Photographers' Blog

Sarajevo, where they died with dignity

By Chris Helgren

I was trying to think of something good to write, something positive about this anniversary. But it’s just an impossible task when remembering the smell and mood of the morgues and hospitals tasked with the dirty work of the war. While I was there, I don’t think I met a single family untouched by the violence. Whether it was through loss of a relative or starvation or frostbite or all of the above, every Sarajevan had a sad story to tell. One of those who couldn’t tell me was 10 year old Elvedin Sendo, whose body was brought into the Kosevo hospital morgue with grass stains on his shoes. He was killed when Bosnian Serb shells hit his school’s playing field in the Hrasno neighbourhood, two weeks short of the war’s first anniversary.

The story of Sarajevans surviving the siege was one of community and dignity. Water lines were shattered early on, yet people needed water to survive. Sarajevo’s citizens would nervously queue to fill their containers in places known to those on the hills manning the artillery pieces. Once in a while, a mortar would land, kill a few of them, but they’d be back the next day to provide water for their families. A huge screen made of blue cloth, spanning the width of a street, was erected one year to protect pedestrians from sniper fire. Sadly, it wilted under the weight of a rainstorm within a couple of days.

Within a year most families had burned whatever firewood they had around the house, and they’d then venture out to cut down trees closer and closer to the front lines. After these were gone, they burned furniture, then shoes. At a friend’s house party during the third winter, we went through his record collection and burned LP’s by Martika and Michael Jackson. “He’s pretty hot”, was the joke at the time.

The will of Sarajevans was not to be broken, and women would still make the effort to look their best. It was seen as an act of defiance and rebellion against the gunners and snipers to wear make-up, skirts and shoes just like in peacetime. Inela Nogic, a 17 year old student, waved her bouquet at the world’s press, and to those in Pale and Belgrade, after being crowned Miss Besieged Sarajevo.

 Miss Besieged Sarajevo

Then came Srebrenica. After three and a half years, the West awoke from its catatonia to openly arm the Bosnians and Croats, allowing them to push retreating Serb forces towards the Drina river. At the same time NATO airstrikes began. Before long there was an agreement on the table in Dayton, and the war was over. But the question in my mind remained — if it was so easy to stop it, why did it have to go on so long? There are probably 100,000 others, including over 11,000 in Sarajevo, who would ask the same question if they could.

“Welcome to Sarajevo again”

WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT

It was June 28, 1995, when Sean Maguire and I arrived in Sarajevo for another few months of covering the conflict in the Bosnian capital.

The drive was uneventful as we left Split on the Adriatic Sea and drove overnight over Mount Igman. As always, Sean drove the car. Upon arrival in Sarajevo we went to sleep to be woken up by huge blasts. Two aircraft bombs attached to four rockets were launched from the ground from Serbian positions towards Sarajevo. One of them hit the TV station where all the local and foreign TV crews were working out of and the second an apartment block nearby.

Still half asleep we jumped into our armored Land Rover and drove in that direction, only to find another tragedy unfolding in front of our eyes. “Welcome to Sarajevo again”, I said to myself not knowing that it was going to be a very long and eventful summer. Almost every day we took pictures of one tragedy or another, as people tried to cope with life in the besieged city.

Mumbai attacks: In pictures

People duck as gunshots are fired from inside the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai November 27, 2008. REUTERS/Punit Paranjpe

Indian commandos take positions outside “Nariman House”, where armed militants are believed to be holed up in Mumbai November 27, 2008. REUTERS/Arko Datta

An employee (C) of the Taj Hotel (seen in the background) comforts foreign guests in Mumbai November 27, 2008. REUTERS/Arko Datta