The picture that fooled the world

Thomas Deichmann

The picture that appeared in several tabloids reproduced on the facing page is of Fikret Alic, a Bosnian Muslim. Emaciated and stripped to the waist, he is apparently imprisoned behind a barbed-wire fence in a Bosnian Serb camp at Trnopolje. The picture was taken from a videotape shot on August 5, 1992, by an award-winning British television team led by Penny Marshall of ITN. Marshall was accompanied by her cameraman Jeremy Irvin, Ian Williams of Channel 4, and reporter Ed Vulliamy from The Guardian newspaper.

For many, this picture has become a symbol of the horrors of the Bosnian war—”Belsen ’92,” as one British newspaper headline captioned the photograph (1).  But that image is misleading. The fact is that Fikret Alic and his fellow Bosnian Muslims were not imprisoned behind a barbed-wire fence. There was no barbed-wire fence surrounding Trnopolje camp. It was not a prison, and certainly not a “concentration camp,” but a collection center for refugees, many of whom went there seeking safety and could leave again if they wished.

The barbed wire in the picture is not around the Bosnian Muslims; it is around the cameraman and the journalists. It formed part of a broken-down barbed-wire fence encircling a small compound that was next to Trnopolje camp. The British news team filmed from inside this compound, shooting pictures of the refugees and the camp through the compound fence. In the eyes of many who saw them, the resulting pictures left the false impression that the Bosnian Muslims were caged behind barbed wire.

Whatever the British news team’s intentions may have been, their pictures were seen around the world as the first hard evidence of concentration camps in Bosnia. “The proof: behind the barbed wire, the brutal truth about the suffering in Bosnia,” announced the Daily Mail alongside a front-page reproduction of the picture from Trnopolje: “They are the sort of scenes that flicker in black and white images from fifty-year-old films of Nazi concentration camps.(2)” On the first anniversary of the pictures being taken, an article in the Independent could still use the barbed wire to make the Nazi link: “The camera slowly pans up the bony torso of the prisoner. It is the picture of famine, but then we see the barbed wire against his chest and it is the picture of the Holocaust and concentration camps.(3)”

Penny Marshall, Ian Williams, and Ed Vulliamy have never called Trnopolje a concentration camp.

notes to this excerpt

Daily Mirror, 7 August 1992.

Daily Mail, 7 August 1992.

Independent, 5 August 1993.

This chapter is an edited translation of an article that appeared in the German magazine Novo, January/February 1997 issue. It was then published in English in the British magazine Living Marxism, Issue 97, February 1997. The British television station ITN sued to prevent LM from publishing the story, demanding that its editor withdraw the issue and pulp every copy. LM now faces a costly legal battle for insisting on its right to publish the truth.


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