How photographs contribute to understanding refugee history: Kukes, the Kosovar refugees and lessons for refugee aid

How photographs contribute to understanding refugee history: Kukes, the Kosovar refugees and lessons for refugee aid

The border is about to open. 

The main street of the Albanian town of Kukes, 20kms from the Kosovo border, is lined with tens of thousands of jubilant and cautious locals, interspersed with Kosovar refugees, who’ve been waiting, seemingly endlessly, to return home. 

“The atmosphere was incredible, euphoric – the crowd was chanting ‘NATO, NATO, NATO’”, says Christian Oster, a Danish aid worker who was in Kukes with his camera that day. 

At 23 years of age Christian was offered the opportunity to manage a food distribution programme in Kukes refugee camp for up to 30,000 refugees. 

Around 300,000 refugees fled Kosovo via Kukes, and either remained in or around the town, moved further south, or travelled abroad. 

In an interview for Refugee History, which is available to watch below, Christian describes his experiences in Kukes, lessons for contemporary refugee aid and the photographs he brought home. 

German military convoy in Kukes. Courtesy Christian Oster.

Photographing history  

Nineteen years since the Kosovo War, Christian now lives in Sydney and works in the medical technology sector. 

On a windy, wintery afternoon in Sydney, we begin the interview with a reflection on the liberation of Kosovo by NATO ground forces on 10th June 1999. It’s a day before the NATO-Milosevic ceasefire is due to take place, and the Western allies are seemingly in a hurry. Russian forces are already on the march, as Christian recalls; 

“Rumour had it that [NATO forces] were arriving a day earlier than planned to prevent the Russians from taking over the airport in Pristina.” 

He adds: “Russian peacekeepers in Bosnia (collectively known as SFOR) raced into Kosovo to allegedly protect Yugoslavia-owned fighter jets stationed there. It was believed they did not want Russian technology to fall into NATO hands.”

Christian later learned that Serbian forces were preparing to undertake a ‘scorched earth’ exit of Prizren, which is on the main route from Kukes to Pristina, “but had to withdraw quickly as the German NATO troops were advancing… so indirectly, the Russians saved Prizren.” 

With his Konica film camera Christian scans the crowd gathered along the main thoroughfare of Kukes, noting the presence of UAE security forces marked by their red berets holding back civilians and refugees, alongside aid workers from around the world. The way is cleared for NATO’s arrival. 

First, the sound of military carrier vehicles begins to pierce the cheers of onlookers, now brimming over balconies. Then the chopping sound of chains hitting the pavement - the tanks have arrived. Slowly the distinct insignia of the German soldier riding atop comes into focus. 

Over Christian’s shoulder an American marine appears from out of nowhere. Binoculars are brought to the marine’s face, and in a few moments a salute is shared between him and a German tank officer. In one of those rare instances of perfect timing, Christian captures this moment on film.

“The photo of the German saluting the American is probably the most interesting photo I have ever taken”, Christian says. 

“You can see it is slightly blurry, as I had to react very quickly. This was the first time the German army operated in a war zone outside of Germany since WW2. To see the Germans and Americans on the same side, in a European war, and one saluting the other, it was probably a historic first.”

TV cameraman rides on troop carrier in Kukes. Courtesy Christian Oster. 

He turns his camera back toward the German military column, capturing a TV cameraman who is gripping onto the nearest troop carrier as it convoys through the town. A few hours later, Christian heard a cameraman was killed just over the border: “Apparently it was a landmine that hit the truck.” 

The photographic lens  

Christian’s role in the Kukes refugee camps primarily involved managing a team of local Albanian-speaking managers working for the aid distribution programme, who in turn were responsible for around 50 team members. Christian was also in charge of security communications with the UN, “as well as being the resident accountant”, he says. 

Distributing food to refugees in Kukes. Taken by unknown photographer, courtesy Christian Oster.

“There were many camps in Kukes”, Christian says, adding “some small, some large, some were abandoned industrial buildings where the Kosovars set up camp.” 

“The pictures you have [used in your book], though, are from a traditional tent camp with several thousand refugees.”   

Photographs taken by Christian were intended for his personal use after the war, but he was also gifted photographs from a ‘random’ professional photographer (who remains unknown) as a gesture of ‘thanks’ for being permitted to document the Kukes refugee camp. 

Both of these photographic collections appear in Generosity and Refugees: The Kosovars in Exile

In the above image, the viewer is brought by the photographer into the immediate space of the subject whose individual circumstances must be explained - by a broader reading of the context - in order to understand the significance of the subjects’ demeanour. 

