The Current

John Burns reflects on 40 years as foreign correspondent

As a foreign correspondent, in many countries, over many decades, John Burns broke many stories. But when he created a war-time bureau for The New York Times in Baghdad, he broke boundaries. Today, he is lauded for his foresight in finding ways to keep journalists in the field, in the most treacherous of places.
John F. Burns interviewing Iraqis after the capture of Saddam Hussein in 2003. (Michael Kamber for The New York Times)

Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, June 7, 1992 — The New York Times

As the 155-millimeter howitzer shells whistled down on this crumbling city today, exploding thunderously into buildings all around, a disheveled, stubble-bearded man in formal evening attire unfolded a plastic chair in the middle of Vase Miskina Street. He lifted his cello from its case and began playing Albinoni's Adagio.

There were only two people to hear him, and both fled, dodging from doorway to doorway, before the performance ended.

Each day at 4 P.M., the cellist, Vedran Smailovic, walks to the same spot on the pedestrian mall for a concert in honor of Sarajevo's dead.

The spot he has chosen is outside the bakery where several high-explosive rounds struck a bread line 12 days ago, killing 22 people and wounding more than 100. If he holds to his plan, there will be 22 performances before his gesture has run its course.

-  the lead from a New York Times story John Burns filed from Sarajevo, at the height of the Bosnian War. 

The cellist, Vedran Smailovic, of Sarajevo remains one of that conflict's most enduring images. It's also one of the most enduring images from John Burns' career:

Almost 40 years working as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. And what times they've been.

He's covered Mao's China, apartheid-era South Africa, the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the American led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And while many of his contemporaries in the field eventually folded up, and went home.

John Burns dug in and continued to seek out the story in some of the world's most challenging and uncomfortable places... bearing witness to the struggles of countless others.

Last month John Burns retired from his post as the New York Times' Chief Foreign Correspondent. And as part of our occasional series Eye on the Media, he joined us from Cambridge, England.

John Burns, NYT correspondent, speaks with his editors from Sarajevo after being named co-winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for journalism. (NWS/AFP/Getty Images)

Fast Facts about John F. Burns:

  • The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner wrote more than 3,300 articles over 40 years reporting for The New York Times.
  • He spent 39 years with the international desk, beginning with South Africa in 1976.
  • He reported from 10 bureaus. He was Baghdad bureau chief during the American invasion and occupation of Iraq.
  • He collected two Pulitzer Prizes for International Reporting, one on the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the other in Bosnia.
  • His portrait of a cellist playing on Sarajevo's main pedestrian concourse while artillery shells exploded nearby is considered a classic of modern journalism.

This segment was produced by Gord Westmacott.