[The Observer - 2 February 1997]
I stand by my story. This picture from Bosnia shocked the world in 1992. Now some are saying it is false. Ed Vulliamy was there, and replies to their grotesque claims.
In the putrid heat of a summer's day in August 1992, a crew from the Independent Television News, reporters Penny Marshall, Ian Williams and myself, stumbled upon two places that would stain our century.
In the first, Camp Omarska, we saw a line of Muslim prisoners, some emaciated, emerge from a hangar, blinking into the sunlight. They were drilled across a yard under the eye of a guard atop a machine-gun post, into a canteen where they gulped down bowls of watery soup like famished dogs. Their eyes burned to tell a truth that was too dangerous to utter in the presence of the guards. 'I do not want to lie' said one, 'but I cannot tell the truth'.
Bundled out of Omarska, we headed for Trnopolje to be met by an unforgettable sight: a group of men gathered behind a barbed wire fence, some of them skeletal, talking of mass murder in yet more camps. As it turned out, what we saw that day was a benign tip of the iceberg. The full story was infinitely worse. The reality emerged through the testimony of former inmates and the investigations of lawyers from The Hague war crimes tribunal: a gulag of concentration camps, of which we had seen but two. Omarska was a dark inferno of mutilation, starvation, torture and murder. Trnopolje was another hellish place, with prisoners in transit to and from the main concentration camps - many beaten, raped and murdered as they waited - while others had been herded there from their homes, or else were in flight from systematic killing in their villages, to await 'ethnic cleansing'. We were and are careful to point out that this was not the Third Reich revisited, but the echoes of another time were loud. Now comes a grotesque assault upon our work, upon the judicial reckoning with its legacy and upon the memory of the prisoners who perished and their grieving kin. From the apparently insignificant quarter of an obscure magazine, Living Marxism, comes a theorem that our coverage initiated some conspiracy of exaggeration and deceit, which in turn brought the wrath of the international community down upon the Serbs.
Living Marxism has published a translated article by a German journalist called Thomas Deichmann, at the core of which is a famous and moving shot taken by ITN's cameraman of that skeletal prisoner behind barbed wire. I was interviewing Fikret Alic while he was filmed. He had arrived from another camp, Kereterm, where he had witnessed the massacre of 200 prisoners in a single night - a crime confirmed by subsequent investigations.
Deichmann's contention is that ITN 'cooked' the picture, eager to show Alic behind the fence to give the impression that he was a captive. Deichmann sets out to allege that Trnopolje was 'not a prison' but 'a collection centre spontaneously created by refugees'. We are supposed to have been 'under intense pressure to get the story of the camps', and 'as the end of their trip approached, the British news team had been unable to find the camps story they were after. Their final stop was to be the refugee camp at Trnopolje'.
This is poison in the water supply of history, contaminating the reservoir of truth.
One of the many things that this poison does is to very seriously defame ITN, the Guardian (for whom I wrote the story), Penny, Ian, the crew and myself. This is a legal matter to be properly adjudicated in a court of law.
But there is more. It is suggested that I wilfully misled The Hague war crimes tribunal by bringing our alleged conspiracy into my evidence. This is especially scandalous since the article emerges just as the judges in that case - the trial of Dusko Tadic, accused of murder and other crimes in Trnopolje and Omarska - are due to give their verdict. Deichmann was unsurprisingly, a witness for the defence of Tadic.
But it is not just Tadic whom this gang seeks to defend; the project is more monstrous than that. There is a word for the effects of this kind of journalism: revisionism.
Revisionists must re-write the history they defile. The practice of revisionism is usually associated with historians re-writing the history of the Nazi Holocaust, to belittle its horrors. The intention is to sow seeds of doubt so that in years to come, recollections of the gas ovens will be qualified in people's minds by some whispered proposition that maybe six million Jews were not murdered - maybe fewer, maybe they deserved it. Omarska, Kereterm and Trnopolje were not industrial extermination camps or death camps, which are proper descriptions of Nazi camps alone. They were camps in which civilians were concentrated prior to deportation, meanwhile tortured, beaten, raped, mutilated or murdered.
