Sarajevo: Memories of war

Tina Smalcelj was just a child during the siege of Sarajevo, but the events of that time shaped her young life.

Sarajevo Portrait -Tina Smalcelj [DO NOT USE]
Tina Smalcelj and her sister left Sarajevo after the violence there escalated in 1992 [Tina Smalcelj/Al Jazeera]

Tina Smalcelj still lives in Dobrinja, Sarajevo, not far from the hospital where she was born, a month prematurely, in January 1986. It was the middle of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s frigid winter and several years before the siege of the city.

That would start in 1992, when Tina had just turned six.

Her words are measured, but her voice is melodic as she remembers that time.

She begins to unravel her rich Balkan heritage. Her mother is parts Croatian, Czech and Slovenian; her estranged father is of Hungarian and Slovenian origin. She now holds Bosnian and Croatian passports.

As a young child, oblivious to the political rhetoric heating up in the former communist country, she enjoyed an idyllic lifestyle. Her days were spent riding her bike and playing with her older sister and other children in front of their beige brick apartment building.

At the weekends, the girls would visit their aunt in a nearby borough, while the summer months were spent in Vojvodina, the fertile territory in northern Serbia, with their paternal grandmother.

Tina’s father, an officer in the Yugoslav army, was away for most of their childhood, stationed in various places across the Balkans. She doesn’t have many memories of him being at home, but she recalls the stories of his infidelities.

“I don’t remember missing my dad,” she says. In fact, the family of three women enjoyed their time without him. Their mother, Maria, would dote on them, and life was good.

“No one was expecting war,” Tina says.

But by the beginning of the 1990s things had started to change.

Tina, left, with her grandmother, uncle and sister on a visit to Vojvodina [Tina Smalcelj/Al Jazeera]
Tina, left, with her grandmother, uncle and sister on a visit to Vojvodina [Tina Smalcelj/Al Jazeera]

Yugoslavia was crumbling; the republics wanted their independence. Referendums were held and protests erupted in the cities and towns of the now former-Yugoslavia. Tensions grew, deepening the rifts between the region’s various ethnic and religious groups; dividing friends and even families.

Neighbours began to whisper about the wisdom of stocking up on supplies. 

“They told us strange things, like it would be good to buy 100kg of flour to keep it at home just in case,” Tina remembers.

Everyone started preparing for war.

A distant relative, who was at the time a Serbian police officer, berated Tina’s mother for not preparing for the violence that was surely to come.

“I have this memory of a bomb wrapped in a napkin,” she says, recalling how the relative brought out a white cloth and gently peeled back the layers to reveal the grenade within.

Alarmed at the sight of something so dangerous, her mother took the children out of the house.

“My mum thought war would never come to Sarajevo,” Tina says.

READ MORE: Dayton Accords: 20 years of precarious peace in Bosnia 

Born and raised in the city, Tina’s mother had lived through Yugoslavia’s golden age as part of the communist upper class. Sarajevo was a cultural hub and Maria spent her days with painters and musicians.

By the time she was 20 she was earning a decent wage working as a professor at the military academy and had an apartment of her own.

Maria belonged to Sarajevo: She was taught to give to her city and that it, in turn, would provide for her.

But the Yugoslavia Tina’s mother knew, and the Sarajevo she loved, was about to change.

On March 3, 1992, Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence.

1992 – A sniper’s bullet

It was the morning and Tina and her sister were playing in front of their building with some other children when bullets suddenly ricocheted around them. Snipers stationed on a nearby hill had fired at them.

“No one was hurt,” she says, adding: “I suppose they were practising.”

That night Tina’s mother pulled her queen size mattress from her bed and for the next few days the family slept in the wide, wooden floored hallway of their apartment, far from any windows that might have been a target for more “practising” snipers. 

Still, their mother appeared calm, Tina remembers. These were days of protest and increasing violence but, she assured them, it surely wouldn’t last long. After all, the war in nearby Slovenia had lasted just 10 days.

Then the barricades appeared, strategically sectioning off parts of the city and guarded by what Tina presumes were volunteer Serb paramilitary groups.

Her mother, working at that time as a proofreader for the Yugoslav army, would rely on little more than persuasive words to pass through the gates guarded by the heavily armed men, their faces hidden behind Balaclavas.

“She would get in her little red Yugo Koral car and make [the men] move them so she could go,” Tina recalls.

A Bosnian man pushing a cart rushes for cover while crossing a street exposed to snipers' fire on October 10, 1992, in Sarajevo [Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images]
A Bosnian man pushing a cart rushes for cover while crossing a street exposed to snipers’ fire on October 10, 1992, in Sarajevo [Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images]

But after the girls’ close call with a sniper’s bullets, Maria knew it was time to get her children out of the city.

On April 14, she packed their clothes and took them to the military airport where she worked.

“She put us on the last helicopter [carrying civilians] leaving Sarajevo and sent us to Belgrade, where our aunt was living,” Tina says.

Her memory of that helicopter flight is clear and filled with the sounds of shots being fired into the air around them and the nauseating smell of kerosene from a tank that was being transported with them.

When they landed in Belgrade, they found bearded men in leather coats pacing through the military base there, the metal inserts in the soles of their boots clanging against the concrete floors, sending fear through the fleeing families with every step. These were, after all, the paramilitary fighters about whom they had heard so much – none of it pleasant. 

