Bosnia and Herzegovina / People / Travel

Indomitable: The Kids of Sarajevo

Children of Sarajevo Seige


Sarajevo Siege Life, Winter of 1992-1993.
“The children’s spontaneous joy in a fresh snowfall contrasts with the anxiety on the faces of the adults walking behind.”
–Christian Maréchal, Photographer

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?

Sarajevo_Children_BlueCar

Christian Maréchal via Wikimedia Commons

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.”

warchildhoodep5

Moving Forward
Once again we return to what we saw in the eyes of Sarajevo’s young adults, and two words sum it up. Cautious. Hope.

Sarajevo children

Christian Maréchal via Wikimedia Commons

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.”
–Skender Basic

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.”
–Christian Maréchal

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

sarajevo_siege_bullet_holed_window-1

“As I walked Sidika, my translator, home one afternoon a sniper narrowly missed us. Strangely, we continued at a walk, as if to run was to invite another shot.” –Christian Maréchal

Photo Credits: All photos by Christian Maréchal via Wikimedia Commons. Images courtesy of the “Childhood in War” project.

54 thoughts on “Indomitable: The Kids of Sarajevo

  1. Powerful images, Terri.

    Yes, one can only wonder.

    I wonder if the girls were home with their Mothers and got buried in the rubble of the bombed out areas? I wonder if the boys were the only ones brave enough to play in the streets.

    • Vicki, you may be on the right track. Someone also suggested that maybe the girls were camera shy. And since most of the victims were Muslim, maybe the girls were not encouraged or permitted to venture out. I’m hoping to hear from someone who was there that can enlighten us. All the best, Terri

  2. Moving images, and powerful story.

    When I worked at the Library in London, Ontario in the 90’s I had been having a horrid horrid day…I was at the circulation desk and it had been super busy. A family came up to the desk to signup for a library card…I had no idea where they were from, but I knew they were European. As I was filling in the information at our system computer I got to the part where it asked country of birth (or some such) and the Mother said Sarajevo…I looked again at the children by her side, and the husband with his protective arm around his family…and my day just did not seem to be so bad any longer. You could see it in their eyes…that haunted look, with a twinkle of hope.

    • Paula, what a wonderful story … it gave me chills! You never forget “that haunted look,” but it’s the “twinkle of hope” that endures. Thanks so much for sharing this beautiful, powerful image. All the best, Terri

    • Thank you Anita for your great comment. I think that these days we’re so bombarded with images of wars around the world that it’s easy to become desensitized to the human tragedy. But when I saw this photo of these joyous kids, almost triumphant in the snow, it really made me think about the circumstances they survived. ~Terri

  3. Great post, Terri. My mother was a survivor of war and a child refugee, and I believe she was haunted until the day she died. I saw an exhibition of Sarajevo war photos in Dubrovnik, and they were stunning. Hard to believe that the rest of the world doesn’t intervene when tragedies like this one unfold…

    • Thank you so much Ruth. I’m so sorry to hear about your mother. I guessing that’s where you inherited your indomitable spirit!

      I bet the photo exhibit was an eyeopener. I’ve continued to try to wrap my mind around the circumstances of the Bosnian War, where the locals had to hide behind the UN Peacekeeper’s tanks to cross “Sniper’s Alley.” I’ll probably never be able to fathom it.

  4. An incredibly touching post, Terri. Given our stable lives we’re tempted to think of war as something that happens far away, and often in the distant past, perhaps one or two generations before we even walked the earth. But even today it’s a horrific reality for millions around the world – we read about the events unfolding in Syria, and it’s heartbreaking that its people have to face what the Bosnians endured just two decades ago…

    • Thanks very much James. You’re so right – we grew up thinking war belonged to our parents and grandparents – not us! I guess for my generation, the events in Vietnam brought the message home, and the cascade of atrocities across the world has continued to flow over the years. Your compassion for the people of Syria is heartwarming, and your thoughtful, insightful words are alway appreciated. ~Terri

  5. It is depressing that we seem to learn nothing from these episodes other than how inhumanly we can treat each other, Terri. You can only be happy for kids like this who seem to have a normal childhood again. 🙂

  6. Thank you for your words of appreciation about the photographs, and for what you have written here about Sarajevo. The children created the snow shot. I was walking a street, they were playing in the snow, and when they saw my camera they spontaneously grouped together for a photograph. I’d seen two adults on their way to collect water, the woman pulling the a sled to transport the containers; but then I focused my attention on the children for the photograph. It was only much later, when I looked at the first print, that I saw the adults had walked into the shot. They were tense because after a few more yards they’d have to cross an intersection where they’d be exposed to snipers.

    I don’t know what happened to the children in the pictures you have chosen.

    • Christian, we are so pleased and honored to hear from you. When I discovered your beautiful, moving Sarajevo photos on Wikimedia Commons I was bowled over. You captured everything – fear, joy, determination and innocence. So powerful. You truly demonstrated the impact of black and white photography.

