‘A camera doesn’t lie’: Documenting besieged Sarajevo

25 years on, a Bosnian survivor is on a mission to keep memories alive with his Sniper Alley project.

[Danilo Krstanovic] DO NOT USE
With Serb snipers positioned on top of the hills surrounding Sarajevo, a man with a child takes a risk to run across the street [File: Danilo Krstanovic]

Wednesday, May 3, 1995, was supposed to be a peaceful day in besieged Sarajevo for 12-year-old Dzemil Hodzic, as a ceasefire had been declared.

It was a sunny day and with no shooting or shelling from Serb forces who held Bosnia’s capital under siege, the streets were full of children, eager to play outside and enjoy the fresh air.

But two hours into his game of marbles, with a single bullet, the day turned into a nightmare for Dzemil, a chilling memory etched forever in his mind.

A Serb sniper positioned on a notorious cliff called “Spicasta Stijena” killed his older brother Amel while he was playing tennis, shooting him in the chest.

The 16-year-old managed to walk some 20 metres towards his home, bleeding from his wound, before he fell to the ground.

Amid the screams and cries, Dzemil called for his mother who rushed outside and attempted cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on Amel, but he had already died on her lap.

“I could tell she knew [at that moment] it was over,” Dzemil told Al Jazeera from his home in Doha, Qatar, where he works as a video editor.

“That day I can say that my childhood ended, but I wasn’t aware of it. I was suddenly grown up mentally because his death made me stronger,” Dzemil said.

Courtesy of Dzemil Hodzic [DO NOT USE]
Dzemil Hodzic, 37, is seen in December 2019 in front of Sarajevo’s infamous Holiday Inn on ‘Sniper Alley’, a street that was notoriously dangerous during the siege [Courtesy of Dzemil Hodzic]

Dzemil remembers his brother as a role model, a hero and a talented artist, who would often draw portraits of his younger sibling to hone his skills.

But like all other families at the time, Dzemil’s family did not have the means to take any photos during the brutal siege of Sarajevo that dragged on for nearly four years.

Memories can easily fade or alter after some time, but photographs last forever. Having only a small headshot photo of Amel from that time, taken for a scholarship application, is something that has bothered Dzemil for the past 25 years.

The last photo he has with the brothers together is from 1991 before the war broke out in Bosnia.

Courtesy of Dzemil Hodzic [DO NOT USE]
During better days: Dzemil Hodzic, right, and his brother Amel, left, circa 1991 [Courtesy of Dzemil Hodzic]

But since there were a lot of war photographers at that time, Dzemil thought, what if one had taken a photo of Amel by chance while he was making his trek down the hill to his arts high school? Perhaps others are searching for images of their loved ones as well?

On a mission for photographs of his brother, Dzemil created the Sniper Alley website last year, which has since grown into an impressive archive shared by war photographers and survivors.

“I don’t have photos from that period … Maybe the most important reason why I started the project is to find a photo of him and me from that period because I don’t have memories,” Dzemil said.

[Danilo Krstanovic] DO NOT USE
The Sniper Alley website showcases photos of the daily struggle for survival for Bosnians living under siege [File: Danilo Krstanovic]

‘Maintain history intact’

Finding specific photos, such as his brother’s, can be a daunting task.

Dzemil initially tried to contact a German photographer present at his brother’s funeral, Anja Niedringhaus, but he discovered she was shot and killed in 2014 while reporting in Afghanistan.

While some photojournalists have died over the years, others are battling post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, and may not want to talk about Bosnia, which Dzemil said he understands. It took him 25 years to talk about his experience.

Still, Dzemil hopes some may recognise themselves or others in the photo galleries of 36 photojournalists that he has collected so far, who risked their lives to document the atrocities.

[Jack Picone] DO NOT USE
A mother and child run for their lives along Sniper Alley to avoid being hit by Serb sniper fire in Sarajevo in 1995 [File: Jack Picone]

“My mission is to make sure that nobody can say: ‘I didn’t know’,” reads a quote by photographer Yannis Behrakis on the site, which pays tribute to the photojournalists who have passed away.

Journalists, like Sarajevo’s civilians, were also targeted by Serb forces.