After two days at their aunt’s house, the sisters went to their grandmother’s farm near the Hungarian border. They would stay there for the next few months, eating well, walking barefoot through the grass and tending to the animals. 

It was a tranquil existence and, whenever she could, their mother would sneak out of Sarajevo, bribing the paramilitary guards at the roadblocks with homemade rakia, to see them.

The second time she came, it was almost winter, and the girls, their mother and grandmother were sitting inside when the doorbell rang. 

Standing on the threshold was their father – the man to whom Maria was still married but long since separated. He was wearing a Yugoslav army uniform. At his side was a woman who was pregnant with his child and her young son.

He seemed different to how Tina remembered him.

Although of Hungarian-Slovenian origin, the strength of Slobodan Milosevic’s rhetoric appealed to him. He had renounced Catholicism, been baptised Orthodox and changed his name from Robert to Vukasin, a Serbian name.

Tina and her sister with her father after he returned from Kosovo; after this photo the girls and their mother lost track of him [Tina Smalcelj/Al Jazeera]
Tina and her sister with her father after he returned from Kosovo; after this photo the girls and their mother lost track of him [Tina Smalcelj/Al Jazeera]

Tina can’t remember all the details from this time. “I think it’s a coping mechanism,” she laughs. But, that night, the two families slept in the same house.

The next day, Tina’s mother returned to Sarajevo. And, shortly after, Vukasin took Tina and her sister to live with him and his new partner. 

But their stepmother wasn’t exactly happy to have them there. She kept a close eye on the girls, punishing them often and banning them from visiting their grandmother together.

Their father worked several jobs and was hardly ever home.

Tina recalls how, on her seventh birthday, her mother sent her a large box of sweets from Sarajevo. Her stepmother hid them and then, each day, would call her son to eat one of them in front of her.

“He would come into the room and eat sweets … my sweets while we would sit down and watch him do it,” Tina says.

1993 – A bottle of beer and the loss of hope

But Tina’s mother had been determinedly working at securing a job transfer so that she could be reunited with her girls. She eventually was able to get a divorce from Vukasin and secure a work transfer to Belgrade.

Tina and her sister went to live with her at the air force barracks.

Initially built as a military academy for pilots, the barracks had a series of apartment blocks to accommodate them. Tina, her mother and sister moved into a 7sq-metre room in a green building that was reserved for low-ranking army personnel.

Life there was compartmentalised and regimented. Showers were scheduled and communal toilets shared with other families.

The camp walls were covered with barbed wire and soldiers watched their every move.

But the children found joy in the smallest of things. They were able to play long into the night and ate apricots from the surrounding trees. And they were safe; cared for by young pilots who missed their own families.

Tina with friends at a birthday party in the barracks in Belgrade [Tina Smalcelj/Al Jazeera]
Tina with friends at a birthday party in the barracks in Belgrade [Tina Smalcelj/Al Jazeera]

But their mother didn’t feel the same. She longed for home and was slowly sinking into a state of depression. She found respite in small pleasures, such as the bottles of beer she sometimes bought with a fistful of notes from the local store.

Tina recalls how, one day, her mother opened the freezer to get a bottle she had put there earlier, only to find that the bottle had cracked, spilling its contents. An old Croatian song, whose lyrics recalled a lost home, played on the radio in the background. 

For Tina’s mother, it was the final blow. She stared at the bottle and cried.

“It was like there was never going to be hope again,” Tina recalls.

The woman who had managed to negotiate her way in and out of a warzone had finally cracked. She turned to her daughters and said: “If I die before we go home, have me cremated and throw my ashes around Sarajevo when you are able.”

All they could do was stand and watch as she seemed to crumble before them.

1996 – ‘Happy again’

After the Dayton Peace Accords were signed on December 14, 1995, bringing an end to the war, Tina’s mother took them back home.

It had been years since the girls had seen Sarajevo. But this was not the Sarajevo they remembered.

They took a bus from Belgrade to the outskirts of the city. But no cars were allowed in, they were told, so they walked the rest of the way

“You walked through the city.” She pauses. “You walked through the remains of the city.”

Laying there in the now silent streets were the remnants of war: sandbags and overturned cars. The familiar barricades were still there, cutting through neighbourhoods, but now they were unguarded. Walls were riddled with bullet holes.

“Sniper’s Alley was still there but nobody was shooting,” she says, referring to the main boulevard that had become infamous for being lined with snipers. 

For Tina, the war was still present in Sarajevo, like the smell of gunfire after a bullet has been shot.

READ MORE: Bosnia: Divided country, divided media?

“Even after the Dayton Peace Agreement, people didn’t believe the war would stop. They didn’t believe it would be the end,” she says.

“[But for me it] meant I was leaving home and going [to another] home.”

For Tina, who, as a child, was still unable to grasp the full extent of the political upheaval and violence that had occurred in the longest siege of a single city, there was now hope of a return to the simplicities of everyday life.

“It meant my life was changing,” she says. “It meant we could have a dignified life … [and] it meant my mum would be happy again.”

Tina with her mother in 1994 in Belgrade [Tina Smalcelj/Al Jazeera]
Tina with her mother in 1994 in Belgrade [Tina Smalcelj/Al Jazeera]

Follow Maria Jan on Twitter: @Maria2727

Source: Al Jazeera