      Thank you for the additional background information on the snow shot. Now I know why the adults looked so tense. The kids reminded me of photos from my childhood, but without the threat of snipers around the corner.

      While researching the post I came across the article featuring you in the Monterey County Weekly. What an incredible life you are leading. Leaving London for Sarajevo was quite a leap … especially into a war zone.

      Again, thank you Christian. You certainly made my day. I plan to do an update to the post featuring additional information on you and the snow shot. I would love to know more about the other two photos if you are so inclined, or if you could suggest other photos to feature.

      Happy New Year. Wishing you all the best, Terri

      • No doubt! I’ve seen some interesting movies about the war there… I think it was terribly overlooked by the world, even as we all gaped in horror. Your post really shines a light on their spirit.

  7. Such tragedy and such hope as you tell of the young boy now grown and in law school. Sincere congratulations on being Freshly Pressed for this post. Truly well deserved.

    • Sue, we can’t thank you enough! You’ve been such a fantastic supporter of ours and we want you to know how much we appreciate all your encouragement and kind words. All the best, Terri & James

      • I’m so grateful to both of you for all of the kindness and support you have shown me during this past year. Not only do you have an excellent blog, obviously WordPress thinks so too, but you are incredible mentors in the blogging community. You are most welcome for any encouragement I can offer. Keep writing and exploring you too. I’m loving it!

  8. These are truly amazing photos. Even though there have been many films made with performances by many talented actors, their expressions can never match those of real people in real situations. Every emotion is clearly outlined on their faces, beyond imitation, words or music, This is Real Life. Let us take note of it.

  9. Is very deeply mooving! That post make me think that we are lucky to havinh a normal childhood.They don’t and I hope one day the war will stop in every side of the whole world!

    • Thank you very much. Like you, I had a good childhood and know how lucky I was. But as for children who live in a war zone, how tragic. I agree with you – hopefully one day we will have a world without war. I am so glad that you stopped by and truly appreciate your thoughtful comment. All the best, Terri

  10. Fantastic post. Reading this takes me back to my time in Balkans during this period. Sarajevo is the commonly known touchstone for these times, but sad to say that while the most reported, it was a story repeated in other areas of Bosnia and Croatia. Sarajevo did, however, have a unique savagery.

    • Many, many thanks. I would love to read about your time in Balkans, and I imagine your photos are stunning, as always. Have you written about your experiences? Interesting point about Sarajevo becoming the touchstone – do you think that’s because of the Olympics? Your sentence, “Sarajevo did, however, have a unique savagery,” has given me pause for thought. What a powerful point! Thanks again. ~Terri

  11. The quality of curating you’re doing here – the photos, your words, the back story with Christian… it’s just terrific. Thank you. I had no idea about the snipers. It’s unbearable that people had to steel themselves against possible death just to get water.

    • Jennie, your words of encouragement mean so much to us. Many thanks. It’s funny how projects like this just start with a notion. One night, over a glass of wine, James and I were discussing our Sarajevo experiences, comparing notes. We both noticed that older people rarely made eye contact with us, but young adults would look at us directly, often returning a hesitant smile. That discussion lead down a research path that resulted in these posts. You just never know where inspiration may strike – in this case it was eye contact. Have you already started your graduate program? ~Terri

    • It is amazing that there are always conflicts around the world. I try to remind myself of all the countries that are now at peace to balance out those that just don’t seem to be able to reconcile their differences. Hope springs eternal. 🙂 ~Terri

  12. Such a great post I had to read it again! And who doesn’t want to look at these pics one more time. There really is hope and the innocence of childhood here. You can’t rub that out! Congratulations on being selected for Freshly Pressed. Well-deserved, of course. We think you two set the bar on quality blogging! Keep on keepin’ on!

    • So many thanks Rusha for those kind words. I told Christian that the first photo looked like something out of The Little Rascals (not sure if they got that TV show in the UK) or one of James’ photos from childhood – without the threat of snipers, of course. I love your phrase, “You can’t rub that out!” So true. We’ll be keepin’ on thanks to encouragement from wonderful folks like you. 🙂 ~Terri

  13. A heartrendingly beautiful post. Your evocative words brought the stark reality of Christians photos to life. And the thought of thousands more around the world still facing similar circumstances is horrifying.

    • We thank you so much Madhu for your generous words. I remember your very moving post “Why” about the Killing Fields of Cambodia when you talked about the country’s “descent into hell.” Your words always stuck with me, particularly when I consider the lack of compassion often displayed toward these war-torn regions. After Bosnia, I vowed to pay attention. All the best, Terri

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  15. Touching photographs of Sarajevo children, sad that in 20 years someone can organise similar exhibition of Kids in Doneck, Ukraine (hope not Russia) or many other places in the world. Unfortunately war is nor only a thing of our fathers and grandfathers.

    • Thank you. I agree that Christian’s photos are very touching. He seems to have the eye for capturing the perfect moment … and that can’t be easy in wartime with snipers. You’re right, it’s too bad that the lessons from our fathers and grandfathers were not heeded. Thanks so much for stopping by and making an excellent comment. All the best, Terri

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