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‘A camera doesn’t lie’: Documenting besieged Sarajevo

Wednesday, May 3, 1995, was supposed to be a peaceful day in besieged Sarajevo for 12-year-old Dzemil Hodzic, as a ceasefire had been declared. It was a sunny day and with no shooting or shelling from Serb forces who held Bosnia’s capital under siege, the streets were full of children, eager to play outside and…

‘A camera doesn’t lie’: Documenting besieged Sarajevo

Wednesday, May 3, 1995, was supposed to be a peaceful day in besieged Sarajevo for 12-year-old Dzemil Hodzic, as a ceasefire had been declared.
It was a sunny day and with no shooting or shelling from Serb forces who held Bosnia’s capital under siege, the streets were full of children, eager to play outside and enjoy the fresh air.
But two hours in, with a single bullet, the day turned into a nightmare for Dzemil, a chilling memory etched forever in his mind.
A Serb sniper positioned on a notorious cliff called “Spicasta Stijena” killed his older brother Amel while he was playing tennis, shooting him in the chest.
The 16-year-old managed to walk some 20 metres towards his home, bleeding from his wound, before he fell to the ground.
Amid the screams and cries, Dzemil’s mother rushed outside and attempted cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on Amel, but he had already died on her lap.
“I could tell she knew [at that moment] it was over,” Dzemil told Al Jazeera from his home in Doha, Qatar, where he works as a video editor.
“That day I can say that my childhood ended, but I wasn’t aware of it. I was suddenly grown up mentally because his death made me stronger,” Dzemil said.

Dzemil Hodzic, 37, is seen in December 2019 in front of Sarajevo’s infamous Holiday Inn on ‘Sniper Alley’, a street that was notoriously dangerous during the siege [Courtesy of Dzemil Hodzic]

Dzemil remembers his brother as a role model, a hero and a talented artist, who would often draw portraits of his younger sibling to hone his skills.
But like all other families at the time, Dzemil’s family did not have the means to take any photos during the brutal siege of Sarajevo that dragged on for nearly four years.
Memories can easily fade or alter after some time, but photographs last forever. Having only a small headshot photo of Amel from that time, taken for a scholarship application, is something that has bothered Dzemil for the past 25 years.
The last photo he has with the brothers together is from 1991 before the war broke out in Bosnia.

During better days: Dzemil Hodzic, right, and his brother Amel, left, circa 1991 [Courtesy of Dzemil Hodzic]

But since there were a lot of war photographers at that time, Dzemil thought, what if one had taken a photo of Amel by chance while he was making his trek down the hill to his arts high school? Perhaps others are searching for images of their loved ones as well?
On a mission for photographs of his brother, Dzemil created the Sniper Alley website last year, which has since grown into an impressive archive shared by war photographers and survivors.
“I don’t have photos from that period … Maybe the most important reason why I started the project is to find a photo of him and me from that period because I don’t have memories,” Dzemil said.

The Sniper Alley website showcases photos of the daily struggle for survival for Bosnians living under siege [File: Danilo Krstanovic]

‘Maintain history intact’
Finding specific photos, such as his brother’s, can be a daunting task.
Dzemil initially tried to contact a German photographer present at his brother’s funeral, Anja Niedringhaus, but he discovered she was shot and killed in 2014 while reporting in Afghanistan.
While some photojournalists have died over the years, others are battling post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, and may not want to talk about Bosnia, which Dzemil said he understands. It took him 25 years to talk about his experience.
Still, Dzemil hopes some may recognise themselves or others in the photo galleries of 36 photojournalists that he has collected so far, who risked their lives to document the atrocities.

A mother and child run for their lives along Sniper Alley to avoid being hit by Serb sniper fire in Sarajevo in 1995 [File: Jack Picone]

“My mission is to make sure that nobody can say: ‘I didn’t know’,” reads a quote by photographer Yannis Behrakis on the site, which pays tribute to the photojournalists who have passed away.
Journalists, like Sarajevo’s civilians, were also targeted by Serb forces.
Australian photojournalist Jack Picone, who reported from Bosnia, told Al Jazeera in other conflict zones journalists could take precautions and make decisions to minimise danger.
In Bosnia’s capital, however, that was impossible.
“The weirdest thing I remember about Sarajevo was walking out of the Holiday Inn hotel door and just not knowing if you were gonna be shot in the head,” Picone said.

