What were you doing in the early 90s?
I was a wee girl whose time was spent playing with Barbie and My Little Pony on my living room carpet while my Mum did the ironing. The TV was often on in the background and I hazily remember the news coverage about war in a place called Bosnia.
Images of smoke, soldiers and guns flashed across the screen, painting a terribly sad and troubled picture. Of course my knowledge of such serious conflict at a young age was limited, but I knew bad things were happening there and that it must be a horrible place.
What I didn’t know was that a mere 3 hour flight from my home in Scotland, families and children like me, in this beautiful and previously peaceful place, were held in the wicked grasp of war. Displacement, disorientation and death prevailed, as their lives were violently convulsed and changed forever.
My curiosity about Bosnia and Herzegovina, and my desire to challenge the war tarnished perceptions of this misunderstood destination, began when I trained to be a tour guide in Eastern Europe and Croatia.
It was then I realised how little I knew about this tragic and worryingly recent history, making me eager to learn and see more of the region, particularly Bosnia and Herzegovina. The opportunity arose during my days off in Croatia, where I ventured over the border to Mostar on a day trip.
I felt an instant connection and love for the country which inspired me to return 2 years later, this time on a 1 week tour with Balkan Road Trip.
On this visit, my appreciation of the devastation caused by the Yugoslav Wars was exemplified through the confronting stories I was told straight from the people who survived it. Their experiences are heart wrenching, harrowing and incomprehensible to people like myself who have been lucky to grow up in a country free from the fear of extreme violence and war.
Now I want to share the survivor’s stories, to create a wider awareness and understanding about the recent war and the incredible suffering. I also wish to encourage people to visit my favourite country, to witness first hand the charm and beauty of both the landscape and the people.
Here are their stories…
* * *
This is Amela from Mostar, who was 9 when the war started
Mostar’s picturesque old town, and most notably its iconic bridge, were ravaged and destroyed during the offensive by the Serbian forces, which began in the city in 1992.
As my group followed Amela on our walking tour of Mostar, she tells of a time with insufficient food and water, and certainly no chocolate for the children. Instead, for 4 years the city was in ruins and scattered with army tanks.
She recalls the last night she spent in her family home before fleeing for their safety. The Serbian forces were closing in and they had been advised by friends and neighbours that they would not survive the next day unless they escaped.
They had to carefully crawl through the darkness in a single file without uttering a sound, to remain hidden and unheard by the surrounding snipers.
Amela, for a reason she cannot explain, ignored the instructions from her parents and began to crawl in the opposite direction – straight towards the path of the snipers.
Despite the desperation to save their young daughter from being instantly killed, her parents could not cry out to her for fear of revealing their presence to the military forces, guaranteeing a death sentence for them all.
Luckily, Amela glanced over her shoulder and locked eyes with her Mother.
With noticeable sadness, Amela remembers the look in her Mother’s eyes; a look which will stay with her forever.
Her Mother frantically gestured with her hands, urging her daughter to turn around and crawl back to safety.
She did, and it saved her life.
* * *
This is Mustafa from Sarajevo, who was in his early teens during the 3 year siege of his home city
Mustafa was my tour guide on the 1 week Bosnia Adventure with Balkan Road Trip and gave us an incredibly humbling and uplifting account of living through the war.
Much to my disbelief he told us that the children and young people of Sarajevo still craved the normality of education and attended school throughout the duration of the 3.5 year siege of the city.
With a hint of nostalgia in his voice and a small smile he described the ‘rule of threes’ when walking to and from school, down the sniper lined streets.
He and his friends would bicker over who would be the third one to run across the street as the snipers would:
see the first person, aim at the second and shoot the third.
When I was that age, my friends and I would bicker over boys and music and I dreamt about meeting my first love – Leonardo Di Caprio. Mustafa told us he dreamt about being able to sleep in his own bed for just one night.
Instead he and his family sat in a confined space in his basement in pitch darkness for hours upon hours at a time, listening to the sound of explosions outside. He said he thought he was going to go crazy.
He also told us about the five year old twins who lived next door. They were blown to pieces during a shell attack as they played in the garden.
