(Editor’s note:We asked Eindhoven-based expat journalist Lilly Rosier to write about her experiences as a refugee during the Bosnian War. This is Part 2 of a two-part series. This post picks up from Part 1 in 1991 just after the Yugoslav War had broken out and nationalism was sweeping Yugoslavia.)
I still remember watching with my parents on a TV some political party event that took place in Zetra, Sarajevo’s Olympic indoor ice-skating rink which was also used as a concert hall. I can’t remember the speaker’s name or which party he belonged to and I don’t remember what was said exactly but I do remember, very well, the audience reaction.
At first the speaker was booed quite strongly and I agreed with the sentiment for he was promoting evil nationalist ideologies. Then, as he continued to speak, the audience started giving their approval and by the time he finished, he got a standing ovation.
I remember staring at the TV screen, startled, in quiet disbelief, observing the herd behaviour like I have never observed before. The cultured, intelligent population I thought lived in Sarajevo accepted the evil narrative. Just like that.
I think that was the first time I felt a little uneasy about the whole situation. Nonetheless, I still firmly believed that the war is not coming to Sarajevo. This must have been a minority. The majority was better than that. We were immune to hatred. What was there to hate?
A PEACEFUL CITY UNTIL THE KILLING STARTED
I had no reason to hate anyone and I thought nobody had a reason to hate me.
My school took part in the March for Peace in Croatia. Hare Krishna people joined and shared with us their delicious vegan cakes. We all marched to the theatre square where at the end of the protest, we watched the projection of movie “Hair”:
This is the age of Aquarius.. Harmony and understanding…et al ….
That was us in essence, Sarajevan people. How did I get it so wrong? The next rally for peace saw 100,000 people of all nationalities taking to streets, the event culminating with people gathered in front of the parliament building.
I was at work at the time, not far from where this was taking place. The next thing I know we were being fired at. I seem to remember that one of our team members pointed at something whilst standing close to the window and that an assumption was made he was armed. We crawled swiftly into the back studio as the announcement went on to say that we were shot at and that we are OK.
Walking home later, I never remember the streets being so deserted, so eerie My parents didn’t say a word when I got back.
The mortar massacre in front of the bakery where I used to buy my school lunch ensued, and not many days after that my mother, who was a healthy and, at face value, happy and positive person, died a few minutes after going to sleep.
The doctor said this was a very common, clinically known, side-effect of wars; fear induced brain hemorrhage. It was happening all over the city.
My world changed in that instant, forever.
A NARROW ESCAPE
The next thing I know I was leaving Sarajevo on a bus, with a woman my Dad had met few days earlier. My Dad had to borrow money to buy me a bus ticket, which was no longer a regularly priced bus ticket.
Despite that, it appeared I was not on the list of people with a ticket. My guardian made sure, by instilling the fear of God in whoever was in charge of the list that I was with her on that bus and so we departed.
I was carrying very few belongings. The bus stop from which we departed was mortared shortly after. At the newly established entry/exit point
from the city, we were stopped by bearded gunmen. Beards weren’t in fashion then so this was quite a scary sight.
They examined our IDs and ordered everyone other than older women and children to get out. I wasn’t a child but technically not a grown-up either so I was allowed to stay on the bus.
The journey to Croatia took an extremely long time. The bus driver was not driving on the roads I remember my Dad driving when we went on holiday. My guardian spent her time counting rosary beads and praying. We eventually reached the border with Croatia only to find out that the border was officially closed; there was a refugee camp being set up and we were all having to register as refugees.
It didn’t seem to matter that I was on my way to stay with my extended family in Croatia. The intent of the Croatian officials was to divert the refugees to other neighbouring countries.
Fortunately for me, my guardian had connections close to the border in Croatia. She made a phone call and shortly after that an army-owned 4×4 turned up to collect the two of us. We were taken to some army camp somewhere in the hills of Herzegovina, the army fed us and then sent us across the border with some of their soldiers.
I can still feel the tears of relief I cried upon entering Croatia. I was alive, the mission my Dad set to accomplish to save my life was successful.
A REFUGEE AT 17
So I was officially a refugee, even though I was living with my extended family, in a country I have always thought of and still think of as home. I had, then, not yet processed the meaning of my newly acquired label. That came a lot later along with greater understanding of the everlasting negative effect of politician’s narrative that is “us vs. them.”
Despite everything I was convinced this would blow over and I’d be back after summer, in time to start my final year of secondary school. The siege of Sarajevo lasted 1,425 days, until 29 February 1996.
More than 10,000 adults and 1,601 children were killed.
I never returned to live in Sarajevo.
My experience is insignificant in comparison to those who lost their entire families; survived concentration camps, starvation and torture; those who were specifically targeted for ethnic cleansing; the wounded and the medical personnel who healed the wounded; those who had to join the military and, in order to survive themselves, kill people they were previously friends with – kill families that looked like their families because their ethnicity was different.
The ultimate manifestation of “us vs. them”. In the heart of south east Europe, in the early 90’s.
I only got shot at once, and only a couple of grenades hit the apartment building my family lived in. I lost the most important person in my life, my mother. Life was never going to be the same again.
For anyone out there in the world hating refugees, what did you do at the age of 17?
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.”