Story published in Me Naiset Magazine 1/2013
Link below: English version with pictures and video. My school work to J-School Online News Packages class. (Seems that it works properly only with Safari.)
Text: Maija Koski; Photos: Panu Pälviä
The Survivors of Sarajevo
Twenty years ago, Dragana Ilić-Glumac, a Serb, and Belma Filipović, a Bosniak, tried to escape snipers’ bullets fired from these hills in a town under siege. What marks has a gruesome civil war left on them?
The summer of 1992 was exceptionally warm. While other European youngsters were stressing about finding a summer job and queuing to watch Nirvana at rock festivals, Dragana Ilić-Glumac was running for her life in Sarajevo. From home to her band’s studio or getting groceries, a sniper’s bullet could surprise you anywhere, at any time.
Then came the blow.
– A grenade hit our house. When the dust settled, all I could do was to cry for mom, which was weird, as I normally call her by her first name, Dragana says.
Twenty-two-year-old Dragana was a Serb, as were her parents. So were the troops of the Bosnian Serb army, who had decided to destroy the capital from the surrounding hills. It doesn’t make much sense, but little did during the next four years of the civil war. It killed around 110,000 people, almost half of whom were civilians. A total of 11,541 people were killed in Sarajevo alone.
Most of the victims were children.
Near Dragana, Belma Filipović was hiding in her own home.
– I didn’t quite grasp the reality of the whole thing yet. Nobody in Sarajevo had believed a war could actually break out in Bosnia. When the siege started in April, we were all certain it would end in July at the latest. We were certain that the UN would manage to find a solution. Surely the world would not let anything like this happen in the middle of Europe, Belma says.
Belma and her family, as well as half of the Bosnian population, are Bosnian Muslims, known as Bosniacs. Until then, ethnicity had had little to do with the war. The area was inhabited by both ethnic groups, and mixed marriages were common. Also, religion was fairly secular – the Bosniacs were Europeanized Muslims, the Croats were Catholics, and the Serbs were Orthodox Christians.
Then, in 1991, Yugoslavia broke up, and Serbian leaders who dreamed of a “Great Serbia” decided to cleanse the newly independent Bosnia and Herzegovina of other ethnicities.
This can’t be happening to us
Now, 20 years later, Belma and Dragana, both 43, are sitting on the banks of the river Miljacka on the stairs of their school, which had been badly damaged during the war. The international media has mainly spread images of egomaniacal leaders accused of war crimes and the suffering of now elderly mothers who lost their male family members in the Srebrenica massacre. However, there is an entire generation of young
women in Bosnia and Herzegovina who endured the war and have had to build their lives all over again in a society torn apart by hatred. They are seldom heard of.
– In films, wars always have winners; the good chases the bad away. That is very far from reality, says Belma.
On the face of it, life in Sarajevo seems normal. The shop shelves are no longer empty and trees are starting to reach full height. The street scene is spotted with trendy clothing stores and cafeterias.
But then there are the hills surrounding the city, with torn-down houses and grenade marks in the blacktop. These remind the women of Saravejo of their dead and disabled loved ones, of hunger, fear, and cold – and, perhaps worst of all, of the disbelief that something like this could happen to regular people in the middle of their carefree youth.
– So many illusions came crashing down, Belma reflects.
Now, when she sees news reports from Syria or the Palestinian areas, she knows exactly what the women and children are going through.
– It is painful. It brings up your own memories.
And, again, the world doesn’t seem to intervene. At the same time in The Hague, the trials of war criminals progress at a painfully sluggish pace. And when a crime goes unpunished, it seems to disappear.
– Every person who denies the evil he has done is ready to do it again, Dragana says.
The women fear that the same will happen again. If not in the Balkans, then elsewhere in Europe.
Belma and Dragana met at university before the war and their friendship has remained intact for 24 years. During those years, Belma has married, had two children, and forged a long career in the national energy company. Nowadays, Dragana is a soprano at the National Theater’s opera choir.
A job is definitely something to be glad about, as the unemployment rate in Bosnia is 43 percent, and the outlook is even gloomier as the European financial crisis continues. Even those who have a job earn only about €400 a month, and often have to provide for their parents as well. Several families are completely unemployed, which means they cannot afford to eat or clothe themselves properly. They rely on relatives who have moved abroad.
The situation has changed dramatically since before the war. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s industry was booming. Belma and Dragana decided to study mechanical engineering, as highly educated engineers were being recruited before they had even graduated. The future was looking bright: a good job, an interesting career, and a financially secure life.
When the siege started, the women’s school building was on the front line, and their education came to a halt.
– I remember the last time I made it to a lecture. Our professor in French was crying behind his desk and kept repeating: “My children, my children!” He was old and wise; he knew what was coming, Belma says.
