A Sarajevo Newspaper's Fight for Civilization

STOCKHOLM. — Stockholm. -- The Sarajevo newspaper Oslobodenje was given an award last weekend by two Scandinavian papers, Dagens Nyheter of Stockholm and Politiken of Copenhagen. The award consisted of money and newsprint, both needed by a newspaper whose story is one of the remarkable ones of Sarajevo's siege.

Before the Yugoslav war, Oslobodenje was a large metropolitan daily like thousands of others around the world. It had been founded during World War II as a resistance journal (its title means "liberation"), but in peacetime prospered as a commercial newspaper. Last month marked its 50th anniversary publication.


Its staff had always been a mixture of the Yugoslav national groups, more or less accurately reflecting the makeup of Sarajevo's population itself, with Serbs, Croatians, Muslims, 0' Jews and mixtures of various nationalities. This remains true of its surviving staff. The two of Oslobodenje's people able to get to Stockholm and then Copenhagen to accept this award were its editor, Kemal Kurspahic, who is a Muslim, and Goran Jovanovic, the head of the paper's new international edition, printed in Slovenia, who carries a Croatian passport.

In the old Yugoslavia, the newspaper had opposed ethnic politics and defended liberal and secular state values. When the siege of Sarajevo began in April 1992, the paper continued publishing and, despite the extremely difficult circumstances, and paper and power shortages, it has not missed a single issue since the war began.


Its building was an early object of Serbian small-arms fire and then of shelling, until it was ruined. However, the building was equipped with an atomic shelter, and all the publishing operations were eventually moved there. Living quarters for the staff have also been improvised there, since the newspaper's location is at the very edge of the battle-line with Serbian forces, and coming and going is dangerous.

Several of the paper's staff have been killed by fire from the Serbian lines, and Mr. Kurspahic himself limps from a severe leg injury suffered in a car crash along the "sniper's alley" leading to the newspaper plant. Other journalists have been killed outside Sarajevo, covering the war, and three are carried as missing, correspondents elsewhere in Bosnia-Herzegovina who have simply vanished. Early in the siege staff were offered a chance to leave. A few did because of family needs, but nearly all stayed and are there today, keeping the paper publishing by a collective effort in which personal interests have largely been abandoned.

It is an edifying story, which is unlikely to have a happy ending. As the paper's representatives told the Stockholm and Copenhagen audiences, optimism is scarcely imaginable about the outcome of this war. Even if the currently suspended Geneva negotiations produce signatures on a plan for dividing Bosnia-Herzegovina between aggressors and defenders, peace will not be installed because all sides will continue to struggle to improve their positions. There will also be still more "ethnic cleansing" -- this time possibly under U.N. or NATO supervision -- in order to force everyone into the zones authorized for their nationality.

Bosnia itself, whatever is left of it, will remain for a time a multiethnic state with liberal principles. This is what the war has been all about for the Bosnian government. The staff of Oslobodenje have promised one another that they will stay together to fight for that outcome when Sarajevo's siege is lifted. But they also acknowledge that liberal ideas will face a rocky future when the shooting stops. A radicalization of the Muslim community is taking place. The present government's leadership may not survive the peace agreement.

The Oslobodenje editors still want Western -- above all, U.S. -- military intervention, not because Bosnia's war has much chance now of being won, but because measured action against Bosnian Serb forces and their headquarters could prevent total collapse of the Bosnian position and give Bosnia a better Geneva outcome.

As they note, every time outside intervention has seemed a serious possibility, the Serbian and Croatian sides have made compromises. But by now the U.N. and the Western powers have so often issued ultimatums and done nothing about them that the Bosnians feel themselves abandoned. The U.N.'s guarantees for Sarajevo, its airspace interdiction, proclamation of Muslim "safe areas," promises to defend humanitarian supply convoys -- none has been implemented. Instead there has been constant pressure on the Bosnian authorities to yield to the demands made by the Serbs and Croatians in Geneva.

Hence the outlook is bleak for Bosnia -- and indeed for Serbia and Croatia as well, who will find that they have empoisoned South Slav life for years to come and will themselves suffer the consequences. The only future that made sense for the region was integration into the liberal and secular political society of the West. This is what Oslobodenje has fought for -- against the odds. As Mr. Kurspahic said in Stockholm, there are some civilizational standards and professional values that are worth the fight, even if you lose.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.