Chris : "I wrote this poem in response to a very distressing story and photo which appeared on the front page of 'The Guardian'
(a British newspaper) on 15 July 1995. The story did not mention the woman's name or anything about her - everything was 'Unknown' at that stage. The picture was especially distressing. I felt an imperative need to do something (however small) to mark and respect this woman, to try and understand and reflect what must have overwhelmed her. I was angry about what had happened to her - what the world had clearly allowed to happen to her. I began this poem on that day and finished it the next day.
Here is the front page of 'The Guardian'
newspaper on that day. The photograph has since become a symbol of the United Nation's betrayal of Srebrenica. The photographer was Darko Bandic. All rights are © 'The Guardian
' and Darko Bandic.
What Happened in Srebrenica ?
Chris : "I had been following (in the media) the violent break-up of the former Yugoslavia. Between 1992 and 1995 the Bosnian Serb forces under Commander Ratko Mladic moved from area to area, carrying out brutal 'ethnic cleansing' of Muslim citizens. Tens of thousands of Muslim people were forced from their homes and across the region, becoming refugees walking hundreds of kilometres, with tens of thousands winding up in the refugee-packed Srebrenica and its surrounding area.
Its population had previously been around 9,000 but it had now swollen to about 70,000. In 1993 Srebrenica had been declared by the United Nations to be a UN-protected 'Safe Area', so these victims of ethnic cleansing thought they would finally be safe there. With mountains ringing the town and with the Bosnian Serb forces firing on and shelling the town it had become a virtual prison. These refugees, victims of this ethnic cleansing, had put their trust in the United Nations and the international community.
Unfortunately, on 11 July 1995, after years of threatening and beseiging Srebrenica, Mladic personally led his forces into the town, making a mockery of the UN and its 'safe area'. The small UN protection force of Dutch troops (UNPROFOR), lacking support from the UN, quickly gave up their arms to Mladic's Army and pledged no resistance, in return for their own safe passage out of Srebrenica.
Over this day and the next few days, amid great chaos and confusion, press reports like this 'Guardian'
report started to emerge. They revealed that tens of thousands of Muslim men, women and children were being driven out of the area, and thousands of Muslim men and boys were missing. As the days and first weeks passed, multiple eye-witness accounts told the horrific story of a massacre. Gradually, the world learned that as part of this 'ethnic cleansing' around 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Mladic's forces in a few days in and around Srebrenica."
The Photographer Darko Bandic's Thoughts
Chris : "A few years later, as the Internet was developing I was able to discover more about the photographer Darko Bandic, a freelance Croat working for Associated Press. I discovered that he now had a website and Blog." On his Blog Darko recalled :
"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.”
The Years After
Chris : "Late in 1995 a kind of Peace was reached in Bosnia, but it was one which conceded the region to Mladic and his political leaders - all obvious war criminals. In November 1995 the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) charged Radovan Karadzic (President of the Bosnian Serbs) and Ratko Mladic with a series of crimes. These included Genocide ('acting with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, or religious group'
) and crimes against Humanity as 'part of a widespread or systematic or large-scale attack directed against a civilian population'
In 2002 the new International Criminal Court opened and this gave some faint hope for the first time that Mladic (now living openly in Bosnia but protected by the government and its supporters) might one day face justice, along with the other war criminals in this conflict.
Some time after discovering Darko Bandic's Blog, I discovered that the woman in the photograph was Ferida Osmanovic."
Lorna Martin's Interview on 'The Guardian' Website (2005)
Chris : : "In 2006 I came across a lengthy article written the previous year by Lorna Martin on The Guardian's
website in which she wrote about the death of Ferida and her husband Selman Osmanovic. In Lorna's article she published parts of her interview with Ferida and Selman's two children (in 2005 they were aged 20 and 23), as they made a psychologically and emotionally difficult 'pilgrimage' to Srebrenica.
They told how the family had in 1995 fled on foot to Srebrenica. At the time Fatima was 10 years old and her brother Damir was 13. After walking across the country they had been in Srebrenica for a couple of weeks when Mladic's forces entered the town. Their father Selman was forcibly separated from his family by Mladic's soldiers, who put Selman on a bus with other Muslim men and boys. Ferida and her children watched as the bus (and other buses) drove away.
We now know that the bus took these men and boys to the site of a large hole dug in the ground, a mass grave where they were shot dead and buried along with hundreds of others. Eventually, the world would learn that around 8,000 men and boys were killed and buried in mass graves, over the course of several days, by Mladic's forces in the area of Srebrenica.
