From war reporter to USAid chief: Samantha Power returns to Bosnia

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<span>Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Samantha Power, who covered the Bosnian war as a journalist in her 20s, returned to the country this week as head of the US Agency for International Development (USAid), offering American support for independent journalists.

Related: US hopes to walk Bosnia ‘back from the cliff’ as Serbs step up secession threat

Power is the highest-ranking US official to visit Bosnia since Joe Biden in 2009, when he was vice-president. Her trip was aimed at showing Biden administration support for Bosnia’s territorial integrity and the 1995 Dayton peace agreement at a time when both are under threat from a resurgent Serb push for partition.

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

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

About 170,000 Bosnians, out of total population of 3 million, left the country over the past year alone.

Power said in an interview from the Bosnian capital: “My message is direct from President Biden. Just as the United States was there for the people of this country back in the 1990s, we are here with you now, engaging, putting political pressure, imposing economic sanctions trying to affect the cost benefit calculus of those who are fomenting division or exacerbating the economic crisis in the country.”

During the Bosnian war, Power was a freelance journalist based in Sarajevo. This week, one of her first acts on her arrival in the city was to visit the grave of a friend and colleague, Kurt Schork.

Schork, who ran the Reuters bureau in Sarajevo when the city was under siege, was killed in 2000 in an ambush in Sierra Leone but is buried in Sarajevo’s multi-denominational Lion cemetery alongside Bosnians whose lives and deaths he described in his journalism.

Power said Schork “became a legend for his bravery and his ability to capture 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 $28bn budget, $25m of which is spent each year in Bosnia, a third in the Serb-run entity, Republika Srpska.

“One of the experiences that every journalist had during the war is that feeling of just transcribing people’s suffering and trying to use one’s pen to capture what that was like,” Power said.

“But it is a different feeling to be able to draw from the USAid toolbox, because we are 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 over as administrator last April, Power has sought to expand the agency’s support for civil society efforts to counter corruption, and for journalism in particular. One of her initiatives has been to launch a global defamation fund, to provide insurance against politically inspired lawsuits aimed at gagging reporters.

“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 told her it was harder to be a reporter now than during the war.

“There is still harassment and threats of violence and all of that. That’s all still there. But now alongside that is the tool of the lawsuit,” she said. “So we are supporting that avenue of work, which is about democratic accountability.”

Power also met three former prisoners ​​of war who have been telling their stories as part of an USAid-funded reconciliation scheme: Amir Omerspahić, a Muslim Bosniak who was tortured in a Serbian prison; Janko Samouković, a Serb who was held in a Bosnian army prison camp outside Sarajevo; and Stanislav Krezić, a Croat held by the Bosnian army in Mostar.

“It’s a modest effort,” Power said. “It’s not changing the world overnight, but it’s an example of just trying at the grassroots level to both familiarize people with the suffering that went on during the war, particularly when people are stoking the flames of division again.”

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