By Hana Efendić
The Bosnian War was the third conflict to spark from the disintegration of Yugoslavia in South Eastern Europe in the 1990s. Bosnia and Herzegovina had voted for independence in March 1992, the third constituent republic seeking to sever ties with Yugoslavia after Croatia and Slovenia. Disagreements over the political future of the territory encompassing Bosnia and Herzegovina led to armed conflict between the ethnic groups, with Bosnian Serb and, temporarily, Bosnian Croat forces fighting against Bosniaks in a bid to cleanse the territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina that they claimed to be theirs.
Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was besieged by Bosnian Serb troops for a total of 1,425 days from April 5th, 1992 to February 29th, 1996. Ex-soldier and Bosniak Amir Efendić served to defend the city from Bosnian Serb forces. This is his story.
Do you remember what happened on the day the war started, what you were doing and how you felt?
Because of everything that had happened in Slovenia and the situation in Croatia, everyone thought war would come to Bosnia. In the meantime, the first Bosnian president, Alija Izetbegović, was saying publicly on TV that there would be no war in Bosnia because everyone had been living together for 1000 years, different nationalities etc. But either other people could see deeper than him, or he couldn’t say officially there would be a war. But people started organising themselves, buying arms, any arms- hunting guns, on the black market. Still, the majority of people never had any weapons because they had never needed them. Ordinary people didn’t know where to find one- it wasn’t an open sale like in America. Basically, there were a few handguns and rifles but nothing major. On the 1st of March, 1992, the war started officially. Serbs started bombing Sarajevo, my home town which is surrounded by hills and mountains. The town is in a valley and all around it were Serb military bases.
We couldn’t go anywhere. It was my duty to defend my own country, wife, and family.
What were you doing that day?
I was there with a few friends, not organised as an army but just a group of people who wanted to protect the neighbourhood and our families. I remember exactly when the first grenade fell in our part of the city where we were living. It was hard to imagine, that sound and how a small bomb could make it.
When did the decision come to join the army, was it on a voluntary or non-voluntary basis?
In my case it was voluntary. People started organising themselves in small groups, whoever had a weapon brought it with them to the community centres and people started thinking about what they were going to do. We knew there was a big force around the city, waiting to just come in and destroy and kill everyone. I was a soldier in the Yugoslavian army before, in 1978 as a 19-year-old. I spent 15 months in duty in the army like everyone else, it was mandatory. I knew how powerful the army was and how they were able to fight everyone. My wife, Harisa, was heavily pregnant at that time. The town was blocked, you couldn’t go in or out. We couldn’t go anywhere. It was my duty to defend my own country, wife, and family.
So would you say the army was strong from the Bosniak side?
No, there was no army whatsoever. But there was Serb propaganda saying, “the green berets are a strong army, we have to go there to destroy them”. Only God and that propaganda saved us, because we had nothing. There was a police force in the city and not even a full police force because all the Serb policemen had left the cities, though some of them did stay, to be fair. They were the only organised force in the city. What could they have as weapons? Rifles and handguns- not much. So that propaganda from the other side stopped Serbs from coming into the city- nothing else.
Can you share some of the experiences you had as a soldier? Some good, some bad? Or for someone who hasn’t been a soldier before and has no experience of it.
There was no training. This was a people’s army. I was in the army before and I knew a few drills. But you can’t drill ordinary people because some people aren’t born to be soldiers. So I don’t see any good experiences in it. It was a war, whatever I can remember- it was bad. Especially when I was wounded when the war started, 23rd April 1992. It was on the frontline in the city centre - I was lucky to survive. My two friends; I can’t call them friends, they were much younger than me. I was 30, one of them was 19 and the other nearly 20 years old. I knew them for only a couple of days, and they were nice, young people. The two of them were killed and I was left injured.
It was a problem how I would be recovered or collected from the place of injury because I was lying on the ground and it was an open field- you couldn’t just come and give people help. It was a part of Sarajevo called Grbavica which was under Serb occupation from day 1 to nearly the end of the war. I was lying there for 2 hours and no one could come to give me a hand. They managed to get a bullet-proof military transporter in. They found it somewhere in a police station and got somebody to pick me up. One of my colleagues went with them in the transporter to pick me up. He risked his life because he could have gotten shot, just like me. They rescued me. From there I went to the hospital- had an operation, hardly survived, and lost 47 kilograms. I was a heavy man- losing 47 kilograms in the space of one week. But I managed. I was there in hospital for some time then went home just to recover until December or January 1993.
In January 1993, I went back to army duties. They sent me to a frontline which wasn’t as busy at the time because they knew I was injured. But they needed people there to keep an eye on the frontline and to watch the other side. At that time, I was heavily injured, couldn’t walk, couldn’t do anything. My wife gave birth on the 1st of July, 1992. We had no electricity, power, water, food. We had no fire wood. We had nothing. It was a miracle how we survived. That continued for four years, the longest siege on a city in the world - a similar situation in Stalingrad in Russia was shorter than this.