He considers himself very lucky having not lost any members of his immediate family during the war and now proudly guides people around his country, sharing his knowledge and experience, ensuring the world does not forget.
* * *
This is Hasan, a Srebrenica resident and survivor of the massacre
I met Hasan on my visit to Srebrenica – the ‘UN Safe Haven’ which fell to the Serbian Forces in July 1995. It was then that the rebel forces began a campaign of ethnic cleansing, which resulted in the systematic massacre of over 8000 men and boys, all belonging to the Muslim population.
Hasan is a tour guide at the Srebrenica burial site and memorial museum, meaning he willingly relives the catastrophic loss and terror for the purpose of education and remembrance.
He recounted the day Sbrebrenica fell, as Ratko Mladic – the General of the Bosnian Serb Army – and his troops advanced towards the UN Dutch Military Base. Outside, 25,000 refugees pleaded for sanctuary within the safety of its walls, yet were denied and left outside terrified.
I cannot imagine the hopelessness and desolation which was endured by the refugees. especially after their safety and survival was assured when the area was declared ‘safe’ by the UN’s General Morillon. He famously visited the town to prevent the carnage and negotiate with the Serb forces.
During his visit the desperate refugees swamped the General’s car and thwarted his attempts to leave the town, for fear that his departure would be followed by a Serbian attack.
“Don’t be afraid; I will stay with you” he promised them publicly.
Less than 6 months later, this sense of security and hope was shattered as on the 12th July that year, Srebrenica was overrun by the Serb Forces in a day which will be remembered in history as ‘The Fall of Srebrenica’.
A subsequent reign of fear, terror, rape and murder consumed the masses on and after that day.
Eye witness accounts during the war trials detail horrific acts carried out by the Serb forces, in close proximity to the UN Base, including the butchering, bludgeoning and beheading of women (including pregnant women), children and babies.
Men and boys of military age were separated from their mothers and wives, pale and trembling as they anticipated their fate.
Thousands of men fled into the woods, in a desperate bid to escape to Tuzla – a safe area in the mountains.
Amongst these men, was Hasan with his twin brother and father. On their journey their group was ambushed by the Serbian forces causing the group to disperse, separating Hasan from his relatives.
Hasan survived the ambush and eventually made it to Tuzla, where he waited for days to be reunited with his twin and father.
He never saw them again.
Their remains were recovered from a mass grave over ten years later, allowing Hasan and his mother to lay their loved ones to rest.
* * *
This is Fadila from Srebrenica, whose husband and son were taken from her during the massacre
I first noticed Fadila as she tended to her wee souvenir stall outside the Srebrenica Memorial Museum. She had a warm, kind face and smiled softly as we filtered past her on our way inside.
I immediately recognised her as her face appeared on the screen during the heartbreaking documentary video we watched inside the Memorial Museum.
She told the camera that her husband and only son had been murdered during the massacre, and wept as she described her seventeen year old son’s face – round like hers and with similar features.
I struggled with the idea that this woman was once a mother and a wife, and that her family were taken from her in the same place she now sells souvenirs in order to make a living.
Even worse, her stall sits opposite the cemetery where the remains of the victims who were exhumed from the mass graves have been buried.
Her husband and son have never been found.
Why I wanted to write this post
There is of course reasoning behind my desire to share such dreadfully sad and violent stories.
“Lest we forget” is perhaps where I’ll start. It is vital that we remember the cause, effect and aftermath of war. To be educated and unoblivious. It it only through a widespread awareness that we can try to prevent repetition in the future.
I also think it is so important to launch ourselves from our comfort zones and shielded lives to take a glimpse, even momentarily, into the troubled and tainted lives of others.
When consumed by the trivialities of our everyday lives, stories like these should snap us back to reality and question the limits of our own emotional strength and endurance.
I simply cannot fathom how these people have found it in themselves to move forward and to continue living after the things they have seen and suffered, the years which they lost to the wicked elements of war, and the years that they have lost in the time since – without their loved ones.
I will never forget the courage and the spirit of the people I met in Bosnia, especially the survivors who shared their stories with me.
