There is no substitute for rational thinking, it’s easy to get swept up in the lies

Things started changing around us about a year before the war began. I was 11 at the time and I could see people getting tense. Back then I didn’t understand how or why we had no money. My mum worked two jobs at the time, yet for most of my life she had one job and that one provided enough for us to live a very comfortable life.

Bosnia had voted for independence and my household supported that. I had friends whose parents didn’t agree. And there were all kinds of threats on our TV. Despite the threats and the war in Croatia, we thought war wasn’t possible in Bosnia. How could we fight our own family and neighbours? We knew there was an economic crisis, but we never believed a war could happen.

It became real on Eid day in 1992. I didn’t know much at the time. Back then we went to a funfair ride, by the time we got off only the women in my family were there waiting for us, the men had gone to ‘help’. Soon enough we heard a story from Bjeljina, then Brcko. A man from Doboj came to Zenica and told us the army had blockaded the town. Zenica housed a huge Yugoslav army base across the bridge from my house. I remember climbing to the top of a hill and seeing the base, the tanks had turned towards the city. The mayor blocked the bridge to prevent the army from crossing it and started collecting money from everyone to bribe the army officials. If Zenica was invaded, it would have been one of the easier targets.

Before the army left, there was a night when bullets were raining down around us, and we had to run into the basement of our building. Being down there was surreal for us kids. Before the war, we had been told this basement was big and dangerous that’s where ‘baba-roga’ (an old woman with horns) lived. I don’t know if she moved, but I couldn’t find her in the dark space that became our shelter. The next morning military police showed up at our building asking who was not in the basement. It took us a while to figure it out. That’s when they informed us that the people who lived in the apartment above ours were shooting from their windows all night.

My mom was a single parent and she had 3 kids. It was decided quite early that my mom would leave with all the kids. We weren’t told much when we were leaving, and we had no passports. My brother was around 18 at the time and he was a gifted mathematician. He was supposed to go study in the US, but it fell through because of the war, however, it meant he had a passport.

We had to hide my older brother for the entire journey. There were many checks along the way and the bus got stuck on a narrow hill at one point. We had to get out and keep our heads down while the bus was freed. It took us 3 days to leave Bosnia. We spent one night in Travnik and another in Capljina before arriving in Split.

I realised we were refugees when we arrived in Croatia. We weren’t welcomed which felt odd to us because, before the war, we were all one country, how did things change so fast?

When we arrived in Croatia, the country was still at war, there was bombardment, but it wasn’t as intense as it had been in Bosnia. We had nowhere to go in Split, so friends took us in. The first night they let us stay in a house surrounded by the sweetest cherries, and the neighbour informed us to go into the house as there was a sniper on the hilltop. After that, we moved to Vodice, a small town not far from Split. We lived in a sort of hostel, we had one room, and there was only one bathroom for the whole floor. Eventually, all the other children who had come to Croatia with us were taken back to Bosnia by their parents. My older brother ended up in Turkey because there was a bus going there and he had to leave. If he hadn’t, he would have ended up being forced to fight in the Croat army.

I realised we were refugees when we arrived in Croatia. We weren’t welcomed which felt odd to us because, before the war, we were all one country, how did things change so fast? During the war in Bosnia, Croatia was originally on our side; in fact, many people thought that it made no difference whether they joined the Bosnian army or Croat forces since we had the same enemy.

The old saying that ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ is not true. The enemy of my enemy can be my biggest enemy, it all depends on their objectives. Throughout the war, Croats were always on two sides, some parts fighting alongside the Bosnian army, and in other areas fighting against Bosnians, committing atrocities and war crimes.

The moment the war started everything changed. People hated refugees.

We had grown up during socialism which meant there wasn’t much difference between the poorest and most well-off. The highest wage couldn’t be more than 3x the lowest wage. In Croatia, we had nothing.

My mom was an economist and before the war, she worked in a large factory but in Croatia, she struggled to find a job. She ended up finding a cheap shop in Vodice and sold whatever she bought in Split. The Croats didn’t let us go to school and we had no documents with us, so going anywhere seemed like a mission and not possible. My mum thought that Germany or Italy might be options. To her, USA politics were questionable, besides, it was too far away.

