In 1992, Roy Gutman broke the story of Serbian-run concentration camps where mass executions took place, documenting their place in a campaign of murder, rape, and expulsion designed to eliminate Muslims from most of Bosnia.
I was then a reporter for New York Newsday, and I remember striding across Midtown Manhattan to the newsroom clutching the paper, galvanized by the explosive headline—“The Death Camps of Bosnia.” Gutman, Newsday’s sole European correspondent, had broken away from the press pack covering the siege of Sarajevo to investigate accounts of ethnic cleansing. He had doggedly followed a trail of cattle car deportations to survivors of killing camps like Omarska.
When I arrived in the newsroom in that exalted state, my editors asked if I would go to the former Yugoslavia for a month to help advance the story. “Yes!” I breathed. Surely if we reported out the story, the world would have to intervene.
It turned out that Western governments unwilling to risk casualties had ways of defusing a public outcry. The State Department was “unable to confirm” what it studiously avoided learning. Experts blamed “centuries of incomprehensible blood hatred” for a conflict fomented by neo-fascist propaganda over state-controlled news media. Jewish groups split over the evocation of the Holocaust as a goad to action. Congress failed to hold hearings on whether “ethnic cleansing” met the international definition of genocide, and diplomats announced peace agreements that went quietly unenforced. Genocidal killing would continue for three more years before international intervention.
But the international uproar over Gutman’s work, magnified by TV footage of emaciated Bosnian prisoners, had a powerful effect: the Serbs closed the most notorious camps. His stories summon us to journalism that challenges the public conscience, even when it doesn’t change the world.