10 December 2020

A Balkan journey: The catalyst for Hope and Homes for Children

Children play among ruins

Children play among ruins, Sarajevo 1998 © Chris Leslie

On the 25th anniversary of the Dayton Accord, which formally ended the Bosnian war in 1995, our founder Mark Cook reflects on how that conflict became the catalyst for Hope and Homes for Children. With compelling pictures from A Balkan Journey, a new book by photographer Chris Leslie, Mark remembers the start of his own journey from British army officer to a champion of every child’s right to a family.

Mark Cook

The war in the Balkans raged for four years, from 1992 to the signing of the Dayton Peace Accord on 14 December 1995. It was a vicious, internecine conflict as Bosnians, Croats and Serbs fought each other, fuelled by propaganda and old, historical events and enmity. Over 100,000 people were killed. Women were raped, homes bombed and burnt, towns and villages totally destroyed.

After years of peaceful coexistence, neighbour turned against neighbour and many ethnically mixed families tore themselves apart. In June 1992 I flew out to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, to command the first British contingent of the UN Protection Force.

Wearing my blue beret gave me clearance to drive through all three countries and I met people on all sides. The hatred between them was palpable. The only truly innocent ones were the children whose childhoods were shattered.

 

Mark Cook, 1992

Mark Cook in 1992

 

The ancient city of Sarajevo, which had hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984 and had been a popular tourist attraction, came under siege, for the duration of the conflict, from the Bosnian Serbs in the surrounding hills. It was barbaric and brutal, and it was happening in the heart of Europe just two hours from London. Ten thousand Sarajevans were killed; 1,600 of the dead were children. I had spent 30 years in the British army, serving with the Gurkhas on operations and in war zones around the world, but I had never seen anything like the situation in Sarajevo.

 

Graffiti on a bullet-riddled wall, Sarajevo

Graffiti on a bullet-riddled wall, Sarajevo © Chris Leslie

 

Following the experience of my six-month tour of duty I decided to leave the army. My wife, Caroline, and I had heard about the plight of the children in the orphanage in Sarajevo, which one Times reporter described as the worst place in the city after the morgue.

We both felt compelled to go out there to see if there was anything we could do to help. Our friends thought we were mad as the war was still raging and just getting in and out of Sarajevo was difficult and dangerous.

The orphanage was up a short, steep hill leading from Sarajevo’s city centre. The building had been badly damaged by shell fire, two children had been killed when an aid agency tried to evacuate some of the younger ones and others had been injured.

 

“I had heard about the plight of the children in the orphanage in Sarajevo, which one Times reporter described as the worst place in the city after the morgue.”

 

Mark and Caroline Cook inspect the ruined orphanage

Mark and Caroline Cook inspect the ruined orphanage, 1994

 

About 80 children, from teenagers to small babies, existed there in terrible conditions. The babies were hidden from the shelling in the basement, by a handful of frightened staff and the older children were left to fend for themselves—ripping up the wooden floorboards to make fires to keep warm. The only room which had any form of heating was where the small children lived, and that came from a naked flame out of a single gas pipe.

The situation was so desperate that we decided there and then that we should repair the orphanage to give the children some hope to cling on to.

 

Mark and Caroline Cook with four children

Mark and Caroline Cook at the opening of the newly repaired orphanage in Sarajevo, 1995

 

On our return to England, we could not get the images of the children out of our minds and decided to start our own charity to give Hope and Homes to orphans of war and disaster around the world. But over time, it was the children themselves who guided us to the heart of our true mission. It did not matter what race, colour or creed they were, or whether they were living in an orphanage, on the streets on in the sewers, whenever they were asked what they really wanted, their answer was always the same, “Please, please find me a family.” We have chronicled this journey in our book, A Silent Cry.

Today Hope and Homes for Children is a global organisation, at the forefront of the campaign to end the use of orphanages by reforming child protection systems worldwide. And the team we established in Bosnia and Herzegovina is still working tirelessly to give every child the hope of a loving family.

 

Cover of A Balkan Journey book

Chris Leslie’s new book, A Balkan Journey

Oggi Tomic taking a photo

Oggi Tomic—‘Sarajevo Camera Kid’—Sarajevo, 1998. Oggi was one of the children Mark and Caroline Cook met on their first visit to the city’s orphanage © Chris Leslie

 

The publication of Chris Leslie’s compelling book A Balkan Journey, with its vivid images, brings back many memories for us as it captures the desperate situation which started us on our own journey. Chris first went out to the Balkans as a volunteer, setting up a photo project for children in the orphanage. He then came to work with us whilst our programmes developed around the world.

 

Sarajevo landscape

Sarajevo rebuilt after 25 years of peace, June 2018 © Chris Leslie

 

Sarajevo rebuilt after 25 years of peace, June 2018 © Chris Leslie

Chris has a real empathy with people who are suffering and his photographs reflect the emotion he feels. As one reader remarked, “You can see he has taken them with love.”

Our journey to find a family for every child continues, 26 years on.

Chris Leslie’s limited edition, 200-page casebound book of photographs, featuring essays by John McDougall, is available to buy from balkanjourney.com/the-book. A generous £5 from every book sale in December 2020 will be donated to Hope and Homes for Children.

 


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