By Jennifer Friedlin
Monday, December 3, 2001
For a Bosnian war correspondent, now editor, getting to the bottom of the war means telling the unpalatable truths about what went on and how those in power abuse trust. She gets no bouquets from Sarajevo officials, but she does get death threats.
SARAJEVO, Bosnia (WOMENSENEWS)--During the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Vildana Selimbegovic did whatever was necessary to give her readers in besieged Sarajevo a clear picture of the ethnic conflict tearing the country apart. Once, she donned men's clothing and pretended to be mute in order to sneak into a camp of extremist mujahideen or self-described holy warriors who were infamous for making films of decapitated Serbs. Many other times, she dodged Serb sharpshooters' bullets to interview rape victims and refugees.
Now, having risen from war reporter to editor-in-chief of Dani (Days), a Sarajevo-based weekly magazine, Selimbegovic finds herself on the front lines of a new war: a battle to disclose the questionable wartime activities of the politicians and soldiers who were charged with defending the capital.
"Publishing the truth is the only way to re-establish and achieve democracy for everybody," says Selimbegovic, 38, interviewed in Dani's modest offices in downtown Sarajevo. The city, once a cosmopolitan, multiethnic melting pot of Muslims, Serbs and Croats, was transformed into a city that is almost entirely Bosniak, as the Muslim population is known.
Selimbegovic's efforts to tell it like it is may not seem remarkable to anyone who thinks a newspaper's main responsibility lies in reporting the truth, no matter whom the story might hurt. But her commitment to ethnically neutral reporting has special significance in postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Here, news outlets are often tied to political parties, and they tend to cater to their readers, who generally belong to one or another ethnic group. With the country's Croats, Serbs and Muslims still bitterly divided, geographically, psychologically and politically, reporting about the atrocities committed by one's own group remains the exception, not the rule. Attempts at truth telling often result in attacks ranging from death threats and accusations of being a spy to deadly physical assaults.
"There is a joke about her among the Bosniak generals that she passed through more battle lines than all the generals in the army combined," said Senad Pecanin, Dani's publisher.
"Today, she is still dealing with tough subjects. It's very easy in Sarajevo to write about war crimes committed by Serbs and Croats, but it's very difficult to write about the war crimes committed by the Muslims and the Bosniak army," he added.
While Serbs are generally considered the aggressors in the Bosnian conflict, Croats and Muslims also have been accused of operating prison camps and committing war crimes. Former Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic has been suspected by some of turning a blind eye while his Muslim soldiers allegedly committed war crimes in retaliation against Serb attacks.
Conservatively dressed and formal in manner, Selimbegovic does not fit the image of the gonzo journalist. But, she says, she does not do her job for thrills.
"This is about not having your principles walked over," she says, sweeping her hair away from her face. "And I don't intend to give up."
Born to a Serb mother and a Muslim father in Travnik, a central Bosnian town about 50 miles from Sarajevo, Selimbegovic knew from a young age that she wanted to be a reporter. After studying political science and journalism at the University of Sarajevo, she took her first reporting job and never looked back.
Selimbegovic quickly established herself as a gutsy journalist, but it was during the war that she became known as a fearless newshound who would only report stories she witnessed firsthand.
"Vildana has taught me how to go the extra mile," said Irham Ceco, a reporter on Selimbegovic's staff of 30.
Since the end of the fighting, Selimbegovic has worked to try to find out who was responsible for the bloody conflict that took 200,000 lives and displaced more than half of the country's 4.2 million citizens. Many refugees have yet to return to their prewar homes.
For Selimbegovic, who believes in the idea of a unified Bosnia-Herzegovina for all its citizens, getting to the bottom of the war has resulted in articles that have disclosed corruption at the highest levels.
A few years ago, she and a colleague disclosed court documents about a Muslim band of fighters that had brutally killed Serbs during the war and asserted that high-level military, police and government officials knew about the crimes.
Following that article, a bomb was detonated outside of Dani's offices. Selimbegovic and the rest of Dani's staff had just gone home for the evening.
Most recently, Selimbegovic has been busy exposing the activities of a Muslim youth organization and its connections to the death of a government official. She has received threatening phone calls.
Selimbegovic says she is not afraid of the scare tactics, attributing her bravery to the war itself.
"Anyone who was here during the war really isn't afraid of anything else," Selimbegovic says matter-of-factly as she lights up her fourth cigarette of the hour.
Ironically, it was the death of her husband, killed in a battle to liberate Sarajevo, that further strengthened her resolve.
"Given that I lost my husband during the war and that I was here and witnessed everything that happened, I want to see everybody who was responsible for the suffering and the loss brought to justice," says Selimbegovic.
A single mother of a 13-year-old son, Selimbegovic works tirelessly for Dani. She puts in long hours, seven days a week, doing everything from writing and editing to running the printing press and managing the office. The magazine officially has 22,000 readers, but Selimbegovic says that each copy passes through 6 to 10 pairs of hands.
"There is no other person at the magazine who has devoted as much time to Dani as Vildana--she is a real workaholic, almost a fanatic," said her colleague Senad Pecanin.
Her commitment to the newsroom has had its rewards. In 1999, Selimbegovic was named the country's best female journalist in a readers' poll conducted by a local women's magazine. That year, the European Union and the United States also recognized her for her contribution to promoting democracy in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
But one of the things that Selimbegovic is most proud of is the fact that the local government has yet to shower praise on her or her magazine.
"This is how we know we are doing a good job," Selimbegovic says with a smile.
Jennifer Friedlin is a free-lance journalist currently based in Bosnia. She has also reported from Jerusalem and New York City.
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