20 Years Later: The Bosnian Conflict in Photographs

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The photographs in the gallery above are from the book Bosnia 1992 – 1995, available July 2012. The book will be self-published by the photographers who covered the Bosnian conflict—which began 20 years ago today—and printed in Bosnia. The captions below these photographs are the personal reflections of the photographers on their experiences in the region.

If the last lines of the 20th century were written in Moscow in December 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the prelude to the 21st century was written months later—and 20 years ago this month—in Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo, as the disorderly break-up of Yugoslavia turned into genocide. In that bloody April, America’s moment of triumph over totalitarianism was transformed into a tribalist nightmare as Bosnian Serbs, determined to seize large parts of Bosnia as part of a plan to create a Greater Serbia, targeted Muslims for extermination. What some at the time hoped was just a communist death-rattle at the periphery of the Soviet empire, now looks like the birth cries of our current geopolitical reality.

In Bosnia the U.S. learned it would preside over a world where borders and ideology mattered less and transnational allegiances of ethnicity and sectarianism mattered more. Interviewed by TIME in August 1995, weeks after his troops had slaughtered more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys near the town of Srebrenica, Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic, now on trial for war crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia at The Hague, declared he was acting out of fear of a new Islamic push through the Balkans to Europe. “By this demographic explosion Muslims are overflowing not only the cradle of Christianity in the Balkans but have left their tracks even in the Pyrenees,” Mladic said.

As the slaughter unfolded in Bosnia, and Europe and the U.S. belatedly mustered the will to stop it, Western attitudes towards the post-Cold War world took shape, as well. Neoconservatives and hawkish Democrats found common cause in humanitarian intervention. The media and the public learned from the NATO action in August and September 1995 and the Dayton peace agreement in November that American military might could impose stability—for a time. But 20 years later, with international military and police forces still keeping the peace in Bosnia, we have found there—and at much greater cost elsewhere—that an initially successful intervention by America’s unmatched armed forces cannot impose sectarian comity.

Massimo Calabresi covered the wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo as TIME’s Central Europe bureau chief from 1995 to 1999.

