The war in the Balkans during the 1990s devastated the lives of hundreds of thousands. One of the most chaotic areas was the enclave of Bihać in Northern Bosnia. In 1997, two years after hostilities ended, I went for my first assignment abroad – officially still as a student journalist – and took with me an analogue SLR camera, pen and paper and a bunch of curiousity.
Geographically tucked away into Croatia, surrounded by mountains, the siege of the town of Bihać lasted three years (1992-1995), with the town’s Bosniak people facing attacks from Croatian Serb and Bosnian Serb forces, but also from the dissident Bosnian war lord Abdić and his men.
When I arrived in 1997 Bihać was clearly still crawling up from its depths. The micro economy was very active, with small bakeries and street shops selling bread and basic needs. Partly thanks to the United Nations and other international organisations maintaining peace and order there, some restaurants were making a fair business and even some bars/night clubs were open.
But it was clear that most people were just trying to get by. Roads were not in the best conditions. “Oh no, a Bosnian road,” I still say these days when I turn the car onto a stretch of tarmac in the Swedish outback that is in bad shape with big potholes and such.
The centre of Bihać was a lively place when I visited. Every now and then a white armoured personnel carrier or a terrain vehicle passed the bridge over the Una river. The mosque was standing proud, the market in full swing, young men hang around the park for a smoke and chat and elderly were trying to collect a bit of money by selling them and others cigarettes.
Just outside the centre, rural life ruled and a bit beyond, only 2 minutes away from the buzzing heart of the former enclave, villages lay shot to pieces during the war. Demining operations were very much ongoing. From a befriended, experienced journalist in the Netherlands I specifically got the advice never to pee in the bushes. I met the spokesman for the French-Anglo NGO leading the clearing of the explosives and he said the best they could do was “humane demining”, meaning taking away 99% of the threat. “So, that means that from every 100 mines, one stays behind”, I asked. “Yes,” he said.
More than two decades later the unexploded ordnance is still causing an imminent threat, with refugees of the newer wars – from Syria, Iraq and Africa – camping with 6,000 to 7,000 in the area, often close to mine fields, because the town’s leaders say they are running out of good space and money for them. One of the worst places is the Vucjac Refugee camp, where as of the end of October 2019 the mayor of Bihać was even stopping delivery of drinking water to. The United Nations already called the town’s leaders to close the camp and provide adequate housing.
So even 25 years after the end of the war that killed at least 96,000 people in Bosnia, and almost 5,000 in the area I visited, lives are still shaky. Whether it are the thousands of refugees hoping for a new future across the border in Croatia and the European Union, or the people of Bihać who’s loved ones were taken away by violence and will never return.
I’m curious how the guys in the park have gotten on with their future, wondering if the fun young couple that helped me the first days made their dreams come true, and if their kids feel safe. To this story a throwback with a series of analogues snapshot made by me with Ilford and Kodak 35 mm film, during the cold months of 1997, when nobody in Bihać really knew if there would be a good future, or none at all. |