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Living Room Atrocities

Okay, truth time: If the front page of your morning newspaper offers you a choice between a new piece of Monica Lewinsky dirt and a massacre in Serbia, which do you read first? And honestly: Do you ever get around to reading that Serbian story? Will you study the photos of mangled bodies as you eat your Cheerios? Can you bring yourself to care about the genocide, given that the atrocities happen in places you can't pronounce, and to people who look as if they've stepped out of an Ellis Island group shot circa 1910?

English photojournalist Melanie Friend wants you to care. With her exhibit "Homes and Gardens: Documenting the Invisible," she takes a radically new approach to war photography. Instead of bodies and pools of blood, her photos show living rooms and gardens in Kosovo -- a war-torn province of Serbia. Accompanying the images of these intimate, peaceful-looking spots are taped interviews and printed English translations describing the atrocities that took place there. The effect is harrowing.

Surprisingly, Friend faced little reluctance on the part of villagers to tell her their stories -- although many were afraid to be quoted by name or have their picture taken. "The people in Kosovo welcomed foreign journalists," she says in her soft, PBS-friendly accent. "They wanted to get their story out."

Many of her subjects -- ethnic Albanians -- tell of armed Serbian police breaking into their homes to beat, torture or kill the inhabitants. Some of the revolutionary "crimes" were real; most were imagined or trumped up.

"They met me in a field outside the house," one survivor remembers, "and about six or seven policemen kicked me continuously. Then, another ten or 15 of them came. They hit me with anything they could. When I got back to the house, everything was broken and my 67-year-old father was beat almost to death. He was hit in the head with a truncheon and on the back with guns. He died less than a year after this."

The accompanying photo shows a simple living room lined with family portraits.

In another shot, a middle-aged woman in a housecoat sits on her bed. "I hardly sleep at night, as I know they may come at any moment," she told Friend. "Even that bit of sleep I get is a complete nightmare full of frightening scenes with the police."

Friend hopes to return to Kosovo to continue her documentation. But she may have trouble revisiting some of the families in this exhibit. A fresh round of massacres recently erupted, and it's been announced that more than 900 people in the province will be tried for purported "terrorism." This year alone, an estimated 300,000 people have fled their homes in the region -- leaving their homes and gardens hauntingly vacant.

-- Bob Ruggiero

"Homes and Gardens" is on view at the Houston Center for Photography, 1441 West Alabama, through November 1. Gallery hours are 11 a.m.5 p.m., Wednesday through Friday and noon5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday. Call 529-4755.


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