History of the Balkans is closely intertwined with violence. “From the ghastly massacres of Muslims committed by the Greek freedom fighters in 1821 down to Srebrenica and Kosovo in our own day, the savageries form an unbroken red stripe,” wrote Neal Acherson.
Recording these atrocities was the British photographer Tom Stoddart, whose black-and-white images sang the region’s elegiacs. Stoddart would be wounded in Sarajevo in 1992, but fell in love with the place, and returned to shoot the often. Among his photos, that of Sarajevo’s burnt out towers seen through the shattered windows of the Holiday Inn stood out.
On October 3rd 1992 — a day after some 100,000 people marched through the streets of Sarajevo to demonstrate for peace — the Serb-dominated Yugoslav National Army shelled the city from the hills surrounding it. For the next 1,200 days, the siege continued and as the world looked on, 12,000 people perished. They had to dig up football pitches to find room to bury the dead.
Today, it is easy to remember that Sarajevo in 1992 was a prosperous metropolis. Yugoslavia was not poor; it was one of the richest of the Eastern Bloc states and Sarajevo had hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984. The Holiday Inn, which would be the headquarters of the international media during the siege, was built in 1983. The UNIS Twin Towers of the above photo were built in 1986. Their destruction — and subsequent rebuilding — was symbolic because they were called Momo (Serbian name) and Uzeir (Bosniak name). No one knew which tower carried which name, and this ambiguity accentuated deep cultural unity between the peoples who lived side by side during those troubled times.
In 1998, yielding to the international pressure, the Sudanese government allowed good aid to be distributed to the south. British photojournalist Tom Stoddart travelled with Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) to a camp in Ajiep, where more than 100 people were dying every day. There he took the above photo of a crippled boy who had queued hours for food, only to find it robbed away from him by a fit man who strides confidently away.
Stoddart received overwhelming criticism for his image, people demanding why he did not intervene. He responded, “I am a photographer, not a policeman or an aid worker. All I can do is try to tell the truth as I see it with my camera.” However, Stoddart requested that the papers that print his Sudan photos run the credit card hotlines of aid agencies next to the photos. On the day the above photo appeared in the Guardian, MSF had 700 calls and £40,000 was pledged. The Daily Express raised £500,000. Le Figaro ran 10 pages of his pictures, Stern magazine nine pages.
On a deeper level, the photo is a symbol of Africa’s continuing problem — the big man with the stick rules. Large amount of food aid disappears from the camps in much needed areas and appears for sale in the market places in neighboring countries. Not to be anecdotal but I once volunteered in an African country that should remain nameless. Food and medical aid that Western governments sent there were regularly pilfered by corrupt bureaucrats and sometimes aid is withheld or rediverted to areas that don’t need them because the governments there like to use foreign aid as a bargaining chip to subdue/cleanse tribes and ethnicities they don’t like. Yet, Western governments and aid agencies continue sending aid because sometimes getting a little aid to affected areas is better than cutting off aid.
I put some links to donation webpages of some international organization helping aid efforts in Africa. Just click on their logos:
Now that you are here: I am doing something crassly commercial here. I just signed up for Patreon. Patreon is a fundraising platform. In their words, “Patreon is an Internet-based platform that allows content creators to build their own subscription content service.” As you may notice in last few years, I have been posting very infrequently. But I want IP to go on for a long time and be sustainable. Linking a monetary value to a new post (not a ‘monthly salary’ — which is another way of doing Patreon) should give me a marginal incentive to write more. As far as the blog is concerned, nothing will change. No paywalls. Patreon is more useful for YouTubers and podcasters, but let’s see how it goes for me: https://www.patreon.com/iconicphotos