AFP PHOTO / Patrick Baz
AFP PHOTO / Patrick Baz

By Roland de Courson

It’s autumn 1992, and an icy chill has settled over Sarajevo. Bosnian residents are struggling to keep warm in their besieged city, scavenging whatever firewood they can after gas and electric supplies have been cut off. From their hiding spots in the hills surrounding the town, snipers shoot at anything that moves.

AFP photographer Patrick Baz took the above photo on October 27, 1992, about six months after the start of the siege of Sarajevo, which would last another three years and become the longest such assault in modern times. More than 10,000 people would lose their lives.

Patrick’s image, which captures a moment of daily life in the devastated city, could easily have stayed tucked away in the agency’s archives forever. But thanks to a series of coincidences it has taken on a new life of its own.

BBC journalist Adrian Brown dug up the photo as he was working on an online multimedia project about the 20th anniversary of the siege. It was just the image he needed to illustrate some of the privations in the choked-off city.

“I chose Patrick’s shot to use in the 20-years-on feature to illustrate the shortages in the city,” Brown says. “It was also just a really striking image summing up the situation, people forced to drag piles of wood along the ground to provide heat for their homes. Also, this young boy’s look of anguish really caught my attention.”

A screen grab of the BBC's 20th anniversary feature.

A few days after Brown’s piece was published online, a man 5,000 miles away was tapping away at his computer. And then Vladimir Vrnoga, a former Bosnian refugee who’s been living in California for more than 17 years, got a phone call from a childhood friend. “Drop whatever you are doing,” his friend said. “Check out this Web page.”

He did so and couldn’t believe his eyes. When Vladimir looked at the young man in the photo carrying bundles of wood along a road, he realized that he was looking at himself.

“I had a shock. Seeing that picture brought a flashback of the moment when it was taken. Suddenly, 20 years later, I was back in Sarajevo during the war,” he says by phone. “I could smell the dampness of the air, felt the blisters on my hands from chopping the wood with a meat cleaver -- and that was barely the beginning of the siege.”

Vladimir was 17 at the time. A Catholic with a Croatian father and a Serbian mother, his family illustrated the inter-communal harmony that existed in Sarajevo before the war. He had just registered at the University of Sarajevo to study veterinary medicine. But the bloody conflict turned his plans, and his life, upside down.

“This picture represents all the suffering we went through,” Vladimir says. “At night time, the temperatures dropped really low. We had to collect wood to heat our home and survive. The only thing we had to eat was rice. The snipers were everywhere above us. They were shooting at everything. They were shooting children. They were shooting cats.”

A Bosnian waits in a car whose windscreen has been riddled with bullets. November 10, 1992.
AFP PHOTO / Patrick Baz

Two women do their laundry in the Miljacka river in Sarajevo. November 9, 1992.
AFP PHOTO / Patrick Baz

A gravedigger works in the Sarajevo football stadium, which was turned into a cemetery where Christians and Muslims were buried side by side. November 15, 1992.
AFP PHOTO / Patrick Baz

Vladimir had to drop his studies, and was pressured to enlist in the Bosnian army. Months of fighting, suffering and exhausting marches followed. He lost 15 kilos (33 pounds) in just three weeks after joining up.

He finished his service at the end of 1994 but was called up again just a few days later. This time, he and his mother, Milena, left for Croatia and then for Austria where they spent five months in a refugee camp. They finally departed for the United States in April 1995.

Vladimir's Bosnian identity papers.

Mother and son moved to Chico, north of San Francisco in California. The wood collector-turned-refugee, today 38 and married with a three-year-old daughter, now works as a baker at a large brewery in the city.

Vladimir with his mother and daughter.
AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck

He has never returned to Bosnia. After the initial shock of seeing himself in the photo wore off, he contacted the BBC journalist, who put him in touch with Patrick. The photographer and his subject, who had until then been unaware of each other’s identity, swapped emails and hope to meet one day.

“I remember very well the day the picture was taken. I was walking and saw the photographer at the side of the road. We exchanged some words, I asked him for a cigarette. Then we both continued our way,” Vladimir says.

