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REMEMBERING BOSNIA: An Interview with Foreign Correspondent Maggie O’Kane, by Robin Ashenden

January 4, 2016

Maggie O'Kane, Guardian staff byline

Former War Correspondent Maggie O’Kane

Anyone of news-viewing age in the early 90s will find it difficult to recall the Bosnian War without remembering Maggie O’Kane. This Northern Irish war-correspondent was part of the landscape of the time, whether writing a regular column on the war in the Guardian or making television documentaries about the same. Young, elfin, urgent and always slightly rock n’roll, she seemed to go further than other journalists in the war, getting almost fetlock deep in the horror and chaos of it all, going off for days in pursuit of a story, and getting herself into hot water again and again. As a reporter she divided audiences – those who admired her doing so for her unflinching emotional involvement, her willingness to speak the truth to power, and a stirring ability to empathise with the victims of war. Her detractors meanwhile decried a lack of distance and a willingness to make judgements that – as they saw it – came dangerously close at times to moral grandstanding. But whatever camp you were in (and many of us had a foot in both) it was almost impossible not to be provoked or slightly mesmerised.

One particular moment that will have lodged in the mind of anyone who saw it was her encounter with Serbian warlord Vojislav Šešelj. Exasperated by his ‘sneering dismissal of the accusations that [she] had heard personally from women who had been raped and assaulted by his men,’ O’Kane lost her temper, telling him he had not fought a clean fight, listing the atrocities his men had committed and declaring, finally, that it turned her stomach to be talking to him. There was, I remember, tut-tutting at the time from other people I was watching the documentary with: there she was, getting all emotional again, getting involved. Yet, increasingly, over time, O’Kane’s reaction seems like a more human – and evocative – one than the balanced objectivity that other reporters, with their own convincing justifications, prized. She reacted as we all might sat down in a room with a smirking mass-killer of women and children, and the momentary loss of self-control arguably brought home to us (as war reporting should) the height at which passions were running. Besides, it was a moment of vivid television, one that lodged in the mind as a marker of the period, one of those instances where someone stepped out of the box, and it all got messy and real – which is, one might argue, also a function of the war-reporter, and one that sanitising TV guidelines too often deny them.

I am here this morning to interview Maggie O’Kane at the Guardian, the newspaper she was so closely associated with throughout those years and that she’s stuck with, having moved on from war reporting to work as multimedia editor on investigations – currently running a highly effective global campaign against Female Genital Mutilation. We start by speaking about what gave her particular insight into the Balkan Wars, tracing it back to her childhood in Belfast.

‘I came from a community where people didn’t live together, where Protestants didn’t live with Catholics, whereas Yugoslavia was a place where they all had lived together, where they all were Tito’s children, so to get to the stage and to provoke the division that he managed to do was an astounding and chilling feat, and I saw it with those eyes because I already came from a divided community….’ With the notion that the war was inevitable and built on ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’, an idea commonly peddled both by the Bosnian-Serbs and the media at the time, she will have no truck. The words, she says, ‘infuriate’ her: ‘I think we’ve all got ancient ethnic divisions, like being a Catholic in Northern Ireland. I understand those divisions. But to use those divisions, to use them repeatedly, the way that they were used by Milosevic…was profoundly evil.’

One way of her getting across the horror, I suggest, was by telling personal stories: her work was not dry instant history or a listing of atrocities but would just as likely tell you about the clothes someone was wearing, what an ethnically cleansed person was carrying in their bag, what music was playing in the background. She puts some of this down to her training, having worked as reporter for a while under the editorship of Colm Toibin, who went on to become an award-winning novelist: ‘He encouraged that kind of character development….he was saying that in order to attract attention, we have to create empathy, and we have to use the techniques of a novelist…. empathy is created through the detail.’ When I ask her for key moments when journalism made a difference, she picks as one of them the photograph the Guardian printed after Srebrenica, of a woman hanged on a tree in Tuzla. ‘And it was a very disturbing photograph, because she was dressed in what looked like a Marks and Spencer twin piece….it touched very close to home because she looked like one of us hanging from a tree in the kind of clothes that we wore. She wasn’t a kind of alien Bosnian figure in a headscarf.’

We’ve established that being a Northern Irish Catholic helped O’Kane understand the conflict in Bosnia, but she’s also spoken about how being a woman helped her to report it. ‘I think it’s about threat and because I was working as a freelancer initially… I travelled very much as a woman, on public transport.’ Nothing could have been further, she says, from the groups of journalists who had to pass through checkpoints in cars packed with camera equipment. ‘I think it enabled me to play a very low profile, …to move around without appearing to be a threat to the combatants.’ In retrospect, she says, she was very naive: ‘…if I’d known what was happening in those places, I wouldn’t have been able to operate the way I did, because I think the threat of being raped or killed was much higher than I realised… I call it my sort of Pollyanna days, in which I was skipping around on buses from Belgrade into Bosnia, Bosnian-Serb areas, on the bus and alone.’

