17 July 2018

Photographer revisits war-torn ‘camera kids’ in the orphanage where our story began


Oggi Tomic and photographer Chris Leslie in Sarajevo 1999

A photographer who taught camera skills to children in Sarajevo’s Bjelave orphanage in 1997 has returned to Bosnia to capture on film how their lives have unfolded.

Chris Leslie taught basic photography to children in the Bjelave orphanage shortly after the war in Bosnia & Herzegovina 20 years ago. With support from Hope and Homes for Children he has returned to the country to discover how their lives have panned out as part of a photo essay published by The Guardian today entitled, ‘War Torn Sarjevo’s Camera Kids, then and now’.

It was in the Bjelave orphanage, in the mid 1990s, where Hope and Homes for Children’s founders Mark and Caroline Cook first began their work to help children struggling to survive without families. During the fighting, the children there lived a semi-feral existence in the shelled out remains of the building. Writing at the time, one journalist described Bjelave as, “the worst place in Sarajevo apart from the morgue.” At first, Mark and Caroline worked to rebuild the institution, but they soon realised that what the children there really wanted was not a better orphanage but families of their own.

All the children from the Bjelave orphanage who took part in the photography project with Chris in 1997 have lasting memories of the experience. For some it marked a turning point. Oggi Tomic, then 13, went on to study film at university and become an award winning documentary filmmaker.

Oggi Tomic aged 13 in Sarajevo

“Ever since, I saw photography as a way to stay out of trouble and express myself in the way institutional life in the orphanage never allowed,” explains Oggi.

But the new photos, which will be exhibited in Sarajevo later this year, also make clear the lasting damage that orphanages inflict on children’s lives.

Oggi Tomic in 2018

Nusret spent the war in the Bjelave orphanage after his parents were killed by a shell. Forced to leave at 15, he experienced hard times, living on the streets and battling drug addiction. His own child was placed in Bjelave and died in a fire there, together with six other babies. Today, Nusret is clear of drugs and has a place to live but he cannot forget the past.

“That orphanage ruined my life,” says Nusret.

“They offer no love, no protection, and they killed my son.

“I will never forgive them for that.”

In 2016 after many years of relentless struggle, Hope and Homes for Children succeeded in persuading the Bosnian authorities to close the Bjelave orphanage. Work is now well underway to find the right alternative, family-based care for all the children who live there. With your support, we are confident that Bjelave’s doors will soon be closed forever.

The children’s original photographs, together with Chris Leslie’s new portraits will go on display in a special exhibition in Sarajevo in November, hosted by Post-Conflict Research Center—an NGO that promotes sustainable peace and the restoration of interethnic relationships in Bosnia & Herzegovina.

Nusret revisiting a scene from his past in 2018