What do photographs contribute to broader historical understandings, and specifically, to this chapter of refugee history? More importantly, what does historical interpretation contribute to understanding photographic records of the past?

Photographic representations of children in western media coverage during the Kosovo War can be understood to have invoked an urgency about the conflict among NATO-allied media audiences, which had the effect of building support for the NATO intervention. 

Likewise, Buckley and Cummings argue that NATO states needed to publicly justify the fighting, by selling war to democracies that were not being attacked, and to demonise the leader of the enemy – Slobodan Milosevic – as inhumane.  

Media framing (see Entman, 2007; Herman and Chomsky, 2008) enables us to understand the use of these images as a series of deliberately managed choices in the media production process. 

Drawing on this method, a significant portion of news articles and photographs published in the Australian news sources that I analyzed for Generosity and Refugees: The Kosovars in Exile centered on the plights of Kosovar refugee children. Content analysis shows that the number of children depicted far surpassed depictions of adults. Within this coverage two key frames were (the loss of) ‘innocence’ and (a chance to redeem and rebuild) ‘hope’, such as in the media examples below. 

Sources (left-right): The Daily Telegraph 19th April 1999; and, The Daily Telegraph, 8th May 1999.

Images of child refugees continued to be utilised in Australian news media once the Kosovar refugees were evacuated to Australia. The central image of a smiling child donned the front page of The Daily Telegraph on 8th May 1999, which was dedicated to the landing of the first Kosovar refugee evacuation flight at Sydney airport. 

One conclusion is that media images of refugee children enduring the violence of war were intended to generate among audiences a sense of moral urgency, promoting emotional disbelief and outrage. On the other hand, media images of refugee children at ease and smiling while in Australia’s care in the post-evacuation context were aimed at generating feelings of goodwill among readers. 

These representations paralleled the Australian government’s policy positions both as supporters of the NATO alliance, and in supporting its publicity campaign to appear ‘generous’ towards a widely popular group of refugees.  

The value and challenges of the Kukes refugee food programme 

Asked what the most valuable contribution of aid services to the refugees was in Kukes, Christian says: “I think making them feel safe, there was plenty of food being distributed, but they had left their homes out of fear for their families’ lives.”

He adds: “Being a refugee is something that could happen to any of us, and it important to show them respect and dignity.”

Describing which aspects of the aid program in Kukes worked most effectively, Christian states: “There were so many NGOs present in Kukes and Albania during the NATO campaign, and several UN agencies as well. The cooperation between all the aid organisations, coordinated by UNHCR, made it a very effective and well-organised operation.”

“Having said that, it wasn’t easy, we worked seven days a week without a break, and some days up to 18-20 hours,” Christian says. 

He further notes the economic challenges brought about by the aid programme: “The supply of food also led to a crash in the market for local suppliers. The cost of production was suddenly more expensive than the cost of flour, for example.”  

There were also a variety of physical safety risks in Kukes for both refugees and the aid workers. Christian says it was key to personally “avoid dangerous situations. It was a very lawless place, with very high crime rates, including murders, so us foreigners had targets on our backs at all times, and you had to be street smart.” 

“It was widely known that sex traffickers preyed on young refugee girls”, Christian adds, “and we were very conscious of the need for security around the camp.” 

Christian recalls how “some security for the camps was provided by Italian soldiers. When they left it was local police and some local special forces - it wasn’t great, nor was it very safe. The UAE camp had the best security with a wire fence all around it.”

Asked whether any parallels can be drawn in terms of the challenges faced by refugee aid delivery today, Christian points to the scale of current refugee crises and the need for large and efficient cross-organisation cooperation. 

He says: “One of the key things we had to do was cooperate across NGO lines and with various UN agencies and keep a very large group of refugees content.” The challenge involves being able “to work across many internal departments while always keeping the end user [the refugee] in mind.”

Post-Kukes recovery and recuperation was somewhat difficult, Christian explains, who says he took a year off after the war, and headed for Pristina for a brief role with World Vision, before moving out of the aid sector altogether. 

“Life does and it doesn’t return to normal”, Christian says.

“Some things will never leave you, but I’m very grateful for my experience in Kukes. I learned a lot about myself and how international aid works, and its effects, both positive and negative, for the refugees.”  

“I still have many friends among the Kosovo Albanians, and I am still in touch with many of them.”

Robert Carr’s new book Generosity and Refugees: The Kosovars in Exile will be available from 24th June 2018, and can be ordered through Brill publishing online at   

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