From war reporter to USAID chief: Samantha Power returns to Bosnia | Bosnia and Herzegovina

SAmantha Power, who covered the Bosnian war as a journalist in her twenties, returned to the country this week as head of the US Agency for International Development (USAid), offering US support to freelance journalists.

Power is the most senior US official to visit Bosnia since Joe Biden in 2009, when he was vice president. His trip was intended to show the Biden administration’s support for Bosnia’s territorial integrity and the 1995 Dayton peace accord at a time when both are threatened by a resurgent Serbian push for partition.

On Friday, Power met with all three members of the country’s tripartite presidency, including Bosnian Serb secessionist leader Milorad Dodik, who has threatened to remove Serbs from the national army, judiciary and tax system this year.

Power said she pointed to the “danger of secessionist rhetoric and actions” and told leaders that every young Bosnian she had met had told her “they are finding it increasingly difficult to see a future in a country facing so much corruption and division”. .

About 170,000 Bosniaks, out of a total population of 3 million, have left the country in the past year alone.

Power said in an interview from the Bosnian capital: “My message comes directly from President Biden. Just as the United States was there for the people of this country in the 1990s, we are here with you now, engaging, exerting political pressure, imposing economic sanctions trying to affect the cost-benefit calculation of those who foment division or exacerbate the economic crisis in the country.

During the Bosnian War, Power was a freelance journalist based in Sarajevo. This week, one of his first acts upon arriving in the city was to visit the grave of friend and colleague, Kurt Schork.

Schork, who headed the Reuters bureau in Sarajevo when the city was under siege, was killed in an ambush in Sierra Leone in 2000, but is buried in the multi-faith Sarajevo Lion Cemetery alongside Bosniaks whose lives and stories he described. death in his journalism.

Power said Schork “has become a legend for his bravery and ability to grasp the human cost of senseless conflict”.

Power described what it was like to return to Sarajevo at the head of an aid agency with a budget of 28 billion dollars, of which 25 million dollars are spent each year in Bosnia, a third in the entity Serb-led Republika Srpska.

“One of the experiences that every reporter had during the war was that feeling of just writing down people’s suffering and trying to use your pen to capture what it was like,” Power said.

“But it’s a different feeling to be able to tap into USAid’s toolbox, because we’re able to make a whole range of investments in everything from independent media and anti-corruption bodies to Covid vaccines and initiatives that create jobs for young people. ”

Since taking office as administrator last April, Power has sought to expand the agency’s support for civil society efforts to fight corruption, and journalism in particular. One of his initiatives was to launch a global defamation fund, to provide insurance against politically inspired lawsuits aimed at gagging journalists.

“These lawsuits are the new tool of corrupt elites,” Power said.

She held a meeting with Bosnian journalists at the offices of the Sarajevo daily Oslobođenje on Thursday and said one of them told her it was harder to be a journalist now than during the war.

“There is always harassment and threats of violence and all that. Everything is still there. But now alongside that is the trial tool,” she said. “So we support this line of work, which is about democratic accountability.”

Power also met with three former prisoners of war who told their stories as part of a USAid-funded reconciliation program: Amir Omerspahić, a Bosnian Muslim who was tortured in a Serbian prison; Janko Samouković, a Serb detained in a Bosnian army prison camp outside Sarajevo; and Stanislav Krezić, a Croat detained by the Bosnian army in Mostar.

“It’s a modest effort,” Power said. “It doesn’t change the world overnight, but it’s an example of just trying on a local level to familiarize people with the suffering that went on during the war, especially when people are fanning the flames of war again. the division.”

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