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Homage to Sarajevo

War in Bosnia and Genocide in Srebrenica: A photographic narrative |  Designack - UX/UI Design, Web Development and Consultancy

I remember where I was on September 11, 2001.

Sitting on a park bench in a London suburb enjoying a quiet day off. An elderly couple nearby were exchanging greetings with a park gardener. I wasn’t eavesdropping, but did overhear one phrase being repeated: “We’re lucky here. Look at other countries on TV, they have buildings falling down.” Until I got home, I thought they were talking metaphorically.

I am not as certain of the exact location where I first heard about the Srebrenica massacre. The atrocity which saw units of the Serb supremacist militia of Republika Srpska (VRS) under the command of Ratko Mladić and political control of Radovan Karadžić, massacre over 8,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys whom they had separated from a larger group of civilians, took several days of reporting for its scale to become clear.

I do know that I was sat in a small hall full of Bosnian people in London. But exactly which venue and day in July 1995 eludes me. As does why and how an old family friend had come along. After three years of the most destructive conflict in Europe since WWII, which saw over 100,000 people killed and half of Bosnia’s population displaced, the news from Srebrenica, a supposed “safe haven” overlooked by UN troops was a new low.

What I remember most is the solidarity in the room as a panel featuring Vanessa Redgrave read out harrowing details from some of the earliest reports of the atrocity. At the end, despite being given many reasons to feel upset or angry, the room, as one, silently composed itself to give the Bosnian ambassador a deeply dignified ovation.

Moving as it was, the day soon sank into the depths of my memory, filed under “meetings I have attended.” That is, until a recent pandemic-induced bout of documentary viewing.

Scream For Me Sarajevo, a 2018 film by Tarik Hodzic tells the unlikely tale of a concert by Bruce Dickinson, lead singer of the British band Iron Maiden, in the Bosnian capital in December 1994. This was during the 1992-96 siege of Sarajevo (longer than Leningrad), which saw the host city of the 1984 Winter Olympics surrounded by heavily armed militia bent on reducing it to rubble and murdering civilians at will.

The contrast between the theatrical legend and heavy metal frontman, (who each I am sure vote differently,) was big enough to prompt my memories of Redgrave’s speech to return.

Why, besides not being a fan, had I not heard about Bruce Dickinson’s Sarajevo concert before? I bought War Child’s Help album and the U2/Pavarotti Miss Sarajevo single in 1995. I had a Workers Aid for Bosnia t-shirt and knew U2 used satellite link-ups during a world tour to speak to besieged Sarajevo residents, but did not play Sarajevo before 1997.

I assume the music press was lukewarm because he had become a solo act at the time. But it also seems Dickinson did not talk about it much until two decades later after Bosnians who attended the concert as youngsters had begun filming their recollections, and his band was invited back for a return visit and civic honour.

The film makes clear his uncharacteristic reticence. The experience itself was enough. Despite being told to return to the UK after it became unsafe to fly into Sarajevo, Dickinson and his fellow musicians on the spot decided to hitch a hair-raising ride through the war zone with The Serious Road Trip, a volunteer aid convoy known for its bright yellow trucks.

A choice as foolhardy and brave as it sounds. This journey alone makes every tale of rock star excess and smashing up hotel rooms on tour, redundant and trivial. It is heartening to see a documentary record it because though small, the 1994 gig is truly inspirational.

Bosnia still bears the scars of ethnic cleansing. But Mladić and Karadžić have been duly convicted of genocide for Srebrenica by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Slobodan Milošević, the Serbian president who had armed them using his control of the former federal republic’s armouries, died whilst on trial for various war crimes. Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo are now at peace and seeking EU membership.

Apologists for the Milošević regime (of whom the UK had plenty across the political spectrum,) will never admit it, but if the Bosnian government in Sarajevo had not been hampered by a one-sided arms embargo, it could have ended the siege years earlier. The fascist VRS only had a head start in weapons, not in allegiances of most of Bosnia’s people.

I remember standing in a different, larger London park on February 15, 2003. It is possible that regret at the slow response to aggression in the 1990s helped turn Tony Blair into a rampant interventionist unable to tell the difference between a just liberation war and one that risks doing more harm than good.

