Driving into Sarajevo in early June, John Burns took shelter from intense gunfire in an arcade off the city’s main boulevard. A 79-year-old man named Hamid Pasic greeted Burns, a Canadian who is The New York Times correspondent covering the Yugoslav ordeal. Pasic became for Burns a symbol of the city’s spirit under siege, every day taking his customary stroll in defiance of the snipers in the hills. One November day, Pasic did not return from his walk. He had been killed by a mortar shell—one of thousands of victims in a city being slowly strangled to death. For Bums, Pasic’s funeral was one of the most moving moments in the epic story of a city whose plight he has done as much as anyone to bring to the world’s attention. “Our job,’’ he says, “is simply to be there so the world knows what’s going on.”
MACLEAN S HONOR ROLL 1992
Simply being there, however, is no easy task in Sarajevo. More journalists have died covering the Yugoslav civil wars (33 by mid-December) than in any other recent conflict, and Sarajevo is the deadliest place of all.
Bums, 48, spent virtually all year in Yugoslavia, including about five months in Sarajevo, more than any other foreign reporter. He has borne witness to the city’s slow death with a dedication and skill that has won him the admiration of his peers. But, like most journalists trained to be self-effacing observers, Bums resists the suggestion that reporting, even from Sarajevo, takes special courage. The city’s heroes, he says, are to be found among local people, from families managing to maintain their dignity among the chaos to Bosnian journalists operating without even the elementary protection that flak jackets and helmets give their foreign counterparts. “The real courage,” he says, “belongs to the people who have no way out.”
Bums was bom in Nottingham, England, but moved to Ottawa in 1962 at age 18 when his father, a Royal Air Force officer, became Britain’s military attaché in Ottawa. He began his career as a copy
boy at the old Ottawa Journal before joining The Globe and Mail in 1967. He became a Canadian citizen the following year. Bums served for four years as the Globe’s China correspondent, then was hired away by The New York Times in 1975. His postings since then include South Africa, the Soviet Union, China and Canada, with assignments in Afghanistan, the Middle East and India, where he is to be posted in 1993. But he says that Sarajevo’s torment is “the most compelling story I have ever covered.”
It is also one of the most personally significant. In February, 1991, Bums fell seriously ill with what doctors eventually diagnosed as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer. After she months of intense treatment, and support from his wife Jane Scott-Long (two sons and a daughter are at school), he was pronounced fit to resume work. Last January, he set out from their Toronto home for Yugoslavia. Plunging into the war zone amounted to a kind of therapy: “My way of putting this [illness] behind me is getting myself into situations where
the difficulties we endured were almost insignificant compared to the difficulties of the people I was surrounded by. It’s the best rehabilitation program I could possibly have.”
And it is far from over. Among Bums’s most poignant memories of Sarajevo is the sight of one of the city’s leading musicians, Vedran Smajlovic, defying the snipers by calmly playing his cello at the spot where a mortar shell killed 17 people lining up for bread in May. “Tell me anyone, reporter or not, who would not grab the opportunity to live among people of such tremendous dignity,” he asks. “It’s everything that engages you in journalism, raised by a factor of 10.” In late November, after a few days out, he returned to the war zone: “I want to see this thing through to its conclusion—whatever that may be.”
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