“I’d always had an interest in the military so I decided to join the army at the age of 18, as soon as I’d left college in 1989. I signed up with the 17th/21st Lancers, which became known as the Queen’s Royal Lancers. They were famous for the Charge of the Light Brigade – we led the charge.
“All through the 1990s, the Balkans War was raging. Towards the end they needed to find a peace plan. Our mission was to go and police the peace. I was part of the UN stabilisation force.
“Camp Moria [on the Greek island of Lesbos] was the biggest refugee camp on European soil. On the news [during] the last few years you’ve seen migrants coming across on the boats from Turkey. The one that really touched me was the image of the little boy that washed up. That took me back to some of the things I saw while serving in Bosnia – it really resonated with me. I was in Bosnia 20 years ago and thought, ‘How can we go from that 20 years ago, to little children’s bodies still washing up on the beaches of Europe today?’
“I took up photography while I was in the army. I was the regimental photographer and documented the regiment’s time in Bosnia. I wanted to take photos of Camp Moria to raise its profile. In Bosnia we were dealing with refugees and orphanages, and we saw the horrors.
“One morning I wanted to capture the sunrise over the camp. It was the middle of winter and the ground had frozen over. As I stood on the hillside all I could hear were children crying because of the cold. The smell as well – it took a while for the smell to get off me. In my book Refugees of Moria: I Live Where the Olive Trees Once Grew, you’ll see the amount of rubbish that was left around the camp.
“These people were living in shelters made of pallet wood, with a tarpaulin pulled round and hardly any insulation. No proper winter clothes – most of the kids had sandals or Crocs. It was really horrific to see.
“The original Camp Moria was an army base designed to hold less that 2,000 refugees. The book is about the refugees who made their homes in the olive groves around the camp. There were 3,000 people in the main camp, but in the olive groves there were another 10 or 12 thousand refugees living on the side of the hills. It was pretty horrific to witness.
“This isn’t just the one story – it’s the story across Europe. It’s happening on the borders of France, the UK and the Balkans now. Around 2,500 people drowned just off the sea in Lesbos just last year. It’s becoming so bad. I just wanted to raise the profile of their plight and see if funds from the book can go to charities trying to make the best out of a dire situation.”
All images above and below from the series Refugees of Moria by Mark Slater
A free virtual event, From Camera to Photobook: A Talk by Mark Slater, is at 6pm, 13 April.