The most distinctive films in UNTV’s collection are the ‘video letters’. As well as the many informational features that this incarnation of the UNPROFOR television unit made between May 1994 and January 1996, and a small number of interviews with UNPROFOR leaders and ‘vox pops’ with the local public also filmed for early UNTV packages, UNTV made at least 90 of these films.

In a climate where state broadcasters and the most powerful private media were escalating ethnopolitical tensions in what has often been called the ‘media war’, UNTV’s video letters gave individuals from across the region a platform to narrate their experiences of displacement and separation. Core to the UNTV concept was that these people and their voices, like those of those interviewed for UNTV’s features, would be heard and seen on broadcasters across the former Yugoslavia, including territories where wartime nationalism would have regarded the speaker as an ethnic enemy.

Since IWM acquired the UNTV collection, the video letters have become the best-known UNTV films within IWM, above all ‘Draga i Nada’ (‘Draga and Nada’) – a pair of video letters between two women from Mostar who had been lifelong friends and neighbours. Draga had been displaced to a refugee hostel in southern Serbia when she recorded her video letter in August 1994 with one of UNTV’s producers, Rob Mackey, and addressed Nada about their shared memories of Mostar in the past. When it was first broadcast, Nada recognised her friend, and with the help of another UNTV producer, Denise Seneviratne, recorded her response. Together, the films capture the precarity of an ideal of multi-ethnic coexistence which millions of people in former Yugoslavia were grieving, even as some shared Nada’s hopes that the notion might yet live true in neighbours’ hearts again.

‘Draga i Nada’ came to exemplify UNTV’s filmmaking – yet theirs were only two of the dozens of video letters UNTV made. The video letter format had been part of the UNTV concept from the very beginning, according to memoranda in the UNTV document collection.  This informative paper collection dates back to the spring of 1994 when UNTV’s operations were being set up by its chief producer, Roy Head. Persuading UNPROFOR to focus its expanding public information service on television rather than radio, Head proposed several formats that neither CNN nor state broadcasters in former Yugoslavia would have been able to make. Video letters were among these, and quickly became the most important: Head’s early pitch was that ‘families divided by war send messages to their loved ones via UN-TV’, and that only UNTV would have the motivation and the trust to make such films.

It was not only families that had been divided by the war, of course – so too had friendship groups, professional networks, theatrical circles, rock music scenes and more. Using the team’s contacts and the relationships that producers built during filming visits to different towns and cities in the region, UNTV made video letters featuring examples of people in all these circumstances who had been prevented from communicating since the conflict began. Many letters, like Draga’s, were the testimony of someone who had been forced to flee. But other correspondents had been separated for years just by staying in the same place, since borders had been closed and telephone lines cut off between states and entities at war.

The video letters had a powerful humanitarian function for the people who participated in them and the friends and family members who could be reached through them, at a time when phone lines across borders were disconnected and mail could only be delivered through third countries. At the same time, they fitted into UNTV’s wider peacebuilding aims. For UNTV, successfully creating peace in former Yugoslavia would involve breaking up the loop of escalating fear and polarisation that nationalistic media in the region had been stirring up in their audiences. Many people who recorded video letters, like Nada, sympathised with this effort, and independent anti-nationalist journalists in the region had been dedicated to the same goal since the very beginning of the war, often at great personal cost.

Production notes for what is likely to have been the filming visit to Mostar where Nada’s video letter was recorded (one of the better documented visits in the collection) shows that the writer of the note wanted to use the visit to explore how Mostar had been divided and how mixed it had been in the past; the significance of Mostar’s Old Bridge (which the forces of the separatist Bosnian Croat entity had destroyed in November 1993) as a ‘practical and metaphorical crossing’, and the river as a barrier; the prospects for restoring Mostar’s mixed community after the war; and how far governmental, private and international redevelopment projects might be contributing to reintegration or further segregation in the city. As well as ‘Draga i Nada’ being a moving human story, in other words, it was also part of UNTV’s wider effort to take stock of the conflict’s consequences for the social fabric of former Yugoslavia.

