Walking Out of Vukovar
It was 1991. Dusk lay over Vukovar as my French colleague, Vincent, and I stood staring at
the silent streets of this once busy river port. The city had, until recently, hummed with the buzz
of daily life, but after months of Serbian artillery bombardment it lay gutted, its charming
boulevards now a resting ground for its ravaged architecture. We had been wandering the ruins,
searching for pictures. I looked down; my watch showed 1.05 p.m.
Writhing in the midst of an identity crisis, Yugoslavia was falling apart. Labels once
denoting ethnicity, now signified territory, and with each day new borders, with short life
expectancies were spat out, or wiped away in the ever fluid fighting. Vukovar had just changed
hands, going from Croatian to Serbian control, and with it, playing host to another invading
army. Drunken Serb militia went about dispensing a retributive form of justice; a type which
swirled in the madness and carnage of their actions, a type that twisted their minds and gnawed
at their wits.
November here had been gloomy. December no different. Gray covered everything in this
fertile, flat land with green completely absent from sight. Earth and sky were all one shade, as
were afternoon and night; and rain gave everything a general surface sheen, filling the air we
breathed, with a heaviness that rested in your lungs. Out of the foggy quiet, came a whistle; a
band of jovial Serbs was summoning our attention. In the distance, out of the muddiness of the
dying light, I could make out the glint of hardware twinkling on them. They were well armed,
but we approached them confidently; timidness would stir their suspicion, and suspicion meant
investigation--something to be avoided at all costs. I'd been photographing the Yugoslav war for
over a year, and I was feeling as much a combatant as the guys who occupied my images.
Reuters, Associated Press, Time and Newsweek, and a whole host of other picture agencies;
Sygma, Gamma, Sipa, Saba, Agence Vu, Network, Contact and Magnum were all waging war
too. Vincent and I at Agence France Presse fought them every day. Where was everybody?
Hadn't seen them yet. Wonder what's on their film? One of these guys always sneered, "it's in
the can man, it's in the can." Asshole. There were only a handful of guys I liked in the game.
The rest were insecure, super-macho photo hounds who, if it wasn't pissing blood, flowing in
tears, or falling to the ground wouldn't bother to lift their cameras. "It ain't a picture!!" one
professor of the human condition always sneered when he saw me shoot. He was worried, as
they all were, about somebody else getting "The Shot." "The Shot" was a picture of a Serb
paramilitary kicking a dead Muslim in the head, or a Croat soldier still holding a grenade with
the pin out in his rigarmorticed hand. That was "The Shot," a coup. If you didn't get it, you'd be
hung out to dry when your commissioning editors saw it in next day's New York Times, Le
Monde, Daily Telegraph, or La Republica; it was the thing that you wanted the most. Be
creative, be original, show whatever you want, just make sure you have what everybody else has.
That was our war. Today, the feeling was heightened by the fact we'd bolted from Serbian high
command without getting the proper papers for a chance at capturing war crimes and their, no
doubt, on-going concealment; we put our safety at the bottom of our bags beside the lens you
never use. The Shot, remember?
Closer inspection confirmed what I'd seen from afar: the Serbs were carrying serious
hardware. Kalashnikovs and rocket propelled grenade launchers were slung from their
shoulders, hand grenades were bobbling around their belts and nine millimeters stuck out of their
holsters. But they were friendly and curious. They invited us to sit in the open air parlor they
had made from shiny oak pulpits and Catholic icons. The Madonna, ripped out of a nearby
church, now wore a Swastika on her blue robe and someone had scratched "Fascist" deep in the
gold leaf of her halo. Here in Vukovar, where Rome and Orthodoxy clashed, to piss on
someone's religion meant not just victory, but an ordained victory.
