In the past few years, this blog looked back at over 900 photos. Many are famous. A few are indelibly iconic. But only a handful could claim they have changed the course of history. This was one such photo.
I have written before about the messy disintegration of Yugoslavia, a topic which still is a thorny and polemical subject to write about (if comments are anything to go by) two decades after the events. In a few days in July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces massacred around 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica, which was supposedly under the UN aegis. We stood idly outside, our rhetoric changed from ‘Never again’ to ‘Once More’.
Darko Bandic, a freelance Croat photographer working for AP, recalled the above photograph he took near the annihilated town:
I had arrived at this massive makeshift refugee camp in Tuzla early in the morning, around 5.30am. Tens of thousands of distraught women and children had poured into the camp the previous day.
Just as I was about to enter the camp, two or three young girls told me they had spotted a woman hanging from a tree in the woods. They took me to her. I was actually a bit confused. I didn’t know exactly what to do. From the direction I was walking I could see her face, but obviously I didn’t want to shoot that. I shot just a couple of frames, then went back to the UN guard. I remember he was a Swedish soldier and I told him what I had seen. He said: ‘For now, let’s take care of the ones who are alive.’
I saw so many really awful things in Bosnia’s war, that was just yet another of them. I did wonder what horrific things must have happened to her to drive herself to take her own life. But I never found out. I never even knew her name until a year later.”
Her name was Ferida Osmanovic and her photo soon appeared on front pages all over the world. It was a metaphor for the Unknown Victim of the Balkan wars: faceless, defenseless, humiliated. At their Oval Office meeting, Vice President Al Gore told President Clinton, “My 21-year-old daughter asked about this picture. What am I supposed to tell her? Why is this happening and we’re not doing anything? My daughter is surprised the world is allowing this to happen. I am too.” His outrage was shared by many UN officials, NATO and US Army’s top brass.
President Clinton, whose initial comments on Srebrenica were lawyerly (‘the fall of Srebrenica undermined the UN’s peacekeeping mission’), was pushed towards an intervention by Gore. On the Capitol Hill, Senator Diane Feinstein was equally vehement; in a memorable speech, she used the photo to underline the plight of raped and murdered civilians in the war zone.
By July, the UN had given its military forces the authority to request airstrikes without consulting civilian UN officials. A comprehensive air support for other safe zones and retaliatory air strikes by NATO were launched against the Serbs. The bombing campaign finally brought the Serbs to the negotiating table in November 1995, when the Dayton Accords put an end to three and a half-year long Bosnian War.
[For details of Ferdia’s surviving children, the Guardian story here.]
The most striking thing about the photo — and Srebrenica massacre — was that it happened in 1995, exactly a year after the Rwandan genocide. My memory of both events is vague, but I saw them on CNN daily growing up. In fact, they were amongst my first memories of the world outside my family. They have shaped who I am today. No one — but especially no children — should see similar horrors unfolding, firsthand or otherwise.
Auschwitz. Srebrenica. Rwanda. Congo. Syria.
The list goes on.