The video letters also served UNTV’s approach to peacebuilding by presenting relatable human situations across ethnic lines and creating a shared emotional experience of watching them. The evidence they provided that on the other sides of the lines there lived everyday individuals who were not motivated by ethnic antagonism constituted film that nationalist state broadcasters at the time would never have shown. They demonstrated that Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs were all being affected by the conflict, and also that members of smaller minority communities were also part of former Yugoslav society suffering the consequences of war. Another pair of video letters, for instance, features Jakob Finci, from the Jewish community in Sarajevo, writing to the Jewish community in Belgrade, and the head of the Jewish community in Belgrade writing back. (In the 2000s, Finci went on to play a key role in a landmark human rights case claiming that the Bosnian constitution imposed under the Dayton Peace Agreement at the end of the war denied full political representation to Bosnians who were not Bosniak, Croat and Serb: he and a Romani activist, Dervo Sejdić, successfully took Bosnia-Herzegovina to the European Court of Human Rights in 2009, though the ruling has still to be implemented)

In the context of 1994 and early 1995, when most of the video letters were made, these films were being made and broadcast when it still appeared that a peaceful settlement in former Yugoslavia might be possible.  Thus they also sent the message that all the suffering they depicted could be over once leaders agreed to end the war. The last significant tranche of video letters was made in June and July 1995 during visits to Zenica and Tuzla, almost all featuring children and young people – at a time when Tuzla’s citizens would have been grieving the 71 young people killed in the Kapija massacre on 25 May 1995, and when news of the Srebrenica Genocide was about to shatter hopes of a peaceful end to the conflict for good.

Many video letters took the form of a classic diasporic ‘letter home’, telling someone how their family was getting on and what life was like for them in their new circumstances, whether that meant the place where they were now living, or the place where they had always lived  - now greatly changed by the war. These were framed as ‘personal messages’ but shown to a wider public. Producers did manage to find pairs of correspondents on several occasions: as well as Draga and Nada, and the letters between the Jewish communities in Sarajevo and Belgrade, another film called ‘Dejan and Miroslav’, with two speakers whose letters were edited together, was made in September 1994 and broadcast in March 1995.

Dejan and Miroslav were just as typical of their city, Vukovar, as Draga and Nada, though their video ended on a less hopeful note. Both men had been friends and bandmates in Vukovar, but Dejan had fled to Zagreb and Miroslav had stayed behind. While Miroslav was still in a band, Dejan had never played music again. While Dejan and Miroslav’s film conveyed more distance than common ground, it too would have reflected the state of many severed or interrupted friendships among the viewers with whom UNTV wanted to communicate.

Besides interpersonal video letters like these, others were addressed to a wider public audience or an institution. In one video letter from Belgrade, broadcast in September 1994, the leader of a brass band from Dragačevo even addressed the UN and called for them to lift the sanctions against Serbia so that musicians could travel again. Another video letter from Sarajevo, broadcast in May 1995, featured the director of the National Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina sending an open letter to fellow librarians about the destruction of his library (by incendiary shellfire during the Army of Republika Srpska’s bombardment in August 1992). One apparently unbroadcast video letter, made in November 1994, featured a Croatian friar speaking on behalf of 190 displaced villagers from Lovinac, Sveti Roko and Ricice in eastern Lika who had been living at the Hotel Ičići near Rijeka for the past three years, wondering when they could go home and appealing for information about their relatives who had not been able to leave.

While few video letters featured public figures, an intriguing exception is the video letter from Belgrade by Gile from the band Električni Orgazam, one of three bands who had led anti-nationalist resistance to Milošević on the Serbian rock scene (one of four musical movements featured in IWM’s Rebel Sounds exhibition in 2019–20). Gile addressed his letter to fans who had been wondering what was up with the band since 1991 when all the ‘madness’ (as he put it) had begun. Much of his letter concerned how much he missed playing in Sarajevo and Zagreb and how pleased he was that fans could still buy bootleg tapes of bands from the different countries when the borders were closed – an important way of keeping up grassroots cultural connections between the post-Yugoslav states when governments and state media were trying to close them down as separate cultural spaces.

Made in August 1994, and broadcast that winter between Christmas and New Year, Gile’s video letter was giving airtime to a figure whose worldview would not have been platformed by any state broadcaster in the region at that time, except to a certain extent Bosnian and Macedonian TV. His worldview rejected ethnic divisions, appealed to a border-resistant youth culture, and reminded those of similar opinion that they were still not completely divided, even with all that had happened since 1991.

