In July 1995, a photograph made newspaper front pages around the world. It showed a woman in a white skirt and red cardigan hanging from a tree in a wood outside Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia. The caption read: “The Hanging Woman”.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and this one said everything about the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
It told of the betrayal of Srebrenica, where the worst genocide in Europe since the second world war had happened just days before it was taken. It symbolised the murderous “ethnic cleansing” taking place across Bosnia and the despair and hopelessness of the Bosnian Muslims – Bosniaks – who were its victims. It was also an indictment of the general indifference of the wider world to the grim reality of what was happening on the doorstep of western Europe, and of its failure stop it.
This anonymous woman was one victim in a conflict that would leave 100,000 dead, 20,000 to 50,000 women and girls raped and around 2.7 million people displaced before it ran its barbaric course. But for the photo, her death would have gone unremarked – like so many others.It seemed intolerable that we should not know her name and her story.
Last week, the former Bosnian Serb warlord General Ratko Mladić, the so-called “butcher of Bosnia” 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 many months to find out who she was, but we did.
Her name was Ferida Osmanovic. She was 31. Her husband, Selman, 37, was among an estimated 8,000 men and boys taken from Srebrenica by Bosnian Serb forces and slaughtered.
In April 1996, the photographer Lynn Hilton and I travelled to a village just outside Tuzla in north-east Bosnia. There we found Ferida and Selman’s orphaned children, Damir, 13, and Fatima, 10, who were staying with their paternal grandmother and other relatives. It was one of the saddest interviews I have ever done.
Fatima told us: “We know our mother hanged herself. We went to her grave, but it had no name, just ‘Hanged’ on the wooden headboard. So we wrote her name on it in felt-tip pen.”
Damir remembered the hours before his mother disappeared: “It was our second night at the camp and our mother put us to bed. We were sleeping on the Tarmac with blankets. She said she loved us, said good night, and lay down next to us. Then I woke up at midnight and she wasn’t there.”
On 16 July, Ferida, overcome with grief at losing her husband, had slipped away to the nearby wood, and plaited her black cloth belt and brown shawl into a noose. At 7.30am the next day, her body was found by a group of children. The photo was taken by freelance Croatian photographer Darko Bandic, who did not find out who she was until much later.
Like many other Bosniaks, the Osmanovics were an ordinary family, who lived in an unremarkable home and had simple hopes for a peaceful future. Generations of Osmanovics had farmed the land at 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 neighbouring Croatia, and Bosnian Serb forces began driving Bosniaks from their homes, Selman and Ferida fled with their children to Srebrenica. There, they thought they were safe. They were wrong.
What happened at Srebrenica is well documented and will go down as one of the most shameful failures of the international community in history. The town was declared a UN “safe haven”; its mainly Muslim population swollen by refugees were told to hand over their weapons to international peacekeepers.
The UN then abandoned Srebrenica to its bloody fate. Who could forget the image of Mladić ruffling the hair of a youngster in the enclave … before marching all men and boys away to be killed.
Habiba Osmanovic, Selman’s mother, said he had refused to flee to 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 have no mother,” Fatima told us. Everyone in the room wept, including Lynn and myself.
When Mladić lost his appeal, I retweeted this story, which was published in the Mail on Sunday on 14 April 1996 before newspapers had websites (the only record of it now is a yellowing cutting). The response from the Bosniak community at home and among the diaspora suggested many felt that what they had suffered had been forgotten.
Rusmir Hadzic wrote from Melbourne: “The world must know who is the victim and who is the aggressor. After so many years, exactly 26 years since the end of the aggression, a huge number of war criminals have not been prosecuted and live unhindered in Bosnia and meet their victims on the streets every day, who can do nothing to them due to dirty politics.”
I spoke to Irena Koric, who was only six and living in Sarajevo when the Bosnian war began 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 shelling, bombing and snipers.
“It means a lot to know people still think about us. I was the child of a mixed marriage between a ‘Bosnian Serb’ and a ‘Bosnian Muslim’: I put these terms in quotes because they were nonsensical before the war,” Koric said.
“Mladić unleashed so much evil, but ultimately he failed and he will rot in jail. It’s a sort of justice, but it will not bring back the thousands of souls who were lost. People don’t realise how horrific it was; they never saw a child die from being shot in the head by a sniper while on the way to school.”
Ibrahim Sofić, a journalist with Al Jazeera’s Balkans service, told me: “It is difficult to understand that Europe allowed these crimes and all this evil to happen in Bosnia in the 1990s. And it is difficult to believe that Europe and the world have learned lessons from the Bosnian tragedy. We lost our childhood, our health, we lost [body parts] and family, friends … Europe and the world watched that, and they turned a blind eye.”
Emir Suljagić, director of the Srebrenica Memorial and a former Bosnian education minister, took refuge in Srebrenica in the early 1990s and only escaped the slaughter because he was employed as a UN interpreter. He welcomed the Mladić appeal ruling, but said it did not “close the chapter” for Bosniaks.
“He did not carry out the cleansing of Srebrenica alone. When are we going to deal with the people who did his bidding? Everyone knows who they are, the Bosnian judiciary knows who they are,” he said. “These guys are mass murderers, they are knee-deep in blood and they are walking about as free men. It means that Bosnian people still don’t feel entirely safe – and who can blame them?”
Fatima and Damir survived the war, and have returned to visit Srebrenica. Both are believed to still live in Bosnia.
There were so many other horrors in the country; this story was not even the worst that Lynn and I reported on, but it was one of the most heartbreaking and it felt important: journalism is, after all, about naming the nameless.
She was not “the Hanging Woman”: her name was Ferida Osmanovic.
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