Women Picturing Bosnia’s War #2: Life Amid Death in Besieged Sarajevo


In the second of BIRN’s series about women photographers in the Bosnian war, Katrien Mulder recalls how she documented everyday life as it continued in besieged Sarajevo, with children growing up despite the devastation around them.

When experienced Dutch photographer Katrien Mulder was sent on assignment to Sarajevo, the besieged capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, she didn’t know much about what life was really like during wartime.

“I first came to Sarajevo in 1995, where I was assigned by the municipality of Amsterdam to photograph a reconstruction project in Hrasno [neighbourhood] which they were supporting,” Mulder told BIRN.

The war had been continuing since 1992 and Bosnian Serb forces had surrounded the city in April that year, subjecting it to constant sniper and artillery fire. Hrasno, which was close to the frontline, was often shelled.

“One of the photographs that I remember the most is the moment when there was heavy shelling close by, my interpreter Nermina was petting her son’s hair and was having a call while it was happening,” Mulder said.

“The most touching moment for me was that the boy had his eyes closed, like he didn’t care for shelling, he just enjoyed the attention of his mother,” she added.

An unexpected birthday party

Mulder, now 71 and retired after suffering from eyesight problems, also remembers the feeling of adventure of coming to Sarajevo for the first time, flying in by cargo plane from Split, after the route was made safer by a treaty signed by the Croatian Defence Council and the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1993, uniting them in the fight against the Bosnian Serb Army.

On that first visit, Mulder stayed not far from the notorious Sniper Alley in the city centre, named because it was constantly exposed to sniper fire from the nearby hills.

“It’s strange to say, but I’m so glad that I have been there,” she said. “It made me think differently of how it feels to be in the war.”

What she witnessed was life thriving after more than three years of constant destruction and death, an everyday situation which had almost become ‘normal’ by that point.

“Another moment I remember really well is Nermina’s son’s birthday celebration. She somehow prepared a cake for him, and invited kids from the neighbourhood, and the children were so happy about the cake,” Mulder said. “You somehow don’t associate things like that with war.”

Mulder also remembered the moment when her father and husband came to visit her in Sarajevo. It was in April 1995, and the shelling was not so intense at that point.

“The weather was really nice and we were sitting outside in the city centre when the shelling started,” she said.

“I remember my father being shocked, while I was enjoying the weather, he was screaming that I need to go home now,” she recalled, laughing.

While her relatives insisted that Sarajevo was too dangerous, Mulder didn’t have second thoughts about staying. She was 43 years old at the time and quickly became accustomed to the state of siege.

“I must admit, at the time, there were not many casualties. The only danger I was exposed to was sniper fire on the way home, but we knew the ways to avoid it,” she said.

A furry friend on the 16th floor

The Hrasno neighbourhood is known for its four iconic towerblocks, but during the war, the elevators were out of order. Climbing up the stairs of one of the blocks, Mulder met an elderly man on the 16th floor who had an unusual companion.

“We met this very old man living only with his rabbit. He got this rabbit from people who wanted to give him food,” she said.

The difficult living conditions during the siege were even harder for elderly and immobile, who were often effectively trapped in their apartments.

“But he was so lonely that he started to love his rabbit. He would never eat this rabbit,” she added.

Mulder still remembers the first time she tried to leave the country and having to get past a Bosnian Serb checkpoint on the way back to Split in Croatia. She was worried that the soldiers might confiscate the rolls of film with the images she had captured.

“The idea of losing the films was really scary,” she said. “I remember hiding all my films in the collar of my jacket.”

She brought the films home intact and turned her photographs from Hrasno into a book, Leven Achter Foliewhich she published in 1995.

When she returned to Sarajevo again in 1998, the Hrasno skyscrapers that she spent so much time around had become notorious as a suicide spot. Many Bosnians suffered psychological trauma as a result of the war.

“It was devastating to hear that many old people killed themselves by jumping from those skyscrapers,” she said.

“Seems like people were giving up on life only after the war.”

Source : Balkaninsight