Bibles torn, covered the ground like carpet. A baptismal font, supported by four golden
candle sticks served as a very large ashtray. The Serbs threw their feet up on red velvet prayer
benches; me too, propping my feet up on a stack of Bibles, nonchalantly, as if I'd done so my
We spoke, using gestures, grunts and facial expressions. Vincent spoke only French. I had
some German, and I was sure they knew German too, but I didn't want to risk using it. The
Croatians spoke German and no way did you want to be associated with the enemy. "Croatian
must die." The Serbs smirked, goading a reaction from us with the only English they had.
"Croatia--Hitler country." "They, not human; they Nazis."
I didn't bite. If you wanted to live you stayed clear of arguments dressed as discussion. All
you needed to do was give them what they wanted. Try preventing them from wasting some
shell shocked kid who, to them, was merely target practice. Out here, you sucked it up, because
being a combat photographer wasn't about sanctimony, it was about getting the picture any
fucking way. And then getting over it.
A bottle of slivovice appeared and made its way around, it had an unctuous, oily flavor, and
with its introduction the noise of jokes and laughter altered the awkward mood. Slugging the
grimy plum brandy, I felt my throat burn and my body warm. I relaxed, watching their dirty
bearded faces return a blank gaze. For a moment, I felt sorry for these lonely men, but then I
noticed the blood stains on their mismatched uniforms. Some of it was old and rusty; some of it
was fresh and sticky, but none of it was their own. Returning the bottle to my lips, I drank.
As the booze flowed, the soldiers began dropping their guard. "Slicka, slicka" they said,
returning to their happy peasant selves, and demanding that Vincent and I take their pictures.
We obliged. For months these men had known nothing of their families, or their whereabouts;
they were divorced from that reality here. They weren't husbands, sons or brothers. Here they
did not know why they were doing what they were doing, other than that if they didn't do it,
someone else was going to do it to them and their loved ones. They locked arms for a team
photo. I snapped it and one of them picked up the "fascist" Madonna and thrust his hip into the
Virgin's face, looking at me, howling like a wolf. I kept shooting. With one eye shut, reality is
filtered as it travels through the camera into comprehension, and that's how we hung on. I
looked at Vincent, rolling my eyes. This was bullshit. We needed real pictures, not show-
boating clowns. Darkness was coming quickly. I glanced at my watch; it was five to two, time
Saying good-bye to our parlor buddies we set off, feeling more at ease than we should. By
the end of the Yugoslav War more journalists had tags on their toes than even Vietnam's little
spat produced. Unlike Desert Storm with its orchestrated press antics, we had the run of the
place here. The crumbling Yugoslavia meant rental car, a map, and the best of luck at the next
road block. You were targeted just to let the world know that no one fighting in this war was
screwing around. The people here would be damned if a bunch of Lawrence of Arabias with
cameras and microphones were to report on their in-fighting. It wasn't just messy; it was touchy.
We turned the corner and suddenly heard the thud of heavy boots. "Hey, papireh, papireh,
dokumentatse!" It was one of our friends. He was beaming and out of breath. "Papireh, papireh,"
he said amiably, his smiling face and glassy eyes for a brief second disguising the
pistol now cocked and pointing at me. Vincent and I were taken back to the room with no walls.
Walking, I felt badly for Vincent. His disarming face, framed by those choir boy specs he
wore, had set itself nervously. It made you want to protect him. He was the agency's golden
boy. He was used to riding on the back of motorbikes shooting the Tour de France in the scenic
Alps, or posing starlets with flaccid movie stars in Cannes, but I'd taken him to a world where
there were no media tents, and where his vaunted photo skills were rendered useless. Every time
a war breaks out photographers who work the pleasurable side of the business see it as a chance
to gain respect from their fellow shooters, and start pestering their bosses to let them be Bogart
for a day. The guys in the trenches, like me, couldn't be more thrilled. A Diva to be shown
around, telling us how slovenly we labored, how piggish we were, and how we could learn a
thing or two by watching a real pro at work. Great! Drain me of all my info and gyp me of all
the awards. Make friends with the local photographers on the ground and muscle them out of the
definitive moment. Well, blow me. I didn't want to die. And sure as hell didn't want to die
wiping a golden boy's arse. Still, I felt responsible. I should have waited for the correct paper
work, should have planned this with greater care, and definitely should have done this job alone.
