The Last Yugoslavs
A souvenir seller waits for customers as she sits next to a monument to the WWII Battle of the Sutjeska, Tjentiste, Bosnia and Herzegovina, June 17, 2017. Thousands of monuments of all shapes and sizes were erected in Yugoslavia throughout the 1960's and 1970's to commemorate important historical events. A large number of the monuments were heavily damaged or destroyed on purpose in the 1990's conflicts. Those that survived are still visited by Yugoslavs and people who feel nostalgia for the old country.
Yugoslavs gather to commemorate the WWII Battle of the Sutjeska, Tjentiste, Bosnia and Herzegovina, June 17, 2017. Victory against Axis powers at the Battle of the Sutjeska in 1943 proved a critical moment for the WWII Yugoslav Partisan resistance, turning the tide of war against the Nazi occupiers. Yugoslavia was the only European country occupied by the Axis powers during WWII that managed to liberate itself without direct assistance by the Allies.
A bust depicting Josip Broz Tito, former Yugoslav leader, along with the Yugoslav flag and coat of arms, sits inside a boot of a car, Kocani, Macedonia, May 25, 2017. The items were used in a privately organized celebration of Tito's birthday in Kocani, eastern Macedonia.
Refugees from Syria rest at a roadside chapel on the border line between Serbia and Croatia, Sept. 26, 2015. The fields around the southern portion of the Serbo-Croatian border where this small chapel is located are littered with uncleared minefields, left over from the Yugoslav wars in the 1990's. In 2015, at the height of the European refugee crisis, hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing from war in their home countries, passed through farms, fields and towns that were once on the front lines of the Yugoslav conflicts.
Camera operators film during a military parade, Belgrade, Serbia, September 20, 2017. Serbia, an EU candidate country, appointed a retired general convicted of war crimes for atrocities committed by Serb troops during the 1998-1999 Kosovo war as a lecturer at the country’s highest ranking military school in 2017.
Coffins containing the remains of victims of the Srebrenica genocide are laid out at the Potocari memorial complex, Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, July 10, 2011. In 2004, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia ruled that the mass killings of Srebrenica's male inhabitants by Bosnian Serb forces, one of the worst atrocities of the 1990's Yugoslav wars, constituted genocide. Bosnian Serb and Serbian officials often dispute the genocide qualification, calling the crime a massacre instead.
Participants in the Epiphany cross retrieval swimming race listen to a fiery motivational speech as they prepare to swim the winter waters of the Danube, Belgrade, Serbia, Jan. 19, 2014. Cross retrieval races and other Orthodox Christian religious traditions regained popularity in Serbia as nationalist and religious feelings surged after the breakup of Yugoslavia.
A monument to the 1943 Battle of the Neretva stands heavily damaged, Mt. Makljen, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Oct. 19, 2018. The monument was a popular gathering place during the Yugoslav era, attracting thousands of visitors on national holidays. After the 1990's Yugoslav conflicts, the memorial fell into disrepair, and was finally blown up with dynamite in 2000 by unknown perpetrators.
Dzavahira Grahic, 60, a Yugoslav, poses for a photograph during a commemoration ceremony, Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, July 27, 2017. Grahic serves as one of the leaders of a local chapter of the Association of Anti-Fascists and WWII veterans in Zenica.
Gorgi Nikolov, nicknamed Tito, 58, a Yugoslav and a retired police officer, poses for a photograph inside his living room while wearing his Yugoslav era government issued winter uniform coat, Kocani, Macedonia, May 24, 2017. Nikolov, together with a group of friends, organizes and finances a private ceremony to commemorate the birthday of Josip Broz Tito, former Yugoslav leader, each May 25th, in the town of Kocani.
A portrait of Josip Broz Tito, the late Yugoslav leader, is seen inside a Yugoslav-era underground nuclear bunker, Konjic, Bosnia and Herzegovina, July 26, 2017. The bunker was constructed in order to protect Tito and other Yugoslav leaders in case of a nuclear attack. It remained Yugoslavia’s top secret until the violent dissolution of the country in the 1990’s. Left largely intact in the Yugoslav conflicts due to its secret location, the bunker now serves as a museum and gallery, but struggles with finances because of a lack of interest from tourists.
Petko Popovic, 85, a Yugoslav, stands amid his collection of items related to the former country, inside his garage, Kostolac, Serbia, April 26, 2017. Popovic, a former miner and union leader, spent years collecting objects and items related to Yugoslavia, and finally opened a private museum in his garage. Visitors are extremely rare.
