Lessons Not Learned: The Balkan Wars, Ukraine and Europe

Europe has changed and that change has confused us. Life was supposed to be a sweet dream, but that dream is turning into a nightmare. As with all dreams, we don’t know how this one will end before we wake up; if we can know it even then.

“Francis Fukuyama predicted already in 1994 that the only serious threat to the security of Europe could emerge in the relationship between Russia and Ukraine” writes Jermu Laine in the Finnish ‘Tieteessä tapahtuu’-magazine (5/2014).

After World War II, Europe lived through an exceptionally long period of peace. That kind of good luck blinded the eyes of many. And by the end of the millennium, Yugoslavia broke down into several wars.

The photos in this collection portray one of the many results of those conflicts: the wounded.

I photographed all of the ethnic groups that had fought against each other as separate groups. Each one of them, including the Serbs, experienced victimhood, and fear of the others. That was what they said, and that is what people always say. Today, it’s being said in Europe again.

History hides in itself the possibility of what never happened, meaning whatever could have happened alternatively, but never did happen anyway.

Slobodan Milosević could be a celebrated leader, dead or alive, if he had succeeded to stop the disintegration of Yugoslavia. That is, if the victims of the violence then, would have been limited to tens or hundreds, if not thousands. We can see it in Eastern Ukraine now: no leader, nor leadership style has been seriously questioned. If the war ended now, the leaders could still go on as leaders on both sides of the borders. Meaning there is a licence to kill.

Nationalism is a sense of superiority. Believe it: perhaps you don’t notice it, but with nationalism, the status of some people is quietly elevated, compared to some other people, and placed above others. In some cases, perhaps only above some certain characteristics of someone. Or just one’s potential “betterness” is emphasized. We will change one day. And then we’ll change the others. Or at least we’ll conquer them.

We do not know how the conflict between Ukraine and Russia will turn out. Even Russia does not know, despite the fact that Russia is known to be most obviously in charge of the violence on the frontlines, even if it won’t admit it. The black swan flies invisible in the dark. The logic, or the senselessness, of the events will only be revealed afterwards. We can get surprised by the speed of those processes, unless we get bored by their slowness. But that, too, will only be revealed later. If things go really bad, the conflict may turn out bigger than the Yugoslav wars ever were.

No war ends when the actual battles end. Individual victims are hidden in societies recovering from war. Many will live with painful reminders of war each and every day of their lives. The economies of the destroyed countries might recover sooner but not for everybody.

The speed of information transmission over the internet is unprecedented. But not everything gets faster in the digital age: we have seen this in the slower-than-before return of the investments after the economic depression. The internet is effective in transferring fear, and even more effective in preserving fear. It can bring you to a standstill.

While Russia has been labeled a mausoleum of old-fashioned thought, it has progressed much further than the West in the world of communications. It has been easy to disturb publicity and offer many false focuses to understanding. Russia uses distorted methods, and its audacity pays off.

You grow familiar with whatever you are accustomed to. Crimea is already age-old Russia. It was returned to Mother Russia already age-old months ago. In our fast information space the short term quickly becomes longer than the time between now and the last World War.

And also, if we fear that Russia will grab half of Europe, that reduces the significance of the annexation of Crimea, and of course of Eastern Ukraine. History’s course, and the sense of time that follows from it, and the scale, is changed by invoking fear.

Give a little, and you’ll get a lot. The Crimean peninsula has already turned into a little part of a horror scenario. It has been minimized into a necessary and nearly inevitable loss. And as a loss, it already represents, for many, the desired end result of the entire conflict. This is what Russia has pursued the whole time. Russian military exercises, the deployment of troops near Europe’s strategically sensitive spots, as well as the intensive aircraft activity, sometimes far away from its own borders, have all added to the pressure.

At the moment, I am in Katowice, Poland. The nuclear warheads are also directed at Poland. Theoretically Katowice is out of the reach of the Iskanders (short range missles) anyway. I’d hear their blows from the TV, or Twitter, or Facebook. To begin with, I can’t know the end result. War always evolves.

No one knows when “your war” will break out. It may happen tomorrow, or never. You just don’t know. Every conflict that becomes a war could have been avoided. How? This cannot be told in a single story. Wars give birth to thousands of stories, only some of which are really true.

I am returning to this project with the goal of studying the long term effects of war. The final material will be published as a book if not as a film as well. At the moment I am looking for some help to finance the project. All good advice is welcome.

Look at the pictures of the wars of Yugoslavia breaking apart, they happened fifteen and twenty years ago. They could soon be pictures of our New Europe.

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