From dodging bullets and artillery shells, to turning broken down shells of buildings into money in Africa. This is the story of Brian Green who gave up the danger of war for the sweet satisfaction of turning a rundown nothing into something.
In the end there was only one way in and one way out of the besieged city of Sarajevo during the final months of the 1990s Bosnian War, after the air traffic had finally surrendered to the small arms fire peppering aircraft fuselages and the unnerving radar locks of surface-to-air missiles.
The era of the easy route to war for journalists was over. They could no longer hitch a ride on humanitarian dawn flights, from Italy and Germany (boarding conditional on bringing your own flak jacket), to arrive for a late breakfast at Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn near Sniper Alley.
The only route for diplomats, aid workers and journalists to the city was a contour road, more like a goat track, traversing Mount Igman’s precipitous ravines and regarded as one of the world’s most dangerous. The final 60 kilometers to Sarajevo was under the sights of Serbian artillery and mortars; the last 25-kilometer stretch was exposed to heavy machine gun fire.
News cameraman Brian Green and a Danish colleague ran the gauntlet in 1995, with no military escort in an armoured Chevrolet Blazer weighing three or four tons. They traveled under the cover of night, without headlights, along the rain-slicked road.
Deep in the danger zone, a wheel sunk into the road’s soft mud; the two dug themselves out desperately, engine revving and wheels spinning, amid the fear of alerting Serbian forces. Arriving on the city’s outskirts at 4AM, caked in mud and knowing the journey was almost done, they were left stranded in no-man’s land for a couple of hours before the French foreign legionnaires, deployed under UN auspices, allowed entry. This was to be Green’s final war assignment.
“It was a little bit crazy. I was supposed to go for a week and ended up being there for 21 days and you basically lose control when you go into that type of environment. I thought maybe it was a bit silly with a young wife and kid,” says Green.
Sarajevo hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics and eight years later the ski slopes were used as gun emplacements to pound the city with artillery; the ski chalets commandeered for barracks. During the 44-month siege the city averaged 329 daily shell impacts, with every building in the city damaged and 35,000 reduced to rubble.
The Serbian snipers provided the unremitting terror, perching in the foothills to hunt for their victims in the streets below. All residents were fair game, including journalists.
Despite the risks, it was a difficult job to walk away from.
“I loved the element of danger, recording history. It was just absolutely fantastic,” says Green.
In 1992, between covering Middle East wars and the death throes of South Africa’s apartheid state, Green and his wife Lulu bought a house in Johannesburg’s old eastern inner city suburb, Bezuidenhout Valley.
“We bought it for R40,000 ($2,800), fixed it up for R40,000 and sold it for R130,000 ($9,100) a couple of years later.”
Green had at first viewed the renovation through the lens of a fast yield, but it was the process that he found most rewarding. With hindsight he realizes the satisfaction was “to breathe new life into old buildings, giving them modernity and dignity.”
However, he brushes off any common ground between war reporting and property development, as he enters one of the rehabilitated buildings on a 30,000-square-meter piece of previous Lorentzville urban decay, several hundred meters from his property investment 25 years earlier.
His latest venture, Victoria Yards, was once the site for the steam washing of the soiled cloth nappies of the city’s middle class offspring. Among the development’s shareholders are Green and his partner Mark Batchelor, and the Enthoven and Brozin families behind Hollard Insurance and the international peri-peri chicken chain Nando’s.
The walls of Green’s Victoria Yards’ “office for now” are draped with signed limited edition prints by Thomas Pakenham, author of the critically acclaimed chronicle of Africa’s colonization, The Scramble for Africa, who in later life went off script to publish his haunting and evocative photographic portraits of trees.
Green is inspecting a collection of rusted iron horse shoes found at the site with the same delight as a conchologist, while sitting amid regimented rows of industrial light shades imported from India and awaiting installation. He speaks of Mogadishu’s colonial-era Italian classical buildings, Sarajevo’s Islamic architecture, Johannesburg’s “homogenized” mall culture disfiguring and vandalizing the city scapes and a holiday in the Mozambique capital during its civil war.
“I always saw potential in dereliction. I remember going to Maputo in 1989 with my wife and finding a f***ed-up house. And all we could see was how beautiful it was and how we would so love to fix it.”
The disposable nappy ended the reusable cloth nappy cleansing era and when Green and his shareholders acquired the property, in 2016, there were an array of small businesses operating; from chop-shops to carpenters and a film set company responsible for the props of the Oscar-nominated South African sci-fi movie District 9.
Green has eschewed replicating the success of his 44 Stanley mixed use development of restaurants, bars and boutiques, that emerged from a western Johannesburg suburban no-man’s land or pandering to the artist and creatives’ colonies in the adjacent inner city suburbs of Troyeville, Bezuidenhout Valley and Doornfontein.
“There has been a massive interest from the art world… But we want artisans. Cobblers, embroiders, potters, tattoo artists, glass blowers, knife makers, those kind of guys.”
There are exceptions to the Victoria Yards’ ideal. The South African artist Ayanda Mabulu, whose explicit sexual metaphors of Jacob Zuma’s South African presidency has drawn ire and praise in equal measure, is taking up residence, along with former teenage delinquent and armed robber Blessing Ngobeni, who reinvented himself to become an acclaimed surrealist artist.
Victoria Yards “needs to look at other ways of resurrecting the place… the area is very poor. There would be a backlash towards gentrification, because what you do is come here, make a nice place and then eject the locals. That’s not cool,” says Green.
However, the development is not to be confused with philanthropy.
“We are businessmen. We have to make a profit and if we don’t make a profit, I don’t want to be here. We have to make a percentage yield from our investment. But I also think we can improve people’s lives.”
The sprawling property feels too limited for Green’s eclectic designs.
“We want an ecosystem where people can feed off each other”.
There is talk of a foundry where the film set building operation once was.
“The Cuban ballet school was looking at the place.”
Urban farming is a given, with orchards and food gardens, cooking schools, test kitchens, a tool hire shop renting work tables on short term leases.
“We want a baker, a coffee roaster, a framer, metalworkers.”
Green’s free-wheeling vision might be confused with a hipster on hashish, but there are sound business fundamentals of the value chain underlying it, coupled with the want to provide opportunity for artisans.
Neighboring Victoria Yards is Nando’s global head office. By 2025, the purveyor of spicy chicken will have 2,100 outlets worldwide. Every six years the stores are refurbished, with the proviso that franchisees source 75% of their interior decor from South African artisans and artists.
“It’s a hungry machine,” says Green, and the Victoria Yards’ tenants will be ideally positioned to feed it. – Written by Guy Oliver