Memories of the war in Bosnia

Near Sniper's Alley, Sarajevo, Bosnia Herzegovina
Near Sniper’s Alley, Sarajevo (Flickr/bastian)

Much has been written about the atrocities committed over the past five years in the heart of Europe: the concentration camps, war rapes and the ethnic cleansing. Much has also been said about the politics, war tactics and the immense refugee problems. But to understand the death of this nation, we must listen to the ordinary people, the survivors of the most savage war in Europe in over half a century. 

Producers: Eric Beauchemin & Dheera Sujan

Broadcast: September 16, 1996


Siren Song, hosted by Dheera Sujan

Hello, and welcome to Siren Song. Today, a programme about people who’ve survived the almost complete annihilation of their normal lives, people who watched as their nation disintegrated in a five year civil war, who watched their loved ones die one by one, who lost their jobs, their income, their homes. The demise of the country that was once known as Yugoslavia has been violent and brutal: a quarter of a million dead, two million people displaced by the fighting, hundreds of thousands forced into exile, hundreds of thousands more severely traumatised by their experiences. Much has been written about the atrocities committed over the past five years in the heart of Europe, the concentration camps, the war rapes and the ethnic cleansing. Much has also been said about the politics, war tactics and the immense refugee problems, but to understand the death of this nation, we must listen to the ordinary people, the survivors of the most savage war in Europe in over half a century. Eric Beauchemin was in Sarajevo recently and he did listen to some of these people. Today on Siren Song, we have a chance to hear from people who have, for too long, felt that there was no one out there, no one listening.

I’m a physiotherapist. I was volunteer because when the war started, I saw that some strangers wanted to destroy all my life, and I start to fight. I never thought that I will be in something like this. I was in the army three years. I was volunteer when the war start. I was everywhere, everywhere they need me, and I was in all frontlines in Bosnia. In the beginning we had something, but after a few months, we don’t have anything. After they start war with Croats, there was not anything for live and for war, no arms, no food, no electricity, no water. It was horrible.

The past five years have deeply scarred far too many of the ordinary people in the former Yugoslavia. Emir is in his early 30s, and he spent three years in the war fighting for the Bosnian army. Last year, unable to take the brutality of the war any longer, he left for Italy and is now trying to build a life for himself there, but his war experiences constantly follow him.

I was 16. We were always without enough munition. When you must, you must without munition or with munition. But I think for every soldier it’s the same. In modern war, soldier is not modern. Soldier is like in 17th century. It’s the same. It was very, very difficult to fight with everybody without anything. But all the time with that desire for the freedom and for real Europe, for real democracy, for a real life that we will win.

The desire to survive and to help hold together a multi-ethnic Bosnia was particularly strong amongst the region’s young. For many teenagers and men in their 20s, that meant joining the Bosnian army. Maher, now 24 years old, was one of the volunteers.

When the war started, I was actually too young to become a soldier. But I was born in this city and I consider myself a Sarajevan. I belonged to a group of people which realised what was going to happen to the Bosnian people. We saw that the Serbs were preparing the annihilation of Bosnia’s Muslims. So I took up arms and fought for Bosnia.

I joined the former Yugoslav army in 1991 to do my regular military service. We were all stationed in Vinkovci, but when the war started, we were all sent to Slovenia. I stayed in Slovenia for four months because I had some relatives there, but I went back to Bosnia when the war started in April 1992. When I saw the suffering of my people, I knew I had to fight to defend my country. Bosnia is the only country I have.

Maher and his 25-year-old friend Adnan are amongst the many Bosnians who were determined to preserve the Bosnia which they had known all their lives. Culturally rich and ethnically diverse, Muslims, Croats, Serbs, Jews and gypsies lived side by side. It was also a poor backwater in the former Yugoslavia, one of the poorer countries in Europe. Since the end of the Second World War, the various ethnic groups which made up Yugoslavia had been held together by Marshall Tito. He’d organised the resistance against the Nazi occupation, but as World War II drew to a close, Croats and Serbs started slaughtering each other in a fratricidal orgy of bloodletting. Hundreds of thousands were murdered, and almost every family lost relatives. Marshall Tito was determined that ethnicity would not be an issue in the new federal socialist republic of Yugoslavia. He played off the different ethnic groups against each other and tried to instill the notion of a Yugoslav identity in his people. But in 1980, Tito died and the Yugoslav nation slowly began to unravel. By the late 1980’s, nationalist politicians were in power throughout the Balkans, fanning the fires of centuries of mistrust, hatred and fear. The outbreak of fighting in the summer of 1991 surprised few Yugoslavs. Many, like Liliana Pepovic, a producer and presenter at Radio-Television Bosnia-Herzogovina, quickly adapted to the war.

