A Pictorial Guide to Hell
A Pictorial Guide to Hell
By: John Kifner
Date: January 24, 2001
Source: Kifner, John. "A Pictorial Guide to Hell." The New York Times (January 24, 2001).
About the Author: John Kifner is an award-winning journalist and foreign correspondent at the New York Times, where he has worked since his graduation from Williams College in 1963. Kifner's stories focus on national politics, war, and current events, and he has worked in Chicago, Boston, Egypt, Lebanon, Poland, Bosnia, Iran, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
John Kifner's poignant review of Blood and Honey: A Balkan War Journal brought a photograph that was widely published in 1992 back into the limelight. The photograph was taken by Ron Haviv, a photojournalist who documented the Bosnian Serb takeover of the town of Bijeljina in Bosnia and Herzegovina in April 1992. As Kifner describes, for many, Haviv's photo-graph—a young soldier with sunglasses and a cigarette, casually kicking the body of a woman in the street next to her house—personifies the horror of ten years of war in the former Yugoslavia.
Haviv's book serves as a searing testament to the violence that killed over 300,000 Europeans in the 1990s. The wars in the Balkans included the greatest occurrence of genocide since World War II and introduced the term "ethnic cleansing" to the world. Exhibits of Haviv's photographs based on Blood and Honey have been displayed in several museums since Kifner's review. In addition to shows in New York and Sarajevo, exhibits have also taken place in Dubrovnik, Croatia, where tourists from Adriatic cruise ships encounter the shocking images from the previous decade, and in several towns in Serbia, where violent protest caused the exhibit to close in two cities in 2002.
The image is stark, one of the most enduring of the Balkan wars: a Serb militiaman casually kicking a dying Muslim woman in the head. It tells you everything you need to know.
Ron Haviv was 27 when he took that photograph in the early spring of 1992, and even today the words come tumbling out, every detail etched in his memory, when he talks about it. The picture is one of the most gripping in his new book, "Blood and Honey: A Balkan War Journal" (TV Books/Umbrage Editions), a collection of searing photographs. Some of the photos are on view through Feb. 8 at the Saba Gallery (116 East 16th Street, Manhattan) and will go on permanent exhibition at the war museum in Sarajevo.
The previous year in Vukovar, Serbs had killed a Croatian woman in front of Mr. Haviv and prevented him from taking the picture. He had vowed it would not happen again.
This time it was the town of Bijeljina, at the very beginning of the Bosnian phase of a war that tore the former Yugoslavia apart. Tensions were high as reports and rumors spread of Serbian plans for what would eventually be termed "ethnic cleansing." Zeljko Raznatovic, the gangster turned paramilitary leader known as Arkan, stormed into the largely Muslim town with his Tigers militia, and the carnage began.
"They were going house to house, looking for fighters and things to take," Mr. Haviv remembered. "Inside a mosque, they had taken down the Islamic flag and were holding it like a trophy. They had a guy, they said he was a fundamentalist from Kosovo. He was begging for his life.
"There was shouting outside. They had taken the town butcher and his wife, and they were screaming. They shot him, and he was lying there.
"The soldiers were shouting in Serbian, 'No pictures, no pictures.'
"I felt like I had to photograph it. There was a truck that had crashed nearby. I got between the cab and the body and turned my back so the soldiers couldn't see me. They shot the woman, then they brought out her sister and shot her.
"I was trying to think as clearly as possible. It was incredibly important for evidence to try to get the soldiers with the bodies in the same picture. I framed it, I was probably about 30 feet away.
"There were the two soldiers. Another came from my left, he had a cigarette in one hand and sunglasses on top of his head. When he kicked her, it was like the ultimate disrespect for everything."
He had the pictures, but he still needed clearance from Arkan to leave. As Mr. Haviv waited for the warlord, he frantically stripped his cameras, hid the rolls of film and reloaded.
"I heard this crash," he said. "The Kosovar came flying out of a third-floor window and landed at my feet. I started photographing him."
A few minutes later, Arkan arrived. "I need your film," he said.
At first Arkan said he would have the film processed and give back the pictures he approved of, Mr. Haviv said. But he immediately began a long, complicated argument about the poor quality of film processing in Belgrade, which so distracted Arkan that he wound up taking the two rolls of film in the cameras and not bothering to search for more. When the pictures were published abroad, Mr. Haviv was put on a Serbian death list and was once held and beaten for three days.
