The tragedy in Sarajevo was a lesson for the people of every country, nation, land, city. The Balkans have been a crucible for the question of European peace and unity in the midst of ethnic and political struggle for centuries.
‘Peace requires constant work’, John McDougall tells us in his introduction to Human Rights photographer Chris Leslie’s monumental work, a humane and epochal documentation of the horror and the suffering.
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, 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’.
Never again. Two words we hear so often after great tragedy, words stated with solemn sincerity by those given the right to speak at the end of wars. Yet no matter how we frame it and no matter how hard the people left behind to rebuild their cities and their lives work to ensure that they can live in peace, the echoes of trauma and the tendrils of ideologies and behaviours leading to these conflicts can continue to have an effect on lives around the globe.
Taken in isolation, Chris Leslie’s new publication A Balkan Journey tells stories, through the lens of a foreign photographer, of rebuilding and developing peace in the countries which once made up Yugoslavia. His position as a photographer whose first role was teaching children how to express themselves and develop their own storytelling abilities through the lens has led to him creating a long standing bond with the region, something which is perhaps unusual in the usual context of mass media and photojournalists who are seen to parachute in and out of countries following the next big story. Through his photographs and writing in A Balkan Journey he tells us of the strength and determination of the people of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, in many ways still divided by past events, to overcome the absolute destruction they suffered and create a peace which has lasted for twenty five years.
But perhaps they are part of something bigger. If the ideological shockwaves of a war in the Balkans can be a driving factor in acts of terrorism and murder decades later, then it must be recognised that documents of peace and progress themselves become part of that wider reach.
As I travelled across Kosovo, I saw a landscape in ruins. A third of its housing stock – 120,000 homes – had been destroyed or rendered uninhabitable. Homes in the former Yugoslavia did not just suffer damage as a result of war – they were intentionally destroyed, dynamited, and sometimes booby trapped so no one could ever return. This was an attempt to create ethnically homogeneous geographic areas through the deportation or forcible displacement of persons belonging to particular ethnic groups. Ethnic Cleansing, to give it its simpler name.A Balkan Journey A New Frontline – Kosovo 2004, Chris Leslie
At a rally in Nebraska in the final week before the 2020 US Presidential elections, Donald Trump regaled the gathered masses with tales of how he had suddenly solved ongoing issues between Kosovo and Serbia. “Tell them we’re not gonna do a deal unless they stop killing each other. They’ve been fighting for 40 years; I think they’ve been fighting for 400 years to tell the truth. All of a sudden they’re in the oval office. The two prime ministers hugging and kissing”. While like so much of what makes up Donald Trump’s speeches this is mostly fabrication, he had brokered talks regarding normalisation between the countries. It also gives a clue to how the continued historical understanding of the break-up of Yugoslavia and the countries which formed from that has on a global public consciousness. If taking control of that narrative is important to the incumbent President of the United States some twenty years after the Kosovan War officially ended, then perhaps we should ask ourselves what might be the cultural reasons behind that?
During Donald Trump’s reign a dark, tangled conspiracy theory has taken hold in American mainstream media and politics, reaching even their armed forces and police services. These conspiracy theories, which can be packaged under the sprawling and incessant QAnon label, stem from the infamous online message board, 8Chan. The same message board which the man who murdered 49 people in Christchurch used to post his so-called manifesto in 2019. While no mention of the conspiracy itself was made, the rambling writings of this terrorist proved him determined to heap praise on the US President. Proclaiming him as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose”, it becomes clear that the radicalisation of a man who utilised mythology surrounding a convicted war criminal to justify his Islamophobic murders had, at least in part, taken place in the same way as American citizens were being dangerously led by the QAnon conspiracy. A theory, which places Donald Trump as a messiah of sorts battling against the elite forces on all manner of mystical and physical levels. A theory, which he has actively encouraged. According to a CNN News report in August of 2020 when asked about QAnon Trump replied “”If I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it, I’m willing to put myself out there. And we are, actually, we’re saving the world from a radical left philosophy that will destroy this country.”
Links between the Islamophobic ideologies carried out by Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic all convicted of Crimes Against Humanity in the name of Serbia and modern day Far Right agitators are becoming more prevalent, and not just in America. A BBC collaboration with news website Balkan Insight has made connections between the founder of the Britain First group, Scotsman Jim Dowson, and far right networks in Serbia itself. Dowson, who claims to have been influential in creating internet campaigns made up of memes and misinformation which led to him claim that he was “being credited with the Brexit result and helping to elect President Trump in 2016”.
In London, an anti-mask rally headed by David Icke attracted a variety of conspiracy theorists. Anti-Vaxxers mingled with 5G Truthers, Pandemic Deniers with Flat Earthers. Q signs and slogans were easily spotted, men made fascist salutes and the flag of the British Union of Fascists was pictured flying among the assembled crowd. This heady mix of far-right hatred and mysticism is appearing all around Europe, including the Reichsburger movement in Germany, and the continued existence of the Mussolini family in Italian politics. In Ireland journalist Gemma O’Doherty has developed a following based upon similar tropes, having gone as far as suggesting that the so-called Troubles in Northern Ireland may have been an elaborate hoax. It is this rearranging of history, hidden behind the ridiculous notions put forward by various theories that we must focus on. In a small way, A Balkan Journey can bring a little bit of that focus.
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 Introduction by John McDougall
It is important to remember that much of the violence which took place before Chris’ arrival in the town of Pakrac, Croatia are unimaginable to most of us. Similarly moments of modern violence such as the Christchurch murders and Anders Brevik’s attack on Oslo or the Bataclan killings in Paris are hard for those of us not directly involved in to understand. What is perhaps even more unimaginable to many of us is the process of rebuilding our lives after such great trauma, of putting things back together both physically and mentally. When Chris shows us Ljuba in her kitchen and tells us about how she stood at her window during the fighting, yelling at soldiers to either shoot her or stop the war, we are offered a tiny insight into the mental anguish that she lived with.
When we read about Nana, a 70 year old woman taking in orphans who were deemed too much for the city’s main orphanage to deal with we begin to understand a little about what is asked of people when they seek to rebuild after war. When we read the words of Dorothy, who was just two when the war ended in Bosnia speak about how its memory still affects young people through fear of division and hatred which hangs spectre like in the background of their lives returning in violent form we begin to understand that for generations this trauma will continue to be relevant.
The stories and images that are collected in A Balkan Journey allow us, on a simple level, to understand what violence based upon ethnic and nationalistic divisions does to the people that it is inflicted upon. It is in this sense, that we can begin to see A Balkan Journey as something which is part of a wider functioning body of art, of storytelling and culture which provides us with important truths and realities in a world which is in the grip of lies and misinformation.
In 2014, protests dubbed the ‘Bosnian Spring’ took hold in cities and towns across Bosnia & Herzegovina. They called for an end to government approaches seen as failing to properly address the legacy of the war, and to the corruption and nepotism leading to poverty and lack of opportunity for so many. The protests, organised and attended by tens of thousands of young workers, students and the unemployed, saw the resignation of various political leaders and served as a warning to those who remained in power that their citizens were ready to stand up to any further corruption. The people, who are the ones to be truly credited with building a peaceful Bosnia & Herzegovina, had spoken. It was time for the next phase of healing.A Balkan Journey 25 years of Peace – John McDougall
Peace requires constant work. This is true in a situation such as we have seen in the Balkans, but also in countries which have not seen war or conflict for many years. As the Bosnians stood up and let their elected leaders know that change was needed, so too must those who find themselves in the midst of leaders who stoke the fires of hatred and division wherever they happen to be.
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 a time of great division.