1993. Outside Brcko."In a small Bosnian village outside the town of Brcko, what had once been a park became a cemetery. All of the able, young men in the village were called upon to defend their families and homes from constant attacks by the Serbian army. Battlefield casualties were brought to the local mosque where the villagers would discover which of their relatives or neighbors had died that day.The young Bosnian soldier who guided me to the cemetery said that all of his friends were now buried there. At a funeral, two men collapsed with grief on top of the grave."James Nachtwey for TIME
March 1992. Bijeljina."I found myself in Belgrade in March of 1992 waiting to finish a story when a colleague received a call that fighting had started just over the border in a small Bosnian town, Bijeljina. We rushed there and found the town already split in half between Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Serbs with everyone armed. How it started was unclear with each side saying the other had fired the first shot. After several days of watching the town baker fight against the candlestick maker, armed with hunting rifles and pistols, a convoy of well-armed Serbian paramilitaries arrived to, in their words, 'cleanse the town of fundamentalists.'The unit, called the Tigers and led by a warlord named Arkan, already had a brutal reputation for fighting and taking no prisoners in the previous conflict in Croatia. I had photographed Arkan a few months earlier and using our brief interaction, as well as his desire to look good in front of the international media, I asked to photograph his troops in battle. He readily agreed and attached me to a small unit that included one soldier who spoke English. I was with them when a middle-aged couple had been brought out of a house. There I saw a scene of chaos and thought there was nothing I could do to stop it. The woman was screaming, the soldiers were screaming, some telling me not to take any photos and then several shots rang out. The man fell onto his back. The woman, later found to be his wife, tried to stem the bleeding while holding his hand. More shots rang out and she fell as another woman, her sister, came out and was shot as well.Although I had images of the civilians being shot I needed a photograph with the soldiers and victims in the same frame in order to provide a true piece of evidence of the war crime. I stood in the middle of the street in order to just to have them all the same frame. As I composed the frame the Serbian soldier came into the frame and I took the image. When TIME published all the images a few days later I was sure that this was the final piece of evidence the world needed in order to react. There was no reaction and the first shots were fired the following week in Sarajevo creating a war that lasted almost four years, killing thousands of people."Ron Haviv—VII
June 1992. Sarajevo."Sarajevo during the siege was like a giant experiment in human nature, in what happens to civilization when it is attacked from every side. Sarajevo was (and still is) a cosmopolitan, sophisticated European city. In covering this long, drawn out conflict, I was fascinated by what happens to people like us when their lives are transported back into a medieval siege, with no water, electricity, gas, power and little food, and constant shelling and sniping from the enemy in the hills above.What happened is that people hung on to their civic values, and indeed celebrated them, as a form of resistance against the violence of the aggression. What happened is that people were incredibly inventive, coming up with all sorts of amazing ways to survive and even to prosper in such adversity. What happened is that people kept on making art, performing plays, holding classical music recitals, filming movies and, above all, kept on identifying themselves with the city and its spirit as acenter for democratic, artistic and cultural life. Nothing symbolized this more for me than this intersection, on the notorious ‘Sniper’s Alley.’ This stretch of open ground marked a transition point between the suburbs and the heart of the city. So every day, hundreds of civilians risked their lives by sprinting across this street, under sniper fire from the gunmen in the hills above. And they risked their lives to come into the city, to be part of its life, to identify themselves as civilized humans against the barbarity of the violence being rained down upon them."Paul Lowe—Magnum
May 1993. Mostar."No other conflict took so much out of me emotionally and physically. In the beginning of the break up of Yugoslavia back in the summer of 1991, all sides were approachable—Bosnians, Croats and Serbs alike. It became hard to fathom why a group of people, who grew up as children together, with Bosnians, Croats and Serbs even marrying each other—how could they now allow politicians to drive such a nationalistic, ethnic web between them, causing a blind nationalism that swept through village after village? Extreme hatred, led by idiots.By the time I left in 1996, I had to run away never wanting to look back. For, I felt, I had just witnessed mankind at its worst, something that even today still affects me, how simply mankind can be led astray from moral behavior, with politicians and media that can use hate laced with patriotism to drive their wicked agendas."Christopher Morris—VII
