Bosnia To Australia — Lessons In Healing
By Gordon WeissFebruary 8, 2012
Refugees from the wreckage of what once was Yugoslavia carry their memories delicately as they find a peaceful life in Australia.
Adnana Aliskovic saunters fresh off the sand into a Newcastle, NSW, cafe, a salted and tanned 27-year-old, a portrait of youthful nonchalance. Her Italian-born Australian air force husband, Simone, remains grim as he listens to the quiet account he's heard before from this dark-eyed young woman with too dark a past. Her smile, flickering like a candle, belies her ghosts.
Just seven years in Australia, she exudes belonging in the land in which their two young daughters were born. "This was the first place I felt I could breathe," she says. "Here, I'm just me. They want you to grow up with this hate, this legacy they left you. But I can't." On July 20 1992, Adnana was a seven-year-old child when "they" — Bosnian Serb militiamen — arrived in her village of Rakovčani, in Bosnia's north. Through a cellar window she watched her father in the street being beaten about the head with a rifle. When he lifted himself from the ground, he was marched away by Serb militiamen in a column of other men, aged 13 to 70, "cleansed" from other villages in the district. "When I was little, they called me 'poor orphan.'"
Her mother collected bloodied identity cards and photos left in the wake of the procession, thinking the men would need them when they returned. But days later, the cleansing enveloped the rest of her family. Infants, the elderly and women trudged into captivity. Her mother tried to shield Adnana's eyes from bloated bodies they passed in the fields. Crammed into the back of a truck, she begged for air and water. In the Trnopolje concentration camp, "men were on the other side of the wire, their eyes were lifeless, a horrible smell everywhere. You are so afraid that you are there, but not there. We had to cover up, and I didn't know why, but they were taking women away."
For a year, Yugoslavia had been split and apportioned by warring armies as surely as a piece of fruit. When Yugoslavia's strongman Josip Broz Tito died in 1980, the country's political class quickly dissolved the two generations of peaceful coexistence that had prevailed since 1945. Gone was the tough outer skin of the authoritarian socialist creed that had bound the country's fractious people into a nation of constituent republics with one of the highest standards of living in Europe. Instead, Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia's people tumbled into the chaos of atrocity and revenge, fired by the embers of past conflicts.
But it was overwhelmingly in Bosnia that villages imploded, as people were set upon by neighbours with whom they had played as children. In 1937, the writer Rebecca West wrote that the jagged peaks surrounding Sarajevo seemed like the petals of a blossoming flower. Now, Serb units from the Yugoslav army, guarantor of national unity, laid siege from those peaks and began the bombardment and sniping that would last for four years. The city's torment was covered by a generation of foreign reporters who died alongside children fetching bread, the elderly queuing for water, and women in search of milk.
In the countryside, intent on a Bosnian Serb republic of their own, Serb militias spurred the flight of Muslims with a long series of notorious massacres. The extermination squads moved from village, to hamlet, to whole towns. Families were shot dead inside their homes. Ranks of civilians had their throats cut, or were dropped from bridges into Bosnia's turquoise rivers. Those who couldn't flee were herded into hundreds of concentration centres, where they were starved, tortured and murdered, and where women were systematically raped and humiliated.
ON A MARCH morning in 1993, seven gaunt and scarred Balkan men stepped from a Qantas jet onto Australian soil. They handed their refugee papers to Sydney immigration officials, gathered their bags, and were driven with their wives and children to a reception centre in the western suburbs of Sydney. Far from the civil war that had shattered the mosaic of their country, they watched the canvas of their new lives unfolding beyond the windows of the bus, and thought of the trail of dead and trapped left behind along with the other pieces of their former world.
To 37-year-old Dzevad Harambasic, a Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) engineer from the town of Prijedor in Bosnia's north, the pale skies, eucalypts and bleak monotony of the arterial King Georges Road that drew them into the heartland of Sydney's west was the last step of a bitter journey. For six months of the previous year, trapped behind the barbed wire of the notorious Omarska and Manjaca concentration camps along with thousands of Croats and Bosniaks, he had watched Bosnian Serb business associates, teenage neighbours and policemen bludgeon, stab and burn to death other men and women he knew equally well.
"Every moment was a surprise, not real," he says from his home in Berala, in Sydney's west, in a tone that rings with disbelief. It was June 20, 1992, when the Serb militia came knocking in Prijedor. "I was wearing a suit," he says. "They asked me to go to the police station." The owner of a photocopy shop, he thought that they wanted him to refill copy machines with toner; then he was shunted into a garage. "Later I realised the cells upstairs must've been full. There were others in the garage, one man beaten and swollen lying on the floor. And a Serbian woman who kept saying, 'What's wrong if I'm friends with Muslims?'"
