Ron Haviv's Photos Documented The Yugoslav Wars

© Ron Haviv/VII

By Ron Haviv

In 1991, I covered the beginning of the end of Yugoslavia. By 1992 with new fighting brewing in Bosnia between everyday citizens both Muslim and Serb: I arrived in the town of Bijeljina where the restaurant owner was fighting the candlestick maker and so on and so on. After a few days of fighting the feared Serbian paramilitary leader known as Arkan arrived with his unit, the Tigers. He told me he had arrived to liberate the town from Muslim fundamentalists. I had taken a portrait of him that he liked during the previous war, so he allowed me to accompany one of his paramilitary units as they fought through the town.

After a few hours we arrived at a mosque. The Serb militia quickly tore down the Islamic flag and replaced it with a Serbian one. They then took one man prisoner almost immediately. I heard some shouting when I was inside and went out to the front of the mosque.

Across the street an unarmed middle-aged couple were standing against the wall. The woman began screaming and some shots rang out. Her husband fell to the ground. The soldiers were yelling at me not to photograph anything. It was chaotic, dangerous and obvious there was nothing I could do to change things. I had been in a similar situation before, and at that time had promised myself that if I wasn't able to stop an execution, I needed to make sure there was a photograph to document what was happening. I slowly backed away from the soldiers and tried to blend into the background near a crashed truck on the other side of the street. I was able to photograph several frames as the wife tried to help her husband, who lay dying. As I moved back towards the soldiers, more shots rang out and the woman fell to the ground too. Moments later, another woman was brought out and she too was shot.

Things quieted down for a bit until another prisoner was brought to the soldiers. A young boy in his teens: he was confused and terrified. He managed to break away from the soldiers and to the back of the mosque to escape but was unable to jump over the wall. He had no choice but to return and when he did they shot him. I knew I needed an image with the paramilitaries and the victims in the same frame. That way, there would be no doubt of what had happened.

The soldiers decided to bring the remaining prisoner back to their temporary headquarters. As most of them left, I stood in the middle of street, framed the shot and as I did one of the soldiers came from my left, cigarette in hand; sunglasses on his head and moved towards the Bosnians as they lay dying on the sidewalk

After we had arrived at the headquarters, I needed Arkan’s permission to leave. I waited along with a Serbian colleague who had been with another unit. I heard a great crash and looked up to see the first prisoner of that day coming out of a second story window. He crashed at my feet. Miraculously he survived the fall but was quickly beaten by the soldiers, doused with water and brought back into the house.

Arkan arrived and immediately asked for my film. I had managed to hide some of the film and than proceeded to argue with him for the rest. He said he would process the film and give me back what he liked. I said the labs were terrible and I would process the film and let him edit. In the end, I lost the argument but managed to keep my film.

The images were published all over the world but to little reaction. The war began officially the following week, killing thousands and creating millions of refugees. In the end I spent more than five years on the ground during the ten years of wars that dissolved the country known as Yugoslavia.

WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath will show at the Annenberg Space for Photography through June 2, 2013. Learn more about Ron Haviv and his work on his official website.

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