A man kisses a poster depicting Slobodan Milosevic, former Serbian strongman, upon hearing news of his passing in Belgrade, Serbia, March 11, 2006. Milosevic was the main driving force behind the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia, stirring and exploiting hardline nationalist sentiment in Serbia, the biggest and the most populous of the six Yugoslav republics.
Two people covered in Yugoslav flags approach a statue of former Yugoslav leader, Josip Broz Tito, inside the House of Flowers memorial complex that houses his gravesite, Belgrade, Serbia, May 4, 2017. The House of Flowers, Tito's final resting place, attracts hundreds of Yugoslavs and Yugonostalgics each year on May 25, the day Tito was born, and on May 4, the day he died. Visitors are rare throughout the rest of the year.
A municipal worker smokes a cigarette next to bags containing remains of Kosovo Albanian victims, discovered inside a Serbian special police training facility after the fall of the Slobodan Milosevic regime, Belgrade, Serbia, August 9, 2005. The remains of Kosovo Albanian victims of atrocities in the 1998-1999 war were moved from Kosovo to Serbia proper before the conflict ended in order to disguise or diminish the scale of the crimes committed by some of the Serb forces.
Pavaresia Sopi, 10, an elementary school student, stands before a Kosovo flag at her school in Lipjan, Kosovo, Feb. 16, 2018. Pavaresia, whose name means “independence” in Albanian, was the first baby born after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. The 1998-99 Kosovo war and the subsequent unilateral declaration of Kosovo's independence from Serbia marks the final chapter in the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Remains of victims of the Bosnian war are laid on display at an identification center, Sanski most, Bosnia and Herzegovina, June 4, 2018. According to ICRC, there are still over 10,000 missing persons from the Yugoslav wars.
Sebiha Turkanovic, 68, stands in her glasshouse, Kozarac, Bosnia and Herzegovina, June 6, 2018. Turkanovic was a victim of rape while being imprisoned in various concentration camps run by Bosnian Serbs during the 1992-95 Bosnian war. Turkanovic, Bosnian by nationality, Muslim by religion, never felt as Yugoslav but was pressured by pre-war local authorities to declare as such on state censuses.
Simo Spasic, the president of the Association of families of kidnapped and murdered persons in the 1998-1999 Kosovo war, speaks through a bullhorn during a Serbian ultranationalist gathering, Jarak, Serbia, May 6, 2018. Spasic is holding a poster depicting fifteen missing members of the Kostic family, taken from their homes and presumably murdered by Kosovo ethnic Albanian guerrillas in 1998.
Zivorad Dimitrov, 65, a Yugoslav, leads the traditional folk dance as he carries a Yugoslav flag, Kocani, Macedonia, May 25, 2017. A small group of Yugoslavs organize a private ceremony to commemorate the birthday of Josip Broz Tito, former Yugoslav leader, each May 25th, in the Macedonian town of Kocani.
A young girl does a full bridge exercise as her parents attend a protest against changing the name of the Josip Broz Tito Square, Zagreb, Croatia. The Zagreb local government, under pressure from their nationalist coalition partners, changed the name of the prominent central Zagreb square from Josip Broz Tito Square to Republic of Croatia Square in 2017.
A destroyed bridge is partially submerged in the Neretva river, Jablanica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, July 26, 2017. The strategically important bridge over the Neretva river was blown up by the WWII Yugoslav Partisan resistance movement in 1943, only to be rebuilt by the occupying Nazi forces the same year. The bridge was once again destroyed in the 1960’s for the purpose of filming an epic Yugoslav production WWII war movie, and was never rebuilt. Despite its decrepit condition, Yugoslavs and anti-fascists still visit the site every May, to commemorate the WWII Battle of the Neretva.
Syrian refugees cross Serbia's border with Croatia, Sept. 18, 2015. During the peak of the European refugee crisis in 2015, Serbia refused to block the flow of hundreds of thousands of people on their way to Western Europe into Croatian territory. The move sparked a war of words between the two countries’ leaders, followed by a customs and trade war.
The abandoned former main border crossing between Yugoslavia and Hungary stands in disrepair, Horgos, Serbia, August 16, 2018. After the Yugoslav wars stopped, the Serbian authorities built a larger, more modern highway border crossing in the vicinity, and the old crossing was left to decay.
Aldijana Spahic, 14, a Yugoslav, stands while holding the Yugoslav era Bosnian flag, Jajce, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2017. Spahic, a student, feels Yugoslav, even though she was born after the breakup of the country and has technically never been a citizen of Yugoslavia.
