“If you saw what I see for the future in Yugoslavia, it would scare you…”
Josip Broz Tito, 1971
The year 2020 marks the 25th year since the end of the Bosnian and Croatian Wars. Often referred to in the same breath, it was as bloody and dark as anything modern Europe has seen. A war fought on divisive and dangerous nationalism, which razed cities and towns to the ground and committed over 100,000 souls to their graves. Around half of these were civilians.
After the death of Yugoslavia’s leader Josip Broz Tito in 1980, the various ethnic and nationalist tensions – over which he is credited with having had a tempering influence – began to develop a stronger hold in public and political discourse. Slovenia became the first of the states to claim their independence. A short struggle with the Yugoslavian People’s Army ensued, but this was nothing compared to what the region would see in the years to come. As Croatia and then Bosnia & Herzegovina announced their own independence, tensions began to rise. Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević had long advocated for uniting the lands populated by Serbs to create a ‘Greater Serbia’. These lands included large portions of both Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia.
Soon, the proto-state of Serbian Krajina was formed within Croatian borders, and similar attempts to occupy areas of Bosnia & Herzegovina began. At the same time, smaller conflicts between the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Croats broke out, despite their standing as allies against the Serbs.
Divisive ethno-nationalism caused the rapid breakdown of civic life, as politicians and leaders created fear and anger among friends, neighbours and families. The breakup of Yugoslavia was complicated and chaotic. For the people, it was catastrophic.
The US-brokered Dayton Agreements brought a stop to the fighting in late 1995, after which the international community turned their attention elsewhere. With the cameras and reporters for the most part looking to other struggles for their dose of dramatic news coverage, the delicate period of rebuilding was carried out under quieter circumstances. The people themselves, and a handful of international photographers and journalists working on more long-form stories, replaced the press packs.
In 1996, Chris Leslie, a young psychology and politics graduate from Airdrie, found himself in the Croatian town of Pakrac working as a volunteer with a small NGO. Situated around 130km to the east of Zagreb, the area was devastated during the war in Croatia, leaving behind a divided and damaged community. Working on a social reconstruction project, part of his remit was to run black and white photography classes for children.
These early photographs, created as Chris set out to develop his skills as a photographer, are raw and unfiltered by brief or agenda
It was to be the beginning of a long relationship and journey with the people in the region and would play a substantial role in the direction his life’s work would take. These early photographs, created as Chris set out to develop his skills as a photographer, are raw and unfiltered by brief or agenda. In them, we see the after effects of forms of violence that are perhaps unimaginable to many of us. Places of worship reduced to rubble. Streets and homes pockmarked by bullets and bombs. People attempting to live normal daily lives, the damage to their homes providing something of a visual clue to what their personal experiences concealed. An old woman, Ljuba, feeds her dog on the cans of beef that she receives from UN Aid packages.
A volunteer from overseas stands smoking at the window of his apartment, surrounded by bullet holes. A woman makes soup in her kitchen. These images are a reminder of how everyday life continues even under abnormal circumstances. Through them, we get a glimpse of how people find the determination to keep going, despite the harshest of environments.
A Balkan Journey begins with a snapshot of Pakrac, presented in the form of a diary that illustrates how the people of one town began to pick up the pieces and recover from great collective trauma. As Chris’ photographic practice continued to develop so too did his journey within Former Yugoslavia. From 1997 to 2000, he volunteered his summer months in Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia. In a city recovering from widespread urban and social destruction, he set up a photography project from a makeshift darkroom in the basement of the city’s orphanage. From there, he taught children the basics of black and white photography.
He has returned many times since, documenting stories from the post-conflict frontline. These include tales of families displaced internally and struggling with poverty, and tales of migrants and refugees from different continents trapped in limbo in Sarajevo. They explore the fate of the children born after the war and of his photo students twenty years on. We see that even for the generation born in ‘peacetime’, the traumas of the war remain.
Seen together, these photographs give us an insight into Chris Leslie’s journey as a photographer. They tell a story of his personal relationship with the countries that once made up Yugoslavia.
But perhaps most importantly, they are a reminder of what it takes to rebuild a nation after war.