Today we might often think of the video letters as first-person testimonies of displacement, particularly since ‘Draga i Nada’ has come to define the collection. They also, however, represent the other face of separation: immobility, and the impossibility of crossing or communicating across borders. The global Covid-19 pandemic may make  viewers who have lived their whole lives in peacetime see this kind of separation with deeper understanding. Often, the letters were voiced by people who had not themselves been displaced, but their everyday personal ties have been cut off, and they had no idea when or if they could resume them; moreover, the personal meanings of the places where they still lived had all been overturned by the war.

First-person testimonies also appear in UNTV’s reportage features, which often involved interviews with people who had been displaced, were living under occupation, or had directly suffered in other ways. Some interviewees would speak about extremely sensitive experiences, including sexual violence (several features and even one video letter featured women who had suffered sexual violence, and another feature, quite remarkably for its time, reported on an NGO for male survivors of wartime sexual violence, including men speaking about what they had suffered as prisoners of war). These testimonies too supported UNTV’s peacemaking mission by refusing – in contrast to how nationalist media would have reported such cases – to indict whole nations as collective subjects of guilt.

Although the primary audience for the video letters, and UNTV’s other films, was viewers in former Yugoslavia, UNTV managed to distribute some of its films to foreign broadcasters as well. ‘Draga and Nada’ often led the way. Having these video letters appearing on international television, conveying experiences that sometimes fell between the cracks of mainstream war reporting, might itself have quietly challenged some of Western viewers’ assumptions about the war.

Today, the video letters within the UNTV film collection offer testimonies of everyday experiences of conflict during the Yugoslav wars. They show the wars’ impact not only in front-line villages and besieged cities, but also in places behind the lines coping with the consequences of mass displacement and the wartime politics of fear. For numerous people throughout the region who had not gone along with the pressure to dread their former neighbours as the conflict escalated, living through the war meant an ongoing struggle to ‘stay normal’ and hope that the social and cultural life they had known before the war could be restored. Even though peace did not come to former Yugoslavia on the terms that UNTV believed it could, UNTV’s video letters have taken on new significance as part of a historical record of everyday life during the Yugoslav wars.

The most distinctive films in UNTV’s collection are the ‘video letters’. As well as the many informational features that this incarnation of the UNPROFOR television unit made between May 1994 and January 1996, and a small number of interviews with UNPROFOR leaders and ‘vox pops’ with the local public also filmed for early UNTV packages, UNTV made at least 90 of these films.

In a climate where state broadcasters and the most powerful private media were escalating ethnopolitical tensions in what has often been called the ‘media war’, UNTV’s video letters gave individuals from across the region a platform to narrate their experiences of displacement and separation. Core to the UNTV concept was that these people and their voices, like those of those interviewed for UNTV’s features, would be heard and seen on broadcasters across the former Yugoslavia, including territories where wartime nationalism would have regarded the speaker as an ethnic enemy.

Since IWM acquired the UNTV collection, the video letters have become the best-known UNTV films within IWM, above all ‘Draga i Nada’ (‘Draga and Nada’) – a pair of video letters between two women from Mostar who had been lifelong friends and neighbours. Draga had been displaced to a refugee hostel in southern Serbia when she recorded her video letter in August 1994 with one of UNTV’s producers, Rob Mackey, and addressed Nada about their shared memories of Mostar in the past. When it was first broadcast, Nada recognised her friend, and with the help of another UNTV producer, Denise Seneviratne, recorded her response. Together, the films capture the precarity of an ideal of multi-ethnic coexistence which millions of people in former Yugoslavia were grieving, even as some shared Nada’s hopes that the notion might yet live true in neighbours’ hearts again.

‘Draga i Nada’ came to exemplify UNTV’s filmmaking – yet theirs were only two of the dozens of video letters UNTV made. The video letter format had been part of the UNTV concept from the very beginning, according to memoranda in the UNTV document collection.  This informative paper collection dates back to the spring of 1994 when UNTV’s operations were being set up by its chief producer, Roy Head. Persuading UNPROFOR to focus its expanding public information service on television rather than radio, Head proposed several formats that neither CNN nor state broadcasters in former Yugoslavia would have been able to make. Video letters were among these, and quickly became the most important: Head’s early pitch was that ‘families divided by war send messages to their loved ones via UN-TV’, and that only UNTV would have the motivation and the trust to make such films.

