Bosnian Camps: A Barbed Tale

By Alterman, Eric | The Nation, July 28, 1997 | Go to article overview

Bosnian Camps: A Barbed Tale


Alterman, Eric, The Nation


On August 5, 1992, Penny Marshall and cameraman Jeremy Irvin of ITN, Ian Williams of Britain's Channel 4 and Ed Vulliamy of The Guardian talked their way into Bosnian Serbain concentration camps at Omarska and Trnopolje. What they filmed and wrote created an international firestorm. Earlier that week, Newsday's Roy Gutman had reported the existence of the Omarska camp but had not been allowed into it. In Omarska, the journalists were soon hustled out by the camp's authorities after catching only a glimpse of a group of skeletal figures in a canteen. In Trnopolje, however, they were eyewitnesses to the workings of what appeared to be a gentler camp in full operation. The visit produced what would become perhaps the single representational image of the cruelty of Serbain "ethnic cleansing"--and emaciated prisoner named Fikret Alic reaching through barbed wire to shake hands. As Vulliamy later wrote, "With his rib-cage behind the barbed wire of Trnopolje, Fikret Alic had become the symbolic figure of the war, on every magazine cover and television screen in the world."

The journalists were careful to report what they saw and note what they had not seen as well. While they did describe harsh conditions and forcible detention, they dud not compare Trnopolje to a Nazi death camp. They did not even us the words "concentration camp." Vulliamy quoted Muslim refugees who said that they had not been the victims of force themselves. Marshall's reports showed the Serbian guards feeding Muslim prisoners and a small Muslim child who had come to the camp voluntarily. These descriptions were exaggerated in subsequent stories by other newspapers, based on the original reporting. (One British tabloid headlined the famous photo "Belsen '92.") Vulliamy later wrote that during the course of the fifty-four TV and radio interviews he gave immediately following his Guardian article," to my annoyance, I was obliged to spend more time emphasizing that Omarska was not Belsen or Auschwitz than detailing the abomination of what we had found." Still, the reporters were justly celebrated for their coverage. Marshall and Williams won a British Association of Film and Television Award (BAFTA) and the Royal Television Society Award; Vulliamy was voted Granada Foreign Correspondent of the year, won the Amnesty International Award for Journalism in the Interest of Human Rights and the James Cameron Award (the European Pulitzer) and was named International Reporter of the Year, a distinction he repeated this year.

Enter Thomas Deichmann, a self-described freelance journalist. Deichmann says he was asked to present the Hague War Crimes tribunal with a report on German media coverage of Dusko Tadic, the Bosnian Serb convicted of crimes against humanity, in whose defense Deichmann would testify. He was watching television tapes of the Trnopolje camp one night, he says, when his wife pointed out that the fence enclosing Alic was nailed from the inside, which he found curious. So he made a trip to Bosnia to have a look around. There, he tracked down a Serbian guard at the camp who insisted that he had been there to "protect the Muslims from Serbian extremists who wanted to take revenge." Trnopolje was not "a prison, and certainly not a "concentration camp,'" Deichmann concluded, "but a collection center for refugees, many of whom went there seeking safety and could leave again if they wished." In fact the refugees themselves has created the place, he said, "spontaneously." Moreover, there was no barbed-wire fence around Alic, he insisted, "The barbed wire in the picture is not around the Bosnian Muslims; it is around the cameraman and the journalists. It formed part of a broken-down barbed wire fenced encircling a small compound that was next to Trnopolje camp."

Deichmann was so excited by his scoop that he did not bother to call any of the journalists whose deception, he says, "fooled the world." Nor did he seek out any of the Bosnian Muslims who had lived through the Trnopolje experience. …

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