It seems like a simple question, but I've been asked
it so many times since my return and I still haven't managed to answer
properly. All my responses seem contradictory: the country was amazing
yet also awful. The people are kind and wonderful, yet some have been
been sent to Bosnia to photograph Islamic Relief's projects and
interview some of our beneficiaries in the country. They say that a
photographer should distance himself from his subject, but for me it
was not that simple. The visit was of huge personal significance
because it was the Bosnian conflict during the 1990's that first
attracted me to Islamic Relief.
arrival in Sarajevo I was hit by the shocking scenes of destruction. We
have all seen the news footage of the carnage wrought by the conflict,
but actually seeing the damage drove home what the citizens of Sarajevo
had endured during those chaotic years. It is difficult to imagine a
city that hosted the Winter Olympics reduced to such a state -
everywhere, I saw burnt out homes, crumbling streets and the charred
remains of businesses.
I arrived in Zvornik in Central Bosnia, the contrast was so stark that
I might have been in a different country altogether. The sheer natural
beauty of the landscape was breathtaking. Amongst the ancient trees
stood small, lime washed houses with quaint terracotta roofs. It was
like a secluded Swiss mountain village.
I was constantly greeted with the traditional "Assalam o Aleikum", and
overwhelmed by the hospitality of complete strangers. One such was a
grandmother in her eighties, who had lived through both world wars.
Vezira Piric had been forced to leave Goradze with her family when
their home was destroyed, and after 5 years of waiting, she was finally
able to return. Her house had been re-built and now she looked forward
to starting her life anew.
was thrilled that someone from England had come to visit her, and
delighted in showing me the goats she had bought with a 2000 KM Islamic
Relief loan. I was touched when she insisted I photograph her with her
favourite goat, and was moved by her vivid descriptions of the violence
and hatred she had witnessed. Yet despite this she managed to remain
hopeful - certain that thanks to Islamic Relief her family's life would
be secure for generations to come.
then went east for the most poignant part of my visit. Near Srebrenica,
in a field under a tree, stood a white stone cube a metre high with the
inscription 'Srebrenica Juli 1995'. This is the only memorial to the
8,000 Bosnian Muslims killed by Serb forces that overran the
UN-proclaimed safe area. The Srebrenica massacre is generally regarded
as the worst single atrocity in Europe since World War 2. An estimated
90% of the victims remain unidentified.
atmosphere of a place so burdened with evil was unreal, and even now I
can scarcely describe my emotions. Sadness is too weak a word for what
I felt. Utter desolation is perhaps closer. I was in the presence of
spirits who had fallen prey to man's hatred, fear and mistrust of that
which is different.
years after the Dayton Peace Accord and the end of the war, the world's
attention has moved to other countries. Most of the aid agencies have
pulled out, whilst others have dramatically reduced their activities.
Islamic Relief, however, has stayed to help the still-suffering people
of Bosnia rebuild their country. The focus of IR activities has moved
towards long-term development, lending a hand to people like Vezira
Piric and her family, as they remould their shattered lives.
still have conflicting emotions about my visit, but the respect I feel
for the people I saw is absolutely certain. Their strength in rising up
and beginning again, after so much suffering, earned my unqualified
admiration. All that they ask for is a helping hand in the re-building
process. As for myself, I have tried to provide a glimpse of the people
and the beauty of Bosnia through my photographs. I know, however, that
they will never capture the true spirit and strength of a people who
will always live in the shadow of Srebrenica.