Vincent was marched away to the car to get his papers. At least that's what they'd said, but
they were free to do anything to him. I wondered what pictures everyone else was getting?
The militia hurried me through the city, through the pictures of this war, not the shit back
there. There were unmanned fires, the shattered colonnades, and the intimacies of dressers and
draws now scattered and strewn. I sneaked a photo. I still have it. A man is having a gun lifted
from his pocket by a soldier who is still anxious, caught in that split second fear when
confronting something dangerous. But the man stares into my lens, resigned, compliant, his coat
flapping as the soldier's arm reaches deep inside it. Aware of his end, he stands perfectly still,
his face locked in the never-ending frame of a thirty-five mill' world of hopeless, futile causes. I
walked on. An AK rang out, its echoes fading over the broken skyline.
The make-shift headquarters lay inside one of the few houses fortunate to escape the mortars
during the city's siege. Its outer walls were bullet raked and shattered chairs, torn paintings and
family artifacts littered the dirty floor inside. I entered and was made to sit in front of a desk; a
senior man looked at me unimpressed. His tired eyes staring from a bristly, resolute face said
nothing of what he knew. He had his orders. In the half light, a pack of younger men idled,
watching their commander eagerly like dogs waiting to be walked. Taking it in, I noticed how
their jungle fatigues glittered with trinkets safety-pinned to their chests. They had recently been
snatched off the dead in their final push for glory--another way of pissing on your enemy. The
sergeant came over, "Papireh, dokumentatse," he barked. The room quieted. I smiled and spoke
slowly, "I don't have them with me. They are in my hotel in Belgrade--Beograd--hotel policy--
hotel rules." I'd done this before. It was the standard check mate move.
The sergeant lit two cigarettes, handed one to me, and tried again. "Amerikan? Anglaise?
Deutche? Fransuske?" He shrugged his narrow shoulders, his body forming a question mark.
Then he tried to be funny, "Hrvatska?"
"Croatian, me!?" I said exaggeratedly, blowing a smoke ring at his remark. His men roared in
appreciation of the boss's wit, and eyed me for weakness. The game was all about weakness.
Who showed their hand, and who didn't. War taught you that victory wasn't won by the
strongest, it was won by whoever contained their weakness. "No, I am English," I declared, but
the truth was that he was getting uncomfortably close to the secret that lay hidden in my photo
vest--the thing that I'd taken great pains to conceal. I glanced at my watch. It showed 2.41 p.m.
I got up to leave as if I had somewhere else to be. I held up my cameras to explain my sudden
move and raised myself. My frame counter was on twenty-six, on my first roll, on a huge story,
"it's in the can man, it's all in the can," what the fuck.
A hand shoved me back so hard, I bounced as I hit the chair. The sergeant had his own check
mate moves to make. He knew he had something here, even if he wasn't sure of what that might
be. Everything stopped. Someone coughed, as if to amplify the deep silence. I watched the
sergeant run his thumb and forefinger down the side of his jaw to meet at the tip of his chin his
crackling bristles charged the air as he sanded them in thought, certain I had something to hide.
Vincent was marched into the room. He looked uneasy, and fully aware of what was
happening. He sat beside me, apprehensively, as if lowering himself into a scalding bath. If
celebrities and Olympians were all he knew, his instinct told him that if they killed me, he
wouldn't be going back, either. "Vincent, donne pas les documents," I said quickly.
A hand flew into my face and the sergeant bore down on me, snarling. As he spoke, only his
lips moved; the ringing in the back of my head drowned out his words. From behind me, his
men moved closer, growing in size. I could feel their presence on the tips of my hair, at the
edges of myself.
