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First Night in Zagreb - A City at War

Updated: Feb 22, 2023

We arrive in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, in the early evening, with the last light of another summer day in July 1991.

We arrived driving from Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, after covering the clashes between the national army of Yugoslavia and the Slovenian forces that rebelled against the central government in Belgrade for the American television network NBC News.

Ten days of a “light war” at the end of which the young state declared independence ... Then the fire of the revolution moved south and ignited the next war, in Croatia, so we set off.

Another chapter in the infamous Balkan wars, once again a war on nationalist grounds, ethnic groups that lived side by side under the boots of communist rule for decades suddenly fall apart. The "unity" that probably never existed among the Serbs and the Croats exploded in everyone's face with burning hatred it became blood between brothers.

The Croats are conducting a hunting expedition against their neighbors, the Serbian minority, when the latter calls for its help the Yugoslav national army which once again invades territory not it's own, and launches a campaign while attacking the local Croats police forces with armor and artillery. In response to Serbian aggression Croatia declares independence, calls for emergency mobilization, and fierce fighting breaks. Here they will not take prisoners.

The distance to the capital Zagreb from Ljubljana is only about two hundred kilometers, but the main road is not an option, it is already blocked in many sections along it by the fighting forces; The Yugoslav army, Croatian police, and local Serbian militias forcing us to drive slowly in our rental car on side roads.

Zagreb A City at War.

Last light before sunset The golden hour they call this hour when the sun has already set and the darkness has not yet taken over the sky.

We arrive in the center of the city, looking for the hotel booked for us by the London office. At the hotel, we will already have Zoran the “fixer” and the local driver who was arranged for us the day before. Zoran is a young Croatian guy who speaks English, a student who dropped out because of the war and is trying to earn his living by working with foreign journalists who start arriving in the city and pay well in foreign currency.

Downtown Zagreb - city center

We want to transmit the day’s events this evening in a satellite broadcast to New York. We filmed materials on the way. We want to bring the story of this war that is ultimately far from the editorial management in New York light-years away and therefore less interesting to them at this point.

At the entrance to the hotel located near the main square of the city, Zoran is already waiting for us, and together with the correspondent we meet in the lobby its lights are dim and the only guests are journalists like us who came to the city looking for the sound & pictures and the little stories that make up a good journalistic story.

Everyone is sitting drinking beer or Arabian coffee in small cups, the pungent smell of burnt coffee and dense cigarette smoke is all over the lobby.

The video we shot is a pastoral landscape picture, green fields to the horizon, then high mountains that in winter will surely be covered in snow and will once again become playgrounds for children if the war ends by then ...

There is also a “Piece to Camera” that we filmed with the correspondent at the entrance to the hotel near the defensive wall trying in forty-five measured seconds to tell about the trip we made from Ljubljana to Zagreb as he lingers on the contrast between the rural pastoral landscape and the artillery echoes heard in the distance. We did not see the shooting or the injuries he will tell, we only heard the distant echoes. A sterile war.

We call our New York office on the landline through the hotel switchboard and speak with the editor of the Foreign News there. The latter asks us to take care of ourselves, but in the same breath she will of course be happy for us if we find the way to make it to the local TV station building tonight and broadcast from there the materials we shot - the New-York desk will be making a minute-forty-five report out of it.

It's eight pm here, a city at war, a bloody city, dark, nervous, agitated and alert. New-Yorkers are now going out for lunch.

We did a situation assessment, consulted with Zoran, and decide that I can travel to the local TV station to broadcast the pictures, voices, and commentary via satellite. And so I, the tape recorder with the road trip to Zagreb and the reporter's Piece to Camera in my little backpack, with Zoran at the wheel. I am sinking into the back seat, trying to lay low, lower than the window line just in case...

This is our beaten Audi with bullet hits on the armored doors

The “Audi” is battered with gunshot marks on the doors traveling only with a single headlight on because of the city's strict blackout regulations. After about ten minute’s drive down alleys not to attract sniper attention he stopped. The Audi's only one headlight illuminates the high iron gate of the JRT the state television complex and the gate is locked...

