‘It has begun’: A picture of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia

What this picture means to me: The photograph that captured the beginning of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.

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Hajrush Ziberi begs for his life. It took 12 years to identify his body [Ron Haviv]

I’d been a photojournalist for less than three years when I went to Yugoslavia in 1991 to see what was happening on the ground there.

I arrived in Zagreb and took a train bound for what was to become the first part of the country to secede, Slovenia.

A young girl was crying inconsolably on the train and I asked her what was wrong.

She looked at me as though I were a child and then, in carefully chosen, simple words, replied: “It has begun. First Slovenia, then Croatia and then Bosnia, and more beyond. Yugoslavia is no more.”

I smiled at her and, naively, declared: “Don’t worry. The world will never let that happen.”

By the time the war in Croatia had ended, it was obvious to everyone on the ground that a war in Bosnia was approaching.

Unless there was a serious intervention from the West, this particular conflict was to be utterly brutal; the nationalistic rhetoric assured us that violence was on the horizon.

On the advice of a colleague, at the end of March 1992, I travelled to Bijeljina, a small town on the border of Serbia and Bosnia that had split along ethnic lines: Bosnian Serbs on one side and Bosnian Muslims on the other.

Within a few days, as I was standing near a frontline, a convoy of military vehicles arrived. Dozens of well-armed Serbian paramilitaries, members of the already infamous Arkan’s Tigers, disembarked and fell into formation.

Arkan himself started giving orders and the men began to prepare. Having photographed Arkan during the Croatian war, I reintroduced myself and asked for permission to document his men in battle.

He agreed.

We passed bodies lying on pavements as Arkan’s men shot down streets, saying there were Muslim extremists on the other side.

The Tigers approached a mosque, climbed the minaret, and took down the green Islamic flag that flew there, replacing it with a Serbian one.

Then they posed for a “victory picture” with their memento.

Moments later, I heard a commotion in another part of the mosque and found several paramilitaries with a scared young man.

They showed me his ID card and said that he was from Kosovo, an obvious indicator to them that he was a fighter from the “other side”.

Suddenly, there was yelling outside the mosque. A middle-aged couple had been taken from the house across the street.

Both the Tigers and the woman were shouting, then several shots rang out. The man fell to the ground.

The woman tried to stem his bleeding. But more shots shattered the air and she too fell.

I managed to capture the couple’s last moments although Arkan’s men were warning me not to take any more photographs.

Then another woman was brought out of the house and shot, while a man who’d been taken prisoner was killed as he tried to escape.

With the executions over, the Tigers decided to return to their temporary headquarters, dragging their remaining prisoner alongside them as they ran.

I approached him to take a photograph and he raised his hands in surrender, looking at me for help.

But there was nothing I could do other than take his picture.

When we reached their base, the prisoner was brought inside. I had managed to hide some of my film from that day and, as I was waiting for permission from Arkan to leave, I heard a crash.

I saw the prisoner falling from a second-floor window. He landed at my feet.

Somehow he survived. Several of Arkan’s men approached him, doused him with water and proclaimed him baptised.

Then they took him back into their temporary lodging.

Arkan arrived and immediately demanded my film. I had to surrender what was in my cameras but managed to leave with the hidden rolls. They were put on the next plane out of the country.

The following day, I returned to try to find the prisoner. But I never saw him again.

The photos I took that day became well known as the first images of the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Yet they did nothing to galvanise the world to help.

Over time, however, they did become pieces of evidence to what had taken place; to what we later learned were the executions of the Pajaziti family.

Arkan was indicted for war crimes, and the images have been used numerous times in different trials at The Hague, most recently in that of the former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic.

Late last year, someone posted the image of the prisoner begging for his life on Facebook.

Through the power of social media, we finally found out what happened to him after I left: Hajrush Ziberi, from Macedonia, died on April 4, 1992.

His body was found in the Sava River. It took 12 years to identify his remains through DNA.

His surviving family thanked me and told me that the pictures I took meant something to them. I simply didn’t know what to say back to them.

This article first appeared in the Al Jazeera Magazine.