The subtle signs of a relatively recent war readily presented themselves — but that was because I was looking for them. If not, then the Old Town of Dubrovnik would have been exactly as it appeared on the surface — a wonderfully walled peninsula of land jutting into the Adriatic Sea, crammed with old churches and palaces, lopsided stone staircases, a marble main street, and plenty of places to sip a glass of outstanding red wine.
With a keener eye, however, I noticed the residual evidence of a war that began and ended in my lifetime, not long before I arrived in this iconic Croatian city: a brand-new baluster in an ancient balustrade, replacing the one that had been blown out by spiteful shelling of a defenseless city during the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s; holes and pockmarks in the walls of cream-colored buildings where exploding debris struck; gorgeous orange tile roofs recently added to replace the older brown roofs that went up in flames. It was these tangible testaments to armed conflict that drew me to one of Dubrovnik’s lesser-known but most arresting attractions — War Photo Limited.
Although hardly a cheerful place, War Photo Limited serves as an excellent reminder of the folly of war and the massive toll it takes, especially — as always — on the innocent, and particularly tragic when the war in question was, frankly, questionable to begin with.
War Photo Limited was founded “to expose the myth of war and the intoxication of war, to let people see war as it is, raw, venal, frightening, by focusing on how war inflicts injustices on innocents and combatants alike.” And it does so very effectively, with no prejudice or agenda, through its exhibits of photos and multimedia presentations in rooms on two floors of a building just off Stradun, the city’s main strip.
Exhibits here change constantly — there’s always an eruption of hostilities in our beleaguered world, and talented, brave photojournalists are on hand, often at personal risk, to forever capture images that remain with us for prosperity but not, unfortunately, as a deterrent to further aggression.
When I visited, the works on display included photos of children soldiers and scenes from ambushes. But I was most attracted to “The End of Yugoslavia,” a permanent collection of color and black-and-white images of the Balkan conflicts that erupted in the 1990s. The “big” photos of massive fireballs exploding into the sky or soldiers in action with their rifles or howitzers — powerful though they were — weren’t the ones that moved me. Rather, I was more affected by those of civilians caught in the middle of a terrifying nightmare that betides them and from which there is no escape.
Benches in the exhibition room provided a welcome respite from the emotional blow the photos serve and an opportunity to absorb the magnitude of lives ruined by the vicissitudes of geopolitics: The photo of Sarajevians washing their laundry in a river surrounded by rubble. The shot of desperate, deracinated Kosovars walking into Macedonia. Relatives mourning a man who was killed when his tractor drove over an anti-tank mine. A despondent woman with a small child outside her burned-out home and with no idea where her husband was. A soldier in tears, returning home to his village where his entire family had been wiped out.
The photo of an elderly man walking across a bridge and carrying a shopping bag of groceries would seem quotidian enough — except the road of the bridge was gone, and the man was clutching the steel frame as he crossed on narrow beams over a wild river raging dozens of feet below him. A simple trip to buy produce had become a life and death encounter.
The one photo, taken by Ron Haviv, that etched its way into my memory captured all the elements of war in a single image: boys in uniform playing soldier, blood, weapons, disregard for human life — everything you hope you never experience. Three Serb Tigers stand on a street corner in Bijeljina, Bosnia, two of whom look away from the carnage at their feet. Three civilians lie prostrate on the wet sidewalk, a viscous pool of blood spilling from at least one of them. The third solider, with his back toward the camera, raises his booted foot, about to kick one of the dead (dying?) people in the head. A cigarette dangles carelessly between the fingers of his left hand, as if he is on a smoke break and about to brush away so much litter.
Although war and violence may not exactly rise to the top of your (or my) itinerary when traveling, a visit to War Photo Limited offers a deeper understanding of Dubrovnik itself and the greater world around us. It also reminds us of both how lucky we are just to be on vacation at all and not struggling through unimaginable horror and hardships, and how fortunate we are that a trip to the grocery store or doing a load of laundry is not an unthinkable ordeal.