May 28, 2000
CORRESPONDENCE / A SLAIN JOURNALIST
Reports From Faraway Places That Brought War Home
By ROGER COHEN
BERLIN -- Journalism it is said, provides a first draft of history. It is a cliché, yet sometimes an unlikely combination of war and a witness illustrates the hallowed truth that lurks behind a hollow phrase. I write this sitting in Berlin, dreaming of Bosnia, and thinking of Kurt Schork, the Reuters correspondent whose dispatches from Sarajevo helped shape the world's view of a war that was as morally indelible to my generation of correspondents as Vietnam was to another.
Mr. Schork, 53, was killed on Wednesday in an ambush in Sierra Leone. A dispatch from his news agency described the scene: the armed men in T-shirts bursting out from behind a bank on a dusty road 50 miles from Freetown, the volley of automatic-rifle fire, a bullet through Mr. Schork's head. Another quick, senseless death of a foreign correspondent: what more is there to say?
But in this case, more must be said. For in nobody else did the conflicts of the first post-cold-war decade find a witness so driven or so able to write the accounts on which history will draw. With vivid declarative sentences this American journalist hammered out the discomfiting truths of a bloody decade. Lucidity of mind and economy of expression combined to penetrating journalistic effect.
I knew him in Sarajevo, a besieged city I covered for two years as a correspondent for The New York Times. Mr. Schork, compact, bespectacled, precise and insatiable, had a passion for truth and a gift for evoking it that made him a Bosnian reference. Wherever the post-modern wars of fractured or disintegrating states broke out -- Afghanistan, Chechnya, northern Iraq, Kosovo and finally Sierra Leone -- he was to be found. I believe he intuited, earlier than anyone, that the pieties of the new world order, postulating a Western triumph and even the end of history, were largely empty. What he saw, in his remorseless way, was that the end of the superpower confrontation had in fact unleashed a new violence, and that the killing would pose an unavoidable challenge to supposedly victorious Western values.
For a deep moral conviction guided this unusual newsman, who came to journalism late after a career that included running Bill Bradley's first Senate campaign. It backed his stubborn belief that his words would ultimately count and perhaps even right wrong. The truth is, he changed things, and with his death an era has passed: that of a gradual awakening to the fact that distant war and genocide could not be ignored by America and its allies.
When Yugoslavia began its protracted disintegration in 1991, precipitating the latest round of Balkan wars, the West's instincts were those of Neville Chamberlain on Czechoslovakia in 1938: these were conflicts "in a faraway country" involving people "of whom we know nothing." Not knowing amounted to the best excuse for not acting, especially when the imperative to do something was accentuated by the daily Serb bombardment of Sarajevo that began in 1992 and by an archipelago of Serbian concentration camps for Bosnian Muslims uncovered that year. Mr. Schork was driven by a desire to ensure that nobody could claim ignorance.
In these days of databank journalism and infotainment as news, he wrote what the great war correspondent Martha Gellhorn famously called "the view from the ground." In so doing, he brought journalists back to the basics: to see, to listen, to remain, to reflect, to report. His copy was so lapidary that the oft-repeated claims of muddle in Western capitals -- the repetitive talk of 1,000-year-old conflicts between indistinguishable Balkan tribes -- became largely preposterous in the gleam of Mr. Schork's clear-eyed observation.
Here, at the beginning of one of his best-known dispatches, so descriptive of the ideological insanity unleashed, is Mr. Schork on the killing of a Serb man and a Muslim woman, both 25, joined by love but hounded by the politics of ethnic hatred: "Two lovers lie dead on the banks of Sarajevo's Miljacka River, locked in a final embrace. For four days they have sprawled near Vrbanja bridge in a wasteland of shell-blasted rubble, downed tree branches and dangling power lines." He continued: "Bosko is face-down on the pavement, right arm bent awkwardly behind him. Admira lies next to her lover, left arm across his back."
For all his fierce competitiveness, Mr. Schork could never hide an overriding humanity, which once impelled him to drop his notebook and rescue Sarajevans as Serbian shells fell on a funeral. It was this combination of professionalism and moral clarity that made him a beacon for many journalists seeking to untangle the wars of recent years. And what could have been more important, for these conflicts have already involved two genocides -- in Rwanda and Bosnia -- and the death of more people in European violence than in the entire 44-year cold-war era?
These facts have only recently moved toward the center of political consciousness, spurring the West's first "humanitarian war" in Kosovo, intensifying its diplomatic quest to quiet the killing fields of Africa. Mr. Schork's work must take a large share of credit. As Hannah Arendt observed of acts of courage that may seem futile in the light of early death: "The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is that perfect and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. Hence nothing can ever be practically useless, at least not in the long run." No other journalist I know did so much in recent years that will resist oblivion.