In a previous interview, she spoke of how much the war-reporter’s job had changed since, remarking that as a journalist back then, ‘You could disappear, and nobody really worried too much.’ And disappear she did, for four days at one point, completely out of contact, following a story down to the Visegrad Valley where, on the famous bridge immortalised by Ivo Andric’s novel The Bridge Across the Drina, there had been nightly executions and, away from it, worse: ‘There was a story about all these people being [burnt] in a garage, and their faces had melted off and their ears…To actually be able to go and identify that house, and to find people from this house and interview them was… such an amazing kind of journalistic journey. And not to have to tweet. Not to have to get any texts from the office. Not to have to call the office. But at that time I have to say I was probably freelancing, so there was no office to call!’

Also, back in Bosnia the notion of journalists as targets – now a commonplace – was still almost unheard of. ‘I remember this journalist being killed in Bosnia… And I remember thinking at the time, “Oh my God, somebody’s killed a journalist.” Journalists were still seen as people that you didn’t kill.’ Partly to blame for the change, she says, is press testimony at the Hague War Crimes Tribunal: ‘Now if I went into Foca with the blood still wet on the bridge, over the Drina, they would have said, “Well, we need to get rid of her, for a start.”

O’Kane was sometimes criticised during the Balkan Wars for being too anti-Serb, and for too visibly ‘taking sides’. It’s a charge she seems used to, but one she refutes, along with the notion that she was on a ‘crusade’. ‘You just report, and the report sometimes exposes that objectivity is… Truth is not objective.’ She recalls one BBC journalist broadcasting on the Bosnian-Serb rape camps, who said, in a debatable pursuit of balance, that the Serbs had claimed similar atrocities coming from the Bosnian Muslims. ‘And I thought, “Don’t just fucking say that! Cause that implies a parity of guilt that you haven’t bothered to investigate, and that I know doesn’t exist.’”

Parity of guilt – the idea that both sides were as bad as each other and should therefore just be left to slug it out – was a major bone of contention at the time, and one O’Kane and others are still keen to dismiss. ‘I understood at times,’ says O’Kane, ‘that people working for other organisations were afraid to appear to be biased, and the problem is that the truth is biased. Sometimes there are perpetrators and there are victims.’ They couldn’t, she said, simply report that Bosnian Muslims too were raping women en masse in Sarajevo, just because Bosnian-Serb president Karadzic – a fabled liar – said it was so. ’We needed to actually go and find out who was running these rape camps, which I think was one of the best pieces of work I did, …in Tuzla, …taking all of the eye-witness accounts, separating them into bunches, and saying “Who reported being raped? Who reported somebody else who had been raped?” And coming up with, like, seventeen different locations that had all these different sources that said rape was taking place…. So the reality comes out and the only people that are running the rape camps are the Bosnian Serbs. Sorry, that’s not me on a crusade, that’s the reality of the really hard work of journalistic reporting which was five days of going through those testimonies in Tuzla.’

O’Kane once memorably remarked, ‘I feel my sense of luck and joy comes from seeing so many lives being completely wrecked,’ citing, as an example, the case of a woman whose child was shot while sheltering between her legs in a pizza parlour.  ‘I just think that when you meet people who suffer like that, and have their children killed in front of them, then it puts what [happens] to you into sort of perspective.’ Did she, I wonder, suffer from the dislocation many who served or reported in Bosnia spoke of on returning, having to listen to the trivialities people get exercised about here? She partly agrees: ‘I still feel that – when I hear for example about the holidaymakers…stranded in Egypt because the planes can’t take off for four days, and the… stories of horror about what their suffering – well, at least in the end they’re going to get on a plane and go home and they’re not going to be swimming across the Mediterranean with their children. I still have a sense we don’t know we’re born. We really don’t know we’re born.’

Why, I wonder, has she never written a book about her Bosnian experience, nor even compiled an anthology of her articles, which are mostly now buried away in the Guardian archive? It’s an anomaly – most of the journalists who did time in Bosnia have produced their big book about the War, and surely Maggie O’Kane’s would be one worth reading. There were, she admits, suggestions about bringing out a book, and for a time she was even going to do one. ‘But I just felt like I had more important things to do, which was actually get on with my life, look after my kids, and… you know… work on other projects like modern-day slavery… or the FGM campaign – there’s just a lot to do. And actually, it’s a bit boring to keep going back. And I recognise it as a sort of profound part of my life. But I don’t want to live it for the next 20 years.’

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Maggie O’Kane’s recent films and articles – including the ongoing Guardian campaign against Female Genital Mutilation – can be accessed by clicking on the portrait at the top of this page.

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