July 1995.Tuzla."When I heard the news that Bosnian Serb troops had entered the U.N.-protected enclave of Srebrenica in mid July 1995, I rushed to the government-controlled town of Tuzla, arriving there just before buses started bringing people escaping so-called safe haven. I expected yet another sad story of residents being forced to leave their homes because of their wrong nationality. But this time something was strange, there were nomen, only women and children. I was approached by a group of three or four young girls that told me about a woman who hung herself on the tree nearby.They took me to some woods where I saw the surreal scene: a woman wearing a red cardigan looking more like levitating than hanging, several meters above the ground, surrounded by green leaves. On my way back I saw a U.N. soldier and I told him about what I saw. He said something like 'let’s take care of those that are alive, for now.'Later on when I was editing and transmitting photos, I had to discuss the matter with my editor because there were certain rules on showing explicit pictures of the dead and wounded, but we decided to run the photo. According to Al Gore’s biography, at the White House meeting he referred to the photo published on the Washington Post front page, and it was decided that the U.S. had to do something, which later resulted in U.S. involvement in stopping the war. I never even knew her name until a year later."Darko Bandic—AP
September 1993. Mostar."In September 1993, during the month that this photograph was taken, every type of crime and violence that was going to happen over and over in Bosnia-Herzegovina for the next two years had already been committed. Mostar was a small tourist town in western Bosnia, inhabited by a majority of Muslims and Croatians. Since the beginning of the war in the spring of 1992, Bosnian Serbs, supported by Serbia, bombarded the town from the mountains overlooking it. A year later, in May 1993, the Croatian militias of the separatist "Herzeg-Bosna" movement, supported by Croatia, turned against their Muslim allies, chased them out of the western part of the town and forced them into a small area of a few square kilometers. Thus was created an enclave squeezed between the Serbian and Croatian fronts."In this continuously bombarded enclave, the wounded, like the man on the photograph, were taken with great difficulty into the basement of the minuscule hospital. There was nothing there, and the few exhausted doctors asked a passersby for some blood to give to someone who was losing it. Trapped, the inhabitants, no longer able to escape, dug holes in the walls to shelter from the streets exposed to sniper fire. They risked their lives to get water from the river; they cut trees from parks and gardens to keep warm, or to cook their last box of rice. For those who weren’t yet hit by a piece of shrapnel from a Serbian shell or a bullet from a Croatian sniper, survival was a macabre struggle."Laurent Van der Stockt—Gamma
1993. Mostar."Most wars today are not waged on isolated battlefields, but within civilian populations.The battle for Mostar was fought from house to house, room to room, neighbor against neighbor. A bedroom, the place where people sleep and dream and share intimacy, where life itself is conceived, had become the frontline in a brutal civil war."James Nachtwey for TIME
April 1993. Vitez."It is harrowing to look back on some of the pictures I took during the civil war in Bosnia because of the brutality shown or alluded to. This one is amongst them. The residue of experience remains within the witness and can never be wholly understood by a viewer of a photograph no matter how empathetic.The anguished faces of these women say that something awful is happening. The picture was taken in Vitez, a town in central Bosnia, during a truce brokered between warring Croat and Moslem communities for the collection and burial of the dead. I joined a group of people waiting in a square on the Eastern side of the town. It was quiet and tense. Soon a truck arrived and men wearing white cotton coats and gas masks got down from the cab. They walked to the back of the truck and unhitched the tailgate and we saw a heap of dead men. I photographed the women watching. The masked men began to lift the bodies down from the truck and at once one of the women cried out, 'my husband, my husband, my husband...' The cruelty of the revelation and the notes of her despair are ghosts."Roger Hutchings
May 1993. Mostar."Mostar had become a divided city between the two former allies, the Bosnian Croats and the Bosnian Muslims. Fierce fighting had broken out in the city and I had gone there to see if I could work on one of the sides. I managed to get in and spend some time with a group of Croatian soldiers during the house-to-house fighting in the city. I'd been there for two or three days, photographing the soldiers as they fought from house to house, street by street. One of the soldiers in our group had been shot by a sniper in front of us and another had been hit in the back as we were running across the street. It was a very, very intense situation.This picture was taken of a young soldier who just looked in shock. He was absolutely still and staring into the distance and he never really noticed me. It was a quiet moment for once, but he was obviously very affected by what was going on. We’d run into the stairwell of a house looking for shelter, and he was just sitting there. I made a couple of pictures of him very quickly and then we left. I took lots of pictures over those few days, but that's probably the quietest picture that I took on the day and probably the only portrait that I took in the whole series."Jon Jones
