In Bosnia, Ham Radio Operators Perform Magic of Reunion

The Washington Post
March 8, 1993

SARAJEVO – Himzo Devedzija makes people laugh and cry by fiddling with dials all day long.

Devedzija is a shortwave radio operator. In ordinary times, he would be seen by many as a classic nerd — a pudgy, balding guy with a gap between his front teeth who sits in front of a banged-up army radio and has fun shouting out over the air waves to other people who enjoy shouting back.

But an 11-month war has turned Bosnia into a land of disconnections, and what Devedzija used to do for enjoyment has become a calling of heroes.

That’s because there is no phone service or mail delivery to isolated enclaves in eastern Bosnia where tens of thousands of Slavic Muslims are surrounded by Serb militia forces and cut off from loved ones here in the Bosnian capital. The war has divided husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons. Only Devedzija and his fellow shortwave operators can help them maintain contact.

Nothing deters those in need of Devedzija’s aid — not the Serb battery that fires down Devedzija’s street with an antiaircraft gun, and not the abundant signs nearby that warn “Watch Out, Sniper!”

Though his apartment windows have been blown out by Serb shellfire and are covered with plastic, a stream of people still dash past war-wrecked cars on the street to reach his building. After climbing to the third floor, they enter his tiny living room, take off their shoes and wait patiently for the magic of reunion to begin.

Devedzija’s radio is like an icon, and he is the high priest. He plays with the dial, shouts into the handset a few times and listens to the static from the receiver like a violinist tuning his instrument. His goal is to contact radio operators whose living rooms in other embattled cities and towns are also lined with anxious people waiting to hear from their loved ones.

On one recent day, Devedzija hooked together a mother who had not heard from her daughter in the besieged enclave of Zepa since the war began. Once the connection was made, the mother took the microphone and shouted her daughter’s name into it. Two words came back over the speaker — “Mother! Mother!” Both mother and daughter burst into tears.

“Oh, well, they’re crying,” Devedzija shouted cheerfully. “Let’s try some other people.”

It goes on like this all day: mothers crying to daughters, fathers talking bravely to sons. Everyone is nervous before taking the microphone, and if they don’t all burst into tears while talking, many break down afterward, collapsing onto Devedzija’s small couch.

“It’s difficult for me, but I have gotten used to it,” said a smiling Devedzija, who often wears a black baseball cap emblazoned with the word “elan.” “I am glad that I am helping my people.”

There is a network of radio operators in other beleaguered Muslim towns, people who have never met but who have become close friends in the last 11 months. There is Fadil in Zepa, Ibrahim in Srebrenica, Himzo in Sarajevo and many others — breaking a silence that the besieging Serbs would like to impose on their Muslim adversaries.

The radio operators have also served as the only conduit of information to journalists here and the outside world about conditions in the east Bosnian enclaves. Sometimes, though, the information has been contradictory, sometimes horrifying beyond belief. It is not clear if this is because some operators in the encircled eastern towns have exaggerated their plight, hoping the world would respond more quickly, or because they were passing on frenzied rumors that have circulated there and are taken as fact by most people trapped there. Devedzija himself was a bus driver in peacetime and has no experience in evaluating the veracity of the information pouring out of his radio receiver.

Devedzija and his fellow radio operators have a rule: They never exchange information about deaths. If one of them knows about a death, he will pretend he does not, even if a relative is at the mike asking for information.

But they have no problem with teasing people. A worried woman in Devedzija’s apartment asked a radio operator in Srebrenica if her husband was eating well. Sure, the operator responded, her husband has been a happy man ever since a gorgeous woman moved in with him.

Devedzija, 39, learned about radios nearly two decades ago when he was a conscript in the Yugoslav army. He liked the electronic gadgetry and learned Morse code, and when he left the military he became a ham operator. These days, Devedzija, who serves in Sarajevo’s Muslim-led defense forces, divides his time between the front lines and the radio lines.

Because there is no regular electricity in Sarajevo or the eastern enclaves, the radios are powered with ingenuity. In Zepa, power is supplied by a generator connected to a generator turned by a water wheel; in Sarajevo, Devedzija’s radio set is powered by a couple of car batteries recharged by friends in the military.

The Serbs, who have their own radio operators, often try to interrupt the conversations by whistling or shouting on the frequency being used. Devedzija and his fellow hams combat this by switching quickly from one frequency to another. For now, it is one of the few long-running battles here that the Muslims are winning.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.