A refugee from the Middle East stands in a field on the Serbian-Croatian border, Oct. 23, 2015. In 2015, at the height of the European refugee crisis, hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing from war in their home countries, passed through farms, fields and towns that were once on the front lines of the Yugoslav conflicts.
Yugoslavia, once my homeland, was a European country that existed in the 20th century. This socialist federation of six republics was one of the most ethnically diverse societies in the world. Ruled by a charismatic authoritarian leader, but with important democratic liberties preserved, Yugoslavia successfully balanced between East and West in the bipolar world established after WWII.
But the Cold War ended, and the country failed to adapt to new realities. As a result of exclusionary politics that quashed reformist voices and ignored rising nationalisms, Yugoslavia disintegrated in a series of brutal wars in the 1990s. While the conflicts raged, those who identified as Yugoslavs, forgoing their original ethnic categorization and embracing a supranational sense of community, were labeled as traitors of ethnic interests.
New, troubled nations arose from the ashes of Yugoslavia, forging their newfound statehoods by revising their history and suppressing the traces of their shared past. The old model of the collective Yugoslav memory, one that was founded on the ideas of brotherhood and unity, peace and reconciliation after WWII, was replaced with nationalist mythology. Gradually, fewer and fewer people considered themselves Yugoslavs, reverting to their nominal ethnic groups.
The Last Yugoslavs documents the aftermath of a violent dissolution of a multiethnic society. It delves into the factors that shape the identity and memory of the people living in this forgotten enclave in the heart of Europe. Two decades after the cessation of hostilities, the seven countries birthed from the collapse of Yugoslavia remain clinched in post conflict mode, lost in the murky waters of endless transition. War, trauma and fear define day to day life, persisting as the central elements that mold personal identity and collective experience. The nationalist ideas responsible for the Yugoslav conflicts still dominate the public discourse, and the region continues to float somewhere between bloodshed and peace, in a prolonged state of uneasy truce.
This work examines the identities of those who remain Yugoslavs - more than twenty years after the bloody demise of their beloved homeland. This marginalized group often ignore the negative aspects of life under the old autocratic rule, equating Yugoslavia to Utopia. Yet, by tying their collective identity to a country that no longer exists, they struggle to preserve the memory and the values of Yugoslavia, seeking to revive the tolerant, multicultural ideas it symbolized.
Through taking portraits, documenting the reunions and private lives of Yugoslavs, I look to explore pieces of individual and collective memory of the former country. Contrasting the images of Yugoslavs against those of transitional realities surrounding them sets a critical view of the societies that inherited Yugoslavia. Impaired with a legacy of violence, populist politics, failed economies, the new states fall miserably short of achieving the standards of life, personal liberty and human rights of a flawed, authoritarian, albeit functioning system of the past.
This subject gains in importance as the worldly affairs are dominated by post-truth narratives. Xenophobia and populism are resurgent in America and Europe. The brutal decomposition of Syria and the continued conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq sent waves of refugees through the Balkans, and the history of Yugoslavia intersected with world history once more. Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing from war in their home countries passed through farms, fields and towns that were once on the front lines of the Yugoslav conflicts. This confluence of broken multiethnic societies emphasizes the parallels between Yugoslavia’s collapse and the new universal existence, full of cruelty and uncertainty. In today’s world, the Yugoslav wars and the ideologies that triggered them seem not the shadows of the past, but a prediction of the future, the forefront of the new global reality of the 21st century.
In the aftermath of war, the dead are counted, the displaced return, the physical wounds heal, the damage is repaired, and the focus and empathy of others eventually move on. But identity and memory, both personal and collective, are casualties of conflict that often go overlooked. These essential aspects of human existence are damaged by the brutality of war, the trauma it induces and the ideologies it brings forth. Shedding light on these factors, their correlation and their extent into the fabric of society aims to open new channels of communication on the causes and consequences of the Yugoslav wars. If we fail to explore our common history and collective memory to a higher degree, we run the risk of violence dominating our future, as it dominated our past.
I am a documentary photographer based out of Belgrade, Serbia. I covered international breaking news and enterprise events in Europe and the Middle East from 2005 to 2016. My long-term photography projects include work related to the Iraq conflict, the turmoil and escalation of conflict in Ukraine, the refugee crisis in Europe and the aftermath of the Yugoslav wars. I worked on assignments for clients that include AP, NBC, MSF, International Rescue Committee, Der Spiegel, El Pais and The New York Times. Awards include: Magnum Foundation Grant, Pulitzer Prize finalist for Breaking News Photography, Yunghi Kim Grant, Aftermath Project Grant finalist, Ochberg Fellowship.