© 2022 KGOU
KGOU_Header_72dpi-03.jpg
News and Music for Oklahoma
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
World

German Reporter Chronicles Balkan Wars And Reflects On The Breakup Of Yugoslavia

Besieged Sarajevo residents collect firewood in the bitter winter of 1992.
Christian Maréchal
/
Wikimedia Commons
Besieged Sarajevo residents collect firewood in the bitter winter of 1992.

The Yugoslav Wars were characterized by multiple war crimes and crimes against humanity such as acts of genocide and the use of systematic rape as a weapon of war.

“This was my first experience of war,” says Franz Bumeder, who was in Zagreb, Croatia at the start of the Croatian War of Independence in 1991.

But Bumeder was not there as a fighter or a humanitarian worker. He was there as a journalist, sent by a public news channel in Munich to report on the unfolding war.

“I couldn't believe what I saw: only destroyed buildings, wounded, injured people, civilians,” Bumeder says. “And, well, I had to work as a war reporter.”

Bumeder’s job was to make sense of what he was seeing and get that information to the public. He says in order to do this he had to learn the history and reasoning behind the conflicts.

“I think in order to be a good, successful, excellent war reporter you have to educate yourself,” Bumeder says. “Then, this makes it easier to understand what’s happening.”

Although living under one state, the multiple ethnic groups living throughout the six republics of former Yugoslavia were culturally and geographically divided.

Many of the Balkan republics had multiple ethnic groups, generally with one’s population much larger than the others’. But even in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the populations of Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims were more or less equal in size, each was dominant in different areas within the Republic.

“They have been living together for decades, but not really together,” Bumeder says. “Coexisting is probably the best term.”

Fueled by rises in nationalism and political and economic crises, interethnic tensions turned violent in 1991 when Slovenia and Croatia declared independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Over the next eight years, a series of wars broke out and led to the break up of Yugoslavia and the creation of many new countries.

Multiple participants were tried for crimes against humanity and acts of genocide in the first international war crimes tribunal since 1946. The region is still picking up the pieces, and Bumeder says the situation may be improving but that there is still a lot to be done to make sure the former Yugoslavian countries don’t fall back into war.

“We can be hopeful, but [on] the other hand I think it will take years [until the region in secure],” Bumeder says.

Bumeder says assistance from the international community will be key in stabilizing these countries.

“I think development towards future won’t be able [sic] without the presence, the further presence of international troops,” Bumeder says. “[And] Western Europe has to do a lot to support the economy in those [former Yugoslavian] countries.”

Bumeder says it was not easy reporting on these wars and he doesn’t know for sure how effective it was, but he is hopeful.

“My job as a war reporter, like the jobs of many war reporters … I think it’s just to describe what I do see,” Bumeder says. “I describe it day by day and hope to make all this cruelty, this misery, this suffering, to make it public. And I think, in the long run it’s kind of successful.”

--------------------------------------------

KGOU and World Views rely on voluntary contributions from readers and listeners to further its mission of public service with internationally focused reporting for Oklahoma and beyond. To contribute to our efforts, make your donation online, or contact our Membership department.

Interview Highlights

On Arriving In Yugoslavia

My company assigned me to go by a bus on a weekend to Zagreb because we didn't know really what was happening down there with the starting war between the Croatians and the Serbians. So I went, and this was the first weekend [when] at least the outskirts of Zagreb were bombed by the Serbian Air Force. So this was my first experience of war. I have never had experience of war before … [T]he Bosnian War actually began in April 1992, and my first assignment to Bosnia was in the end of July. Well, the U.N. had built up an airbridge to provide the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo with necessities like food, medicine, drinking water. That's important to remember because the Serbian troops had surrounded Sarajevo from all sides. And this town, this actually beautiful town, was shelled from Serbian positions almost 24 hours a day. So in order to get into Sarajevo I had to be on a U.N. plane, one of these humanitarian flights planes. And to land into Sarajevo, well, this was like for me, having never experienced war before I couldn't believe what I saw: only destroyed buildings, wounded, injured people, civilians. And experience all the shelling. All day long it was like ZOOM ZOOM ZOOM. Hour by hour. This was very new for me.

