Elma’s choice

By Zubeida Mustafa

It was April 6, 1992, Eid for the Muslims of Bosnia, when the Yugoslav army struck. The Serbian soldiers had been taking up position on the hills surrounding Sarajevo since winter and we sensed that something out of the ordinary was taking place. However, we never really anticipated a war. Yugoslavia was a multi-ethnic society but we had never been conscious of our ethnic distinctiveness. Many of my friends were Serbs and Croats with whom I had grown up, and none of us believed that we would fight each other.

When the war came, it was not really an ethnic war. Neither was religion an issue. Under Communism, the Muslims, as well as the Christians, could not practise their faith openly. Hence our parents like many others, never taught their children about religion. They didn’t want to confuse us.

There had been tension and rumours were rife. Kosovo, Croatia, Slovenia had seen fighting, but the Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats and Bosnians in Bosnia were closely knit and war seemed so remote, at least to me. We didn’t know about the Greater Serbia plan Milosevic had been drawing up.

”When the Yugoslav army attacked, we were shocked beyond belief. I remember being glued to the TV watching the unarmed students marching towards the bridge across the River Miljacka, which separated the city from the hills. Suddenly the shooting started and a young medical student fell dead. She became the first Bosnian victim of the war. Then came the explosions and the firing. The war had started.

Sarajevo was under siege and the people were under attack. We were always haunted by the fear of death. People were being killed and one didn’t know who would be the next victim. Bloodstained streets became a common sight for us. Friends were struck by snipers’ bullets and died before our eyes. Going to the university was an ordeal. It involved an hour’s walk through sniper fire — petrol was a luxury only for senior administrators of the city. The biggest act of kindness to me in those days was being offered a lift by someone in a car — it cut short the time of exposure to the bullets.

We knew that if we tried to create some semblance of normality in our lives it would help us stay sane. Hence this effort to keep up university life, even though most of the faculty had gone. But those who were there went out of their way to help by teaching us and lending their own books to us. The schools were kept going by setting up small classes in sheltered spots in every locality so that the children did not have to go out and get exposed to the snipers. It was the teacher who took the risk and walked miles to reach the children in an improvised school. Yet most people were so gripped by fear and depression that they simply refused to leave their basements where they spent their time round the clock.

To make matters worse, there was no electricity or heating for months at a stretch. The first winter (in 1992) we just burnt whatever we could lay our hands on – even our summer shoes and clothes because it was so cold that it was difficult to believe that the weather would change again to warm our shivering bodies. There was so little food to eat that we were starving and people shriveled away. Whenever the humanitarian aid arrived, it brought hope of more food.

The physical hardship and the constant feeling of fear apart, the worst aspect of the war was that it robbed people of their self-esteem. It was degrading and dehumanizing. It was humiliating to line up for food to be doled out. With the economy totally shattered, no one was paid for the work he did. Yet we continued working because it kept us functional. By focusing on our survival, we could keep ourselves going.

It might seem strange to the outside world, but the fact is that for us in Sarajevo this was a war to save our city. We were Sarajevans first and Bosnians or Bosnians Serbs or Bosnian Croats later. That is why it was a multi ethnic group, which defended the city. There were cases of a Bosnian Serb fighting his own brother in the Yugoslav army. It was a sense of ‘belongingness’ we all felt for Sarajevo.”

Once the war started and the battle lines were drawn, I never wanted to leave. I could have gone away and made a comfortable life for myself in the West. But I knew it would have created moral dilemmas for me which I would never have resolved. Besides I knew that we were not fighting an ethnic war. The war was not against the Bosnian Serbs. There were many Bosnian Serbs on our side too and they fought alongside us. They shared our rage when we discovered that the attacks were directed against the children. How could I go away? I had to stay back and defend the city and help the children survive the trauma. I am proud of my people who survived the horrors of the war and continue to be functional.

Elma visited Pakistan in 2001. She was participating in a seminar organized by Dr Arshad Husain, a psychiatrist at Missouri University, who led a trauma team from his faculty on 23 trips to Bosnia to train mental health workers and teachers to help children deal with the tragedy and trauma of war.

Source: Dawn (The Review, November 22, 2001 )