Posted on 19. June 2015
When the war started in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I didn’t understand how serious the situation was. I was a child, 10 years old. We shared cellars and shelters in my home town of Mostar, 130 kilometres south-east of Sarajevo. For us, it was an adventure –free time with our friends, no school, no homework, we played around, and we all slept in one room, shared one bed. We didn’t understand that we were hiding. In fact, we asked our parents to go to the shelter often, so that all of us could be together.
I remember, at the beginning, when the bombing wasn’t that constant, all neighbours from the building had an “obligatory-coffee-time” in the evening in the shelter, to talk about the situation, to express their worries. I heard fighting, grenades, I heard people dying. But as soon as my parents said: “it was nothing, go play”, everything was okay, I didn’t worry. We didn’t understand the war, at least the true meaning of the war.
It was in the summer of 1992, when I slowly started to understand. My parents put my sister and me on a bus that was leaving Mostar. I knew that this was not one of those regular summer vacations that we used to have. We went to Croatia, and stayed there until it was safe for us to return. A couple of months passed by, the war apparently started to fade away and life returned slowly to normality. When we arrived back home, the traces of the war were present, with bridges being destroyed and artificial ones being built, many buildings in ruins, roads severely damaged and many parks and gardens turned into graveyards with recent dates.
We were only at the beginning of the war, it would go on for another three years. Basically, it was a war between Muslim Bosnians, orthodox Serbs and catholic Croats.
But still, people hoped that the worst had passed. So did my parents when they allowed me to stay over at my friends’ place in the other part of town, across the river. They were wrong. Instead of a peaceful next morning, the sun rose to new shootings, grenades falling all around, people shouting, crying, screaming and calling others bad names. I was alone; I didn’t know where to go, or what to do.
For one month I felt like a mannequin, taken from one family to another, just to be safe, while the army went through apartments and houses, looking for people who were not the “right ethnicity” and make them leave their home.
I came to a small city, Ljubuški, 30 kilometres away from Mostar and stayed with my grandparents who moved there after the war had started. That place became my home for one year, and my grandparents were the only family and support I had.
I was a young Muslim. In that surrounding, being a Muslim was a crime. I can be grateful to God that I was still a child. I still did not fully understand just how serious the situation was. I didn’t understand when people talked about having a white ribbon on their arm to mark you as “different”, I did not understand what “converting to another religion” meant. Although there was no shelling and fighting in that particular city, there was a strain on everyday life, a psychological torture with constant threats and constant scare.
After several months, the first Red Cross letters came through. I was able to establish my first contacts with my family in Mostar. Finally! They were exhausted from constantly enduring the war, hungry, sick and tired of all the events. But they were fine!
It was a strange feeling to hear about my family, so close geographically, so far away spiritually. The nostalgia I felt increased even more after hearing about their lives and sufferings. I wanted to be with them, I wanted them to be with me and to leave the country. My grandparents did everything to make sure I was fine, but I yearned for the hug from my mother, my father’s stories – I even missed and cherished the small fights with my sister that felt so stupid at a time of war. Through the letters, they tried to share their experiences “in codes” about the events in Mostar, about finding new ways to produce food, about the struggle of bringing water home from the cisterns and about how to survive, succeeding to stay alive.
In 1994 – it was my 12 birthday – the representative of the Red Cross came to visit me, bring news about my family and gifts for me. He was based in Mostar and met my parents daily. I overflowed with questions about them. At that time I did not sense that I would very soon see them again. This visit was the beginning of a co-operation between two “enemy” armies that was organized, in order to reunite me with my family. My father, a doctor, followed the Hippocratic Oath even in these hard times, and he never made any difference while treating his patients. For that, as a favour-in-return, some of his patients, soldiers, suggested a plan to transfer me from Ljubuški to Mostar.
