In July 1995, a photograph made headlines around the world. It showed a woman in a white skirt and red cardigan hanging from a tree in a wood outside of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia. The caption read: “The suspended woman”.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and this one says everything about the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
He recounted the betrayal of Srebrenica, where the worst genocide in Europe since World War II had occurred just days before it was caught. It symbolized the ongoing “ethnic cleansing” throughout Bosnia and the despair and despair of Bosnian Muslims – the Bosnians – who were the victims. It was also an act of accusation of the general indifference of the whole world to the gloomy reality of what was happening at the gates of Western Europe, and of its failure to stop it.
This anonymous woman was one of the victims of a conflict that would claim 100,000 lives, 20,000 to 50,000 women and girls raped and an estimated 2.7 million displaced people before taking its barbaric course. Without the photo, his death would have gone unnoticed – like so many others. It seemed intolerable that we did not know his name and his history.
Last week, former Bosnian Serb warlord General Ratko Mladić, the so-called “Bosnian butcher” who was behind the Srebrenica massacre, lost his appeal against a life sentence for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
And I remembered “the hanging woman”; it took several months to find out who she was, but we did.
Her name was Ferida Osmanovic. She was 31 years old. Her husband, Selman, 37, was among some 8,000 men and boys taken from Srebrenica by Bosnian Serb forces and slaughtered.
In April 1996, photographer Lynn Hilton and I traveled to a village just outside Tuzla in northeastern Bosnia. There we found Ferida and Selman’s orphaned children, Damir, 13, and Fatima, 10, who were living with their paternal grandmother and other relatives. It was one of the saddest interviews I have ever done.
Fatima told us: “We know that our mother hanged herself. We went to her grave, but it had no name, just “Hanged” on the wooden headboard. So we wrote his name on it with a felt-tip pen.
Damir remembers hours before his mother disappeared: “It was our second night at the camp and our mother put us to bed. We slept on the tarmac with blankets. She said she loved us, said goodnight and lay down next to us. Then I woke up at midnight and she wasn’t there.
On July 16, Ferida, overwhelmed with grief at having lost her husband, had fled into the nearby wood and had braided her black cloth belt and brown shawl into a noose. The next day at 7:30 a.m., her body was found by a group of children. The photo was taken by freelance Croatian photographer Darko Bandic, who only found out who she was much later.
Like many other Bosnians, the Osmanovics were an ordinary family, who lived in an ordinary house and had simple hopes for a peaceful future. Generations of Osmanovics had cultivated the land of Podsevar, 20 miles from Srebrenica, near the border with Serbia. Selman, a locksmith and farmer’s daughter Ferida, married in 1980.
In 1992, when the war in Bosnia spread from neighboring Croatia and Bosnian Serb forces began to drive Bosnians from their homes, Selman and Ferida fled with their children to Srebrenica. There they thought they were safe. They were wrong.
What happened in Srebrenica is well documented and will remain one of the most shameful failures of the international community in history. The city has been declared a “haven of peace” by the United Nations; its predominantly Muslim population inflated by refugees has been ordered to hand over its weapons to international peacekeepers.
The UN then abandoned Srebrenica to its bloody fate. Who could forget the image of Mladić ruffling a young man’s hair in the enclave… before driving away all the men and boys to be killed.
Habiba Osmanovic, Selman’s mother, said he refused to flee into the woods, as some did, without his family because “he was an optimist. He put his faith in the West.
“We don’t have a father and now we don’t have a mother,” Fatima told us. Everyone in the room cried, including Lynn and myself.
When Mladić lost his call, I retweeted this story, which was posted in the Mail on Sunday April 14, 1996 before newspapers had websites (the only record now is a yellowing clipping). The response from the Bosnian community at home and among the diaspora suggested that many felt that what they had suffered had been forgotten.
Rusmir Hadzic wrote from Melbourne: “The world needs to know who is the victim and who is the aggressor. After so many years, exactly 26 years since the end of the aggression, a large number of war criminals have not been prosecuted and live unhindered in Bosnia and meet their victims every day in the streets, who can do nothing. do them because of dirty politics. . ”
I spoke to Irena Koric, who was only six years old and lived in Sarajevo at the start of the Bosnian War and now lives in Tokyo. Mladić was also the architect of the 43-month siege of the Bosnian capital in which more than 11,000 people, including 2,000 children, were killed by bombardments, bombings and snipers.
“It means a lot to know that people are still thinking of us. I was the child of a mixed marriage between a “Bosnian Serb” and a “Bosnian Muslim”: I put these terms in quotation marks because they were absurd before the war, “Koric said.
“Mladić has unleashed so much harm, but in the end he failed and he will rot in prison. It’s a kind of justice, but it won’t bring back the thousands of souls that have been lost. People don’t realize how horrible it was; they have never seen a child die from a gunshot to the head by a sniper on his way to school.
Ibrahim Sofić, journalist with Al Jazeera’s Balkans service, told me: “It is difficult to understand that Europe allowed these crimes and all this evil to occur in Bosnia in the 1990s. And it is difficult to believe that Europe and the world have learned the lessons of the Bosnian tragedy. We lost our childhood, our health, we lost [body parts] and family, friends… Europe and the world watched it, and they closed their eyes.
Emir Suljagić, director of the Srebrenica Memorial and former Bosnian education minister, fled to Srebrenica in the early 1990s and only escaped the massacre because he was employed as a UN interpreter. He welcomed Mladić’s appeal decision, but said it did not “close the chapter” for Bosnians.
“He didn’t clean up Srebrenica on his own. When are we going to deal with the people who made his offer? Everyone knows who they are, Bosnian justice knows who they are, ”he said. “These guys are mass murderers, they have blood up to their knees and they walk around like free men. This means that Bosnians still do not feel completely safe – and who can blame them? “
Fatima and Damir survived the war and returned to visit Srebrenica. Both are believed to still live in Bosnia.
There were so many other horrors in the land; it wasn’t even the worst story Lynn and I talked about, but it was one of the most heartbreaking and it seemed important: journalism, after all, is about naming the anonymous.
She was not “the hanged woman”: her name was Ferida Osmanovic.