Isn’t it amazing how a photo can rivet your attention? This powerful image by Christian Maréchal captured a life-affirming moment in Sarajevo’s history. Our immediate thought was, How many of these kids survived?
They say, “Write what you know.” And if that’s the case, we shouldn’t even be writing this. We are not children of a gruesome war fought on home turf. We haven’t dodged sniper bullets or watched as our city was systematically reduced to rubble.
But on a recent trip to Sarajevo, we saw something in the eyes of young adults – survivors of the Bosnian War – and wanted to know more. Their eyes carried the haunted wariness, yearning to trust, that we had seen before when we lived in Khartoum, Sudan – the faces of refugee children from South Sudan and Eritrea.
The Siege of Sarajevo
In 1984 the world turned its rapt attention to Sarajevo, Yugoslavia for the XIV Olympic Winter Games. Life was full of hope and promise. Who would have predicted the death and destruction to come in less than a decade.
When Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, an unparalleled military action began against Sarajevo. For nearly four years the Bosnian War raged, and from 1992 to 1996 the city suffered the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. In addition to routine bombings, snipers were stationed in the mountains surrounding the city with their rifles trained on the infamous “Sniper Alley.”
During the siege, 11,541 people lost their lives,
including over 1,500 children.
An additional 56,000 people were wounded,
including nearly 15,000 children.
–Cherif Bassiouni, United Nations Commission of Experts
So, what happened to the children that survived this terrible onslaught?
Dire Predictions and Survivor Memories
Midway into the siege, the U.N. Children’s Fund issued an alarming report warning that the “bombardment of Sarajevo has created a community of suicidal children who have grown convinced they have no future.”
Yet many Sarajevo children did survive – either by their wits – or sheer luck. Other families fled the country to safety elsewhere. But the memories remained.
And it was those memories that 24 year-old Jasminko Halilovic wanted to capture when he launched the project “Childhood in War.” He invited childhood survivors of the Sarajevo Siege, from all over the world, to share their memories. He received over 1,000 responses from 38 countries, and said, “Even though this is a book about the war, I believe it is an anti-war book.”
Once again we return to what we saw in the eyes of Sarajevo’s young adults, and two words sum it up. Cautious. Hope.
Given the circumstances, these twenty-somethings could be terribly jaded … but they’re not. For example, take Skender Basic (pronounced Bah-shich), whose wartime photo as a cherubic toddler gazing out a Sarajevo window made him the poster boy for the Siege. Now he’s 23 and enrolled in law school to launch a career in criminal law.
When interviewed by Radio Free Europe, he said he regards his city with a mix of affection and impatience, noting its reputation for corruption. He doesn’t rule out the possibility that war may return, but he will not abandon his city.
“I plan to stay. When you succeed in Sarajevo, it’s pretty good.
And the war thing, it will come eventually, but I don’t think soon.”
But after looking at these arresting photos, one question still remains. Where are all the girls?
Update April 7, 2014:
In January we received an email from out of the blue. Although we recognized the name, we couldn’t believe our eyes. It was from a man we’ve never met, but admire immensely.
“Thank you for your words of appreciation about the photographs,
and for what you have written here about Sarajevo.”
We were gobsmacked – and thrilled. He was referring to this post, written after we returned from Bosnia and Herzegovina. What you may not know is that Christian Maréchal helped us bring the story to life. Here’s the backstory.
Peace and Tolerance,
Terri and James