Even the best reports don't compare to seeing it for yourself.
After a short hiatus on NCEW foreign trips, this spring's venture to Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina got the tradition off to a resounding restart.
We saw fascinating but often sorrowful sights. We noted heartening signs of postwar rebirth. We encountered a couple of transportation snags and a little discomfort, but also enjoyed some wonderful meals and hospitality.
Mostly, we acquired a heap of fresh insights and impressions.
That's how it goes on these hard-working trips, the furthest thing from junkets. We don't come back with all the answers, but we do retain sights and sounds and smells that inform our writing.
The first week of May 10 of us set out for Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina: Frank Michel of the Houston Chronicle; Bob Mott of McClatchey Newspapers; Ed Jones of The Free Lance-Star in Fredricksburg, Va.; Joe Stroud of the Detroit Free Press; Jesse James and Lee Cullum of the Dallas Morning News; Vern Kaspar of Kaspar Broadcasting; Dick Foster of the Journal Sentinel in Milwaukee; John Zakarian of The Hartford Courant, and me. Unfortunately, Lee could stay with us only through the Croatian portion of the trip.
Our stop in Croatia was mainly to prepare for entry into Bosnia. We had to acquire credentials there from the Peace Implementation Force, which has effectively squelched the fighting in Bosnia since last December.
While in Zagreb we also managed to meet with a few major players of the international conflict-resolution team for the Balkans, including the lead prosecutor in the first major Bosnian war crimes trial at the Hague. We also discovered a couple of first-rate restaurants - the Kornat and the Croatian Writers Club - savoring seafood from the Dalmatian coast and wine from Slovenia.
One other thing we discovered in Zagreb was that the flight we had booked to Sarajevo and back was a figment of Air Croatia's imagination. With some hasty scrambling, we managed to secure overland transport instead.
That proved to be a hard ride, 10 1/2 hours from Zagreb to Sarajevo, the longer part of it over pot-holed (maybe shell-holed) Bosnian roads. There we encountered the greatest danger of the trip.
Bear in mind hardly any service stations are to be found in the land, so rest stops have to be taken at the side of the road. We had been advised that land mines had been removed along the main Bosnian highways, but we could safely assume only that they had been cleared a yard away from the pavement on either side. That's as close to living on the edge as any of us got.
Sarajevo was a profoundly moving experience. Our entry into the Bosnian capital took us by the battered Olympic stadium of the 1984 games and the cemetery that developed next to it during the siege of the last 3 1/2 years.
Drawing nearer to the center of the city, we saw signs of Serb shelling everywhere: ruined twin towers that housed Bosnia's parliament, a flattened newspaper plant, an open-air postal station. Hardly a building in the city didn't show some mark of the ordeal - broken windows by the thousands, facades pockmarked by fragmented shells and bullet holes, and so on.
What surprised us was how quickly the Sarajevans adjusted to peace. Oh, the work of reconstruction was under way, all right, but so was the enjoyment of simple pleasures like taking an evening stroll with the family or drinking a thimbleful of coffee or an aperitif at a sidewalk cafe. None of that was possible during the siege, not with Bosnian Serb snipers eager to pick off the unwary.
Later we stayed in Tuzla, a city largely spared Serb bombardment except for the past year, when a Serb artillery shell snuffed the lives of 71 of its young men and women. We visited Bjeljina, a town cleansed of its non-Serbs, and Brcko, whose outskirts appeared to be the scene of some of the most savage fighting of the war.
Through it all, the NCEW troupe received excellent cooperation from and access to American civilian and military personnel, from the highest level on down. The fact we left Bosnia loaded down with full notebooks and briefing material is a testament to their help.
We also managed meetings with Bosnian officials, high and low, plus a Russian general commanding a precedent-setting 1,200-member brigade helping American forces to police their sector.
I can't speak for everyone in our entourage, but I think saying most everyone came away with a profound appreciation for the rightness of the rescue mission - but also for the obstacles that stand in the way of a peaceful resolution - is fair. No one in our group, I think, believes the job can be done by December 20, supposedly the date for the Peace Implementation Force's exit.
Our troupe included mostly seasoned NCEW travelers, and over dinner we would occasionally compare notes about past trips that had marked our memories indelibly.
One recalled the vast cemetery outside St. Petersburg with too many dead from the siege of Leningrad to count, let alone name. The jaw-dropping splendor of Machu Picchu in the high Andes. The eerie stillness of the killing-fields memorial outside Phnom Penh. The squalor and the palpable rage of Gaza. An exhilarating flight over Victoria Falls and the happy surprise of finding elephants bathing in the waters below.
Similarly vivid remembrances will come from this year's trip. The hush that came over our van as we entered gravely wounded Sarajevo. The grief of a mother and father decorating a young woman's grave in Tuzla. The pluck of a Muslim who fought three years to save his neighborhood just outside of Sarajevo, and who this summer is weather-proofing his shell-punctured house for the hard winter ahead.
As good as CNN's Christiane Amanpour does her job, her reports from Sarajevo can't possibly stick in my mind like what I've seen with my own eyes, up close and in context.
What's your favorite NCEW trip memory?
Interviewing Yasser Arafat one late night in a bombed section of Beirut.
- HARRY E. FULLER JR.
Brian Dickinson leading a busload of NCEW editors in My Country, 'tis of Thee on way home from some event past KGB hq in Moscow during the 1983 trip.
- PAUL GREENBERG
Walking through the rubble of Beirut to meet with Yasser Arafat. . . Thanksgiving Day dinner in Managua, Nicaragua . . . the ferry boat ride from Tallinn to Helsinki . . . talking until the wee hours at an outdoor restaurant in Havana.
- DON GALE
Meeting with Ambassador Shirley Temple Black in Prague in 1991, and with Jaruzelski in Warsaw.
- ROBERT S. HOROWITZ
1980 People's Republic of China 1981 Middle East 1982 Eastern Europe 1983 Soviet Union 1984 Mexico, Central America, Cuba 1986 South Africa 1987 China, Hong Kong, Taiwan 1988 Argentina, Chile, Peru 1989 Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia 1990 Eastern Europe, USSR 1992 Middle East South Africa 1993 Mexico, Cuba 1994 China, Hong Kong 1996 Bosnia
NCEW member and former president Joe Geshwiler is an editorial writer for The Atlanta Constitution.