Over 400 Bosnian and foreign journalists who covered the Bosnian war gathered in Sarajevo last week for the 20th anniversary of the outbreak of the conflict. But the reunion, organized by former Le Monde correspondent and editor Remy Ourdan and TV reporter Willem Lust, with support from AFP, the Association of Journalists of Bosnia and Herzegovina and other organizations, generated as much discussion about the problems in today’s Bosnia as it did about the past, according to photographer Gary Knight, who traveled to the event with his wife, filmmaker Fiona Turner. “It wasn’t very celebratory,” says Knight. “For so many of us, there was an affirmation that we need to get back to work in that country.”
In Sarajevo, Knight, Ourdan and photographer Jon Jones (now director of photography for London’s Sunday Times Magazine) presented the layout of the book they are self-publishing: Bosnia 1992 to 1995, featuring images donated by 45 photographers and essays by journalists who covered the conflict, edited by Jones. When the book is published in July, they will donate about 250 copies to Bosnian public libraries; they will also sell copies and send proceeds to charities in Bosnia (selected with help from Bosnian colleagues). Though Knight had anticipated that revisiting Bosnia and reconnecting with his old colleagues would be “emotional,” he says, “I didn’t anticipate to what degree and why.” He explains, “It’s staggering what has not happened in 20 years.”
The official unemployment rate in Bosnia is 45 percent. Tens of thousands are still displaced 20 years after they were forced out of their homes. “You have people living on 100 euros a month,” he notes, “and there’s no justice.”
War criminals who killed hundreds live alongside their victims’ families. It’s estimated that between 20,000 and 50,000 rapes took place during the war; eight people have been jailed for rape by the Bosnian courts. Burned out buildings have not been rebuilt. Knight, who is in touch with many Bosnians says, “I knew there were problems, but it’s absolutely miserable.” Amidst the exhibitions, memorial services, panel discussions and social gatherings of journalists at the Sarajevo Holiday Inn, Knight says, conversations often turned to the need to call more attention to Bosnia’s current state. “It was interesting. We weren’t reliving the war. We were looking forwards.”
Of course, when journalists talk about the Bosnian war, they’re usually talking about their inability to stir outrage or to move the international community to stop the genocide, a frustration they vented again as journalists risked their lives to tell the world about the bombardment of Homs, Syria.
Talking to PDN the day after he returned from Sarajevo, however, Knight saw it differently. On his visit, he talked with a man who, in 1996, had survived a mass execution. Knight photographed him “a few months after he slithered out from under the body of his cousin.” At the time, Knight recalls, taking his picture and telling his story couldn’t change what had happened to him, his family, or his village. But when they saw each other again a few days ago, Knight says, “He said, ‘You were the first person who came to find me, and what was important to me was that someone cared.’”
It was a comment he heard throughout the week from friends in Sarajevo. “It was overwhelming. They knew that our stories were unable to change public opinion, [but] we were the only foreigners in that city for three years, living with them, eating with them, picking them up on the street when they were wounded, taking them to hospital, carrying their letters out, lending them our sat phones. What that meant to them was that someone cared. There was someone standing with them. I think that’s massive. And I think it’s massive in Syria. And elsewhere.”
Knight adds, “It isn’t the mission of journalists to change public policy. Our role is to make sure politicians can’t say they didn’t know.”
The friend who survived the mass execution, Knight notes, remains displaced from his family’s home, because he can’t prove it belonged to his father (“All he has of his father is a skull and a thigh bone,” says Knight.) His is just one of thousands of stories of loss, frustration, and unfinished business left to tell in Bosnia. “If I tell his story, it may not change anything,” Knight says. “I would say that one of the most important functions for me – I cannot speak for others – is to let him, or whoever I am working with, know that they have not been forgotten, discarded and that their experience is important.”
Update, April 12: Knight has already published a story on the state of Bosnia today. His commentary, “Return to Sarajevo: 20 Years Later,” is now on GlobalPost. It includes the story of Mevludin Oric, the survivor of a mass execution, and Knight’s photos of him, taken in 1996 and 2012.
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