondhand statements.

Gutman told me that he was not convinced by the truth of the story at the time. He visited the village on the afternoon of the massacre, but the corpses had already been removed. He admits he saw some blood and the smouldering houses, but was not allowed to see the bodies in the morgue. He suspected that something 'fishy' was going on when the Serbs played him a recording of a radio conversation they claimed to have intercepted, in which Croats and Muslims boasted of how many Serbs they killed that day at Serdari. Unconvinced, Gutman delayed writing the story for several months until he spoke to a source who had been involved in carrying out the massacre.

I too went to Serdari. As I walked through the gutted remains of the village, Zivko Novakovic, a local Serb who had carried out the corpses on the morning of the massacre, asked me, 'Are you not afraid for your job if you publish this story?'. As we left the village, Drago Djukic, another local Serb, asked me if the story of what happened to the Serbs of Serdari would find its way into print. 'How big will it be', he pressed me, 'something in the margins?'.

Not a holiday camp, but not a death camp either: the Serb-run Batkovic detention camp in eastern Bosnia

Loftus' diary, and a reference to Roy Gutman

17 dead, not much said: the graves of Serbs massacred at Serdari
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 55, May 1993

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