I’d told you something forgotten

That which can’t be recalled not even tomorrow

Forgetfulness grows ever older

When silence travels.

– Jeton Kelmendi, Under the Shade of Memory

In the breakup of former Yugoslavia in 1991-2001, over 130,000 people were killed and over 10,000 disappeared. The secession wars in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia caused one of the largest refugee crises in European history with 2.4 million refugees and an additional 2 million internally displaced persons. War crimes, genocide, violent deaths, ethnic cleansing, wartime sexual violence and rape, threats of force, atmosphere of terror, the shelling of towns and villages, intentional destruction of homes and religious buildings, expulsions, and broad campaigns of violence caused a collective trauma both in the region and among the diaspora that remains to be addressed three decades later.

Members of the Bunjaku family killed during the Kosovo War (the one on the right survived). Overlaid image of the map of Kosovo and Drenica Valley where the war began. Gllanasell, Drenica Valley, Kososo. 2022.

War, Memory, Trauma… and Denial

I had yet to learn that the opera bouffe of the Balkans is written in blood and that those who are dead when the curtain falls, never come to life again.

– Edith Durham, 1920. Twenty Years of Balkan Tangle.

How do we remember, talk, and portray war memories through visual storytelling without perpetuating the trauma? Over the past decade, there has been a gradual shift from the formal, legalistic, and political pursuit of transitional justice – mechanisms to address a legacy of large-scale past abuses in post-conflict societies to ensure accountability – to memory community work through art, therapy, focus group meetings, and writing. The realization that painfully slow prosecution and convictions are only a small and limited part of truth-seeking and reconciliation opens up new avenues for people to share war experiences.

Selim showing me a registry of war victims he put together after the war. Chez Selim, Vushtrri, Kosovo. 2022.

While physical evidence such as bomb craters, pockmarked buildings, war cemeteries, memorials, monuments, and routine military presence are concrete reminders of what happened in the Balkan war-scapes, “invisible wounds” of war are a far more difficult and sensitive subject to explore. On the one hand, war is impossible to avoid in social and political discussions. On the other, issues of mental health remain a taboo in Balkan societies today, cloaking decades-old war pain like a chronic condition. To complicate things further, competing war narratives continue to proliferate. On top of worn-out claims to nationhood and identities that have torn this region apart and continue to threaten its fragile peace now adds a new layer of “good guy bad guy” contestation. Convicted in court, ‘exonerated’ in print are how Balkan journalists, Mladen Lakic, Anja Vladisavljevic, and Filip Rudic sum it up acerbically, referring to the convicted Serbian war criminal Vojislav Seselj’s 2018 book, Judgments of the Hague Tribunal, in which he denied the atrocities that happened in the Bosnian War.

The past is always powerfully present in the Balkans.

The “killing fields” – and the invisible wounds – in the Kosovo War. Gllanasell, Drenica Valley, Kososo. 2022.

Homecoming: My Balkan Odyssey

Other people’s memories gave us a place in the world.

– Annie Ernaux, Nobel Laureate, The Years. 2008.

I first set foot in the Balkans as a young college student, backpacking and hitch-hiking through the region back in the days when it was still the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. I vividly remember the kindness of a Serb philosopher professor offering me a ride and hosting me in her apartment in Belgrade, the magnificent Bascarsija Square and surrounding hills in Sarajevo where local Bosniak residents invited me for afternoon tea, passing through the gates of the Diocletian’s Palace in Split, and strolling nonchalantly along Stradun in glorious Dubrovnik immortalized in Ivan Gundulić’s play Dubravka, with no inkling what was to unfold rapidly soon after my visit.

As the various wars broke out in the 1990s, I was researching wartime sexual slavery in Japan when fieldwork took me to the city of Wuhan, China, to record the story of an 80-year-old Korean former “comfort woman” who served Japanese soldiers during WWII. Gender and Human Rights Politics in Japan: Global Norms and Domestic Networks broached the taboo subject of gender-based violence in Japan. Then, after completing a film training course in 2017, I turned my camera lens inward to my own family who went through the Chinese Civil War in the 1930s and the genocide in Cambodia in 1975-1979. War, displacement, diaspora, intergenerational trauma… and unspeakable memory.

In 2020, I took the radical decision to leave everything behind in Canada and hit the road, traveling and photographing full time, first through Africa and then Europe. In Rwanda, the undulating hills of Kigali where the 1994 genocide happened reminded me of the killing fields in Cambodia where part of my extended family perished. How does one live – and love – again after such incalculable trauma? I find the answer in the testimony of one of the survivors, Perpetue Mudede, who “finds happiness sitting beside her sadness.”

I will never forget, but I learnt to live, says R, a displaced Roma who moved to Macedonia after the Kosovo War. You know what I would like to do? I want to organize a photo exhibition that shows the world that Roma people are just like everybody else. They want to live with dignity, they learn and work and want to have a family. That would be helpful (Balkan Perspectives interview). As a documentary photographer, I would like to believe that reconciliation is possible and that art has a role to play in our lifelong collective healing.

When I finally retrace my steps in the Western Balkans in Fall 2022 – through Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and North Macedonia – I had a strange feeling of homecoming. A long, full circle.

Here I am back, dealing with the past.

Stradun today. Dubrovnik, Croatia. 2022.

The silence held so much, things I won’t ever comprehend or know. Things each person carries alone. Same place, unique experiences.

– Emma Francis, photographer

FRAGMENTS OF WAR is a long-term photography project exploring war and memory in the Western Balkans. “It’s terrible to remember, but it’s far more terrible not to remember,” Nobel Laureate, Svetlana Alexeivich, writes. This project aims to document memories of people from the Western Balkans about the legacy of war and share their vision of hope and peace. Using Lederach’s concept of moral imagination of peace-building (2005), it explores themes of loss, grief, displacement, identity, nationalism, social healing, justice, and reconciliation through visual storytelling. If truth is often elusive, we always have the gift of our stories. Jennifer Chan is a Chinese Canadian and French documentary photographer currently based in the Western Balkans. Trained as a political sociologist with a focus on social movements, she brings a human rights lens to her documentary photography. She has previously worked with nongovernmental organizations in Lebanon and Thailand on refugee and migrant portraiture. Since 2020, she has been traveling and photographing full time in Africa and Europe.

Stories: Kosovo

All Content © 2023 by Jennifer Chan