When the war started, I was presenting a youth programme on the local radio station here in Sarajevo. It was basically talk radio, but I also had lots of quizzes. I tried to entertain people. I was unseriously serious. By that I mean, I was serious when it came to work. I was very professional. But in my programmes, I laughed a lot. I tried to be funny and interesting because that’s what I thought would make a good youth programme. Young people like everybody else needed to forget the war, but it couldn’t be easily forgotten.

Radio soon became people’s lifeline with the outside world because of frequent and long power cuts. Liliana’s colleague Mlado Bradovic, the editor-in-chief of radio BNH says that everyone was very conscious of the fact that come what may, they would have to keep up their own spirits in order to help others believe in better days.

When the war started, it was a pleasure to work with my colleagues. Of course, we worked in very difficult conditions. We didn’t have electricity, water, food, things like that. But we enjoyed each other’s company. We had a positive spirit. There was a positive force which linked us together. I liked it a lot.

Voislav Viyanovic was another one of the few who stayed at Radio TV BNH throughout the war. Only five of the station’s original 200 plus employees were left when the war ended late last year. Voislav Viyanovic presented a weekly programme on culture, science and the arts during the war. He had 22 years of experience behind him when the war started, and he realized that radio could help him do his part to preserve a multi-ethnic nation.

When the war began, my main goal was to maintain the spirit of the city, to communicate with the people who wanted to preserve this city’s special spirit. I started to look for people who could help me. I tried to find key people in Sarajevo’s artistic world like painters and actors. In June 1992, we organised our first exhibition, and we also had a literary gathering. A famous ballet dancer and writers took part. That’s how my involvement in the war began.

I live quite close to the radio building. During the war, it usually took me about 10 minutes to get to work, but now that everything is back to normal, it takes me half an hour to get here. I’m always late. During the war, we always had to hurry because snipers could fire at any moment. There were many difficult moments, you know. Last August, for example, I was in a bus, and we were hit by anti-aircraft fire. It was really terrifying. Even here at work, it wasn’t safe. You can see the sandbags over there, covering the windows. They were put there because this was one of the areas where foreign journalist worked. But we had to work in totally unprotected rooms, and it was really difficult. Only the editing room was protected. That was the only safe place for us in the entire building.

I never paid much attention to the working conditions. It wasn’t that important to me. When we had major problems with the electricity and water here, I just tried to do the best I could. If I couldn’t make a programme the way I wanted, I just did it live. Since there was no public transport, if I wanted to get material for my programme, I had to walk up to 15 kilometres carrying heavy equipment. We didn’t have Sonys or any other modern equipment. It was really hard for me, but I managed. Getting my programme on the air was the most important thing. It’s what kept me going.

Branko Yakovic, a television producer at the Bosnian broadcasting organisation, also tried to help keep people’s spirits up. He produced a daily one-hour entertainment programme which, during the war, won the prize for the best TV production in Bosnia.

The name of the programme was Ratat, that means war art. It was an entertainment programme about everything. Most of this was about fashion, about the art of surviving, how you can make some sweet cake without sugar, etc. We made fun from this. How to make kidney pie without any meat inside. This was about cooking, but we also made almost everything. You mentioned how can you make a fashion show in the middle of the war? Yes, it’s controversial. Also music. We created music clips, I mean video music clips in the middle of the war, and that’s controversial because people want to survive and we are showing some fashion, etc. But people need this. Really, people need this during the war because they needed something relaxing, something to keep alive, except food and water. EB: Was it also designed to make people laugh? Yes, I’m sure because we were helping people to laugh because laugh is really healthy. EB: But with a war that goes on for four years, it’s difficult to make people laugh constantly, isn’t it? It’s not. People didn’t lose this humour during all the war. But especially we were making fun about ourselves, not about others. We are not creating fun about Serbs, only about Bosniaks, about people in Sarajevo because we were totally closed. We didn’t have opportunity to go to Tuzla, to go to Zenica, only in Sarajevo.