When we first arrived to Vodice, my mum helped a woman who had a stroke by taking in her two daughters. I remember sharing our room with them and trying to tell them that it’ll be alright. It’s funny now. I was 12, and they were 5 and 8, yet I was looking after them as if I were an adult and they trusted me. The woman recovered, she picked up her daughters, and they moved to a house in town. A month later her husband came and told my mum that there was a flight to the UK with a group of 19 children and 3 mothers. They had all been evacuated from North-Western Bosnia, and they were waiting for all the mothers to arrive, but the flight was scheduled, and they had to fly back to the UK with or without the kids.

I was sitting on the beach when I was told we were heading to the UK. Packing was very quick because between the 3 of us all we had was half a bag of things. When we met the group, there was commotion. The kids were too scared to leave Croatia without their mothers. The three mothers that were there had 2 children each, so that’s 6 kids out of 19 who had a mother by their side. 13 children were crying their eyes out, some were scared to stay, and others were scared to leave. It was a sight.

At that point, I was standing by a car, and my mother came with another guy and asked me if I would go with my brother as there wasn’t enough space for her. I said ‘No’. The guy with my mother smiled and said that maybe they could figure something out so that my mum could come too since she would be needed to help the other 3 women take care of all the kids.

We were loaded onto a little plane that had no seats. The plane was so small that when everyone moved, the plane tilted. We were flown from Split to Rijeka and then to somewhere in the UK. When we landed, we were put on a coach and my mom asked how long the journey would be, when she was told we wouldn’t reach our destination until the next day she struggled to figure out how to tell this to a busload of fearful and traumatised kids.

When we arrived in Scotland, all 25 of us were sent to this huge private house which had a tennis court and a goldfish pond. The lady had signed up to help 2 kids, but she was asked if she wanted to accept the whole group. People from the local community used to bring us everything we needed. The BBC even reported about us.

What we kids remember the most were the sweets. We’d gone 6 or 7 months with no sweets and now that they were in front of us, we weren’t allowed to eat them. We weren’t happy about this, so we used to take late-night trips to steal the sweets. Once, we took expensive chocolates and when the adults went to look for them, they couldn’t find them. When they asked us where it went, we said we didn’t know. We didn’t finish the bag of sweets we stored under the bed, but to this day we still talk about that period.

In England though there was a negative spin about what was happening in Bosnia. Bosnian refugees weren’t trusted about what was happening in Bosnia, but we kept telling people in the hope that someone would believe us.

Our time there only lasted about 2 weeks, when the other moms joined us, we were separated and placed with other Scottish families. My mum, my younger brother and I were placed with a family at Gordonstoun School. It’s a distant memory now, and I wish we experienced this new world without the weight of a war on our shoulders. But you remember everything you went through, the good and the bad, and it’s so important to keep it all. We saw the best and worst of humanity in such a short time.

It was difficult for me to adjust to living in Scotland in the beginning. It was so different to Zenica. In Zenica, all our apartments were stacked on top of each other and in Scotland all the houses were so spaced out. It snowed the first winter after we enrolled in school and only about 1cm of snow fell but school was cancelled. I was so surprised. In Bosnia, even if 2 meters of snow fell, it’s your responsibility to attend.

I was very active in school in Bosnia. I played the flute and piano, was part of the scouts and joined the gymnastics and ballet clubs. In Scotland, the teachers saw that I was gifted and respected me a lot, but the kids didn’t. I wasn’t bullied but I wasn’t included, and I used to dread the bus ride to and from school.

I didn’t speak about Bosnia in school unless it was in an essay. People understood that I was from Bosnia, and they had kind of heard about what was happening on the news, but they had the wrong idea about Bosnia. They used to ask if we knew what a TV was, and we joked that we didn’t and that in Bosnia we just had a box with a hole where people climbed into to act. They also asked if we knew what a fridge/freezer was, I just used to think ‘Obviously, where do you think we store the meat from Kurban’?

