Eriksmoen: Jamestown College alum's reporting helped readers understand misery and destruction of war
FARGO — Kurt Schork, who was born and raised in the Washington, D.C., area, attended Jamestown (N.D.) College from 1965 to 1969. While there, one of the things he likely would have observed was that neighbors helped neighbors regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, or cultural issues.
A couple of decades later, while he was a news correspondent, he found himself in locations where neighbors were killing neighbors over these same differences.
Gen. William Sherman said that “war is hell.” He was viewing war from his position as a combatant. However, Schork believed there was a group of people who experienced a more hellish nightmare than the soldiers — the innocent civilians caught in the middle of the maelstrom.
Schork didn’t just observe and write about their plight — he lived it. If the citizens had little to eat, he deprived himself of plentiful nourishment; if they lived in cold, unheated dwellings, he turned the heat off in his room; and, because they did not have protective apparel when they went outside, he left his Kevlar flak jacket in his room when he went outdoors.
Schork began his career as a journalist in 1990, writing articles for the Hong Kong-based South China Evening Post, and one of his first assignments was to cover the civil war in Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, an island off the southwestern coast of India. While riding his motorcycle through the front lines, he found himself pinned down by automatic weapons fire. Schork managed “a miraculous escape,” and the adrenaline rush he experienced made him realize that he had finally, at the age of 43, found the occupation he was searching for.
Meanwhile, in the Middle East, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein ordered his army to seize Kuwait and threaten Saudi Arabia, resulting in the Gulf War. Needing more correspondents to cover the mounting military activity, Reuters recruited Schork to work for their news organization.
He was sent to Iraq “to cover the war from the American perspective,” but found that unsatisfying. He then “got connected with the Kurds” in northern Iraq, who were fighting for their own survival because “Hussein was leading a genocidal campaign against them.”
“Schork was the first Western journalist to cover the Kurds,” and he continued to cover them until March 1991, when Iraqi troops seized most of the Kurdish territory. About “1.5 million Kurds abandoned their homes and fled to the Turkish and Iranian borders.” It was estimated that “close to 20,000 Kurds succumbed to death due to exhaustion, lack of food, exposure to cold, and disease.” Largely because of Schork’s graphic reporting, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution condemning Iraq’s action against the Kurds and authorized measures to protect them.
Schork moved his base of operation to the republic of Chechnya, in southern Russia, near the border of Turkey. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the residents of Chechnya waged a war against Russia, seeking their independence. Through their stiff resistance to a Russian show of force, Chechnya was granted its de facto independence from Russia.
Soon after the breakup of the Soviet Union, republic partisans within Yugoslavia also began to push for their independence, and one of them was the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia. The Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) joined with the armed forces of Herzeg-Bosnia (mainly Orthodox Christians Serbs) in what became known as the Bosnian War to defeat the Yugoslav People’s Army and obtain their independence. However, in April 1992, relations deteriorated along religious and ethnic lines, leading to the Croat-Bosniak War.
Officers and soldiers from Herzeg-Bosnia turned on the Bosniaks and began to implement what was labeled as “ethnic cleansing.” The capital city of Bosnia, Sarajevo, was placed under siege in April 1992, and people had to pass through a number of checkpoints in order to get in or out of the city. Schork arrived in Sarajevo in the summer of 1992 and opened up the Reuters bureau on the fifth floor of the Holiday Inn.
The city had a long and rich history, and Schork quickly fell in love with it and the people who lived there. Because of its history of religious and cultural diversity, Sarajevo is sometimes called the “Jerusalem of Europe.” The Miljacka River runs through the center of the city, and the Vrbanja Bridge across the river was clearly visible from Schork’s window in the Holiday Inn.
Each morning, Schork would wake up before dawn and “run through the shell-scarred streets,” gathering information about the prior night’s developments. He would then return to the hotel to organize the information and write his story for Reuters.
Whenever he heard shelling or gunfire, Schork would hop into his Russian-made Lada car to go to the location of the action. Getting through the checkpoints was not always easy, and when difficulty arose, he resorted to “demanding, shouting, storming, pushing, perhaps physically, to get through an impossible checkpoint.” This technique, in journalistic lexicon, became known as “to Schork.”
As he drove around to find out what was going on, he would often run across wounded or bleeding civilians, who he would take to the hospital. On May 19, 1993, Schork began to chronicle a series of articles about an incident that occurred on that day illustrating both the tragedy and stupidity of the war.
Admira Ismić, a Bosniak, and Boško Brkić, a Bosnian Serb, were both 25 years old and in love. They decided to meet at the Vrbanja Bridge and just as they neared each other at the foot of the bridge, a shot rang out and killed Boško. This was followed by a second shot that hit Admira, and although critically wounded, “she crawled over to her boyfriend, embraced him, hugged him, and died.” They laid on the bridge for eight days before anyone dared to retrieve their bodies, and the couple was buried together in a Sarajevo cemetery.
A documentary titled “Romeo and Juliet in Sarajevo” was made by "Frontline" on PBS that used Schork’s newspaper accounts, and it was nominated for an Emmy. Schork was the only correspondent to remain in Bosnia for the four-year duration of the war.
He then went to East Timor, where residents successfully resisted Indonesia’s attempt to gain control of the island. In 2000, Schork went to cover the civil war in Sierra Leone, in western Africa. On May 24, he and three other news-related personnel “set out in two vehicles with an army escort on a daily trip to pick up news from the war front.” Everything appeared safe, but then they heard gunfire up ahead. Suddenly, they were ambushed by rebels who may have thought the vehicles belonged to someone else, and Schork and a cameraman were killed.
Schork’s death was a great shock to all who knew him and to those who read his news stories. “After Schork died, as per his personal wishes, upon cremation, half of his ashes were buried next to his mother in Washington, D.C., and half at the Sarajevo cemetery next to the grave of Boško and Admira.”
Schork was posthumously granted Bosnia and Herzegovina citizenship, and he was memorialized at the dedication of Kurt Schork Street in Sarajevo. The Kurt Schork Memorial Award was established “to recognize freelance journalists who make a critical contribution to international understanding, but whose work is often overlooked.” Also, the newsroom at Schork’s alma mater, Jamestown College, was named in his honor.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at email@example.com.