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An Interview with Roy Gutman


"War is terrible, but crimes committed during war are the worst," said Roy Gutman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who first exposed the Bosnian death camps and systematic rapes of Muslim women in former Yugoslavia.


Roy Gutman.
Photo: AP

While the rest of his colleagues spent the summer of 1992 covering the siege of Sarajevo, Gutman was describing the packed passenger trains were the beginning of the largest ethnic cleansing effort since the Holocaust. He spent weeks interviewing teenage girls who were still trembling from the memories of their multiple rapists, and his Newsday stories led the national coverage. (Gutman moved from Newsday to Newsweek in early 2001.)

"Too many journalists get distracted covering the war," he said, adding that battles and bombs are often a cover for a country's crimes against humanity. "Modern conflict is not between armies anymore. It's militaries against civilians."

A journalist for more than 30 years, Gutman said people in his profession for the most part do not understand the rules of war and are unable to recognize when they are broken. Multiple stories are missed as a result.

Gutman's moment of truth came in Croatia, where he remembers covering a group of people huddled in the basement of a bombed-out hospital.


This is November 21, 1991 file photo of unidentified patients comforting each other during fall of a hospital in the Croatian town of Vukovar, some 160 km (100 miles) northwest of Belgrade. A war crimes tribunal in The Hague Wednesday March 20, 1996 accused three fugitive Yugoslav Army officers of leading a 1991 massacre that became the first case of ethnic cleansing in the Yugoslav conflict. The officers, Mile Mrksic, Veselin Sljivancanin and Miroslav Radic, were indicted in November on crimes against humanity charges for allegedly ordering the slaughter of 261 Croat men taken from the hospital after Yugoslav army took control of the town. AP: Photo/Srdjan Ilic

But he and other journalists did not realize that a hospital is a protected place under the Geneva Conventions. Five hospitals were destroyed in all. "They were testing everybody to see if they could get away with it," he said. "And they did."

Gutman embarked on a detailed study of the Geneva Conventions and other aspects of humanitarian law (laws that govern military treatment of prisoners, wounded, and civilians in times of conflict). Then he launched a project to educate his colleagues.


One result was the book he edited, Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know.

"In a war you have so many theatres that when things start developing, you can hardly keep up," Gutman said. "You go in with that handbook and you'll know what you're seeing. You can put a name to it."

But before journalists can deem an act a violation of war rules, Gutman warned, they must be able to back it up. "If you're accusing somebody of a crime, you better get it right," he said.


That's what made David Rhode's coverage, published several years after Gutman left the war-torn area, stand out from his peers, Gutman said.

"It demonstrated beyond a doubt that there was a massacre," he said. "If you establish it, then it can't be denied. He put it on the map."

And he risked his life proving it, Gutman said, adding that it is too easy for foreign correspondents to rely on official briefings instead of following the acts themselves.

Gutman has extended the ideas behind the book to the Crimes of War Project which picks up where the book left off. The website features a forum of experts discussing contemporary war, an online magazine, descriptions of seminars on how to cover regional conflicts, and extensive resources.

Gutman also hopes to design a high school and journalism curriculum for covering crimes of war.

"The public needs to know that the media is covering everything and covering it well," Gutman said. "Crime is news and war crime is big news."