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How to document the death of a nation Hard news: CNN's correspondent in the Balkans narrates a five-part TV series on Yugoslavia's dissolution.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CNN's Christiane Amanpour, whose 3 1/2 years in Bosnia have given her unrivalled stature among news reporters covering the Balkan war, has nothing but praise for the Discovery Channel's five-part documentary "Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation."

That shouldn't surprise anyone, given that she serves as both narrator and tour guide for this remarkable look at a race war that has all but decimated a once-prosperous nation. But her praise goes beyond the series' artistic or technical qualities.

She says the series, which concludes at 10 p.m. tonight, could play a key role in any future war crimes trial, possibly bringing to justice men who have ordered or carried out genocidal policies.

"I just think that it's a really excellent document, in the true sense of the word," she says over the phone from Sarajevo. "The judge in charge [of the war crimes tribunal], Judge [Richard] Goldstone, he was lamenting the other day that the tribunal does not have the same kind of paper trail to follow that, for instance, the Nuremberg tribunal had. But I think if you look at this documentary, you realize that if you search and do research, there is an incredible audio and videotape trail. I can't believe how much of this stuff has been documented."

Of course, Ms. Amanpour has played no small part in that documentation. The daughter of an Iranian father and English mother, she fell into journalism pretty much by accident. Her sister had signed up for a course in London but decided against taking it, so Ms. Amanpour took her place. The future correspondent thought it would be better to learn about the field than waste that money.

It's been a good thing for television watchers that she was so thrifty. She was already a veteran war correspondent at 37 when CNN first sent her to the former Yugoslavia in June 1992, shortly after her coverage of the Gulf war and conflict in Rwanda had brought her to worldwide attention. Two years ago, she was given a Peabody Award, the highest award in broadcast journalism. The citation praised her as "a heroic reporter whose balance and courageous coverage has brought the horror of Bosnia and other world crises to a global public."

But none of her experience prepared Ms. Amanpour for life in Bosnia.

"The impact of this war is that civilians have not been caught in the cross-fire, they have been prime targets," she explains in a pronounced British accent. "The Bosnian Serbs wanted to create a separatist, secessionist, ethnically pure state out of a republic that was ethnically mixed. To do that, they had to push people out of their homes, whether it was by terrorizing them out or burning them out or killing people or whatever it is."

The Discovery Channel series' greatest asset, she believes, is its use of first-person accounts. Almost every major figure -- Serb, Croat, or Muslim -- is interviewed, including Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. For years, the world has been reading about his espousal of a homeland uniting all the Serbs. Many cite him as the most culpable figure in the war.

It's one thing to read about Mr. Milosevic; it's another thing altogether to watch him in action, to hear him being interviewed and coolly attempting to explain how all his decisions were legal and in the best interests of his people.

"Throughout all of our daily reports, we have really for the last 3 1/2 years in Bosnia delivered a daily diary of the events," Ms. Amanpour explains. "This [documentary] gives you for the first time a look, step by step, at the decisions that were made by the people who began the war, continued the war and ultimately are responsible for ending the war.

"For the first time, you hear in the words of the protagonists themselves what happened. It's just riveting, I think."

Ms. Amanpour is cautiously optimistic about the Dayton peace treaty agreed to last month. At the very least, she says, it's making a dramatic difference in the here and now.

"There's really been a complete change," she explains. "People are beginning to move out of the city in a much more free manner than they were able to before. Not everybody, of course; there's a whole four years of attitude that has to be changed, of fear and mistrust that has to be gotten over.

"But electricity is back; gas is back for the most part; people have some heat where they didn't have it last year; they have lights in their homes where they didn't have it last year; they can walk in the streets without fear that it's going to be turned into a graveyard."

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