Most admirably, they did not once display any bitterness or anger towards the military forces who did this, instead they are rational, forgiving and positive about the future.
Their lives and memories will be permanently plagued by the war scenes of those lost years, haunted by the horrors they endured. Two decades have elapsed since then, yet their sadness and trauma remain, its presence masked by a warm smile and forgiving heart.
When I questioned my guide Mustafa on how the people have managed to be so resilient and forgiving he answered,
“We will never forget but we have to move on“
Why did this happen?
First of all I’d like to note just how complex and sensitive this war history is, so I have tried to simplify and summarise the key events
After the defeat of the Nazis in World War II, a new communist Yugoslavia was born under President Josip Broz Tito.
While the iron curtain fell across Europe, subjecting the East to a strict communist regime, Yugoslavia remained free from the wrath of the Soviets and was relatively peaceful and economically prosperous.
Yugoslavia was made up of six states
Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina
… and two autonomous provinces
Kosovo and Vojvodina
That’s a lot of different nationalities, cultures, attitudes and interests. All united under one rule, one army, one identity.
Ethnic origin and nationality were irrelevant – everyone was Yugoslavian.
Lets fast forward to a series of key events which changed the face of the socialism and union in Yugoslavia…
1980 – the death of the Yugoslav President Tito – he was the glue which held the pieces together.
1989 – the fall of the Berlin Wall and communism in the east.
In the same year, a Serbian politician named Slobodan Milosovic, became the President of Serbia. He had a twisted masterplan, an ideology which was reminiscent of Hitler and the Nazis. He dreamt of a ‘Greater Serbia’ – one which would claim non-Serb territory for Serbia, all under Serbian rule. He appealed to the ethnic Serbs in the various Yugoslav states, roused a Serbian army and claimed legal authority over Yugoslavia.
1991 – after years of stifling their Nationalism and desire to break away, Croatia and Slovenia both declared their independence from Yugoslavia. The ‘Break Up of Yugoslavia’ commenced.
Slovenia fought a short war, but ultimately was of no benefit to Milosovic – Slovenians are ethnically pure, there were little or no Serbs in Slovenia.
Croatia fought four long years against the Serbs before finally gaining independence in 1995.
Bosnia and Herzegovina played a very complex role in the Yugoslav Wars. No one is ethnically Bosnian, instead there are Bosnian Muslims (descendents of the Ottoman Turks who once ruled over the land for hundreds of years), Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs.
At the time the war broke out in Bosnia, it’s ethnic division was:
- 44% Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims)
- 31% Serbs
- 17% Croats
- 8% other minorities
The Croats wanted to claim part of the land for Croatia, the Serbs for Serbia and as for the Bosniaks… there was no place for them.
Where ethnicity and religion meant nothing in the former Yugoslavia, it now meant everything.
Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs who were school friends could no longer be friends.
Mixed ethnicity families were confused and displaced; where were they to go? Should they separate for their own safety?
Between 1992 – 1995 the war in Bosnia claimed over 100,000 lives, the majority being Bosnian Muslims.
The war finally ended when NATO intervened and the Dayton Peace Agreement was drawn up, splitting up the land in to two separate entities; the Republica Srpska – mainly populated by Serbs, and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina – mainly populated by Bosniaks and Croats.
Slobodan Milosovic was overthrown from his presidency and arrested in 2000. He died in prison in 2002 while on trial at the International Court of Justice for his war crimes.
Ratko Mladic, the General of the Bosnian Serb Army, who was responsible for the hideous war crimes in Srebrenica, was captured in 2011 after 16 years in hiding. He will finally stand trial for his crimes, including what has been officially recognised as genocide.
The multiple mass graves from the Srebrenica Massacre are still being discovered and exhumed in the hope that, with blood samples from their relatives, the victims can be identified and rightfully laid to rest.
Can you believe this was only 20 years ago?
And the world looked on…
I would like to say a special thanks to Amela, Mustafa, Hasan and Fadila for sharing their incredible stories with me and for allowing me to write about them
Finally I would like to mention that the actions of these armies and extremists do not reflect those of the entire race or religion, and that innocent people were killed on all sides during this war