A decade ago, when nationalist leaders in Croatia and Slovenia began talking seriously about splitting from Yugoslavia, few could have imagined the horrors to come. Europe, after all, had just witnessed four decades of communism swept away with relatively little bloodshed. But Yugoslavia’s complex ethnic mix would make no such transition. For Yugoslavia, the passions of 1989, which led to political and economic reforms in other nations, brought instead an explosion of suppressed ethnic hatreds, and a decade of ferocious warfare.
Photojournalist Ron Haviv spent much of the last decade capturing the disintegration of Yugoslavia on film. Like many who covered the destruction of the Yugoslav state, Haviv witnessed enormous tragedy and endured the uncertainties and randomness that made the Yugoslav wars the most dangerous conflicts to cover since World War II. His still photography brings home the agony of civil war.
Born out of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire after World War I, Yugoslavia was always one of the world’s most diverse nations. Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, Hungarians, Montenegrins and a host of others lived within its borders. Among them were Roman Catholics, Serb and Greek Orthodox, Muslims, Jews and a variety of subsects, not to mention a good number of communists who dismissed religion as mere superstition.
Yet Yugoslavia, having escaped the orbit of the USSR after World War II, also was the most western and arguably the most humane of the communist nations of Europe. It welcomed Western tourists, dabbled in capitalism early, kept the Soviets at arms length and exported as much to the West as to the East during the Cold War. A tremendously successful Winter Olympics held in multiethnic Sarajevo in 1984 seemed to symbolize a forward-looking, stable state. With the Berlin Wall’s collapse the following year, Yugoslavia appeared well placed to make a swift transition to democracy and market economics.
Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians were forced to flee by Yugoslav forces; their only crime was their ethnicity. Photojournalist Paolo Pellegrin recorded their flight from their homeland.
The rise of Milosevic caused deep dismay in Slovenia and Croatia, the most prosperous and western-oriented of Yugoslavia’s republics. After 1989, when it became clear the Yugoslav communist party would have to accept multiparty elections, Croat and Slovene nationalists took the lead in seeking to break from Yugoslavia. After electing nationalists as its republican leaders, tiny, homogeneous Slovenia went first in the spring of 1991, leading to a short, successful war of secession that Yugoslavia chose not to pursue. However, when Croatia followed suit in the summer of 1991, Yugoslav troops went on the offensive, citing the rights of the large Serb minority that lived within Croatia’s republican borders.
The wars that followed caught Europe and the rest of the world by surprise. They also exposed the shortcomings first of the European Union, which struggled unsuccessfully to head off conflict; then the United Nations, whose intervention proved insufficient to halt civilian slaughter, and finally the United States, which sat on its hands for half a decade before intervening and forcing a military solution to the Bosnian war in 1995.
Even then, Milosevic was not finished, turning his attention once again to ethnic Albanian nationalists in Kosovo. Brutal guerrilla attacks by the Kosovo Liberation Army on local Serbs and equally brutal reprisals from Serbia escalated into a third war in April 1999, when a U.S.-led NATO air force opened an air war against what remained of Yugoslavia. When it was over, Yugoslav forces withdrew and left Kosovo under U.N. and NATO stewardship. Thousands on both the Serb and Albanian sides had died.
Milosevic himself held on long enough for one final miscalculation: In the fall of 2000, he called a general election, misreading his own people and assuming he’d easily retain power. Instead, he was defeated by a respected Serb intellectual, Vojislav Kostunica. Milosevic’s attempts to invalidate Kostunica’s victory led to unrest and finally his own overthrow on Oct. 8, 2000, more than a decade after East Germans managed the same feat without bloodshed. A final toll in Yugoslavia’s wars may never be known. To this day, international teams are struggling to exhume bodies from the many mass graves that scar its landscape.
Of blood and honey
Haviv’s work is presented here in three parts, focusing on the Serb-Croat war of 1991, the Bosnian war of 1992-95 and the Kosovo war of 1999. It is just a small taste of the thousands of images he took during the past 10 years, many more of which can be seen in his new book, “Blood and Honey: A Balkan war journal,” (T.V. Books, L.L.C, 2000, ISBN: 1575001357).
MSNBC.com Belgrade correspondent Zoran Stanojevic, himself a Serb, contributed an audio feature to our report, giving fellow Serbs an opportunity to speak out about the fall of Milosevic as well as the actions taken in their name during his leadership.
Several other journalists who worked on this project, including MSNBC.com International Correspondent Preston Mendenhall and myself, also covered the
Yugoslav conflict at various times during the past 10 years. Between 1990 and 1993, I made repeated trips to Yugoslavia and from a distance witnessed one of the events chronicled by Haviv in this feature, the destruction of Osijek.
Mendenhall, then an NBC News producer based in Moscow, flew in and out of Bosnia during the long siege of Sarajevo. Later, as a London-based correspondent for MSNBC.com, he was in Belgrade as NATO air forces began their bombing campaign in April 1999.
Mendenhall’s reports so annoyed the Yugoslav government that he was ejected by the Belgrade government two weeks into the war.
Michael Moran is senior correspondent at MSNBC.
Ron Haviv is a freelance photojournalist, represented by VII, who works for publications including Newsweek, Time, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.