Sarajevo 1992: Recognising yourself in a distant war

Twenty years after this photograph was taken, the young man in the foreground saw it for the first time on the BBC website. It carried him instantly from his new home in California back to the morning in Sarajevo when he went out in search of firewood - and passed French photographer Patrick Baz...

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When war broke out in Bosnia in 1992, Vladimir Vrnoga was 17 years old - between school and university. He was looking forward to studying at Sarajevo university, and becoming a vet.

But the war changed everything. Life became a struggle for food, water, firewood... while Serbian forces shelled Sarajevo from the surrounding heights. Not long after this picture was taken, Vladimir was drafted into the rag-tag army defending his city.

"I told the authorities about my university studies, and they pretty much told me, 'What university? In war-time?' and that was pretty much the end of that," he recalls.

Vladimir's mother had an experience that was not unusual for those trapped inside the city.

As she ran across an exposed junction, a sniper's shot passed through the purse she was carrying under her arm.

"Just imagine how close that is - how crazy that is," says Vladimir.

Start Quote

Hedgehog tastes a lot like pork - nice and sticky”

End Quote Vladimir Vrnoga

"You could not relax for any moment of your life.

"Sometimes the shelling was so bad you could see the rockets and shells flying through the air. You had to run across intersections because of the snipers.

"Being in Sarajevo at that time was very, very hard. Wherever you were, it felt like war."

Cut off from the outside world, food quickly began to run out.

"When it rained we used to look for snails. We even ate wild grasses," Vladimir says.

Though hedgehogs were better, if you could find them.

How Vladimir saw the photograph

BBC Sarajevo story

The BBC News website published a video timeline to mark the 20th anniversary of the siege of Sarajevo.

The image of Vladimir was used to illustrate one of episodes. Click on the link below to view it.

"Honestly that was one of the fondest memories of the war," he recalls.

"Just feeling the gelatin on my lips, feeling that protein in my belly. Any source of protein tasted incredible. They were the best thing ever. Hedgehog tastes a lot like pork. Nice and sticky."

Before the war, Vladimir thought he would spend his whole life in Sarajevo. As it dragged on, he realised that he had to leave.

He had been sent to the front line the first time after just four weeks' training, and with no more than an AK47 rifle and 10 bullets.

Two years later, a bout of serious illness landed him in hospital. As he recovered, he was told he would be going back to fight.

"I knew that if I stayed I was going to die, to leave my bones on some mountain. For who and for what?

"That was not my war. I had nothing to do with that. I didn't vote for any of those people that fired up a bunch of other people to start the war and start killing each other," he says.

Patrick Baz

Boy leaving Sarajevo on bus
  • Baz spent several weeks in Sarajevo in 1992 as a photo reporter for AFP - he encountered Vladimir Vrnoga on one of his first walks out of the city centre
  • The shot of a boy leaving on a bus is one of his favourites from that visit
  • "I remember photographing and I remember I started to cry," he says. "This kid being separated from his father. They were trying to feel their hands through the glass of the bus that was carrying the child and his mother. It was really emotional. It was really terrible."
  • Many of the films shot in Sarajevo were imperfectly developed, because it was difficult to heat chemicals to the right temperature

Vladimir's route out was the tunnel, the only government-controlled exit from the city, dug secretly under the UN-controlled airport.

One day in 1995, he put his uniform over his regular clothes and, without telling friends or family, he fell into line with a unit leaving the city.

Once out of the tunnel, contacts got him to Croatia where he had family.

His mother was also able to leave around this time. After a period in a refugee camp in Austria, the two of them were able to apply for a US-sponsored refugee programme.

"We had no idea where we were going to go. We just had to get out of there," he says.

Now living in Chico, a small town in California, Vladimir works for a brewing company as head baker.

Married with a daughter, his life has changed beyond recognition.

Discovering the photograph had a profound effect on him. Alerted to it by a friend, he found that just looking at it was enough to give him goose bumps and "a flow of blood to his chest".

Memories came flooding back too, including many bad ones - of friends "who just vanished" or took their own lives, and the many horrendous sights on the battlefield.

He has no intention of returning to his home city.

"To visit, perhaps. To live? Never."

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