[The Guardian - 12 March 1997]
A horrific photograph of emaciated Bosnian prisoners behind the wire of Trnopolje concentration camp made front-page new in 1992 as it confirmed Serbian 'ethnic cleansing'. So why are a German journalist and a group of British socialists trying to rewrite history? Luke Harding reports.
They are a curious bunch: an odd German journalist by the name of Thomas Deichmann, a group of middle-class British communists, a former US State Department official George Kenney and a gaggle of beautifully coiffured Serbian ladies with fascistic leanings.
Over the last week this strange alliance of former advisers, designer-clad revolutionaries and chilling pan-Serbian enthusiasts have been engaged in a grand project. Their aim is simple: to rewrite history. Not distant history, but recent history. The war in Bosnia.
Deichmann, a diminutive German leftist and late entrant to the noble profession of journalism, has a curious thesis, which runs something like this: footage of a Serb-run detention camp taken by a team from ITN in August 1992 was faked. The footage was confirmation to those who suspected that the Serbs were "ethnically cleansing" the Bosnian hinterland of Krajina and were engaged in systematic genocide against the resident Muslim population.
When ITN reporters Penny Marshall and Ian Williams stumbled into the Trnopolje camp escorted by Serbian heavies in dark glasses, they were greeted by Bosnian prisoner Fikret Alic, who poked an emaciated arm through the barbed wire and shoot hands.
With his xylophonic ribcage and horrifically prominent cheekbones, Alic unwittingly became the defining symbol of the war in Bosnia. There is little doubt that the ITN pictures of Alic and his fellow internees galvanised opinion in the West against the Serbs. The war rumbled on - and the ethnic cleansing continued. But out of a dispute whose tribal complexities baffled many came a morally unambiguous image of stark, almost iconic, clarity. The pictures - with its echoes of Belsen and Dachau - found their way onto the front pages of newspapers across the world.
Now, however, Deichmann and the British Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) are busy deconstructing unedited ITN footage of the camp. Last month the RCP's glossy low-circulation magazine, Living Marxism, reprinted Deichmann's controversial thesis. Under the headline "The picture that fooled the world", it claims that the ITN footage was shot from inside the Trnopolje camp. Deichmann says a group of British journalists, including the Guardian's Ed Vulliamy, were themselves behind the wire when they arrived at the camp's warehouse. The Bosnian Muslims were not captive, Deichmann says, but had come voluntarily to Trnopolje to seek "protection".
ITN has responded to these allegations by slapping a writ for libel action on Living Marxism and its editor, Mick Hume. ITN is also suing the magazine's printer and a subsidiary of the Press Association which carried a defamatory LM press release promoting its "scoop".
None of this has deterred the magazine and its surprisingly soigné army of students and media studies lecturers from turning the issue into a wider ideological crusade. There have been press conferences in London and Bonn at which Living Marxism has invited Deichmann to advance his thesis, something he does in the deadpan manner of a car salesman asked to demonstrate the merits of a new family saloon.
Other revisionists, meanwhile, are busy redrafting history's awkward title pages in favour of the winning side. The Serbian Information Centre (something of an oxymoron, it has to be said) has gleefully joined in the debate. At a Living Marxism rally held last week to raise funds for the magazine's defence of the forthcoming libel action; a heavily accented Serbian announced blithely from the audience: "We have investigated the question of rape. There have only been eight documented cases in the former Yugoslavia." No systematic rapes of women and girls by Serb militias then? Er, right.
Another member of the audience who had the temerity to mention Srebrenica, scene of some of the worst massacres against Bosnian civilians, was heckled by a group of upper-class Serb women. Others have suggested that Fikret Alic had not been suffering from malnutrition, but tuberculosis. This, they say, truly explains the peculiar condition of his ribcage.
As supporters filed into Church House in Westminster, they were all recorded on video camera by a man in a crumpled suit and a purple V-neck jumper: Why was he filming the audience? "I'm with the Crown", he said conspiratorially, with a Serb accent. Youthful apparatchiks from Living Marxism in Adidas T-shirts also took photos of everyone who filed into the domed meeting room, normally used by elderly clerics and members of the General Synod. The atmosphere was half secret police social, half evangelist rally. After a rousing speech by Mick Hume, the entire audience rose to its feet as one for a standing ovation.
As part of its crusade, Living Marxism had flown in former US state department official George Kenney, who resigned in 1992 in protest at America's anti-interventionist policy in Bosnia. Since then Kenney has undergone a strange transformation and become one of the leading apologists for Serb aggression during the war.
After the rally, female revolutionary communists in little black dresses and modish trouser suits complained about media manipulation and lack of "principles". In a rather delightful irony, members of the audience had been given differently coloured tokens for drinks at a reception after the meeting. Green - presumably for elite cadres only - meant unlimited Vin du Pays. Those given yellow or pink tickets in exchange for their £12.50 entry fee were allowed a couple of drinks only. At a bookstall, copies of Living Marxism paperbacks changed hands for a tenner a time. Various Serb dignitaries beat a path through the crush to shake Deichmann warmly by the hand and draw to his attention other areas of the war in Bosnia which merited further "investigation".
But two days ago in Bonn, the Deichmann-Kenney-Living Marxism roadshow came unstuck. As Deichmann advanced his polished thesis in Bonn's prestigious Press Club, he noticed a rather fatter Fikret Alic standing at the back, wearing a Los Angeles baseball jacket, with other former Trnopolje inmates. Deichmann seemed unnerved. Afterwards the pair shook hands in the warm Bonn sunshine. Deichmann mumbled a few pleasantries and went off.