On What Made Kosovo Different

Well first of all, in Kosovo, you had two ethnic units. You had the Albanians, speaking Albanian, and you had the Serbs, speaking Serbian. So two different languages. Second: two different religions. The Albanians, mostly Muslim. The Serbians, Serbian Orthodox. Third: for the Serbians –you know this probably better than I do – for the Serbians, Kosovo was very, very important because Kosovo was the source of Serbian Independence in the 13th century. And for a second reason Kosovo was very important for Serbians: in Kosovo, the Serbians in 1389 [fought] the last battle against the Turks, against the Ottoman Empire. And this was the main reason why the Ottomans, the Turks, couldn’t go farther on to Europe. So the Serbs always perceived themselves as defenders of Europe. And now in Kosovo again, they called them “the Turks”, the Albanians. It's funny. As well in Bosnia. The Serbians in Bosnia call the Bosnian Muslims “Turks” still, 600 years later. And now many Serbians didn't understand why Western Europe had supported the Albanians against the Serbians, the defenders of Europe. You see what I mean? This made the Kosovo conflict very, very special.

On War Reporting

I think in order to be a good, successful, excellent war reporter you have to educate yourself on geography, on history, on economy, on the political as well as economic positions of the war parties. On their beliefs, on the religion, on everything. Then, this makes it easier to understand what's happening. Like take Bosnia: of course you have to know this little former-Yugoslavian state of Bosnia-Herzegovina was populated by Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims. And these, well actually they had been living together decades, but not really together. You have to know that.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Franz Bumeder, welcome to World Views

FRANZ BUMEDER: Hello.

GRILLOT: So, you've spent a lot of time in the Balkans.

BUMEDER: Exactly.

GRILLOT: An area of the world that is very near and dear to my heart. I've spent a lot of time there as well. But you spent time there actually during the conflicts: the Southeast European conflicts, the conflicts that led to the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the creation of many new countries there. So, starting with Croatia in the early 90s, this is where we kind of first started seeing this country falling apart, Yugoslavia falling apart.

BUMEDER: The summer of 1991, exactly.

GRILLOT: So tell us about that. What got you there to cover this conflict? And what was your experience?

BUMEDER: Actually, I was a news editor at a public news channel in Munich in the southern part of Germany. And my company was looking for somebody going to Zagreb just for a weekend because there were strong relations between Croatia and Bavaria because many people from Croatia and the rest of Yugoslavia were working in Germany. So my company assigned me to go by a bus on a weekend to Zagreb because we didn't know really what was happening down there with the starting war between the Croatians and the Serbians. So I went, and this was the first weekend [when] at least the outskirts of Zagreb were bombed by the Serbian Air Force. So this was my first experience of war. I have never had experience of war before. The only person I have seen dying was my grandma, and she died in her sleep. And almost one year later, when the Bosnian War breaks out – for me it's important to call it a war because, Suzette, you said "conflict". For me these were real, cruel, bloody wars with hundreds of thousands of people dead afterwards. So for me it's important to call them “wars”. So anyway, the Bosnian War actually began in April 1992, and my first assignment to Bosnia was in the end of July. Well, the U.N. had built up an airbridge to provide the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo with necessities like food, medicine, drinking water. That's important to remember because the Serbian troops had surrounded Sarajevo from all sides. And this town, this actually beautiful town, was shelled from Serbian positions almost 24 hours a day. So in order to get into Sarajevo I had to be on a U.N. plane, one of these humanitarian flights planes. And to land into Sarajevo, well, this was like for me, having never experienced war before I couldn't believe what I saw: only destroyed buildings, wounded, injured people, civilians. And experience all the shelling. All day long it was like ZOOM ZOOM ZOOM. Hour by hour. This was very new for me. And, well, I had to work as a war reporter. This was my assignment.