During the first weeks of the siege, many people managed to flee the town in convoys of international organizations. However, the decision to leave was not an easy one to make; it was scary to leave loved ones behind, as was the thought of never being able to return. This is why Belma and Dragana decided to stay. Their decision was reinforced by the empowering spirit of resistance: who are you to chase us out of our own town!
When the flaming city saw summer turn into fall, and fall into winter, the residents’ hope began to turn to despair. It is still a difficult subject to talk about.
– We no longer had water, food, electricity, or heat, Belma says.
Death became a part of everyday life. People had hardly any energy left for grieving.
Belma’s father had joined the multi-ethnic forces defending the city. Every day he made his way to the front line a kilometer away.
– One morning, I watched my father leave and saw how the grenades and bullets were flying all around; I thought to myself that I would never see him again, Belma recalls. Her father came back in the morning and noted that only one person had died.
That “one” was Belma’s childhood friend from the same street.
– Only one. It stuck in my mind – the arithmetic of war time. The “one” was the only one for his family.
Belma’s sister helped at the hospital, Belma herself mainly kept her mother company at home.
As the telephones weren’t working, it was difficult to keep in touch with anyone.
– Sometimes I met Belma in the water queue. There we were, all residents of Sarajevo – Serbs, Croats, Muslims – sharing the same destiny, Dragana reminisces.
Dragana accepted the reality before Belma.
– When a grenade hit our house, I stopped being scared. I understood that it was impossible to protect yourself. People were dying everywhere – on the front line as well as on the street or in their own homes.
Dragana did not call her mother in vain. Her parents survived the attack.
– My father wasn’t injured until later, when he got hit in the head by a bullet while he was fetching water.
– Finally, I didn’t care either. You just went all numb. The sound of gun shots, grenades, and sirens mainly just irritated me, Belma says.
Singing was a life-long passion of Dragana’s. When the war broke out, she had been cast to play the main character in the musical Hair at the theater on the main street.
– People get to see Madonna perform simply by paying money, but here, everyone in the audience had actually risked their lives to see me, Dragana smiles.
– It was weird. When I woke up that morning, I was hungry, thirsty, and cold. I had to go outside to pick twigs so that I at least could make some tea. In the evening, I shone in the theater’s spotlight.
The art of survival
You don’t need to climb the surrounding hills for long to grasp what an easy target Sarajevo was for the besiegers. When you observe the city from a bird’s eye view, the most startling thing is the number of graveyards filled with white tombstones. As there was no way out of the city, every green spot, from parks to the city’s Olympic football stadium, was turned into a graveyard. And there they
remain, in the middle of the residents’ everyday life.
In order to heat their flats, the Sarajevo residents first cut down the city’s trees, and then resorted to picking things to burn from the hill where the Serbs’ front line ran the furthest up. If your flat got damaged in an attack, you just had to improvise: get your hands on canvas and fill the holes in the wall with sandbags.
It was more and more difficult to get food. There was only one hand-dug tunnel out of the city, and it was used by the army. All trade was done on the street; that is, if there was anything left to trade.
– At some stage, I traded my fur coat for a bag of flour. And what delicacies we turned it into! A dash of sugar, and we had a cake; a pinch of salt, and we had bread. A bit of canned meat we received as food aid, and there we had a pizza, Belma says.
It was the rotten canned meat that the cat refused to eat, but we humans shared it with piety.
Once, Dragana performed for the UN troops and was rewarded with a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of whisky. Those she exchanged for food.
– Grass. That’s what we ate, Belma remembers.
Occasional help from the outside world will never be forgotten. One time, Belma received a package from a French family via a charity organization.
– It contained two candles and matches, coffee, milk powder, and a cake. Surely it was no big sacrifice for them, but they wanted to help. And for me it meant everything.
At the end of the war, Dragana suddenly received 400 Deutsche Marks from a Czech family she had met on a choir trip.
– It saved me. From that day on, I decided to pay it forward – for the rest of my life.
Those who had no character
Belma is especially grateful to those young and older men – Serbs, Croats and Muslims – who stuck together and defended Sarajevo during the entire siege.
– We saw on TV what happened to villages in East and North Bosnia when the Serbian army got through.
The Bosnian war was especially cruel to civilians: systematic raping, torture, executions and concentration camps. That was also the destiny of the district of Grbavica in Sarajevo, which the Serbian troops got a hold of. One of the people left there was Belma’s husband Sead’s 86-year-old aunt.
– What was done there… As a man, I just cannot comprehend, Sead says.
Also, Dragana has great difficulty understanding who the Serbs behind all these horrors were “her people.” She doesn’t personally know a single Sarajevo Serb who joined the siege forces.
– But I do know that many Serbs were evacuated in silence just before the war. They knew, and accepted what was coming. People with character would never had gone along.
Over half of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s population lived and continues to live in rural areas, in difficult mountain terrain, in very closed communities. It was from these communities that the extremist nationalists were recruited – to whom the communality of Sarajevo meant nothing.
