Like so many others in the besieged Bosnian capital Sarajevo in 1994, Gordana Knezevic remembers spontaneous gatherings, sometimes with a small crowd of 12 or 15 people in a building without electricity, around a small transistor radio tuned in to RFE/RL, listening for news about the fate of their city.
She also remembers a great sense of hope that came with the launch of RFE/RL’s South Slavic Languages Service that year. Twenty years later, as the director of the Balkan Service, as it is now known, she and her small team of journalists in five countries are stewards of that message of hope in a post-war era of chronic unemployment, corruption, deepening ethnic rifts and civil unrest.
Born in Belgrade, Knezevic got her start in journalism reporting on health and community issues for “Oslobodenje” (“Liberation”), a popular daily newspaper printed in Sarajevo. She later got into political reporting, becoming the political editor and then working for four years as the paper’s Middle East correspondent based in Cairo. During her time as a foreign correspondent, she covered the 1989 coup in Sudan and the war in Lebanon.
But no amount of experience or training as a war correspondent abroad could prepare her for the tragedy that would seize her own country with the outbreak of violence in Bosnia in 1992.
“It’s very different to work as a foreign correspondent than to be a local journalist,” said Knezevic. “I had been chasing other peoples’ wars before that, so when the war came to Sarajevo, to my street, I couldn’t bring myself to run away. I couldn’t say that I can’t handle it if it’s too close to home.”
Listen: Balkan Service Director Gordana Knezevic describes the ‘war by other means’ waged in the ethnically-aligned local media of the Balkans today.
The offices of “Oslobodenje” were right on the frontline and were repeatedly bombed, forcing the staff to move operations to an underground shelter, though the paper still had to be printed from the pulverized building that was in the sights of the Bosnian Serb army. Knezevic proudly recalls that they never missed a day of printing, though they thought each print run would be their last.
She and her colleagues at “Oslobodenje” received numerous international journalism awards for their reporting during the war. Knezevic was named “International Editor of the Year” in 1993 by World Press Review and won, along with her editor-in-chief Kemal Kurspahic, the International Women's Media Foundation “Courage in Journalism Award
” in 1992.
“As a journalist, I’ve learned from Gordana not to betray your instincts. Even when everyone around might be telling you you’re wrong,” said Arbana Vidishiqi, the Balkan Service’s Kosovo Bureau Chief. “It’s not stubbornness. It’s a lesson from tough life experience and this is how I understand it.”
Among Knezevic’s most difficult experiences during the war, she recalls having to send two of her children out of the city to the safety of friends abroad on a bus on one of the war’s most violent days. With no international phone connections, she could only be sure they had made it safely by listening to the radio and, ironically, hoping not to hear any news.
Knezevic moved to Toronto after the war, where she was hired in 1996 as an online editor with Reuters News Agency in Canada and contributed to CBC Radio and the Toronto Star.
“I needed some time after the war to deal with whatever was my wartime experience and recover my sense of the importance of news and our profession,” said Knezevic.
In a 1999 op-ed for the Toronto Star
, she expressed support for the NATO bombing of Serbia as a means of ending the war in Kosovo and grappled with a feeling of alienation at being an ethnic Serb herself but unable to identify with Serbian nationalism at home.
Since joining RFE/RL’s Balkan Service in 2008, she says she has seen both progress and stagnation in the Balkans. While Croatia joined the European Union and Serbia and Kosovo reached a historic agreement on normalizing relations in 2013, Knezevic says ethnic divides, especially in Bosnia, are more entrenched now than ever.
This is evidenced by the recent outbreak of violence in Bosnia
in early February, which saw demonstrators in Sarajevo and Tuzla set government buildings alight in an expression of anger over economic stagnation, chronic unemployment and perceived nepotism and corruption in government.
“During the war those who were besieged in Sarajevo -- regardless of if they were Serbs, Muslims, Croats, whatever, they were sharing food, helping each other to survive,” said Knezevic. “It was not something you would feature as a news story because it happened all the time. Nowadays if a Muslim marries a Serb, it makes the news. It’s sad that these relationships between the communities are even worse than before the war.”
Knezevic and her team at the Balkan Service keep faith in the power of responsible, fair, and impartial journalism to bridge these divides.
“Kosovo is a country with a bloody history, but also with a bright future,” said Vidishiqi. “And this is where professional media like RFE/RL can play a crucial role, by offering guidance towards that future.”