Bosnian Army soldiers made an agreement with Croatian ones to pick me up and bring me to Mostar. The Croatian soldiers escorted me through areas dominated by the Croatian forces, and at the “border” they handed me over to the Bosnian Army. It was strange: you hear about enemy sides fighting, hating each other, and there they were – smiling, handshaking, talking as if it was a casual meeting between friends who haven’t seen each other for a very long time.
I remember that I didn’t recognize my native city, as it was demolished and all infrastructure had changed. But despite being absent for one year, I recognized the face I was longing to see and touch – my mother’s face. She embraced me, hard, she did not let me go, as if she was afraid that she would lose me again if she did so. I think that she didn’t quite believe that I would be back until she saw me. She cried, but as every proud woman, she quickly wiped her tears away and started to laugh, asking me how I was, showing me around, introducing me to people, while entering home. My sister didn’t recognize me at first, she was shy at the beginning, but then she started to talk to me and to remember our crazy games and talks. Father just stood there and watched me for a while, probably still not believing that I was there. Yes, I returned to the war-demolished city, with constant bombing, people dying, no water and electricity. But my mother, father and sister were there. For me, having them around made this the right place to be.
At that time, I wasn’t a child anymore. I grew up. I was equal to my parents. I had to be included into everyday life, to bring water, to chop wood, to rebuild the destroyed apartment. I fully understood what our main taskwas: to survive.
The war still continued, but it was obvious that it came to its end. People were able to leave their houses more often, streets were cleaned, people returned to their jobs, and children started their academic activities in schools and improvised ones. Life returned to its normalcy, although living in Mostar at that time was hard. It was especially hard for the grown-ups, who still remembered their lives before the war, when Mostar was one of the most beautiful cities in Yugoslavia. Now, the former free city had become a divided one with Muslim Bosnians holding the East, Croats the West, you had to pass check points in order to go to the other side – similar to Berlin before 1989. It was strange to see history repeat itself and people not learning from it.
The European Community did not act in the 1990s and thus, silently approved of the events. With its passivity it supported and encouraged the ideology of the regime at that time: that one people must overpower the other for the sake of “peace”.
Today, 20 years later, the European Union again risks losing Bosnia and Herzegovina. While Croatia now is an EU-member state, Serbia a candidate country, the country that suffered most during the war now is at risk to turn into a failed state – at the EU’s doorstep. The political paralysis, the high unemployment rate and the rampant corruption led to unrests in Sarajevo.
The EU used to threaten to block the Stabilisation and Accession Agreement in order to make national politicians do their work. However, the punishment did not have the intended results; the country stagnated, people were unsatisfied, and it didn’t force the political elite to implement the required reforms. Recently the EU changed its strategy: The Council of the European Union has cleared the way for Bosnia and Herzegovina to apply for membership status. This news came at the right time and was welcomed after a long time of waiting. In turn, the EU wants our politicians to deliver.
Today, I am 33 years old. I live in Sarajevo. I try to live a life my parents used to live before the war started – a European one. If you define European as: travelling to different places, socializing with people regardless of their religion, nationality, ethnicity. These are categories with which our leaders try to control us by saying that different is wrong.
Sometimes, I wish I could have a glimpse of what my life would have been like, in that period of boyhood, without the experience of war. Even though I did not understand the events, the war has become part of my life. Deep inside, there has been a constant, unconscious feeling of threat. I wonder how it must be like not to be afraid of being killed, but just terrified of a test in school. Not to hide in a shelter, but to have a first travel abroad. The war has taught me to take life more seriously, to understand its value and to be thankful for the opportunity to be alive.
I want to have an influence on how society remembers the aggression on Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995. Not to forget, not to stop talking about it, not to allow it to happen again. It is important to constantly work on peace.
In Mostar, the border has almost become invisible, there are no longer any check points, no soldiers, no tanks. You can feel the birth of the unity. Hidden, but there it is. Waiting for perfect moment to wake up. Or a perfect generation to come.
Still, you can erase the border, but you can’t erase history.
This blog post has been published in German on Süddeutsche Zeitung in the framework of FutureLab Europe and Süddeutsche Zeitung’s cooperation.