THE BLOG
08/28/2014 10:31 am ET Updated Oct 28, 2014

Quest for identity - orphans of the narrative

These are simple objects: clocks, keys, combs, glasses. They are the things that victims of genocide in Bosnia carried with them on their final journey. We are all familiar with these mundane, everyday objects. The fact that some of the victims carried personal items such as a toothpaste is a clear sign they had no idea what was about to happen to them. Usually, victims were told that they were going to be exchanged for prisoners of war. These items have been recovered from hundreds of mass graves around my homeland. As we speak forensics are exhuming hundreds of bodies from newly discovered mass grave, possibly the largest ever discovered.
During the four years of conflict that devastated the Bosnian nation in the early 90s, approximately 30,000 citizens went missing presumed killed and nearly 100 000 were killed during combat operations. Most of them were killed either in the early days of the war or toward the end of the hostilities, when UN safe zones like Srebrenica fell into the hands of the Serb Army. International Criminal Tribunal delivered a number of sentences for crimes against humanity and genocide.
Genocide is a deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, religious, political, or ethnic group. As much as it implies the physical destruction of the people it also implies destruction of their cultural heritage, their property and ultimately the very notion that they ever existed.
Genocide is not only about killing, it is about denied identity.
However there are always traces, remnants of the perished ones that are more durable than their fragile bodies and our selective and fading memory of them.
As part of unique process of identifying those who disappeared, personal belongings found with the victims' remains have been collected from mass graves by the International Commission on Missing Persons established in 1996. The main goal is to identify those lost in the killings, the first act of genocide on European soil since the Holocaust. Not a single body should remain undiscovered or unidentified.
Once recovered from numerous mass graves, these items, carried by the victims on their way to execution, are carefully cleaned, catalogued, and stored. Thousands of recovered artifacts are packed in clearly labeled white plastic bags. In addition to the objects' use as a means of identifying victims, the items also are used as forensic evidence in the ongoing war crimes trials. Survivors of the massacres are occasionally called to try to identify these personal items, but physical browsing is extremely slow and difficult, an ineffective and painful process.
Once the forensics and lawyers are done with these items they become orphans of the narrative. Many of them get destroyed or simply shelved, out of sight and out of mind.
I decided to photograph every single exhumed item in order to create a visual archive that survivors could easily browse. As a storyteller I want to go beyond raising awareness, I want to give back to the community I come from. In this case someone may recognize these items or at least it will remain as permanent and accurate reminder.
Photography is about empathy and familiarity of these artifacts guarantee empathy. In this case i am merely a tool, a forensic if you like and the result is photography that is as close as possible of being a document.
Once all the missing persons are identified, only decaying bodies in their graves and these everyday items will remain. In all their simplicity, these objects are the last testament to the identity of the victims, the last permanent reminder that these people ever existed.

You can watch Ziyah Gafic's TED talk at http://www.ted.com/talks/ziyah_gafic_everyday_objects_tragic_histories

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