The Faces of Travnik

NONCOMBATANTS and refugees in war zones are too often either ignored or else over-romanticized by the media. Mostly civilian, noncombatants are people who do not "make news" in any conventional sense, and photographers and reporters usually head for the sound of guns firing or for the klieg lights where diplomats offer statements. The refugees we see plodding in transit, where their plight is most dramatic.

So it is easy to forget that most of the people in or around war zones are civilians - women, children, older men, young girls and boys. They get on with life as best they can, not knowing if the next day they will be uprooted and driven to a town or camp away from family or friends. Or worse.

In the current Bosnian war, civilians are not simply bystanders, as photojournalist Lee Malis's portraits bring out in a Monitor special today. Rather, the war itself is being carried out against civilians - "ethnic cleansing." Though recorded in November in the town of Travnik, Mr. Malis's nine days with the Bosnians could have happened yesterday, since in Trebenje and elsewhere the gruesome "cleansing" continues.

In Malis's work both photos and text are needed. These aren't the now-familiar shots of civilians running from snipers. Dignity, fear, resignation is captured powerfully in the faces. But to understand we need the stories behind them: the roundup of men in the villages, the bodies seen floating down the river, the missing husband, the missing childhood.

A friend who just returned from Sarajevo notes that the West hasn't grasped the "utter severity" of the Balkan war. The Serb campaign of systematic terror and torture goes completely past the experience of most Westerners. It is a quiet genocide. No ovens are needed - 1.4 million Bosnians have taken flight.

Bosnians are not Muslims, but Serbs and Croats too. They are believers in a multicultural democracy. In 1989 the world saw democracy in the candle-lit faces in Prague and Leipzig. Can hope return to the faces of Bosnia?

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