Vincent ignored my plea and took out the car rental contract along with his French press card.
He was trying to distract the sergeant from the violence, but in fact he was lowering our chances
of getting out. Never, ever give up information.
Scanning the papers, the sergeant knew Vincent would come clean. The golden boy had that
goody, goody look. Leaning over him, the sergeant whispered slowly, so we all could hear,
The tone buckled Goody Goody, and like the golden ass he was, offered up the last resort.
The fuck. In the dim light, the man holding the evidence towered over me, weighing his options,
estimating the growing number of possibilities. He never even bothered looking down at the
papers. His eyes just fixed on me.
Vincent searched the sergeant's face for approval, compulsively pushing his glasses back up
his nose, flashing that same look that got him the juicy assignments, the picture-of-the-month
nominations, the pat on the back...I gave him a hard look. I was just his sherpa, his guide. Put
your cameras down mon ami, drive the car, and make sure we're not late. Well, both our brains
will soon be seeping from our ears. Satisfied Golden Boy?
The sergeant didn't bother to spell out anything. Why should he? It was obvious. With your
friend's passport in my hand, how do you expect me to believe your bullshit? If your passport's
in the hotel, how come your colleague's isn't? He came at me harder, "Dokumentatse!"
All I could think of was I'd gambled, betting my life against the grand illusion so many photo-
journalists live in. Suppose I'd nailed that great picture, what would it get me? A passing glance
at some breakfast table; a wet spot on someone's lawn. A flippant remark by some news junkie?
A momentary shudder for the people eating their cereal, riding the subway, or just killing time in
far-off places? I wanted to bring them news, but the news wasn't going to change a thing. I
pulled my passport from my vest. The sergeant tore at it with glee. Lighting another cigarette,
dragging on it with almost a sexual pleasure, he skipped through its pages. His dirty nails
sprawled across the gold leaf of the British Royal insignia. Would he be promoted? Would he
get to see his family as reward? Would he get to eat and sleep decently for a few days? Or
would he just carry on, living in shit, breathing in rot, and fucking the woman that cooked and
cleaned and fucked all the other men under his command? The pages snapped as the man behind
the smoke searched, his cigarette hanging from his lips, ash falling on to the customs stamps. He
was looking for the back page, the page where my picture was, that stupid one of me with a half
smile; the page showing my age; place of birth; height; weight; color of eyes, and hair. The page
showing my name. The name given to me by a man I never knew. The name that would sink
me. The sergeant's eyes stopped. He'd nailed the thing he'd suspected, done his job. Two tubes
of gray smoke billowed from his nostrils as he exhaled; his yellow teeth emerging in a rare smile.
"Kako si Franjo?"
Michael Franjo Persson is the perfect name for me. It sums up the mish, mash of my origins.
My mother; a Swede from Malmo, stepfather; an Englishman from London, and my father was
from Split, a town on Croatia's Adriatic coast. Back in the sixties, he came to Sweden as a guest
worker. Dark and exotic, Croatians are a powerful mix of Roman tradition and ardent Balkan
nationalism. They are also third degree hot heads. My father personified this liquid state--my
Mother's black eyes and cut lips providers of this fact. In the beginning he made her swoon,
melting away her sub-Arctic reserve. Only problem was, unlike their Croatian counterparts,
Sweden's women forgot to return what their Casanovas regularly dished out. Their sisterhood
didn't know. Nobody knew. And by the time this dynamic, and the Yugo's clannish ways had
been understood and deported, hundreds of little half Slavs were running about olive skinned
and fatherless. He, like his newly arrived friends, soon realized that Sweden would never
welcome him, never provide the big break. The Yugo boys were forced to grab what they
weren't supposed to get. They ran dope, took bets and pimped hookers, stirring up as much shit
as they could, making dough, and pissing off the people who hated them anyway. He got nailed
for dope. And in the end got hooked on dope, but this was all hearsay. I have no memory of
him--not one picture. I am told my grandparents took me, to prison, to see him before the
Swedish government booted him home; I was only two, he tried to kiss me good-bye. I just
screamed, and kept screaming until my grandparents took me away from this strange, smothering
man. That's all I was told.
