David Rohde is National Security Investigations Editor for Thomson Reuters in New York. Back in 1995 he was reporting as The Christian Science Monitor’s Eastern European Correspondent. In the summer of that year he brought the genocide in Srebrenica to the attention of the outside world. For his reporting David was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 1996.
What drove you to investigate a story that would put you in danger?
The initial news stories from reporters in Tuzla who interviewed Srebrenica survivors as they emerged from the woods in late July 1995 made me suspect large numbers of killings had occurred. The release by the United States of aerial photographs at the United Nations in August 1995 showing suspected mass graves around Srebrenica made me even more concerned. This is the story I read that prompted me to go to the area around Srebrenica and look for graves when I was in the area.
What were your thoughts and feelings when you realised that you had stumbled on mass graves?
I was shocked when I found the femur sticking out of the mass grave in Nova Kasaba. As I said above, I suspected killings but wasn’t sure whether they had actually happened. Findings the mass graves in Nova Kasaba convinced me that the survivors from Srebrenica were telling the truth. It motivated me to spend the next several months investigating what happened in Srebrenica. I was lucky that my Christian Science Monitor editors, Clayton Jones and Faye Bowers, gave me the time to focus on investigating the killings around Srebrenica. Investigating what happened took a great deal of time during a period when my editors could have told me to focus on daily news in Bosnia. Clay and Faye also showed great trust me in and my reporting by publishing this piece:
Was it hard to stay objective and professional when you were talking to survivors?
The seriousness of what the survivors were alleging – the mass executions of thousands of men and boys – made me want to be particularly careful about being objective, fair and skeptical. I found the survivors from the executions around Srebrenica to generally be credible. As I said in the story above, nine different men gave me detailed and credible accounts of surviving mass killings. I discounted the accounts of two men who I did not find credible. The men I found to be credible told extremely detailed accounts of events that matched what I later found on the ground. (See this story: http://www.csmonitor.com/1995/1116/16012.html). Many of the survivors had lost relatives friends in the killings and seemed to feel they had a duty to honestly describe what happened. A key element of my reporting was the professionalism and integrity of the translator I worked with at the time. As she translated the interviews with survivors who had made it to Tuzla, I relied on her to be honest with me about whether she found the survivors credible. I worked with her for several months and found her to be completely honest. When she did not believe someone, she told me.
Did you blame the UN for what happened or were they put in an impossible situation?
The United Nations simply reflects the will of its members, particularly the nations on the Security Council. Individual UN leaders in the former Yugoslavia made enormous mistakes in Srebrenica, particularly French general Bernard Janvier, Japanese diplomat Yasushi Akashi and Dutch Col. Thom Karremans. But the largest responsibility for the UN’s failure in Srebrenica lies with the UN member states that created a peacekeeping mission in Srebrenica that had too few troops, confusing rules of engagement and too little military support from NATO.
How did investigating the story change your life? Does it still impact on you now?
It changed my sense of what was possible. Before reporting this story, I didn’t think such widespread killings would happen again in Europe after World War II.
Do you think that anything like the event that you reported on could happen again?
Yes, definitely. Political extremism, nationalism and conspiracy theories appear to be spreading around the world. I worry it could lead to violence.
Why do you think it is important for young people to learn about the events that you reported on?
I believe that history repeats itself. Each generation can repeat the mistakes of its predecessors. That is why I find it so impressive that you are interested in this as students. I’m touched, moved and inspired by your interest in Srebrenica. Thank you for taking the time to contact me and for waiting so patiently for these answers. Please let me know if you have any follow-up questions.