I did not intend to stay so long in Bosnia. It just happened.
When Josip Broz, aka Tito, the benevolent dictator of Yugoslavia, died on May 4, 1980, nobody had an inkling of the bloodshed and ruin that was in store for the federation. In early 1992, just 12 years after Tito’s death, a referendum on independence took Bosnia down the path to war. The population, with the exception of most ethnic Bosnian Serbs, supported the breakaway from Yugoslavia.
Led by the psychiatrist and failed poet Radovan Karadzić, the nationalist Serbs, whose goal was the creation of a Serb ethno-state in Bosnia, began a campaign of terror and ethnic cleansing, besieging Sarajevo for 1,395 days. It was the longest siege of the 20th century, which was the bloodiest in human history. In 1914, an assassin in Sarajevo fired the shots that would set in motion a chain of events that led to World War One. Now shots were again echoing around the world from Sarajevo.
Bosnia was not the first to depart the federation. Months before in the summer of 1991, two of the constituent republics of Yugoslavia, first Slovenia and then Croatia, declared their independence.
The Serb-dominated federal government in Belgrade, capital of both Yugoslavia and Serbia, unleashed the army on the breakaway republics. The fighting in Slovenia lasted two weeks before the Yugoslav army retreated, leaving Slovenia free.
But in Croatia the army decided to crush the newly-independent nation. Backed by the army and Serb militia loyal to Belgrade and Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosević, Yugoslavia plunged into a bloody war. Slovenia was ultimately lucky; they did not have a large population of Serbs, like in Croatia and neighboring Bosnia, where the population watched with a mixture of dread and denial that war could happen there.
Bosnia’s capital Sarajevo was considered the multicultural heart of Yugoslavia. The citizens were a mix of Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Christian Serbs, Catholic Croats and Jews whose ancestors had been expelled from Spain and taken in by the Turkish Ottoman Empire centuries before.
Most of the top Yugoslav rock bands and artists originated there. Cannes Film Festival multiple Palm d’Or-winning director and actor Emir Kusturica is from Sarajevo.
In 1984, Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics, and the city welcomed the world with open arms. It was this spirit of tolerance and multiethnic cooperation that made Sarajevo a prime target for destruction by nationalist forces.
Only eight years after the Olympics the people of this beautiful city were being slaughtered by the nationalist Serbs in collaboration with the Yugoslav army. Hundreds of thousands of artillery, mortar, and tank rounds rained down on the city from the surrounding mountains. Sarajevo is in a valley, like a fishbowl where snipers picked off men, women and children at will. The world watched as the carnage was beamed live around the globe on television.
Into this cauldron of madness I made an entrance in the summer of 1992. It completely changed my life.
I was a photojournalist working for the French-American photo agency Gamma Liaison (now Getty Images). The agency syndicated my photographs to publications around the world. I worked on special assignment for the Washington Post and Miami Herald, reporting in photographs and the written word.
The Serb forces besieging Sarajevo were broken by NATO forces in September 1995, culminating in the flawed Dayton agreement that has frozen the country in place in an uneasy peace. Sarajevo was officially under siege from April 5 1992 until February 29, 1996.
Over the next 24 years I documented the people of Sarajevo, during war and on the long road to the current uneasy peace, in words, photographs and motion pictures. The culmination of this effort is the film “Sarajevo Roses-a cinematic essay.”
I have learned a few things along the way. Perhaps the most important is how fragile our modern civilization really is. Those of us who were documenting what was happening in Bosnia realized that this was no ordinary conflict. It was happening in the heart of Europe, 90 minutes by air from Vienna, Austria and Munich, Germany. Italy was only an hour away, Paris two hours.
Yet images of tortured and starving prisoners reminiscent of the death camps of WWII were on the airwaves. What happened to the vows of “Never again!” made after the Holocaust?
The film “Sarajevo Roses” is mainly about grace and human resilience in the face of terrible acts of cruelty. It is also about how our modern society is built on interpersonal relationships and tolerance of others who might be different. Whether the difference is political, racial or by ethnicity, we choose to live and grow together. Once these bonds begin to fray, or break, all it takes is someone in political leadership willing to exploit it for their own power.
That’s what happened in Yugoslavia and Bosnia. It was a modern multiethnic society. I want people to know that if it could happen there, it could happen anywhere. That’s what had a huge impact on me, and most of my colleagues who documented the war.
My wish is that the film will inspire sincere political conversation and individual reflection on why the world seems to be in so much conflict right now.
In Europe, there are lingering questions from those who were very young when the siege of Sarajevo and Srebrenica genocide took place. They ask how this could have been allowed to happen in modern Europe at the end of the 20th century. Hopefully this film will add to the conversation about the Balkan wars and aftermath. Things there are still very unstable.
In the USA I want the film to connect audiences to the fact that we are not much different than people in other parts of the world, and that at heart we mainly all want the same thing. Peace and the chance to provide for our families.
The film screening of “Sarajevo Roses” takes place tomorrow, June 14, at 7:15pm at the Naro Cinema on Colley Avenue in Ghent. For more info, here is the event on Facebook.