Twenty years after Europe’s worst single atrocity since World War II, RFE/RL’s Dzenana Halimovic wanted to ensure that the victims of the Srebrenica massacre, the darkest chapter in the Bosnian War, will be remembered, and not just as numbers, but as individuals. She started collecting photographs from people who lost relatives and friends to the massacre. More than 8,000 men and boys were executed at Srebrenica, and the ongoing project The Faces Of Srebrenica displays the photos of over 2,400 of them in a haunting reminder of the loss experienced during the war. Here, Halimovic speaks more about the inspiration for the project and why it is so vital to reconciliation in Bosnia.
In the early 1990s, the former Yugoslavia fell apart in a series of wars that saw ethnic cleansing and genocide return to Europe. First Slovenia, then Croatia, and then Bosnia followed. Later on, Kosovo was caught in the same web.
Meanwhile, people were getting killed. Everyone knew the names of the first victims. After that, as the war continued, names turned into numbers, and the personalities were lost. We just started counting the dead -- a couple here, a dozen there.
Then, the genocide at Srebrenica happened: 8,372 men and boys were taken from what was supposed to be a “safe haven” under UN protection, a safe haven that was supposed to guarantee their safety. They were all killed in the most horrific ways.
Again, they were turned into statistics whose remains were later discovered, sometimes in mass graves.
Why, 20 years later, did we know nothing about those people, but only the awful fate they met? They were fathers, sons, brothers, and husbands. What did they look like? So we decided to give them faces, to go back in time, to give these people back their identities and go beyond mere numbers.
Behind every number stands a man, a child, and you can tell a lot from these pictures. With a lot of help from the NGOs who help the families of people killed in Srebrenica, we started to collect the photos of the dead. Families started to bring them to us, and at one point I was surrounded by wives, mothers, and daughters giving me photos of their family members, telling their stories.
Some of them brought photos from family members living somewhere else, photos taken at family gatherings and birthday parties, or army photos or school pictures. That’s why some of the victims appear much younger, since the photos were taken decades before the victims were killed. Some of them had no photos at all. Their sons were underage at the time and did not yet have a photo ID and all other photos were lost, abandoned when families were forced to leave.
What started as a mechanical process of collecting photos and data turned into a very personal thing. When I started to examine the photos, especially two or more stapled together, I started to look at the faces. Then I realized they were two brothers with their children, or a father with three sons. Some of them reminded me of people I know -- my friends, neighbors, and family members.
At that point, it was clear why this project was important. Photos speak more than a million words. You can see the eyes of the people. You can tell a lot from their expressions, and you can truly see the faces of Srebrenica that stand behind the numbers.
No matter how consuming this job is, and no matter how personal it gets, it can be an example to help others to do the same thing. To give faces -- and through the faces, a voice -- to those unable to speak for themselves. It does not matter how many you collect at first; it’s just important to keep it alive. There will always be someone who will send you a picture, and one by one there will be hundreds, even thousands more to add.
And once, when everything else starts to be irrelevant, from denial to exaggeration, this will stand as a reminder of a failure, as a warning, and a wake-up call to prevent future genocides.