Meanwhile, however, I'd been given a name belonging to his dead twin. Me, the baby, was to
be the living, breathing memory of a dead man, a ghost. Not too sure what they were thinking.
Franjo. The quintessential Croatian name--pure bred for one of its mongrel sons. Strange how
things attached to one's life return out of control. In photography you can take a picture of
something. Make copies of the original. Copies of the copies. Negatives from positives; positives
from negatives. Yet the original always remains. In tact, under control. That's the
difference--in life what comes back never resembles the original. Nothing stays the same, and
everything is always out of control and fucking with you.
A number of people had suggested I strike the name from whatever passport I happened to be
using at the time. Why take the risk in the state Yugoslavia was in, working both sides of the
same story? Only I didn't need anyone's advice. Fellow journo Big Dave kept giving it anyway.
"How many ways can you die playing this game?" Dave was always asking me about this
shit. He never let up about my name. "I hear, if you pull out Croatian cigarettes when working
behind Serb lines, they'll put a hole the size of twenty smokes in your head. That way you can
suck down the whole pack at once," I'd said tired of all the bravado. Our birthdays fell on the
same day of the same month; a year apart. Perhaps by proving me a dick he was bonding with
his little brother. But I rejected his concern like I'd rejected everyone else's, just as I'd rejected
my Father that day in prison.
"Kako si Franjo?!" His men pounced, punching me in the face, dragging me by the hair to the
garden. "Kako si Franjo? Kako si Franjo!" The floor, their boots, and a red trail, blood
streaming from my nose, and flooding my vision as I fell down hard. Kicks and blows, in a
mosaic of speed, kept raining down, till individual shapes no longer existed. I spun from man to
man as I'd done from country to country. I screamed words that meant nothing in their language.
They wouldn't stop. I felt weak. Wonder if anyone got the shot today? Front page? Big play?
A rifle butt cracked me in the head. I tumbled to the grass. How much more? I lifted my hand
to look at my watch. Why? It worked. I felt the intensity of their blows diminish. I tried
withstanding their rage, hoping for an end to the damage. I tried not to show the pain. There
were tears. If I started screaming, then it would be over. This I knew. I saw that the watch face
was cracked, its second hand motionless. A soldier checked his rifle. I ran at him; I pinned his
arms; I prevented his weapon from rising to the killing position. I hung on. I looked right into
him. I saw the madness in his contorted features as he wriggled to break free and finish the job.
We were locked in sick dance. There was warm thick blood flowing from the gash on my head
and splashing on him. As I opened my mouth to scream, suddenly I tasted something odd, a
sweet sensation bringing me back. Rain. Not just a shower; a downpour whipping and lashing
and filling the space between the land and the low cloud. The other men dissolved in this mighty
curtain of water. The two of us were alone with only the percussion of the heavy drops beating
the grass and our bodies. We carried on with our dance. I still had his arms pinned down and
now my panting and his condensed into one steamy shroud. I could no longer hold him. My
grip slid from his arms, I flopped down, on all fours; the wet earth mixing with my blood. I
stared at his boots. Suddenly, they moved away, out of sight, leaving me. I'd seen all this
before, I'd seen faces, faces contorted in death, faces at peace in death. I'd seen a drugged Serb
standing over a woman--red still seeping from the rip in her twitching throat. I'd seen orange
body bags littering the fields. I'd seen the skulls, resembling the bombed out houses. Why
wasn't I with them yet? Was it because he too had felt desperation as we danced? Did he feel
my body's terrible need to survive? Did he look inside me? Did he see my pathetic will to live,
and why did that mean anything to him this time? Still on my knees, I saw boots returning.