A sign in Sarajevo warns pedestrians crossing the streets: ‘Watch out! Sniper!’ [File: Danilo Krstanovic]

“There were snipers up there with telescopic sights and high-powered rifles. [The Serb forces] were shooting down in the valley and just picking people off … It was quite sickening.
“There’s this extreme kind of vulnerability and kind of sinister, weird creepiness about someone watching you and knowing that your life is in their index finger,” Picone said.
Amid growing denials of facts by fascists, including Serb politicians and left-wing anti-imperialists, Dzemil’s project has evolved to serve as a testimony for the 44-month siege, the longest of a capital in modern history.

Italian photographer Enrico Dagnino’s work is featured among the photo collections on the Sniper Alley website [File: Enrico Dagnino]

“A camera doesn’t lie. When you have many photographs like that, you can’t deny it in the end,” Picone said.
The Sniper Alley project includes an historical account on Twitter, posting photos on anniversaries.
May 2-3, 1992 was a major watershed moment in Bosnia’s history as the heavily armed JNA forces from Serbia attempted to overtake Sarajevo’s presidency building and force the legal government to surrender. They were stopped by civilian defenders.

What followed was more than three years of ‘Siege’. Serbs fired down from the hills onto the city’s population, killing innocent civilians as well as the fighters defending the Bosnian capital.#SarajevoUnderSiege 22/24 Photo©️Andree Kaiser pic.twitter.com/SiwqZl2278
— SniperAlley.Photo (@SniperAlleyPhot) May 1, 2020

Dzemil said with his project he is attempting to “preserve and maintain history intact, what photojournalists did for us.
“I do this out of love for my killed brother and all other kids who were killed,” Dzemil said.
“It would be disrespectful to victims, to the killed kids and to photojournalists, if we don’t do this because they didn’t do it in vain. It’s important that we keep it safe from forgetfulness or distorted narratives of certain countries and ideologies.”
Climate of denial
From 1992 until 1996, Serb forces encircled the city, firing an average of 329 grenades daily and killing about 11,000 people, including some 1,500 children.
A record number of 3,777 grenades hit Sarajevo on July 22, 1993.
In 2016, Bosnian Serb war criminal Radovan Karadzic was convicted of genocide at the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and found guilty of his role in the siege.
However, the denial of facts continues to grow.

Some 1,500 children were killed in Sarajevo [File: Enrico Dagnino]

In December, the Nobel Literature prize was mired in controversy when it was awarded to Austrian writer Peter Handke, who is widely seen as an apologist for the late Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and a denier of the Srebrenica genocide.
Among his controversial allegations is that Bosniaks staged their own massacres in Sarajevo in order to blame the Serbs, an allegation shared by Karadzic.
At Karadzic’s trial in 2016, the ICTY concluded in its judgment that “most of the international witnesses present on the ground never received any conclusive proof that the Bosnian Muslim side was sniping or shelling its own civilians”.
Despite the ICTY’s findings, Jessica Stern, an expert on terrorism, published a book this year called My War Criminal about Karadzic in which she shared similar, unfounded allegations: among them that Bosniak military leaders shot at their own people during the siege of Sarajevo or constructed scenarios that put citizens at risk.
It was slammed by many historians and academics as a “shocking” piece of historical revisionism.

The 44-month siege of Sarajevo was the longest of a capital in modern history [File: Enrico Dagnino]

Denial also persists in Bosnia, with Serb Member of the Presidency Milorad Dodik banning any teaching about the siege of Sarajevo and the genocide in Srebrenica in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska entity.
Despite the regular bleak news, Dzemil said the truth will prevail.
“If they lie that much, then at least I can say the truth this much,” Dzemil said.
“All of these kids from the photos, most of them are well off and they have lives. So it’s in a way to tell these people who were shooting at us, ‘Screw you… we are still here’.”
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‘Doesn’t affect us’: Iraq’s Tahrir Square on Sadr pulling support

Baghdad, Iraq – Anti-government protesters in Iraq have struck a defiant tone at their main sit-in encampment in the capital, Baghdad, as continuing clashes with security forces continue for a third day. The central Tahrir Square was a bustle of activity on Monday. Protesters took advantage of the warm sun to air out blankets and mattresses…

