No More ‘Brotherhood and Unity’: Pre-War Kosovo Captured on Camera


Renowned Serbian photographer Imre Szabo recorded Kosovo’s gradual descent into turmoil in the 1980s and 1990s, documenting crucial events that led to the outbreak of war and how they affected ethnic Albanians and Serbs.

It’s May 1981 in the village of Kosovo Polje/Fushe Kosova. An elderly woman called Milusa is sitting on a chair under a tree, concentrating on peeling a potato. Attached to a branch above her, a sign announces: “House for Sale.”

This was the first picture in an exhibition of the same name last week in Belgrade by renowned photographer Imre Szabo, which covers some of the most important events in Kosovo in the 1980s and 1990s when tensions between ethnic Albanians and Serbs were gradually increasing.

The exhibition includes images depicting Kosovo Albanians’ resistance to Serbian rule, the rise of Yugoslav strongman leader Slobodan Milosevic, inter-ethnic violence and systematic repression by the Serbian state, concluding with the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, which ended the 1998-99 war and forced Serbia to withdraw from Kosovo.

“That picture [‘House for Sale’] was on the front page of Ilustrovana Politika (Politika Illustrated), the paper I worked for at the time,” Szabo, who was 25 at the time, told BIRN in an interview. “After [it was published], my photos were leading the newspaper headlines for a month.”

The image was highly controversial because it seemed to suggest that Serbs wanted to sell up and leave what was then the Serbian province of Kosovo. Szabo recalled that when it was published, Ilustrovana Politika was strongly criticised by some officials in Serbia for stirring up anxiety, while others tried to downplay the issue, saying that houses were for sale all over Yugoslavia.

Szabo’s editors, under pressure from the authorities, wanted him to go back to Kosovo again and take some pictures depicting Serbs and ethnic Albanians living in ‘brotherhood and unity’ – the Yugoslav slogan that sought to suggest that all ethnic differences had been overcome by the socialist system.

This is how Szabo came to take a photograph called ‘Saban and Jordan’ in June 1981, showing two neighbours, an ethnic Albanian and a Serb, posing together in a village near Kosovo Polje/Fushe Kosova. But this image also caused controversy because there was a white horse in the background.

“The editor called me and said: ‘Kid, you want me to get fired.’ The white horse was a symbol of emigration, apparently,” Szabo recalled with a smile.

Talking about how he covered Kosovo, Szabo said he was just “following and noting how events happened”. “I’m a note-taker, I’m not an interpreter. That war, as always, was a mistake for ordinary people. The outcome is that after everything is finished, some people are much richer, while others are much poorer,” he said.

He recalled how he was disappointed when he learned that some people he encountered, both ethnic Albanians and Serbs, had lied to him and his crew about being victims of violence.

But he said that he is still convinced, even now, that reconciliation is possible in Kosovo: “Politicians need to be put in cage to talk and agree. If not, normal people will do it without them.”

‘You cannot solve a problem with a boot’

Szabo has worked for a variety of Serbian newspapers and magazines including Ilustrovana Politika, weekly news magazine NIN and daily newspaper Danas, but has also taken pictures for many international media such as SternLe MondeDer SpiegelNewsweek and others.

Born in 1956, he had become an ambitious young photo-reporter by the 1980s – a time he thinks was good for his trade because journalists still benefited from a certain level of trust.

As an example, he cites one of the photos in the exhibition, the one of Slobodan Milosevic giving a speech in Kosovo Polje/Fushe Kosova in April 1987, when he was the head of the central committee of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia, the country’s ruling party.

“When I got the information in 1987 that Milosevic is coming, I called an editor on the phone and he immediately gave me a car to go there. Those were innocent times. There was faith in young reporters,” he said.

Two years later, Milosevic, who had become president of Serbia by that point, would give another speech at Kosovo Polje/Fushe Kosova to hundreds of thousands of Serbs, during which he established himself as the champion of Serbian nationalism – a speech that some see as the prelude to the subsequent wars and the country’s disintegration in the 1990s.

Asked about his views of Milosevic at the time, Szabo he first thought that he could do some good. But things rapidly changed, as did the photographer’s opinion.

He described the politics of the 1990s war years as “an attempt to solve a problem with a boot. And nothing can be solved with a boot, as we are now well aware.”

‘Those were dangerous times’

During the 1990s, Szabo covered the conflicts that erupted around the region, but said it was hard to work properly because journalists could not travel anywhere anymore, their movements often limited by their ethnicity. He recalled that he had a gun pointed at his head three times.

“First in Romania when [President Nicolae] Ceausescu was killed, a checkpoint controller pointed at my head,” he said. “The second time, [Croatian Serb rebel leader] Goran Hadzic put a Colt to my head because I photographed some of his people stealing cows and taking them to Serbia.

“And third time was when a soldier smashed his nose doing a [gymnastic] ‘bridge’ movement with his rifle for a photo by the River Zepa [in Bosnia and Herzegovina].”

He recalled one of his favourite photographs, entitled ‘Guard in the Yard’, taken in the Djakovica/Gjakova area in February 1999, during the Kosovo war. It depicts an elderly Serb married couple, the husband holding an old rifle while the wife looked through the peephole in the doors of their yard.

“That was the first thing that happened when we visited that family. We entered the yard; about three branches cracked outside and she wanted to check on it. We didn’t stage anything, just reacted instantly to a real situation,” Szabo explained.

“Those were dangerous times. No one trusted anyone.”

After all the violence in Kosovo and more recent disputes like last year’s row over vehicle licence plates, which again raised tensions to boiling point, Szabo still hopes that relations between ethnic Albanians and Serbs can improve. He said that in his view, the solution has two initials – E and U.

“If we are together in the EU and playing by the same rules, it makes no difference what the licence plates are going to be,” he concluded.

Source : Balkaninsight