August 1992. Trnopolje."When several journalists broke the story of the Serbian prison camps, there was a huge outcry in the world. Immediate comparisons to Nazi concentration camps were invoked and a demand for investigations and intervention were discussed. I was working on the Bosnian Serb side at the time trying to understand the war from their perspective as, like all wars, nothing is completely one-sided. However it was extremely difficult to work as it appeared the Bosnian Serbs didn't understand or care about journalism and the flow of information even when it was to help people understand them.I asked a Bosnian Serb Army officer if I could go to a front line near where they had recently lost ground and show the effects on their civilian population. He quickly said no but said if I wanted I could go to visit the prison camps in order to see they really weren't as bad as people thought.To this day I am not sure if the Bosnian Serb leadership made a brilliant short-term public relations move or just created a long-term accusatory piece of evidence. After my trip to several camps, TIME published the images and the outcry was as to be expected. Brutal images harking back to World War II but now in color and in the 1990s were shocking to all. But the shock quickly wore off and people really didn't care. Some camps were closed while new ones on all sides opened and the story in the immediate sense disappeared. But now 20 years later we are reminded what happened again in the heart of Europe while we all watched."Ron Haviv—VII
June 11, 1992. Sarajevo."On Thursday, June 11, 1992, I was in an a 'soft' (non-armored) car speeding out of central Sarajevo on the infamous 'Sniper Alley' when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a body in the street. The dead woman had been walking towards Sarajevo, presumably from the countryside, given her attire, and had passed along a stretch of road exposed to Bosnian Serb or Serb snipers. Someone had shot her in the head and her body lay exposed on the road as cars sped by at top speed to avoid a similar fate.I approached the body, crouched down low behind a metal garbage container in order to make a photo, always aware that I might be visible to another sniper. At some point I stopped, framed the photo with an 80-200 f2.8 zoom lens and waited for something to fill the background. A car sped by. I lowered my shutter speed slightly to try and capture the movement of what I assumed would be another car passing by soon. One did and I released the shutter.At this stage very, very few journalist were working in Sarajevo due to the dangerous conditions and difficulty of accessing the city. There was much interest in the rapidly deteriorating situation there. The photo was used on scores of newspaper front pages around the world. Some years later I was sent a photo taken at a photo exhibition in Sarajevo. One whole wall of the exhibition consisted of front pages featuring this photo."Santiago Lyon—AP
March 1996. Near Srebrenica."This photograph is taken in a ditch at the foot of a mountain path that connected the Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica to Bosnia. Thousands of men fled for their lives down this path and across the adjacent fields after the fall of Srebrenica in 1995. Approximately 8,000 men and teenage boys from the enclave were killed as they fled by Serb forces who poured machine-gun fire, anti-aircraft cannon and artillery down on the path. Some survivors spoke of Serb soldiers in white coats coming out of the forest with syringes and injecting them.Theodor Menon, the presiding judge of the Appeals Chamber at the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugolsavia, made this statement about Srebrenica: By seeking to eliminate a part of the Bosnian Muslims, the Bosnian Serb forces committed genocide. They targeted for extinction the 40,000 Bosnian Muslims living in Srebrenica, a group which was emblematic of the Bosnian Muslims in general. They stripped all the male Muslim prisoners, military and civilian, elderly and young, of their personal belongings and identification, and deliberately and methodically killed them solely on the basis of their identity."Gary Knight—VII
Oct. 1993. Sarajevo hills."My pictures are not there to judge the crime nor to defend a front line. These are the images brought back from a visit to the gardens of the Devil: Life in a country at war. Daily contact with violence and death, corpses, bodies lost in the hills above the massacred villages, charred rubble of isolated farms, graves dug into the swamps, autopsies one after another in demolished cities. And the living, in hell, are become animals again. Life is reduced to the limits of what can be tolerated.Between 1991 and 1999, I spent time in Yugoslavia and, a few months before war broke out there, when I visited the country, a Serb told me about a custom that would enlighten me on the state spirit of his people. According to him, today and since forever, it is considered wise to drag a gun under the pillows of children before they fall asleep. Listening to him, I imagined their parents and the childhood of these children and their adolescence, and a life influenced by this gesture. Then I slipped into the slumber of these children and it was like a dream, the nightmare that shook the Balkans during the next decade. In these villages, the atmosphere was rather quiet, too quiet. No one was walking in the streets, and no dogs barked behind the walls of the farms. People seemed barricaded in their homes. And in the evening, the children, with guns under their pillows, could not find sleep. The night had come and the nightmare would last 10 years."Alexandra Boulat died in 2007. This text was translated from notes, in French, that she kept in case she ever made a book of her work from the region.Alexandra Boulat—VII

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