The Common Good
September-October 1995

The Daily Grind

by Elizabeth Holler Hunter | September-October 1995

A war, a newspaper, and heroes.

To read Tom Gjelten's Sarajevo Daily requires discipline. In fact, at many points it is a grind. But it is an honest book through which Gjelten shares the daily experiences and struggles of a handful of journalists who have faithfully published Oslobodjenje, the Sarajevo newspaper, every day of the war without interruption.

The book provides significant and important insight into what is going on in Bosnia. Through the individuals and their collective struggle to keep a multiethnic enterprise alive, Gjelten brings into focus this enigmatic conflict. The newspaper, a democratic fledgling after 50 years as an organ of the Communist state, is a powerful vehicle through which the deeper realities of Sarajevo and the Bosnian conflict are revealed.

It is the journalists' process of publishing that teaches us about the war. They discern what to print, knowing that lives are at stake no matter what they choose. They work the black market and the favor of United Nations troops in order to maintain basic supplies. They struggle with personal depression, family collapse, and intense pressure to give up, protect self, and separate from their neighbors forever. They contemplate life in a modern city that is being bombed into oblivion, knowing that the international will to save them does not exist. Through their thoughts and experiences, the reader learns about the politics that pervade every aspect of their lives and gains insight into the forces that drive and sustain the war.

Sarajevo Daily is not flashy and is often painful reading. It is a story about real people who are trying to stay alive, remain human, and hold onto the conviction that diverse people can live together in peace and that such an arrangement can be life-giving. Theirs is a challenging quest under the best circumstances.

IN PART, Sarajevo Daily is a story of creeping desperation. It came for newspaper editor Fahro Memic when, just after he had handed a copy of the paper and a loaf of bread to his wife, Zeljka, she was killed before his very eyes by a shell that landed in front of their apartment building. It came for Serb journalists Gordana and Ivo Knezevic when their longtime Serb neighbors disappeared from their apartment, taking nothing with them, and were replaced several weeks later by a Muslim family. For the multiethnic editorial staff of the paper, it came as conflict intensified and dialogue all but ceased when questions about how to cover certain events became nearly insurmountable. Like water, hope is an exhaustible re-source in a city under siege.

Gjelten's book is also a story of will and of courage, where there is no camera to capture the moment or music to set the tone. In Sarajevo, courage is smelly. Will is fierce and has sharp edges. It is Kemal Kurspahic driving through the city at 90 mph to deliver newspapers. There are no stoplights or traffic police, only shells and snipers who "finish off" victims unfortunate enough to crash and remain alive. It is journalist Vedo Spahovic venturing out onto the streets even after having been abducted by the Muslim Tenth Mountain Brigade and forced to dig trenches, day and night, only 50 meters from Serb front-line positions. It is the Oslobodjenje staff continuing to work in the basement of their office building while the stories above were shelled and eventually engulfed in flames.

In Sarajevo Daily, Gjelten allows the Serb, the Muslim, and the Croat an opportunity to speak. In so doing, he gives the reader a sense of each unique perspective which together flesh out the whole. Throughout, he does not presume to have the answers, which is both refreshing and helpful. This is a book about Bosnia and it is a book about all of us.

Sarajevo Daily may not change your life, but it will help you understand the Bosnian war and the rigors of maintaining a "free" press, humanity, and hope in its midst.

ELIZABETH HOLLER HUNTER, former development director at Sojourners, is now a development consultant in Asheville, North Carolina. She was part of a delegation of religious leaders who visited Croatia in December 1992 (see "Grief Upon the Earth," April 1993).

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