‘Doesn’t affect us’: Iraq’s Tahrir Square on Sadr pulling support

Baghdad, Iraq – Anti-government protesters in Iraq have struck a defiant tone at their main sit-in encampment in the capital, Baghdad, as continuing clashes with security forces continue for a third day.
The central Tahrir Square was a bustle of activity on Monday. Protesters took advantage of the warm sun to air out blankets and mattresses soaked from days of rain. 
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Street vendors selling battery packs, mobile chargers and assorted knickknacks crowded the square, where various nationalistic songs blared from the speakers.
A few hundred metres away at Khilani Square, one of the front line battle spots of the protest movement, security forces fired tear gas and live bullets on protesters in an attempt to force them back to Tahrir.
On Saturday, riot police briefly managed to push those protesters back by shooting at them and setting tents on fire.
In the southern cities of Nasiriya, Basra and Diwaniyeh, clashes erupted as security forces attempted to overrun the main protest squares and barricades set up by the demonstrators. 

A pro-revolution mural on a wall inside a Turkish restaurant says: ‘By the people’s command, now is the time’ [Linah Alsaafin/Al Jazeera] 

At least two protesters were killed overnight on Monday in Nasiriya after unknown gunmen in pick-up trucks shot at them.
The crackdowns on Saturday came shortly after influential Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who also heads the largest bloc in Parliament, announced he is withdrawing his support to the protests.
Sadr’s decision came a day after tens of thousands of his supporters crowded Baghdad’s Jadriya neighbourhood on Friday, calling for the removal of US and Iranian forces from the Iraqi soil.
Sadr took a ‘wrong decision’
Sadr, whose Sairoon bloc opposes foreign interference, had initially joined the anti-government protests a few weeks after they took off last October, as Iraqis from different backgrounds and ages banded together to call for a complete overhaul of what they considered a corrupt ruling elite.

The Shia leader’s support bolstered the movement with numbers, supplies and protection from the powerful pro-Iranian armed groups.
But Sadr’s withdrawal has prompted his supporters to pack up their tents and leave, which the anti-government protesters said led to the recent attacks by security forces on their sit-ins.
“Sadr’s decision was wrong in my opinion and hurt us because it opened the doors for those who are against us and the Sadrists to attack us,” said Umm Aqeel, a protester who has been a permanent fixture at Tahrir Square since October 25.
“We acknowledge the sacrifices the Sadr bloc has made and the support they have given us, but they should be standing here with us on the side of the oppressed people,” she added.

Umm Aqeel stands under the metal structure of her new tent after security forces burned her first one to the ground [Linah Alsaafin/Al Jazeera] 

Umm Aqeel, who leaves her house every morning and spends the entire day and most evening hours at Tahrir, says she supports the protesters in any way she can, “by giving them food, blankets, mattresses and medicine”.
“On Saturday, our tents were burned. So we decided to set up tents made from metal,” she said. “In Nasiriya, they are replacing tents with brick structures.”
“I respect Sayyid Muqtada, but unfortunately there are infiltrators within parties who are trying to create a rift between us and the Sadrists, who we can’t deny have held some sway in the protest movement,” she added.
‘Under umbrella of independent Iraq’
According to Ali al-Abadi, a surgeon who has been going to Tahrir Square since October 1, at least 430 people have been wounded since the latest escalation began on Saturday.
“When we began protesting, it was under the umbrella of an independent Iraq, not a specific political party or group,” he told Al Jazeera. “Therefore, any bloc that decides to leave the protest site does not affect us. We are capable of protecting ourselves, as the last few days have shown.”
Al-Abadi said the Sadrists leaving the protest sites has not affected the mood of the anti-government protesters. He insisted he bore no ill will towards them, who he described as “brothers” to the movement.
“We are both calling for an end to corruption but we have different paths to achieve that,” he said.
“Personally speaking, I have no issues with them and if they come back to the sit-in, we will welcome them with open arms.”

Ali al-Abadi said at least 430 protesters have been injured since Saturday [Linah Alsaafin/Al Jazeera]

But other protesters were not so forgiving, casting doubts on the intentions of Sadr’s supporters.
Abu Siwar, a 22-year-old protester who has been camping inside a Turkish restaurant overlooking the square, told Al Jazeera that Sadrists leaving had done the protest movement a favour as it reverted back to its non-partisan nature.
“When we first took to the streets to protest in October, we did so out of our own convictions and need for a new political system and a better future for us,” he said.
“We did not go to the streets in response to a call from any political party or minister or religious figure. As activists, as a society, we protested together and our ideas evolved from there. We are a popular youth-led movement.”
Abu Siwar saw the Sadrists’ involvement in protests as one based on following orders of their leaders rather than conviction.
“Their withdrawal has achieved the opposite effect of breaking up the movement,” he said. “We have had more protesters joining in. On the day Sadr declared his decision, the entire area from Tahrir Square to Tayaran Square was full of people, waving only the Iraqi flag.”
US embassy attack
Meanwhile, overnight on Monday, at least five katyusha rockets targeted the US embassy inside Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, the US military said in a statement.
It was the third attack on the embassy this month since the US assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Iraqi head of Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces or PMF) on January 3.