I started off as an ordinary soldier in the Bosnian army. Then I was appointed commander of an army unit in the Bihać pocket in northwestern Bosnia. I was responsible for getting humanitarian convoys through. Later I was sent to Sarajevo. I joined a very elite army group there which was partly responsible for security at the Bosnian presidency building. During the war, many horrible things happened. There’s one incident I remember particularly clearly. We were on Mount Treskavica. We were trapped there, and I was taken prisoner. Three of my best friends were killed there. Some of my best friends and I managed to escape somehow, but after that I suffered from trauma. My doctor told me that I had PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder, the so-called Vietnam Syndrome. In Bosnia, we call it Bosnia Syndrome. It started with nightmares, and I used to sweat a lot. I couldn’t eat. I felt terrible and I was always afraid. I went for psychotherapy and took a long break from the army. Then I joined up again as a cook. It was only a year later that I went back as a regular soldier again. I think I feel better now, but sometimes I see those terrible pictures again.

It was a period when in two or three days one time or we eat what we had or we eat, I don’t know fruit or we eat bread or we eat something what we find. I lose for the six months at the beginning of the war 10 kilos. Also I was three times wounded in the first year in war. ’92-’93: three times. I was wounded in leg, in head, in breast, in the hand, everywhere. Many times we don’t have any possibilities to leave our soldiers. In the hospital I was lucky one time. It depended where you are. There was people who died for nothing.

When the chetniks killed my brother, I started to hate them. I just couldn’t stand having any of them near me. I started to hate all Serbs because of what happened to my brother. Later, I suffered from severe insomnia, nightmares, that type of thing. I didn’t want to go for treatment because I didn’t have faith in our doctors. At that time, everything was happening so fast that I just didn’t believe that they would make the right diagnosis or give me the right prescription. So I tried psychotherapy, but I soon gave up.

Psychologists say that young soldiers like Maher, Adnan and Emir are amongst the most severely traumatised survivors of the war. But everyone who experienced the war was affected in one way or another.

I’m human. I couldn’t forget the war because it was happening to all of us. But I never wanted my listeners to feel that I was scared or sad or not in the mood to talk about the war. I just wanted to keep people’s spirits up. The minute I entered this building, I forgot my own personal problems and tried to be as professional as possible. Sure, there were very difficult moments. For example, when friends or family members were injured or killed, or when the market place massacre took place here in Sarajevo. I remember one day particularly well. That was the day that one of the numerous peace agreements was signed and that same day two of my friends were killed. One worked as a driver for the TV station, and he was always there when I needed him. We lived in the same part of time, and I always felt very safe when I was walking with him. I thought that nothing could happen when we were together. And I lost another very good friend that day. When things like that happened or I heard my listeners recount similar stories, I would leave the studio and just go to some quiet corner and cry. It made me feel a bit better and I would just get back to work.

During 1992, our radio station was very popular, and everybody listened to it. But by 1993, things had changed. A friend of mine told me why he didn’t want to listen any more. He was bored with our news. He told me that everything was the same all the time. We constantly repeated the same things. I remember thinking how strange that sounded. I told him: we couldn’t change the news. The situation was as it was. We couldn’t make it more palatable. We had to cover events as they happened.

I was able to survive the war because I was patient. I waited day after day for the war to finish. Everything has a beginning and an end. And that conviction helped me get through the war. I just waited. I didn’t have any family abroad. All my relatives stayed and so did I. I had to struggle to get my work done, just like everybody else. Many of my colleagues here at the radio station left during the war. People left because they had families abroad, and they wanted to join them. I think they weren’t strong enough to endure all the difficulties. Other people were influenced by the propaganda. They decided to join the Serbs or the Croats. Those of us who were strong enough stayed throughout the war. It wasn’t a question of patriotism. I just believed I had to stay.

In the summer of 1995, I left Sarajevo for a while. While I was away, a major military operation started in the city, and no one could get in or out. My main concern was how to get back to Sarajevo because I didn’t want to miss anything during the war. My parents were here. My friends were here. And I didn’t want to abandon them in those very difficult and dangerous moments. I was ready to do anything to get back. The only time I really began to question what I was doing here was when this building was shelled, but as soon as it stopped, I just knew I had to stay.

I consider myself a religious man. I believe in faith. I think if something’s meant to happen, then it will. So I wasn’t afraid of dying because that would have been my fate, my destiny. But I think all my efforts were worthwhile because I was giving my life for the community, and that’s more important than the life of a single individual.

