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Yugoslavia: Distinguished U.S. Balkan Journalist Killed In Sierra Leone

  • Askold Krushelnycky

One of the most respected journalists to cover the conflict in the former Yugoslavia has been killed while on assignment in the war-torn west African nation of Sierra Leone. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports on the life and death of Kurt Schork, a colleague whom he knew personally.

Prague, 26 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Kurt Schork, a U.S. reporter for the Reuters news agency whose extensive reporting of the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo set a high journalistic standard, was killed on Wednesday while reporting the conflict in Sierra Leone. His death was announced yesterday.

Sierra Leone rebels ambushed a convoy in which Schork was travelling, killing him and Miguel Gil Moreno de Mora, a Spanish photographer working for the Associated Press news agency. Four government soldiers also died and two other journalists were wounded in the ambush.

It was no surprise to find out Schork was in Sierra Leone -- and out on the front lines of the murderous fighting there. That was his style during the conflict in Bosnia, where he built a worldwide reputation for accurate, honest, often news-breaking reporting under the most difficult circumstances.

Schork stayed in Sarajevo throughout most of the Bosnian capital's siege by surrounding Serbian forces. He ignored offers from Reuters to take less arduous assignments elsewhere, and his imaginative and often courageous reporting contributed greatly to keeping Bosnia in the forefront of the news and at the top of world leaders' agendas.

Even during some of the worst shelling of the city, Schork would venture out of the comparative safety of his office to drive on Sarajevo's main street to search out what was going on. The street was nicknamed "Sniper Alley" because it was in easy shooting range of Serbian gunmen.

Everyone living in Sarajevo during the siege knew who Schork was and what he looked like. To many, his presence in the city was a source of reassurance.

Schork was friendly and generous, with a strong sense of humor. He was always ready to help other journalists with his impressive store of knowledge and in equally invaluable but more practical ways. Journalists without their own vehicles could always count on a lift from Schork, and in a Sarajevo cut off from land-line communications Reuters' satellite phone was the way many reporters sent in their stories.

Schork did get involved emotionally in the story in Bosnia, Albania and elsewhere. He could not help being affected by the horrors he saw and wrote about. Sometimes, those emotions crept into his writing but they never distorted his accuracy. One of his most famous dispatches was about a young Bosnian couple -- a Serb man and a Muslim woman -- shot on a bridge as they tried to escape Sarajevo.

Tributes have poured in for Schork from figures as varied as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the senior U.S. diplomat involved in Balkan affairs, Richard Holbrooke, and the former commander of the Kosova Liberation Army, Hashim Thaci.

But the people who knew Schork best were fellow journalists who respected the way he worked and were grateful for his companionship. David Brauchli is a former AP photographer who became friends with Schork in Bosnia six years ago. During the 1994 to 1996 war in Chechnya, both often worked together. Brauchli recalls:

"He was always a pleasure to work around. He didn't have any problem giving information if you weren't in direct competition. Photographers -- he would give us information all the time. And to work with him in the field was great because he was watching your back and you were watching his back."

Brauchli said that the thing that distinguished Schork from many other reporters was that he really cared about the people he was writing about.

Schork also covered fighting in Albania, Asia and Africa, but he insisted on being involved in Reuters' coverage of Kosovo when the area lurched towards conflict last year. His graphic reporting of the brutalities perpetrated by the Serbian regime helped to prod the international community toward action it was not initially eager to take.

Schork was born in Washington, D.C., 53 years ago, but only began his journalistic career in 1990, when he covered the Gulf War. His previous occupations had included chief of staff with the New York City transport authority and real-estate agent. But in 10 years of reporting, he achieved what most journalists aspire to but few manage to bring about: He made a difference.