Lifestyle & Culture

Lilly Rosier: How the rise of nationalism destroyed my happy childhood and made me a refugee in Europe, Pt. 1

(Editor’s note: We asked Eindhoven-based expat journalist Lilly Rosier to write about her experiences as a refugee during the Bosnian War. We believe her two-part series should be required reading in this period of rising nationalism. If you don’t think it can happen here, read this.)

Refugees get a lot of bad press. Nobody, nowhere likes a foreigner without capital. I know … I was a refugee once. Growing up, I never thought I might become one; I wasn’t really familiar with the term.

I was born in, and grew up in, Sarajevo, the multi-ethnic capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the heart-shaped country in the southeast of Europe, once part of former Yugoslavia.


My childhood was happy and – dare I say – rather uneventful. Both my parents worked. During summer vacation we went to the seaside in Croatia, and during winter we played outside in the snow and skated on ice, initially on the streets.

After the Winter Olympics in 1984, when Torvil and Dean won gold for their Bolero performance, my friends and I started to go ice skating at the Olympic speed skating rink.

I have very fond memories of the year the Olympics came to Sarajevo. It was a strong winter with lots of snow. Many people were volunteering for the event. For probably the first time in my life I saw and met foreign people. There was a group of Russians who wandered into a play park where my friends and I were building an igloo and they took photographs of us.

We used to pack snow into cardboard boxes to make our ice bricks and then use these to build igloos big enough for a few of us to crawl in and sit inside.

It was so much fun.

There was never an emphasis on the cultural or religious differences that might exist between us children, all playing rather nicely together. We all spoke the same language; all ate more or less the same food; pretty much looked the same.

At school we were encouraged to explore our talents and to dream about the ways in which we can contribute to our society as we grew up.


I had a perception that the population I was part of was well educated, cultured and intelligent. My father wore a suit to work, my mother was a chef at the restaurant at the engineering firm where both my parents worked.

Visually, Sarajevo didn’t look like a tribal kind of environment that I used to associate with the countries at war outside of scope of the two World Wars. My childhood was no different of that of children of the same generation growing up in the United Kingdom or in France, according to my British and French friends.

The main difference perhaps is that I was born in a city infamous for the event that started the First World War: The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, during his visit to Sarajevo on 28 June 1914.

My secondary school was one tram stop before the tram stop at the Ottoman bridge over river Miljacka where the assassination took place in the historic part of the city.

Naturally, our school history lessons covered both the world wars very well. It was extremely boring. We had to memorize numerous battle dates, and the Bloody Fable (Krvava Bajka) poem was a compulsory reading. The poem reflected on a true event, the murder of a whole class of children in Croatia in 1941, a terrible atrocity that was going to make anyone reading it ensure such a scenario never played out again.


Living in peace was celebrated. It was wonderful. War was firmly confined to history books.

Or so I thought.


In 1991, the political climate changed. Slovenia and Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia and war broke out in Vukovar, Croatia.

I was a teenager at the time, studying arts and volunteering as an amateur journalist at the newly established TV Station Good Vibrations (Dobre Vibracije).

I used to meet our cameraman early in the morning, and we’d speak to people on the local streets or on the tram and then I’d go to school.

Despite the fact I was surrounded by news reporters, I couldn’t quite comprehend the political news from Croatia and thought this was merely some sort of a village feud and an isolated incident. I didn’t know the true scale of it as there was no Internet then.

In my mind there was no way something like that could happen in a city like Sarajevo.

How wrong I was.

About the author:

Lilly Rosier is business analyst, fine-arts lover, baker, wife and a mother who lives near Eindhoven, Netherlands

She’s passionate about travelling and always discovering new, great tasting vegetarian or vegan food.

Lilly’s secret to a happy life: “Spending time with a cat.”

See more of Lilly’s posts here.

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