It was not only families that had been divided by the war, of course – so too had friendship groups, professional networks, theatrical circles, rock music scenes and more. Using the team’s contacts and the relationships that producers built during filming visits to different towns and cities in the region, UNTV made video letters featuring examples of people in all these circumstances who had been prevented from communicating since the conflict began. Many letters, like Draga’s, were the testimony of someone who had been forced to flee. But other correspondents had been separated for years just by staying in the same place, since borders had been closed and telephone lines cut off between states and entities at war.

The video letters had a powerful humanitarian function for the people who participated in them and the friends and family members who could be reached through them, at a time when phone lines across borders were disconnected and mail could only be delivered through third countries. At the same time, they fitted into UNTV’s wider peacebuilding aims. For UNTV, successfully creating peace in former Yugoslavia would involve breaking up the loop of escalating fear and polarisation that nationalistic media in the region had been stirring up in their audiences. Many people who recorded video letters, like Nada, sympathised with this effort, and independent anti-nationalist journalists in the region had been dedicated to the same goal since the very beginning of the war, often at great personal cost.

Production notes for what is likely to have been the filming visit to Mostar where Nada’s video letter was recorded (one of the better documented visits in the collection) shows that the writer of the note wanted to use the visit to explore how Mostar had been divided and how mixed it had been in the past; the significance of Mostar’s Old Bridge (which the forces of the separatist Bosnian Croat entity had destroyed in November 1993) as a ‘practical and metaphorical crossing’, and the river as a barrier; the prospects for restoring Mostar’s mixed community after the war; and how far governmental, private and international redevelopment projects might be contributing to reintegration or further segregation in the city. As well as ‘Draga i Nada’ being a moving human story, in other words, it was also part of UNTV’s wider effort to take stock of the conflict’s consequences for the social fabric of former Yugoslavia.

The video letters also served UNTV’s approach to peacebuilding by presenting relatable human situations across ethnic lines and creating a shared emotional experience of watching them. The evidence they provided that on the other sides of the lines there lived everyday individuals who were not motivated by ethnic antagonism constituted film that nationalist state broadcasters at the time would never have shown. They demonstrated that Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs were all being affected by the conflict, and also that members of smaller minority communities were also part of former Yugoslav society suffering the consequences of war. Another pair of video letters, for instance, features Jakob Finci, from the Jewish community in Sarajevo, writing to the Jewish community in Belgrade, and the head of the Jewish community in Belgrade writing back. (In the 2000s, Finci went on to play a key role in a landmark human rights case claiming that the Bosnian constitution imposed under the Dayton Peace Agreement at the end of the war denied full political representation to Bosnians who were not Bosniak, Croat and Serb: he and a Romani activist, Dervo Sejdić, successfully took Bosnia-Herzegovina to the European Court of Human Rights in 2009, though the ruling has still to be implemented).

(Gile hopes to be able to play live with old friends again (UNT 459)) Gile hopes to be able to play live with old friends again (UNT 459).

In the context of 1994 and early 1995, when most of the video letters were made, these films were being made and broadcast when it still appeared that a peaceful settlement in former Yugoslavia might be possible.  Thus they also sent the message that all the suffering they depicted could be over once leaders agreed to end the war. The last significant tranche of video letters was made in June and July 1995 during visits to Zenica and Tuzla, almost all featuring children and young people – at a time when Tuzla’s citizens would have been grieving the 71 young people killed in the Kapija massacre on 25 May 1995, and when news of the Srebrenica Genocide was about to shatter hopes of a peaceful end to the conflict for good.

Many video letters took the form of a classic diasporic ‘letter home’, telling someone how their family was getting on and what life was like for them in their new circumstances, whether that meant the place where they were now living, or the place where they had always lived  - now greatly changed by the war. These were framed as ‘personal messages’ but shown to a wider public. Producers did manage to find pairs of correspondents on several occasions: as well as Draga and Nada, and the letters between the Jewish communities in Sarajevo and Belgrade, another film called ‘Dejan and Miroslav’, with two speakers whose letters were edited together, was made in September 1994 and broadcast in March 1995.

