Bosnia and Herzegovina – November/December 1993
The Bosnian War was a complex military conflict in the region of Bosnia and Herzegovina, between April 6th 1992 and December 14th 1995. The war was caused by a political, social and ethnic crisis following the end of the Cold War and the fall of the socialist system in Yugoslavia. A frenzy of nationalism, ethnic cleansing and genocide followed, killing an estimated 100,000 people and displacing 1.8 million.
The following selection of photographs and interviews were taken during a 3 week assignment to the enclave of Tuzla in eastern Bosnia during December 1993 on behalf of aid agency Oxfam. At that time Tuzla had been blockaded by Serbian Armed forces for 10 months. A small amount of humanitarian aid arrived by UNHCR convoy, the only other way to enter Tuzla was by UN helicopters.
My brief was to photograph the distribution of winter clothing and footwear to refugees, provide publicity images that will be used to raise public awareness to the plight facing refugees during the approaching winter and produce persuasive imagery for Oxfam’s 1994 ‘The Cold Front Appeal’.
I first travelled to Split in Croatia where I had the opportunity to photograph and interview a refugee family of Catholic Croats from the village of Vrlika whose entire population of 500 residents had been ethnically cleansed by Serbian Armed Forces in 1991. (see BOS 06/07).
As a temporary member of the UNHCR I then made my way by helicopter to the industrial city of Tuzla in eastern Bosnia were I was based for the remainder of this assignment. Tuzla is the third largest city in Bosnia and had been under siege by Serbian Army Forces for 10 months. Only limited UNHCR humanitarian convoys known as the ‘Tuzla Nomads’ were permitted road access into Tuzla.
On arrival in Tuzla a distinctive smell of raw sewage and wood smoke permeated throughout the city. In order to intimidate and create fear in the population Tuzla was randomly shelled each day from Serbian Army artillery positions 9km away. The power station had been damaged, which meant only limited electricity was available each day, often only one hour per day. Wood fires were the main source of heating and cooking, car batteries were charged when electricity was available which provided limited 12 volt lighting during the evenings.
The ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims from the surrounding districts had doubled the city population, straining its already limited resources, refugees were housed in schools, sports halls and public buildings. Their lives were one of constant uncertainty, with no future and some a horrific past.
I shared a room with Oxfam’s Bosnia representative in Tuzla, Andrew Chadwick. A 7pm to 7am curfew was strictly enforced, as Serbian raiding parties were known to enter the city at night. The front door was securely barricaded each night, long cold nights were occasionally spent drinking illegally distilled slivovitz.
Not only was it persistently cold working in Tuzla, this assignment was made especially difficult as there was huge resentment towards ‘outsiders’, any assistance to me was limited. Bosnian Muslims justifiably considered they had been forgotten and abandoned by the western nations. Fortunately, I was assigned Oxfam’s programme manager Jasmina Husmanovic as translator and facilitator, her local knowledge and assistance was greatly appreciated.
I recorded two of these events on my dictaphone:
…”a solder came into the Oxfam office today and said his daughter was very ill and his family hungry. He said that unless he received some help he would kill his family and then kill himself, but before he did so he would make sure he took a lot of UNHCR staff with him. I gave him a 100 dinar note and he left, we all felt quite useless and wondered why we were all here”…
…”an elderly lady came up to me and threw a ball of ice in my face and shouted ‘help us we are starving’ I could do nothing and kept on walking”…
Images from this assignment were used widely in full page national newspaper campaigns and magazine articles to inform the public and appeal to governments to intervene in the forthcoming humanitarian catastrophe.