August 17, 1992 12:00 PM

IF THEY EVER MAKE A MOVIE OF JANA SCHNEIDER’S LIFE (and someone probably will), the hard part will be to cram the whole incredible story into two hours. As one of the more flamboyant combat photographers in the world, she has turned up, cameras ready, everywhere from Angola to Afghanistan. At the same lime, though, the title role will be easy to cast—Jana herself. For in her previous career, the 40-year-old Schneider was a budding star on Broadway, winning critical raves and a Tony nomination. But as she sits in her simple apartment in the Slovenian city of Ljubljana, nursing severe wounds she suffered while covering the civil war in the Balkans, the American-born Schneider isn’t thinking about fame, only about how adventure and tragedy sometimes converge.

Her brush with death began in mid-June in Sarajevo. She and a friend, Slovenian print journalist Ivo Standeker, 31, had been holed up for two weeks with Bosnian resistance forces that were fighting fierce battles against encircling Serbian units. Merely walking outside exposed them to the danger of artillery fire and snipers. “Sarajevo is the Olympics of photojournalism,” says Schneider. “There’s a constant threat of death like no other war I’ve ever been in. It’s vicious and unpredictable.” At one point Schneider was nearly shot by a Serbian commando who appeared from nowhere. Only a last-minute blast from a Bosnian machine gun saved her—and killed her would-be assailant. “I really thought I was going to get it,” says Schneider, “but I got such pictures!”

On the night of June 15, Jana and Ivo joined a relief column that sneaked into the besieged suburb of Dobrinja, where a few thousand residents were holding out against a massive Serbian onslaught. Around noon the following day, shells started to fall. Since the rounds did not seem to be landing in the vicinity, Jana suggested she and Ivo go out to have a look around. “There was not a single sign of danger,” recalls Schneider, who was by far the more experienced of the two in such situations. “I fell no warning signals.”

Then it happened. “The first shell landed at my feel, and it was so close there wasn’t even any sound, just a horrible smell of sulfur up my nose,” says Schneider. The first round knocked her flat on her back. Chunks of shrapnel tore through the black high-top sneaker on her right foot, laying bare tendons and bone. She turned and saw Ivo reaching out to her. In quick succession four other shells, apparently from a Serbian tank or mortar, landed near them. The second and third sent shell fragments slamming into both of their bodies. “Ivo started to crawl. He’d gone about 45 feet, and I thought he was going to get out of there,” says Jana. “Then the fourth shell took out his right side.” Debris from the fifth round knocked Schneider unconscious.

She came to a moment later and found herself being dragged to safety by a Bosnian man who had bravely rushed to her aid while the shelling continued. The man was crying. She was in convulsions. Brought into a basement first-aid station, she saw Ivo lying on a table. “I asked him to forgive me, and he said, ‘I do,’ ” recalls Jana. “He was moaning in outrageous pain.” With Ivo vomiting blood, the journalists were put into a while van and driven through the barrage.

At a Serbian checkpoint, they were sent to a medical center that had been set up in a motel. At first the Serbian troops accused Schneider of being a spy—until she pulled out a picture of her parents back in Wisconsin. “Don’t these look like American faces?” she asked. The Serbs agreed they did. With Ivo slipping into a coma, doctors began digging out some of the shrapnel in Jana’s legs. Among the scores of wounds was a six-inch hole in her thigh. From tests conducted later, doctors suspected that she may have suffered a minor stroke at some point.

The next morning a Serbian journalist brought Jana two red roses and told her that Ivo had died. “I felt like I’d been electrocuted,” says Jana. But her own ordeal was not yet over. As she was being evacuated to the safety of Belgrade. Jana’s heart stopped. Only the quick efforts of a French doctor, who gave her a shot of adrenaline, saved her. Two days after her arrival in Belgrade, doctors had to reopen her wounds, including those on her right fool, which was showing signs of gangrene. Since then, her convalescence has been made all the harder by the anguish and guilt she feels over Ivo’s death. “There’s no flesh wound that compares with heartbreak,” she says of Ivo, who had been her friend and working partner for a year. “I’m so angry he’s dead.”

Schneider’s horrible saga came as bad news but no surprise to her colleagues in the dangerous world of photojournalism. Some associates have privately questioned what they call her “kamikaze” tactics in pursuit of stories. But Schneider does not see herself as Calamity Jana. “People think I’m wild,” she says. “But I’m not afraid to be afraid.”

Maybe so, but Schneider has never been afraid to flout convention in her life. She grew up with her older brother, Jim, now 43, in rural McFarland, Wis., where her father, Lloyd, now 74, is a lawyer, and her mother. Daphne, 72, a homemaker. She was a straight A student in high school and a tomboy who also liked being a cheerleader and pom-pom girl. At the University of Wisconsin she studied drama and music and began learning about photography. At one point she even look off to photograph riots in Belfast. When it came to choosing a career, she decided that showbiz offered the best opportunities. “In show business, women are allowed power, even the freedom of antisocial behavior without being persecuted,” she says. “My whole life is about freedom, not being smothered.”

So in 1974 she headed for New York City to break into the theater, which she did with remarkable ease. In short order she had appeared in such productions as Shenandoah and Othello. But that success was marred by some horrifying experiences. In 1978, while touring with the road company of Shenandoah in Los Angeles, Schneider was raped by an assailant who came through her hotel window and tortured her with a knife and cigarette. “When you survive something like that, it’s like surviving death,” she says. “It gives you a lot of courage.” A few years later she was mugged by two drug addicts who broke her nose when she resisted. By 1986, Schneider had rebounded in triumphant fashion with a Tony nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical, in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. That same year she married musician and composer Tom Wilson, now 34. But with her career soaring, Schneider was already bored and looking for new challenges. In 1988 she asked Tom whether he minded if she headed off to Pakistan, the jumping-off point for the Afghan guerrillas, to try her hand at combat photojournalism. “I did stories on gunrunning, and I got hooked,” she says. “My only regret about quitting showbiz was that I didn’t do it sooner.”

Since then, her professional itinerary reads like a tour of the world’s trouble spots: Angola, Baghdad, Ethiopia, Moscow, among others. Though she works freelance, often paying her own expenses, her photos have appeared in many top newsmagazines in the United Slates and Europe. She has been threatened at gunpoint on numerous occasions and kidnapped by terrorists in Sri Lanka. The work was exhilarating as well as all-absorbing, and her marriage suffered. Legally separated for several years from Tom, Jana admits that lately romance has occasionally spiced her travels. (She laughingly confides that her “most memorable sexual experience” was with an Armenian freedom fighter, on the sacrificial slab in a pagan temple, with wolves howling in the distance.) Nonetheless, when Tom, who has moved to Los Angeles, recently sent her divorce papers to be signed, she fell a deep sadness. “It was too much for Tom, my going off six times a year,” she says. “But I’m still in love with him.”

The same goes for photography, which she has no desire to give up. She says the only way she’d consider a safer line of work would be if she were to have children or adopt. That’s something she’d like, but for the time being her energy is focused on getting well, which is helped by frequent calls back home. Doctors say they may still have to remove a kidney, but that they probably will be able to save her right leg. Whatever happens, Jana intends to remain true to her own stern code of conduct. “It doesn’t hurl when you go down fighting,” she says, “only when you take it lying down.”



You May Like