While this was happening the women, older men and children were forced out of Srebrenica to walk to wherever they thought they might find safety - without food, water, shelter or protection of any kind. Ferida, Fatima and Damir had no choice but to join tens of thousands of other refugees heading across country on a desperate trek towards Tuzla, a Bosnian Government-held position which they hoped would be a safer place. It was about 90 km away, through fields, woods and mountains. They often had to cross roads where many again became victims of the murdering and raping forces of Mladic's marauding Army.
Lorna Martin's article says : "Fatima and Damir recall their mother becoming distraught. At some point, she started repeating over and over again, "My husband is coming, my husband is coming, 'but perhaps she realised he was never coming back'
, Damir said." The desparate and distraught Ferida and her children came to rest at night in a makeshift camp overflowing with refugees near Tuzla. Everyone was exhausted. In the interview Damir explained : "Then my mother said, 'Stay there'. We fell asleep and when we woke up the next morning we didn't see mother around. My sister and I went looking for her. For two days we searched the camp, calling out her name. But we couldn't find her."
Unknown to Fatima and Damir, some children not far away had found a young woman in a white dress and a red cardigan hanging from a tree in the forest. They alerted a photographer (this was Darko Bandic) who shot two frames, unsure whether his picture desk would want this. "Police eventually buried her in an anonymous grave on the edge of the refugee camp. On the wooden headboard they wrote : 'Unknown, Tuzla'"
Fatima and Damir did not know what had happened to their mother until several months later when Fatima "caught a fleeting glimpse"
of the photograph shown by a US journalist. It had by then been published across the world. It seared itself on her mind and she can never forget it. The children have no other photographs of their mother, so Fatima explained that "every time she closes her eyes and thinks of her mother, no matter how hard she tries not to see the image, it always appears."
Denial Among Serbian People and Authorities
Chris : "There has been (and still is) widespread denial by many Serbian people, authorities, press and media, and politicians about the Genocide committed by their forces in Srebrenica, and their activities elsewhere in the conflict. However, thousands of witness statements and the twenty-years-long international forensic investigation using advanced DNA techniques have established in great legal detail the murder victim's remains, names and causes of death for over 90% of the 8,000 victims. Despite all this, in Serbia there are still active, well-funded and highly sophisticated attempts to deny what happened.
A Little Justice - Eventually
Chris : "Thirteen years after the Srebrenica Genocide, the former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic was arrested in Belgrade in July 2008 and then extradited to The Hague and into the custody of the ICTY. In March 2016, he was found guilty of the genocide in Srebrenica, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to 40 years' imprisonment. In July 2016 he filed an appeal against his conviction but the appeal was rejected in March 2019, and the sentence was increased to life imprisonment.
By May 2011 the Bosnian Serb government co-operated in detaining its own former Military Commander Ratko Mladic and he was also extradited to The Hague. His trial began in May 2012 and was concluded in November 2017. It found him guilty and sentenced him to life in prison.
It was September 2015 (over twenty years after the crimes) before a Serbian Court first charged any of its citizens with crimes relating to the Srebrenica Genocide."
There is an old legal maxim which says : "Justice Delayed is Justice Denied".
Was it ever more true than in the case of Srebrenica ?
The Legacy for the United Nations
Chris : "What happened at Srebrenica has been described by the United Nations as the worst act of Genocide (it is the only legally proven case of Genocide) in Europe since the Second World War - and it took place in an area which the UN was protecting as a 'safe area'. Yet the UN failed to protect the people it was safeguarding. This was just a year after the UN's failure to prevent the Rwanda Genocide (in which 800,000 people were killed in 100 days). In both cases the UN has had to accept its responsibility for these monumental failings. The UN has therefore been written into history as complicit in both of these Genocides.
More than anything else, it was the clear guilt of the UN and the international community who allowed both Rwanda and Srebrenica to happen that led (after many years of debate and ambivalence) to the setting up of the International Criminal Court
which opened in 2002. But the USA, China, Russia and about eighty other countries have still not joined the ICC and wish to be immune to international justice."
The late Lord Ashdown, a former British politician who became the European Union's High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2002 said : "Whether through error, misjudgment, an inability to comprehend, or just inattention, we stood aside when we should not have done…We should therefore remember Srebrenica, not just to bear witness to those who suffered, but also as a warning to us all of what happens when we turn our back."