After everything, I think that everything was for nothing. And if I can say something for the next soldiers, war is most stupid kind of solution because everybody only lose. Nobody is a winner. I lose everything. I lose half of family. I lose my job. I lose health. That feeling is very, very strange because when I speak with my friends, I think that they feel that we lost our life. That was something like what I dream before: my life before war and my life in the war, and my life like a refugee. There are three lives. It’s very strange feeling.

I feel robbed, like I’ve been robbed of my childhood. Because of the war, I never graduated from high school. I missed that wonderful ceremony. I wasn’t able to take part in the high school excursion to other countries in Europe, for example. Believe it or not: one of the worst things during the war was the information blockade. We didn’t know what was going on in the rest of the world. You know, I missed everything because of the war.

 We were robbed of our youth because five years were stolen from us. I feel 10 years older now because of what happened to me. I’ll never be able to make up for those lost years. We feel cheated because those who left the country before and during the war are now coming back to Bosnia with money, and they are better off than we are. I don’t think that’s fair. We spent five years in the trenches in Bosnia. I think we got nothing for what we did. We were just given some worthless coupons as payment. We joined the army because we were patriots, and now we feel cheated.

Bosnian refugees are coming back home with lots of money, and they are starting up businesses here. We who stayed have nothing, and they have everything. One war is now over. It’s behind us. But another one is just beginning. We have to fight now for our existence, for our lives. My house is in Serb territory, and I have lost everything I owned. I need help but I don’t think the government can help me. I’m not asking for much. All I want is to return to the place where I used to live and to fix my house. How am I supposed to survive? Many young men died for this country. Many had horrible experiences like me, and now we have nothing. It’s not fair.

The average salary at the radio station is about 100 Deutsch Marks a month. That’s about 60 US dollars. But during the war it was a lot less. I didn’t care because I just wanted to survive and do my work. I didn’t think about how much I was earning. I have an uncle who lives in the United States , and he’s the one who helped keep us alive.

I feel depressive. Also sometimes angry, also sad. Also, I don’t know, but there are only bad feelings.

We have to build a new, better society on the ruins of the past five years. We’re going to need a lot of time and patience to achieve that.

I think I am a different person because the past four years have changed my values. Before the war, people would be angry if they couldn’t buy a pack of Marlboros. Today they are happy if they can smoke Sarajevo cigarettes, which cost one Deutsch Mark. It’s a silly example, but that’s the difference. I realise what’s important in life today and what isn’t. And I still don’t think in ethnic terms. I’m not Muslim but all my friends are. I don’t put people into categories because of their family names. That’s not important to me. I’ve also learned to appreciate good people and to recognise the bad ones. Some people keep on saying that we need to live together, but we all know that. Many like me don’t feel any hatred despite everything that’s happened.

I haven’t changed. Not a bit. My blood is not poisoned by hatred. I managed to keep my sanity. Now, I want to teach people how to respect and to love each other. That’s my mission now because I think after all of this, I’m able to love even more than I did before.

If war breaks out again, I’ll fight because I have no choice, but I will fight in a different way than I did last time. Next time, I will try to get something out of the war. I’ll try to make some money. I think that was my mistake in the last war.

I think if the fighting returns, I will first sit in my house for a while and think about everything. My desires are quite simple, you know. I would like to have everything that other young men in Europe have. I want to go out, have a girlfriend, do all the normal things everybody does. I don’t know if I will fight next time, but if I do, I want to make some money out of it too.

I haven’t thought about having children yet, but when I do, I will tell them who the Serbs were, what they did. I’ll tell them never to marry a Serb or to have anything to do with them.

I don’t believe more too much in the people. I think I don’t like to be too much close with the people. Life continue, and I think that something must be better. I think that life can be better for me, of course, and for everybody, but I don’t know. I cannot say how I can be strong for life and for future after everything. About Bosnia, I am a pessimist. About myself, I am an optimist.

I have a message to people who make movies like Rambo and pretend to be great warriors. My message is come here and see what a real war is like because what you see in the movies is nothing compared to what really happened here in Bosnia.

Some of the survivors of Bosnia. Eric Beauchemin produced this edition of Siren Song. My thanks also to technicians John Hille and Frank Meijer. I’m Dheera Sujan and I hope we’ll meet again same time next week.