On 15th March 2019, a gunman opened fire on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 49 people and injuring another 51. As he streamed his act of terrorism on social media, those watching reported hearing a song glorifying the name of Radovan Karadžić, the former Serb army leader. Karadžić had been found guilty of genocide in 2016 for his role in masterminding the murder of 8,372 men and boys at Srebrenica in July 1995.
Prior to opening fire on a Worker’s Youth League camp in Oslo in 2011, Norwegian terrorist Anders Brevik had referenced Bosnia and clear support for Karadžić in a written manifesto. In 2018, the BBC and Balkan Insider carried out a joint investigation into connections between far-right groups in the UK and Serbia, looking at their anti-Islamic propaganda campaigns on social media.
To many, these examples warn of the danger of forgetting the appalling human cost of violent nationalism, despite the constant refrain of ‘never again’.
Rhetoric from Srebrenica’s own mayor Mladen Grujičić, who claims that the murders carried out by the Serb forces were not designed to wipe out the Muslim population, is indicative of a rising resistance to the ICTY rulings and more generally the European Court of Human Rights. This is in line with far-right and nationalist movements around Europe, with agitators and leaders from Nigel Farage in the UK, to Hungarian President Viktor Orban, to Italy’s Matteo Salvini criticising its decision- making powers.
Denial of the genocide at Srebrenica is becoming more commonplace. The 2019 Nobel laureate in Literature Peter Handke has long been vocal in his support for the idea of a ‘Greater Serbia’ and refuses to recognise the genocide. Handke’s accusations in a 1997 essay, that Bosnian Muslims had staged and inflicted death upon their own people, feed directly into the belief systems of the anti-Muslim terrorists.
Arts and culture play an important role in creating the settings to contain the memories of the brutality of war, especially when there are those who seek to deny it. Safeguarding memory in this way is also often seen as necessary to peace. Artist Aida Šehović’s family fled Bosnia in 1995 when she was 15, the same age as her travelling installation Što Te Nema (English title ‘Where Have You Been’). This nomadic monument consists of collecting and placing thousands of cups of Bosnian coffee, representing the souls killed in the Srebrenica genocide. As people come together to place cups and build this participatory monument, space and time are created for reflection, remembrance, and for honouring the victims.
The memorial has been played out at The Hague, the Venice Biennale, and, in 2020, was placed finally at Srebrenica, with the facilitation of Sarajevo-based Post-Conflict Research Center. The Center is a peace organisation dedicated to restoring a culture of peace and preventing violent conflict in the Western Balkans by creating, implementing, and supporting evidence- based, multidisciplinary, and innovative approaches to peace education, creative multimedia, conflict prevention, post-conflict research, human rights, and transitional justice. For the past ten years, they have also been supportive of Chris and his work in the region.
Artists from across the region have, through diverse media, been contributing to building the cultural space of collective remembrance. In his work Notebook, exhibited in Belgrade in 2020, Serbian artist Vladimir Miladinović presents a version of Serb leader Ratko Mladić’s war diary from the Bosnian War. He has rewritten 400 pages in English, and, each individually framed, they cover the walls of one room. The diary was used as evidence in the ICTY trial against Mladić, translated from his Cyrillic handwriting into French and English text for the court proceedings. Setting the personal against the public, this reformatting of the diary reveals the connection between individual and collective memory, as well as the link between words and the real-life events they may belie.
Croatian photographer Hrvoje Polan and writers Viktor Ivančić and Nemanja Stjepanović, reveal the clash of culture and brutal conflict in their book Iza sedam logora (literally ‘Beyond Seven Camps’, however the English title is Killing Culture). It documents the cultural facilities that were used by the warring forces as detention centres and killing grounds. Places of joy that once united people in the celebration of creativity now held them hostage. The resultant psychological damage and loss of life goes hand in hand with the destruction of cultural belonging, something which has a profound effect on generations to come.
Filmmaker Oggi Tomić is one of the Camera Kids with whom Chris worked in Sarajevo and he has returned to make some deeply personal work which focuses on the family divisions and loss created by the war. The film Finding Family, which Oggi made with Chris, was recognised by BAFTA Scotland in 2014, and he continues to develop stories for news agencies around the world.
Intergenerational trauma is something we are still learning to understand, however there can be no doubt that it will affect the people of the Former Yugoslavia for years to come, with particular damage having been done to the people of Bosnia. They continue to move their country forward in a manner that strives for stability and harmony, while the diaspora has become part of the story too. It has taken time, hard work and sacrifice, but there is much reason for hope.
Chris Leslie’s photographs are part of that process. A picture of a population that stood in the face of adversity and of a generation that grew up dealing with damage they did not inflict. In turn, they are a part of Chris’ story. They have guided and influenced him in unexpected ways. As such, we can see a thread weaving from his earliest work in Pakrac, through Sarajevo and Kosovo, to his work in Moscow and in his hometown of Glasgow. Blown- out windows and broken-down buildings providing a stage for the stories of people simply living out their lives, holding on to fading memories.
As we view the images here, we seek not only to remember the conditions that created them, but to imagine what might come next.