In England though there was a negative spin about what was happening in Bosnia. Bosnian refugees weren’t trusted about what was happening in Bosnia, but we kept telling people in the hope that someone would believe us. When we moved to London, we spoke to more officials who we thought might want to hear about what we experienced in Bosnia, but they had already heard what was happening from someone else. We faced a lot of scepticism when we tried to tell them what our neighbours had done to us. The officials listened but they didn’t believe us and dismissed what we were saying.

The propaganda against us was very strong. It’s hard to imagine that words could be a question of life or death. I still vividly remember when we were shown a picture of my hometown, Zenica, which showed people who had been hung from trees. We recognised the place right away, there’s a unique building in the central square. They said that those were the bodies of Serbs that Muslims in our town had killed. It was the biggest shock ever. We looked at the image for days, trying to get through to my family on the phone. Back then to call your family in Bosnia you had to use satellite phones and keep dialling until we got through. Sometimes, after 6 hours of trying, we’d be able to talk for 3-minutes and then we’d be cut off.

When we finally got through to my family, we asked them about the ‘massacre’. They couldn’t understand the question and asked, ‘What massacre’. We explained how we had a picture of the town square and described what we looked at. To which they replied, ‘There are no trees in central square’. They were right. There were no trees there. But the shock erased what we know. By then, the damage was done. Far more people believed the fictitious story than our truth that the whole picture is fake. It was the poor Serbs being persecuted by the bad Muslims.

If there is one thing, I want people to learn from the Bosnian Genocide, it’s that there is no substitute for rational thinking and educating yourself. It’s easy to get swept up in the lies.

There was another image showing people being taken to a concentration camp in Zvornik and the narrative behind it was Muslims taking Serbs to the camp. I immediately thought that wasn’t possible. Zvornik was 50% Muslim and 50% Serb before the war but because of the ethnic cleansing, it was now majority Serb. The picture made no sense, but people didn’t want to think about or question it. At one point, I was volunteering in West Yorkshire at a refugee centre. West Yorkshire had received more people from Bosnia, and I found the people who were pictured being taken to the concentration camp in West Yorkshire. They told me the picture was of Serbs taking Muslims to a concentration camp.

If there is one thing, I want people to learn from the Bosnian Genocide, it’s that there is no substitute for rational thinking and educating yourself. It’s easy to get swept up in the lies. The Serbs and the English believed the propaganda and most of them regret it now. It’s the age of technology and we have so many resources available to us. Make informed decisions based on moral compasses, not lies. Someone once said the voices of victims are the loudest, but that’s not always true. Victims don’t scream, you must actively listen to them to hear them and that’s the dangerous thing about war, usually the ones propagating the lies are loudest.

I was supposed to grow up and teach flute in Zenica, be married with children, and be surrounded by my family. It feels so odd to say it out loud.

I don’t think you ever stop being a refugee, there are always underlying tones reminding you of your experiences. Now, I’ve lived in the UK longer than I ever lived in Bosnia, and I consider it my home.

Peace is like health; we must look after it while we have it. Once it’s gone, it is impossible to get it back, at least not as it was. And we must never stop fighting for it. We must never take it for granted. I was supposed to grow up and teach flute in Zenica, be married with children, and be surrounded by my family. It feels so odd to say it out loud.

In my opinion, the reception we received when we arrived in the UK was much better than what refugees receive today, except for Ukrainians; they get help from the moment they set foot on UK soil.

The way refugees are portrayed has also deteriorated especially in the media coverage of the migrant crisis which clouds what people believe not only about refugees but immigration in general. When we arrived, people donated everything. There was a pile of clothes, and we even had a worst-dressed party one night in the large house in Scotland. We were lucky compared to refugees now.

When people initially become refugees, they are afraid because what they face is unknown. If you help people during that time, when their fear is the strongest, it’s the key to making life-long friends. That help is never forgotten. My mom asked me if I looked for Brian and Jane, the couple we moved in with after the manor house in Scotland. I know they moved to Australia, but we have lost touch with them. During that period, your heart remembers every look someone gives you because you’re in survival mode and constantly fearing more danger is coming. You remember it all, the good, the bad, the ugly, and the absolutely angelic.

~Meliha Avdic~