Like so many important stories that have appeared in Boulder Weekly, this one started out over beers at a local dive.
“I remember we were sitting around a pitcher complaining about the absolutely abysmal news coverage that was coming out of the war at that time,” recalls Weekly Editor Joel Dyer. “It was clear that the major news organizations felt like America’s attention span for a place like Bosnia had run its course. I remember Greg saying that ‘right now’ is the most important time for good reporting because the next few months would determine if the shaky peace process patched together by the Dayton Accord would hold. Then he said something that would change his life and the paper forever. He said, ‘I’ve got to go. You’ve got to send me to Bosnia.’”
Needless to say, no small-market weekly newspaper had ever sent one-quarter of its editorial staff to cover a foreign war. But as our readers know, Boulder Weekly has always been a little different. Even so, the economic reality was that the paper couldn’t afford such a venture back then, no matter how important the cause. It was time for creative thinking on the part of the staff.
“We did everything but hold a bake sale to get Greg to Bosnia,” says Dyer. “Stewart Sallo gave the ed staff four blank pages of newsprint. We then went to our own ad staff and told them that they could sell ads on those four pages to help pay for the trip to Bosnia as long as the advertisers were not our existing customers. I remember when Ross Shell came back that day with a full-page ad from the Boulder Library. I had no idea how apropos that was at the time.”
The Weekly sales staff sold the pages commission-free. It was truly an all-paper operation at that point. But there was still not enough for a plane ticket and food for six weeks.
“That’s when we made an unusual alliance,” says Dyer. “We called Col. Bob Brown over at Soldier of Fortune magazine. We knew he had been doing a lot of coverage of the war and thought he might be able to give us some ideas on how to get Greg in and out on a shoestring.”
Brown did better than that. He arranged a free military flight in and out of Bosnia for Campbell and gave him an address of a house where he could safely stay upon his arrival. At that point, the editorial staff pitched in the final $1,000 out of their own pockets, and Campbell was on his way.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing when he got to the war. Campbell was robbed, had his camera gear taken, just about got himself killed by a sniper and had many harrowing checkpoint experiences with the Serbs. It was also the young journalist’s first experience with stepping over corpses and other atrocities associated with war.
But the four-part series he produced for Boulder Weekly truly stands as some of the best, most descriptive and emotional reporting to come out of that war. And others apparently agreed. The Weekly articles became the basis of Campbell’s first book, The Road to Kosovo, and he has gone on to cover many conflicts around the world, from Nigeria to Sierra Leone to Libya. He has written several other books, including Blood Diamonds, which served as the inspiration for the film of the same name. The Boulder Library got its money’s worth.
“Greg’s war series was just another example of why writing for Boulder readers is so rewarding,” says Dyer. “They not only read it, they wanted to help.”
The series personalized the war. Campbell helped all of us see it through the eyes of an old man fighting all night to save his life-long home from the Serbs as they left his neighborhood on the last night of fighting. Despite his best efforts, the thugs torched the old man’s house in the final minutes of the war, and Greg was there to share that painful moment with Boulder.
“I remember crying my eyes out as I read it,” says Dyer.
And then there was Campbell’s last installment, where he went into the bombed-out buildings that had been turned into orphanages for the countless child victims of the war. He wrote about the children he met in a way that explained the despair of the moment, the horrible conditions and circumstances yet, somehow, captured the hope that still existed in those kids. It made you want to do something, anything, to help,” says Dyer.
And apparently that’s how our readers felt. The phone started ringing at the paper. Once again Boulder Weekly readers wanted to do more than just know about the problem, they wanted to help. Like the staff of the Weekly, they wanted to change the world.
“I can’t remember everything that happened as a result of Greg’s Bosnia reporting,” says Dyer. “I do remember that our readers were trying to get money to the old man whose house was burned down by the Serbs. And I know that a Boulder couple began the process of trying to adopt a 7-year-old boy named Namid that Campbell had profiled in his last story from Bosnia’s orphanages. I know we made a difference and that it was worth all the effort that went into making it happen. And I also know we will do the same thing again if we ever feel like it’s in the best interest of our readers.”