Patrick, who is now AFP’s photo director for the Middle East and North Africa, has a vague memory of shooting the photo. “I’d only been in Sarajevo for a few days,” he recalls. “I didn’t know where to go. While I was heading for the front line, in the mountains, I came across these guys. That’s about all I remember.”

But the chance reconnection between the two has stirred up powerful memories for the Lebanese photographer, who grew up in the middle of a civil war before leaving to take photos for AFP in conflicts across the globe.

“In my career, there are two conflicts that stand out for me,” he says. “One is Somalia, a country where you could get killed for your wristwatch -- they don’t even ask you for it, they just kill you. The other is Sarajevo.”

In the autumn of 1992, Patrick and AFP reporter Patrick Rahir arrived in the Bosnian capital after travelling from Paris in an armoured car the agency had bought to cover the conflict.

“Arriving in the town was shocking,” he says. “We’d started by travelling through bucolic Serbian villages, where everything seemed normal. Then at one point, we crossed a graffiti-covered bridge where someone had scrawled ‘Welcome to Hell’ on a wall. From then on, we were in a nightmare.”

David Botbol, Patrick Baz, Dimitri Messinis (AP) on the last day of their assignment in Sarajevo in 1992, posing next to AFP’s armoured car.

“Upon arriving in Sarajevo, it felt a little like the Lebanon of my youth. But in Lebanon, war was my daily existence, I didn’t think about it. Here, I arrived with more of an awareness. And in Beirut, even during the darkest times, we could always leave the city and find a peaceful place.

“But Sarajevo was a deathtrap. A modern city where people had nothing to eat and no way of keeping warm. Snipers shot people as they headed to the bakery. In Syria and other war zones, people come up with strategies to thwart the snipers, like hanging black sheets across roads to block a shooter’s view. There was nothing like that in Sarajevo.”

Just as for Vladimir, the Bosnian winter’s biting cold remains etched into the photographer’s memory.

Like many other journalists, Patrick stayed at the Holiday Inn hotel, whose name evokes a certain level of comfort. But the building, damaged by Serb shelling, had no heating or running water. Outside, it was minus 10 degrees Celsius. The rooms weren’t that much warmer, maybe four degrees above freezing.

To make the toilets flush, guests had to fill bathtubs with snow, wait for it to melt, and then use the water to fill the cisterns. The hotel’s generator only worked sporadically and the few precious minutes of power each day were used to heat water to 21 degrees so photographers could process their film. Inevitably, most images from this time were poorly developed and have not aged well.

“In the photos, you practically only see people who are lightly dressed,” Patrick says. “You can imagine how much they suffered. I was permanently wrapped in my down jacket but was nonetheless chilled to the bone.”

Like many correspondents in Bosnia, Patrick remembers the particular empathy he felt for the residents of Sarajevo.

“When covering conflicts, I often find myself in the desert, under a tent, or at least in environments totally different to what I’m used to. But there, I was in a city with European architecture where people had similar lifestyles to me, listened to the same music as me. We arrived in Bosnia in an armoured car wearing helmets and bulletproof vests. But we felt ridiculous. The people there were living like you or I -- they went to the restaurants and cafes, there were even nightclubs. So we stopped wearing our gear. We felt too ashamed.”

Rescue worker Nabil Bitar carries an injured baby from the rubble after a car-bomb attack in the Christian part of east Beirut. May 22, 1985.

Curiously, this isn’t the first time a photo Patrick took has stirred up distant and potent memories.

In May 1985, in the Christian part of Beirut, he shot this photo of a rescue worker holding a baby, barely three months old. The infant had just escaped a bomb attack that killed 55 people.

Twenty-one years later, the rescuer, Nabil Bitar, recognised himself in the picture and called AFP. He was put in contact with Patrick, who decided to look into what had happened to the baby.

He went back to district where he had snapped the shot and, after speaking to neighbours, was able to find the child’s family. The baby in the photo -- Joyce Germanos -- had survived and blossomed into a beautiful 21 years old woman. In May 2006, she invited Patrick and Nabil to her wedding.

Bitar (right) and AFP photographer Patrick Baz (left) stand alongside Joyce Germanos, the girl Bitar rescued in 1985.