The mass-murder and deportation of Bosnia's Muslims was a tin-pot version of the Nazi pogrom. And just as this persecution echoed of the Reich, so this re-writing of the story of the Serbian camps echoes the revisionists of the Reich's atrocities - although of course, Living Marxism has no sympathy for Nazism. The idea that we had to crank up Trnopolje because we had come to the end of the line in our search of a concentration camp is false. We arrived at Trnopolje directly from Omarska, an even more appalling place. Unsurprisingly, Omarska plays little part in Living Marxism's 'argument'. Trnopolje was not 'spontaneously created' by refugees seeking shelter. The camp was established by Serbs for the detention of non-Serbs who had been rounded up and marched or transported there. A few did go to Trnopolje 'on their own', after it was established, out of fear for their lives, seeking safety in numbers. The fear was created by the Serbs' reign of terror.
There is no evidence of attacks on Serbs by 'Muslim extremists' - this line is endlessly peddled by the Serbs, and to accept it is to echo the revisionist David Irving's view that in 1939 Hitler was entitled to 'intern' the Jews because Chaim Weizmann, later Israel's first president, had 'declared war' on the Third Reich. Witness after witness at The Hague described the horrific conditions, beatings, rape and killing in Trnopolje, and testified that many of its inmates were prisoners.
The men in the film were transferred to Trnopolje from Omarska and Kereterm a day or two before our arrival, and were in a small fenced-in area. They were not able to move around, and were watched by armed guards. One of the four sides of this area was made of barbed wire. It was an existing fence on one side of a garage area which had been reinforced with new barbed wire and chicken wire.
Living Marxism trumpeted its translation with a defamatory press release in which its editor Mick Hume says, outrageously: 'If they are not careful, journalists who have some kind of emotional attachment in a conflict can end up seeing what they want to see, rather than what is really there. Taking sides in a conflict cannot be an excuse for taking liberties with facts'. The reference to 'attachment' is particularly odious. Proper, professional journalism as practised by ITN and the Guardian is always objective. Objectivity is fact-specific: we report what we see: we certainly did so that day.
Living Marxism's insistence that this carnage was a 'civil war' and not an aggression was shared by the International community. Deichmann's article says that our reports prompted President George Bush to threaten military intervention to stop the poor Serbs. But that intervention never came; the war dragged on and even in its wake the Serbs have their 'Muslimfrei' state. The people in ITN's pictures have all been deported or killed.
So, in sanitising and rewriting the history of the Serbian camps, Living Marxism for once has he wind behind its poison. The mass media was delighted to pick up this filth and cast doubt over what we found because the 'revision' makes the appeasement of the Serbs, the West's inaction and the betrayal of the Muslims apparently pardonable.
The Press Association released Living Marxism's defamations across the news wires, without calling Penny, Ian or myself. The Independent on Sunday printed the defamations without thinking to call, and even added an extra one of its own: the pernicious notion that Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic had hand-picked Penny and me so as to 'scotch rumours' of concentration camps. Karadzic was in overall control of the camps, and is an international fugitive wanted for genocide. The suggestion that he would select us for his purposes is a foul slur.
The BBC has been panting to get in on the act, with Newsnight trying to stage debates and its media correspondent Nick Higham brandishing Deichmann's arguments, insisting that ITN's compelling and honest shot was a 'misleading image'. Scotland on Sunday called, asking me: 'Do you approve of ITN taking legal action?" This is becoming Late Show-ish burlesque about the role of TV and the particulars of a fence, blurted largely by people who have never set foot in Bosnia, let alone the camps. The genocide is trivialised, its victims insulted.
We stand accused of 'taking liberties with the facts'. It just so happens that we were there at Omarska and Trnopolje on 5 August 1992, and that Mick Hume and Thomas Deichmann were not. We do not need these people to tell us what we saw or didn't see.