For what it is worth, I could still tell. As did the over a million other people marching into Hyde Park that icy day to protest the imminent invasion of Iraq.

Sarajevo was worth supporting. A beacon of light during the wars that afflicted post-communist Yugoslavia as it disintegrated amid a tide of hyperinflation and toxic ideology.

Sarajevo’s residents did not turn against each other. Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox, Bosniak, Croat, Serb, or mixed, they stayed united as Bosnian citizens. For the most part, its people ate, drank, suffered, and looked the same anyway. Not that this would have mattered to the paramilitaries who had brought back concentration camps to the heart of Europe.

If you are thinking Scream For Me Sarajevo might be depressing, it is actually the opposite. A highly watchable and uplifting documentary. Nobody pretends to be neutral. The performers and UN personnel do not shy away from showing their empathy and shell shock at what Sarajevo’s residents had to endure. For their part, the teenage fans turned 40somethings do not talk about wanting to fight during the war, they talk about wanting to survive and enjoy themselves and of how music inspired the dreams they have followed.

As of this month, I have not been on a plane for four and a half years, to be extended no doubt by the pandemic. I am so accustomed to this that I have stopped imagining flying anywhere new again, only familiar places and family.

This documentary is so life affirming, at least for me, I can now at least consider the possibility of maybe one day making an exception. For Sarajevo.

published in Dhaka Tribune op-ed 24 January 2020 

Bangladesh, Books and recomendations, Concert for Bangladesh, Uncategorized

All the Concert(s) for Bangladesh

See here for links to full article via medium and here to see on this site

+ click here for recording of Pete Townshend’s recollections today ofGoodbye to Summer- A rock concert in aid of famine relief of Bangla Desh , the Oval cricket ground September 18th, 1971

“The thing about Bangladesh These were our people.

I remember getting very drunk. Because the Faces used to know how to have a good time…In West London, we grew up in a mixed-race place….

…We were honoured to be able to help and I feel the same way now.

 I suppose it’s because if you mention something like that you feel like you’re bragging. I know that we did lots of amazing charitable breakthroughs

 I know the difference between somebody from India and somebody from Bangladesh. (pause) And, also somebody from Pakistan.”

Pete Townshend of The Who, speaking to the Foreign Press Association, at The Sloane Club, London 7th November 2019

(see below for details – click here to listen.)

to comment click @opinionmongrel 

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Interview with Shahidul Alam ‘I see young people who still believe’

Shahidul Alam talks about Bangladesh, his ideals, and what led him to take up photography. This interview and photo was taken in April 2018 and published in Dhaka Tribune on 9 August 2018 :

Update since the article below, he has been released and I was fortunate enough to see him talking freely at the V&A in London where he was shortlisted for the Prix Pictet in November 2019.

Free Shahidul Alam petition on Change.org : Amnesty International and the signed petitioners request Bangladeshi authorities immediately release internationally renowned social activism photo journalist Shahidul Alam, who was detained by secret police in Dhaka on 5 August 2018 


Shahidul Alam April 2018 London

 

Shahidul Alam in South Kensington April 2018 (pic credit N.Alam 18/4/18)

As founder of Drik, Chobi Mela, and Pathshala, Shahidul Alam has made a huge contribution to photography and culture in Bangladesh. The words in the title are how he answered my final question: “What keeps you going?”

Even before this weekend’s news, it was a poignant point at which to stop recording. The edited extracts presented here are from a conversation while he was in London presenting an exhibition at the Commonwealth Peoples Summit.

Friendly and seemingly ever-willing to chat, Shahidul Alam was in full multi-tasking mode when I glimpsed him late one afternoon in a corner of the Science Museum in South Kensington.

Camera in hand, he was filling in a “free” hour live streaming his chat with the curator of an exhibition of photographs from the first 100 years of Indian photography.

The next morning, he was due to fly to the US, having already fitted in a presentation on human rights to the UN in Geneva and the World Press Photo awards ceremony in Amsterdam during his week in London.

Despite still having another meeting, he patiently sat down to make time for a few words.