What was going through your mind in those two hours before you were rescued? Were you thinking someone was going to come to save you or did you think you were going to stay there?
I don’t know. I’m not the type to panic. I was just waiting. I didn’t know how badly I was injured. I saw blood coming out, but you don’t know what’s happening with you. I was wounded in the stomach and leg. So, when I came to the hospital, they paid more attention to the stomach. I had two holes on the knee and they just closed the skin and they thought the bullet had gone in and just went out the other way. But they were wrong. There are bullets known as dumb dumb bullets. They are forbidden for use in any army. When the bullet hit my knee, the bullet exploded, and a part of the bullet went out so they thought there was an entry and exit hole. The bullet was in my knee for four years. It was hard to heal those two holes. But it healed somehow. I didn’t know I had a bullet in my knee for four years until I came to Ireland and puss started exiting the knee. I went to the doctors and they appointed me to the former Adelaide hospital in town. They made a x-ray and saw a big dumb dumb bullet in my knee. They took it out. The doctor gave me the bullet and I still have it now. “Look at this, it was placed under your knee cap for 4 years”. But if you’re in war, fighting for survival, you don’t mind the minor things.
What was the energy like among the soldiers? Was there pessimism, optimism? What was the atmosphere like?
Everyone thought it was going to be a quick war- one week, one month- because there was no reason to make any war or fight. I had more Serb friends than Muslim, so you wouldn’t ask who is who. Many people had nicknames, so you couldn’t as easily tell someone’s background. But anyway, everyone thought it would be a quick war.
After some time, people lost hope. They had done nothing wrong, they thought someone would come to protect them. The United Nations (UN) forces came to give people humanitarian aid and people thought they would stop the war. But there was no justice in the war. At every crossroad, you could see the sign ‘mind the sniper’. But many people were killed by the sniper. A sniper would see a woman, shoot her in her leg. She’d shout for help and the sniper would wait for someone to help her then shoot them. People would run across the road, fighting for their life but after some time, people stopped running, as if they were saying “kill me, who cares”. This is in human nature- like an animal going into slaughter. They didn’t care anymore. “If the bullet hits me, it does, if not, who cares”. People became hopeless.
There was one good thing I can remember. I wasn’t personally there but in 1993, Bono from U2 came to Sarajevo. The Miss Sarajevo beauty contest was going on, he came, and that’s how he made the song with Pavarotti - Miss Sarajevo. He was 500 metres away from the frontline. He risked his life to show support for the local people and he promised he would be back when the war is over. In 1997, he returned to Sarajevo with the whole U2 band and 70 trucks full with equipment from the world tour. They had a concert in a stadium with 50,000 people and 50,000 others outside who couldn’t fit in the stadium. It was the first time he sang the song Sunday Bloody Sunday. A song related to the troubles in Northern Ireland.
What was the feeling like when the war ended?
People were happy. It was a different situation. When the war came to an end, there was more power, electricity. It was easier to get food and there was a different lifestyle. People were happier, but many were displaced around the country.
Do you think people’s mentality changed after the war? Even towards neighbours etc.?
I don’t think so. The mentality is the same as before. People nowadays buy different things from different parts of Bosnia, like I bought things from the Serb parts. Nobody cares. Ordinary people don’t care, they didn’t care before. All the politicians in power fight for themselves by scaring people, saying “look at those Serbs working against us”, etc. Whether you like it or not, you always take a side in Bosnia. Maybe it’s different for people living outside of Bosnia, they have a different view. But the mentality didn’t change much.
It was a good thing that it [Dayton agreement] stopped the war, but people are now exploiting it. Everything that happened 20 years ago is still the same today.
Do you think the constitution implemented after the war is still effective in today’s Bosnia?
It’s not effective whatsoever, we have three presidents, three vice presidents, three this, three that. Only someone from the three ethnic groups can be president in Bosnia; Bosniak, Croat or Serb. People from any other ethnic group can’t become president- that’s what it says in the constitution. You have Jewish people for example living there for hundreds of years. Their representative is Finci - he is a politician, but he can’t become president. This is a part of the Dayton agreement. It was a good thing that it stopped the war, but people are now exploiting it. Everything that happened 20 years ago is still the same today.
Are you happy with Bosnia today? How do you view the future of Bosnia after its conflictual past?
After Dayton, I knew it wouldn’t be easy for presidents to work together- everyone would vote for their own side or find a solution. They implemented an office from the UN in Sarajevo - a higher representative to change the law or to make a decision if the three presidents can’t. The last ten years the higher representative hasn’t been interfering and everything is at a standstill. On the Serb side, Milorad Dodik is on a black list for the FBI and can’t travel. He used to be pro-Bosnia; a young, smart man. They were thinking he could change things. Suddenly, he turned 180 degrees and now he’s trying to break up Bosnia. He wouldn’t obey government decisions, so everything’s going the wrong way and the higher representative can’t do anything to stop that.
Originally published 05.12.20 in Vol. 4 No. 1.