Television stations are mainly strategic sites in dictatorships that are not an alternative to government broadcasting. I was afraid it would be hard to get into.

Trying to open the gate is a push. Looking for an intercom, bell, something to get attention. Nothing, quiet. And meanwhile, the clock does not stop the satellite broadcast time to New York that was booked is approaching. I never missed a deadline!

The large building behind the gate, satellite dishes on the roof. I'm definitely in the right place. Kick and the goal surrenders. A sigh of relief and anime from the inside, towards the only source of light, is a yellow light that illuminates the entrance faintly.

Here too, at the door, there is no one. I open the wooden door that replaced the glass doors for fear of shrapnels and choose to climb the staircase on the right, wide stone stairs, iron railing, typical communist structure from the early fifties, unattractive and un-unique. You saw it in Ljubljana, you saw it exactly in Prague and Timisoara. And I'm already on the second floor of the building. There is no sign of life.

I made my way up to the third floor and stopped at the top of the stairs at a simple wooden table, a chair, and a guard who could not speak English. A weak light bulb dangling at the end of an exposed power cord emits yellow light.

God, you've not yet invented the cell phones ... I'm sure New York is waiting for the ordered satellite broadcast and is losing patience. If we are late - we will lose the "window" that was invited to broadcast for us, and all That we filmed throughout the day on the way from Ljubljana to Zagreb is simple to trash, literally.

I show the guard the tape – all he does is "no" with his head. Looks like my nervous gesture with my finger pointing at my watch is also not leave any impression on him. The last card I try to pull is my journalist’s ID. Nothing! Croatian stone heart ! ...

I decide to do an act and "pull" some of the Israeli audacity that I always keep in my backpack. I bypass the guard and rush to what appears to be a crack in the door down the hall. The guard just goes back to laying his head on the table again dreaming of better days or just taking a nap .... and doesn’t try to stop me.

And the crack at the door is the building's main control room door, pushing the door, ten minutes to broadcast, God is with me and he's sitting in a worn executive chair, tired and ready to go to sleep, the technician on-duty listening to the radio. On the monitor on the wall in front of him, the TV no longer broadcasts. Going to bed early in wars. There is only a frozen image of color bars on the screen.

I'm trying again to get his attention, repeating the message I am NBC News, Press, American Journalist, EBU, and last is – “see I am with Eurovision”!!! What a relief, he recognizes this; he’s probably a Eurovision song-contest fan, he smiles, and immediately leans over to the big table to pick up the handset of a big black phone. I'm writing a note to myself to bring him a bottle of cognac tomorrow night as a thank you gesture and a “guarantee” for the next few days of service... The Croatian technician next to the large console rotates the generator and surprisingly easily connects the point-to-point telephone line to the control center in Geneva Eurovision-News headquarter. It is possible to breathe now, well - almost. Another minute or two and the transmission will begin.

He puts the cassette into the transmitting machine. Presses PLAY and lets go of the handset. The New York office is on the line! Bliss!

Then for the rest of the video, the voices and the piece to camera go up on the antenna in Zagreb and down in the main office in New York. Another minute or two and it will be possible to call it "goodnight", close the transmission and return to the hotel room for a short night's sleep.

The materials have indeed reached their destination and in about three hours today's main news edition will be broadcast on the east coast of the United States and the story of the renewed war in the Balkans will open the second block of the edition, a minute forty-five...

But then just a moment before I give a nod and a handshake to a technician who is also dying to go home, the New York editor-in-chief just wants to thank me and the team for the work and adds with a big smile that “sounds” all over the network's communication system from New York through London and Geneva to Zagreb... I knew says the NY foreign editor, I knew Hanani my man will not take no for an answer! I knew Hanani is an ex-Mossad agent ….

And all I have left to do at this point was to thank the God of TV at that moment that no one at the station in Zagreb on that night understood English .....

To be continued...


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