25 YEARS AGO…
It was the longest walk I have taken in my life – up three flights of stairs.
Those flights of stairs were in the TV building in Sarajevo and it was just after 9 o’çlock in the morning on June 28th 1995. It was the day on which the Bosnian Serbs launched their latest weapon which was a makeshift rocket that was something akin to a scud missile and had been designed to create maximum destruction – but thankfully gave off little shrapnel.
I had been standing talking in the Reuters TV office when the blast occurred. I and my colleagues were planning the day’s coverage. We were trying to decide who would cover the United Nations’ tedious but often important daily press briefing. It was then as we chatted that we heard a massive thud followed by a tinkle of glass and then a massive blast. The building shook violently.
“Get down! Get down!” I screamed at the top of my voice.
On my command all of us in the office hit the floor. There was Matt and Sanja and Ennis and I. And then there was Sulyo, the WTN cameraman whose job it would be to cover the press conference.
Sulyo had heard what we had heard and felt what we had felt but remained unmoved. He didn’t hit the floor as I had loudly instructed. Instead he had walked calmly out the office as if nothing had happened. The massive angry thud, the blast and the tinkle of splintering glass had done nothing to unsettle him. Neither had the building’s shake. He thought nothing of it and instead of ducking and diving for cover he decided to go investigate.
“Sulyo! Sulyo!” I shrieked again.
I thought he’d bought it. I thought he’d walked out in to the corridor and into flailing sheets of glass that had just moments before been the big, bright picture window on the landing outside. The window was intact and so was he. He strolled back in and calmly picked up his camera that was sitting with the others on the table near the door.
“Fuck, Sulyyo. I thought you were gone!”
I regained my composure and then made a quick call to London. I phoned while lying on the floor beneath one of our desks. I was scared. I was expecting another blast.
“Jules…we’ve been hit. There’ll be injured. I don’t know who’s hurt or how many but there’ll be injured. Please tell AP and WTN. I’m going to see what’s happening. Ill call you later.”
AP and WTN were our competitors and their offices were up three flights of stairs. It sounded like this was where the blast had occurred. I had no desire to go up there but I knew I had to.
As I walked out the door I realized that I was being accompanied by Sulyo. He was already filming. He filmed me walking up the stairs. I moved slowly trying to prolong the delay – trying to prolong coming face to face with friends and colleagues who were injured; friends and colleagues with missing arms and legs; friends and colleagues with blood-drenched torsos and missing heads.
As I arrived, I saw dust like chalk hanging in the air at the mouth of the corridor. Through the dust and the chalk and the powder I saw the rafters and the panels hanging awkwardly from the ceiling. I couldn’t see the office doors through the haze – and for that I was glad. I didn’t want to see what was behind those doors.
As I stood at the entrance to the corridor with the dust and the chalk heavy on the air I saw a figure emerge. She came out on to the landing at the end of the corridor and she approached me as she did so. It was Margaret, the CNN camerawoman. Her dark hair had turned grey from the dust. She was ok. She spoke and I spoke over her.
“I need your car.” I said regaining some composure. I was thinking of the injured and thinking that we needed to get them to hospital. As soon as I said it WTN’s international producer Faridoun appeared.
“Glen, I think I’ve lost my eye,” he said it as if he had lost a button on his shirt.
I put my arm around Faridoun and I prepared to take the stairs back down and out of the building. I wanted to get him out of there and I wanted to get myself out of there too.
And then Rialda appeared. She also had a bloody eye. Her injury looked worse because her face had been powdered white by the dust. Her eye injury stood out more – it looked redder.
I lead Faridoun and Rialda down the stairs at the back of the third-floor landing and out onto the car park in front of the building. I left them there as I ran to get the car. All I could think, as I ran, was ‘This is it. There’s going to be another one. I’m gone.’
“Stay here,” I ordered and ran across the parking lot to our armoured Opel senator. People were rushing in and out. They were stepping through the gaping hole that used to be the building’s glass frontage. Shards of glass littered the entrance. When I looked back I saw Faridoun and Rialda looking all about them with their damaged eyes. They were dazed and confused.
Once in the car I drove over and picked up Feridoun and Rialda. They were still confused. I floored it out of the parking lot and on to Marshall Tito Boulevard – the city’s main thoroughfare into town and the city’s favourite target for Bosnian Serb snipers. The snipers didn’t really worry me but the shells and mortars did. I drove like hell.
Reaching the first downtown intersection near the Presidency building I threw the car around the corner and up past the UN residency compound. It was a straight stretch of road and I hammered it once again. The car screeched around the next bend to the right and then another to the left before we arrived in front of the Kosevo hospital entrance. I skidded to a halt in front of the hospital steps and helped my two injured passengers out of the car and into the waiting arms of white-cloaked orderlies. I saw Volkmaier from APTV. He too had delivered some of the wounded. We said a few words to one another and then rushed back to the TV station.
Back at the TV station there was a lot of damage but no more injured. They had all been ferried to hospital already by other colleagues.
As for the building, the worst hit areas appeared to be the top floor of the three-story TV building – where I had been just one hour before. It was where the international TV channels were based. Those with offices overlooking the bleak, grey open-air atrium in the centre of the structure bore the brunt of the blast. Most of their offices were now littered with shards of glass, splinters of wood and scattered TV cassettes.
Faridoun and Rialda were just two of dozens of journalists that were injured when the 500 pound rocket hit the television building that day. A Bosnian army guard stationed at the front of the building had been killed.
I later learned that the makeshift rocket had been fired from a mobile launcher from Bosnian Serb territory. Whoever had launched the projectile had either been very good or very lucky. He or she had scored a direct hit on our building’s atrium. The rocket had bounced off one of the atrium’s walls – which explained the thud. And then it exploded. By that time, those in the offices overlooking the atrium had come to their windows to see what was going on. It was then that the rocket exploded – which explained the eye and facial injuries that had been caused by flying glass.
As I walked down the three flights of stairs back to our undamaged office on the ground floor, I counted my blessings and prayed for my friends who were now in hospital.
For the first time since I had started covering the war in 1994, I felt vulnerable. The superficial cloak of invincibility had been forcefully torn from my shoulders. Bosnia’s war had moved a little bit closer to home.