GRILLOT: So, I cannot imagine what that must be like. And I visited Sarajevo years later and saw the destruction that remained.

BUMEDER: Even years later, yeah you could see the destruction.

GRILLOT:  But the fact that you were there as that was happening, and yet trying to report that to the rest of the world. So here you are dealing with your adjustment to such a horrible situation, and yet trying to tell that story and get that news back home and to others. How hard is that? And then how effective is that? I mean, the sense that we know, we reflect, that not many people then responded to the war in Bosnia.

BUMEDER: I can tell you it's very hard. I cannot tell you how effective is it. It's very hard because you really see people dying. You see little kids, you see old people, really innocent people who don't have to do anything with this war. You see them dying on the streets of a town like Sarajevo, or Goražde, Srebrenica, or wherever. Is it effective? Well, I don't know. I mean, my job as a war reporter, like the jobs of many war reporters, is actually, for me I think it's just to describe what I do see. What I see in the field, what I see day by day. I describe it, day by day, and hope to make all this cruelty, this misery, this suffering, to make it public. And I think, in the long run, it's kind of successful. Because a couple of years later, when the conflict of the War in Kosovo began, the German public was kind of ready for the German Army joining the allied forces invading Kosovo. And maybe this was one of the results of reporting the Bosnian War with all its cruelties.

GRILLOT: I like how you talk about how your job is to describe it.

BUMEDER: Exactly.

GRILLOT: But your descriptions are meant, I would assume, to help us understand what's going on there.

BUMEDER: Of course, of course.

GRILLOT: And yet, isn't it so hard to understand what's going on there? As you said it's a horrible environment. So were you able to get some sense? Because I think, even almost 20 years later, in this case a little over 20 years later and some of the other wars that came later, we still struggle to really understand what happened in this case.

BUMEDER: I think in order to be a good, successful, excellent war reporter you have to educate yourself on geography, on history, on economy, on the political as well as economic positions of the war parties. On their beliefs, on the religion, on everything. Then, this makes it easier to understand what's happening. Like take Bosnia: of course you have to know this little former-Yugoslavian state of Bosnia-Herzegovina was populated by Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims. And these, well actually they had been living together for decades, but not really together. You have to know that. These three nations, let me say nations, were kind of separated.

GRILLOT: They were coexisting, but they weren't necessarily integrating

BUMEDER: Exactly, exactly. Coexisting is probably the best term, yes. Coexisting. And as soon as Yugoslavia broke apart, I think there was no way, well, to live in a way they had been used to living for decades. So, and next point – you know it probably much better than I do – the Serbian side, they had weapons, they had equipment. They got everything from the former Yugoslavian People's Army. The Bosnian side, Muslims, at the beginning of the war they didn't have anything. So, first you describe what you see in the streets of Sarajevo, then you get this information you just talked about to your public, to your audience. And that's, I guess, that's the task of a war reporter.

GRILLOT: So you went from this conflict to multiple other conflicts in the region.

BUMEDER: Exactly, yes.

GRILLOT: And ultimately then ended up in one of the latter conflicts: the Kosovo War. Can you characterize for us how that conflict is different from the one that you saw several years before in Croatia and Bosnia? And in particular how this Kosovo situation still remains a very tricky situation today in terms of the relationships in the region?

