We first discovered this work after it was submitted to the Visual Storytelling Awards 2014. Although it was not chosen as a finalist by the jury, the editors of LensCulture were moved by its simplicity and power. In honor of this year’s Visual Storytelling Awards—and to inspire other visual storytellers—we have decided to publish this feature article.

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. This was the first act of genocide on European soil since the Holocaust.

During the four years of conflict that devastated the Bosnian nation in the early 90’s, approximately 30,000 citizens went missing. Most of them were killed in the early days of the war and towards the end of hostilities, when UN safe zones like Srebrenica fell into the hands of the Serb Army. As part of the process of identifying those who disappeared, personal belongings found with the victims remains have been collected by the International Commission on Missing Persons. The main goal is to identify those lost in the killings—no body should remain undiscovered and unidentified.

[Ziyah Gafic had the honor of presenting a TED Talk on his work. Enjoy!]

I decided to photograph every single item exhumed from the mass graves in order to create a visual archive that survivors could easily browse. Once recovered, these items, carried by the victims on their way to execution, are carefully cleaned, catalogued and stored in several locations around the country. Thousands of artifacts are packed in labeled, white plastic bags. In addition to their use in identifying victims, the items are used as part of the forensic evidence in the ongoing trials for war crimes.

Survivors are occasionally called to try to identify these items but physical browsing is extremely difficult and slow, an ineffective and painful process.

The fact that some of the victims carried things like toothpaste and a toothbrush is a clear sign they had no idea what was about to happen. Usually they were told that they were going to be exchanged for prisoners of war in order to forestall further resistance.

Once all missing persons are identified; only the graves and these everyday items will remain.

In all their simplicity, these items are the last resort of identity, the last permanent reminder that these people ever existed.

—Ziyah Gafic