– No normal person wishes for war. But uneducated people with a narrow view of the world can be manipulated into horrible deeds. Propaganda made us and the rest of the world believe that the war was an ethnic confrontation, but it wasn’t. It was the war of egomaniacal leaders, Dragana says.
– Unfortunately, even to this day we have politicians who incite hatred between people in order to gain power, she adds.
The situation creates monsters
Next to the war-time water post, in the most dangerous part of the city of that time, now lies an atmospheric brewery restaurant called Pivnica Sarajevo. The food is tasty and the servings are huge. The neighborhood also has a brand new shopping center, a national library whose facade has just been fixed, and houses that nobody can afford to repair. Nobody has received any form of compensation for their ruined homes.
When the Dayton Agreement ended the war in November 1995, the Sarajevo residents were just as disbelieving as they had been when the siege begun. Belma cannot recall anyone celebrating.
Even if people gradually started to believe that peace had actually come to stay, life went back to normal very slowly. Things will never go back to how they were.
– Lots could be done, if there was the political will. But those who seek to destroy are much louder, Belma says.
The country is now split in two by the peace treaty, and many people have raised their children to distinguish themselves and their backgrounds from others. Whereas everyone in the former Yugoslavia knew both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets, children now only learn their own. Schools implement three different syllabuses depending on the children’s ethnic background.
A small part of Sarajevo is now a part of the Serb Republic, and there are not many old Sarajevo residents who would set foot there.
Many people would prefer an even stronger segregation. It is equally difficult for those who wouldn’t have separated anyone.
– A friend of mine would love to find a nice girl from Sarajevo, but many shun him as soon as they find out he’s a Serb, Dragana says.
Sead points out that the former Yugoslavia and the European Union have clear similarities.
– As long as things were running smoothly on the financial front, people were living contentedly side by side and had a positive outlook on the future. If there is something we can learn from our experiences, it is that situations can bring out the monsters in people.
My children, my children
Belma says she no longer thinks about whether to forgive.
– I have stopped tormenting myself with that question. How could I forgive the people who ruined my youth and my whole generation? Of my 50 college friends, only 10 have stayed in Sarajevo.
The rest are either dead or living abroad.
Belma and her husband had a visa to Canada after the war, but they decided to stay. Sometimes they regret it, especially Sead. From time to time, faith in society and the future is weak.
– But what I can influence as an individual are my three- and eight-year-old sons. What’s most important is what I teach them: my values and my attitude towards life. My children have also helped me recover. Having something completely different to concentrate on, Belma says.
Dragana sees no other option than to fight for the good. She has studied social sciences, in addition to her day job, and is considering becoming politically active.
– The world will always have people who want to destroy communality and divide countries. But we can live together and forgive – you simply must believe in that.
War returned to Europe
– The Bosnian War (1992–1995) was the most violent of the wars in the breakup of Yugoslavia.
– The war started when the extremist nationalist Serbs wanted to build a Great Serbia by driving Bosniacs, Croats, and other ethnicities away from the vast areas of what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina.
– Bosniacs and Croats initially cooperated, but before long the Croats started fighting against Bosniacs too. Finally, the Croats and Muslims ended up fighting against the Serbs together.
– The Dayton Agreement ended the war and split the country in two, into the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Serb Republic (the Republika Srpska).
– The international community took the role of a bystander during the war, as it did not want to take sides. Civilians felt that the UN was ostensibly present, but did nothing to help. For example, the Srebrenica massacre happened right under the eyes of the UN.
– The siege of Sarajevo lasted for nearly four years.
Pingback: Thoughts on Sarajevo | roastbeefandrakija
Thank you for this courageous and insightful account. I have only recently begun to learn about what happened in Bosnia such a short time ago, and am shocked and ashamed to read about the horrors experienced by citizens there and the lack of support from the rest of the world during that time.
My organisation is committed to raising consciousness about crisis and adversity and how people move on to live effective, socially responsible lives as a result. Our aim is to inspire people in the UK and beyond to recognise their own capacity to survive adversity, and to find a greater sense of empathy and responsibility towards our neighbours in countries and situations where hardship still prevails. We have links with survivors of conflict and hardship in Hiroshima and Mombasa and, most recently, Mostar. We would also like to make connections with organisations in Sarajevo in order to learn more and spread awareness about the enormous challenges faced during and since the conflict.
My daughter and I hope to visit Bosnia in September and would like to meet and talk with survivors of the conflict, hearing their stories of that time, and how their experiences impacted on the rest of their lives to date, and also how today’s young people are affected by the consequences of the war.
If you or anyone you know would be willing to talk with us, please let me know.
Dear Tam, thanks for your message! I’ll respond you with email!
Being from Sarajevo,like my parents ,too and living through all these I know that Serbs wanted to keep Yugoslavia while the others wanted the independence,ie to separate from Yugoslavia.