Mr. Haviv had been, at this point, a major international photographer for about three years. He had studied journalism at New York University, graduating in 1987, but only took up photography as a hobby in his senior year.
He started out as an assistant to a fashion photographer, then broke in as a street photographer—working free at first—for the New York City Tribune, the defunct Unification Church newspaper, then Agence France-Presse.
Chris Morris, a swashbuckling war photographer, took the young man under his wing, helping him get to Panama for his first big glimpse of history in 1989. He scored a rare trifecta—the covers of Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report—with his shot of a vice presidential candidate being beaten by paramilitary thugs.
He knew little about the Balkans when he set out for Slovenia, where a brief war was brewing in 1991. A decade later, he is wiser and sadder.
"I was very happy when the pictures were published," he said. "It was a week before the first shots were fired in Sarajevo. There were lots of reports from journalists, diplomats, spies, everybody, that Bosnia was going to be very bad. I thought these pictures would provide a final push, so the world would stop this. But obviously nothing happened. It was really incredibly disappointing.
"I went from this very idealistic view of the power of photography to feeling it was just really frustrating. We all wound up feeling that way all through Bosnia—photographers, journalists, television people. Nobody was really listening. There were just halfhearted efforts to solve the situation. Then Kosovo, and once again the waffling that led to so many deaths. And the victims become aggressors, and the aggressors become victims, and it goes around and around."
Ron Haviv's photographs from April 1992 were among the first that the international media saw of the ethnic violence that accompanied the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Bijeljina, the scene of his most famous photograph, was the first town in Bosnia and Herzegovina attacked in what came to be known as the Bosnian War. As Human Rights Watch notes, the attack on the Bijeljina Bosniaks (one of the minority ethnic groups of Bosnia and Herzegovina, predominantly Muslim) foreshadowed methods of ethnic cleansing that were used by several different factions in Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Serbia and Montenegro in the following ten years and documented in Blood and Honey. In the four days following Arkan's invasion, many more civilians were killed and houses and stores were looted and burned. Over the next few years, most of the surviving Bosniaks in Bijeljina were forced into the army, sent to detention camps, or sentenced to forced labor. By the time the Dayton Agreement was signed in December 1995, fewer than a tenth of Bijeljina's 30,000 Bosniaks remained in the city.
Blood and Honey and Haviv's more recent work, Afghanistan: The Road to Kabul, bring war photography and its role in influencing international policy into the news and onto coffee tables. A Serbian documentary film entitled Vivisect explores Serbian reactions to Haviv's work, and National Geographic featured Haviv in a film examining the risks taken by freelance photographers in combat. Susan Sontag uses Haviv and his Bijeljina photograph as an illustration of the war photography genre in her essay on the meanings and social impact of photographs of human-led violence.
Journalist John Flinn summed up his experience of the Blood and Honey exhibit in the new War Photo Limited gallery in Dubrovnik in 2005:
… here were no captions on the photos. You had to go over to the far wall to learn which of the subjects were Croat victims of Serbian attacks, which were Serbs suffering at the hands of Croats, which were Bosnians ducking Croat bullets and which were Albanians being attacked by Montenegrins. Maybe someone from the Balkans could tell the victims apart, but they all looked the same to me. It made clear that every side in the war had blood on its hands, that innocent people suffered everywhere.
Haviv, Ron, et al. Blood and Honey: A Balkan War Journal. New York: TV Books/Umbrage Editions, 2000.
Haviv, Ron, and Ilana Ozernoy. Afghanistan: The Road to Kabul. Millbrook, N.Y.: de.MO, 2002.
Flinn, John. "Life After War: An 'Adriatic Camelot,' Dubrovnik Packs in Tourists While Patching Scars." San Francisco Chronicle (December 4, 2005).
Lommen, Andre. "Bosnia and Hercegovina Unfinished Business: The Return of Refugees and Displaced Persons to Bijeljina." Human Rights Watch 12, 7 (May 2000).
Sontag, Susan. "Looking at War: Photography's View of Devastation and Death." The New Yorker (December 9, 2002): 82-98.