In 1995, the Bosnian civil war which had torn apart former Yugoslavia was finally over. But the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo was in ruins. British photographer Chris Leslie who visited it in the late summer of 1996 was appalled. To him, the ruined city resembled a 20th century Dresden or Stalingrad.
He visited the Bjelave orphanage, once described as “the worst place in Sarajevo apart from the morgue,” and decided to do what he could for the children in it. Both the orphanage and the children had suffered terribly, due to the war, and from neglect and abuse.
Apart from children from the orphanage, there were some who lived in the neighbourhood.
Leslie did not try to do the usual charity work of feeding the orphans or finding them clothes or toys. Instead, he got support from Hope and Homes for Children, a charity working to eradicate orphanages worldwide by finding safe family and community bases for children, and from Post-Conflict Research Centre, a local NGO that promotes sustainable peace and the restoration of inter-ethnic relationships in Bosnia-Herzegovina. His project was focused on teaching photography to the children of Bjelave orphanage as a means of photographing their city as part of a healing process.
In 1997, he set up a dark room using donated equipment from Scotland and started a class in the orphanage’s basement. Due to language problems, the teaching had to be simple. The children ranged in age from 6 to 16. Leslie’s goal was to teach his wards how to use their cameras to photograph what they saw – the destruction around them, what was lost, the survivors, the people, the animals, attempts at re-building – anything which they thought was important enough to capture for posterity.
Rina Trifkovic was abandoned as a baby in the orphanage. When the war started, she and 40 other children were evacuated to Germany
Apart from children from the orphanage, there were some who lived in the neighbourhood. Leslie ran the project for three consecutive years before putting one of his students, Edina Hrnjic, in charge. She ran it for one year. In 2013, Edina, her one-year-old son and her mother were killed in a car accident. A special exhibition of the orphanage’s photographs will be held in Sarajevo this year in her memory. This is what Edina said in 2011: ‘Bosnia will survive as a country and Sarajevo will continue as a multicultural city, open to all. We have much work to do and there are still many divisions. But there is a new generation of young people born after the war who aren’t obsessed by it. We owe it to them to make it work.”
The child photographers are now adults and all have left the orphanage. Their lives are as fascinating diverse as their photographs are. Oggi Tomic, born with water in the brain and abandoned at birth, became a remarkable success story. Given just four months by doctors to live after his birth, he survived surgery and lived in several orphanages as a child. As the war became unbearable by 1993, he ran away to Sarajevo, by then besieged by Serbian forces.
He managed to survive in an orphanage till 2004, when he was asked to leave. But he won a place to study documentary film and TV in the UK a few years later. He graduated with honours and now runs his own successful film and video production agency
The story of Nusret is in stark contrast to Oggi’s. Both his parents were killed by a shell in 1992. He and his brother struggled to survive at the Bjelave orphanage as the Serbian army besieged Sarajevo. When he was 15, he and his brother were kicked out of the orphanage. Begging in the streets, his brother died of an overdose. Nuset managed to kick off the drug habit, get married and have a son. The child was taken from him by the authorities of Bjelave orphanage. But Nusret’s son was killed by a fire which gutted the orphanage in 2007. Today, Nusret is sheltered by a local mosque, which he calls home, but is bitter about the orphanage.
Muhamd Bosnjo’s mother was mentally ill and he was sheltered by the Bjelave orphanage after being abandoned when he was two months old. But, as staff fled or were sent to the frontline, the children were forced to beg or steal to survive. When Muhamed was eight, he was wounded by a shell. Two years later, he was captured by the Serbs and interrogated for months. He was later freed in a prisoner exchange.
He later married and lived for a while in London before getting divorced. The British authorities sent him back to Bosnia. Today, he lives a tough life as a poorly-paid security guard in Sarajevo. Ten years ago, his mother committed suicide. On his off day, he always sits by the place where his mother died.
The girls seem to have fared better. Dzenita Hodzic was 13 when she joined the photo project in 1998. Now, she is a physics teacher and professor of mathematics and computer science. Recalling that time, she says: “I loved making the photos. I loved the darkroom smell. These are happy memories, because I am only choosing to remember good things from my childhood – I don’t want to remember the bad things.”
Rina Trifkovic was abandoned as a baby in the orphanage. When the war started, she and 40 other children were evacuated to Germany. When the bus carrying the children made its way through the besieged capital, it came under sniper fire. Two children were killed, and several were taken off the bus at a Bosnian Serb militia checkpoint.
Now 28, she says: “Life in an orphanage seemed normal to me. It was all I knew – I didn’t see the ‘other’ side of life. I guess I missed the true love of parents, and then again I never knew what that was so I don’t know how it feels. But what I am most proud of is that I am a self-made woman today. I have learned to depend on no one but me.”
In 1997, when the war ended, Rina and 30 other children were returned home to Sarajevo.
Dina Dzihanic, now 31, joined the project in 1997 with her sister Amra. She lived in the same neighbourhood as Bjelave orphanage and frequently helped out with the younger children. Today she works in microfinance as a marketing manager. As a child, she says, her experiences of war had been better than what she know in peacetime.
“War was the norm and everyone was equal: No one had anything,” she says. “But after the war, as people returned they had nice clothes, nice school stuff. The years after the war we really struggled – we had to wear old clothes that were too small for us. These were the worst moments for me.” (Source: The Guardian UK).