There was no claim of responsibility for any of the attacks. But the US has accused Iran-backed militias of targeting its interests by attacking military bases housing Americans and diplomatic missions.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi condemned the attack in a statement, asserting Iraq’s commitment to protecting diplomatic missions in the country.
But according to political analyst Hashem al-Hashemi, the US is losing patience with Abdul Mahdi’s failure to curb the influence of pro-Iranian armed groups.
“It is certain the US will not renew its confidence in Abdul Mahdi and trust him to form a new government,” al-Hashemi told Al Jazeera. “The US wants him to restrain the PMF, but that is complicated by the fact that they are his last allies.”
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Trump: ‘Doesn’t really matter’ if Soleimani posed imminent threat

US President Donald Trump on Monday morning defended his decision to order the killing of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, contending Soleimani posed an impending threat to the United States but also saying that was not important given the military leader’s history. “The Fake News Media and their Democrat Partners are working hard to determine whether…

Trump: ‘Doesn’t really matter’ if Soleimani posed imminent threat

US President Donald Trump on Monday morning defended his decision to order the killing of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, contending Soleimani posed an impending threat to the United States but also saying that was not important given the military leader’s history.
“The Fake News Media and their Democrat Partners are working hard to determine whether or not the future attack by terrorist Soleimani was ‘imminent’ or not, & was my team in agreement,” Trump tweeted.
“The answer to both is a strong YES., but it doesn’t really matter because of his horrible past!”
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Trump made the comments after retweeting several accounts criticising House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. One tweet the president shared included a fake photo-shopped image of Pelosi wearing a hijab and Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the Senate, with a turban. An Iranian flag was behind the two photo-shopped figures. 
Since confirming that Soleimani had been killed by a US drone attack in Baghdad, administration officials have claimed they acted because of an imminent risk of attacks on American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. The administration has not publicly released evidence supporting its claim, and comments over the weekend only raised new questions about what intelligence it used to order the strike.
Democrats and some Republicans in Congress have questioned the justification of the attacks and said they have not been given adequate, detailed briefings.
Conflicting information
Last week, Trump said in an interview that Iran had been poised to attack four American embassies before Soleimani was killed in a US drone attack on January 3. But on Sunday, the US defence secretary, Mark Esper, said he did not see specific evidence that Iran was planning an attack.
“What the president said was that there probably could be additional attacks against embassies. I shared that view,” Esper said. “The president didn’t cite a specific piece of evidence.”
When pressed on whether intelligence officers offered concrete evidence on that point, Esper said: “I didn’t see one with regards to four embassies.”
Citing five current and former senior administration officials, NBC News reported on Monday, that Trump had authorised Soleimani’s killing in June, with conditions, including that he would have final sign-off on any operation to kill the Iranian commander and the option would only be used if an American was killed by Iran.
Then-White House National Security Adviser John Bolton had urged Trump to retaliate for the drone downing by signing off on an operation to kill Soleimani, NBC reported, citing officials briefed on the discussions at the time. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also supported the option, but Trump said he would only take the step if Iran killed an American, the US news outlet said. 
War Powers
The House of Representatives and the Senate received separate briefings last week about the administration’s decision to kill Soleimani.
Most Republicans defended Donald Trump, saying the US president made the “right call”.
But two Republican senators – Mike Lee and Rand Paul – joined Democrats in slamming the briefings, calling them “insulting” and “demeaning”.
The Democratic-controlled House on Thursday passed a nonbinding resolution aimed at limiting the president’s ability to attack Iran in the future without congressional approval.
The House’s War Powers resolution directs Trump to terminate military operations against Iran except for self-defence and clarifies that the president currently does not have congressional authority to engage in war with Iran. A similar version is expected to be debated in the Republican-controlled Senate, where it faces an uphill battle.
According to the US Constitution, the authority to direct military action is divided between Congress and the president. Congress has the power to declare war while the president, as commander-in-chief, has the power to use the military to defend the US.
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