Australian photojournalist Jack Picone, who reported from Bosnia, told Al Jazeera in other conflict zones journalists could take precautions and make decisions to minimise danger.

In Bosnia’s capital, however, that was impossible.

“The weirdest thing I remember about Sarajevo was walking out of the Holiday Inn hotel door and just not knowing if you were gonna be shot in the head,” Picone said.

[Danilo Krstanovic] Sarajevo DO NOT USE
A sign in Sarajevo warns pedestrians crossing the streets: ‘Watch out! Sniper!’ [File: Danilo Krstanovic]

“There were snipers up there with telescopic sights and high-powered rifles. [The Serb forces] were shooting down in the valley and just picking people off … It was quite sickening.

“There’s this extreme kind of vulnerability and kind of sinister, weird creepiness about someone watching you and knowing that your life is in their index finger,” Picone said.

Amid growing denials of facts by fascists, including Serb politicians and left-wing anti-imperialists, Dzemil’s project has evolved to serve as a testimony for the 44-month siege, the longest of a capital in modern history.

[Enrico Dagnino] DO NOT USE
Italian photographer Enrico Dagnino’s work is featured among the photo collections on the Sniper Alley website [File: Enrico Dagnino]

“A camera doesn’t lie. When you have many photographs like that, you can’t deny it in the end,” Picone said.

The Sniper Alley project includes an historical account on Twitter, posting photos on anniversaries.

May 2-3, 1992 was a major watershed moment in Bosnia’s history as the heavily armed JNA forces from Serbia attempted to overtake Sarajevo’s presidency building and force the legal government to surrender. They were stopped by civilian defenders.

Dzemil said with his project he is attempting to “preserve and maintain history intact, what photojournalists did for us.

“I do this out of love for my killed brother and all other kids who were killed,” Dzemil said.

“It would be disrespectful to victims, to the killed kids and to photojournalists, if we don’t do this because they didn’t do it in vain. It’s important that we keep it safe from forgetfulness or distorted narratives of certain countries and ideologies.”

Climate of denial

From 1992 until 1996, Serb forces encircled the city, firing an average of 329 grenades daily and killing about 11,000 people, including some 1,500 children.

A record number of 3,777 grenades hit Sarajevo on July 22, 1993.

In 2016, Bosnian Serb war criminal Radovan Karadzic was convicted of genocide at the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and found guilty of his role in the siege.

However, the denial of facts continues to grow.

[Enrico Dagnino] Sarajevo. DO NOT USE
Some 1,500 children were killed in Sarajevo [File: Enrico Dagnino]

In December, the Nobel Literature prize was mired in controversy when it was awarded to Austrian writer Peter Handke, who is widely seen as an apologist for the late Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and a denier of the Srebrenica genocide.

Among his controversial allegations is that Bosniaks staged their own massacres in Sarajevo in order to blame the Serbs, an allegation shared by Karadzic.

At Karadzic’s trial in 2016, the ICTY concluded in its judgment that “most of the international witnesses present on the ground never received any conclusive proof that the Bosnian Muslim side was sniping or shelling its own civilians”.

Despite the ICTY’s findings, Jessica Stern, an expert on terrorism, published a book this year called My War Criminal about Karadzic in which she shared similar, unfounded allegations: among them that Bosniak military leaders shot at their own people during the siege of Sarajevo or constructed scenarios that put citizens at risk.

It was slammed by many historians and academics as a “shocking” piece of historical revisionism.

[File: Enrico Dagnino] Sarajevo. DO NOT USE
The 44-month siege of Sarajevo was the longest of a capital in modern history [File: Enrico Dagnino]

Denial also persists in Bosnia, with Serb Member of the Presidency Milorad Dodik banning any teaching about the siege of Sarajevo and the genocide in Srebrenica in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska entity.

Despite the regular bleak news, Dzemil said the truth will prevail.

“If they lie that much, then at least I can say the truth this much,” Dzemil said.

“All of these kids from the photos, most of them are well off and they have lives. So it’s in a way to tell these people who were shooting at us, ‘Screw you… we are still here’.”

Source: Al Jazeera