What is your involvement with the Commonwealth Peoples Summit?

It’s the second time I’ve been involved, the first was two years ago in Malta showing my work, Kalpona’s Warriors. The sad thing is because of the extremely high security, the public cannot see the work. Obviously, the concept of the Commonwealth itself is problematic to say the least. There was a Pakistani woman there who made an interesting statement: “The thing that holds us together is that we were all robbed.”

As a founder of institutions, who are you accountable to?

The one entity one needs to be answerable to is your conscience, more than anything else.

As a citizen I am answerable. Yes, it is a nation with huge problems politically, economically, and environmentally. It is also a nation with huge possibilities. A nation with a richness of cultured traditions, its art is phenomenal in many cases. And that is why I do what I do.

How did you get interested in photography?

I think the fact that I was curious had something to do with it. I found the characteristics of the medium very seductive. I didn’t have a camera. But while I was doing my PhD, there was guy called Freddy Laker who introduced Laker Airways. This was the first budget airline. It was £90 on the Skytrain.

So I was about to get on the Skytrain and a friend of mine says America is a cheap place to buy cameras and asks me to get one.

I turn up in New York, I buy a camera. A Nikon FM, a tripod and some lenses, a flashgun. I have my sleeping bag, I have my tent … I hitchhike around the US and Canada, taking some pictures while I’m doing it.

I make it back to London. My friend says he doesn’t have the money to pay for the camera, so I get stuck with it.

That was the accidental part that led me to owning a camera.

How did your activism develop?

I was influenced by my involvement with the Socialist Workers Party at college in the UK. What happened essentially was — I’m from a middle-class home — the usual sort of thing, you get pushed into a respectable profession … I moved sufficiently far away to Life Sciences which I had a personal interest in. Then, as I was doing my PhD, I thought: “Does my country really need another research chemist?”

Are you making plans for the 50th anniversary of independence?

Yes.

In 1993, when we had World Press Photo, I was doing research. There was a very famous photograph of the bayonetting in Paltan, which was Rashid Talukdar’s photograph. We were able to convince Rashid bhai that it is part of our history which needs to be said.

While there were Bangladeshis who photographed images in 1971, we didn’t have a chance to see it. We looked at Western photographers because that was in the mainstream. Bangladeshi photographers never had that opportunity. So I started doing research and pretty much went all across the globe trying to collect material.

Having set up Drik as a platform for local story-tellers for the 25th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence, we decided to produce a calendar of images. And that’s when we systematically began collecting Bangladeshi work, and now we have what is easily the finest collection of photographic images of 1971. One of the things I’ve been trying to do is recreate is the Concert for Bangladesh in Bangladesh.

Apart from anything else, we owe it to Ringo Starr, Leon Russell, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Billy Preston, and all the others. We got an endorsement via Ravi Shankar, but now it’s very complicated because of copyright, and so convoluted — of course he’s passed away so I don’t think this can ever be pulled off.

I think we owe it to the world and those artists to acknowledge our gratitude for what they did, and also because it’s a very important part of history.

What do you think of the Liberation War Museum?

I think the fact there is a museum is important. That things are being collected is important. But I don’t really know what their curatorial policy is. One of the things that concerns me is that historians sometimes have a problematic role. There is a saying that goes: “God cannot change the past but historians can.”

What are your ideals?

The only politics of the day is accumulation. We have AL, BNP, Jatiya Party, Jamaat — when you look at, say, the four major parties, they all appear to be right-wing.

Several times I’ve looked at my role within my nation. And certainly, this is my country, warts and all, but this is the only place I feel I belong. I see myself as a global citizen but my identity is Bangladeshi. And I think the onus is on me as my nation has given me a lot. I’m a hugely privileged person that way. All of us are privileged in a country like mine by the simple fact that I do not have to think, will I have food in my stomach tomorrow. This nation that has given me that privilege — I owe this nation immensely.

What keeps you going?

What keeps me going is that when I teach, when I work with the youth, despite all the things that are wrong in my country, I see young people who still believe. I see young people who still have anger, I see young people who still have hope. And while that is there I think we have a nation in the making.