War-torn Sarajevos camera kids, then and now a photo essay

In 1997 photographer Chris Leslie taught basic camera techniques at Sarajevos Bjelave orphanage and sent the children off to capture their city. This year he returned to see how their lives had unfolded

The children confined to Bjelave orphanage had suffered terribly both because of the war, and from neglect and abuse. One journalist described the institution as the worst place in Sarajevo apart from the morgue.

It is more than 20 years since I first arrived in Sarajevo in late summer 1996. The destruction in the city was jaw-dropping: rows and rows of broken, bombed-out high-rise flats, shell craters and explosion indents everywhere; libraries, offices, factories all in ruins. This was city-wide destruction a late-20th-century Dresden or Stalingrad.

The Bosnian war had ended in 1995 and Sarajevo was enjoying its long-awaited peace. Sarajevans took to its scarred streets in huge numbers, eating ice cream and drinking coffee safe in the knowledge they wouldnt be struck down by a sniper or shell. It was a time for simple pleasures. Anxieties about the future, unemployment, PTSD and rebuilding their city would come later.

Sunday

  • Sunday outing, Sarajevo, 1998. Photo by Edina Hrnjic aged 14.

In 1997 I set up a darkroom using donated equipment from Scotland and started a small photo class in the basement of the orphanage.

I taught the children, aged six to 16, basic photography techniques shooting with 35mm SLR film cameras, developing their films and printing. There were no themed assignments or teaching of preconceived notions of what photography was, and the language barrier would not allow for the teaching of technicalities.

The children from the orphanage and surrounding neighbourhood ran around their playgrounds and streets documenting anything that came into their viewpoint. They had free rein to photograph what they saw and what they wanted to capture. They photographed friends, strangers, destruction, peace-keeping soldiers, old ladies nosing out of windows, dogs in the park, street scenes, shopkeepers.

I ran the project voluntarily for three consecutive summers before training up one of the local students, Edina Hrnjic, to take over and run the project for the younger children.

Most of the photographs taken by these young people lay forgotten as negatives for more than 20 years and have only now been developed and scanned. The photographs show an honest and unique perspective on a Sarajevo that no longer exists. Its war-scarred buildings have been repaired and huge shopping malls and skyscraper apartments now fill the skyline.

Dina

  • Dina Dzihanic in Sarajevo in June 2018, photo by Chris Leslie. Inset: Dina at the Sarajevo Eternal Flame memorial in 1997 aged 10, photo by Amra Dihani Barac aged 13.

Dina

Dina Dzihanic, now 31, joined the photo 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. When the photo project was set up, she saw it as something special that she was lucky to be involved in. As a young child, she says, her experiences of war had been better than those of peace.

War was the norm and everyone was equal: no one had anything, she says. But after 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.

Sarajevo child’s view
  • Oggi Tomic, aged 13, in Sarajevo, June 1997, photo by Chris Leslie. Click or tap the image to switch to a self-portrait by Oggi in Cambridge, June 2018.

Oggi

Oggi Tomic (who is also pictured in the main image) was born with water on the brain and abandoned at birth doctors gave him just months to live. He survived surgery and spent his earliest years in several orphanages in the region. In 1993 war made life impossible, and he ran away to the besieged city of Sarajevo.

He entered a childrens institution there and stayed until 2004, when he was told to leave. A few years later he won a place to study documentary film and TV at the University of Wales and came to the UK on a student visa. He graduated with honours and set up his own successful film and video production agency in Cambridge.

Dobrinja,

Child.

Old

Child

  • Photos by Oggi Tomic.

The

  • The graves of Edina Hrnjic and her son Nedim in 2018. Inset: Edina in Sarajevo, June 1999. Photos by Chris Leslie.

Edina

Edina Hrnjic joined the photo project in 1997. Two years later she took over the photo project and ran it for 12 months, teaching the younger children in the orphanage. In 2013, Edina, her one-year-old son Nedim and her mother were killed when a car Edina was driving lost control and crashed into the Neretva river. A special exhibition of the childrens photographs to be held later this year in Sarajevo will be dedicated to her memory.

Girl

Winter

  • Girl on a tram, Sarajevo, June 1998; and winter preparation, Dobrinja, Sarajevo, 1999. Photos by Edina Hrnjic.

Younger

  • Younger students with Chris Leslie and Edina Hrnjic, the former student he trained up to take over the project in 1999.
Amra Dihani Barac.
  • Amra Dihani Barac aged 13 in June 1998, photo by Dzenita Hodzic, aged 11. Click or tap the image to switch to Amra aged 32, photo by Chris Leslie.

Amra

Amra Dzihanic Barac, now 32, works as a restaurant manager in Sarajevo and has two young children. But like most people in the city, she feels hamstrung by the politics, corruption and poor salaries. I have two beautiful children and I see that as my lifes achievement, she says. If I manage to leave this place and give them a better future, I will also consider that as an achievement.

If you were to meet me only a few years ago, I would tell you how much I love my city. I would be a huge patriot. But as I look over this city today with its beautiful views, I no longer see it as such. The political situation disgusts me. People who were born in this city and who live here are treated as second-class citizens.

Rina

  • Rina Trifkovic in her local neighbourhood in June 2018, photo by Chris Leslie. Inset: Rina aged eight in the Bjelave orphanage playground, photo by Muhamd Bosnjo aged 12. Now an accountant, on her days off she visits the orphanage and arranges excursions for the children.

Rina

Rina Trifkovic, now 28, was abandoned as a baby in Bjelave orphanage. On the outbreak of war 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.

Rina

  • Rina Trifkovic (right) learns photography in 1998. Photo by Dzenita Katovic.

In 1997 Rina and 30 other children were returned home to Sarajevo amid much of the same controversy that accompanied their evacuation. The war had ended and Bosnian officials insisted on bringing the children back to their native country because as Bosnians they belonged in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Dzenita Katovic
  • Dzenita Katovic, aged 13, sits outside the destroyed BiH parliament building in June 1998, photo by Edina Hrnjic. Click or tap the image to switch to Dzenita photographed afresh in front of the newly repaired building in June 2018, photo by Chris Leslie.

Dzenita

Dzenita Katovic was 13 when she joined the project from the outset in 1997. She lived in the surrounding neighbourhood near to the orphanage. Today she is married with a child and works as a primary school teacher. She would like to stay in Sarajevo and bring up her family.

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