Fikret then explained what really happened on August 5 1992: "We were 100 per cent behind that barbed wire. There was wire all around us. They took some of it down on August 8, 1992, when Serb television crews arrived from Belgrade and Banja Luka (when the world's media circus also arrived)."
He gulped a couple of painkillers for his irreparably damaged kidneys. And that was that.
Why, then, is a small leftwing revolutionary group, whose cadres appear to come largely from the former polytechnic sector, making common cause with a bunch of unreconstructed Serbian nationalists?
The answer has something to do with Living Marxism's anti-interventionist stand on war in general. The conflict in Bosnia was not created by the pressure cooker of resurgent Balkan nationalism but by Western powers, the magazine would argue. According to LM, the West caused the war by intervening to promote its own interests.
To flick casually through Living Marxism is to enter a curious universe defined by libertarian arguments and a crude anti-statism. LM is against gun control, hates the authoritarian Jack Straw and makes great play of demanding a society "fit for adults". It hated the Labour Party long before this became a fashionable activity. Reading its most recent manifesto, The Point Is To Change It (an impossible slog through sawdust prose), the anti-interventionist message is clear.
Arguing the toss later in a bar with a senior Revolutionary Communist, I ask him whether Britain was right to intervene when Hitler's armies swept into Poland and Czechoslovakia in 1939. "No", he replies "That would have been fighting for the British ruling classes". Does he ever suffer from self-doubt? "I am riddled with self-doubt", he says, unconvincingly.
The RCP long ago fell out with its more genuinely proletarian rival, The Socialist Workers' Party. Both were founded when a group called International Socialists split up in the mid-seventies. The RCP originally called itself the Revolutionary Communist Tendency. Ideologically, the RCP is big on Trotsky, not Stalin. New members, most of whom are recruited at university, are told to use false identities so that the revolutionary "cells" in which they work are not compromised. No one is quite who he or she seems. According to a former RCP member, there are also secret passwords which must doubtless add to the sense of romanticism and adventure.
Curiously, there are no adverts in Living Marxism. How, one wonders, does such a glossy publication, which has a generously estimated circulation of 16,000 copies a month, manage to survive? "It's all through subscription copies and sales", another RCP apparatchik explains over a glass of vin rouge. A cursory look through the accounts of Junius Publications, which publishes LM, reveals little. There is no doubt, though, that the magazine is heavily subsidised by RCP members, who pay anything between 10 and 20 per cent of their incomes to the cause. "I joined in 1980 when I was a student", one former member, who has now defected to a rival communist group, explained. "I would simply hand over 10 per cent of my grant cheque at the start of each term".
And then there are its links with the Serbs. Four years ago, Joan Phillips, a Living Marxist journalist, smuggled in photographs of "atrocities" allegedly carried out by Arab mercenaries against Serbian victims. The photos came from the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences in Belgrade, the organisation which revived the idea of a Greater Serbia a decade ago. Phillips's tendentious pro-Serb accounts of the war in Bosnia have long been a feature of the magazine. Private Eye recently revealed that she had also worked for the Economist Intelligence Unit, a subsidiary of the magazine, as a Balkan sage, writing briefing notes for capitalist bosses. Not as Joan Phillips, but as Joan Hoey.
Thomas Deichmann, 34, trained as an engineer but failed to finish his degree at Frankfurt University. He professes he has no links with the Serbs. His recent adventures in Bosnia (he first visited Trnopolje just three months ago, with a camcorder) have not been funded by any outside body, he says. To date his work has mainly appeared in Novo, an obscure German Trotskyite magazine with a minuscule circulation.
Other German journalists say Deichmann is suffering from "profile neurosis". He now looks like a man who has bitten off more than he can chew. "Nobody had ever heard of him before this", says Paul Stoop, of the Berlin Tagesspiegel. "I think this an attempt to attract attention to himself."
Deichmann has reinvented himself as a fully-fledged Bosnia expert. On October 30 last year he gave evidence for the defence in the trial of alleged Serbian war criminal Dusko Tadic at The Hague. He says he is concerned with raising journalistic standards, but failed to speak to any of the journalists who were actually at Trnopolje before publishing his extraordinary thesis that the whole thing had been crudely stunted up.
And what about poor old Fikret Alic, who - unlike Deichmann and Hume - actually suffered the privations of Trnopolje? Now 27 and living in Denmark, he has a clear memory of August 5, 1992. "I remember when Penny Marshall arrived at about midday. She was the only one who tried to help people in the camp", he said yesterday. "The Serb translator, Igor, who translated for ITN was the son of the Serb doctor in the camp. The Muslims had to say on camera it was a gathering centre. They had no choice.
"I only said my name. The Serbs were standing behind the camera. They said: 'Write down the names so we can kill the Muslims.' The killings and beatings continued after the journalists left, but in a different way." On August 13, eight days after the ITN visit, Fikret escaped. "There was a convoy of women and children leaving. I dressed as a woman and hid on the floor of a truck. I came out over Travnik. I was very lucky. Between the 19th and 21st of August 250 people in the camp who took the same route were killed."
"I would like to say to anyone who thinks it was a pleasant experience being in the camp: Try it for yourself'."