Aftermath: Bosnia's Long Road to Peace
I should say, from the beginning, that I never flew into Sarajevo on a military cargo plane, listening anxiously for the sound of artillery fire. I never saw anyone killed in the infamous Sniper Alley that was a death trap during the three-and-a-half-year siege of Sarajevo by Serb forces. I never had a gun pointed in my face, I never feared for my life, never interviewed a man who would die the next day, a woman who had been gang-raped, a parent who had just buried a child, or a family which had fled the blood-soaked soil of a village burned to the ground in the name of “ethnic cleansing.”
No, for me, the 1992–1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina was something that happened far off, in a place I’d never been. It was something I struggled to understand, or ignored when the news was too depressing, from my home in Boston, where I wrote of other things. I did not come to Bosnia until the fall of 2000—drawn at last by a newspaper article that said that just as Bosnians were starting to return to homes they had fled during the war, the international community was becoming “fatigued” with the Balkans tragedy and was starting to move its aid and attention elsewhere. I was angered by such international shortsightedness, and deeply dismayed by the fact that the West was preparing to once again turn its back on Bosnia, just as it had during a war that was marked by the worst genocide in Europe since the end of World War II.
I felt compelled to go, to do whatever I could as a journalist to be a witness to the country’s ongoing struggle to rebuild a civil society. Although I began my career as a print journalist, working first for the Christian Science Monitor as a staff writer and later as a freelancer for theNew York Times, Rolling Stone, and Fast Company, by the year 2000 I was well into a career transition into photography and had been ready for some time to take on a long-term documentary project.
So I went to Bosnia to cover the aftermath of war—to try to capture the images that are the all-too-often forgotten companions of the vivid pictures of war itself. I came with the conviction that war is only half the story. I believed, and still believe, that what happens in the aftermath of war is as newsworthy, if not more so, than the destruction and horror of war. I went to Bosnia with a desire to document the incredibly difficult period when humans move out of war’s desperate struggle to survive, and begin another equally mighty struggle—that of learning to live again. In the nearly three years I’ve been working on this project, I’ve become convinced that we need post-conflict images to remind us of our humanity—to testify that war is not the final word on who we are as human beings, nor the final image of our spirit.
My experience of Bosnia, then, has been marked not by war, but by the echoes of war, by the scars it has left behind. My work and travels have been charged with the struggle of rebirth, not the horror of destruction. I have spent long hours with many widows of Srebrenica—the Muslim women who lost some 8,000 men and boys in a 1995 massacre by Serb forces. I have been with them as they returned to visit homes they fled in terror; I have been with them when they have laughed, cried, and prayed for their dead. I spent a rainy afternoon with a man as he exhumed a shallow grave containing his father, killed eight years earlier by Serb neighbors. I have stood on the freshly laid concrete floors of homes being rebuilt by returning refugees determined to reclaim their land and their lives. I was in the crush of a group of young people crowded in the square outside the National Theatre in Sarajevo, cheering wildly as they greeted Danis Tanović, fresh from his Oscar victory for his film about the war, No Man’s Land—a victory he celebrated in his homeland on April 5, 2002, just one day short of the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the 1,325-day siege of Sarajevo. I have spent days in a warehouse lined with body bags, filled with the remains of recently exhumed victims of the Serbs’ 1992 ethnic cleansing campaign—while family members, mostly women, walked the aisles of skeletons, sobbing quietly, looking for loved ones; as one woman picked up skull after skull with her bare hands, searching for signs of a son. I have spent afternoons in Sarajevo with the 3K Sarajevo wheelchair basketball team, made up of young men who were wounded by snipers as civilians or while serving on the front line as soldiers. I have watched them sweat and spin on a dime and flirt with girls when practice is over, and I have come away determined that the world’s final image of them be their strength and grace—and not the moment when they lay sprawled on a city sidewalk, another tragic victim of war, another image of despair. I want to tell the story of their aftermath. I want to tell it all.
It may sound like a callous thing to say, but it is easier, in some ways, to cover war and conflict than it is to cover its aftermath. The story of war is obvious; its pictures of sorrow and death scream across front pages, while those who take them win honors and awards. It is true that the physical dangers are exponentially greater, that there is genuine risk in working as a war photographer or reporter. And it is equally true that war must be covered, the world must be alerted to the tragedies and travesties committed in the name of humankind. But as I said at the beginning of this essay, war is only half the story. The end of war does not mean peace. It is simply the end of war, the end of death and destruction. Every story of war includes a chapter that almost always goes untold—the story of the aftermath, which day by day becomes the prologue of the future.
- Sara Terry