He was driven to Omarska, a former mine. Harambasic wryly contrasts the warehouse into which he and hundreds were crammed as "a hotel room" compared with other sections of the camp. "We at least had a tap, and then I discovered the healing qualities of water. A sportsman was brought back, a huge man, beaten and bloody, unrecognisable, but with water we could restore him. But the fourth time they took him, he didn't return." Although hundreds perished, and thousands were never accounted for, thousands more captives were released when the camps were exposed by foreign correspondents. After six months imprisonment, Harambasic was freed and selected for re-settlement to Australia with his wife and two young children.
When the world woke to the enormity of Europe's fresh bloodletting, UN Security Council Resolution 827 in May 1993 established the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. More than 100,000 people died in Bosnia's civil war. Political and military henchmen of the foundling Republika Srpska, such as Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic and the 'Iron Lady' Biljana Plavsic, would eventually find their historical project dissected in the trial chambers of the ICTY. Painstakingly drawn from survivor testimony and evidence unearthed by forensic pathologists from Bosnia's mass graves and mine pits after the war ended in 1995, judges ruled that genocide formed the guts of the defendants' ambitions.
Adnana's family was exchanged for Serbian prisoners after less than a week in Trnopolje. They washed up in Sweden as refugees, before Adnana found her way to Canberra in 2005 and met Simone. A month later, her mother phoned to tell her that they had found her father. "I didn't want them to find him, because that was the end of my hope," Adnana says. Adnana's DNA had been matched with bones from a mass grave of 360 bodies unearthed a dozen kilometres from her village. Her 35-year-old father, Izet, had been killed four days after his arrest, in Keraterm concentration camp, when Bosnian Serb militiamen threw gas into the notorious Room 3, packed with prisoners, and opened fire. Traces of his pullover with a deer figure — "He hated it, but my mother made him wear it" — had shrouded his corpse for a decade.
Since the first trial in 1994, the ICTY has indicted 161 soldiers, generals and politicians from the countries of the former Yugoslavia. The trial process is the most significant international criminal process since the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. The ICTY says that it has strengthened the rule of law, punished criminals, provided justice to the families of victims, and established a historical record of crimes including the mass killing of 8,000 men and boys at Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia in 1995.
But Dzemal Hadzismajlovic, a Sydney scientist trapped in Australia when the war broke out is critical of the ICTY trials. "It's unbelievable that it's so easy to kill so many people, and it's so hard to sentence the killers. The trials in The Hague have lasted five times as long as the war. Seventy per cent of people in Serbia still deny that Srebrenica happened."
Today, Bosnia teeters on the edge of incipient ethnic conflict, despite an internationally brokered peace process that ended the war in 1995, US and European troops enforcing peace, and billions of foreign-aid dollars. Its people trudge dutifully to voting booths and elect leaders along ethnic lines, hardening the boundaries established by ethnic cleansing.
Originally from the Prijedor region, Refik Hodzic was a former spokesman for the ICTY in the Hague. He now works for the International Centre for Transitional Justice, a New York-based organisation that wrestles with the problems facing societies emerging from conflict. "We know the details of what happened, only because of the ICTY," he says. Hodzic spent years in Australia and New Zealand, where he has family, and compares the ICTY's detailed evaluation of the events of the Yugoslav wars, and the centrality of establishing an historical record, with Australia's search for reconciliation with the Aboriginal people.
"Tragically, Bosnia has so much to teach societies about the past," says Hodzic. "During the Second World War, there was a major massacre of Serbs in my area by Croats and Muslims. When my uncles and cousins were taken to Omarksa by their neighbours in 1992, my uncles asked them, 'Why are you doing this?' This boy said, 'This is for 1941.' But neither him, nor my cousins or uncles were born in 1941. This is the tragedy." Tito's Yugoslavia whitewashed the past as it built a unified nation. "If you ignore justice, inevitably you will slide back into conflict."
Hodzic believes that the Australian government's eventual apology to its indigenous peoples was in Australia's best interests for similar reasons. "[You] fully accept everything that happened, not in a mea culpa way, but as brothers, as a part of your own fibre. Poor us, you are me. You embrace the drunken, violent, broken communities as you would your own brother. This is reconciliation, this is justice for everybody." Hodzic says that although the Nuremberg trials were deeply flawed, the allied victory over Germany left no doubt as to what had happened in the concentration camps.
"But in Bosnia, the same politicians are in power, practising the same politics of division," says Hodzic. "So the question is, what reality do you prefer? Then you ask the ultimate question: What are you ready to do about it, for your children? And that is where we come to the past. You have to contribute; if you live next to a mass grave, and you never report it so that hundreds of people can bury their loved ones, what do you expect? Somebody knocking on the door of your son in 40 or 50 years time and asking, 'What the fuck did your family do to mine?'"
More than 20 people from Adnana's family were killed during the war. "Sometimes I get hatred, and it boils. But where do you draw the line?" she asks. "The one who beat my father? The guy who was guarding outside the camp? I am one of the few, few people who thinks about the families of those people, because I know what it is to be a child and to have somebody taken away from you. I've chosen to change the legacy they gave me into something good, the harder path, being happy."