Dejan and Miroslav were just as typical of their city, Vukovar, as Draga and Nada, though their video ended on a less hopeful note. Both men had been friends and bandmates in Vukovar, but Dejan had fled to Zagreb and Miroslav had stayed behind. While Miroslav was still in a band, Dejan had never played music again. While Dejan and Miroslav’s film conveyed more distance than common ground, it too would have reflected the state of many severed or interrupted friendships among the viewers with whom UNTV wanted to communicate.

Besides interpersonal video letters like these, others were addressed to a wider public audience or an institution. In one video letter from Belgrade, broadcast in September 1994, the leader of a brass band from Dragačevo even addressed the UN and called for them to lift the sanctions against Serbia so that musicians could travel again. Another video letter from Sarajevo, broadcast in May 1995, featured the director of the National Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina sending an open letter to fellow librarians about the destruction of his library (by incendiary shellfire during the Army of Republika Srpska’s bombardment in August 1992). One apparently unbroadcast video letter, made in November 1994, featured a Croatian friar speaking on behalf of 190 displaced villagers from Lovinac, Sveti Roko and Ricice in eastern Lika who had been living at the Hotel Ičići near Rijeka for the past three years, wondering when they could go home and appealing for information about their relatives who had not been able to leave.

While few video letters featured public figures, an intriguing exception is the video letter from Belgrade by Gile from the band Električni Orgazam, one of three bands who had led anti-nationalist resistance to Milošević on the Serbian rock scene (one of four musical movements featured in IWM’s Rebel Sounds exhibition in 2019–20). Gile addressed his letter to fans who had been wondering what was up with the band since 1991 when all the ‘madness’ (as he put it) had begun. Much of his letter concerned how much he missed playing in Sarajevo and Zagreb and how pleased he was that fans could still buy bootleg tapes of bands from the different countries when the borders were closed – an important way of keeping up grassroots cultural connections between the post-Yugoslav states when governments and state media were trying to close them down as separate cultural spaces.

Made in August 1994, and broadcast that winter between Christmas and New Year, Gile’s video letter was giving airtime to a figure whose worldview would not have been platformed by any state broadcaster in the region at that time, except to a certain extent Bosnian and Macedonian TV. His worldview rejected ethnic divisions, appealed to a border-resistant youth culture, and reminded those of similar opinion that they were still not completely divided, even with all that had happened since 1991.

Today we might often think of the video letters as first-person testimonies of displacement, particularly since ‘Draga i Nada’ has come to define the collection. They also, however, represent the other face of separation: immobility, and the impossibility of crossing or communicating across borders. The global Covid-19 pandemic may make  viewers who have lived their whole lives in peacetime see this kind of separation with deeper understanding. Often, the letters were voiced by people who had not themselves been displaced, but their everyday personal ties have been cut off, and they had no idea when or if they could resume them; moreover, the personal meanings of the places where they still lived had all been overturned by the war.

First-person testimonies also appear in UNTV’s reportage features, which often involved interviews with people who had been displaced, were living under occupation, or had directly suffered in other ways. Some interviewees would speak about extremely sensitive experiences, including sexual violence (several features and even one video letter featured women who had suffered sexual violence, and another feature, quite remarkably for its time, reported on an NGO for male survivors of wartime sexual violence, including men speaking about what they had suffered as prisoners of war). These testimonies too supported UNTV’s peacemaking mission by refusing – in contrast to how nationalist media would have reported such cases – to indict whole nations as collective subjects of guilt.

Although the primary audience for the video letters, and UNTV’s other films, was viewers in former Yugoslavia, UNTV managed to distribute some of its films to foreign broadcasters as well. ‘Draga and Nada’ often led the way. Having these video letters appearing on international television, conveying experiences that sometimes fell between the cracks of mainstream war reporting, might itself have quietly challenged some of Western viewers’ assumptions about the war.

Today, the video letters within the UNTV film collection offer testimonies of everyday experiences of conflict during the Yugoslav wars. They show the wars’ impact not only in front-line villages and besieged cities, but also in places behind the lines coping with the consequences of mass displacement and the wartime politics of fear. For numerous people throughout the region who had not gone along with the pressure to dread their former neighbours as the conflict escalated, living through the war meant an ongoing struggle to ‘stay normal’ and hope that the social and cultural life they had known before the war could be restored. Even though peace did not come to former Yugoslavia on the terms that UNTV believed it could, UNTV’s video letters have taken on new significance as part of a historical record of everyday life during the Yugoslav wars.