BUMEDER: Well first of all, in Kosovo, you had two ethnic units. You had the Albanians, speaking Albanian, and you had the Serbs, speaking Serbian. So two different languages. Second: two different religions. The Albanians, mostly Muslim. The Serbians, Serbian Orthodox. Third: for the Serbians –you know this probably better than I do – for the Serbians, Kosovo was very, very important because Kosovo was the source of Serbian Independence in the 13th century. And for a second reason Kosovo was very important for Serbians: in Kosovo, the Serbians in 1389 [fought] the last battle against the Turks, against the Ottoman Empire. And this was the main reason why the Ottomans, the Turks, couldn’t go farther on to Europe. So the Serbs always perceived themselves as defenders of Europe. And now in Kosovo again, they called them “the Turks”, the Albanians. It's funny. As well in Bosnia. The Serbians in Bosnia call the Bosnian Muslims “Turks” still, 600 years later. And now many Serbians didn't understand why Western Europe had supported the Albanians against the Serbians, the defenders of Europe. You see what I mean? This made the Kosovo conflict very, very special. On the other hand, you had somebody like Slobodan Miloševi? in Belgrade, the Serbian President. And he tried to keep Kosovo as part of Serbia. By violence, by everything. And I mean, the beginning of the Kosovo Conflict has almost several hundred thousands of people [that] have been driven out from their homes, became refugees, went to Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania. And I think the West – Western Europe or the United States – couldn't tolerate this any longer. And, compared to Bosnia where it took more than three years before the international troops intervened, in Kosovo this happened very, very fast, actually at the very beginning, in March 1999.

GRILLOT: You mentioned the refugee issue. And I know, having spent some time in the area, this is still an ongoing problem in terms of the right of return to one's land.

BUMEDER: Sure, sure.

GRILLOT: And that there are still refugee camps that are established in, as you mentioned, Albania and Macedonia and Montenegro and elsewhere. I know you've spent some time in Albania exploring this refugee issue. And that's a tricky one, too. Because even though you referred to the Albanians in Kosovo as “Albanians”, and they speak Albanian, they don't necessarily have the easiest relationships with Albania, either.

BUMEDER: Not really, no.

GRILLOT: And I think that's really perplexing in some ways. And it's hard to understand why that's the case.

BUMEDER: Well, in fact, the Albanians in Kosovo always perceived themselves as somewhat “better people". They kind of treated the Albanians in Albania really arrogantly. Because they said: "Well, we are Yugoslavian citizens." And Albania, let's say 20 years ago, this was kind of an underdeveloped country. It's not today. It has improved.

GRILLOT: Albania has actually progressed much more rapidly and significantly than Kosovo has now, today.

BUMEDER: Sure, sure. Definitely.

GRILLOT: Of course with external support, right? From the rest of Europe.

BUMEDER: Yeah. Look at the unemployment rate. The unemployment rate in Kosovo is much higher than it is in Albania. The economy is much, much faster-growing in Albania than it is in Kosovo. Sure.

GRILLOT: Well, we can't talk about Yugoslavia, or the former Yugoslavia, without referring, I think, to the war crimes tribunal.

BUMEDER: Definitely, yes.

GRILLOT: And the reparations and the attempt to hold people accountable. I mean, you mentioned Slobodan Miloševi? of course, and Ratko Mladi? now being on trial. Of course Miloševi? died in jail So, is this the way to go? Is this helpful? Is this helping this region heal? I mean –

BUMEDER: I think yes, it is. I think yes, it is. We can be hopeful, but in the other hand, I think it will take years. And sometimes, I think, development towards the future won't be able without the presence, the further presence, of international troops in Kosovo, as well as still some troops in Bosnia. But at least in Kosovo it will be, I guess, very important for the upcoming years. Second: I am hopeful if there's really something like, well, growing economy. If you take for example the Republic of Srpska in Bosnia, the latest figures I got was more than 50 percent unemployment rate. So, imagine young people – 17-, 18-, 19-year-old people – who don't have a job, who don't earn money, who don't make any income, are not able fund families. I think this is kind of potentially very, very dangerous for further war. So the most important, in my eyes, is that actually, I think, Western Europe has to do a lot to the support economy in those countries. Albania it might be a little better. Especially Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina to make the economy grow.

GRILLOT: Well they've come a long way, clearly, but there's still a long way to go. Thank you so much, Franz, for being here today. I appreciate it.

BUMEDER: Thank you.

Copyright © 2015 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

More News
Support nonprofit, public service journalism you trust. Give now.