By Laura J. Winter
Thursday, March 2, 2006
The Balkans is a fractured region, still mending from years of ethnic and sectarian war and a media saddled by tycoons peddling nationalistic views. Gordana Igric is determined to bring the Balkans together through a truer, independent journalism.
LONDON (WOMENSENEWS)--Gordana Igric was sitting on the floor with her son and daughter inside the Human Rights Watch House in Sarajevo, laughing together, listening to rock'n'roll tunes on the radio. It was spring, 1999, during the Kosovo conflict, and they had just escaped from Belgrade, the Serbian capital that was under bombardment from NATO forces.
The day before, Igric's colleague at Human Rights Watch was arrested. Then, an independent editor she was associated with was shot dead in a Belgrade street. Igric and her children were lucky.
She escaped capture because two Serbian journalists with strong connections to the security forces had sternly warned her that orders for her arrest were imminent. And because her son was 21, old enough to be conscripted into the Serbian Army, she and her family were smuggled, for cash, across the border into Bosnia.
Safe in Sarajevo, they were joyful. But then they heard the disc jockey read out a chilling request over the radio.
"Suddenly we hear, 'We wish that Miss Igric will hear this song. Thank you, Jovan. The song: "I'm So Afraid."' So obviously they were listening in on the flat," Igric said. "They knew what we were talking about. They were actually letting me know that they knew where I was."
"Igric," pronounced EE-gritch, is an unusual family name in Serbia, let alone Bosnia. But to be absolutely sure that the message was intended for her, she called Bosnia's directory assistance service. There was no Igric listed.
Seven years after she fled the Balkans and settled in Britain, Igric, 47, now flies back to the region almost every month to care for what she calls her "baby," the Balkans Investigative Reporting Network. Initially, BIRN was an incarnation of the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, which works with local journalists in conflict areas to distribute their stories to the world media and organizes training programs.
BIRN has blossomed into what can only be termed a regional newswire and has produced a feature-length documentary, "Does Anyone Have a Plan?", about Kosovo's final status. What sets this organization apart is that it is run by a group of women, although not by design, headed by Igric.
"When we employed women they would be efficient. They would be hardworking, enthusiastic, start working as a team, being friends together, always coming up with new ideas," she said. "We had many men employed, but somehow it didn't work. Why it didn't work I do not have a clear explanation except maybe Balkan men are more spoiled, macho culture, not flexible, vain."
With the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Igric wrote articles about the Balkans as well as edited and translated stories written by Balkan journalists. Now independent for four months, BIRN's mission remains much the same, and has a network of some 40 journalists in six countries. The shared vision is to make it possible for the media in these countries to exchange information and regional stories. The hope is that this network can help the Balkans face and tackle together their regional problems, like human trafficking, corruption and the prosecution of war criminals.
"She believes in the whole purpose of cross-borders. She hates localized mindsets," said Jeta Xharra, BIRN's Kosovo director. "She believes the truth is better told than hidden no matter how bitter it is. The truth improves us as people and as society. She is a balancing force to all of those dark forces in the Balkans."
Igric says she grew up not as a Serb, but as a Yugoslav. She started her career as a feature writer for newspapers and magazines in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. When Slobodan Milosevic rose to power in 1989, he gained control of all state-run media and began publishing and broadcasting on TV and radio his message of hate of everything that was not Serbian.
Igric characterizes the turmoil that followed the breakup of her country as a "media-instigated war."
"People didn't get the proper information," she said. "When you have fascism in a country, nothing is for real. It's kind of irrational. You can't talk to people in normal terms. Many people around me became nationalists overnight, including my parents."
She reported on the ethnic cleansing carried out by Serbian forces for a variety of independent Serbian and foreign newspapers and magazines. "I was not pretending, lying about what I was going to do," she said. "I would sit with all of these killers, sometimes interview them and confront them . . . I am a Serb. And based on that fact they thought I would not report on the Serbs' nasty things."
Early on in the war, in 1993, Igric joined the Alternative Information Network, which is based in Forcalquier, France. Using the Internet, she filed stories from Serbian-held Bosnia that were published in Sarajevo, then under siege. Conversely, stories from Sarajevo were published in Serbia. The hope was such an exchange of information would convince people to stop fighting.
"It was the right fight. And I put what I could, all my heart into that," Igric said. "For journalists like me it was a personal, moral, ethical obligation to do it."
In 1997 Igric won an Overseas Press Club award for the CBS News piece "In Plain Sight" that documented how Serbian war criminals, indicted for the systematic rape of women and girls, were living in the open without fear of arrest. It was during that story that Igric met her husband, CBS News producer Randall Joyce.
Joyce said he fell in love with Igric when he asked her to help him find and interview these criminals. He said, "I asked her if she would consider going. And she told me, 'But I think I must go. No?' That was it for me."
When the CBS piece was shown in Sarajevo, Igric started receiving serious death threats in Belgrade. But she ignored them and accepted a Human Rights Watch grant and went to Kosovo to document human rights abuses in 1998. Igric believes Milosevic tolerated the independent media as "democratic decoration," but eventually she was marked as a traitor. She and her children fled in the spring of 1999. With her children safe in London, Igric returned to Serbia to continue reporting the next year, before Milosevic's regime collapsed in October, 2000.
Igric says that what is important to her today are the same journalistic goals she has always cherished: "Professionalism, to prove that we are not just Serbs or Albanians or Bosnians. That we are journalists. And we produce high quality editorial work. That is my aim. I don't want somebody saying, oh, this is by that Serbian journalist. I do not want to be put in that nationalized ghetto."
Laura J. Winter is originally from Sierra Madre, Calif., and has recently moved to London. She writes for the Christian Science Monitor and the New York Daily News and has been filing stories from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan for four years.
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Balkans Investigative Reporting Network:
(Access to site is intermittent.):
"Catching Pilots, Losing your Mind," by Gordana IgricApril 21, 1999:
The Sofia Echo
"Kosovo: Does Anyone Have A Plan?," by Lucy Cooper, February 6, 2006:
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