Srebrenica: The story that will never end
I’ve been to more than one hundred mass graves, mass funerals and witnessed the long, exhaustive process of victim identification. I took pictures of bones found in caves and rivers, taken from mud, recovered from woods and mines or just left by the road.
Most of these terrible assignments were around the small, used to be forgotten at-the-end-of-the-road town called Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia.
The international criminal court said the most terrible crimes of genocide were committed in Srebrenica area when the Bosnian Serb forces massacred thousands of Muslims after the enclave, ironically under U.N. protection as a safe heaven, was overrun by an army led by its ruthless commander.
Ratko Mladic, a typical officer from what used to be the Yugoslav people’s army, was the commander of the forces that overran the enclave. He commanded what he said was the revenge upon the Turks for the events from the early 19th century. Thousands of white Muslim gravestones at the terrifying and extremely sad Srebrenica memorial remain as a symbol of that “revenge”. Thousands are still missing, their bones hidden in heavy Bosnian soil.
I have never seen Ratko Mladic, I never photographed him, but his bloody signature is written all over my pictures. Every time I would go to another mass grave or a mass funeral of victims of his “revenge”, the face of a man confident he is doing the right thing would come into the frame. Rolled up sleeves, binoculars in his hands as he ordered his artillery “Don’t let them sleep. Make them lose their minds.”
I will carry the mud from mass graves and the smell of decomposing bodies on my shoes wherever I go. I will continue shooting my Srebrenica pictures on every story of crimes against humanity no matter how far and different they may be.
Now, after more than 15 years on the run Ratko Mladic was captured in a small village in Serbia and is on his way to join Radovan Karadzic, his war-time president and another “butcher of Balkans” according to the international press, in the Hague. Looking at the few handout pictures of an old man emerging from the Belgrade court – Mladic is almost seventy now – sends chills down my spine. I’m not even sure I want to see him any more, to hear what he has to say, his words from the ’90s were enough, there is not much else to say.
All that could be heard from the pictures – a sea of coffins lined up for the funeral every 11th of July, a wrinkled face of a woman, the only survivor in her family, as she holds a photo of her killed son, bones bulldozed in the mass graves, the names on the memorial…
And don’t forget Sarajevo and its siege, the longest in the modern history of wars – Mladic was in charge of that one, too.
Covering one long story is not an easy thing to do, no matter how big and important it is. Fifteen years of the same – one could ask “does anyone care anymore?” How many times can the same story be written and will papers print it at all?
The threshold was getting very high as the years passed and questions were asked – how many at this mass grave, is it over one hundred? Anything special? A baby skull with a bullet hole, maybe a body impaled on the stake? Only thirty bodies?
As I was went from one site of atrocities to another, Mladic was still in hiding raising questions that made my head hurt like hell. He would only appear from time to time on the posters or t-shirts of his supporters – there are people still calling him the hero. That is where the reality bites and pictures get scary – ghosts of victims dancing between white grave marks in our photos are harmless.
The general is in the custody now, but, just like these pictures, his “revenge” remains imprinted in the sad history of a beautiful country.
Some of the best advice I’ve ever heard in our profession was to take every assignment as it was never done before and you are the only one to witness it. No matter what was the year – 1995 or 2005 – every time I go to Srebrenica, I would have the feeling that I’m doing something that is more that just a regular story.
It is, simply, the biggest story of my life.