Trnopolje, Bosnia, 1992.


 As the media attention in Bosnian Crisis rose, Newsday‘s Roy Gutman, a British film crew from ITN, and the Guardian’s Ed Vulliamy are among the first television crew on the ground. Serb officials blocked their access, but allowed them into a camp, Omarska. As fate would have it, as they departed, they drove past another camp, Trnopolje, where ghastly scenes awaited.

ITN would broadcast the first pictures from Trnopolje on August 6th 1992. The images of wilting Muslims behind barbed wire inflamed public outrage about the war like no postwar genocide. The next day’s frontpages were full of outrage; the Star and the Daily Mirror both recalled “Belsen” in their headlines, with the latter paper captioning the photos, “The Horrors of a New Holocaust”. The media fixated on one particular man with protruding ribs, Bosnian Fikret Alic. His gaunt terrified face became an icon of the Bosnian civil war. It was hard to imagine that he had been at the camp for only nine days when journalists stumbled upon him. American public approval from intervention jumped from 35% to 53%. In a rare emotive address, former British PM Margaret Thatcher criticized her successor John Major, beginning “I never thought I’d see another holocaust in my life.”

The picture was used as evidence in war crimes tribunals in The Hague. But it also sparked a controversy; five years after its publication, LM (formerly Living Marxist) published an article entitled ‘The Picture that Fooled the World‘, claiming that the broadcasts gave the impression Trnopolje was a concentration camp run by Serbs for Bosnians and Croats rather than just a refuge centre and that Alic was emaciated because of a childhood bout of tuberculosis. ITN and Vulliamy never actually used the term concentration camp in their reports, and the latter didn’t even mention barbed wires, focussing instead on Omarska camp; Vulliamy later angrily retorted that those who had died in Trnopolje and Omarska camps were ‘most horribly insulted’ by the LM; ITN and Alic successfully sued the magazine into bankruptcy. But this being the Internet age, blogs and youTube are chockfull of LM supporters but here is the original ITN report:

Soon, other photojournalists headed to Trnopolje, including Ron Haviv. For Agency VII/Newsweek, Haviv covered turmoils in the Balkans, such as the fall of Vukovar, the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia, the Sarajevo detention camps, the ethnic conflict in Kosovo, the bombing and the flight of the refugees, ending with the civil unrest in Macedonia.