Stiff, muddy dulled leather with soil oozing from the military tread into shit heaps, two laced
monsters halting before my face. I shut my eyes and waited, waited for the sound, waited for the
bullet to enter the chamber, imagining the line from barrel to my brain. A hand reached down
and pulled me up. Vincent, putting his arm around me and helping me to the gate, in the lashing
rain, in the dim light, of the dark day's end. Vincent and Franjo walking out of Vukovar.
The car sat, untouched, and started first time. Vincent drove, trying to see out the windshield,
wiping the wet off the glass with his sleeve. As we tried peering through the greasy smear, our
car suddenly dropped, sinking into the road. Vincent pushed down hard on the gas, and kept
hitting the wheel with both fists. The pounding and the Citroen's meaningless revs ushered back
the tension, making the present nothing more than an extension of the past. I got out. It didn't
take a genius, even a bleeding one to see that a wheel filled the vacant space left by a mortar. I
tried heaving the car's depressed front end out from its hole. My entire body hurt. Who was I
kidding? Even with the two of us it would never budge. Out here, in the middle of a hushed
street with fizzing bullets filling the air, the two of us were welcome targets for any stray rounds.
The headlights picked up two men, coming closer, singing raucously, and waving their
weapons in a disjointed rhythm. I walked towards them. We needed help no matter what kind.
They grabbed me like a lost friend, pulling me into their huddle. The odor of burnt wood and
meat poured from their breath and beards as I staggered face to face with them while they
mumbled, then jeered at something invisible. They were no better than the men before, just
worse off from the cheap shit liquor they were gulping. They got to work without so much as a
please, laughing like it was a game. With straight arms, and their heads sunk deep into their
chests, the ghoulish pair pushed and lurched, grunted and moaned as their shadowy outlines
toiled unconcerned. Vincent punched the gas peddle, and the car climbed out and screeched
back onto the road. The men whooped and laughed as the car jerked and skidded. They were
having a ball and wanted their picture taken as anyone would at a social function such as this.
On the street, anyone is fair game for a photographer. But the principle works both ways. Their
frail attention had caught sight of my cameras, and they wanted reward--immortality captured in
a man's camera who would never be seen again. They wanted to impose themselves on my film,
invade the world that lay inside the camera and show people somewhere else that they existed
despite the shit they were in.
With the car waiting all I had to do was make the picture. I lifted the camera to my eye, and
watched as one of the men raised the sawn off shot gun he held with one hand. I put my camera
down. The gun returned to the floor. We were six feet apart. Six feet from a sawn off shot gun
whose owner had the stock pressing against his forearm keeping it steady; a gun whose barrels
may have held any kind of shot from a number four to bird which, in turn, had the potential of
turning me to the consistency of blended liver. I tried again; it was as if my camera and his arm
were tied to a piece of string, connected involuntarily. I tried again and held the camera tight
against my face. His arm went up. The guy who was bleeding, broken, held a camera, that was
connected to a flash gun, that would synchronize as he depressed the shutter, that would send an
explosion of light out of the darkness, that could startle the drunken shooter to maybe pull the
trigger and turn him into the liquid offal earlier described didn't care. This flash wasn't coming
off, fuck it. I winced as I shot the picture missing the jocular ghouls in the frame. What erupted
was a hurrah and much whistling, and then no sound--the rubber seal on the car door barred
anything from entering, and Vincent and I drove back to the clap of window wipers and the music
of the engine's welcome drone. I felt my wrist; the watch was gone.
M. F. Persson currently edits a magazine on the Outer Cape Cod, where he resides with his
family. His byline has been inked into numerous publications ranging as far a field as the
Harvard School of Journalism’s Nieman Reports, the Times of London Saturday Magazine and
most recently the international photographic periodical, Aperture, with an essay entitled
“Homeland Insecurity.” His other work can be seen littering the area around his wastebasket.
He was once a war photographer.